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Archive for the ‘sin’ Category

know_god_1What is the essence of sin?

In some evangelistic presentations it’s all about falling short.  God demands perfection.  We do our best – some more so than others – but none of us reach God’s standard.  And that’s sin.  Essentially.

Within such a framework it seems that the effort to earn salvation is laudable.  What’s sinful is precisely our failure to establish a righteousness of our own.  I hope I don’t need to spell out the problem here!

Other presentations try to go a bit deeper and get to the attitude of the heart.  That’s certainly preferable to a behaviouristic definition.  So in these presentations sin is the rebellious spirit we display towards God.

It’s climbing onto the throne of your life

It’s stealing the crown for yourself

It’s shaking your puny fist in the face of God

It’s saying “Shove off God, I‘m in charge, No to your rule”

self throne

Here sin is basically self-rule as opposed to submission to God.

I’m not doubting for a second that these statements of rebellion describe sinful attitudes.  But are they describing the essence of sin?  Is this what sin is at its root?

Before we think about it theologically, just think of it practically.  Don’t such definitions of sin strike you as quintessentially western?  Don’t they seem particularly aimed at the children of the Enlightenment, rather than the children of Adam more generally?  I mean…

What do you say to the Iranian refugee working his fingers to the bone, sending back every penny to the family, seeking no identity of his own but in constant fear of what his community thinks?

And even in the West…

What do you say to the woman serially abused by the terrible men she invites into her life?

What do you say to the drug addict whose only remaining desire is the hell-bent drive to throw his life away?

What do you say to the down-trodden mother who’s completely lost herself in her family?

What do you say to the self-harmer consumed by self-loathing?

All these people are sinners.  But is their sin best captured by a definition of “self-rule”?  Surely not.

If you want to convict people of sin, “rebellion” will speak to a good number of teens and to many confident, middle class go-getters.  But it completely misses the Muslim, the mother and the meth-head.

So practically “self-rule” doesn’t work as a definition (unless you want to confine yourself to youth work and ministry among western, middle class professionals.  But no-one wants to limit their ministry so narrowly, right?  Right??)

But besides its practical failures, the position is theologically untenable.

To characterise our sin as basically self-rule is far too flattering a picture of human nature.  Biblically speaking we are dominated subjects in Satan’s kingdom (Ephesians 2:1-3).  We are captives in the strong man’s house (Mark 3:27).  We are helpless slaves to sin (John 8:34).  We are whores besotted with terrible lovers (Ezekiel 16).  We are sheep following after bad shepherds (Ezekiel 34).  We are thirsty beggars drinking from broken wells (Jeremiah 2:13-14).  We are lost and must be found (Luke 15). We are snake-bitten and need healing (John 3:14f).  We are dead and need raising (John 5:24f).  We are famished and need Bread (John 6).

Our problem is not that we are little kings and queens, ruling our miniature kingdoms!  Our problem is – as Luther has said – we are beasts ridden either by the devil or God.  We don’t stand between Christ and Adam, sovereignly choosing who we will emulate.  We stand in Christ and/or in Adam.  Our destiny is determined by their choices not ours.  In other words we have not climbed onto the throne of our lives!  Someone is already on the throne – and it’s not us!

It is of course foolish and blasphemous if someone declares themselves the captain of their soul and master of their fate.  But such a “declaration of independence” is not the essence of their sin.  Because in fact no such independence exists.

Our problem, most basically, is not that we are competing sovereigns with Christ.  Our problem is that we are subjects in the wrong kingdom.  Now obviously, some subjects have delusions of grandeur, fine.  But A) let’s not agree with their delusions but unmask their true condition and B) let’s realise that there are many, many subjects who make no pretence of self-rule.  But they share in the same problem and qualify for the same solution.  We are not rulers, we are ruled.  The only question is, By whom?

Think about the beginning and end of the bible: One powerful perspective on the fall is to see it as man’s abdication!  I’m not saying this is my bedrock definition of sin but I can’t help thinking that Adam should have ruled more in Genesis 3.  A kingly edict rather than an impotent silence might have saved us a lot of trouble!

And at the end of the bible, we’re not looking forward to man getting off the throne.  Precisely the opposite.  Salvation involves being invited onto the throne, to rule with Christ (Revelation 3:21).

The “gospel” of submission ends with the challenge “Get off the throne”.  Isn’t it pause for thought that the bible finishes with “Get onto the throne”?

What’s gone wrong with the “gospel” of submission?  Well it begins with a monadic doctrine of  God (more here).  And it continues with a definition of sin as rebellion against the Almighty.  Such a definition doesn’t work practically and it doesn’t work theologically.  Certainly we are rebels. But sin as rebellion will capture only some of our hearers and only part of the story.

In John 16, Jesus actually gives us a definition of sin.  He tells us why His Spirit will convict the world of sin.  What is the bottom line for humanity?

They do not believe in me.  (John 16:9)

The world has not received Jesus (believing = receiving cf. John 1:12).  This is the world’s great evil, for which it is rightly condemned (John 3:18, 36). Humanity has refused the Fountain of Living Waters and, before it has dug any of its own broken wells, it has first refused to receive from the Giving God (Jeremiah 2:13-14).  For more on Jeremiah 2 see here but note that every instance of idolatry is in fact secondary. Originally we forsake Christ’s Gift, then we “look for love in all the wrong places.”

Our great treachery and our great tragedy is our disconnection from God.  In Him we live and move and have our being.  And yet we don’t know Him!  Not naturally.  How can this be!?  How can we be estranged from Him who is our life?  But we are.  We don’t want Him.  We’re dying of thirst, drinking from every other poisonous well in the desert, but refusing His life and love.  This is our problem.  And therefore, having defined our problem thus, the solution should be obvious… We have refused Christ, we must receive Him.  This makes sense once we have defined sin properly.

But if sin is fundamentally “self-rule” then Christ becomes sidelined in salvation.  He may be important for taking the punishment which rebels deserve, but the real work of reversing the sin-problem remains in our hands.  If the problem is self-rule then the solution is submission.  And thus, in this kind of evangelism, the “business end” of proceedings is not Christ and His self-emptying but us and ours.

And the irony is this – when self-rule is defined as the problem we are thrust into the centre of the gospel.  Suddenly, we are not lost, enslaved, needy beggars.  We are bold, self-directed rulers who happen to be misusing our powers.  And so the evangelist treats the hearers as free sovereigns who need to rule wisely.  Now they need to choose salvation rather than damnation.  So the evangelist (maybe) speaks of a redemption by Christ, but it can never come across as the central act.  If the sinner is on the throne then Jesus might command, cajole, and “clear the path”, but He can’t actually do the saving.  It’s all down to the sovereign chooser.  And if they decide to submit we can all praise… um… them.  We can praise them for avoiding the punishment due to rebels.  Of course now they no longer are rebels.  They have made themselves subjects and solved the whole self-rule problem.  All through the exercise of their… um… their self-rule.

The whole position is riddled with contradictions.  You’d think that a “gospel” of submission would attack pride wouldn’t you?  Actually it fuels pride.  Horrifically.  The power of the sinner, their wisdom in choosing, their piety in submitting – all these things come centre-stage when sin is defined as rebellion.  In other words, such a gospel does not exclude but excites “boasting in the flesh”.  And all the while it fails to reach the sinners who know that they are lost – the “sick” for whom the Doctor actually came!

For more on a true definition of sin, see Mike Reeves’ two talks

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From Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Gulag Archipelago

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

From Philip Roth The Human Stain:

“It is in everyone…Inherent. Defining. The stain is there before its mark. Without the sign it is there. The stain so intrinsic that it doesn’t require a mark. The stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all the cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. The fantasy purity is appalling. It’s insane. What is the quest to purify, if not more impurity?”
From the Minnesota Crime Commission, 1926:

“Every baby starts life as a little savage. He is completely selfish and self-centered. He wants what he wants when he wants it — his bottle, his mother’s attention, his playmate’s toy, his uncle’s watch. Deny him these wants, and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness, which would be murderous, were he not so helpless. He is dirty. He has no morals, no knowledge, no skills. This means that all children, not just certain children, are born delinquent. If permitted to continue in the self-centered world of his infancy, given free reign to his impulsive actions to satisfy his wants, every child would grow up a criminal, a thief, a killer, a rapist.”

Miroslav Volf, from Exclusion and Embrace:

‎”Forgiveness flounders when we exclude our enemies from the community of humans and when we exclude ourselves from the community of sinners.”

Russell Brand (thanks Simon)

“All addictions comes from the same root – an inability to cope with some sense of longing and yearning – whether chocolate, sex or drugs… I would say ultimately all addiction comes from the same root… We all have a yearning… All desire is the inappropriate substitute for the ultimate desire to be at one with God.”

Do you have some quotes? Share the wealth in the comments…

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A little confession of mine…

I desire in all things to be effortlessly superior

Of course between effortless and superior there’s a trade-off.

Usually I favour the effortless.

only do what’s easy or what shows me off best.

I serve myself.  Always.  Even when I’m serving you.

I’m entitled – entitled to ease, respect, acclaim, admiration, understanding.

I’m outraged when this sovereign sphere is infringed.

.

I try to appear better than I am

I need to be right

I enter each conversation with a persona and an agenda

I don’t enter the conversation with me and a servant heart

I rob people of a true heart-to-heart by trying to appear cool/knowledgeable/funny/attractive

If I can’t appear cool/knowledgeable/funny/attractive I’ll withdraw

I’ll give you my talents, knowledge, anecdotes, humour.  I won’t give you me.

The ‘me’ and the persona have become difficult to disentangle anyway.

.

I’m not a bit player in your story, you’re a bit player in mine.

In my story I am a noble sufferer, a heroic knight, a whimsical comic and a wise sage.

I force myself into this role.  And I will force you to play along with my fantasy.

.

Your mistakes are crude, mine are complicated

Your mistakes have no excuses, mine have many excuses.  Let me list them…

Your mistakes show your true colours, mine are out of character

.

If your sins are different to mine, I dismiss you as freakish

If your sins are the same as mine, my inside knowledge makes me dismiss you all the more

.

I’m devastated by my sins – but only for how bad they made me look (to others and to myself)

I hate myself – but only because I think I deserve better

I’m self-deprecating – but only because it plays well

I’m shy – but only as a cover for real engagement

I’m quiet – but not listening.  Just self-absorbed.

.

By the way… I desperately don’t want you to know all these things.   So I’ve got to keep you close enough to buy the persona but not close enough to see through it.  In other words, I’ve got to manipulate you.  Constantly.

I have a plethora of warm, witty, charming falsehoods to draw you in.

I have an arsenal of cold, sharp, closed quips to keep you back.

This is my complicated splendour.

Enjoy.

.

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From the very first verse, Job is presented as a blameless and upright man.

The LORD is proud of Job’s matchless virtue (1:8; 2:3).  Job fears God and shuns evil.  And even when calamity falls he does not sin by cursing God (1:22; 2:10).  Instead, through all his laments and complaints, the LORD is still able to conclude in chapter 42 and verse 7 that His servant Job has spoken what is right.

And yet, in the verse immediately preceeding this Job has just said:

I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6)

Uh-oh, we think.  Someone’s got self-esteem issues!

But no.  In fact Job hasn’t been esteeming himself at all.  He hasn’t been contemplating himself.  This is not the fruit of meditating on his sins or even on his sufferings.  He hasn’t been berating himself because he’s a stupid, fat, ugly, unpopular, awkward, friendless failure.  He hasn’t had a thought about himself for four solid chapters.

Because for four solid chapters he has borne the brunt of the LORD speaking out of the tornado.  Job’s eyes have been dramatically lifted from himself and fixed on this Warrior Creator Commander called Yahweh.  He has experienced the LORD’s unanswerable wisdom in surround sound.  And so in verse 5 Job summarizes exactly where his self-appraisal has come from:

5 My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. 6 Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”  (Job 42:5)

“I despise myself” says Job.  By comparison with the LORD – upright Job falls flat on his face, confesses himself to be a sinner and says “I despise myself”. And that’s a good and right and true and psychologically healthy thing to do.  Not that Job wondered to himself “What would be the correct response to meeting my Maker?” It just came out.  But as it came out it was extremely healthy.

Now there is a wrong despising of self.  There is someone who is not looking at the LORD at all.  Instead they look at themselves.  They are self-absorbed and with their gaze fixed firmly on their belly-button they are despising themselves.  We’ve all been there to some degree or another.  And it’s wrong.  But mainly it’s wrong for where the self-hater is looking.  The object of gaze is the issue – we must get our eyes off ourselves.  Then, when looking to Christ, a true appraisal of self will follow – we are (in Tim Keller’s words) more wicked than we had ever realised but more loved than we had ever dreamed.

So there is a wrong despising of self – it’s when you’re focussed on yourself.

But… there is a right despising of self – when you’re focussed on the LORD.

Isaiah has a similar experience.  In Isaiah 6, he sees Jesus in the temple seated on the throne (cf John 12:30f), high and lifted up, the angels are calling out ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, the temple is shaking, smoke is everywhere and Isaiah cries out:

5 “Woe to me!  I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

Isaiah wasn’t feeling particularly sinful that morning.  He wasn’t running through a list of his prior misdemeanors.  No-one was reminding him of past sins.  Isaiah felt no guilt at all that morning… until he saw the King.  Then he said “Woe to me, I’m ruined!”

Or think of Peter fishing with Jesus in Luke chapter 5.  He’s in the boat with the LORD of Isaiah chapter 6.  And they have a miraculous catch of fish. And Luke 5 verse 5 says:

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”

Peter confesses to being a sinner when he sees the glory of Jesus.  Peter hasn’t just remembered some sins from his murky past.  He’s not even thinking about his sins, he is simply looking at Jesus and saying “I do not match up.”

Of course the ultimate place to look to find a true estimation of yourself is to Christ crucified.  That’s the sinner’s fate.  And that was your death – you died with Christ, the old man crucified.  You will never be able to feel your way towards this verdict.  Preachers, no matter how keenly they focus on individual sins you’ve committed, can’t whip up this sentiment.  And turning to yourself in order to work it up is itself sinful.  Instead I look to the LORD high and lifted up (Isaiah 6:1 <=> 52:13).  I allow the cross to be God’s verdict on me.  I am co-crucified with Christ and therefore reject the old self completely.  And yet

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)

The true and right self-hatred is fundamentally to allow the cross to be God’s verdict on the old you.  And your true and right self-appreciation is not gained by trusting in the new you.  No, the life you live in the flesh you live by faith in the Son of God.  Trust His love for you shown decisively right when you were most hateful.

.

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I’ve written a little gospel presentation on Emma’s site.  It’s for anyone but I’ve had in mind younger folk who have difficult relationships with food and their bodies.  It’s called Good News for Dark Places.

It’s raised the question in my mind – how do we address the problem of sin with those who might well be very religious and already they are full of self-destructive feelings?

It’s important in any setting – but here it’s particularly vital – to define sin as a failure to receive.  I don’t think you’ll do much good in pastoral settings if you’re not convinced that sin is, at base, not receiving from God.  Let me know what you think…

[I’ve just described the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in loving union]…
This is who the real God is – a community of love and absolute togetherness.  In fact their life together is too good to keep to themselves.  They want to share it with others.

So this God made something else – a world – so that we can share in this life.  We exist so that we can pull up a chair at the table.  The meaning of our lives is to join this Party.

But there’s a problem, and it goes back to our first parents.  Humanity has always said to God: “No, I’ll make it on my own.”

God is a family of love, but we prefer our own company.  God is a fountain of life but we go off and dig for mud.  God is a community of light, and we slink off into darkness.

It’s so easy for us to think of God as a kill-joy.  But this God is not the kill-joy, it’s us.  We are offered the deepest relationship and joy possible but we have refused it.  We close ourselves off and will not receive His love.  This is the essence of our problem – what the bible calls ‘sin’.

Many people think that sin is about doing naughty things – as though it’s basically about what we offer or don’t offer to God.  The Bible has a different take.  God isn’t needy!  He’s the Giver.  So at the heart of it, sin is us refusing to receive from God.  Do you see the difference?  It’s not so much that I’m a bad offerer, I’m a bad receiver.  My problem’s not so much how I perform for Him, my problem is not resting in Him.

Sin is closing ourselves off to the life of God so that now we manage out of our own resources.  And so, as sinners, we’re condemned to live our lives cut off from His life.

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Oh it’s bad.  It’s very bad.  It’s murdering your Maker.  It’s cheating on your Lover.  It’s grieving His Spirit.  It’s tearing apart your soul.  It’s bad.  Bad, bad, bad.

But not receiving forgiveness is far worse.  Failure to accept the grace of Jesus dwarfs all other sins in its monstrosity.  To refuse the vulnerable humility of God; to trample on the Lamb and blaspheme His Spirit as they offer blood-bought mercy and cleansing – this is unspeakable evil.  It’s the reason people perish eternally.

Don’t believe me?  1 Thessalonians 2:10:

They perish because they refuse to love the truth and so be saved.

Those in hell are there for refusal to love the life-saving truth of the gospel.  To sin is one thing.  To refuse forgiveness is itself unforgivable.

Now we know this on a macro level.  We know that eternity does not depend on minimizing sin.  It depends on receiving forgiveness.  We believe it for that Day, but do we believe it this day?  Do I live today as though sinning (or not sinning) is the ultimate spiritual barometer?  Or is my spiritual barometer daily calibrated to the forgiveness of Christ?

Here’s how I naturally assess my Christian walk.  I rate my ‘performance’ largely by how much distance I’ve managed to put between me and my last ‘big sin.’  (Of course it’s ‘big sins’ I’m interested in, if I worried about the little ones my holy-count would never get off the ground).  When the number of ‘sin-free’ days hits double figures I’m doing great.  In fact, once I’m talking in weeks rather than days it rockets me into the righteousness stratosphere.  Best of all, it finally allows me to minister to people from the safe distance of ‘All-figured-out-holiness.’

Of course when I sin it sucks.  Why?  Because I’m back to zero.  My functional righteousness is caput and I’ll have to endure the hassle of a ‘holy’ fortnight before I can feel good again.  If I minister to people it will have to be out of broken messiness and a dependence on the grace of Jesus.  Ewww.

Now that’s a stark way of putting it.  But I don’t think there is a nice way of portraying this mindset.  While ever we pursue the Christian life as though sinning is the worst thing and ‘not sinning is the most important thing’ then such a foul system will develop.   But it’s to entirely forget the gospel.

So friends, perhaps you’ve really blown it recently.  Praise God this could be the opportunity to realize your profound and continual need for the blood of Jesus.  Allow this to teach you the truth – the person you showed yourself to be in your sin is the person you have always been.  It springs from a heart full of evil which you will carry to the grave.  Your only hope lies far above and beyond yourself at God’s Right Hand.  He is your profound and continual need.

Perhaps you blew it a while ago but you just can’t seem to get beyond it.  Friend – the Word of God forbids you to take your sin more seriously than Christ’s forgiveness.  Is your sin great?  Yes.  But is it greater than the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world?   Is it beyond the redeeming value of God’s own blood (Acts 20:28).  I think your sin has met its match in the blood of God, don’t you?

Perhaps you haven’t blown it for a while now but you’re realizing you operate according to a functional righteousness.  You hate sin only because it spoils your ‘holy count’.  You’re proud and graceless.  Well meditate on Philippians 3:1-11.  Know that such ‘righteousness’ is dung and reckon it all as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ.  He alone is your life and peace.

Or perhaps you’re a blogger who writes about grace.  You can dissect the sins of works-righteousness and see through latent Pharisaisms.  Well neither are you righteous for your pithy critiques of the flesh.  You haven’t got it figured out.  If you know anything it’s that you’re ignorant.  If you have any strength it’s only found in your helplessness.  There’s no credit to your insight, there’s only rest in His mercy.  You are nothing.  Jesus is everything.

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Luke 15: Younger Brother sermon here

Luke 15: Older Brother sermon audio here

The world is naturally divided into sinners and slaves.  Sinners seek freedom.  Slaves seek reputation.  And they hate each other.  Sinners think the world would be so much better without the slaves.  Slaves think the world would be so much better without the sinners.  We all exist somewhere along this spectrum.

Jesus comes and says – You’re both wrong.  You’re both wretched.  You’re both equally far from heaven’s banquet.  That’s the meaning of Luke 15.

Jesus comes to bring a new kind of humanity.  Not half-way in between but something else.  Not sinners, not slaves but sons.

Sinners wish God dead by taking His stuff and leaving.
Slaves wish God dead by despising His grace.
Sons are brought from death to life in His embrace.

Sinners are strangers to God in the far country.
Slaves are strangers to God in the field.
Sons are sinners in the Father’s arms.

Sinners seek freedom yet find deeper slavery.
Slaves seek righteousness yet find deeper sin.
Sons seek Christ and find both freedom and righteousness.

Sinners are wretched in their rebellion.
Slaves are wretched in their righteousness.
Sons are wretched in His robes.

Full sermon text below….

(more…)

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A little confession of mine…

I desire in all things to be effortlessly superior

Of course between effortless and superior there’s a trade-off.

Usually I favour the effortless.

I only do what’s easy or what shows me off best.

I serve myself.  Always.  Even when I’m serving you.

I’m entitled – entitled to ease, respect, acclaim, admiration, understanding.

I’m outraged when this sovereign sphere is infringed.

.

I try to appear better than I am

I need to be right

I enter each conversation with a persona and an agenda

I don’t enter the conversation with me and a servant heart

I rob people of a true heart-to-heart by trying to appear cool/knowledgeable/funny/attractive

If I can’t appear cool/knowledgeable/funny/attractive I’ll withdraw

I’ll give you my talents, knowledge, anecdotes, humour.  I won’t give you me.

The ‘me’ and the persona have become difficult to disentangle anyway.

.

I’m not a bit player in your story, you’re a bit player in mine.

In my story I am a noble sufferer, a heroic knight, a whimsical comic and a wise sage.

I force myself into this role.  And I will force you to play along with my fantasy.

.

Your mistakes are crude, mine are complicated

Your mistakes have no excuses, mine have many excuses.  Let me list them…

Your mistakes show your true colours, mine are out of character

.

If your sins are different to mine, I dismiss you as freakish

If your sins are the same as mine, my inside knowledge makes me dismiss you all the more

.

I’m devastated by my sins – but only for how bad they made me look (to others and to myself)

I hate myself – but only because I think I deserve better

I’m self-deprecating – but only because it plays well

I’m shy – but only as a cover for real engagement

I’m quiet – but not listening.  Just self-absorbed.

.

By the way… I desperately don’t want you to know all these things.   So I’ve got to keep you close enough to buy the persona but not close enough to see through it.  In other words, I’ve got to manipulate you.  Constantly.

I have a plethora of warm, witty, charming falsehoods to draw you in.

I have an arsenal of cold, sharp, closed quips to keep you back.

This is my complicated splendour.

Enjoy.

.

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How should we respond to sin in our lives?

One response is to think ‘Come on Glen, I’m better than that.’

Another is to think ‘Come on Glen, Christ is better than that.’

The first may produce a very moral life.  But the devil is more than happy to concede to you a Christ-less morality.  Self-righteousness is a far muddier swamp than unrighteous living.  I am not better than my sin.  I am not even better than the foulest evil I’ve imagined.

Instead, when I sin I am revealed as the person I’ve always been.  Psalm 51:5 has often struck me.  Here is David with blood on his hands.  Yet his confession is that the man who committed adultery and murder is the man he had always been.

We think when we’ve sinned that it was just a blot on our otherwise acceptable record.  The word of God says our sins simply express the person we have always been (Matt 7:17f). My gross sins are not ‘out of character’ – they are me with the hand-brake off.

No sin can shock me.  Not my own, nor the sins of my brothers and sisters who confess to me.  If the blood of God was shed for my sin (Acts 20:28) – then my sin is infinitely heinous.  No, I’m not better than sin.  But Christ is.

This is true in two senses.

First it’s true in the sense that Christ is more desirable than sin.  In the wilderness of temptations, Satan can only offer me a bucket of salt.  Christ always stands before me with living waters (John 4:10; 7:38; Rev 7:17).  The father of lies tells me life is found in this sin.  Jesus tells me it’s a broken cistern that can hold no water.  Only His waters are truly life-giving. (Jer 2:12-13)  I forsake even my precious sins because I have learnt that Jesus is more desirable.

But Christ is better than sin in another, much more important, sense. For He is the good person that I fail to be.  He is the reality that stands before the holy Father – not my sin.

My sin, though it clings to my bones and sinks to the depths of my heart, does not define me, Christ does.  When the Father looks to find me, He does not look in the record that stands against me (Ps 130:3; Col 2:14).  He looks to His Beloved Son and finds me hidden there.

Which means even as the diseased tree of my flesh produces in me the very worst fruit, Christ is my Plea, my Status, my Righteousness.  Even as the chief of sinners, even in the act of my worst rebellion, Christ – the One who is infinitely better – defines me and not my sin.

So Christ is better in both these senses.  But – and here’s where this post has been heading – without being utterly convinced of this latter sense, the former sense could easily lead to a Pharasaism not unlike the ‘I am better than sin’ response.

How so?

Well if I respond to sin simply by saying ‘Jesus is more desirable’ it basically throws me back on myself.  I am left with my own heart and its ability to desire Jesus.  The work of annihilating sin becomes simply my work of destroying my heart idols.  The work of liberation is simply the work of my affections desiring Christ with sufficient ardour.  Where is the locus of this redemption?  Me.

Now do my heart-idols need crucifying?  Yes.  Do I need Christ uppermost in my affections?  Yes.  But by golly, if I found it hard to reform my outward behaviour – how hard is it going to be to reform my inner world??!  Impossible.

So, you say, that’s why we need the gracious work of the Spirit and diligently to employ the means of grace, etc, etc.  Well… there’s a time and a place for that.  But let’s think.  If that’s our bottom line, doesn’t it sound exactly like the Catholic view of grace?  “It’s all of grace” says the Catholic “… supernatural, infused grace worked in us, with which we cooperate, making us better and better over time.”  Doesn’t that sound very similar to “We fight sin by enflaming our affections for Christ – flames stoked by the Spirit via His means of grace”?

It’s not that there’s no place for the ‘Christ is more desirable’ approach.  It’s that we must recognize it’s true place – i.e. after we’re assured of the extrinsic work of Christ.  “Grace” is not basically a supernatural empowerment to work at my salvation or to enflame my Christian affections.  “Grace” is the work of Christ alone on behalf of sinners who contribute nothing.  (This is similar to the points I made here – grace is not so much the bread David provides as the victory David wins).

Therefore my first reponse to sin is this – even in the very midst of sin, Jesus has been carrying me on His heart before the Father.  Even ensnared in the darkest selfishness, the Spirit has been calling ‘Abba’ from within me.  Even as my heart desired worthless idols, the Father loved me even as He loves Christ.

This is the truth that really changes us.  It reveals to us that not even our sin can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  We realize again that our darkness is not a locked basement to the Lord.  Even our self-willed rebellion cannot remove us from His embrace.  We sin in His face – this drives us down in contrition.  And at the same time He is lifting us up to the Father.

The truth that really changes us is that our lives are not our own.  Jesus has taken possession of us in spite of ourselves and wills to do us eternal good.  The Spirit of sonship is already praying ‘Abba’ in you.  The affections you are so keen to enflame are already ablaze – and that, even as you quench Him!

Now surrender. Now be conquered. Now receive what is entirely beyond you.  And see if you don’t love Him with renewed and supernatural vigour!  But don’t begin with your heart for Christ.  Begin with His heart for you.

We love because He first loved us. 1 John 4:19

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From the very first verse, Job is presented as a blameless and upright man.

The LORD is proud of Job’s matchless virtue (1:8; 2:3).  Job fears God and shuns evil.  And even when calamity falls he does not sin by cursing God (1:22; 2:10).  Instead, through all his laments and complaints, the LORD is still able to conclude in chapter 42 and verse 7 that His servant Job has spoken what is right.

And yet, in the verse immediately preceeding this Job has just said:

I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6)

Uh-oh, we think.  Someone’s got self-esteem issues!

But no.  In fact Job hasn’t been esteeming himself at all.  He hasn’t been contemplating himself.  This is not the fruit of meditating on his sins or even on his sufferings.  He hasn’t been berating himself because he’s a stupid, fat, ugly, unpopular, awkward, friendless failure.  He hasn’t had a thought about himself for four solid chapters.

Because for four solid chapters he has borne the brunt of the LORD speaking out of the tornado.  Job’s eyes have been dramatically lifted from himself and fixed on this Warrior Creator Commander called Yahweh.  He has experienced the LORD’s unanswerable wisdom in surround sound.  And so in verse 5 Job summarizes exactly where his self-appraisal has come from:

5 My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. 6 Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”  (Job 42:5)

“I despise myself” says Job.  By comparison with the LORD – upright Job falls flat on his face, confesses himself to be a sinner and says “I despise myself”. And that’s a good and right and true and psychologically healthy thing to do.  Not that Job wondered to himself “What would be the correct response to meeting my Maker?” It just came out.  But as it came out it was extremely healthy.

Now there is a wrong despising of self.  There is someone who is not looking at the LORD at all.  Instead they look at themselves.  They are self-absorbed and with their gaze fixed firmly on their belly-button they are despising themselves.  We’ve all been there to some degree or another.  And it’s wrong.  But mainly it’s wrong for where the self-hater is looking.  The object of their gaze is the issue – they must get their eyes off themselves.  Then, when looking to Christ, a true appraisal of self will follow – they are (in Tim Keller’s words) more wicked than they had ever realised but more loved than they had ever dreamed.

So there is a wrong despising of self – it’s when you’re focussed on yourself.

But… there is a right despising of self – when you’re focussed on the LORD.

Isaiah has a similar experience.  In Isaiah 6, he sees Jesus in the temple seated on the throne (cf John 12:30f), high and lifted up, the angels are calling out ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, the temple is shaking, smoke is everywhere and Isaiah cries out:

5 “Woe to me!  I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

Isaiah wasn’t feeling particularly sinful that morning.  He wasn’t running through a list of his prior misdemeanors.  No-one was reminding him of past sins.  Isaiah felt no guilt at all that morning… until he saw the King.  Then he said “Woe to me, I’m ruined!”

Or think of Peter fishing with Jesus in Luke chapter 5.  He’s in the boat with the LORD of Isaiah chapter 6.  And they have a miraculous catch of fish. And Luke 5 verse 5 says:

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”

Peter confesses to being a sinner when he sees the glory of Jesus.  Peter hasn’t just remembered some sins from his murky past.  He’s not even thinking about his sins, he is simply looking at Jesus and saying “I do not match up.”

Of course the ultimate place to look to find a true estimation of yourself is to Christ crucified.  That’s the sinner’s fate.  And that was your death – you died with Christ, the old man crucified.  You will never be able to feel your way towards this verdict.  Preachers, no matter how keenly they focus on individual sins you’ve committed, can’t whip up this sentiment.  And turning to yourself in order to work it up is itself sinful.  Instead I look to the LORD high and lifted up (Isaiah 6:1 <=> 52:13).  I allow the cross to be God’s verdict on me.  I am co-crucified with Christ and therefore reject the old self completely.  And yet

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)

The true and right self-hatred is fundamentally to allow the cross to be God’s verdict on the old you.  And your true and right self-appreciation is not gained by trusting in the new you.  No, the life you live in the flesh you live by faith in the Son of God.  Trust His love for you shown decisively right when you were most hateful.

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I was once in a preaching seminar with 15 other young guns.  We were being taught by someone you might call a living legend.  One session I remember was on how to preach Romans 3:21-30.  The point came when the living legend asked us what we thought the application should be.  Now aside from my various misgivings about application I reasoned to myself that if an application was there in the passage it was probably worth flagging up.  I looked down and sure enough I saw what I thought was a pretty clear “”application”” of Paul’s teaching:

Where then is boasting?  It is excluded. (v27)

So I stuck up my hand and suggested that the application might be humility.  More particularly it seemed that, since Christ had taken the work of salvation entirely into His own hands (and out of ours), we ought gladly to shut up about ourselves, our morality, etc etc.

“Wrong!” said the legend.  “The application should be ‘Repent!'”

“Oh”, I said. “Why?”

I immediately regretted asking ‘why.’  Dagnammit we’re evangelicals, we’re supposed to preach repentance, it’s union rules.  Besides, I don’t want to appear soft in front of the 15 other young guns and this living legend!  The legend was more than a little irked by my question and replied: “Because, dear boy, verse 23 says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Sin is the problem, therefore I would have thought that repentance would be a very good idea!!”

You might be surprised to learn that I didn’t answer back to this one.  Oh I wanted to.  But judging by the alarm in the legend’s voice and the mood of the room it felt wise not to imperil my standing any further among such sound folk.

But sometimes I fantasize about what would have happened if I’d said what I really thought.  The fantasy goes something like this:

I stand slowly, deliberately, with all the solemnity of the lone prophet.  All eyes are upon me as I bellow with righteous ardour:

“Sin is not the problem!   S i n   i s   n o t   t h e   p r o b l e m !!!

All hell breaks loose.  Outrage.  Pained howls.  Torn garments.  Hurled stones.  I stand immovable.

“… Sin is not the problem… God’s wrath at sin is the problem!  No… better… God’s wrath at us in our sin – that’s the problem!”

At once they are felled by Truth as by lightning.  Cut to the heart, the stones drop to the floor first, then the men.  One by one they slump to the ground, the hand of the LORD heavy upon them.  In breathless awe they ask: “Brave herald, what is this teaching you bring us?  It resounds from the very heights of Zion against our presumption and folly.”

Sporting a fresh cut across my chiselled jawline, I am otherwise unruffled.  Ever magnanimous I continue:

“Dear friends” (the dust in the air has now leant a husky tone to my rich, commanding voice). “Dear friends, let us not define our predicament so anthropocentrically.”

I leave this dread word hanging in the air.  The mere mention of ‘anthropocentric’ elicits groans from the already contrite gathering.  Here was their shibboleth used against them.  It stung.

“I commend you friends…”  They look up nervously – could there yet be grace for them?  “…While many have merely scratched the itch of the modern age, you have refused to pander to felt needs. You have proclaimed the problem of sin and for this I commend you.”

I pause.  “And yet… and yet… you have defined the problem so poorly, so slightly.  You have defined the problem from below.  If we define the problem as something lying in our hands then aren’t we at least suggesting that the solution is in our hands?  But in fact the problem is above us – just as the solution is.  The problem is not fundamentally our sin, the problem is the Lord’s wrath upon us.”

“What’s the difference?!” cries out one of the younger preachers, “Our sin, God’s wrath, it’s all the same…”  He is hushed by the legend who slowly shakes his head.  It is clear now how wrong he has been.

He stands, still shaking his head, unable to look at me or the others.  Eventually he speaks, “Glen’s right. He’s always been right!”  The great one looks like he’s been hung from the ceiling on meat hooks.  He exclaims,

“You must understand…  We faced such terrible dangers in preaching.  We still face such dangers.  I wanted, we all wanted, to resist the me-centred pulpit.  I was so sick of hearing about ‘filling the Jesus-shaped hole in your life’.  I couldn’t stand the invitations to ‘let Jesus into the passenger seat of your life’.  I wanted people to turn.  I still want people to turn.”

I put a re-assuring hand on his shoulder. He meets my eye for the first time and continues.  “I just thought, if we can show them that ‘fulfilment’ isn’t the issue – that sin is the issue, well then maybe they’d come to their senses.  Maybe they’d see their errors and turn from them.”

I give a look to the legend, he nods, “I know, I know, that’s the problem.”

“What’s the problem?” asks one of the young guns.

The legend sighs deeply and turns to the others.  “It puts the focus on us.  If we just preach sin and repentance the whole focus is on us.”

“It’s anthropocentric” mutters a young gun, latching onto his favourite word.  He looks around to see if anyone else has noticed his firm grasp of the issues.

“I don’t get it” another pipes up, “I thought sin and repentance was God-centred preaching?  Isn’t that what you taught us??”

The legend is speechless.  I break the silence.  Crouching down to their level, I ask, “If we simply preach sin and repentance how exactly is God at the centre?  He may well be over and above our conceptions of sin and repentance – but how is He in the middle?  In such a sermon isn’t God actually on the periphery?  He’s hardly the principal Actor!”

At this stage the one who muttered ‘anthropocentric’ is nodding in the way failed quiz-show contestants nod when they’re told the right answer.

I go on, “It’s like our passage from Romans 3.  Sin is certainly there!  Sin is certainly a problem.  I mean we’ve been told from verse 9 that all are under sin.  And we’ve been told in verse 20 that observing the law will never get us out from under this condition.  But given that this is the case, wouldn’t it be strange if Paul then told us that ‘repentance’ was this new work – better than the old Mosaic works?  Actually Paul doesn’t mention any of our works in this passage, not our obedience, not our repentance.  No, what does Paul point us to?  Verse 25, the blood of Jesus – a propitiation for our sins.  Now we all know what propitiation means right?”

Young noddy blurts out “A sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath!!”  I gesture with my hands to calm him.

“Ok, yes. Well done.  It turns away God’s wrath.  Because that’s the real problem.  The problem is, chapter 1 verse 18, the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against us.  It will culminate in, chapter 2 verse 5, a day of wrath.  And Paul is at pains to say we all deserve it, we are all unrighteous and there’s nothing moral and nothing religious we can do to turn aside this wrath.  We are helpless.  BUT, a righteousness beyond us has come.  And He is the sacrifice who turns away God’s wrath.  Through His redemption we are justified freely.  That’s the gospel.  That’s what we preach.  And who is at the centre of this story?  Not us.  Him.”

“So we shouldn’t preach sin and repentance?” asks another.

“Of course we should.  But those are comprehended within a much more profound perspective.  Wrath and redemption are the deeper truths.  You know I’ll bet that all the sermons you hear are about committed sin and sanctification?  You know the kind.  ‘God says: Don’t do X, we all do it, let’s ask His help to stop.’  Where are the sermons that major on original sin and justification?  Why don’t we plunge them to the depths and then take them to the heights?  Why all this middle of the road stuff that puts us at the centre?”

A couple of young guns knowingly mouth ‘anthropocentric’ to one another.

I continue “Take Islam.  It’s a classic religion of repentance.  God remains far above, it’s down to us to clean up our act.  In fact all human religion is man justifying man before a watching god.  But the Gospel is God justifying God before a watching humanity.  He takes centre-stage and we need to move off into the audience to watch Him work salvation for us.  Christianity is not a religion of repentance, it’s a religion of redemption.  And that’s quite a difference don’t you see?”

As I speak, the young guns have been picking themselves off the floor one by one.  The room has been won to the side of Truth.  I look upon them with fatherly benevolence.

“So my friends – now that you know these things: What would be a good application of Romans 3?”

In unison they reply “Humility!”  And for a moment all is right with the world.

Until the harmony is shattered.  One of the young guns speaks up:

“Hey, if humility is so important, how come you’re so proud?”

The mood of the room takes a decisive turn.  Another piles in “And how come you’ve been dreaming us up for the last 10 minutes to feed your ego.”

Here’s where the fantasy turns pretty nasty.

“What kind of egotist spends his time winning theological debates in his head??”

“Yeah, debates he never actually won in the real world!”

“I think I know ‘Where then is boasting?’ – he’s standing in the middle of the room!!”

At this point the fantasy is basically unsalvagable.  So then, I hate to do it, but sometimes you just have to pull rank.

“Quiet all of you!  This is my fantasy.  Either you submit adoringly to my theological genius or get out now.”

Faced with those options they instantly choose non-existence.  One by one they vanish, though somehow their looks of betrayal and disgust seem to linger on.

“You’ll be back” I say to the departed phantasms.  “Pretty soon I’ll need to feel right about something else and you’ll be right back in my imagination, bowing to my unquestioned brilliance.

“Ha!” I say.  The laughter echoes around my empty head.

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Here is a slightly revised post from two years ago.

I’ve been watching ‘Am I normal?’ – a TV programme about addiction. It asks whether there is such a thing as addiction. What about gambling addiction? Shopping? Sex? Food? Computer gaming? Are these addictions? Are they illnesses? Are you born with them? Do you ‘catch’ them? ‘Suffer’ them? Are you helpless before them?

One doctor, author of the book ‘Addiction is a choice’ was, predictably enough, against such an idea. He said things like ‘It’s simply a weak or bad person making a bad choice…. There’s no such thing as an involuntary behaviour. All behaviour is goal seeking behaviours… Our therapeutic culture, instead of making moral judgments is making pseudo-medical judgements.’

He reminded me of reading Jay Adams – the pioneer of nouthetic (admonition) counseling. Adams taught pastoral counselling at Westminster Theological Seminary for many years. He says things like this in ‘Competent to Counsel’

‘The idea of sickness as the cause of personal problems vitiates all notions of human responsibility.’ (p5)

He doesn’t like this. He sees it as a straight choice between sickness and sin:

‘Is the fundamental problem of persons who come for personal counselling sickness or sin?’ (p17)

Adams therefore goes for ‘sin’.

There are advantages to this. If we are merely victims – sufferers of an illness called ‘addiction’ then the problem and also the solution is out of our hands. If the problem is ours – if we are sinners – then the solution is also within our grasp. Sin is the problem. Repentance is the solution.

What I find strange about Adams, and those who tend to follow him, is that he, and they, are staunch Calvinists. They believe in the bondage of the will (as do I). They believe, I’m sure, people like John Owen when he says:

“To suppose that whatever God requireth of us that we have power of ourselves to do, is to make the cross and grace of Jesus Christ of none effect.”

This is such a touchstone of Calvinist thought it’s even the strapline of the website ‘Monergism.’ It’s a wonderful quote. And it should be heeded in all sorts of theological debates.

But it’s not heeded when conservative Christians try to put our ability to be moral at the heart of things. Something dangerous occurs when Christians try to make ‘moral responsibility’ the centre of gravity in these kind of discussions. To do so is to push the Saviour to the periphery. Owen saw this. The doctrine of the bondage of the will, at its best, guards against this. But conservative Christians tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to the notion that sinful behaviours ever be classified as addictions or illnesses. They are bad behaviours, bad choices.

Let’s think very briefly about three Scriptures.

In Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul brilliantly portrays our freedom and our bondage:

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts.”

What’s fascinating about these verses is that here we see our freedom to do what we want is described as the very way in which we followed the devil. Our so called freedom to gratify our lusts was precisely the bondage in which we found ourselves.

The second passage is John 8.

Everyone who sins is a slave to sin… if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Far from saying ‘talk of addiction vitiates talk of sin’ isn’t Jesus here saying that sin is addiction? Aren’t we enslaved to sin? Isn’t it a power over us? Do we not find ourselves under its domination? And isn’t the solution not for ourselves to gain mastery but for Christ make us His slaves?

Sin is a power over us. The gospel of grace depends on this fact. Sin is a power over us that is disarmed and replaced by Christ. We are beasts ridden by the devil or Christ – this is where Ephesians 2 and John 8 have brought us. Why would we want to put – why especially would Calvinists want to put – human responsibility at the centre of the discussion??

Finally, think of Luke 5:27-32 where Jesus meets and changes Levi. Jesus says:

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Jesus says our problem is BOTH. It’s not either sin or sickness – it’s BOTH. Jesus calls sinners sinner. He calls Levi to repent and follow Him. But in that diagnosis Jesus also reveals that He is the true Doctor of the sick. Our therapeutic culture is not wrong to see us as victims of sin (John 8:34). We mustn’t react against these trends and bellow out ‘we are responsible moral agents, we can choose etc etc’ If we do that, so quickly man comes right to the centre and the Gospel exits stage-left. We become our own saviours from sin. But no, only Christ saves us from sin. And He saves helpless, sick sinners.

We are victims of a sickness called sin. That is absolutely biblical and true. We are also culpable choosing agents – Ephesians 2 told us that the gratification of our lusts was the essence of our bondage!  Our slavery actually is our continual self-gratification.  Enslaved not against but by our desires.  The slavery and the desires are both true together. Jesus and Paul could handle bringing both sides of this truth to bear. Liberals and conservatives fall off one side or other.

Christians must maintain: “I am a sick, wretched, poor, helpless sinner. And I have no hope in myself – not in any inner goodness nor in any inner capacity to will the good.  My repentance is my confess of complete inability to gain mastery over alcohol/drugs/food/pornography/gambling/whatever.  I look only to Christ to see the Lover I have spurned, the blood that He has shed, the ransom that He paid even while I delighted in evil.  As the Spirit grants, I mourn that I ever gave myself to such wicked masters and I fill my vision with the Mighty Redeemer who strides out of the slave-market carrying me, His latest purchace – with the Heavenly Husband who sings over His unfaithful bride.”

Walking by the Spirit (i.e. the Christian life) is being conformed to the truth of Jesus as it inundates me through the bible and meditation and preaching and communion and community.  As He confronts me, I fall for a new Love, get addicted to a new Joy.  My new Master and Husband is constantly calling me away from the world, the flesh and the devil to enjoy Himself.

I hope you can feel how odd the categories of duty ethics and moral responsibility appear when you view pastoral problems in this light.  When behaviouralists keep banging on about putting the will back at the centre of counselling it’s a bit like CS Lewis’s example of a wife saying “Kiss me” and the husband responding, “Do I have to?”  Duty has a place.  But let’s keep it far from the centre.

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Hebrews 10:26 can be a scary verse.  One woman I know has been crippled by the fear that she is damned because of ongoing sin.  Whenever I declared the gospel to her and held out the grace of Jesus she would always come back to these verses:

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.  (Heb 10:26-27)

Whatever happens we don’t want to be found to be ones who “deliberately keep on sinning.”  So what does it mean?

Different things can be said, but let me just take up one line of inquiry.  Verse 26 uses ‘sin’ in two senses – first as a verb, then as a noun.  It’s interesting to note that Hebrews only uses ‘sin’ as a verb twice.  But ‘sin’ as a noun is everywhere.  Here are all its uses:

Sin as a noun:

is purified – 1:3

is atoned for – 2:17

is not remembered anymore – 8:12; 10:17

is put away once and for all – 9:26

is borne by Jesus once and for all – 9:28

Christ is sacrificed for it once for all time – 10:12

Christ is without it – 4:15

is dealt with in shadowy way by High Priest / old covenant – 5:1,3; 7:27; 10:2,3,4,6,8,11,18,26; 13:11

hardens and deceives – 3:13

gives fleeting pleasures – 11:25

easily entangles – 12:1

causes struggle – 12:4

Sin as a verb is only mentioned twice:

Israelites ‘sinned’ and their bodies fell in the wilderness – 3:17

Deliberately sinning – no sacrifice for sins remains – 10:26

Sin (noun) – has been purified, atoned for, put away and borne in the sacrifice of sinless Jesus once and for all.  It is therefore remembered no more.  This is precisely what the old covenant promised through its shadows but never effected itself.  Sin remains a reality for the Christian – it offers fleeting pleasures.  But it deceives and hardens, it easily entangles and causes painful struggle.

To sin (verb) – is a decisive and deadly rejection of the Lord.  The Israelites “sinned” in the wilderness and so they died (3:17).  This is the verdict upon 40 years of their constantly wayward hearts.  They did not want the Lord and His future and so He swore that they would not enter His rest.  People today ‘deliberately sin’ when they reject Jesus, their one Sacrifice for sins and Forerunner to glory.  If they forsake Him, no sacrifice for sins remains. (10:26)

I wonder therefore whether the slight overtranslation of 10:26 in most versions (“Deliberately keep on sinning …”) spotlights the wrong thing.  The unforgiveable nature of this kind of sinning is not really its ongoingness – though it is an ongoing attitude.  The unforgiveableness of this sin is that it is a rejection of the very One in Whom forgiveness is offered.  The author is not telling us: “a spot of occasional sinning is alright but ongoing sinning is damnable.”  He’s saying that sin is put away by Christ once and for all, but the person who rejects Christ deliberately has nowhere else to turn.

Hebrews is written to a people always tempted to trust the shadows and not the Substance.  They look to angels and Moses and temple and priests and goats and bulls and everything but Jesus.  But Jesus is the One we are to See and Fix our thoughts upon, etc, etc.  If we have seen HIM and then turn away again to worthless sin-bearers – no sacrifice for sins remains.  We’ve rejected the one Life-raft.

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This is how to preach evangelistically, huh?

Either sin is with you, lying on your shoulders, or it is lying on Christ, the Lamb of God. Now if it is lying on your back, you are lost; but if it is resting on Christ, you are free, and you will be saved. Now choose what you want. –Martin Luther

Go and read all the quotes.

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Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

“We are not unaware of Satan’s schemes” says Paul (2 Cor 2:11).  That’s what the NIV calls them – schemes.  Other translations say “devices” or “designs”, you could call them his “methods” or “plots”.  In the latin Vulgate it’s the word “cogitationes”.  The devil is always thinking – always cogitating – scheming to outwit us.

So what are his schemes?  The context in 2 Corinthians 2 points to one of them – unforgiveness.   Paul wants the congregation to forgive and comfort an unnamed sinner lest he be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (v7).  In this way they will resist the devil’s schemes.  Satan is ever the enemy of grace and the number one champion of conditionality.  He will seek to destroy my vertical relationship with Christ and my horizontal relationship with others through feelings of unforgiveness – first Christ’s for me, then mine for you.

It’s a devastating plot and it works a treat.  But I want to focus on a slightly different strategy  (though it’s very much linked).  What we see in Scripture from the very beginning is a plot to make us serve ourselves.

In the garden, Adam and Eve had everything except the forbidden fruit.  And all it took from Satan were a few words that denied the consequences, impugned God’s character and praised the fruit.  Then…

…the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  (Gen 3:6-7)

They caved in to their appetites, served themselves and fell.  This is plan A for the devil and he rarely has need for any other.

Think of Job.  In chapter 1 Satan can only imagine that Job fears God because of the blessings (v9ff).

9 “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. 10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

The way Satan thinks, people only love God because He pays them to do it – through blessings, wealth, health, family etc.  In Satan’s cogitations people only ever serve themselves.  And apart from Christ and those ransomed by Him, he’s right – people do only serve themselves.

In Ephesians 2 Paul speaks of our terrifying enslavement to the devil.  Every human being naturally follows the ruler of the kingdom of the air (Eph 2:2).  And verse 3 describes the essence of this bondage – we “gratify the cravings of our flesh and follow its desires and thoughts.”  Precisely when I say I am “free to do what I want any old time” right there I demonstrate my slavery.  Satan has us by the throat wherever we feed our own selfish desires.

With this in mind consider that famous verse from 1 Peter 5:8

Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

If we don’t consider the context in 1 Peter and if we don’t consider Satan’s fundamental ‘scheme’ we’ll minsunderstand this.  We might imagine that people are ‘devoured’ when they fall prey to financial or sexual scandal or some public apostasy.  Those are certainly options for the devil – handy snacks along the way.  But that’s not his staple diet .  His staple diet is self-serving comfort-seekers.  The main way Satan devours people is by giving them an easy life.

In 1 Peter the whole message is that Christians are aliens and strangers, scattered in this passing age as we wait for Christ’s glorious appearing, so don’t be surprised by suffering, hang on because you know your brothers and sisters around the world are suffering with you.  In that context, how will the devil swallow you up?  He’ll give you an easy life.  Once you’ve taken that bait, he’s swallowed you.

Anyway, just a thought.  Let me get back to the wilderness…

Think again about Matthew 4.  The wilderness temptations seem very puzzling on the surface.  After all there is a distinct lack of voodoo dolls, heavy metal music and ancient Indian burial grounds.  And – what a glaring oversight! – lust didn’t make it into Satan’s top 3!

We gravitate towards the Martin Scorcese school of temptation.  If he was in charge of ‘The last temptation of Christ’ then a final fling with Mary would have been the lure.  Surely that would have been a sterner test of Christ’s mettle?  Why on earth does Satan mess around with magical bakery and angelic bungee jumping??  Is this the best he can do?

Yes. Satan knows exactly what he’s doing.

Every man’s battle is selfishness before it’s lust.  And it’s selfishness long after it’s lust.

When we watch the wilderness battle, we are watching the two masters of temptation.  Satan is the master tempter, Christ the Master resister.  We’re all Padwan learners gaping in awe at their struggle.  We have much to learn.  But the learning begins with the realisation that these really are the most devilish temptations of them all – the temptations to serve, feed, protect and save self. In all his scheming, this is Satan’s plan A.

One more post to come…

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Part 1

Part 2

Michael D. O’Brien: Click for source

Part 3

As we’ve noted, the temptations of the wilderness were a battle, not the whole war.  Luke 4:13 states, the devil left only to return at an opportune time.

What times were opportune?

Well in Matthew 16 we have another heavenly declaration of Jesus’ identity.  This time it comes through the lips of Peter – “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v16).  But as with the baptismal declaration, this would be immediately tested by the question, What sort of Christ?  What sort of Son of God will Jesus be?

Verse 21: From this time on Jesus begins to show His disciples that He must suffer and die.  As soon as His divine identity becomes clear like this, Jesus immediately seeks to combat our natural theology of glory.  He ‘shows’ them that He must suffer.  That’s interesting isn’t it?  He doesn’t simply tell them, He shows them – obviously from Scripture.  For the bible has never revealed a theology of glory – it has always revealed the theology of the cross.  Jesus makes this plain.  And Peter, who one minute previously has been a mouthpiece of heaven (v17), is now a mouthpiece of hell.

Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

Immediately Jesus recognizes the devil’s assault:

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

Peter thought the things of God were the things of power, prestige, safety and comfort.  Jesus says, No, those things are the things of men.  And, shockingly, the things of men are the things of Satan.

It couldn’t be clearer could it?  Satan’s way is the way of all men – the way of comfort, the way of self, the way of safety.  Christ’s way (which is God’s way) is the way of the cross, and He calls every follower to it (v24ff).

The next time ‘temptation’ is mentioned in Matthew is in the garden of Gethsemane (26:41).  Here again the way of the cross was brought into an agonizing contrast with the way of all flesh.  Would Jesus let the cup pass (v39)?  Would He save Himself or save us?  Again He resolved to let His Father’s will be done.  This is not something different from His resolve to save us – it is precisely the same thing.

At His arrest, again the chance came for the angels to rescue Him (v53), but the Scriptures must be fulfilled (v54).  Both the Father and the Scriptures speak with one voice – the Christ, the Son of God must suffer and must die.  And Christ submits.

So as He pours out His life on that cross, here is the final ‘opportune time’.  The religious leaders called out to Him:

Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, `I am the Son of God.'”  (Matt 27:40-43)

Do you recognize those words?  “If you are the Son of God” began each of the wilderness temptations.  Here is Satan again using his mouthpieces to offer Jesus a way out.  Contrary to Martin Scorcese’s imagination, the last temptation of Christ was not some lustful fantasy.  It was the much more seductive, much more truly carnal, temptation to save Himself.  Thank God He resisted.  For He did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.

And when He died, the most unlikely man of all suddenly got it.  A Roman centurion declares: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (v54)

That’s been the issue ever since the baptism.  What does it mean to be the Son of God?  Satan threw everything at Jesus to make Him live like Adam, like Israel, like every other son in the history of the world.  But Jesus refuses to live for self.  Instead He dies for others and in this astonishing reversal a power is unleashed.  There’s life from the dead (v51-53) and the man most likely to love vainglory and flesh and the way of Satan is turned around.  Even in the eyes of this Gentile, the wonder of the cross becomes the definition of true Sonship.  This is a power to overturn the world.

Satan is crushed.

Part 5

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Christ in the Wilderness 3

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As we’ve seen, Satan’s three temptations concern Christ’s identity as Son of God.

Round 1:

3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 4 Jesus answered, “It is written: `Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” (Matt 4:3-4)

The devil assumes that Jesus is able to produce miraculous bread in the wilderness.   That’s what the Son of God has always done (e.g. Exodus 16).  And it’s what He would do again (Matthew 14 and 15).  But in those cases the Son of God provides bread for others and in so doing proves Himself to be the true Bread, torn apart to feed the world (John 6:48-51).

But Jesus will not feed Himself.  He has come to die – and a death far worse than starvation – to feed others.  And so He says: I entrust Myself utterly to My Father, knowing I can abandon everything to My Father and live.  That’s round 1.

Round 2 is fought along similar lines:

5 Then the devil took Him to the holy city and had Him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “`He will command his angels concerning You, and they will lift You up in their hands, so that You will not strike Your foot against a stone.'”  7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: `Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

The devil, like so many of his servants, is a preacher.  And he knows enough of the bible to know that the Psalms proclaim the Son of God.  So he says to Jesus – “Psalm 91, as everyone knows, concerns the Son of God.  Well then if you are the One of Psalm 91, you’ll be able to do this celestial bunjee jump and the angels will catch you.”

In a future post we’ll consider Christ’s rejection of this kind of PR stunt.

But the bottom line is, Jesus won’t cave.  He has come to hurl Himself down, and not simply to be dashed on the stones of the temple courts.  He had come to hurl Himself into the great Abyss for us.  And explicitly at His arrest He refuses the help of angels to prevent it (Matthew 26:53-54).   As Son of God He must die on that cross and though 12 legions of angels are on 24 hour stand-by, the Scriptures must be fulfilled.  The Son of Man must go as it is written of Him – He must be the One who dies.  Jesus will not test His Father but obey Him, even to the point of death.

Round 2 resisted.

Round 3:

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: `Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'”

Satan is the prince of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) – not by right but by popular choice.  The world does indeed follow the devil and his lying, self-serving, death-dealing ways.  So Satan offers Jesus the chance to form a coalition government.  Satan says, “Let’s not be enemies here.  You know what it will cost you to dethrone me (Gen 3:15) – it will cost your life.  Let me offer you another way.  Let’s rule the world together.  Forget the painful business of eradicating evil, compromise with it and you can avoid the whole way of the cross.”

But Jesus will receive the Kingdom from His Father, not the devil.  He will not bow to Satan, He will crush Him.  Though it cost Him His life, Jesus will not compromise with evil.  His heart is wholly for God His Father and so His heart is wholly for the cross.

Christ proves Himself to be exactly who the Father had declared.  He is the beloved Son of God because through every temptation to the contrary He resolves not to serve Himself but others.  He will not save Himself but save others.  This is the only power to defeat the ultimate Egotist.  Everyone else in the history of the world has failed Satan’s tests.  No-one has ever walked the way of the cross like this. But the True Son of God did.  And Satan must depart.

But as Luke says, Satan limps off only to regather his strength for future assaults (Luke 4:13).  We’ll consider these in the next post (here).

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I was recently discussing original sin with some people who disagreed with it.  It seemed to them something like the doctrine that ‘God hates babies’.  Fumbling around for what to say, I eventually settled on this.

If you buy into the ‘born neutral’ position, you’re living in a world in which performance is everything.  God’s waiting with a clip-board to assess how you develop the ‘blank slate’ He’s given you.

If you go for the ‘born in sin’ position, you’re living in a world in which God’s grace to sinners is everything.  It’s all about His forgiveness, not our good behaviour.

The bible says “God has bound all people over to disobedience so that He may have mercy on them all.” (Romans 11:32) Original sin is actually all about the mercy of God.

Initially original sin may sound like the harsh option.  Actually the ‘born neutral’ position is the really harsh doctrine.  Especially once you become aware of your own sin.

If I’ve failed to convince you that ‘original sin’ is what the bible teaches, can I at least convince you that ongoing sin is true in your own life?  And if you realize that ongoing sin is a problem for you, let me ask you which world you’d rather live in – the world of performance or the world of grace?

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