We have, so far in this series, considered the reality of sin in the believer’s life in general terms. We have considered the importance of a Christian having and carrying about with him or her a living sense of sin and of the various blessings that come to us from an honest reckoning with how much wrong still remains in our hearts and our lives. We have also described the two-dimensional problem we face: SIN and sins and discussed the question, much discussed in the history of Christian theology, whether we can identify a bottom sin, an essential sin, the one sin from which all our sinning comes. We decided last time that the Bible really does not answer that question for us and quite often identifies or distinguishes specific sins. It does not treat all our sins simply as various manifestations of but one sin. And it summons us to deal with our sins individually, specifically, one by one and shows us how to do that. Now it is time for us to begin taking up our sins and considering them more specifically.
But first a word about my particular selection of sins to consider. It is not, perhaps, a typical list. We could, of course, talk about sexual sin, or the love of money, or dishonesty. The Bible certainly deals often with sins like those. In this series, however, I’m interested in considering sins that, I think, we too often do not recognize for what they are. If we admit that they are sins – and sometimes I’m not sure we really do even that – we don’t see the extent to which they rule in our hearts or the full measure of their results in our lives. These are sins that, as it were, lie in the layer beneath the more obvious blemishes of our lives and, at least to some extent, produce those blemishes.
One further word of introduction. Each of the sins we will consider can be viewed as both a sin of commission and a sin of omission, both as doing what we are forbidden to do and as failing to do what we are commanded to do. As we so often say in our prayer of confession on a Lord’s Day morning, we have sinned against the Lord “both by what we have done and what we have left undone” or “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” We will have more than enough occasion to notice this two-dimensional character of our sin – as both wrongdoing and as a failure to do right – as we consider our sins one by one. And there is, in this anatomy of sin, an important lesson, we might almost say, a secret that wise Christians learn, Christians who are determined to grow in righteousness before God and man.
Paul, remember, tells us that dealing with our sin requires a double motion on our part: a putting off and a putting on, a killing and a making alive. In Colossians 3:5, for example, Paul writes, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature…” and after enumerating the sins that must be put to death he goes on in v. 12, “Therefore as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, and so on.” There is always this double action. There is mortification, or putting to death. As John Owen put it, this work “consists in a constant taking part with grace…against the principle acts and fruits of sin.” [“A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit,” Works, iii, 543] It is the Christian’s saying “No!” to ungodliness and worldly passions, as Paul puts it in Titus 3:12. And, as Paul makes clear, it is the work of killing sins, not just scraping them! But at the same time one must be putting on the new life, bringing to life the principles of that new creation God has worked in us. Mortification without vivification ends up either in frustration or in a false kind of godliness, the kind of so-called godliness seen in some medieval externalism in which the man wears the hair shirt or stands for hours in cold water but all the while remains the cruel master or the philandering husband he was before.
We are not righteous unless we live righteously and we have not put our sins to death until we have replaced them with righteous thoughts and actions. But the secret I mentioned before is that vivification, putting on, is the better part, the most important part of sanctification and the most effective way to put our sins to death. Vivify to mortify! There is the secret! As I have told you before, while saying “No!” to worldly passions must be done and is an essential part of godliness, it is not the practice of godliness that most effectively and permanently puts an end to sinning. As I have told you before, the miser will not conquer his love of money solely by telling himself not to love it so. He must begin there, to be sure. But if he wants to break the back of that sin, he must practice a godly use of his money and must discover the joys of generosity and of stewardship. What we want, of course, is not to be so often and so powerfully tempted by our sinful passions. And the only way to that happy condition is to grow not to be so interested in them. And the way to that is to learn to love righteousness and to come to enjoy its blessings.
As I have often told husbands and wives, they are never going to have the happy marriage they dream of simply by working harder at not bickering or trying not to do those things that anger or frustrate one another. What is needed is the positive and constructive cultivation of their relationship, the investment in deepening their love for one another, their pleasure in one another, and their desire to be together. When that is done, the bickering falls away almost without thought or attention. Or, as is so pointedly taught in the Bible, for example in Proverbs 5, the key to the mortification of sexual lusts is the cultivation of an erotically fulfilling marriage. It is the positive that lays the ax to the rust of the negative. Well so it is with all our sins. Putting on righteous living is the best and surest way to put off unrighteous living. The best way to kill a sin is the best way to kill a weed: crowd it out with flowers and vines that take up all the sunlight and absorb all the moisture. We are going to have occasion to commend this lesson to ourselves in regard to each of the sins we consider, each of the sins we need to kill.
Tonight I want to begin with worldliness. The term is often used to describe a love of money and pleasure and ease. We are accustomed to describing a person who is caught up with desiring and seeking what the world has to offer as a worldly person. But I am using the term in a more serious, a more profound sense. I mean by worldliness a forgetfulness of what is unseen, a way of living in which it appears that a person does not know or has forgotten that the world that we can see is the smaller part of the reality of human life. This world has become the limit of a person’s horizon.
We’ve heard people say, for example, that a problem with Christian education is that it keeps Christian young people from being exposed to the real world. Now, in the sense that such a statement is meant, Christian education does no such thing. There is plenty of that world in any Christian school and, in any case, young people are exposed to far too much of that world as it is. But the use of the term gives away a state of mind, a way of thinking that is utterly untrue to the Word of God and so untrue to the facts. It is an irreal way of thinking and living. This world is not the real world if it is thought to be the standard of reality; if in looking at this world and thinking about this world the unseen world is not factored in. If this world is the only world one considers, if one makes his decisions and fashions his loyalties only according to what he can see and hear and touch, then this world – being only a part of reality but being taken to be the whole and being the least part of the reality but being taken for all – becomes an illusion, a fantasy, a dream from which someone must at last awake to discover that he has lived his life as a mistake; he has acted on false principles. He has utterly failed to grasp the nature of reality and has done so to his doom. The real world of the American high school or university, without Christian faith, is the most profoundly unreal world of all. Reinhold Niebuhr is not a theologian I often quote, but there was a sturdy realism to much of his thought, a realism that was bracing in his day, a day that had largely gone over to vapid sentimentality. He defined original sin as “humanity’s ineradicable inclination to absolutize the relative,” which is to say to make a god of creation and forget the creator. Which is simply another way of saying “to live by sight and not by faith.”
Who is the fool? He is the one who says in his heart, “There is no God.” Well, the Christian knows there is a God. We know that Christ is Lord. We know many things about the unseen world. But it is far too often the case that we do not live as if we knew these things, we don’t live as if these things are real. It is far too often not obvious that our lives are governed by the conviction that these unseen things are absolutely real!
The other day I read that Sean Penn, the actor, had described President Bush as “another Beelzebub, only dumber.” I was immediately interested in that remark, not as a political comment – I don’t look to Hollywood actors for their political acumen – but as a theological/philosophical comment. It is the kind of remark we hear a thousand times in our society today. It is akin to everyone calling Las Vegas “sin city” or to the promiscuous use nowadays of the phrase “God bless America” in song and on bumper stickers. One uses words like “Beelzebub” or “sin” or even “God” and “bless” for artistic effect, it evokes a vague, pleasing sentiment of some kind, but, of course, the speaker doesn’t really believe in Beelzebub or in sin or, really, even in God – not in any literal, real, or important way. If Sean Penn really believed in Beelzebub, really believed in a world of spirits – both good and evil – and, therefore, really saw this world as the Devil’s kingdom and human beings in general as in thrall to him, and saw this world as a battleground between the Devil and the kingdom of God, all things he must believe if he really believes in Beelzebub. If he really believed such things, of one thing you can be sure: he never would have made that comment about President Bush. Whether or not he agreed with the president’s politics, it would never have occurred to him to make that comment. But he doesn’t really believe in Beelzebub, and without Beelzebub this world is all there is, and so he lives in an unreal world and, as a result, his pretensions to moral seriousness are just that, pretensions, fantasies. That isn’t real either.
This irreality is characteristic of our time. In some respects it has always been characteristic of human life in this world. Unbelief, in the nature of the case, leaves people who were made for more than this world and who cannot help but think and act as if there were much more than this world, stuck in a world that is too small for them, a world that does not answer to the full reality to which their very natures points them. Well, that is all very well for unbelievers.
But, such worldliness, such practical atheism – living as if God and the unseen world did not exist – is an altogether different thing when it is – as it far too often is – characteristic of a Christian’s life.
Turn with me, please, to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. I want to show you something. I could make this point in a thousand ways, but this way is as good as any and was recently pointed out to me so is fresh in my mind.
The Greek preposition έμπροσθεν, which means “before,” “in front of,” or “in the presence of” occurs four times in 1 Thessalonians. Let me briefly review those four occurrences of the word.
- 1:3: the NIV renders the prepositional phrase, “before our God…” That translation, I think, weakens the sense of the preposition. The sentence literally reads: “We remember your work of faith and your labor of love and your endurance of hope in our lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father. That is, Paul is saying that when they are in the presence of God in prayer [the idea of Paul at prayer continues from the previous verse] they remember, which is to say they mention to God, the graces and the faithfulness of these Christians. When we pray, Paul reminds us – it is an understanding of reality he assumes is shared by his readers; it is not the point of the verse – we are in the presence of God himself.
- 2:19: “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?” Here the idea is of the Lord’s physical, visible presence upon his second coming.
- 3:9: “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?” Here, again as in 1:3, Paul stands in the presence of the Lord when he is in prayer and giving thanks to God for the Thessalonians.
- 3:13: “May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.” Again, here the reference to being in the presence of the Lord concerns our seeing him at the second coming.
Now what is striking about those four uses of the Greek preposition έμπροσθεν – two of which in reference to Paul at prayer and two of which in reference to the second coming of Christ – is that you can describe the relationship to the presence of God in the same way now and then. It doesn’t matter, in other words, whether we are talking about praying now, in the midst of our lives days by day, or about physically and visibly standing before the Lord Jesus at his second coming. It is the presence of the Lord in both cases. You are as really in the presence of God in the one case as in the other.
It is an interesting and striking illustration and confirmation of teaching that we find everywhere in the Bible. The Lord is with us. Paul says on several occasions that we must live by faith precisely because the sight of the body will not reveal to us so much of reality.
We cannot see:
- the demons that inhabit this world and serve the pestiferous purposes of their master, the Devil;
- the angels who go to and fro serving the interests of those who are being saved;
- the dead in hell already suffering the consequences of their unbelief and disobedience in this world;
- the dead in heaven already enjoying the fabulous reversal of their fortunes from this world to the next;
- the hand of God orchestrating events in this world to bring history inexorably along that course ordained from before the foundation of the world;
- the books that are being kept on every human life, the deeds that are done, the thoughts, the words – all of which must be answered for in the judgment of the Great Day;
- the risen and ascended Christ with the nail-prints still visible in hands and feet but now in the glory of his deity surrounded by the joyful worship of saints and angels.
None of this is visible to the eye, but all of it is real, more real in fact than what can be seen because, of course, what is unseen determines the meaning of all that can be seen. We can observe a human life but we do not know its reality until we know its connection to the judgment of God. What looks good, what seems a cause of happiness here, could well be only increasing his misery and judgment for the unbeliever in the world to come, because it is deepening his disinterest in the things of God. His life is too happy here to turn from it to Christ. What looks disastrous, sorrowful, dismal may in fact be the brightest and happiest event precisely because it forces a man or woman to look to Christ for help, comfort, forgiveness, and meaning. In more ways than one, without the knowledge of the unseen world, without the knowledge that faith gives, our knowledge of this world becomes ignorance, our good becomes evil, our happiness becomes woe. That is how irreal is this world if it is all one knows!
But that makes it all the more inexcusable, horrible really, that we Christians live so much of the time and in so many ways, as if this world were all there is, as if all the reality that God has revealed to us were no reality at all. And make no mistake: that is what we do every day and it is a sin; a sin of unbelief that we do not repent of nearly as often, as bitterly, or as furiously as we ought.
This is – this knowledge of the unseen world and the world to come – this is the whole of what separates us from the world, from the unbelievers around us. We know things – know, not just think, not just believe in the sense of thinking its true – we know things they do not know, things that change everything. We know we live our lives in the very presence of God and that Christ truly is with us. We know that each soul we pass is going to heaven or hell. We know that our lives will be judged and that we will receive what is due us for the deeds done in the body, whether good or evil. We know that he who is in us is stronger than he who is in the world. We know that all things work together for good to those who love God. We know that we are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus.
We know that the Lord hears and answers prayer. We know that faith is the victory that overcomes the world. We know that the Lord rewards those who walk in his ways and who diligently seek him. We know these things.
And this is knowledge that should turn the world upside down. We should look out on that world and everything in that world with a radically different viewpoint than that of those who don’t have faith and don’t know all of these things. The fact that so often we do not is our monumental failing. It is sin of the first magnitude; sin that leads to so many other sins and wrecks such spiritual havoc in our lives and the life of Christ’s church. Do you doubt the enormity of our failure in this way?
Tell me, then: how would you pray if, when you knelt to pray the Lord Christ appeared to you in shining glory and listened to your petitions one by one and placed his hand upon your head before he left you? Why, you would run to pray. You would love to pray. You would steal away from your work in order to pray more. Even if the answer to some prayers were “No,” you wouldn’t be dissuaded from prayer because every time you came into the presence of the Lord every wonderful thing that is true about your life because you belong to Christ would come flooding into your heart. What does John say about our first sight of Christ when we are in heaven: “We shall be like him because we shall see him as he is!” But, of course, whenever you pray you are in the presence of the God of unimaginable glory. You know you are! It is nothing but unbelief, a kind of persistent atheism that keeps you from hurrying to prayer. You understand that I am preaching this message first to myself.
Or, instead of prayer, think of the mortification of your sins. Do you really think; do you imagine that you would permit yourself that angry outburst toward your wife or children, or that lustful act, or that act of indiscipline with food, or that you would decline to do a kindness toward another, if there across the room you could see an angel with a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other – recording your deeds for recollection at the Judgment Day? How quickly you would bite your tongue and apologize, how quickly you would corral your wayward passions, how readily you would act on another’s behalf so that the angel had something positive to write. But, of course, the books are being kept, and as a Christian you know that they are! Paul knew it and says that the prospect galvanized him every day to undertake his work as unto the Lord. Or how easily would you become discouraged or give way to your fears if you could see the Lord at your right hand, or the angels surrounding you, or hear in the distance the shouts of triumph in heaven greeting those who had suffered for Christ and faithfully on earth? Remember how Gehazi’s fears were put to rest when, at Elisha’s request, he was given to see the angels of the Lord surrounding Dothan.
It takes a real Christian just a moment of consideration to see how profoundly his or her life would change if only he or she could see and did not have to believe. I am reminded that more than once in the Gospels it is said that the Lord’s disciples were prevented from understanding who the Lord was and what he would do. Why did the Spirit have to close their hearts? Because they saw so much that otherwise they could not have missed the implication of what they saw! It is clear in the Bible that when the Lord Jesus returns, while all hearts will not be soft to him and all will not believe in him, everyone will know who he is and understand what his coming means! Knowledge of reality that is not yet seen ought to make an enormous difference, and it does; but it does not make as much difference as it should. And therein lies our worldliness and our great sin: a sin of unbelief, to be sure, but a sin of mental and spiritual laziness as well. It is perhaps with respect to this – our failure to live according to the marvelous light that Christ has shed over our lives – that Luther was right to say “non est tam magna peccatrix ut Christiana ecclesia.” [WA 34/1:276]
And, here we find use for that lesson, that secret with which we began this evening. The best way to put to death our chronic unbelief and the resulting irreality of our lives is to build into our hearts and lives the thoughts and actions of true faith, of the knowledge of unseen things that Christ has revealed to us. We are commanded over and over again in the Bible to “set our minds on things above, where Christ is seated at the Right Hand of God.” We are charged innumerable times to “remember” what the Lord has promised, what he has done and what he does. And wise Christians have always known that the Christian life is to be lived by the application of the word to our minds and hearts – by meditation – and by exhorting ourselves to believe and to remember what we know is true. We are, as the title of a famous work of Christian spiritual living once put it, to Practice the Presence of God until our lives are one great connected prayer [Origen in Trench, Parables, 485]. Everything done in his presence, everything done in reference to him, everything done having sought his blessing, everything done looking to him for its result.
Erasmus wrote in the introduction to his Greek New Testament in 1516:
“The Bible will give Christ to you in an intimacy so close that he would be less visible to you if he stood before your eyes.”
True it is and Christian history has proved it so. But it is not the Bible alone that gives that intimacy with Christ, but the Bible as read, studied, remembered, and practiced in one’s daily life that produces that living in the reality of Christ.
Pray every day the prayer that Hudson Taylor used to recite to himself every morning.
Lord Jesus, make thyself to me
A living, bright reality;
More present to faith’s vision keen
Than any outward object seen;
More dear, more intimately nigh
Than e’en the sweetest earthly tie.
And you can extend the prayer. Heavenly Father, let me not forget your presence, nor the record that is being kept of my life, nor the observation of the angels who are ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation, nor your exceeding great and precious promises that are “yea” and “amen” in Christ, nor that my life is supercharged with eternal meaning because every moment of every day was ordered before the world was made, nor the Lord Jesus interceding for me, nor the Holy Spirit within me, nor the saints in heaven who have gone before me, nor hell which licks at my feet and from the pains of which my Savior has forever delivered me but not, or at least not to my knowledge, many others known to me. That sort of prayer, over and over again through the day. The spirit of Hudson Taylor’s daily prayer is fine. It aspires to the impossible, at least in this world, but then we are to aspire to be perfect. Two lines will not, cannot come true; not in this life:
More present to faith’s vision keen
Than any outward object seen…
Our Savior taught us that we must, in this world, live by faith and not by sight. So it will never be that Christ is more present to our vision than the objects of this world that we can see. In moments of spiritual ecstasy it may seem so, but ordinarily it will not be so. Still it is what we ought to aspire to.
There is a painting by one of the Dutch masters, Jan Steen (1626-1679) that hangs today in the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam. It was painted between 1665 and 1668. It is entitled, at least in English translation, The Meal at Emmaus. I saw it the last time I toured that museum a few years ago. I stood in front of it and wrote down my impressions because it is an arresting painting. The scene is of the two disciples whom the Lord encountered on the road to Emmaus that first Easter Sunday afternoon and with whom he shared a meal. You remember that in Luke we are told that as soon as he took bread and broke it and gave it to them their eyes were opened and they recognized him and he disappeared from their sight. How he disappeared from their sight Luke does not tell us but the painter has imagined the scene. The broken bread lies on the table before the two men; two servant girls stand in the background. The painter has depicted the men’s faces clouded with looks of grief and self-accusation. They hadn’t recognized the Lord. The exact moment the great painter has captured is that very moment when the Lord was disappearing from their sight. They are staring at him but by now he is but a shadow, a faint image as he disappears from view.
The picture is – with the disciples looking at a vague outline of the Lord – perhaps a good picture of how the Christian life is to be lived. We can’t see the Lord “standing out in sunny outline brave and clear” but we can see – by meditation and the practice of our faith – the outline of the Lord. We can know he is there by a spiritual sight. His shadow is spiritually visible to us. And not the Lord only, but the angel with his notebook and the saints in heaven and the demons and the angels of God and heaven and hell.
To know those things is life and joy and the highest conceivable purpose. To know those things and then to forget them is base, and utterly foolish, and ingratitude to the greatest degree. And that far too much of the time and with so many dismal results is our sin.
May I say this is what makes Sunday worship so vital to you, and twice on a Sunday, so important. It is here, above all, that you see the unseen and practice the knowledge of the unseen that God has given you. It is easier to do well here, of a Lord’s Day with the Lord’s people. This is why you so often feel yourself to be your truest self when you are at worship in God’s house. Here you feel yourself to be your true self. You often wish you could think and feel always as you do here at worship. Why? It is because the reality of the unseen crowds in upon you and proves itself to you here.
Do you want to know the first and most important thing about how to live the Christian life? Do you want to know what is the most important thing of all things to do? Well, this is it: to remind yourself constantly of what is true and real that you cannot see. Remind yourself, take it to heart, preach it to your mind, and act accordingly every minute of every hour of every day. Refuse to give way to practical unbelief by practicing your faith, which is to say, living out the knowledge of unseen things that has been revealed to you by God your Savior.