Our Sins: Lack of Moral Seriousness


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We have, so far in this series, considered three sins of which we are all profoundly guilty and that are, in fact, much more the index of our guilt and our corruption than our more obvious outward acts of disobedience to God. These lie deeper and prove more profoundly our failure to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. The first of those sins was worldliness¸ by which I mean the failure to reckon with the unseen world and with unseen reality known to faith. The second was form over freedom, our penchant for and contentment with an outward, dutiful Christian life at the expense of the inward engagement of the heart and the affections. The third sin in this list was the sin we considered last time, viz. pride, by which I mean not so much the outward acts of boastfulness, self-seeking, and arrogance, but the self-referential perspective that dominates all our thinking about everyone and everything; the persistent keeping of ourselves in the center. Tonight we move on the fourth in this list of five sins: a sin I will call the lack of moral seriousness.

There are a great many texts of Holy Scripture that I could use to set this sin before you, so I will give you simply a representative sampling. I happened to be reading in Ezekiel the other day and came across the well-known passage concerning the watchman in chapter 33.

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die’, and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.” [vv. 7-9]

What struck me about that text, reading through it for the umpteenth time, was the way it exposed Ezekiel himself to divine wrath for not dealing faithfully with a wicked man. It is one thing to mistreat a righteous man; it is one thing to fail to serve the interests of someone who is ready to and would come to salvation. But here and most emphatically, Ezekiel is threatened with God’s wrath if he doesn’t fulfill his duty toward a wicked man who will not and does not turn from his wickedness. “That man – that is the wicked man – will die for his sin and I will hold you accountable for his blood.” That is to say, the otherwise righteous and faithful prophet will be held accountable for that wicked man who was already wicked and remained wicked and was judged for his wickedness. What is this text but the equivalent of God saying to us: “You don’t get it. I hate sin and I love righteousness, and you had better too, or else! Don’t talk to me about who is more or less guilty; don’t try your excuses or your extenuations on me. I have spoken in my Word; it is yours to obey come wind, come weather.” And is that not the burden of countless other texts like these?

  1. “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the darkness…. They say, ‘The Lord does not see us…” [Ezek. 8:12]
  2. “Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord, who do their work in darkness and think, ‘Who sees us? Who will know?’
  3. “God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day.” [Ps. 7:11]
  4. “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” [1 Pet. 4:18]
  5. “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” [Matt. 5:29-30]
  6. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me you evil-doers!’” [Matt. 7:21-23]
  7. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” [Matt. 22:14]
  8. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” [Luke 12:48]
  9. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” [Luke 14:25-27]
  10. “…I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” [1 Cor. 9:27] That is no one less than the Apostle Paul speaking!
  11. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” [2 Cor. 5:10]
  12. “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry and do not give the devil a foothold.” [Eph. 4:26-27]

And on and on we could go. A salvation that required nothing less than the incarnation, suffering and cruelest and most ignominious death of the Son of God is obviously incompatible with a life of levity and unconcern. A gospel that presumes the judgments of God’s eternal wrath obviously is incompatible with a life of moral and spiritual indifference or disinterest. A summons to live our lives as Christians under the watchful eye of a God who looks upon the heart, who promises to judge us for how we have lived, who demands that we obey and serve him, and who frequently warns us that our conduct bears on the eternal weal or woe of others, I say such a summons is utterly incompatible with a life that is barely to be distinguished in its tone and temper from that of unbelieving men and women around us.

There was an article – several of you forwarded it to me – in the Wall Street Journal of November 15th. It was entitled “That Sermon You Heard on Sunday May be from the Web” and concerned what is apparently the growing practice on the part of many ministers to use for their Sunday sermons the sermons of other pastors that are now readily available online, either free or for a fee. One minister cited in the article admitted that about 75% of his sermons were those of another minister and delivered them even with the personal anecdotes and illustrations of the original preacher. “Truth is truth,” this particular pastor argued. “If you got something that’s a good product, why go out and beat your head against the wall and try to come up with it yourself?” However, it should be noted that this particular preacher did not begin his sermon every Sunday with the disclaimer that, in fact, he was reading someone else’s sermon.

What was much more interesting to me was the reference in the Wall Street Journal article to another article written by a Vineyard pastor in Cincinnati, Ohio in which the practice of using someone else’s sermons was defended. It is a way for more ministers to be effective, which is more important than being original, the author argued. According to this article the practice is not only widespread, but is the practice and has the approval of some of the most famous preachers in the world.

Actually, I don’t mind if a pastor uses another preacher’s sermon so long as he says that he is doing so. Most of these ministers – apparently virtually all of them – do not tell their congregations that they are preaching someone else’s sermon or inform them that the exciting adventure on their white-water rafting trip – the story that was the climax of the sermon – actually happened not to them but to someone else. Let the ministerial candidate say in his interview that if and when he becomes the pastor of the church he intends mostly to preach other men’s sermons that he will take from the internet or buy from a web sermon supply service. If the congregation agrees to call him under those terms, they are in the same position as Reformed churches in rural areas without ministers used to be whose elders on Sunday morning would read a sermon from an anthology of sermons approved for use by the Presbytery or denomination. Let the pastor enter his pulpit and say to his congregation, “I will now deliver to you the sermon that such and such pastor preached in his congregation on such and such a date.” Fact is, preachers know very well that this is not what their congregations expect of them nor is it what they imagine they are receiving of a Sunday morning. When it is discovered, as the Wall Street Journal article reports, it is viewed as plagiarism, as cheating by the congregation and action follows. Ministers being deceitful, all the more when the deceit serves to bring them more credit than they deserve, is not a good thing and everyone knows it. The fact that it is happening, apparently quite commonly, is evidence that something is rotten in the Christian ministry nowadays.

The bearing of all of this on our subject this evening – the sin of a lack of moral seriousness – is precisely this: no one would do such a thing, deceive a congregation of God’s people from its own pulpit who was reckoning with the Judge of all the Earth, with his ever vigilant inspection of their conduct, with the seriousness with which Christians are summoned to put off falsehood and to be people of the day. A pastor who plagiarizes sermons is a pastor who is nonchalantly assuming that the Almighty won’t notice or won’t care. And that, at the very least, is a very risky assumption given the way the Bible speaks from its beginning to its end. “But effectiveness is the key,” we are told, “and other pastors’ sermons are more effective than my own.” It sounds, does it not, very much like, “Lord, Lord, we cast out demons in your name.” To which, it is supposed, the Lord apparently will reply, “Goodness, I’d forgot that. Well, in that case, what’s a little white lie?”

There are, of course, a thousand other illustrations that I might give of such a lack of moral seriousness, a lack of what used to be called precision. “Precision” was used as a synonym for “Puritan.” Both of these terms – puritan and precisionist – were slurs in the mouths of those who coined the terms – they meant to imply that such people were cross-grained and impossible to please and would never be satisfied until everyone thought and acted precisely as they thought right. They were over strict and, therefore, inevitably judgmental and divisive. That is the way the term is still widely used. When people nowadays speak of the Puritans who settled New England after 1620 they very often tar them with this brush: heartless, strict, loveless, dictatorial, narrow people who made life difficult for everyone. “As a class [the Puritans] have been made the victims of no end of caricature and misrepresentation.” [Macleod, Scottish Theology, 6]And, to be sure, we are honest enough to admit that there were such cross-grained and loveless folk among the Puritans and have always been some among their descendants. But, by and large in the early generations and always among the best of them and their descendants, the term Puritan or Precisionist meant simply that they were people who felt it very important to be right and to do right according to the Word of God. They took God and his Word very seriously.

“I like you and your company very well,” someone told the Puritan Richard Rogers, “but you are so precise.” “Sir,” replied the Essex clergyman, “I serve a precise God.” [Cited in Solberg, Redeem the Time, 63]

The great Dutch Puritan theologian, Gisbertus Voetius – Voetius would be to a Dutch Reformed Christian what John Owen is to an English speaking Reformed Christian – wrote:

“We define precision as the exact or perfect human action conforming to the law of God as taught by God, and genuinely accepted, intended, and desired by believers.” [Cited in Beardslee, Reformed Dogmatics, 317]

The Puritans or Precisionists were well aware of the caricature that was made of them for taking godliness so seriously. Again Voetius:

“The labels of being a precisionist, a zealot, a pigheaded person have always been applied to Christians whenever they have refused to be lukewarm and compromising…. We must not pay much attention when devotion is decried as superstition, soberness as hypocrisy, tenderness of conscience as strictness, puritanicalness, obstinacy, etc., in order to try to make us seem ludicrous.” [Cited in Joel Beeke, “Gisbertus Voetius,” Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, 238]

Their argument was simple and straightforward: salvation and the Christian life are serious matters, appallingly serious, and therefore a Christian ought to desire and intend to do nothing less but what he understands to be the full will of God as revealed in Holy Scripture. Richard Baxter, a representative Puritan, put it this way:

“Seriousness is the very thing wherein consists our sincerity. If thou art not serious thou are not a Christian. It is not only a high degree in Christianity, but the very life and essence of it. As fencers upon a stage differ from soldiers fighting for their lives, so hypocrites differ from serious Christians.” [Practical Works, pb. ed. 46]

Well, the modern Bible-believing church is far from being Puritan or precisionist, though it will still be caricatured as being so simply because it still stands for definite and inflexible principles of right and wrong. The church is not as serious as it ought to be and as it has often been in the past. The specter of divine wrath does not obviously hover over her as it once did, it is hardly ever mentioned in sermons nowadays; the prospect of being brought into judgment is rarely mentioned as well; Christians are, by and large, comfortable and allowed to remain so while living lives little marked by devotion for Christ or zeal for his holiness. And I hope we would all agree that the same is far, far too true of us. We don’t take it nearly as seriously as we should: not the onrush of hell or heaven, not the prospect of our lives being brought into judgment, not the solemn summons to obedience and not the alarming warnings against disobedience addressed to believers that we find times without number in the Bible. We do not have Paul’s remarkable carefulness about his daily Christian life, his vigilance and watchfulness, and his scrupulous about the performance of his duties before God.

But, the fact is, no one can read the Bible with an honest heart and not believe that we are all to be Puritans or Precisionists in the proper and best sense of the terms. None of us is to be careless or indifferent or nonchalant in the manner in which we believe and obey the Word of God. None of us is to fail to take with utmost seriousness the summons and the warnings of the Word of God. Certainly no one will be distracted by little thoughts or careless of the true meaning of things who stands finally at the door of hell. No one will be indifferent to the moment who is next in line to walk up to the judgment seat of Jesus Christ. And yet, we are en route to those very destinations, every one of us, and when we arrive, it will be too late to change the circumstances that we must then face. We live in a day of moral and spiritual levity and indifference but we live in a world of appallingly terrible moral significance. Our culture helps us not at all to take seriously the summons we have been issued by the living God. Hardly anyone feels that he is obliged to make whatever sacrifices may be necessary in his marriage or her home or at work in order to obey the commandments of God. Far too many Christians today are being allowed not to think that if punishing sacrifices are required of them in order to remain obedient to God, then sacrifices there must be. End of story.

In far too many ways and to far too great a degree the description of the contemporary Western church is precisely that “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” [Ps. 36:1; Rom. 3:18] It is a terrible truth about me and it is a terrible truth about you.

We used to say that about liberal churches and Roman Catholic churches, and, I fear, rightly so. Far too much of the time, and in far too many of those congregations they didn’t take the Bible seriously; they didn’t take the threat of divine wrath seriously; they didn’t take the summons to faith and godliness seriously. They didn’t respect the antithesis between God and man, between righteousness and sin, between life and death, and between heaven and hell. And they still don’t. That was and is our complaint against their preaching and their church life. But the culture of those churches has become the culture of our entire society and it is now an influence pouring into and shaping the culture of evangelical, Bible-believing Christendom as well. Believe me, an hour and a half of a seeker-friendly church service once a week is never going to stem the tide of a spiritual carelessness and nonchalance as natural and as encouraged in so many ways in our time as this carelessness and unconcern.

I’ve been reading recently a biography of Jimmy Stewart, the beloved actor and star of such movies as The Philadelphia Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Harvey, and Rear Window. Stewart came from a Presbyterian family, born and raised in rural Pennsylvania. I was immediately interested when I learned he was a Presbyterian all his life. After a lackluster performance in high school, he got into Princeton largely through his father’s Presbyterian connections. He was a bomber pilot in World War II, even a bomber squadron commander, sustained he says in the face of what would otherwise have been paralyzing fear, by a letter his father gave to him before he left for Europe, of which letter these words form a part:

“…but Jim, I am banking on the enclosed copy of the 91st Psalm. The thing that takes the place of fear and worry is the promise of these words. I feel sure that God will lead you through this mad experience… I can say no more. I only continue to pray. Good-by, my dear. God bless you and keep you. I love you more than I can tell you.” [Cited in Marc Eliot, Jimmy Stewart, 183]

He would later tell Guideposts, the magazine, if you remember, published by Norman Vincent Peale, “I knew that [God] would be with me. In this world or the next.” [188] One hopes, of course, after reading such things, that the rest of the story will confirm that Jimmy Stewart was a man of genuine Christian faith. There is evidence on both sides, though certainly much less than one could wish for. He was later quoted as saying that although he was still religious, he no longer felt the need to attend services every Sunday, a remark that brought an immediate and concerned phone call from his father. [231] On the other hand, when in his 40s he proposed to a divorcee, he and his fiancé went before the committee on marriage and divorce of the Presbytery of Los Angeles which, after a review of the facts, concluded that a Presbyterian minister would be guilty of no impropriety should he officiate at the ceremony. They were married in a twelve minute service at the Brentwood Presbyterian Church. According to his biographer this was more for Jimmy’s parents than for himself or his bride.

On one occasion his father was visiting Hollywood from Pennsylvania and on Sunday morning got up and asked, “Where’s the church?” Jimmy recounts, “He could only mean the Presbyterian church, of course. I stalled, saying, ‘It’s a long way over that direction. I – I haven’t exactly located it yet.’ He left the house with purposeful step. Two hours later, he returned, trailing four men behind him. They entered the living room, and Dad said briskly, ‘I guess you didn’t search in the right direction, Jim. The church is two blocks to the north.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, unable to think of any other reply.’ ‘These gentlemen are the elders,’ Dad continued. ‘And they told me they are having difficulty raising funds for a new church building they need. I told them I had a son who is a movie actor and making a lot of money and might be willing to discuss their problem with them.’ Thereupon, Dad marched out of the room, leaving the embarrassed elders and me facing each other. We did discuss the problem, and I joined the fund drive; and I joined the church.’” [286] His wife eventually taught Sunday School in the Presbyterian Church in Beverly Hills and her boys sang in the choir. When Gary Cooper lay dying in 1961 Jimmy Stewart sat with him in his hospital room nearly every day and all day, reading the Bible to him and listening to music. [342]

Did you remember that Jimmy Stewart lost one of his two step-sons in combat in Vietnam, a young marine named Ronald. He was killed by machine gun fire in an ambush along the DMZ. Celebrity though he was, the news came to Jimmy Stewart and his wife the same way it came to thousands of other parents: a knock on the door, marines in dress blue standing on the doorstep, and the awful words, “We regret to inform you…”

The funeral was held at the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church and there was a terrible mix-up. For some reason, no one was there who was able to unlock the massive organ and the service had to take place without musical accompaniment. Stewart’s grief and anger lingered on this failure on the part of the church for months until he began attending services alone – his wife quit going to church altogether after the funeral – at another church, the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. [368] I gave you all of that background because I wanted to evoke your admiration and sympathy for the man while, at the same time, to raise in your mind precisely the question we are taking up tonight: the measure of a person’s moral and spiritual seriousness.

No one can judge another man’s heart, but there is enough of Stewart’s own words in the biography and enough account of his actions to give a fair summary. And that summary is that what we have here is an excellent illustration of a man who doesn’t take seriously the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, and the summons to submit his life to God. He was a man upon whom the obligations of faith and godliness obviously rested far too lightly. He went to church, he spoke in religious terms some of the time, he showed some deference to the church’s authority, he was married in a church, but nothing about his life, and certainly nothing about his public life, was plainly defined by the religion he claimed to espouse or by loyalty to the Savior he ostensibly worshipped on Sunday. Okay, we have seen that often enough. There is nothing surprising about that. It is the condition of vast multitudes of people who would say that they were religious and mean by it that they were Christians.

But I want to sharpen the point by drawing attention to the offense taken at the church for messing up the funeral. The church should have done better. No doubt about it. But in this day and age we are much more likely to excuse someone taking offense over something like that. We are far more sympathetic to individuals than to institutions. And in our non-judgmental day it strikes us as impossibly harsh to condemn a man for anything he does when overcome by grief. It was his son, a much-loved son – Jimmy was somewhat estranged from his other step-son but he adored Ronald and was immensely proud of him – and he had died suddenly as a young man. The father was understandably distraught. But it is just for that reason that this makes such a good illustration of our problem, our terrible, our ruinous problem of a lack of moral and spiritual seriousness.

There is no excuse for taking offense at a locked organ and a messed up funeral service. None! None whatsoever! Never! Not if heaven and hell are real places. Not if our Savior suffered and died for our sins on the cross. Not if he is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Not if we have been summoned to submit our lives absolutely and without qualification to him as our Lord and Master. Not if bearing sorrows and offenses with Christian grace is precisely what we are summoned to do in imitation of our God and Savior. Not if to whom much is given much is required. Not if a man must give up wives and children in order to be Christ’s disciple.

I chose an example that tugs at the heartstrings precisely to make this point as strongly as I can. This world is hurtling to doom and so is everyone on it who is not the follower of Jesus Christ. Many think themselves to be his followers who are not. And what, more than anything else, distinguishes the true from the false, the genuine from the fake, is the seriousness with which a man or woman embraces the truth of God and the summons of God. Nothing, nothing whatever must stand in the way of that faithfulness and that obedience our Savior has summoned us to render to him, that our Savior absolutely deserves that we should give him, and that it is perfectly right that we should give him.

God! Fight we not within a cursed world,
Whose very air teams thick with leagued fiends –
Each word we speak has infinite effects –
Each soul we pass must go to heaven or hell –
And this our one chance through eternity
To drop and die, like dead leaves in the break…
Be earnest, earnest, earnest; mad if thou wilt:
Do what thou dost as if the stake were heaven,
And that thy last deed ere the judgment day.

That is right. That seriousness is the only possible proper response to the Word of God. The lack of it in our attitudes, words, and deeds – we who know of God, of Christ’s atonement, of the Law of God, of the Christian life, of the deceits of the Evil One, of our own unreliable hearts, of the last judgment, and of Heaven and Hell – I say the lack of this terrible seriousness is the index of how sinful we remain and how far removed we remain from the life of Jesus Christ himself. For if there is anything that characterized him it was his terrible seriousness, his refusal to be distracted from the moral meaning of everything, and the eternal destiny of everyone. Until we are like him we have much forgiveness to ask for and much grace to seek from the Holy Spirit and much work to do. Let none of us imagine that he or she has arrived as a Christian until we are as serious as the wonderful and terrible facts of human life and the love and holiness of God ought to make us.