This evening we come to the end of our list of sins to be considered in this series. I know that this has not been the most encouraging series of sermons. No doubt some of you feel beaten up and discouraged as I have argued Sunday night after Sunday night and I hope have successively proved to you that you are much more comprehensively a moral failure, and more deeply so, than you have thought. Bad as your outward behavior – and by outward behavior I mean your individual and specific transgressions of thought, word, and deed – bad as your behavior actually is, to acknowledge your failures there is only to scratch the surface of your own sinfulness. Things are much worse even than they appear to the practiced eye of a serious Christian who knows very well in how many ways he disobeys the commandments of God everyday. We have been in this Lord’s Day evening series of studies unmasking our still more fundamental failures, what we might call the sinful structure of our lives. This is discouraging to be sure, but it is altogether necessary, I would say even a very healthy, and paradoxically, a very happy discouragement. If we are unwilling to face the facts about ourselves and our living then we are condemned to live an irreal life. We must think in the nature of the case more highly of ourselves than we ought to think: something the Bible is always telling us not to do. And, still more important, we will never rightly, joyfully, and with a proper wonder and amazement, appreciate the love of God – pitched on such thoroughly unpleasant and undeserving creatures such as ourselves – or the sacrifice of Christ – offered for men and women whom he knew would do so little with a salvation that cost him so much – or for the gift of the Holy Spirit – who willingly makes his residence in hearts as polluted and unappreciative and indifferent to all that God has done for us as ours. Nor will we realize the measure of commitment and the hard work it will require of us – still such comprehensive sinners – to put on holiness in the fear of God, to humble ourselves before the Lord, to love God and our neighbors as we should. Everything wonderful in the Christian heart, in the Christian experience, and in the Christian life depends upon the honest reckoning with one’s own sinfulness. In recommending John Owen, the great Puritan writer, and his works on the Christian life, especially his works on sin and holiness that appear in the 6th and 7th volumes of his collected works, “Rabbi” Duncan, the spiritual genius of 19th century Scottish Presbyterianism, told his readers preparing to read Owen, “Prepare yourself for the scalpel.” [Colloquia Peripatetica, 19] You won’t get to the riches of that encouragement and inspiration without taking some cuts to your pride and self-confidence!
Every Christian should be able to say, certainly should want to say, as Samuel Rutherford said, “When I look at the sinfulness of my own heart, my salvation is to me my Savior’s greatest miracle. He has accomplished nothing like my salvation.” [Cited in Whyte, With Mercy and With Judgment, 245] But people who are satisfied with themselves or only a little dissatisfied will never know that or feel that however much they may repeat the words. It is a privilege to feel such a thing, but it requires an honest reckoning with the full truth of one’s own moral failure.
Nevertheless, I am aware that we can only take so much of this discouragement at one time, however faithful to the facts, however the prerequisite of holy and happy things in our living. So tonight we make an end and consider the last of these most important and most consequential sins. We do not conclude the series tonight, however. In a kind of appendix, I will move on to consider over several Lord’s Day evenings, Paul’s honest reflection on his own sinfulness as we have it in Romans 7:14-25, a passage Alexander Whyte called the most encouraging text in all the Bible. With our sins before us, Paul will teach us what to think about them and what to do with them.
We have so far considered four of these sins, these deeper lying and more structural moral and spiritual failures that are much more the index of our guilt and our corruption than the more immediately detectable acts of disobedience to God. These sins lie below and beneath and prove more profoundly our failure both 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 these sins was worldliness¸ by which I mean the failure to reckon with the unseen world and with unseen reality known to faith in our daily living. 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 was 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 in our daily life: the placing ourselves and keeping ourselves in the center and thinking about everyone and everything in terms of ourselves. Then, last Lord’s Day evening we took up the fourth sin: our lack of moral seriousness. Tonight I want to conclude the list with the sin I will call a failure of confidence in God.
Before taking up that sin, however, let me take note of an interesting and important fact about this list of five sins. Perhaps you noticed it. Four of the five sins are sins of omission, not of commission. They amount to a failure to be and do what is commanded, rather than the doing of what is forbidden. Emphasis falls, as you know, on both dimensions of sin in the Bible. The Ten Commandments for example, with one exception, are in the form of prohibitions: “You shall not…” or “Do not…” Only the 5th commandment – “Honor your father and mother…” is placed in the form of a prescription, a positive rule or direction for our behavior. Obviously, violations of the Ten Commandments, therefore, are with one exception sins of commission, not sins of omission, the doing of what is forbidden.
But when the Ten Commandments are further summarized by the Lord in the two great commandments – to love God and to love our neighbor – both of these take the form of positive rules or directions for our lives and our living. The violations of these most fundamental laws are, therefore, sins of omission, the failure to do what is required. We tend to focus our attention on our sins of commission – I suspect men do this even more than women – on our violations of God’s “Thou shalt nots.” We did something that we were forbidden to do. When we think of holiness we tend to think first of what we ought not to do; what we need to stop doing.
Taking the Scripture as a whole, however, it does appear that sins of omission are the more fundamental and serious of our sins – the failures to embrace our positive calling to be lovers of God and of man. It is clear enough in the Bible that even the prohibitions of God’s law amount, in the final analysis, to failures to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. As you remember, this is the burden of the Lord’s ethical teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Too much can be made of this distinction between sins of omissions and sins of commission, I’m sure, but I find it helpful to think of the fundamental place of omissions in our sinning precisely because I am inclined to think more of my commissions and too little of my omissions. In the Bible righteousness is a very positive ideal: it is not simply the absence of error; it is a life of doing right and it is especially a life of love. Christ’s sinlessness was not first and foremost the absence of bad deeds but his life of good deeds, a life of love for God and man from Bethlehem to Calvary. In the same way, it is very important for us to remember at all times that what God wants from us and what he commands us is not first that we should not do this or that, but that we should love him and love our neighbor as ourselves. It was after all precisely this perspective that the Pharisees had lost and that the church has lost times without number since. Their scrupulous attention to the “Thou shalt nots” hid from their sight the weightier matters of the law and love preeminently. People who imagine that they have reached or nearly reached perfection — and there have been many Christians through the ages who have entertained such nonsense – are invariably thinking about their commissions, not their omissions. If you want to remind yourself how sinful you are and how far short you fall, just ask yourself how many of your neighbors you have who would say, if asked, that you love them as much as you love yourself and then ask yourself to what extent God thinks you love him with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.
In any case, of the five sins we are thinking of in this series, four are sins of omission: worldliness is the failure to bring unseen reality to bear on our daily living; form over freedom is the failure to give our hearts to God; a lack of moral seriousness is, again, not the presence of something so much as the absence of it, and so with tonight’s sin, the lack of real confidence in God. In every case we are not being, not doing what we have been called to be and do. It is the want of the positive, not the presence of the negative. Again, I don’t want to make too much of this, because the Bible certainly lays plenty of stress on our commissions, but I find it helpful to remember this and to concentrate on my omissions as the larger and more consequential part of my sinning. As we said earlier in this series, we may also tactically even strategically discover that we get more help find in dealing with our commissions by attending to our omissions than with anything other strategy we might employ. Putting in what ought to be crowds out and starves and withers what ought not to be.
But now let us turn to our last sin: a lack of living confidence in God and his Word. My text for this evening is 2 Peter 1:3-4:
“His [that is Jesus Christ’s] divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”
Far too many things in that statement to comment on, it is a remarkable statement! But I want to concentrate on this, because of our union with Christ, everything we need for life and godliness is ours for the taking. All we need do, Peter says, is believe his very great and precious promises. If we do, we shall become god-like, specifically Christ-like, and rise above our evil desires which is precisely what every Christian, man or woman, wants most to do in this world.
Perhaps you remember the perceptive comment of C.S. Lewis.
“Our faith is not a matter of our hearing what Christ said long ago and trying to carry it out. The real Son of God is at your side. He is beginning to turn you into the same kind of thing as himself. He is beginning, so to speak, to ‘inject’ his kind of life and thought, his zoé [the Greek word for life and life’s principle], into you; beginning to turn the tin soldier into a live man. The part of you that does not like it is the part that is still tin.” [Mere Christianity, ]
That is the idea, surely, but I am particularly interested in the role played in our transformation by the very great and precious promises and our confidence in their fulfillment. We grow “through them” Peter says, which is shorthand for “we grow by believing in them and living accordingly.” We live by faith. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world. And what is faith?
Well, the best, simplest definition that the Bible gives us, in my view, is found in John 4:50. You remember the scene John records an encounter between Jesus and a royal official who had begged him to come with him to his home that he might heal his son who was close to death. Jesus replied to the royal official’s request, “You may go. Your son will live.” And the text continues, “The man took Jesus at his word and departed.” That is faith: taking the Lord at his Word. The text says literally: “he believed in the word Jesus spoke to him…” but “taking the Lord at his word” is precisely the right idea.
Alexander Whyte once defined faith this way.
“Faith in its most elementary sense, faith in its first and foundation sense, simply means the reliance placed by one man on the truthfulness and power of another. You make a statement of fact to me or give me a promise and offer an assurance and faith is that state of mind in me to you, that state of mind in me which accepts you statement and relies on your promise.” [Sermons: 1881-1882, 68]
Well the Lord has made many promises to us and true faith is first our conviction that those promises will be kept without fail, every single one of them, and second our acting on the strength of that conviction. That is the meaning of faith in Hebrews 11 where once again we are given a definition of this most important biblical word. There we read that faith is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Sure, certain, confident. As the chapter proceeds, it is clear that what we hope for is what God has promised and what we are certain of is that God will keep every one of the promises he has made. And by our confidence in the word of God, in the certain fulfillment of those promises God has made to us, Peter says, we become like Christ and overcome our sinful desires.
And any Christian knows very well, any reader of the Bible knows very well what promises we are talking about:
- Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and it shall be opened to you.
- For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
- This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.
- If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
- Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.
- Those who honor me I will honor.
- There is, therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
- In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
- He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all – how will he not also along with him, graciously give us all things?
- Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law but under grace.
- No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
- I shall never leave you or forsake you.
- Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.
- He who began a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.
- Do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
- I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – and with them persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.
- I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
And on and on and on we could go, enumerating the very great and precious promises of God by which we are to lay claim to everything good and happy in this world and in the world to come. But we have only to provide such a representative list of the very great and precious promises of God to illustrate our problem and our failure. We know – all of us – very well how often our confidence in these promises is weak or absent altogether and how far too little they govern our thinking and our conduct day by day. “I will never leave you or forsake you.” If only we felt that promise and were certain of its fulfillment with the same confidence and conviction that we so feel our troubles and our trials – certain of that promise minute by minute and hour by hour. “He who honors me I will honor.” If only we believed that as completely and as thoroughly as we believed in the deceitful pleasures of sin! We know we’ll get those pleasures (though we forget the deceitful part!) and so we act on our conviction. But our faith in the promise of God’s to honor us when we honor him is weaker.
To be sure, we haven’t been helped ourselves nor have we been helped by other Christians through the frequent mistakes that are made regarding the nature of this confidence in the promises of God or better mistakes made in the nature of the promises themselves. When I came to this Presbytery in the middle of 1978 – it was not PCA then, it was the Northwest Presbytery of the old Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod – the decision to borrow money to buy the church building in Poulsbo for the Liberty Bay congregation had already been made some months before. As some of you will remember, we had no congregation in Poulsbo at the time, not a family, no organizing pastor chosen. There was no core group already meeting as a Bible study and clamoring for us to provide them with a church. But there was an available building that its former congregation was leaving for a bigger place in the area we had been told that that area was soon to become one of the fastest growing areas of the region. And so our little Presbytery, composed of small churches with small benevolence budgets, borrowed almost overnight $300,000, a much larger sum then than now, but large enough even by current standards. And we raised that money easily by selling bonds both locally and across the denomination. The money was raised and the lovely property purchased from its former owners. There were some presbyters who voted “No” when the plan to borrow the money and buy the church was approved. To my shame we thought of those mostly older men as men of little faith. We thought of ourselves as men of faith and vision and, in our view, our plan was nothing more nor less than a proper confidence in the promises of God.
Our expectation was that almost immediately a new congregation would form – the Presbytery men were confident that this church would grow rapidly, far more rapidly than any of our other mission churches had done, because of the attraction of the fine building – would be able to repay the interest on the bonds that had been sold. An organizing pastor was soon called – he arrived shortly before I did – and, to be sure, the church began to grow at an encouraging rate. There were some sixty folk at worship at the end of the first year, which was, in fact, better than we had ever done before.
But from day one we never came close to having adequate revenue to repay our obligations to our bondholders. Imagine yourself an organizing pastor who was trying to attract new people to your church but having to tell them Sunday by Sunday how much they needed to give if the church was repay its immense debt. Because I was a rookie in the Presbytery and couldn’t say “No,” I was assigned to what was then called the Church Extension Committee. We met every month and every month we faced the same question: was the new mission church in Poulsbo going to be able to pay its next installment on its debt? Well the church never did collapse under the weight of its debt. Presbytery took back some of the bonds and undertook to repay them itself, many bondholders graciously consented to exchange interest due them for promissory notes that would pay them much later, and an individual presbyter came to our rescue with a sizeable loan.
But that does not by any means tell the whole story. The personal cost of all this was terrific. A very heavy burden was laid upon some good men who had to communicate to bond holders a constant stream of bad news. It was the Presbytery that had made the decision to borrow and buy, but it was the church and its officers who had to deal with the acutely embarrassing consequences of those decisions. I remember my own embarrassment over this fact at meetings. Time and time again I wondered if these men did not hate us in their hearts for our having made their lives so difficult. And there was one thing still worse: the thing I remember these many years later with the keenest sense of guilt. In the face of our self-inflicted financial crisis there were some bondholders across the denomination who simply gave their bonds back to the church. In effect they gave us their money instead of loaning it to us as we had originally asked them to do. Now that was wonderful and generous of them to do that and I hope the Lord rewarded them greatly for what they did. It is the great advantage of having financial dealing with Christians. We could have been sued for non-payment and instead brethren here and everywhere went out of their way to make it easier for us to deal with a mess we had created by borrowing money we had no way of guaranteeing that we could repay in a timely way. But instead they gave us their money and eased our burden.
But, you see, they hadn’t planned to give us a large gift to help us buy the Liberty Bay Presbyterian church building. They had thought to help us by loaning us some of their money for a time. If we had asked them originally for a gift, they wouldn’t have given it to us. They had their own churches and their own ministries to support. They made a gift of their money and they bought these bonds because they wanted to invest in something that paid dividends for the Kingdom of God. But when they gave their bonds back to us they did so because they felt they didn’t have a choice. We were in a bind, couldn’t repay, and they were Christians who didn’t feel that they could insist on making money from a church in financial trouble. That speaks very well of them, not at all well of us. Without intending it at all, of course – everyone had the best of intentions – in this way we extorted money from the saints. We gave them too many reasons, after the fact, to turn their loan into a gift which they had never originally intended to make.
And why? Because we confused our confidence in our plans with confidence in God’s promises. The Lord, of course, never promised to fund that project and we should never have taken the promises of his Word to mean that he had. And again and again the same thing happens. We take the Lord’s promises in his Word to mean that he will give us this or that, or that our lives will go this way or that and when our hopes are disappointed our confidence in the Lord’s promises weakens still more. Believing is hard enough; disappointment makes it harder still. Why bother counting on a promise when you don’t really think it will be kept? So often this is the debilitating spiritual result of mistaking and misinterpreting the promises of God and most of us in this room who are adults have a lifetime of that in our past and in our spiritual community that bears in upon us and our lives. We give ourselves reasons and more reasons not to be confident in God’s Word.
Of course we would never say straightaway that we don’t believe the promises of God – we are Christians after all – but we don’t think a lot about them and we certainly don’t make the confident expectation of the fulfillment of those promises nearly as much as it ought to be the lynchpin of our daily lives. That want, that lack of active, personal confidence in God’s promises, a confidence that animates our living day by day is the real index of our want, our last of faith.
I don’t know how many times I have discussed this very issue with members of this congregation. You have felt that God did not keep his word to you and that failure to do so has confused you, or embittered you, or shaken your faith. So, I say again, we must read the promises of God correctly and wisely, in their context according to their true meaning in his Holy Word. We must understand them in keeping with the teaching of the Bible. We must not make the mistake of supposing that God has promised to us what he has in fact not promised.
But there can be no doubt that God is concerned that we firmly believe that his promises will be kept and fulfilled. That is what faith is and that’s what faith does. Without that faith as the principle and heartbeat of the Christian life, without that active, daily confidence that God will be true to every one of his promises to us, the Christian life becomes little more than rules; a set of behaviors, however well-meant. That was where the lack of a living, active, personal confidence in the present Lord speaking in his Word left the Pharisees. The Bible is, after all, a record of promises kept. But, we must accept, you and I, that we do not believe as firmly as we should that God will keep his promises, everyone of them. We cannot be Christians and say that God has failed to keep his Word. Whatever may be our difficulties in understanding his ways, we are pledged to believe, and I’m sure we do believe, that the Word of the Lord endures forever. Calvin has a ponderous phrase that catches the though he urges upon the Christian this duty: to presume on the veracity of God. That is what we are to do at every turn: presume on the veracity of God. And we do that when we live each day alive to the certainty that every one of God’s very great and precious promises will come to pass.
I like this from Spurgeon very much:
“It is our ambition to be great believers rather than great thinkers; to be child-like in faith… What the Lord has spoken he is able to make good; and none of his words shall fall to the ground.” [MTP, vol. 36, 304]
It is our ambition, Spurgeon says, to be great believers than to be great thinkers. If you want to be accused of something as a Christian, make it this. That nobody can ever shake your confidence that every one of God’s promises made to you will be kept and fulfilled. All of us know very well how far short we fall of that childlike faith. In the rather florid prose of England in the 18th century, here is the Great Awakening preacher Richard Cecil.
“Children are very early capable of impression. I imprinted on my daughter the idea of faith at a very early age. She was playing one day with a few beads, which seemed to delight her wonderfully. Her whole soul was absorbed in her beads. I said – ‘My dear, you have some pretty beads there.’ ‘Yes, Papa!’ ‘And you seem to be vastly pleased with them.’ ‘Yes, Papa!’ ‘Well, now, throw [them] [into] the fire.’ ‘The tears started into her eyes. She looked earnestly at me, as though she ought to have a reason for such a cruel sacrifice. ‘Well, my dear, do as you please: but you know I never told you to do anything which I did not think would be good for you.’ She looked at me a few moments longer, and then (summoning up all her fortitude…) she dashed them into the fire. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘there let them lie: you shall hear more about them another time; but say no more about them now.’ Some days after, I bought her a box full of larger beads and toys of the same kind. When I returned home, I opened the treasure and set it before her; she burst into tears [of joy]. ‘Those, my child,’ I said, ‘are yours; because you believed me, when I told you it would be better for you to throw those two or three paltry beads into the fire. Now that has brought you this treasure. But now, my dear, remember, as long as you life, what faith is. I did all this to teach you the meaning of faith. You threw your beads away when I bid you, because you had faith in me that I never advised you but for your good. Put the same confidence in God. Believe everything that he says in his Word. Whether you understand it or not, have faith in him that he means your good.” [In The Thought of the Evangelical Leaders, 8]
Well, in ways we have forgotten or but dimly remember the Lord has taught us the same lesson in the same way. Probably most of everything that happens to us in our lives in one way or another is designed to teach us to believe, to have confidence in the promises of God. He has taught us to presume on his veracity, to believe in what he says to us, to trust his word, to take him at his word. One of the delightful features of Marc Mailloux’s book that I mentioned this morning, God Still Loves the French, is that it is a delightful record of God’s faithfulness to one man and to his family. You cannot look at the cross of Christ and not believe that God loves you and wants to your good. You cannot look at the cross and believe that every word of Holy Scripture is untrue and, still more, that every promise that the Lord has so wonderfully made to you will be kept. Every one of those very great and precious promises Paul says is “Yea” and “Amen” in Christ. So whether we can always understand precisely how those promises must come to pass in our lives, we cannot doubt that they will; every one! And if that is so, it must also be true that if we would but exercise a greater and more active personal confidence in what God has promised us, we would much more often, every one of us, see the proof of his faithfulness in our living.
Our heavenly Father and our Savior loves to encourage our faith. If we would but exercise it, I guarantee you he will find striking ways to reward it. Decide what promise it will be among the many for this coming week and exercise your faith in his Word, take him at his Word. And live in the confidence that it must come to pass, and see what the Lord will do for you.
There was a moment of grave danger in the Roman Civil War when Caesar, waiting for reinforcements and fearing they may be afraid to cross the sea to Greece because of Pompey’s superior fleet, decided to cross over in a small boat disguised as a slave to fetch the soldiers himself. There was a storm and the captain wished to turn back. “Have no fear!” Caesar cried, “You are ferrying Caesar and his fortune!” [Meier, Caesar, 390] Well how much more for every one who is a son or a daughter of God and a believer of Jesus Christ. With such promises as God has made to us with Christ with us and for us, we are to say to every doubt, every fear, to every disappointment, to every temptation, “No!” You see Christ before you and you see Christ’s son or Christ’s daughter with him. There can be nothing but victory! The word of the Lord stands forever.