Whatever has happened to sin?
As the world sinks deeper and deeper into the terrible darkness of sin, we, the church seem to be speaking less and less about it. (with some wonderful exceptions of course)
One might wonder how this is possible since the word 'sin' in all its variations (sin, sins, sinner, sinners, sinned) is mentioned in 245 verses in 21 of the New Testament books.
Preachers may think they are speaking clearly on the issue, but from nearly twenty years of prayer ministry experience, working with individuals from many denominational backgrounds, I am far from sure that this is what people are picking up.
In my experience, and in the experience of most people in prayer ministry that I have talked to, the level of wilful sinful behaviour in some categories within the church seems little different from the levels outside the church. We do try to be un-shockable, but sometimes we are shocked at what is going on beneath the well polished surface. I would go as far as to say that sometimes we nearly despair.
Perhaps there is a fear about speaking on sin in strong terms in case one is accused of somehow denying grace, nevertheless, the matter will not go away. Christianity and sin are never to be bed partners. Never.
Please note that I am not referring to Christians who are still broken people and who want nothing more than to be free of their besetting sins. I have been that person. I am that person.
As a ministry we work with the abused, the addicts, the weak, the fatherless etc, almost all coming from within the Body of Christ. These are people crying out to God to be free from sin's degrading compulsion.
You will never read of Jesus being anything other than kindness itself to such people. People who agree with God on what is right and what is wrong and desire to do what is right, but so often fail to do so. The Apostle Paul had such struggles and so do we. He wrote of the conflict within. He agreed with and wanted to do what God wanted, but so often failed. He hated sin but so often found himself doing what he did not want to do. Listen to his pain as he describes the reality of the battle.
Nor will you read of Jesus distancing Himself from the unsaved sinners. He was known as the friend of sinners. He was accused of being a glutton and a drunk for associating with such people. He was looked down upon for talking to an immoral woman. He came to save them.
I am talking about people who have heard what God has said and yet have chosen to say no.
I am talking about people who call themselves Christian, thus taking God's Name upon their lives and thus being ambassadors for Him, and wilfully deliberately and continually choosing unrighteousness for personal gain, personal satisfaction or ungodly control. I am talking about people who have made friends with secret sin. Sometimes even making friends quite openly with sin. Please note that I have said 'people who call themselves Christian'. There is no shortage of people who attend church, calling themselves Christian, who deliberately, habitually and wilfully sin thus bringing public disgrace to the Name that they openly profess as their Lord. To such, scripture holds out only wrath.
As the writer of Hebrews said,
Sometimes however, as Christians, we can fool ourselves, ease our conscience and think we are fooling God by saying "I can't help it" Many a Christian man engrossed in Internet pornography has claimed such.
Way back at a 'Together for the Kingdom' week in 1992 I heard conference speaker Terry Virgo tell this story from his own church. He said that a speaker came to the church who was gifted in words of knowledge and on the Friday evening the church members were challenged and blessed by his gifting. However privately he said to Terry Virgo that the Lord had showed him there was a man in the congregation who was continually committing adultery. Terry confirmed that this was indeed so. The man asked to be taken to this man's house since he believed he had a word for him. When the two men arrived at the home in question the man confirmed that he was indeed a serial adulterer but declared sorrowfully that the pull of sexual sin was too strong for him. He had his arm around his long suffering wife and told the men that his wife was wonderfully forgiving.
The man then informed him that he had a word from the Lord for him.
Now some might question whether this word was from the Lord. I don't know. But, probably aware of Ananias and Sapphira's deliberate sin and its consequences as recorded in Acts 5, when 'great fear came upon all the church', Terry Virgo said that the man never did it again. The sin was indeed resistible, though sadly it took the fear of the Lord to break it's hold on the man.
I remember telling this story at a men's weekend. Suddenly a man in the front row got up, and as I thought, 'stormed out' I presumed I had offended him in some way. But I was wrong. Several years later a Pastor who was there asked me if I could recall that man walking out of the meeting, and I assured him that I could. He said that Terry Virgo's story had finally 'done the trick' This man was exactly like the sinning man in the story and nothing the Pastor had done to date would stop him. He left the meeting to find a phone. He phoned his wife and said that he would never be unfaithful again, and then phoned his current mistress and ended his relationship. He went on to become a good and Godly man and was now one of the trusted pillars in the church.
The idea here is that before we protest we can't stop sinning we need to check our hearts. Have we put our God given, Holy Spirit empowered will behind the resisting or just a token effort?
The writer of Hebrews summed it well when he wrote,
Once we make friends with sin it will stay. Jesus sets us free from our enemies, not our friends.
Sin is not harmful because it is forbidden. It is forbidden because it is harmful.
I often quote French philosopher and writer Voltaire where he said. "If Christians want us to believe in a Redeemer, let them act redeemed " because what he said is what the watching world thinks.
The world's dramatically dipping standards of immoral behaviour is now becoming so normal in our Christian culture that many leaders are fearful of speaking directly into the issues because many might leave the church. Yet again and again Jesus said that if we loved Him we would show it by our obedience to Him.
The Old Testament shows repeatedly that God made a justice distinction between unintentional sins and deliberate, premeditated, (intentional) sins. With much more severe judgment on the one who deliberately chose sin. For instance, read Numbers 15: 27 & 30
We are no longer under the Old Testament law (thank you Lord!) but it demonstrates that God sees unintentional sin and deliberate wilful intentional sin as being different. (all good fathers do the same)
When it comes to New Testament chastisement, He still makes a difference. Listen to the words of Jesus..
No one has, or does or ever will love us as much as Jesus. However, when speaking to the churches at the close of scripture - while encouraging weak hands and stirring up faith - He rebuked wilful sinful behaviour.
Listen to Him rebuke the church at Laodicea. A church that thought it was in good standing and on the surface it probably did look as if it was in good standing, but underneath it was full of shameful behaviour which they were comfortable with, and couldn't see a problem. The culture of the world had thoroughly intermixed with the culture of the Kingdom of God.
Everything Jesus said and did came from a heart of love. The Father's love revealed through Him. Mostly tender love. Sometimes tough love. His rod and His staff. Both used to draw us or drive us - as the great Shepherd of the flock - safely 'into Him' as a fortress, a shield, a refuge and a place of strength and liberty. A place of salvation.
A family man I spoke with many years ago - a man then regarded as a pillar in the church - confided that he was wilfully sinning in gross immorality almost every day of his life. When I asked him what Jesus might think of this he replied "Thank God for His grace" He had no intention of giving up his sinful lifestyle, his only fear was being caught!
The grace of God must be held in balance with the government of God. Repentance - true repentance - reveals His mercy and His grace. Wilful, prolonged, deliberate, unrepentant rebellion against His government does not.
Did Jesus intend us to take His words seriously, or merely smile knowingly and carry on?
Maybe it is right to look at the whole issue of 'sin' and this next story might help illustrate how many people think about God and sin.
A lovely man, a genuine enquirer, recently invited my wife and myself to dinner at his home in order to have some of his troubling questions answered. He had been a church goer for many years and had sat under many many hours of preaching.
One question was this.
"What sin could be so bad, so heinous, that a loving and merciful God would not let the person who committed it into heaven?"
That question was easy, but the answer perhaps unexpected.
"Have you ever told a lie?" I asked.
"I certainly have" the man said.
"Then that's enough" I replied.
I remember flying into Dallas Texas shortly after the terrible events of nine-eleven in New York. You can imagine what the security was like (and still is)
My hand luggage was screened and cleared, but then to my surprise I ‘beeped’ as I passed through the electronic doorway.
Immediately I was called over for a more detailed search.
The guard did his job well and asked me to pass through the screening doorway once more, but still I ‘beeped’ He checked my shoes, pockets and under my collar.
But still I ‘beeped’ Now a much more detailed search.
I was not getting into the USA until I was declared completely clean!
Eventually we found the offending matter. A tiny, really tiny, piece of silver foil from a headache pack was lying at the bottom of the breast pocket of my tee-shirt. I could hardly believe that something so small, so hidden, could bar me from entry to the (then) richest country in the world.
After all, I was 'a good person'.
Good person, please listen.
Eternity is a real, and heaven and hell are real places. Jesus said so.
If you have, or have had, even one tiny sin in your life you will not gain entry into God’s House. Into Heaven.
If God were to let you in with your one tiny well hidden sin, then He would have to allow in the next person with just a tiny little bit more. And so on.
No sin will enter heaven. It is clean and undefiled by sin and will forever stay that way.
There is one way into Heaven and one way only. Someone acceptable to God, someone sinless, must willingly take ownership of your sins and mine and take upon Himself the full weight of the judgement and the punishment that by rights is yours and mine, and yours and mine alone.
That gives us our glorious worth, and gives sin its hideous worth. The two must be separated out.
That someone is of course Jesus, the Lamb of God. Without the shedding of His Blood there is no remission for your sins.
If we do not accept God’s one and only solution, then we stay, for ever, for eternity, outside heaven.
No room for pride or self righteousness there at all. No loopholes. And contrary to what I recently heard one teacher proclaim on a podcast, there are no back doors that Jesus is sneaking people into heaven through.
Repentance is a word rarely used. Jesus made it simple to understand. Teaching on sin He told His listeners
He did not cloud the issue with human mercy as we are so liable to do. He insisted that we take sin seriously, so He couched it in very serious language (in this case hyperbole - intentional overstatement to make a point)
Repent means to turn around from every sinful and rebellious area of your life.
That includes turning around from being your own god, from being 'lord' of your own life, to acknowledging the One who sacrificed His life willingly for you as the Lord of your life.
That’s it. Simple, available and instant.You die in Christ, so that He can live in you.
You identify with His death. In position you were crucified with Him. The old man is dead. Put him off. He stinks.
You identify with His resurrection. The risen Christ within you. In position you are a new man with the fragrance of Christ upon your life.
This is what adult baptism by immersion proclaims. The old man goes under and the new man comes up.
Paul never tired of proclaiming this to the church.
Salvation changes everything. In position (the most important part) all things are instantly new.
In experience (the outworking of our salvation) we work willingly with the Spirit of God - the Spirit of Holiness - to become more and more like Christ. Indeed just 23 verses later in the same letter to the church Paul speaks of this outworking with great clarity.
Yes, salvation changes everything.
But note. Salvation is not an intellectual accent to certain doctrines or a formula of "raising your hand" or "filling in a commitment card" or "saying the sinner's prayer". Such things are never mentioned in scripture. If that were the case then churches would be overflowing with saved people. According to Christian pollster George Barna, less than 10% of Americans live their lives like Biblical Christians yet apparently some 60% have at some stage in their lives, said a salvation prayer.
The New Testament speaks clearly again and again and again and again about the need for repentance from sin. In all its variations (repent, repentance, repented ) it is mentioned in 52 New Testament verses. (all emphasis mine in this sample)
Indeed the early church believed that repentance evidenced by baptism was the means of salvation.
To repent you must 'see' (be painfully aware) of your sinful standing before a Holy God. If we fail to preach or teach this, then we fail God and we fail people.
The Kingdom principle is that forgiveness follows genuine repentance. Between God and man or between man and man
However we must never forget that only the Spirit of God can make a man or woman aware of their sinful standing before a Holy God, and the evidence of this conviction is Godly sorrow that then leads to repentance.
We read of King David's Godly sorrow in the great repentance Psalm 51
It is the goodness of God that by His Spirit He convicts us of our sinful standing. If we despise His goodness, patience and long suffering and still refuse to repent, we choose His wrath instead.
Raising your hand, or filling in a commitment card or saying the sinner's prayer can be real of course, provided it signifies your wholehearted repentance from sin.
In days gone by there was often a 'mercy seat' at the front of the church, so that when a man or woman came under conviction they could respond by going up to the front to sit on the mercy seat, since it represented the anguished cry from their heart.
I responded to an appeal, went forward, knelt at the front of a tent meeting in August 1989 and did business with God from my heart. I forsook my wilful sinful behaviour and turned from being lord of my own life to joyfully submitting to Him as my Lord and my God.
All this after ten years of weekly church attendance, where to my best remembrance, I never once heard a clear call to repent or perish.
John the baptist baptised on confession of sins, and spoke of bearing fruits that confirmed the repentance.
The Apostle Paul declared the same to the Jews and the Gentiles.
If there has been genuine Holy Spirit inspired repentance there should 'naturally' be Holy Spirt produced fruit.
The fruit of repentance is the ongoing submission to Jesus, and the ongoing repentant lifestyle.
Why the repentant lifestyle?
Because before salvation the Holy Spirit convicts a person of 'sin', whereas in the relationship with God that follows their conversion He convicts them of their 'sins', and as they confess and repent of these sins the sanctifying process takes place.
And the battle with sin is never ending. At least never ending until we die. We war continually against the flesh's inherently sinful nature.
Only the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit can give us victory over sin and so we must, for our part be careful to walk in the Spirit so that we will not fulfil the lusts of the flesh (Galatians 5:19)
That is why we are commanded to 'be filled with the Spirit' (Ephesians 5:18)
When a man or woman have settled their heart half in the world and half in the Kingdom of God there is no Holy Spirit power to break the power of sin. Where a man or woman live wholeheartedly 'in Christ' that power is available to them. Under the law that inner divine power was not available, but under the New Covenant of grace, it is.
If this process of an obedient heart and Holy Spirit empowerment is not taking place the result is a carnal church.
It is well said that at conversion we are free from the penalty of sin, when filled with the Holy Spirit we free from the power of sin, and when in Heaven we are free from the presence of sin.
Many have been lulled into false ease by either thinking that God is not that bothered about sin once a person is converted, or at the other end of the wrong assumption, expecting God to zap them out of sin, or protect them for sin's influences, but the epistles speak continually of the part that we are expected to play.
Martin Luther began the reformation by nailing his ninety-five thesis to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. The opening sentence spoke of the believer's entire life being one of repentance.
The Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter speaking to believers, use words such as strive and work out and make every effort to emphasise this truth. (emphasis below mine)
The Christian walk is a place of rest in the finished work of Christ, and at the same time an ongoing struggle against the relentless influences of the world the flesh and the devil. We are called to walk through life in contra-flow to the world and it's ways and it's influences. Living in sin is the opposite of living redeemed.
The antidote to sin is the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit and the antidote to the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit is making friends with sin again.
We are called to cast down arguments and bring every thought into captivity, called to resist the devil, called to come out from the world's ways and be separate etc
The apostle Paul warned us about permitting ungodly mixtures in their lives.
Careless, lazy, slothful Christians soon becomes lukewarm, and then make friends with small sins, then bigger sins. They become carnal. They resist the initial gentle conviction of the Holy Spirit and thus grieve Him. Their paths are separating.
If, as Christians, they can sin and there is no conviction from the Holy Spirit they may rightly take that as a danger sign. If they persist in their wilful sinful behaviour and are not rebuked and chastened for it, they may take that as a danger sign. This applies to individuals or the church.
Paul said that even if we let the sun go down on our anger the devil gets a foothold and so the ever prowling devil increasingly gets legal rights and influence into their lives.
Peter said much the same thing. The prowling devil looks for sin in order to latch on to it. Like an army at war we need to be vigilant at all times.
Still the Lord would call a person who has slid into sin to repent, to turn around, and return to Him. Note the word re - turn. A second turning to God after abandoning the first turn around.
Sadly so often such a person is aware that things are not good, but rather than crying out to God, rather than going back spiritually to where they sinned and confessing it and repenting of it, they choose to continue along their sinful path. They have made their choice. They stop going to church. They break fellowship with other Christians because they now feel uncomfortable amongst them, uncomfortable with worship, uncomfortable with preaching and teaching.
They fall in love with the world and its ways again. Christianity becomes a nonsense to their natural senses. After much patience and long-suffering on God's part, eventually they do more than grieve the Spirit. They quench the Spirit. (1 Thessalonians 5:19) They discontinue their Christian faith. They have no oil in their lamps (Matthew 25:1-12)
Jesus made it clear that we can choose to abide (to remain) in Him, or detach from Him. One brings fruitful life. The other brings spiritual death.
I have met and talked with such people. People who chose not to live a repentant lifestyle. People who repented once, were proclaimed as 'saved' and for a while lived a God honouring lifestyle. Then 'the novelty of Christianity' wore off and they gradually, willingly, retraced their steps back to their old sins. Despite the words of Jesus that loving Him equates to obeying Him, they still - if graciously confronted - claim to love God.
Such a person will often comfort themselves with words such as 'but the Lord knows my heart'
Indeed He does. Hence the need for the work of the cross, for the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.. (Jeremiah 17:9)
One thing is certain. They have no rightful and reverential fear of God.
By their choice of lifestyle and their actions they show that in effect they have now 'repented' of their Christian walk and re-turned to their old carnal ways. Grace has been trampled on. The cross and the shed Blood of Jesus is now given little value. The sovereignty of God - meaning the government of God - and thus the Lordship of Jesus in their lives is absent from their thinking and their behaviour.
To such the Bible speaks forcefully and clearly.
(Interestingly revival broke out in America on July 8th 1741 when the Rev Jonathan Edwards used this portion of scripture for his famous sermon titled 'Sinner's in the Hands of an angry God')
The apostle Peter - who walked and talked with Jesus for some three years - wrote a similar warning to those who turned back from their walk with Jesus.
The apostle John spoke clearer on this issue than perhaps we would do today, questioning whether such a wilful sinner was a Christian or ever had been a Christian.
The simple truth is this. Wilful sin hardens the heart, while repentance softens the heart.
All of us can be faithless from time to time. No one has a straight line run from salvation to heaven's gates. Along the way we have many questions, at times we are bombarded with doubts, the world, the flesh and the devil ensure that there are many battles with 'faith' The good news is that when we are faithless He is faithful. He declares Himself faithful and He is. We can rest in that.
However, if by whatever means, words or actions, we clearly deny (disown) Him He will not go against our will and thus He will deny (disown us) Paul speaks of this to the church ...
In the final book of the Bible we have the words of Jesus to the church at Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatria, Sardis and Laodicea. The great theme is repentance. They are sobering words. Words of warning. (all emphasis mine)
Sometimes it can help to hear these familiar passages in new words that say the same thing. Here is the last portion in The Message.
And finally back to the the passage we started with. The church that many commentators believe represents today's church era. If it is, then He is speaking to us.
These next words of Jesus - the words that follow this call to be zealous and repent - reveal His willingness to be welcomed back as Lord. If you are in deliberate sin, in deliberate rebellion against the goodness and the government of God, know that it is not too late to deliberately open the door of your heart again. Perhaps, just perhaps, you sense He is knocking gently right now.
That is unmerited mercy. That is unmerited grace.
The apostle John wrote to the church, and we are the church.
Those who love Jesus agree with John. We ought to, and we want to, walk as He walked.
We will never fully achieve that on this side of Heaven, but that is our goal. The deepest desire of our hearts.
We can only advance ever closer to this beautiful goal by living the repentant lifestyle.
And this is what John described as the repentant lifestyle.
God is for us, and proved it by dying for us.
Let us be for God and prove it by living for Him.