Sin separates. Sin divides what should be united. We know that sin isolates men from the holy God. Sin drives a wedge between friends. The good news declares that Christ reconciles. He unites all things together.
These are the grand canyons of separation, but there are also more subtle splits that sin cracks in the sidewalk. Sin makes enemies out of friends. It also fences off arguments from each other that should be back to back fighting as partners.
For example, sin severs a man’s confession from his conduct. It breaks up what should be joined together. Sin even defends itself by justifying the superiority of one or the other. All works based religions count behavior more important than belief (though that itself is a belief). Many professing believers of the gospel act as if behavior doesn’t matter. But how do we know what we believe? James wrote, “Show me your faith apart from your works (you can’t), and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18, ESV).
For a more specific example, when we confess our sin as a church, we invite believers to kneel. The symbol/ritual of kneeling can’t make anyone humble by itself. It actually can be worse than a worthless formality, it can make someone guilty of hypocrisy. Others are truly humble in heart and yet physically incapable of kneeling. So why bother? What good does that do?
Idolators kneel. Hypocrites kneel. Ignorant men kneel. And humble men kneel. The external ritual can be separated from the truth in at least four ways: 1) by kneeling to the wrong god, 2) by kneeling to show off, 3) by kneeling for who knows why, and 4) by not kneeling at all. But just because there are many ways to divide the symbol from the substance doesn’t mean every emblem is empty.
We are continuing to ask God to make us like Christ, to unite us inside and out. We are continuing to learn what heart pleases God and the appropriate liturgy that matches the heart. We are continuing to confess our sins that separate what should be united.
Last week marked the passing of 41 years since Roe v. Wade when the Supreme Court of the United States legalized the murder of children in womb. We usually reserve the term anniversary for events worth remembering and celebrating. Wednesday was an anniversary that requires remembering and mourning almost 55 million deaths.
If you faint in the day of adversity,
your strength is small.
Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
and will he not repay man according to his work?
(Proverbs 24:10–12, ESV)
His urging, commanding, and warning applies to more than abortion but not less. We bear national guilt and we will not be able to tell God, “We didn’t know what was happening.”
If God continues to give us over to our lusts we will not be satisfied killing kids to honor “choice.” We will kill kids and call it compassion. This is already happening in Belgium. The Upper House approved a “bill [that] allows minors to ask for euthanasia on the grounds that their illness is terminal, that they are in great pain and that there is no treatment to alleviate their distress.” In his article, Shouldn’t They Know Better, John Knight wrote, “There are no age restrictions. Allegedly, the child has to be considered competent to make a decision about killing himself or herself, in addition to the doctors and child’s parents agreeing to it.”
How could a people–government officials, medical professionals, families themselves–get to the point of calling this kind of killing “compassionate”? A culture gets there by killing for convenience. The step before that is disregard or mistreatment of the vulnerable and weak, like our own kids. May God grant grace to turn the hearts of fathers to their children. May He grant sweeping repentance in our own country before it gets worse.
Every Lord’s day morning we set aside specific time in our service to confess our sins. I’m no statistician nor do I listen to the confessions, so I have no data from which to make many conclusions. But what sin would you suppose needs to be confessed by the most people any given Sunday? In other words, what sin is most popular? What sin would you suppose needs to be confessed by any given person most frequently? In other words, what sin is most repeated? And what sin would you suppose needs to be confessed any given Sunday by any given person that is the worst? In other words, what sin does the most damage?
Again, I have no hard facts to support a definitive answer to those questions. However, I suspect that bitterness is a sin that nears the top of all three lists. The author of Hebrews exhorted his readers to “see to it…that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many are defiled” (Hebrews 12:15).
Bitterness corrodes. Bitterness comes from stinging hurts–real or imagined, biting slights–purposeful or perceived, and burning jealously–how unfair for him to get what everyone knows you deserve. Bitterness grows roots in the soil of self-absorption fertilized by the empathy of others. Bitterness is hard to pull up once planted.
Bitterness “springs up and causes trouble.” Misery loves company even if just to make the company miserable. Bitterness lost any sense of proportion and, if the root system has spread, neither smiles nor logic will stem the festering.
By bitterness “many are defiled.” Either that means that many persons are bitterly defiled or many others are defiled by one person’s bitterness. Even though bitterness is often unmovable, it really branches out. It is easy to find reasons to be bitter. Many do, many times. See to it that you nip it in the bud. Confess and repent from any seed no matter how small.
We have many things to confess and God forgives us from them all in Christ. We confess wandering, when we neglect His Word and fail to follow His directions. We confess wickedness, when we know His commands and consciously disobey. We also confess our good works, when we try to please Him with self-produced righteousness.
The writer of Hebrews describes the blood of Christ that secured eternal redemption. Under the old sacrificial system, God used the blood of goats and bulls as part of the purification process. The greater sacrifice was made by Christ. “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience.” But note what soiled our conscience. It wasn’t lies and hatred and envy and thievery and bitterness and gossip. The blood of Christ will “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Dead works are good works done by dead men.
Because of our sin, we need to be saved from our righteousness. Our best, most sacrificial, highest cost acts blacken our consciences apart from Christ. Every deed dead men do is dead. They cannot please God. In fact, they demand God’s judgment. Jesus died for our good works apart from Him, not just our evil ones. Even as believers, we boast in someone else’s righteousness applied to our account and active in our behavior.
Augustus Toplady summarizes it well in his hymn, “Rock of Ages.”
Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
We are at the threshold of a new year, a customary and fitting time to evaluate if we were worshipping any idols over the last twelve months that should be dethroned. Call it resolutions, call it repentance, we should examine if we are seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
Many new year pledges seek to unseat the gods of gluttony and lethargy. So many July garage sales will be stocked with treadmills and stationary bikes onto which so many January hopes were placed. And, if you have been laying around like the cows of Bashan that the prophet Amos addressed, then you probably should trim the fat, sure. Let’s just not get carried away considering where the cow came from.
Paul addressed some Roman Christians who were divided over food, over what was clean and unclean. They were concerned whether they were eating food offered under the shadows of altars to false gods. We have taken on a similar concern in our culture. We want our food (coffee) grown under shadows, and we didn’t even have to cut down or carve the tree into an alter or totem pole first. How convenient for us, and how pleased Terra Godessa is with us.
But Paul said, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). This isn’t to say that eating and drinking, what or when or how, is amoral; we can glorify God in it or not, just as in whatever we do. But we glorify God or not based on what is in our heart, not based on what we put in our mouths.
So whether you need to cut down on the sweets or drink more wine or take a couple laps around your neighborhood or whatever you repent from and resolve to pursue, do it for righteousness more than your waste line. Do it for peace’s sake, not because you’re ashamed of harvesting practices. Do it for joy, because that will show whether your new year plans pursue His kingdom or yours.
In The Pilgrim’s Progress, not long after having his burden removed, Christian arrived at the Interpreter’s house. While showing Christian around the house, Interpreter introduced him to two little brothers named Passion and Patience. Passion was all a’fuss while Patience was calm, content. Christian asked for an explanation.
Interpreter told Christian that both boys had been promised gifts by their Governor at the beginning of the next year. That was not good enough for Passion who demanded all that was coming to him now. Christian saw treasures brought to Passion and Passion laughing at Patience’s lack until all Passion’s valuables turned to tatters. Of course they would.
Christian came to understand:
Now I see that Patience has the best wisdom, and that upon many accounts. 1. Because he stays for the best things. 2. And also because he will have the glory of his, when the other had nothing but rags.
In our on demand world we want our inheritance before our parents have invested, we want our generations to grow up before they can tie their own shoes. But we can’t exhume a corn kernel two days after seeding and expect to eat off the cob. Plant. Weed. Wait. God loves our faith, our abiding dependence on Him, our persistent and patient praying. He has greater gratification in mind, eternal glory, and that won’t come overnight.
I hate Christmas for a different reason than I used to. I used to hate Christmas when I thought I was more of a saint. Now I hate it because I know how much more I am a sinner.
Christmas used to provide a great platform for my self-righteousness. My strong seasonal humbug spiced up my holiness. Obviously, I was so serious about Jesus that I couldn’t be dragged down into the fray of shopping and sweaters and wassail. I worshipped Jesus better by not getting involved.
I realize now that my “worship” was mostly defined by how I wasn’t like “those” people. Yet many of those people went down from the outlet mall more sanctified than me. Not all of them. An idolator will use any reason to worship his idol, even if that reason is named Jesus. I hated Christmas because people abused it. But I threw the Baby out with the busted LED lights.
I hate Christmas now because it exposes the atrophy of my celebration muscles. I can’t lift much true cheer even though the burden is light. I realize, of course, that this means I don’t really hate Christmas, but Christmas does cause me to hate my sin more. I am not like Christ. I do not naturally give myself away, serve from love, or laugh when it’s hard. I prefer to stay away from mess rather than take it on.
That said, Christmas is JOYFUL because Jesus did come. He took on our weaknesses so that He could fill us with His joy. As we remember that He came we remember why we need Him. We also remember what He gives us: peace, hope, and joy.
Asaph wrote a sad song in Psalm 81, though not every verse sounds sorrowful. He ended by noting the kinds of things the Lord would do: “he would feed you with the finest of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (verse 16). The Lord provides. He also protects. “I would soon subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes” (verse 14). These sound fantastic. What is the basis for God’s people to believe these great promises?
The first half of the song works through a short account of Israel’s exodus. “I relieved your shoulder of the burden” (verse 6), “in distress you called, and I delivered you” (verse 7). So, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide and I will fill it” (verse 10). So far, this all sounds great. Why say that the song is sad?
The Lord continues. “But my people did not listen to my voice. Oh that my people would listen to me” (verse 11). They didn’t, and the Lord said, “So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels” (verse 12). Maybe the most dreadful thing in the world is for God to give us what we think we want while we disregard Him.
For Christians, God delivered us from a greater slavery, from slavery to sin and the wages of eternal death. He has given us not only great promises, but also personal copies of His counsel to read and He sent His Spirit to illuminate the truths of His Word. He decreed generations of His faithfulness for us to survey. Are we paying attention? Are we appreciating our advantages? Are we hearing and obeying? He would satisfy us with honey if we would listen to this sad song and walk in His ways.
Why bother with righteousness? Why do we desire it and why are we as believers dissatisfied without it?
Loving righteousness and sensing the lack of it is not natural, that is, the flesh isn’t motivating us. Even if we could see moral beauty, we still wouldn’t want it. We have no innate desire for or ability to do righteousness.
Wanting righteousness and mourning the lack of it doesn’t even come from Scripture. God’s Word reveals the standard of righteousness, it illustrates it, and it promises blessings or judgments according to man’s relationship to it. But the Bible by itself has never made any man righteous. In fact, the law makes men more unrighteous by stirring up new desires for disobediences.
The only way to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to pursue it, and to enjoy it is by God’s Spirit. The Spirit does more than give better definitions of right. He does more than make the case against our wrongs. He convicts us and then changes our affections so that we want holiness.
God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3–4, ESV)
The Spirit is the only one who can make our prayers of confession meaningful. He is the only one who can get down into our hearts and work His way out through our prayers and decisions. This is part of the advantage for us in Jesus’ ascension: He sent the Helper to convict the world (John 16:8). Our dependence on the Third Person’s help to acknowledge our sin is part of our worship of the Triune God.
It is extremely difficult not to take on the worldview of the world around us. Not only do we live in the world, we used to be of the world, and the gravitational pull of some orbits are hard to break. As Christians we are being transformed by the renewing of our minds and this is part of the reason why our worship is so important. It gets our heads out of this world.
Take, for instance, the matter of authority. God made the world the way He did and He arranged it so that some men have authority over other men. God defines the idea of authority and He created the relational spheres where authority belongs. Those who want everyone to be equal everywhere–a common lust in our culture–fight against the authority of God Himself who made a different system than the one they wanted. These levelers are actually idolators, wanting a different god.
It is, however, possible to love authority because God said it and still be a practical idolator. We are reflections of God, so if we do not bear authority in the way He does than we bear the image of some other god, maybe Zeus, or Jupiter if you prefer Latin, Odin, Thor, or maybe just the idea of being the “boss.”
Jesus said that the Gentiles, those who don’t know God, lord their authority over men (Matthew 20:25-28). Solomon wrote about those who have power over other men to their hurt (Ecclesiastes 8:9). Authority embodied (in Jesus) said it should not be so among us. True authority takes responsibility and gives service rather than taking service and giving responsibility. We are guilty when we deny authority by our politics and by our practices. We must continue to be remade in our worldview as we see the Beloved Son love us into something better.