There is grave reason to believe that much Bible reading and Bible study of the last few years has been of no spiritual profit to those who engaged in it. Yea, we go further; we greatly fear that in many instances it has proved a curse rather than a blessing. This is strong language, we are well aware, yet no stronger than the case calls for.
Divine gifts may be misused, and Divine mercies abused. That this has been so in the present instance is evident by the fruits produced. Even the natural man may (and often does) take up the study of the Scriptures with the same enthusiasm and pleasure as he might of the sciences. Where this is the case, his store of knowledge is increased, and so also is his pride. Like a chemist engaged in making interesting experiments, the intellectual searcher of the Word is quite elated when he makes some discovery in it; but the joy of the latter is no more spiritual than would be that of the former. So, too, just as the successes of the chemist generally increase his sense of self-importance and cause him to look with disdain upon others more ignorant than himself, such, alas, is often the case with those who have investigated the subjects of Bible numerics, typology, prophecy, etc.
The Word of God may be taken up from various motives. Some read it to satisfy their literary pride. In certain circles it has become both the respectable and popular thing to obtain a general acquaintance with the contents of the Bible, simply because it is regarded as an educational defect to be ignorant thereof. Some read it to satisfy their sense of curiosity, as they might any other book of note.
Holiness has too often been embroiled in confusion and distortion within the Christian community and, sadly, ends up being neglected rather than cultivated within the church. This is especially true in times, like our own, when the gospel becomes more ‘me-focused’ than ‘God-focused’.
Holiness is the great goal of Christ’s saving mission. According to Paul, his purpose in redemption was ‘to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good’ (Tit 2.14). The author of Hebrews urges his readers to ‘pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord’ (He 12.14 [NRSV]. And Jesus himself states it even more bluntly with the words, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt 6.48).
Holiness matters. And it matters far more than we are willing to admit. We may be quite happy to engage in argument and debate over the meaning of the concept in Scripture, but make little effort to fight the inward battles involved in the pursuit of holiness in our daily lives.
This struck me recently while reading Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Summing up the main thrust of his letter, he tells them,
Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord to do this more and more (1Th 4.1) [NIV – italics added].
He goes on from there to walk them through some of the glaring failures that were literally a blot on the landscape of the church’s witness in that town and surrounding area. Reminding them that ‘it is God’s will that you should be sanctified’ he goes on to catalogue the list of sexual sins (private as well as public) that were clearly a matter of common knowledge in their wider community. He then says, ‘For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life’ (4.7).
The next season which requires more than commons diligence to keep the heart—is when we receive injuries and abuses from men. Such is the depravity and corruption of man, that one is become as a wolf or a tiger to another. And as men are naturally cruel and oppressive one to another, so the wicked conspire to abuse and wrong the people of God. “The wicked devours the man who is more righteous than he.” Now when we are thus abused and wronged, it is hard to keep the heart from revengeful motions; to make it meekly and quietly commit the cause to Him that judges righteously; to prevent the exercise of any sinful affection. The spirit that is in us lusts to revenge; but it must not be so. We have choice helps in the Gospel to keep our hearts from sinful motions against our enemies, and to sweeten our embittered spirits. Do you ask how a Christian may keep his heart from revengeful motions under the greatest injuries and abuses from men? I reply—When you find your heart begin to be inflamed by revengeful feelings, immediately reflect on the following things:
1. Urge upon your heart the severe prohibitions of revenge contained in the Word of God. However gratifying to your corrupt propensities revenge may be, remember that it is forbidden. Hear the word of God: “Say not, I will recompense evil.” Say not, I will do so to him as he has done to me. “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written—It is mine to avenge; I will repay, says the Lord. On the contrary—If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” It was an argument urged by the Christians to prove their religion to be supernatural and pure—that it forbids revenge, which is so agreeable to nature. Awe your heart, then, with the authority of God in the Scriptures; and when carnal reason says, ‘My enemy deserves to be hated!’ Let conscience reply, ‘But does God deserve to be disobeyed?’ ‘Thus and thus has he done, and so has he wronged me.’ ‘But what has God done that I should wrong him? If my enemy dares boldly to break my peace, shall I be so wicked as to break God’s precept? If he fears not to wrong me, shall not I fear to wrong God?’ Thus let the fear of God restrain and calm your feelings.
The actions of Adam and Eve in the garden after they had sinned tells us much about mankind. When they heard God walking in the garden they hid themselves. Man has been running from God ever since. Like an ostrich buries its head in the sand to hide from the lion so man attempts to ignore God. This strategy does not work out very well for the ostrich and it does not workout very well for mankind.
Man was created to know God. Man was created by God for God. So human life never works as it was meant to work apart from a relationship with God. And sin is to blame for this brokenness. Sin has caused a breach in man’s relationship with God. This ought not be.
The 1689 Confession explains, “To [God] is due from angels and men, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience, as creatures they owe unto the Creator (2.2). The second question of the Baptist Catechism says, “Ought everyone to believe there is a God?” The answer, “Everyone ought to believe their is a God and it is their great sin and folly who do not.” James, the brother of Jesus, made the same point. He taught the simple truth that man ought to acknowledge God in all his affairs when he told man, “You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15).
The Way of Man
Man has a way of simply going about his business without reference to God. He says things like, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such a such a town and spend a year there and trade to make a profit” (James 4:13)
Man pays no regard to God in his daily life. He certainly takes account of many things that he might get to a 24 hour day. He considers the laws that he must obey. He stops the traffic lights and abides by the policies and the company handbook. He takes account of the power he will need to get through the day. He ensures there is fuel for his car, a charger for his phone, and food for his stomach. He pays attention to his friends. He hugs his wife and family, waves to his neighbor, and speaks with his coworkers. But where is his acknowledgement of God? Where is his obedience to God’s law? Where is his dependence upon God power? Where is his enjoyment of God’s friendship?
We check our smartphones about 81,500 times each year, or once every 4.3 minutes of our waking lives.
The impulse is not hard to understand. Our lives are consolidated on our phones: our calendars, our cameras, our pictures, our work, our workouts, our reading, our writing, our credit cards, our maps, our news, our weather, our email, our shopping — all of it can be managed with state-of-the-art apps in powerful little devices we carry everywhere. Even the GPS app on my phone, which guided me to a new coffee shop today, possesses thirty thousand times the processing speed of the seventy-pound onboard navigational computer that guided Apollo 11 to the surface of the moon.
It’s no wonder we habitually grab our phones first thing in the morning, not only to turn off our alarms, but also to check email and social media in a half-conscious state of sleep inertia before our groggy eyes can fully open. If the ever-expanding universe is humankind’s final horizon outward, our phones take us on a limitless voyage inward, and we restart the journey early every morning.
I am no stranger to this instinctive phone grab, but I wanted to see if others shared this pattern, so I surveyed eight thousand Christians about social media routines. More than half of the respondents (54 percent) admitted to checking a smartphone within minutes of waking. When asked whether they were more likely to check email and social media before or after spiritual disciplines on a typical morning, 73 percent said before. This reality is especially concerning if the morning is when we prepare our hearts spiritually for the day.
Perhaps now, more than ever, Christians need wisdom to process the multitude of temptations to sexual sin with which they are confronted. While it is true that sexual sin has always been a problem in the church, there should be little doubt that the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life are a seemingly ubiquitous danger for Christians today.
The Puritans were well-known for their diagnosis of sin. In fact, it might be one of their lasting legacies. Some modern theologians (e.g. see this and this) have continued that pattern of examining the Christian life by seeking to uncover the root issues which lie behind our external sins. Of course, Scripture itself is the main source for uncovering both surface and root issues. Below are several biblical principles by which we may guard ourselves from sexual sin.
1. Sexual sin is idolatry: The Apostle Paul tells us this plainly in Colossians 3:5: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and covetousness, which is idolatry.” That is to say, sexual immorality–whether on a screen or in person–is a replacement god. Nothing should be more appalling and grevious for the sincere Christian, than to turn his or her back on Christ and bow down to another god. That is precisely what we do, however, in idolatry. We de-throne Almighty God and replace him with pornography; or fantasy; or adultery.
2. Sexual sin occurs when we fail to “keep our heart.” Proverbs 4:23-27 provides us with a powerful warning and encouragement to help us keep our hearts pure. “Keep the heart with all vigilance, for from it flows the springs of life” (Prov 4:23). The next verses tell us what that looks like: v 24 watch what you and others say; v 25 watch what you look at; v 26 watch what you think about and vs 27 watch where you go. That is to say, if we are not always keeping guard over our senses, we allow ourselves to become subject to wickedness. We strangle the ministry of the Spirit in our lives (c.f. Prov 4:23 & John 7:37), giving ourselves to impurity, through which the Spirit will never work.
“Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” 2 Corinthians 13:5
The apostle Paul, in writing to the church at Corinth, exhorts the Gentile converts, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves: know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” Although he had confidence in the Corinthians, that they were in general sincere in their belief, and members of the true church of Christ, yet he felt that it was possible that they might be destitute of the faith of the gospel — that they might have been imposing upon themselves, and were the objects of divine displeasure instead of their “life being hid with Christ in God.”
It is a serious thing for the professor of Christianity to reflect on this possibility, but it is on this account the duty of self-examination is urged on him by the highest sanctions.
In endeavoring to explain and enforce this duty, I shall
I. Make some general observations on the subject.
II. Consider the end which we ought to have inview in self-examination.
III. Suggest some topics to which our inquiries should be directed in attending to this divine precept.
“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” Luke 9:23-24
Consider: self-seeking is self-destroying, and self-denial is the only way to our safety. We were well when we were in the hands of God [in the Garden of Eden before the Fall] and had no need to care for ourselves. But we were lost as soon as we left Him and turned to ourselves. If God cares for you, [then] Infinite Wisdom cares for you — Whom no enemy is able to overwit or circumvent; Who can foresee all your dangers, and is acquainted with all the ways of your enemies and with all that is necessary to your preservation. But if you be at your own care, you are at the care of fools and short-witted people — [who] are not acquainted with the depths of Satan, the subtleties of men, nor the way of your escape, but may easily be overreached to your undoing! If you are in your own hands, you are in the hands of bad men who, though they have self-love, yet are so blinded by impiety that they will live like self-haters!
And this experience fully manifests in that all sinners are self-destroyers; no enemy could do so much against us as the best of us does against himself. If a man hates himself as bad as the devil hates him, he could show it by no worse a way than sin; nor do himself a greater mischief than by neglecting God and the life to come, and undoing his own soul as the ungodly do. Should you sit down of purpose to study how to do all the hurt to yourselves that you can, and to play the part of your deadliest enemies, I know not what you could do more than is ordinary with ungodly men to do, except to go a little further in the same way.
The words of the text which heads this page are few, short, and soon spoken; but they contain great things. Like those golden sayings, “To me to live is Christ,” “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me,” they are singularly rich and suggestive (Phi 1:21; Gal 2:20).
These three words are the essence and substance of Christianity. If our hearts can really go along with them, it is well with our souls. If not, we may be sure we have yet much to learn.
Let me try to set before my readers in what sense Christ is all, and let me ask them, as they read, to judge themselves honestly, that they may not make shipwreck in the judgment of the Last Day.
I purposely close this volume with a message on this remarkable text. Christ is the mainspring both of doctrinal and practical Christianity. A right knowledge of Christ is essential to a right knowledge of sanctification as well as justification. He that follows after holiness will make no progress unless he gives to Christ His rightful place. I began the volume with a plain statement about sin. Let me end it with an equally plain statement about Christ.
When we talk about the vicarious aspect of the atonement, two rather technical words come up again and again: expiation and propitiation. These words spark all kinds of arguments about which one should be used to translate a particular Greek word, and some versions of the Bible will use one of these words and some will use the other one. I’m often asked to explain the difference between propitiation and expiation. The difficulty is that even though these words are in the Bible, we don’t use them as part of our day-to-day vocabulary, so we aren’t sure exactly what they are communicating in Scripture. We lack reference points in relation to these words.
Expiation and Propitiation
Let’s think about what these words mean, then, beginning with the word expiation. The prefix ex means “out of” or “from,” so expiation has to do with removing something or taking something away. In biblical terms, it has to do with taking away guilt through the payment of a penalty or the offering of an atonement. By contrast, propitiation has to do with the object of the expiation. The prefix pro means “for,” so propitiation brings about a change in God’s attitude, so that He moves from being at enmity with us to being for us. Through the process of propitiation, we are restored into fellowship and favor with Him.