MESSAGE FOR JANUARY 11, 2003
(Sixth in a series of messages on true and false conversion/assurance)
As we have these past few weeks examined this extremely important area of biblical teaching on true and false conversions and assurance of salvation, one of the texts we have repeatedly mentioned is Matthew 7:13 where Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” Jesus tells us that the way that leads to destruction is easy but the way that leads to life--true spiritual life in God is hard. If you were to judge by the way most evangelicals do evangelism today and the great stress much of the church places on making it as easy as possible for people to become so called “Christians,” you might think Jesus had it all wrong. A student of our current evangelical church could easily get the impression that the way that leads to eternal life is easy.
In fact, judging by the predominant evangelical culture, you would be forced to conclude not only that the way to life is easy, but what’s more, there really isn’t a way, a path--there is no process that leads to life, it is merely a one-time decision—a prayer to be prayed. There is no path, no way, no preparation of soul, no brokenness or desperation over your sin. The main character in Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Christian, bore a heavy burden of sin that was horribly debilitating to him and from which he desperately wanted to be free. When he was released from this crushing burden of sin at the cross, it gave him untold relief and moved him to heartfelt worship and a willingness to bear any cross for his Savior, Christ.
Today there are few testimonies from people willing to stand up in church and say they were driven to the cross by the tremendous burden their sin had placed upon them. One reason for this is there is far too often no holy standard of God’s law preached to drive sin-burdened rebels to the cross for cleansing and relief. The back-breaking burden of sin has largely been reduced to little more than a theological footnote that is often left out of gospel presentations altogether. As a result, the cross of Christ today hangs in mid-air, wrenched from any context of guilt or conviction or brokenness over sin. It is no longer presented as a blood-soaked post where the Savior suffered and died to rid us of the burden; it is often now little more than a sentimental rallying point. People are not conscious of the enormity of their sin, so the cross of today, to quote one preacher “heals people lightly.” Jesus said to a Pharisee in Luke 7:47, “He who is forgiven little, loves little.” There are many who love Jesus little today in the confessing church today.
Today’s so called pilgrims march along for awhile until, as we saw two weeks ago from the parable of the soils, they eventually encounter the persecution, trials or tribulation that come to anyone who takes in the seed of God’s word. Then, they either overtly fall away and try another more user-friendly religion or worse yet, they find a “church of the wide path” filled with other people who have been forgiven little and love Jesus little but who in their self-deception persist in calling themselves Christians. False converts are the inescapable product of much of today’s evangelistic methods and shallow teaching that holds that any and all expressions of faith in Christ are equally valid. One of the most important reasons for this pathology in the church is--we simply do not have a thoroughly biblical understanding of sin and the power of sin. Sin is more often than not presented today only as a problem to be solved, an obstacle to be removed. IF sin is only a problem to be solved or an obstacle to be removed, then we in our problem solving, obstacle removing age must naturally assume that salvation is an easy thing—a one-time decision, a one-size-fits-all prayer will take care of it. There is nothing hard about conversion or salvation in North America today. If sin is seen as more of a problem than a crushing burden, then conversion is reduced to a sterile business transaction and the cross is simply part the necessary currency required to close the deal. That gruesome, bloodied mess the hymn writers wrote about with penitent sinners falling before it in desperation is sadly too often now a relic of a bygone age. All of this because the church’s conception of sin has been gradually but radically torn away from its biblical footings.
We must see how a low, unbiblical view of the power of sin will shape our understanding of ourselves, the cross, the atonement and most importantly, Jesus himself. The biblical truth is that sin isn’t a problem to be solved; it’s a high powered explosive that will, unless it is destroyed violently blow us to an eternal hell. The bible pictures sin as strychnine liberally salted throughout the soul of the sinner and unless the one life-giving antidote is given, eternal death will irrevocably result. Sin isn’t a problem it is a spiritual sniper with absolutely perfect aim and everyone apart from Christ is slain by it--spiritually dead—d-e-a-d dead, not sick, not unconscious, not unresponsive, dead—stone cold dead. Sin kills. It is far and away the most potent, lethal force in the universe—Saddam, Hitler, Stalin and any other human tyrant you could name are boy scouts compared to the mass murderer called sin. Sin kills everyone. Every funeral bears implicit testimony to the cruel and relentless efficiency of the power of sin. Except for a couple of special cases in the Old Testament only one Person in recorded history has escaped sin’s lethal grasp. Sin doesn’t wound people; it spiritually decapitates them from the moment of their conception. And the bible teaches that we who come into this world are not simply people with a sin problem; we as George Whitfield said are, “monsters of iniquity.” Our hearts are utterly blackened by sin and everything we do is tainted by sin’s influence.
This morning I want us to look into a text that by God’s grace can help us see a bit of the ugliness of sin with the hope that as we are armed with a more biblical understanding of sin, we will first, be more resistant to the prevalent lies of the light burden of sin, the sterile cross and the easy way of false converts who love Jesus little. Second, and more importantly we will by God’s grace be a people who would more and more love the Cross and the Savior who suffered, bled and died on it to transform monsters of iniquity into saints of God.
There are dozens of texts that speak of the horrible scourge of sin, but this morning I want us to go to Romans chapter seven beginning with verse seven. Before we jump into Paul’s thought midstream, we need to see where he has been. In the first six verses of Romans chapter seven, Paul is connecting the truth about the ruthless control the power of sin wields over a person that he treated in chapter six with the tyranny of what he calls “being under the law” in chapter seven. Being “under” the law is for Paul trying to be righteous or acceptable to God on the basis of our performance. A person who tries to earn God’s favor—who tries to compel God to love them by what they do for Him is in Paul’s book “under the law” and in a state of spiritual bondage.
Paul in verses seven through 14 gives us some powerful insight into the sheer wretchedness of sin. Having written that the law does nothing to stop sin but actually brings a desire for more sin Paul writes autobiographically in verse seven, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." 8But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. 13Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.”
There is so much here but our task is to see in these verses how Paul illuminates for us the utter darkness of sin. He begins in verse seven saying that the law is not wicked but is good because the law reveals to us our sin. He says, “I would not have know what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” The law looks into our dark hearts and shines God’s holy spotlight on the wickedness that dwells there. The law awakens our dead olfactory nerves to smell the stench coming from our sin-filled hearts. Next Paul tells us that the law has a second function as it relates to sin and we see it in three places. Let’s look at two of them now. In the first part of verse eight he says, “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness…” In verse 11 he says, “For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.”
You’ll notice in both those verses that sin is opportunistic and it uses God’s law as an opportunity to display its wickedness. In order to understand that, we must understand what sin is at its very core. Sin is in its essence rebellion because sin is not simply a mistake it is a personal swipe at God. Sin is at its root personal—a strike out against God. This was the nature of the first sin in Genesis three when Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s word to not eat of the tree of knowledge and it is at the root of every subsequent sin. If we don’t happen to be conscious of this personal dynamic of sin the reason is NOT because sin isn’t personal, it is because our hearts are so cold and hard that we are insensitive to the fact that our sin is a slap in God’s face. So we must know that sin is personal rebellion against God and it will opportunistically seize every chance it is given to rebel against God. So, here comes the law, which beautifully and clearly represents God—his holy will and his holy character. How do you suppose this opportunistic sin that is just waiting for a chance to rebel against God responds when God appears through his holy law? It is violently triggered to do what it does, rebel. The power of sin is like a crouching warrior who lies in wait to ambush his enemy when he comes into view. When God shows up through the expression of his holy law, sin strikes out against it.
So when God through his law says, “do not covet,” the rebel sin is right there to lash out and instead of the sinner’s heart submitting to the command to not covet, his sinful heart indeed becomes a coveting factory. So for the person who is trying to be acceptable or righteous before God through their standard or performance, the law is like oxygen pumped into the furnace of sin in their hearts and an inferno of sin erupts. In verse 11 Paul goes into a bit more detail when he says, “For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” We must see here the absolute horror of sin is by seeing what Paul says about the twisted deceptiveness of sin. Again Paul brings out the opportunism of sin and says that sin did two things to him and it used the holy law of God to do both of them. First, sin used the law to deceive him. What does that mean? I don’t claim to know all of what it means but we know what part of it means. That is, when sinners are confronted with the law and when believers who are seeking to be acceptable to God through their performance of the law are confronted by the law, the sin in their hearts deceives them into thinking they can be good enough through their performance to be right with God.
We must see the craftiness—the utter deceptiveness of sin here. Sin is not one dimensional in its power and strategy. Sin not only rebels against God’s law, but sin also works to deceive us into thinking we can earn God’s favor though our own performance. It compels us to be good enough for God through our works. That’s the height of arrogance, its sin and it’s a lie. Do you hear how utterly satanic this is? At the same time sin is deceptively working to convince us that we can be acceptable to God, it is also, in the other phase of its two pronged assault, bringing us into open rebellion against God’s law and producing more and more sin in our hearts. On the one hand, sin tries to persuade us we can keep God’s law and therefore be acceptable to God, but on the other, at one and the same time, it incites us to increasingly rebel against God by serially breaking his law.
We must see this for its wickedness. Sin dangles the carrot of deception—the prideful notion that we can be acceptable to God through the law but at the same time it incites us to a crescendo of open rebellion against God. At one and the same time sin works to convince us of our own independent capacity to please God and also wars against God through an all out assault on him by breaking his law and we repeatedly make fools of ourselves by falling for this! We know this is how sin uses the law to deceive us because what is Paul’s alternative to trying to be acceptable to God through the law? Paul repeatedly claims it’s not the law that brings righteousness but FAITH. We see this in texts like Romans 3:28 where he says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Paul says the way to be righteous; to be acceptable to God is not through the sin-soaked deception of trusting in our own ability to perform the law. The way to be righteous before God is to place your faith in the only true place it belongs, in Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
Paul also wants us to see the hideous ugliness of the power of sin in verse 8, 11 and 13 by repeating that sin is so wicked because it wages this two-pronged assault through the use of God’s own holy law. In verse 11 Paul says, “sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment deceived me and through it [the law] killed me.” Here’s the point and we must not miss it. Paul wants us to see that sin is the quintessential evil in the universe because it doesn’t just choose any old weapon to do its dirty work. No—sin uses the holy law of God to slit our spiritual throats. Here’s a crude illustration to bring this home. If a man were to kill his wife by shooting her, that would be despicable enough, but if he were to use the diamond sharp edge of her wedding ring to fatally cut her—oh, how much more wicked that would be—to use something given as an expression of covenant love and commitment [what the law is] to murder the very person to whom you gave it—that would be utterly vile. Paul’s point is—that’s what sin does. That’s how evil sin is. He says in verse 13 speaking of the law, “Did that which is good bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.”
Paul makes two points here. First, he continues to exonerate God’s law—ensuring that no one thinks the law of God is what kills people but rather, sin brings death through its rebellion against God’s law and how it deceptively uses the law in us. Second, he tells us that God allows sin to destructively use his law this way for the purpose of revealing something about sin. He says this purpose is, “in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment (use of the law) might become sinful beyond measure.” Sin uses the holy, righteous and good law of God this way so as to reveal to us how extraordinarily vile and grotesque it is. This is the absolutely blasphemous nature of sin—to take something holy and employ it for destructive purposes.
Now, our aim is not simply to leave us here with this understanding of sin, but to take this biblical understanding of the blasphemous, intensely deceptive nature of sin and bring it to bear on our main point. That is, with this blasphemous, satanically deceptive sin lurking in the heart of each person, now do you see more clearly why the way to eternal life is hard? Do you see why the words of First Peter in 4:18 are so on target when he says, “And "If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?" Now do you see why those who find this spiritual life are few? When a sinner possesses this sin-caked, God-hating, law-perverting, blaspheming heart before a holy, righteous God, do you understand why it would be so hard for that person to be saved? When you see how intensely deceptive is the power of sin do you see why it is so breathtakingly easy to be deceived about the state of your soul especially in an age when most allegedly bible-believing churches teach that salvation is simply a matter of praying a prayer—no hatred of sin, no brokenness, no burden, no desperation? Do you see how this godless trend is completely at odds with a biblical understanding of the destructive and deceptive power of sin?
This sin is so desperately wicked; it can be forgiven by an absolutely holy God only through the bloody sacrifice of his perfect, divine Son. This sin is so powerful to bring death, only the death and resurrection of Christ could bring life to a sinner. A heart held captive by this sin is so stone-cold dead, our only hope it has it to be ripped out and replaced with a new living heart, born from above by the Spirit of God. This sin is not taken out by a decision or a one-size-fits-all prayer, as that is commonly understood today. It is only defeated by the miracle of the new birth in the human heart. And even after that happens in us we are still left with this residual sin in our flesh that we must wage a fierce and daily war against.
We want this understanding of sin’s power and wretchedness to be used of God to increase our love for Christ. Let’s go back to Luke 7:47 where Jesus says to Simon the Pharisee, “He who has been forgiven little, loves little.” If you have a biblically shaped appreciation for the blasphemous rebellion against God sin is—If you have a truthful conception of sin’s power to make utter fools us through its power to deceive us---If you, by God’s grace internalize that, will you be a person who lives as if you have been forgiven little? No, if you have been given saving faith, you through Christ’s blood have been forgiven of inconceivable filth and rebellion against God. You have been released from a prison so formidable that no one but God himself could have busted you out and set you free. When we were utterly lost in the arrogant deception of self-righteousness, God penetrated the countless layers of lies through his Spirit and caused our sin-soaked minds to believe the truth about ourselves—that we are monsters of iniquity who deserve nothing less than an eternal hell. The logical corollary to Luke 7:47 is, “He who has been forgiven much, loves much.” May we be a people who live with a biblically drawn picture of the vileness of our sin, not so that we may wallow in it, but so we can see with clear eyes the greatness of our need and the greatness of our Savior. May God give us this grace so we can exalt in the cross, exalt in our Savior and live lives that will bring this glorious, sin-slaying gospel to the nations.
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