Tag Archives: Mortification of Sin

Discontentment and Temptation

 

One of the strategies for an effective battle against sin is to recognize how sin operates; first in general and then in particular within and around you. In military terms, this is akin to knowing your enemy. A particular highway through which sin will attempt to march its troops is the highway of discontentment. Perhaps there is no greater avenue for sin to enter the heart than through a person’s distorted desires, which have at their root, discontentment. The Apostle James writes, “but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” James 1:14-15 I’ve written elsewhere that my understanding of this passage is that desire conceives with temptation to give birth sin. I will argue here that the bedroom for that conception is discontentment.

In his masterful treatise on contentment, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, Jeremiah Burroughs builds the substance of his exposition on Philippians 4:11 which reads, “…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”. While his book is commendable on many levels, there is one particular area that I would like to highlight, namely the relationship between contentment and temptation, particularly as it relates to avoiding sin.

After many excellent and noteworthy comments on describing contentment, its mystery and how Christ teaches contentment, Burroughs arrives at his discussion on “The Excellence of Contentment.” In this chapter, one particular quality of contentment caught my attention and went along way in expressing some thoughts concerning temptation and contentment that had been churning in my mind. Here he writes,

“Contentment delivers us from an abundance of temptations. Oh, the temptations that men of discontented spirits are subject to!”[1]

There is much to contemplate in this statement not the least of which is the avenue that discontentment paves into the heart, upon which temptation may freely travel.

A survey of biblical examples of sin would lead one to see that every instance of sin has as its root, discontentment. Adam and Eve were discontent with the position in the Garden that God had given them. They fell for the lie that Satan presented, showing the bait, yet hiding the hook, because they were discontent. David was discontent with all that God had blessed him with; prosperity, a kingdom, a wife, yet as he walked around on his rooftop discontentment joined with temptation and the rest is the sad history of a great king and man after God’s own heart. Solomon was discontent with just one wife. Israel was discontent with worshiping God alone and adopted the practices of the surrounding nations. Scripture is replete with examples and we cannot forget our own experiences.

Discontentment at its heart is idolatry. It resists the Lordship and Authority of Almighty God and seeks to set self on the throne in place of the King. Covetousness, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, stealing, material gain, pride, indulgence, power grabbing, etc. are all a product of discontentment with the provision and circumstances that God has sovereignly ordained.

Similarly, discontentment accuses God of withholding better gifts. Despite James 1:17 establishing the contrary, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights”, discontentment says that what God has provided is insufficient (see also John 3:27; Matthew 7:7-11). In a sense, discontentment makes us little gods, again idolatry, who think we know better and deserve better. It takes, demands more, is ungrateful, and is never satisfied. It is not hard to see the wickedness of discontentment and how it is a spring from which all streams of sin find their source.

The Apostle Paul says, ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain’ (1 Timothy 6:6). May that be the goal of our hearts. As one author has said, “All the wealth and prestige in the world with discontentment results in poverty of spirit. But contentment arising in our souls from living by grace –that is, from realizing we have not received what we actually deserve, but daily receive what we don’t deserve-brings great wealth of spirit, even if we are living in poverty and obscurity.”[2]

Christians, let us not be discontent and allow temptation an unguarded route into our hearts. Let us say with the Apostle Paul, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” Phil. 4:11. May we be content with our lot; with where the Lord has us at this particular moment, lest we provide an avenue for temptation leading to sin. Burroughs adds, “Temptations will no more prevail over a contented man, than a dart is thrown against a brazen wall.”[3] May our contentment be found in Christ. May our every desire be satisfied in Him. Satisfaction pursued in anything other than Christ will ultimately lead to discontentment, creating a pathway for temptation that leads to sin. “Contentment is more than focusing on what we have. It is focusing on the fact that all we do have, we have by the grace of God. We do not deserve anything we have, materially or spiritually. It is all by His grace.”[4]

 

 

[1] Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. Banner of Truth, pg 126

[2] Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace. NavPress, 1991, pg. 200

[3] Burroughs, 128.

[4] Bridges, 199.

 

The Deceitfulness of Sin

 

Hebrews 3:13 “…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

“Sin aims always at the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, if it has its own way it will go out to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could, every thought of unbelief would be atheism if allowed to develop. Every rise of lust, if it has its way reaches the height of villainy; it is like the grave that is never satisfied. The deceitfulness of sin is seen in that it is modest in its first proposals but when it prevails it hardens mens’ hearts, and brings them to ruin.”[1]

These words from John Owen, in his masterful treatise on The Mortification of Sin, highlight for us the deception through which sin operates in the heart of men. Sin is a deceiver and has been a deceiver of man since the fall in garden. In the passage from Hebrews 3:13, the Preacher instructs his hearers to avoid hardness of heart brought about through the deceitfulness of sin. We may ask, in what ways does sin deceive? In answering this question, it seems reasonable to first turn to the occurrence of the original sin, alluded to earlier, to find out its modus operandi.

From Genesis 3 and the Serpent’s encounter with Adam and Eve we read,

1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”

In this original sin, how did sin deceive? Observe four particular ways, though certainly more may be discovered:

  1. Sin distorts the Word of God in calling Him a liar (vs. 1, 4)
  2. Sin distorts the law of God in calling what is evil, good (vs. 3-5).
  3. Sin distorts the grace of God in calling what is good, evil (vs. 3,5).
  4. Sin distorts inherent desires by promising what it cannot deliver, satisfaction (vs. 6).

In our passage from Hebrews, we see that this original sin, though foundational and perhaps a typical pattern for future sins, was not called into recollection as the basis for the exhortation. Instead, he draws upon a rebellion more fully discussed on the pages of Scripture and perhaps more relevant to his exposition on the comparison and contrasts of the Old and New Covenants.

In this particular passage he turns to the wilderness generation of Exodus through Deuteronomy, specifically noting their history of rebellion and lack of faith culminating in a disinheritance of the Promised Land. His citation in Hebrews 3:7-12 comes from Psalm 95 but has much of the Torah for its background concluding in Numbers 14 with the curse brought on that generation of disobedience.

Observing the deceitfulness of sin in this account, we see much overlap from the Edenic sin and that in the “Wilderness of Sin.” It is likely there can be no greater contrast between the “Garden of Eden” and the “Wilderness of Sin” than in their physical appearance. One was lush with vegetation the other a desert with thorns and thistles. In one the animals are submissive to man, in the other wild beasts run rampant. These dissimilarities aside, the common denominator is man, specifically his rebellious heart against God. Note the summary given in Hebrews 3:7-12:

7Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,

“Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness,
9 where your fathers put me to the test
and saw my works for forty years.
10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
they have not known my ways.’
11 As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’”

Israel has sometimes been referred to as a type of corporate Adam, this is fitting given the failure of each in their own “garden”. However, unlike Adam’s single rebellious act, Israel’s repeated testing (10 times – Numbers 14:22) of the Lord reached its culmination on the threshold of the Promised Land. In their testing, noted above, they were recipients of God’s grace in provision over the course of the exodus from Egypt on the way to promised land. Yet this was not enough to prevent the swelling of rebellion in their hearts.

The citation from Psalm 95 indicates that the “hardness of hearts” took place in Meribah (rebellion) and the day of testing was in Massah (wilderness). Turning to these occurrences in their Old Testament context, we arrive at Exodus 17:7, And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Specifically, this particular episode of quarreling and questioning of God by Israel was in relation to their lack of water, which would eventually be resolved by Moses’ striking of the rock at God’s command (Exodus 17:6; 1 Corinthians 10:4). Notice however the central thesis of the Israelite murmur, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Fundamentally, this is an example of premise #1 from above on the deceitfulness of sin in the garden, Sin distorts the Word of God in calling Him a liar.

God’s initial commissioning of Moses included the promise below:

“Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, ‘I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, 17 and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’’” Exodus 3:16-17

We are told in Exodus 4:30 that the Word of God was given to the people, via Aaron. Therefore, when we read of their murmuring and questioning whether God was with them, they were in essence doubting the promise of God and by doing so calling Him a liar. Thus the deceitfulness of sin.

Much more could be said regarding this Wilderness Generation and their rebellion against God, specifically as it relates to the deceitfulness of sin. The author of Hebrews uses their experience as a negative example of those who have heard the Word of God, but didn’t believe it and didn’t obey it.

Sin misrepresents reality. It removes or distorts the corrective lens of God’s Word to prevent clearly seeing it, along with its dangers and deceptions. Owen offers some helpful comments on the deceitfulness of sin. He writes:

“It [sin’s deception] consists in presenting unto the soul, or mind, things otherwise than they are, either in their nature, causes, effects, or present respect unto the soul. It hides what ought to be seen and considered, conceals circumstances and consequences, presents what is not, or things as they are not, as we shall afterward manifest in particular. This is the nature of deceit; it is a representation of a matter under disguise, hiding that which is undesirable, proposing that which indeed is not in it, that the mind may make a false judgment of it.”[2]

Venning notes that sin is crimen laesae Majestatis “high treason against the majesty of God”[3]. Sin in its deception is likewise high treason against the authority of the Sovereign King. Fundamentally, its purpose is to distort the Word of God. Its power is in its deception because it promises what it cannot deliver. Sin promises satisfaction; it promises the fulfillment of our most intimate, innate desires, yet it has no power to deliver on these promises. In the end, sin is a flash in the pan though in reality it is fool’s gold. It always leaves the sinner wanting more, hungering for the wrong things because it can never satisfy and quench the desires that man has.

Only God, through His Son Jesus Christ can satisfy every desire that we have. It is Christ that promised the woman at the well “living water” so that she would never thirst again. It is Christ who declared Himself to be the bread from heaven, satisfying the inmost hunger pangs of the soul. Understanding the deceitfulness of sin and the satisfaction that can only come in Christ serves believers well as a precious remedy against sin’s deception.

Like sand grains hardened into stone through the internal workings of cementation and the external pressures from nature, so too is the heart hardened through the internal workings of sin’s deceitfulness and the external temptations of the world. Be vigilant in your perseverance dear saints, that your hearts be not hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

 

[1] John Owen Volume 6 pg. 12

[2] John Owen, Volume 6, Pg. 213-214 This is compilation of various quotes from Owen on the subject.

[3] Ralph Venning The Sinfulness of Sin

Shadow Boxing Sin

 

Shadow Boxing is a familiar term to anyone that has grown up in the era of Rocky Balboa, or the dominance of professional boxing, prior to the emergence of MMA-style fighting.  It involves only one person, literally boxing his shadow for the purpose of training and strengthening the muscles for an actual fight.  In preparation for physical contact it has some value, similar to practice, without any actual contact being made with the opponent.  As it relates to the spiritual battle against sin, shadow boxing has little to no value at all.  Why?  Because for the Christian, there never exists a time when he or she is not actively engaged in a fight against sin, therefore any and all efforts spent on practice is vanity.  The apostle Paul describes this very practice using the shadow boxing analogy in 1 Corinthians 9:26

24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

Paul says that he does not box as one beating the air, i.e. shadow boxing.  As the context of this passage makes clear, Paul does not run aimlessly, but has a goal.  He does not box the air, but has a clearly identified opponent.  This analogy is important for the believer to understand how he or she is to fight sin.

For the Christian, the fight against sin is never passive, i.e. the believer knows of no times of peace, though perception may and often does conflict with reality.  In other words, the fight must be daily.  Contrary to any form of perfectionism in this life, John Owen, writing in his magisterial work on Temptation and Sin says, “That the choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.”  Owen clearly understands and communicates that this fight will be one that the believer is engaged in for the entirety of their lives.  Likewise, he summarizes that taking up this work of mortifying or killing sin, should be daily, “Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

For the believer, it too often seems that we neither recognize the on-going requirement of killing sin nor ever fully recognize our opponent, perhaps better stated our enemy, namely sin.  We either never engage in the fight or spend our time and energy boxing the air.  The disengaged fighter may be obvious for us to recognize through the evidences of unmortified sin.  Owen comments on the nature of the disengaged fighter from this very passage in Paul’s letter to Corinth,

“And the apostle tells you what was his practice, 1 Cor. 9:27, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.” “I do it,” saith he, “daily; it is the work of my life: I omit it not; this is my business.” And if this were the work and business of Paul, who was so incomparably exalted in grace, revelations, enjoyments, privileges, consolations, above the ordinary measure of believers, where may we possibly bottom an exemption from this work and duty whilst we are in this world?” 

The true believer in Christ knows of no time when he or she should not be actively fighting sin.  If anyone professes to be a believer, yet neglects the great duty of killing sin, let them be keenly aware that sin will not rest until it has choked the life out of any professor of Christ, until they show evidence that their faith was disingenuous to begin with.  Owen writes, “Sin will not only be striving, acting, rebelling, troubling, disquieting, but if let alone, if not continually mortified, it will bring forth great, cursed, scandalous, soul-destroying sins.”

Conversely, the shadow-boxer might well be us if we are just going through the motions of prayer, meditation, Scripture reading, etc. with no effectual power of the Holy Spirit in our lives both rooting out sin and granting us a greater desire to delight in the majesty of Christ.  It is both “if you” AND “by the Spirit” that the Apostle Paul directs the charge of mortifying sin in Romans 8:13.  If our spiritual life has become a comfortable routine rather than an all-out engagement of war on sin, we may very well find ourselves shadow-boxing, spending a lot of unnecessary time and energy “beating the air,” as the Apostle says, and feeling good about our efforts.  The shadow boxer has the appearance of godliness, but denies its power.  At its heart, this is legalism, “under the power of conviction from the law…pressed to fight against sin, but hath no strength for the combat.  The law drives them on, and sin beats them back” as Owen writes.

Christian, we must not neglect war on sin.  We must by necessity be trained diligently by the Word of God through the power of the Holy Spirit to land blows effectively; not simply box the air with no intended target.  Take heed in your spiritual life to ensure that you are properly fighting against sin, to mortify and kill the desires of the flesh.