The choice is yours: God or sin
I don’t know about everyone else, but I feel like I was brought up believing in the wrong kind of Christianity. My bible study friends know that I can sometimes turn a little bitter about this. Why has it been so hard to find the true word of God in men, even those who have devoted their lives to teaching others about it?
The following is what I used to believe, having grown up in the church.
We once were doomed to eternity in hell because of our sin. Then, because of Jesus shedding his blood on the cross, all of our sins—past, present, and future—have been wiped clean forever. Because we are clean in God’s sight now, we are guaranteed passage to heaven when we die. Our sins ultimately don’t matter anymore.
While this is technically true (more or less) in the most basic sense, there is the danger of misunderstanding. The basic foundation of our salvation is on the line here, so we can’t afford to brush past it casually. We need to take off our blinders and earplugs and see what the Bible REALLY says. For me, I had to get rid of this instinctual habit—unknown to even me—of dumping certain truths out of my mind if they didn’t fit neatly into my own picture of God. Even if the Bible’s words were clear, my eyes and mind were selective. Instead of consuming it whole, I’d pick and choose only the parts I found to my liking.
(OK, blah blah blah, what are you getting at, Joe?)
Here’s my point. The Bible does NOT say that we are all saved simply with our mouths or intellectual assent. Sin is not just a matter of making God a little happy or very happy. Instead, the Bible tells us that we have to make a choice. We need to either choose the world and its sin, or decide to follow God. One path leads to destruction, the other leads to eternal life. Simple as that.
What people don’t seem to realize is that it’s an either-or choice. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. I’m not talking about a works-based salvation, I’m talking about two choices and we have to pick one. There is no third option that reads: “I choose God and also want to keep my sinful life, thx!”
Let’s use a few illustrations, which came up in discussions with my bible study friends.
The sinking ship
After the fall of man, we’ve been on a sinking ship ever since. We’re in the middle of the ocean and doom is certain, though we don’t know exactly when it will befall us.
But suddenly, Jesus comes from a distance in a small boat to rescue us. We hear about him, we see him, and rejoice! (This is the point at which most Christians mistakenly believe themselves to already be saved.) Then we happily grab all of our belongings and rush toward the boat. Before we can get in, however, he stops us.
“You have to leave all that luggage behind. There’s no way to fit that on the boat and still get to shore,” Jesus tells us.
“But Jesus,” we resist. “I can’t leave this behind, it’s too valuable to me!”
“What’s more valuable? Those material possessions or your life? Whichever choice you make, those bags are going to end up at the bottom of the ocean anyway.”
In this scenario, would any of us really say “no thanks” to Jesus and cling onto our worldly belongings instead? Of course not. But why is it that we’re so unable to let go of this world to take Jesus into our lives? Is it because deep within us, we secretly doubt that Jesus would be able to save us anyway? That perhaps he’s a mirage? You either believe or you don’t, and many people still need to resolve their doubts (and do it ASAP).
If our doubt is strong enough, we might be unwilling to let go of this world and instead try to eke out a short time of pleasure before our time is up. Many people hedge, just in case, and don’t even realize they’re doing it. In reality, we could have had eternity ahead of us. Not only that, but Jesus promises to reward us richly once we get to “shore” anyway. Yet we still refuse.
Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
1 Kings 18:21: “Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’ But the people said nothing.”
Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Proverbs 11:19: “The truly righteous man attains life, but he who pursues evil goes to his death.”
The Bible tells us clearly that it’s an either-or situation. Sin, in the colloquial sense, is thought of as a “bad” or evil act. But in reality, it is choosing anything apart from God’s way. Of course, even true believers who have chosen to follow Jesus will falter time to time. Their eyes will wander and their minds will get distracted. What we’re talking about here is a lifestyle of sanctification, walking the narrow path.
Keep in mind that the narrow path and the wide path are not right next to each other. You can’t hop around from one to the other on a moment’s notice. They are far apart and going in opposite directions; one to heaven, one to hell. Pick one and stick with it; the choice is yours.
My wife and I have watched this show on TV called “Hoarders,” and you can’t help but be puzzled and disgusted by what you see.
The people on the show have this illness where they grow emotionally attached to everything they own, to the point where they can’t get rid of anything. It doesn’t even matter what it is; it could be an empty plastic bottle or an empty bag of chips. Eventually, over time, their entire house gets filled up by this junk and their lives start to completely fall apart.
Social services threatens to take away the children from these hazardous environments. Marriages are strained, and family members become resentful and embarrassed. In some episodes, it literally comes down to a choice between a loved one and the junk, and the hoarder has difficulty choosing. Often, they promise to get rid of everything for the loved one’s sake, but waver halfway through. It’s unbelievable.
My wife saw the lesson for our lives.
Are we really so different? Is it any less stupid to live for this world when it is literally less than a speck compared to the eternity in heaven that could await us? Again, I think the problem is that people don’t realize it’s an either-or situation. You have to be willing to give up your wealth, comfort, safety…even family. Only when you make God the Lord of your life can you really be saved.
Matthew 6:19, 20: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal;”
While we should be fully willing to do whatever God asks, know that He may not ask his followers to become poor. I hesitate sometimes to tell people this because they might cling to this hope of relative comfort.
In Proverbs, there is the suggestion that neither wealth nor poverty are desirable. Great wealth might keep you from seeking dependence on God fully, whereas poverty could lead to other kinds of sin.
Proverbs 30:8-10: “Keep deception and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God.”
The idea is to depend on Him and to choose the way to eternal life rather than the fleeting pleasures of this world.
So how can we stop sinning anyway?
Isn’t it impossible to stop sinning? Why even bother?
Well yes, it is impossible by our own human effort. Even if we consciously try to live without sin, we will fail. Our flesh is too weak. If we succeed at it for a while, we will grow prideful; we will look down at ourselves and see that we have become Mr. Hyde with our self-satisfaction, as Tim Keller illustrates in his book.
But a true born-again believer has the Holy Spirit living inside of them. The Holy Spirit cannot sin, he cannot fail, so the trick is to allow him total control over our lives. There is always an element of sin that wants to wrest back control of the wheel, but the more we overcome, the more sanctified we become. The Holy Spirit grows louder and more powerful in our lives to the point where it’s harder to ignore him. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s a process. Our lives are in a continual process where we become more Christ-like, and if the general trajectory doesn’t seem that way for you, it’s time to check yourself against the Bible.
Make sure the following verse doesn’t apply to you:
Romans 1:32: “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”
The inexperienced quarterback
Developing a lifestyle of sanctification is like a young quarterback being coached. As my friend put it, inexperienced quarterbacks (QBs) start out with a lot of bad habits. In controlled practice environments, he might throw passes with pinpoint accuracy, but the true test comes in a game against a real-life opponent.
When an opposing defensive player gets through the line and charges toward the quarterback, the QB instinctively backpedals and wants to throw the ball immediately. Now, any fan of football will know that you can’t backpedal and get enough forward velocity to throw an accurate pass. But with inexperience, instincts trump the QB’s learning and he chucks it up for grabs. What will often happen then is that the pass will fall short and a player from the other team will get an interception. He may even run it back for a touchdown, resulting in a costly swing and momentum shift.
Why does the QB do this? Doesn’t he know just as well as us couch-potato spectators that throwing a pass while backpedaling is ill-advised? Of course he does. But he needs to develop the tendency of making the right decision. He needs to break his bad habits and replace them with good ones. How does he do this?
First, he needs good coaching. The QB needs a coach to yell in his ear every time he makes this kind of stupid decision, even if it seems to succeed momentarily against the odds. That way, he can be conditioned to do the right thing even when a high-pressure game is on the line.
Second, he needs to continually practice. No one is born with good football mechanics, so the QB needs to diligently make sure that his body and mind learn to perform correctly naturally, almost without thinking. If the mechanics haven’t become natural for him, by the time intense pressure comes, you can bet everything is going to break down and go wrong.
Third, he needs to build up a record of right decisions. That is, he needs to perform correctly over and over again. He needs to learn to take the sack or even get outside the pocket and throw the ball away. He needs to carry out the smart choice enough times until it develops into a good habit. On the flip side, every time he falters and goes back to his flawed instincts—what he naturally wants to do so badly—he makes it that much harder to do the right thing the next time the situation arises. He cements the “sin” so that it becomes more difficult to break.
Obviously, these principles apply to us in our Christian walks. We need to listen intently to the voice of the Holy Spirit. We need good teachers and accountability partners in our lives. We need to deeply immerse ourselves in God’s word and memorize scripture to equip ourselves for battle. Then, when temptation comes—as it inevitably will—we need to show God that we can overcome, that we choose Him instead of the fleeting pleasure of this world. We need to prove to ourselves that the shackles of sin have been broken. The next time temptation comes around, we’ll be ready and battle-tested. We’ll say, “I’ve seen this one before, and I remember how I got through it the last time. And I remember being glad I made the right choice.”
Sometimes, we need to see for ourselves how good it is to be victorious. For some people, simply hearing about it won’t do. Once we’ve seen first-hand that holiness is the way to go, we’ll be that much more convinced to keep up the good fight.
***For an excellent video sermon on this subject, check out Francis Chan’s “When Sin Looks More Enjoyable Than God”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iszVTWUGQQM.