“God sees it best for us that we should be complete in nothing in ourselves, that in all things we must be ‘complete in Christ’, which is best for us.”
These are the words of John Owen, a 17th century Puritan who wrote with great insight about overcoming sin and temptation.* We hardly talk about such things anymore. One could wonder why we need to, since as believers our sins have been forgiven—past, present and future.
We think little of God’s wrath anymore and the Fear of God is an outmoded topic to some. After all, we are loved. Perfect love casts out fear, or so the reasoning goes, (with little respect for the context of the statement). But have we too hastily put all thought of sin behind us? Because we’ve been forgiven can we just forget the rebel nature that caused the Perfect Lamb to have to die in our stead? Dare we do so?
Truly God’s wrath has been appeased by the blood of His Son. As believers we stand complete in Him. We’ve been given a new identity. We are sons and daughters of the Most High God, co-heirs with Christ of all the spiritual blessings in the heavenlies. We are no longer slaves of sin; we’ve been transferred to the Kingdom of God’s dear Son. We are new creations in Christ; the old is gone, the new has come.
And yet, we still sin. And sin still does damage. And sin is not God’s design for us. Why are we so ready to excuse it?
It is not popular to speak of sin, either in the world (What’s sin anyway?), nor in the church (We’ve been forgiven; why harp about sin?). Preferring to rest on the laurels of ‘grace’ we have too often relaxed our vigilance regarding sin. The effects are rampant. Claiming to live by grace we have missed the point of grace—to enable an unholy people to walk with a holy God and learn to live in His ways.
Grace was never intended to be a permission slip for sin. (Rom.6:15)
As long as we live in these ‘bodies of death’ (Rom.7:24) the draw of sin will be present in us. Unless we are actively denying the ‘old man’ a say, we will find ourselves doing the things God hates. Is this how we treat the One we say we love?
Granted, we as believers have been declared righteous because of our faith in Jesus, but we are still quite capable of unrighteousness. If we suppose otherwise, we deceive only ourselves. (I John 1:8) Any righteousness we claim is all about Jesus, not ourselves. Our righteousness remains ‘IN HIM’ on the basis of faith. It is not ours to boast of. We are declared righteous on the basis of what Christ has done, not what we have done. We bring nothing to commend us to God, but our relationship to Christ. Nothing. Any good thing we have accomplished, any good thought, any good deed of any eternal worth is because of Christ’s Spirit working in us to bring forth life.
When we forget this we’re in danger of forgetting the glory of what God has done for us in Christ, the glory of the Gospel. And when we forget, we are apt to slip into the very sins God hates without being much concerned about them.
We are prone to forget whose righteousness we stand in when we forget the rebel nature with which we first came to Christ. It lives on. And we are meant to remember from whence we’ve come. Only then will we glory in Christ’s righteousness and not slip into a lax assumption that we’re doing pretty good on our own.
On what basis do I say this? Well, I’ve been reflecting on the things that rouse God’s wrath and the things in which He delights. In the process I came upon Moses words to the children of Israel before his death.
He passionately warned them not to forget the stubborn nature of their hearts, not to forget their sinful bent, not to forget their track record of provoking God to wrath.
“REMEMBER and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness.” Deut.9:7
He knew that if they did they would begin to say: “It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess the land” (Deut.9:4) And this would be a fast track to losing their way in the pride of their hearts.
Remembering our sinful nature seems a little unconventional in our day. Aren’t we encouraged to forget the past, embrace our new identity and move on? Didn’t Paul say as much: ‘forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on…’ (Phil.3:13) But given a closer look, what Paul was forgetting was all the reasons he had for thinking himself righteous apart from Christ! And in fact Moses did mean them to remember their stubborn hearts. For he went on to elaborate specific incidents of rebellion the Israelites should keep in mind.
He reminded them of five places in which they’d provoked God to great wrath, such wrath that on more than one occasion he seems to have considered wiping them all out and starting over! (Deut. 9)
Do we take these things so seriously as God does?
#1 At Mount Horeb—Exodus 32—Idolatry
Moses was away up the mountain. While he was getting God’s Design Specifications for the Human Race (The Ten Commandments), God’s people were busy looking for another god to follow! Moses was gone for less than 6 weeks; so quickly they abandoned the God who had delivered them from the bondage of Egypt. God was so furious he threatened to destroy them then and there and only Moses’ intercession spared them. He knew God’s heart and begged for His forgiveness. The Israelites seemed oblivious how close they’d come to being obliterated. They had little fear of God. He sent a plague to convey the point. Meanwhile Moses demonstrated the kind of heart God was looking for, a heart desiring to know Him more. “Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” Ex.33:13 With this God was well pleased.
#2 At Taberah (‘burning’)—Numbers 11—Complaining!
The camping trip got long. The people began complaining about their misfortunes. They grew weary and despondent. Perhaps they refused, like stubborn mules to take another step. No doubt it got a little tedious following a cloud through a trackless desert. But God was in the cloud and in the pillar of fire. God was leading them! And this desert passage was part of the process of learning to submit to God’s ways for them. To complain was to rebel against His good plan. He sent fire that consumed the outskirts of the camp; God takes complaining seriously. Do I?
#3 At Massah—Exodus 17—Testing God
They got thirsty and quarreled with Moses. Then, rather than simply ask for water, rather than trust that God would meet their needs, they put God to the test: Are you here or not? If you’re here, give us something to drink! Asking in this way is not an act of faith, but of unbelief and rebellion. It is not our prerogative to tell God what He must do to prove He is with us. (cf. Deut.6:16)
#4 At Kibroth-hattaavah (“Graves of Lust”)—Numbers 11
—Lusting for what God has not given
'We’re sick of this manna; why did we ever leave Egypt’. They scorned the Lord’s provision and looked back at the ‘good old days’ of slavery in Egypt. They forgot the forced labor and remembered, of all things, the food! “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” (Num.11:5)
This reminds me of Esau, letting his stomach forfeit him his inheritance! No wonder Paul calls these bodies ‘bodies of death’. (Rom.7:24) The desires of these bodies will corrupt us if our hearts aren’t set on God’s abundant goodness for us in Christ! God sent them quail, but with them a plague. (Cf.Num.33:16; Deut. 9:22)
‘You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires’ (Eph.4:22)
“…by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
#5 Kadesh-barnea (“Holy-Desert of wandering’)—Numbers 13,14
—Disbelief and Disobedience
They’re on the doorstep of their inheritance. Their fears of suffering harm overcome their fear of disobeying God. They balk at His command, terrified of the giants in the land. Next thing you know, they’re ready to stone Moses and appoint another leader to take them back to Egypt! (Numb.14:4) This land is God’s gift to them. They’re assured of victory. They don’t believe it. They don’t obey. (Deut.9:23)
And oh the things they said in their tents that night: “Because the LORD hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us” (Deut.1:27) "Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt." ... Numb.14:4
Despite Joshua and Caleb’s reassuring words: “If the LORD delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey,” they refused to budge. They could only think of the giants and they forgot about their giant God who had delivered them from Egypt…
Such are the five occasions Moses reminds the people of. He does not wish them to forget their hearts are stubborn, apt to resist God and incite Him to wrath. Meditating on these passages I am struck by how lightly I view these things that God hates. I have reasons and excuses and I assume God’s leniency for my weakness. But when I read of the dire consequences these sins evoked I am reminded of the tremendous gift I have been given to be able to live in fellowship with this God! He permits me to come to Him, to confess my sins, to enjoy His kindness, all because of Jesus. And I am ashamed at how flippant is my view of these sins and how prone I am to claim a righteousness of my own. And yet I am complete in Christ. Could there be a greater marvel?
I had intended to round out the picture here and look at the things in which God delights. But this is enough for one sitting, more than enough. Thanks for considering these things with me. May the fear of God and the grace of God strengthen us anew for the battle with sin by the power of His Spirit.
“When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…on account of these the wrath of God is coming.” Col.3:4,5
“Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire.” Heb.12:28
* John Owen’s book, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers(1656) was reissued in 2006 as: Overcoming Sin and Temptation. It is available online here. I have been reading it one chapter per week and paraphrasing the key points along with my own thoughts at http://dictationbydawn.wordpress.com