One of the chief things contemporary culture, and perhaps even evangelicalism, does not grasp about the Lord Jesus is how deadly serious He is about sin. Sin is not a trifle. Sin is rebellion. Sin is disobedience. Sin cost God His Son and Jesus His life. It is not to be tolerated, excused, rationalized, or coddled. It is to be fought against as that which assaults God’s lordship and glory, and our worth as those created in and as the image of God.
As He prepares to transition from this earth to heaven, from humiliation to glorification, He must train and instruct the men He has chosen to carry on His work. They are slow, and dull, and reticent to believe Him, especially about His impending death and its necessity. They are ignoring the cross. They are jealous of one another instead of welcoming and serving all who love the Lord Jesus. And perhaps they are not taking sin as seriously as they ought. They will be ministers and foundation-layers of the new covenant, a covenant that deals a death-blow to sin and all its effects in the present and future work of the Lord Jesus. They must understand how terrible sin is to understand the bloody cost their Lord and ours will soon undergo.
This week’s text presents us with four demands that underscore the seriousness of sin and following Christ.
A. Be Serious About Sin in the Lives of Others (v. 42)
Jesus begins with a call to be lovingly concerned about the holiness of those around us. This is not a rationalization for our own sins of pride, or officiousness, or judgmentalism, or arrogance, or inability to listen, or abrasiveness, but it is a call to set yourself as committed to the watch-care of other people, especially other Christians. For Jesus specifically speaks of “these little ones who believe”—He is highlighting the faith and dependence of all true Christians, just as He has been doing in the previous sections. How serious is sin? So serious that if we cause a believer to stumble—the word means “to fall” and can depending on context refer to either a damning, eternal fall or a simple fall into sin. Jesus uses both meanings in the course of His preaching—it would be better for us to be thrown into the depths of the sea than the consequences of what God will do to us. A “millstone” was a large, circular stone that weighed approximately two thousand pounds and was used to grind wheat and other grains. It was so large and awkward that animals, usually donkeys, would have to turn it. Jesus is saying that if we cause another believer to sin against Him, it would be not only fitting but better for us to have that stone collared around our neck and hurled into the deepest part of the sea.
Better than what? Better than having God set Himself against you. Better than His discipline. Better than the loss of fruitfulness and ministry and blessing that could result. Worst of all, better than perhaps even your own falling away into eternal perdition because you never were truly converted.
How can we cause another believer to sin? We can do this both directly and indirectly. Directly, we can overtly entice them into gossip or sexual immorality or false teaching or apathy or coldness towards the things of God or make them angry. Indirectly? Well, that is the subtler and the more dangerous. What if you tolerate compromise in your life? What if you commit or justify “small” sins—cursing or crude joking; small acts of self-assertion, self-righteousness, or demanding rights; adopting worldly and fleshly values and priorities in entertainment, worldview, and dress; lack of fervor in and desire for the things of God; or embodying judgmentalism, arrogance, superiority, lack of listening, hard-heartedness, unentreatability, will-worship, coldness, bitterness, indifference, or relinquishing/withholding love? Do we not learn by example? Do we not adopt what we see? Do we not pattern ourselves after those whom we believe are godlier or more fruitful than we? Your example is critical, beloved! O that we would understand we are shaping the character and heart of those around us! O that we would be jealous for their purity, at the price of blood! O that we would slay ourselves that we might not be a tripping place on their path to heaven!
Your Lord commands you to not pace stumbling blocks before other Christians. Love them enough, love Him enough, to die to self.
B. Be Serious About Sin in Your Own Life (vv. 43-48)
Of course, the humility to which our Lord calls us is even more concerned about one’s own disobedience and unbelief than it is with that of others. Sin keeps people out of heaven. That is both because God is holy and must punish sin (where else would sinners go but hell?), and because all sin is fundamentally an expression of unbelief, while faith is the key to union with Christ, justification, and sanctification, as well as blessing. As such, Jesus calls us to make war on our sin and thus to fight for faith in Him and His promises.
Remember that Jesus is speaking to believers. He is not speaking to the unsaved. Those of us with a simplistic or mechanistic view of eternal security might balk at Jesus threatening professing Christians with hell if they do not fight their sin. But anyone who understands that God’s sovereignty does not negate necessary means to ends will see no contradiction here. (Indeed, God decrees and appoints the means as well as the ends.) God’s infallible and timeless electing decree which secures all of His people for eternal glory does not negate our absolute responsibility to believe the gospel—or to keep believing it. Nor does it negate our responsibility to actually fight our sin if we wish to enter heaven. This is not works-righteousness—it is not and can never be the ground of our acceptance with God, which can only be the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. Rather, it is recognizing that fighting sin is a necessary means and condition to actually entering heaven, that part of our salvation that is yet future, because it is an expression of faith in Christ.
Paul is equally blunt: If we do not put sin to death, we will die. But if we—by the Spirit, not out own power!—put to death the deeds of the body, we will live (Romans 8:13; cf. 2:7-10; Gal. 5:5-6, 6:7-10; Eph. 5:5-11; Col. 1:22-23). And of course, Jesus says only the one who endures to the end will be finally saved (Matthew 24:13). This is not salvation by human merit. This is not even evidence of past conversion (though it is that). It is the necessary means by which we actually enter future glory. It is the continued heeding the call of the gospel to keep believing. Or, more simply, it is the narrow path we must walk to get to heaven (Matthew 7:14).
It is important to understand this, or else we will badly miss what Jesus is saying here. We will lose something of the urgency and incentive to follow what He says.
Hand, eye, and foot are symbolic of the ways sin expresses itself through our bodies and choices. They are also deeply necessary, precious bodily members. But they are not more important than our souls being in heaven forever. If you are sinning with your hands, cut them off. Lose your hand, but gain your soul. And so on. Jesus threatens unquenchable fire, eternal damnation, to those who make peace with sin. He does not tell people to relax because they’re eternally secure—much less because they prayed a prayer when they were five. There is no room for passivity. He calls for sacrificial, difficult, costly war on sin and threatens hell for failing to do so. Is Jesus teaching salvation by self-righteous merit? Or is He calling for a vibrant, living faith that works through love and runs to win the (not yet) prize?
Of course, Jesus is well aware that actually removing appendages will not change the heart. You can hit someone with one hand, or watch porn with one eye, or hop to a drug den on one foot. He is saying you must be radical about your sin. You must not let anything, even your physical body, get in the way of going to heaven.
For especially sensitive believers, the question comes: What if I’m not fighting enough? What if I’m not radical enough? First, this is why we have the imputed righteousness of Christ, because in this life we will never be anything “enough.” Second, note that Jesus does not quantify. Certainly, this war ought to be generally characteristic of a believer, but Jesus also knows we will do this imperfectly and inconsistently. The question is, what is the overall trend and direction of your life? Do you hate sin? Do you love Jesus and want to obey Him? That is enough. Rest in His righteousness and on that basis plead for the grace to fight more comprehensive war. You will find yourself taking each step by grace and one day, carried in the grip of God, you will find you have walked all the way to heaven.
C. Be Serious About Sacrifice (v. 49)
Note the “for.” This has something to do with what Jesus has just said. “Salt” is probably a euphemism for sacrifice, given that sacrifices were salted in the Old Covenant (e.g., Lev. 2:13). Everyone—all believers—will be salted “with fire.” “Fire” is likely a metaphor for trial and suffering. Jesus is likely saying you put sin to death and fight it because that is part of a larger experience of every believer—being salted with fire. Salt is both sacrifice and covenant imagery—you give yourself up completely to the Lord as a living sacrifice in total consecration (Rom. 12:1-2). This (new) covenant and surrender are tested and applied through trial and suffering, including the pain and struggle involved in putting sin to death. Additionally, you cannot effectively fight sin until you have first given yourself over to the Lord as a sacrifice. I believe this is both a demand—sacrifice yourself—and an encouragement. The pain you experience in the sacrifice and struggle is not a sign something is wrong, but is part of what God has covenanted Himself to do in your life precisely because you are His and seeking to follow Him. Do not fear the fire. He intends your refining.
D. Be Serious About Being Salt in the World (v. 50)
Jesus closes with a continuation of salt imagery: Your covenant with the Lord and the surrender it involves must have an effect on the world around us. Salt lost its savor by being contaminated with other chemicals and enzymes. If we do not remain surrendered to the Lord and living out our covenant with Him, we will lose our purifying and preserving influence on the world. And part of that influence is fruitful, peaceful relationships with other believers (fleshly, disobedient Christians will be at war with one another).
Love other Christians enough to be serious about their purity. Fight your own sin to enter heaven. Sacrifice yourself to the Lord in that fight and in suffering, and receive His refining as you do. Maintain your purity to be a purifying and preserving force in the world and the church.
Mortification of the flesh, not peace with it, leads to fullness of joy now and forevermore. Amen.