Read in Light of Philippians 1:6
I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6 ESV)
When you read Scripture you are bound to encounter awful, cringe-inducing sins. You’ll read about the incident of Lot and his daughters, which is horrible (Gen 19). You’ll read about Judah and Tamar, which is simply hair-raising (Gen 38). You’ll read about Israel’s constant rebellion (e.g., Exod 32). Then there is the cycle of repentance, corruption, and bondage in the book of Judges (Judges 3:1ff). Then there is David’s sin with Bath-Sheba (1 Sam 12). And these selections are just a small sample of the terrible things you’ll read about! If you’re like me, reading these things will disturb you. You may even fear at times that you’ll be like the people in the era of the judges—that you’ll degenerate into a vicious downward spiral like they did. Or you might hear echoes of the words of well-intentioned believers: “If David can fall as bad as he did, who are we to think we can stand?” It may seem to you that your future is far from assured, and how can joy result?
When we encounter other people’s’ sins in Scripture (or in life), we can become overwhelmed with fear that we’ll fall like they did, that we’ll fail to persevere, or that we’ll degenerate into great evil. We may even wonder if, after all our efforts, after all our hopes and aspirations, we’ll end up disqualified, wretched, a posturing hypocrite full of pretensions and sin. It goes without saying that such fears are incompatible with, “Rejoice in the Lord always!” (Phil 4:4). Where do such fears come from? If a Christian is feeling such fears, they are the result of thinking that progress in sanctification depends primarily upon self. I think we are often tempted to view ourselves as separated from God and on our pilgrimage all alone, when actually the opposite is true. God has provided great help, and a big part of the Christian life is learning to believe, appreciate, and rely on what he has already done.
What must we as believers do when we encounter horrific sins in Scripture? We must read them as a beloved child of God in Christ should read them. We should read them as one who has been fully equipped by the Spirit and the Word. Read awful sins as what God gave the Spirit to combat and to overcome. In fact, for believers, here is an absolutely marvelous fact—God’s commands against sin become promises of overcoming sin. That is, God binds himself with an oath to work obedience into his children by his Spirit. Every time we come across a command, what we are actually finding is yet another goal God has set his omnipotence to achieving in our lives. Commands to us are promises to us in Christ. This means that sin will not have dominion over us as believers (Rom 6:14).
Consider some Scripture passages that teach what I am saying.
First, “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek 36:27). Did you catch what God promises there? He promises that he will accomplish our obedience. As another prophet put it, “from me comes your fruit” (Hos 14:8). God’s commands are actually promises of what he will do in our lives. We’re not alone in our pilgrimage. Far from it, for God is active in working out his best for us. This doesn’t mean that there will be no struggle. But it does mean that we can expect growth, not degeneracy, and we can look forward to eventual complete victory at glorification. What a basis for joy when we encounter someone’s massive moral failure! But we must not simply comfort ourselves. Taking comfort in these promises is also a way we can pray for others, and it offers a glorious opportunity to both uphold the law and preach the gospel.
Second, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). Here is another wonderful promise, this time in the New Testament! God promises to make us willing and able to please him. What a basis for confidence that we will not dry up and blow away spiritually! God has us in his hand, from which we can’t be plucked, but he has us there not just to protect us, as great as that is, but to empower us. He not only provides for us externally, but he literally provides the internal, spiritual resources that enable us to please and obey him.
So, when you read the Bible and find grotesque sins in it, remember this—these are all the sins God has saved you from! When you read of David’s adultery, you ought to recoil in horror and sense your own tendency to various sins, but then immediately flee to Christ and rejoice that he gave his Spirit to you to empower you to live for him. When you read about Nabal who couldn’t speak a kind word to anyone, rejoice that God has given you his Spirit, and one aspect of the Spirit’s fruit is kindness. When you read about King Saul losing the Holy Spirit, remember that God offers believers an everlasting covenant, even the sure, certain, mercies of David (Isa 55:3). When you read the book of Judges and behold the consistent degeneracy of the people of Israel, remember that God promises that you will not follow that horrible pattern, for he says he will continue the good work he has begun in you all the way to the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6).
Whenever you come across horrific and potentially depressing examples of sin in the Bible, flee to the promises of God and rejoice in all that Christ has done for you once more. Just like when you encounter God’s laws, encountering failures to keep those laws is an opportunity to refresh your faith in the gospel. You should go on your way trembling but also clinging to Christ and thus having a tremendous basis for joy, for there is no lack in him. If you indeed were on your own, you ought to fear. But Christ is our all in all, and he has been exalted as head over all things for the benefit of his church. He ever lives for you. He is a friend that sticks closer than a brother. He is a shepherd that tenderly cares for each lamb in his flock. He will uphold and strengthen you till the end. If you cling to Christ, you can be assured that though you may struggle, and though you may experience chastening, God will “keep you from stumbling” and “present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24).
P.S. It may be that our church will be able to begin meeting again sooner than expected. Please pray that our state and city will follow the President’s encouragement (in his Press Conference May 22nd) to reopen churches immediately. I will be reaching out to the city very soon to request a starting date. Please be in prayer.