Thursday, September 28, 2017

We Have a Heart Problem (Part 3): Biblical Steps for Overcoming Sexual Lust

Previously, we noted the Bible’s teaching that sexual lust is due to a sinful heart. Consequently, the place to begin in dealing with sexual lust is the heart. For the unregenerate, this means a spiritual heart transplant is necessary.  Ezekiel 36:26-27 describe this spiritual transplant like this, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances (NASB).” The prophet Jeremiah called this the spiritual heart transplant the New Covenant in Jer. 31:31-37. 

In the New Testament it is referred to in various ways, for example, John 3:5-8 describe it as being born of the Spirit, and Titus 3:5 describes it “by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.  Notice that spiritual birth is God’s work and man does not initiate it.  “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God John 1:12-13 (NASB).”  As this verse intimates, one experiences the new birth and gets a new heart by receiving Jesus Christ.

Once the new birth replaces old unregenerate heart through faith in Christ, a person has the God-given resources to overcome the monster of sexual lust. Here is what the apostle Peter says about God provision:
“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord;   seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust 2 Pet. 1:2-4 (NASB).” 
Without heart-change, it might be possible to manage behavior for a time, but eventually sexual lust will manifest its enslaving, idolatrous power through mental and or physical immorality.

Unfortunately, the new birth does not automatically provide freedom from sin. Sin’s enslaving power has been broken, as Roman’s 6 reveals, but what is true spiritually takes time to manifest itself experientially. It requires Spirit empowered effort on the Christian’s part to defeat the old slave-master sin (Rom. 8:13). The battle against sin will not end until the believer’s glorification when they are made like Christ (1John 3:2-3).

How does the believer defeat sexual lust? First, they must acknowledge and confess their sin.  Secondly, they must renew their minds. Third, the believer must practice what biblical counselor Jay Adam’s calls radical amputation.[1] Finally, they must establish accountability. While confession is truly the first step, steps two through four should be worked on simultaneously. We will now examine these steps in more detail.

The first step of acknowledgment and confession of sin is crucial.  As Abercrombie and Skinner say in Wonderful Counselor, this step seems simple enough but often we resist due to pride (Pro. 29:23), self devotion (Rom. 1:25), a refusal to call sin what it is (1 John 1:8) and sundry other reasons.[2]   Confession is more than simply saying, “I sinned.”  Tripp says a person’s confession needs to be concrete and specific, and not weakened by “if onlys.”[3] God makes it clear that failure to acknowledge and confess sin is foolish and spiritually detrimental. Proverbs 28:13 says, “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion (NASB).” In addition, James 4:6-10 teaches that God gives grace to those who humbly face up to their sin but he resists those who are too proud to do so.  Of course, we must not forget 1 John 1:9 which promises, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (NASB).”

 Too many believers have falsely assumed that once they confessed their sin they have dealt with it properly.  As author and biblical counselor, Kerry Skinner is fond of saying, “confession is common but repentance is rare.”  Confession of sin is truly just the first step in overcoming sexual lust or any sin for that matter.  Repentance requires that we forsake our sin and live for God’s glory.  Repentance will not happen if we do not strive to renew our minds, practice radical amputation and establish accountability.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect Rom. 12:2 (NASB).”  To the Ephesians he wrote, “that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth Eph. 4:22-24 (NASB).”  Every believer needs to renew their minds continually with God’s truth, but this is especially true for those who are battling the monster of sexual lust.  For our purposes, we look briefly at five key passages of Scripture that if rightly understood and applied will equip the believer for victory over sexual lust.  Many other Scripture passages speak to the problem of sexual lust but the five chosen cover the most salient points.

The first key passage is 2 Pet. 1:3-11. This passage is listed first because it teaches that God has granted to the believer everything he needs to live a godly life.  Furthermore, it reveals that believers are partakers of the divine nature and that because this is true they have already been released from the lust that corrupts the world, including sexual lust. This passage also makes clear that it is the believer’s responsibility to be diligent and disciplined in their pursuit of Christ-likeness. Spiritual growth and victory over sin do not happen without sustained effort by the Christian. 

Rom. 6-8 is the second key passage of Scripture.  Rom. 6 teaches that because of the believer’s union with Christ, they have been set free from their old master sin and now they are slaves of righteousness.  Rom. 7 talks about how believers, again because of their union with Christ, are no longer bound by the written law because it has been replaced by the Spirit (Rom. 7:4-6).  Then Rom. 8 describes how the believer is no longer in the flesh (Rom. 8:9), that is unregenerate, but instead they are in the Spirit and with the Spirits help they can put to death deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13), including sexual lust. 

Next is 1 Thess. 4:1-8.  This passage states in the clearest terms possible that it is God’s will for Christians to refrain from sexual immorality.  Then it talks about controlling one’s own body so as not to hurt others or take advantage of them sexually.

 The fourth key passage is 1 Cor. 5-7.  In this passage, Paul warns about the toleration and dangers of unrepentant sexual sin. Paul demands that the church discipline a sexual immoral person who is unrepentant. He goes on to teach about how the body belongs to Christ and that sexual sin for a Christian is a misuse of the physical body and sin against the spiritual body of Christ. Paul says a Christian is obligated to bring glory to God through the proper use of their physical bodies.  Then in 1 Cor. 7 he teaches about the proper context of sexual expression.

The final passage is Eph. 4:17-5:21. Paul begins by reminding believers of the old humanity’s corruption from which they have escaped. He instructs them to strip off the old humanity like old dirty clothes and to put on the new humanity.  The pattern for the new humanity is Jesus Christ. Paul gets very specific about what to take off and what to put on and he deals specifically with sexual immorality in Eph. 5:3-6.

These five passages of Scripture will renew the believer’s mind if they are thoroughly studied and digested.  As stated before, two other steps need to be practiced simultaneously with mind renewal, and they are radical amputation and accountability.

Radical amputation is based upon Jesus teaching in Matthew 5:27-30. Jesus taught that the sin of sexual lust is so deadly that one must be willing to deal with it in a radical manner, thus the illustration of plucking out one’s eye. In the words of Jay Adams, “. . . radical amputation is Jesus call on us to incapacitate ourselves so that we find it extremely difficult to sin as we did in the past.”[4]  According to Adams, four principles based on Jesus teaching are the essence of radical amputation. First, one must recognize they will be tempted to repeat their sin. Second, one must prepare to defeat temptation in the future. Third, if old sin patterns cannot be avoided, one must be willing to take concrete and radical action to keep from falling into sin again. Finally, absolutely nothing must be spared in the process.[5]     

How radical amputation looks for a believer bound by sexual lust will depend upon the sinful behaviors connected to it. For those addicted to pornography, radical amputation may mean canceling internet service, cable television, getting rid of their computer and possibly the television. It could mean avoiding certain places and certain people. Whatever one can do to avoid temptation and falling into old sinful patterns, must be put into action.

The final step for overcoming sexual lust is accountability. Steve Gallagher says, “Sin is running rampant in the Church because Christians can now live out their lives without any true accountability for their actions.”[6] Every Christian needs to be accountable to a local assembly of believers because it is God’s will (Heb. 10:23-25).  Additionally, they need someone who is fully committed to provide loving structure, guidance, assistance, encouragement, and warning for the change God is working in their life.[7]  This person of accountability is especially needed by those struggling with an enslaving sin like sexual lust. They need a person like Paul describes in Galatians 6:1-2.  “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ (NASB).”  If the person who is struggling with sexual lust is married, they must be accountable to their spouse. It may not be prudent for the spouse to know all the intimate details but they should be informed enough to pray, protect one from temptation and provide accountability.  

To summarize, the biblical steps for overcoming sexual lust are confession, renewal of the mind, radical amputation and accountability.

[1] Jay E. Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling: More Than Redemption (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 263-266.
[2]Ab Abercrombie & Kerry L. Skinner, Wonderful Counselor: A Return to Truth (Fairhope, AL: Biblical Counseling Institute, 2007), 54-55.
[3] Paul David Tripp & Timothy S. Lane, Helping Others Change (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2000), Lesson 10, 5. 
[4]Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling:More Than Redemption, 265.
[5]Ibid., 265.    
[6] Steve Gallagher, “Breaking Sexual Idolatry (Part 2),” (Jan. 2010), [online], accessed 20 June 2010; available from; Internet.
[7] Tripp, Helping Others Change, Lesson 12, 6.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

We Have a Heart Problem (Part 2): Overcoming the Sin of Sexual Lust

As a follow-up to last week’s post, “We Have a Heart Problem,” I thought it would be wise to focus on a particular sin.  Since I briefly addressed sexual lust in that post, and I have researched this topic in my biblical counseling work, I have decided to focus on it. In this post, we will examine sexual lust’s origins, definition, cause, progression and consequences.  In the next post, we will discuss the biblical steps for overcoming sexual lust.
The Origins of Sexual Lust
Sexual lust, like all sin, made its entrance into the world through Adam’s transgression in the Garden of Eden (Rom 5:12).  Since that time, sexual lust has manifested its ugliness in a multitude of ways and wreaked havoc on countless lives.  For example, God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of sexual lust (Jude 1:7).  Moab, under the wicked prophet Balaam’s guidance, used sexual lust to lure God’s people into idolatry causing God’s judgment to fall on Israel, with 23,000 dying in one day (Num 25).  In the New Testament, John the Baptist lost his head due to sexual lust (Matt 14:1-12).   No one can honestly deny sexual lust’s existence or its power to destroy human lives.  It continues to wreak destruction and death on our contemporary world.  As Romans 6:23a says, “For the wages of sin is death . . . (NASB).”   

The Definition of Sexual Lust
In the New Testament, the Greek word that is most often translated lust is ἐπιθυμία.  Sometimes this word is used to describe good desires, but most often, it is used to describe God-given desires that are out of control, and being expressed outside God’s prescribed parameters.[1] For example, the apostle Paul uses ἐπιθυμία seventeen times in his writings, of those only two are positive, Phil. 1:23 and 1 Thess. 2:17.  The rest of the occurrences are located in moral teaching and connected to sin. See Rom. 6:12; 7:7-8; 13:14 and 1 Thess. 4:5.

The Bible teaches that God created man with sexual desire and intended that this desire be satisfied within prescribed boundaries.   It is clear from an examination of passages like Gen. 2:18-25; 1 Cor. 7:1-9 and Heb. 13:4 that the proper context for the expression of sexual desire is within the bounds of marriage.  Therefore, any sexual activity, mental or physical, outside of marriage is sin and the fruit or consequence of sexual lust. 

Sexual lust is a condition of the heart that manifests itself in various sinful behaviors.  The apostle Paul lists some of the behaviors connected to sexual lust in 1 Cor. 6:9b-10, the apostle wrote, “. . . Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God (NASB).”  For the most part, the nature of the sexual sins listed in this text is self-evident, and they are all physical acts.  However, in Matthew 5:28, Jesus included mental activity or acts of the imagination when he said, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (NASB).”

What do these sins look like in modern life?  Someone gripped by sexual lust may be looking at pornography on the internet, in magazines or watching it on television.  Others may be doing the same but also pleasuring themselves with masturbation.  Some may be pedophiles seeking sex with children.  Still others may be having sex outside of marriage or be involved in an adulterous or even homosexual relationship.  Sadly, sexual lust even manifests itself within marriage, for example, when a man selfishly uses his wife to satisfy his warped sexual fantasies. 

Sexual lust is normal for the unregenerate.  For this reason, the apostle Paul calls various expressions of sexual lust a deed of the flesh.  “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, (Gal. 5:19 NASB).”  Ephesians 4:17-25 sheds further light on the subject where Paul instructs believers to no longer walk like the rest of the Gentiles because “. . . they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness (Eph. 4:19 NASB).”  Note also 1 Thess. 4:3-5, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God (NASB).”

 In sharp contrast to the unregenerate, Christians are no longer in the flesh according to the apostle Paul.  “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you.  But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him (Rom. 8:9 NASB).”  In fact, the Christian has crucified his flesh with its passion and desires according to Gal. 5:24 and Rom. 6:1-7.  That is not to say a Christian cannot be tempted or fall into sexual sin.  Otherwise, there would not be so many warnings and instruction against such behavior in the New Testament.  Sexual lust for the believer is abnormal and with the Spirit’s help can be to death (Rom. 8:13).  As Paul says in Gal. 5:16, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh (NASB).”  

In summary, sexual lust is a work of the flesh and normal behavior for unregenerate people.  It is sexual desire out of control, which seeks to satisfy itself outside of God-given parameters and it can manifest itself in any number of immoral acts.  Sexual lust is abnormal for the Christian because they have crucified the flesh and now live according to the Spirit.  They will continue to experience temptation and can fall into sexual sin, but not if they walk by the Spirit.

What Causes Sexual Lust?
Many assume that external factors cause sexual lust.  For example, it has been said that if women did not dress provocatively that men would not be tempted to lust after them.  Certainly, it would help matters if women dressed modestly but this would not solve the problem of sexual lust. External circumstances do not cause sexual lust; it is an issue of the heart.  A number of Scripture passage bear witness to this truth.  For our purposes, we will examine three texts, Matt. 5:27-28; Mark 7:20-23 and James 1:14-15.  Before doing so we need to define what we mean by “the heart.”

What is “the heart?”  Scripture divides man into two parts, the inner and the outer man.  The outer man is the physical body and the inner being is the spiritual part of man.  For example, “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day 2 Cor. 4:16 (NASB)” The Bible most often calls the spiritual or inner part of man the heart.  The heart includes all the aspects of man’s inner life like spirit, soul, mind, will and emotions.

Now in Matt. 5:27-28  Jesus said,  “You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (NASB).”   Notice that Jesus equates committing adultery in one’s imagination with the physical act, and note where Jesus says the sin takes place.  It takes place in the heart.  Jesus shed further light on this truth in Mark 7:22-23 when he said, “. . . deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.  All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man (NASB).”

James 1:14-15 say, “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.  Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death (NASB).”  Notice, James says that temptation is not due to something external to a person but something internal, namely, his or her own lust.  In other words, if it were not for the fact that lust was already resident within a person’s heart, they could not be tempted at all.  Therefore, when a man sees a woman provocatively dressed and begins to have lustful thoughts about her, it reveals the condition of his heart.  Furthermore, he sins, not because he has been coerced or forced, but because he has chosen to do so.

In short, like all sin, sexual lust is an issue of the heart.  Everything a person thinks, does and says is due to what is in their hearts.  Therefore, if a person wants to change their behavior they must change their hearts. 

Sexual Lust’s Progression
Sexual lust is an exceedingly dangerous temptation and succumbing to it can enslave and even destroy a person.  This domination can happen quickly and it follows a progression laid out in Scripture.  Unfortunately, this progression and the consequent domination have impacted the lives of many people, and continue to do so today.  How does this progression begin?

The progression of sexual lust begins with a failure to worship God, “ For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened Rom. 1:21 (NASB).”  This failure to worship is where all sin begins. The failure to worship is due to an ungrateful heart, a heart that seeks satisfaction in someone or something other than God. 

In the search for satisfaction apart from God, many temptations and opportunities will arise.  The enemy has arranged things so.  The Bible calls our enemy, Satan, the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and the apostle John says, “. . . and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19b NASB).  Satan has organized his kingdom to assist idolaters in their search for satisfaction apart from God.  Genesis 3:1-6 describes the first instance of this assistance when Satan essentially offered Adam and Eve a way to do life without God. 

Note that Satan did not make Adam and Eve sin that was their choice. Satan does not have the power to make anyone sin.  What power Satan does possess has been allotted to him by God, as Job 1-2 make clear.  When people choose to follow Satan by seeking satisfaction apart from God, God gives them over to their desires (Rom. 1:24).  Satan appeals to these desires by manipulating circumstances, providing opportunity and temptation.  He lured Adam and Eve into sin with lies and false promises, and he uses sexual lust in much the same way.  He promises unrealistic pleasures and satisfaction without consequence.  For those who are seeking satisfaction apart from God, Satan’s temptations are often irresistible.  This irresistible draw is due to the fact he is an expert at exploiting and perverting God given desires.

Thus far, we have observed that sexual lust begins with a desire for satisfactions apart from a relationship with God and that the enemy exploits this desire.  Invariably, this exploitation begins with a particular temptation that can present itself in various ways.  Temptation to sexual lust came to Joseph through his master’s adulterous wife (Gen. 39), in King David’s case from watching Bathsheba bathe (2 Sam. 11:2) and it came to the Corinthian church goers from the numerous pagan religious associations and temples that surrounded them (1 Cor. 10).  Temptation comes in similar ways today and one does not have to look far to find it.  Many find it right in their living rooms through television and the internet.

Once the temptation to sexual lust is embraced, it results in sin.  As previously noted, the lure of sexual lust is extremely powerful and it can quickly lead to bondage.  In describing the lure and enslaving power of sexual lust, Steve Gallagher of Pure Life ministries says: As the neighborhood drug pusher entices someone with free marijuana in order to lead him into hard core drugs, so will Satan subtly lure an unwitting victim into bondage with a few satisfying sexual experiences. Gradually the object of the person’s fantasy—whether it be some particular act (oral sex, orgies, exhibitionism, etc.) or a specific type of person (blonde girl, men, children, etc.)—grows into a monstrous idol which lodges itself within his heart. [2]

Can sexual lust enslave someone through one act of sin?  Scripture does not answer this question, but my experience and the testimony of many others confirms that it is definitely possible.   After tasting the pleasure of fulfilled sexual lust just one time as a teenager, I was hooked.  For years afterwards sexual lust ruled my life.  I would still be bound if Christ had not set me free.  Paul’s words in Romans 7:24-25a are very real to me, and all who have been set free from sins like sexual lust. “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (NASB)!”

What about the Christian, can they be enslaved by sexual lust or any sin for that matter?   Yes, enslavement is possible even for the Christian, but such slavery is abnormal and not to be tolerated.   Romans 6:12-14 commands: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.  For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace (NASB).”

Sexual Lust’s Consequences
As we saw in exploring the progression of sexual lust, it often ends in bondage.   Additionally, sexual lust leads to idolatry, the destruction of relationships and ultimately to God’s judgment.  What follows will examine all these consequences in more detail. 

Often sin is personified in the Bible.  For example, in Genesis 4:7, after rejecting Cain’s offering, the Lord confronted Cain’s angry response to the rejection, "If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it (NASB).”  In this text, the Lord personifies sin as a master who seeks to enslave Cain. 
A well-known New Testament text also personifies sin, Romans 5-7.  Commenting on this text, New Testament scholar Douglas Moo says sin is being personified throughout this passage as a power that rules over a person outside of Christ.[3]   According to Romans 5:20 and 6:13-14 sin reigns and in Romans 6:16-17 sin can be obeyed.  In Romans 6:23 sin pays wages, in Romans 7:8, 11 sin seizes opportunity and finally in Romans 7:11-13 sin deceives and kills.  

As we have observed from Scripture and can confirm by experience, sexual lust is a sin that enslaves.  Biblical counselor and author Ed Welch discusses this bondage in his book Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave.  Welch says the enemy seeks to exploit the bodies God-given desires and overturn God’s order by having these desires rule.  Instead of God-given desires giving the pleasure and fulfillment God intended, they become ruling lusts that enslave.  In addition, when physical sensations become a habitual satisfier in a person’s life, the heart turns into an idol factory.[4]   An additional quote from Steve Gallagher adds further insight: Over time this ravenous beast takes over and begins to drive the person’s life. Eventually he loses control of how often, with whom, and under what circumstances he will engage in sex. He has become addicted to the euphoria associated with sexual activity in much the same way others become addicted to the high of alcohol or drugs. Thus, his sexuality and capacity to worship become fused into a corrupted, nearly irresistible drive to worship at the altar of sexual idolatry.[5]

We see from Welch and Gallagher that sexual lust not only leads to bondage but also idolatry.  Sexual lust and idolatry are nearly always related in Scripture, when you spot one you usually find the other.  Sometimes sexual lust is the consequence of idolatry and other times sexual lust is idolatry.  Sexual lust and idolatry’s inseparable connection is seen most clearly in Romans 1:18-32.  According to verses 21-23, when a person refuses to live for God’s glory and seeks to live for someone or something else he is an idolater.  He desires something in creation more than the Creator.  Romans 1:24-27 says that God responds to idolaters by giving them over to sexual lusts.  The consequence or fruit of this lust is degrading passions, which can lead to any number of sexually immoral behaviors, including homosexuality.  

The Lord Jesus Christ made it clear that it is a man’s duty to love God above all else, “…YOU SHALL LOVE THE Lord YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND Matt. 22:37 (NASB).”  In his unregenerate state, man neglects his duty to love God alone and chooses to love someone or something else.  Often men set their affections on themselves and choose idols they hope will satisfy them, including their own selfish lusts.  Sadly, even Christians can fall into idolatry and therefore they must wisely heed the apostle John’s warning, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols 1 John 5:21 (NASB).”

According to Ed Welch, the purpose of all idolatry is to manipulate the idol for one’s own benefit.  Men do not necessarily want to be ruled by their idols instead they want to use them to get what they want.  For example, men do not want to be ruled by sexual lust; instead, they want lust to give them pleasurable feelings and whatever else their hearts are craving.  The problem is that idols do not cooperate.  Instead of men controlling the idol of sexual lust, it controls them.[6]   

Biblical counselor, professor and author, Paul David Tripp provides another helpful way to view the issue of idolatry.  Tripp uses Matthew 6:19-24 to make his point.  From this text, he gleans three important principles.  First, everyone seeks some kind of treasure.  Second, the treasure chosen will control the heart.  Finally, whatever controls the heart will control a person’s behavior.  Tripp goes on to say there are only two kinds of treasure, earthly and heavenly.  Whichever treasure a person chooses will rule their lives.[7]   Therefore, it follows that when a person begins to treasure sexual lust over their relationship with God that it will not be long before sexual lust holds them in bondage and becomes their idol.

In addition to the consequences of idolatry and bondage, sexual lust destroys relationships.  A potent illustration of sexual lust power to devastate relationships comes from Scripture’s discussion of King David’s family.  Most know the story of David’s sin with Bathsheba, the subsequent murder of Uriah and their devastating consequences for David’s life (2 Sam. 11-12).  However, there is another story of sexual lust in David’s family. 

David had many wives and children. One of his son’s, Amnon, lusted after his beautiful sister, Tamar.  So much so, that he schemed to get her alone and then he raped her.  After doing so, the lust that he had previously mistaken for love turned into hatred, and immediately he sent Tamar away in shame.  Tamar’s brother Absalom heard about Amnon’s violation of his sister, and he in turn plotted Amnon’s murder and carried out the vengeful deed.  Absalom fled after the murder, and he and David’s relationship was never the same again.  In fact, Absalom eventually planned and carried out a coup attempt against his father, which ended violently in Absalom’s death.  Sexual lust wreaked havoc on David’s family and ultimately it cost him three sons (2 Sam. 13-18). 

Sexual lust’s consequences are dreadful indeed, and bondage, idolatry, and broken relationships are just the beginning.  According to Proverbs 5-7, sexual lust can destroy one’s health, one’s wealth and ultimately one’s life.  All of these consequences are by God’s design and are his holy judgment on sexual lust.  Proverbs 5:21-22 say, “For the ways of a man are before the eyes of the Lord, and He watches all his paths. His own iniquities will capture the wicked, and he will be held with the cords of his sin (NASB).”  The New Testament is just as clear.  “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge Heb.13:4 (NASB).”  Of course, the ultimate judgment for those who refuse to repent of sexual lust is separation from God for all eternity.  “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God 1 Cor. 6:9-10 (NASB).”

We have briefly observed what the Scriptures say about sexual lust’s origins, definition, cause, progression and consequences.  The Scriptures have much more to say on these subjects but space limits.  By now, it should be clear that sexual lust is a horrible monster with an insatiable appetite for the souls of men; souls that it seeks to enslave and then destroy.  The good news is the monster of sexual lust can be defeated and the Bible tells us how.  We will unpackthese biblical truths next week.

[1] Spiros Zodhiates. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament. Electronic ed. (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000).
[2] Steve Gallagher, “Breaking Sexual Idolatry (Part 1),” (Jan. 2010), [online], accessed 20 June 2010; available from; Internet.
[3] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 319.
[4] Edward T. Welch, Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave (Phillipsburg: P &R Publishing, 2001), 51.
[5] Gallagher, “Breaking Sexual Idolatry (Part 1)”
[6] Welch, Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, 49.
[7] Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping Others in Need of Change (Phillipsburg: P &R Publishing, 2002), 72.  

Thursday, September 14, 2017

We Have a Heart Problem

Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us a life changing truth in Mark 7.  This chapter begins with the Pharisees and scribes complaining about Jesus’ disciples eating without washing their hands.  The Pharisees and scribes had numerous rules about washing hands, plates, cups etc. They were deeply offended that Jesus and his disciples did not observe their religious rules.  Jesus responds to them by quoting Isaiah 29:13. Mark 7:6-7 (NASB) 6  And He said to them, "Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: 'THIS PEOPLE HONORS ME WITH THEIR LIPS, BUT THEIR HEART IS FAR AWAY FROM ME. 7  'BUT IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING AS DOCTRINES THE PRECEPTS OF MEN.'

Sadly, the last line of Jesus’ quote describes a huge problem in the church today.  Too many Christians bring man-made theology to the Scriptures, rather than getting their theology from the Scriptures. However, that’s an issue for another day.  I want to focus on what Jesus says about the heart.

In verses 14-16 Jesus said to the crowd: "Listen to Me, all of you, and understand:  there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.  ["If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear."]

Afterwards, the disciples ask Jesus to explain what his words mean.  Mark 7:18-23 (NASB) 18  And He *said to them, "Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19  because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?" (Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20  And He was saying, "That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21  "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22  deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23  "All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man."

In Jesus explanation, he teaches us that sinful behavior flows from our hearts. Think about the implications of this truth.  We are responsible.  We cannot blame others or our circumstances or so-called spirits (demons) of anger, lust and deceit. We have a heart problem.

Do you struggle with evil thoughts?  What about lust?  Do you struggle with anger or pride?  If you do it’s because you have a heart problem. 

Many of us want to blame others or our circumstances for our sinful behavior. For example, have you ever said to someone, “You make me so angry!”   The truth is no one can make you angry, but his or her actions can bring the anger to the surface that resides in your heart.  Usually, when we get angry it’s because we are not getting something we want.  In any case, what the other person did or didn’t do surfaced what was already in our hearts.  I will address anger in detail in a future post.

Perhaps, this is a better illustration.  Suppose you are walking down the street and you spot an attractive, scantily dressed woman.  At first you stare and then you begin to entertain immoral thoughts.  From where did these thoughts come?  They came from the lust that resides in your heart.  Certainly, it would be better if the woman was dressed modestly.  Nevertheless, she is not at fault for the lust that proceeds from your heart.  She simply revealed what resides there.

James 1:14-15 (NASB) 14  But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15  Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.  According to James, the reason we experience temptation is because of our own lust or desires.  From where do these desires come?  That’s right, our hearts.  If immoral desires did not reside in our hearts then the attractive, scantily dressed woman would not be a temptation.

What can we do?  It will take more than one post to answer this question.  Obviously, if our hearts are the problem this is where we must focus. Sadly, many focus on the fruit (behavior) rather than the root (heart).  Behavior modification techniques will not help us. Sooner or later, what is in our hearts will come out!  

Again, what can we do?  The answer is not much. We cannot change our hearts.  We are helpless but thankfully not hopeless.  Romans 5:6-8 (NASB) 6  For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7  For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Jesus died for our sins, the fruit of our evil hearts.  He doesn’t stop here.  Jesus gives new hearts. 

 Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NASB) 26  "Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27  "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.  

Do you need a new heart?  Only the Lord Jesus Christ can give you one.  How?  Begin by reading the gospel of John in the Bible.  Why the gospel John? John 20:31 (NASB) 31  but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

From the Pen of Pastor Paul: A Short Review

The opportunity to read and review Daniel Hyde’s new book From the Pen of Pastor Paul was a tremendous blessing to this pastor. I shepherd in a town some call the most isolated in lower forty-eight states, and at times it can be a very lonely and discouraging place. Reading Hyde’s book was like meeting with a fellow pastor and talking about ministry. It was convicting, encouraging and restorative. God used From the Pen of Pastor Paul to reignite my passion for faithful gospel ministry in a hard place. God’s providence and timing are indeed perfect.

From the Pen of Pastor Paul is a book of expositional sermons on First and Second Thessalonians.  It’s chocked full of pastoral theology. The exposition is clear, edifying and challenging. Hyde sometimes strays from the text in his exposition, but always in a way that is faithful to the Scriptures. He handles the most controversial passages in the Thessalonian epistles, those having to do with eschatology, with grace and wisdom.  Some may disagree with Hyde’s interpretation of these passages because he is not a believer in what I call popular eschatology. What is popular eschatology? It is what one finds in books like the Left Behind Series. 

In my opinion, this book will be a blessing to all in the church. It will bless pastors in that it will remind them of their calling and challenge them to faithfulness. It will bless congregants by feeding their souls with sound biblical teaching and motivating them to pursue their sanctification.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness

Author Jeremy Walker’s recent book, Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness is indeed timely for the American church.   There was a time in America when Christianity heavily influenced the culture.  However, those days appear to be long over, especially with the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.   Unfortunately, this decision will soon lead to the erosion of religious liberty in America.  The church will eventually be persecuted and Christians marginalized.  Walker does not address this issue specifically in his book, but he writes “ The kind of honor that has been afforded to Christian truth in much of the Western world in recent centuries is not the norm, and we might have come to assume too much. We are probably returning to the real historical norm of persecution, and we should be the more thankful for our relative freedoms while we have them, remembering those who do not as if we suffered with them (Heb. 13:3).”

In sum, Passing Through is a biblical and practical theology for living a life that glorifies God in a hostile world.   Since many other reviewers have provided a summary of this excellent book, I want to focus on my personal experience with it.  I found this book to be one of the most convicting I have read in a long time.  The Lord used it to point out sinful attitudes and actions in my life.  For instance, my attitude towards rulers and authorities has been utterly sinful.  Passing Through’s chapter entitled Respect Authorties  opened my eyes and brought me to repentance.  Another chapter that convicted me was Relieve the Suffering.  It revealed that I have been lacking compassion and mercy.  I have not been acting like my Heavenly Father who is known for His lovingkindness.  Again, I repented.  It seems that every chapter confronted me with some sin of which I need to repent.   That’s not to say that Walker is condemning.  He is indeed gracious and true to the Scriptures.

Finally, I would like to give some friendly advice about how to read Passing Through. It’s not the kind of book one should read at one sitting.  Read it slowly and devotionally.  Take time to let the biblical truth it presents penetrate your heart.  Repent where needed.  Rejoice when blessed.   Ask God for grace to live the pilgrim life it presents.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Spiritual Warfare: A Biblical and Balanced Perspective

Over the years, I have read numerous books on the subject of spiritual warfare.  I am grieved to say that all of them were less than biblical, except for one, David Powlison’s outstanding work, Power Encounters.  Regrettably, Power Encounters is presently out of print.  Thankfully, a new book has burst upon the scene.  It is entitled, Spiritual Warfare: A Biblical and Balanced Perspective.  The authors, Brian Borgman and Rob Ventura, have produced a work that lives up to its title.  The book is thoroughly biblical, and it most definitely presents a balanced perspective on spiritual warfare.

In summary, Spiritual Warfare: A Biblical and Balanced Perspective is a thorough exposition and application of the classic New Testament passage on spiritual warfare, Ephesians 6:10-20.   The authors accomplish their work in 13 short chapters.  They do a skillful job of unpacking the biblical truths contained in each verse of the Ephesians’ passage.  Having recently preached through this text myself, I found myself continually nodding in agreement a with their exegetical conclusions and exposition.

Borgman and Ventura conclude each chapter with helpful questions that serve as aids to digest and apply the biblical truths taught.  In addition, the authors include three appendixes that add further insight on the subject of spiritual warfare.  The appendixes cover the sovereignty of God and Satan, the question can a Christian be demon possessed, and a plea to pray for one’s pastor.  I really appreciated the last appendix as I am a pastor who appreciates and desires the prayer support of his flock.

In short, I am grateful I now have a book readily available on the vital topic of spiritual warfare that is theologically and biblically sound to heartily recommend.  In my estimation, Spiritual Warfare: A Biblical and Balanced Perspective covers the essentials every Christian needs to know about the subject.        

Friday, May 18, 2012

Marshall's Summary of the Doctrine of Last Things

The Last Things*
by I. Howard Marshall

  • The Final Manifestation of God's Kingly Rule (Luke 1:69–79)
  • The Second Coming of Jesus (Luke 17:20–37)
  • The Resurrection of the Dead (1 Corinthians 15)
  • The Life of Heaven (Revelation 21:1-22:5)
  • Questions for Study and Discussion
One of the most used pieces of jargon in modern theology is the word "eschatology." Strictly understood, it means "the doctrine of the last things", and it is in this sense that we understand it here. Eschatology is concerned with God's final intervention in history to bring the present evil world to an end and to inaugurate the new world. But this act of God is not confined to the future, for God began his new creation in the coming of Jesus and the establishment of the church. Prophecies relating to the last days were understood to be in course of fulfillment in the early days of the church (Acts 2:17). In order, therefore, to understand what is going to happen in the future, we need to recapitulate some of the biblical story so as to put the future into perspective.

The Final Manifestation of God's Kingly Rule (Luke 1:69–79)

The prophets of Israel were men who were profoundly affected by the evil and injustice which they saw rampant everywhere in the world. They saw that even the people of Israel were sinners in the sight of God, and they interpreted the various disasters which overtook them as evidence of God's judgment upon his people. They were perplexed by the problem of the suffering of the innocent and the prosperity of the wicked. They longed for peace and security to be established in the world. In these problems and questionings they were sustained by their faith in Yahweh as the God of history, and they believed that one day he himself would intervene in history to set up his kingly rule among men and to establish truth, justice and love among men. They looked to a day when Jerusalem would be the centre of a peaceful world, in which the offspring of David would rule the nations and bring salvation to all men. In short, they believed that God would personally intervene in the last days to establish his rule (Isaiah 9:1–7; 11:1–9; Micah 4:1–7).

In due time God sent his Son, Jesus the Messiah, to inaugurate his kingly rule among men. Jesus proclaimed that the kingly rule of God was beginning in a new way, and indeed there was plenty of evidence for those with the eyes to see it that in Jesus God was intervening in the life of the world. The coming of Jesus was attended by signs and wonders which caused people to say, "God has visited his people" (Luke 7:16), and after his death and resurrection the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church (cf. Joel 2:28–32), thus continuing the action of God. Jesus called men to enter the kingdom of God, and his disciples proclaimed the same good news of salvation by faith in him.

The new era promised in the Old Testament had in fact arrived. It did not, however, mean that the old era came to an end. The gospel message was not universally received, and sin and death continued to hold sway. The present era, since the coming of Jesus, is a period of transition or overlap. The old age has been judged and is doomed to end, and the new era has already arrived for those who acknowledge its presence and power by faith. Christians thus live as members of the new era in the midst of the old era. God has mercifully provided this "interval" before he makes a final end of the old era, so that all men may have the opportunity of hearing the gospel and becoming citizens of the new era (Mark 13:10; 2 Peter 3:9).

From all this it emerges that the "last things" have already begun. God's promises concerning the End began to come to fulfilment in Jesus, and the powers of the future are already at work. The coming of Jesus is the proof that God will one day bring the old era to a full end, and it is on the basis of what God has already done that Christians look forward with confidence to the completion of his purpose.

God has begun his reign! That is the meaning of the first coming of Jesus. But we do not yet see all things in subjection to him (cf. Hebrews 2:8). The Christian hope is that God who has begun to rule in Jesus Christ will one day rule openly over all men. The present interim period will come to an end. The era of evil will cease, and God will establish a new heaven and a new earth characterized by righteousness. He will judge all mankind and those who submit to his rule will become citizens of the new Jerusalem, the city of God, and reign with him for ever. All this will be accomplished through a second coming of Jesus as the Saviour and Judge of all mankind.

Such is the prospect, seen against the background of biblical prophecy and the preliminary fulfilment in Christ. Now we must fill in the details.

The Second Coming of Jesus (Luke 17:20–37)

The Christian hope is centred on the return of Jesus. What he began at his first coming can be completed only by his second coming. As Christian salvation finds its centre and source in him, so the Christian hope looks forward to him as the fulfilment of all its expectations. The one who came in humility must come again in glory and be openly vindicated before all the world. In one sense there is nothing more to be revealed. The first coming of Jesus brought the full and complete revelation of God and the once-for-all act of atonement for the sin of the world. Nothing more can be added to this final revelation of God. Hence the second coming of Jesus in one sense brings nothing new. It merely consummates what has already been begun. The Jesus who is to come is the one whom we already know as our Judge and Saviour.

Although the fact of Jesus" return is clearly and abundantly taught in the New Testament, the details of what is going to happen are far from clear, and nobody should attempt to be dogmatic about them. So stupendous an event as the winding up of human history can be described only in symbolical and metaphorical language, just as we can speak of creation or of the nature of God or of the incarnation only in symbolical language. The symbols are not meant to be taken literally: the description of a Figure with a sharp sword coming out of his mouth, for example, is clearly absurd if taken literally, but if taken to signify the powerful character of his utterances it makes good sense (Revelation 1:16). Taken for what they really are, namely symbols, they tell us the important principles which are involved in the future events. Unfortunately, Christians find it hard to resist the temptation to press the details into tidy schemes, and as a result there has been much unwarranted speculation about the second coming, and Christians have often come into sharp conflict when defending their rival interpretations of ambiguous evidence. It is better to admit our ignorance of the details and to concentrate our attention on the unambiguous centralities and their spiritual implications.

Jesus himself spoke clearly of his second coming as the Son of man to be the arbiter of human destiny (Matthew 25:31ff.; Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62). He indicated that his coming would be preceded by various events – the rise of false saviours, the persecution of his people and the increase of human wickedness (Mark 13:1–25; cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12; 2 Timothy 3:12f.), but he said quite plainly that nobody can calculate the date of his coming (Luke 17:20f.; Acts 1:7) and that only the Father knows when it will be (Mark 13:32). In fact there has scarcely been any period when there have not been false saviours, persecution of the church and the growth of wickedness, and one might be tempted to say that the coming of Jesus could happen at anytime. The early church certainly believed this, and urged its members to be ready for an event which might take them quite unawares.

Consequently, teaching about the second coming is generally accompanied by exhortations to believers to live a holy life in preparation for that day (Acts 3:19–21; Philippians 3:20f.; 4:5; Colossians 3:4f.; 1 Thessalonians 1:9f.; 2 Timothy 4:1f.; Hebrews 9:28; 1 Peter 1:7; 1 John 2:28; Revelation 1:7). Men must not sit and idly wait for the day, but live in a manner befitting servants awaiting the arrival of their master (cf. Luke 12:35-48). This of course does not mean that Christians are serving an absent Lord and that their motive for doing good should be fear of his coming and catching them unawares. The picture in the parables of servants awaiting the return of their master must not be pressed too far. For we live continually in the presence of the Master and enjoy his fellowship daily. If Jesus is absent from our sight, he is nevertheless spiritually present with us, and we do nothing that would interrupt that fellowship.

Although the coming of Jesus cannot be calculated in advance, there is nevertheless fairly clear teaching that it will be preceded by the final effort of evil to overcome God. Paul speaks of a figure who tries to usurp the place of God (2 Thessalonians 2:3-12), and antichrist (although Paul does not use that word). John states that there are many antichrists already at work in the world (1 John 2:18), but this does not exclude the coming of a final upsurge of evil against God. If we are to take seriously the descriptions in Revelation of a final conflict (Revelation 19:11-21; 20:7-10), these point in the same direction, although some scholars think that here John is simply portraying in particularly graphic and concrete terms the conflict which is always taking place between good and evil, God and Satan. It is wisest to admit that we do not know precisely what will happen. What we do know is that no matter how great the power of evil, it cannot finally overcome the power of God. Evil will certainly be defeated.

One passage in the New Testament describes a reign of Christ and his people for a thousand years (i.e. a millennium) (Revelation 20:1-6). Its meaning has given rise to considerable debate, and three main views have been put forward, known as pre-, post- and a-millennialism. Pre-millennialism is the view that the second coming of Jesus precedes his reign with his people (including dead Christians who have been resurrected) on the earth for a period of a thousand years, after which will follow the general resurrection of the dead, the day of judgment and the life of heaven. This view is often associated with the belief that some of the Old Testament prophecies about the people of Israel will find fulfilment during this period. Post-millennialism is the view that the second coming follows the ultimate triumph of the gospel in the world, this period of triumph being the millennium. A-millennialism is the view that the description in Revelation 20 is symbolical and that it refers to the entire period of Christ's rule beginning with his ascension and exaltation.

Each of these views is stoutly defended by its adherents. The first is held by dispensationalists, the second was held by some of the Puritans and is maintained by their contemporary followers, and the third is held by some of the Reformed tradition in theology. Where equally scholarly interpreters of Scripture differ from one another, it is best not to be dogmatic. For what it is worth, the present writer thinks that the millennium is simply one of the many pictures used in Scripture to describe the life of heaven, and that it is wrong to press Revelation 20:1-6 too literally to refer to a distinct period between the second coming and the judgment. Some scholars think that it makes a lot of difference to our present Christian conduct and hope whether we accept one view or another. But to say this is surely to ignore the fact that on all views the central expectation is of the coming of Jesus, and, provided that he is at the centre of our Christian hope, the details are relatively unimportant.

The important thing, accordingly, is to recognize that the second coming is the coming of Jesus as Judge and Saviour. The New Testament speaks sometimes of God and sometimes of Christ as Judge (Romans 14:10ff.; Philippians 2:10f.). This is because God acts in judgment through Christ to whom he has committed the authority to judge (John 5:22; Acts 17:30f.). At his coming Christ will judge everybody according to his works and words (Matthew 12:36f.; Romans 2:5-11; 2 Corinthians 5:10). The fact that judgment is said to be on the basis of what we have done is not, of course, a denial of the principle of justification by faith, since the evidence of faith is the good works which it produces (Galatians 5:6), and only those who have put their faith in Christ can perform works acceptable to God (cf. Hebrews 9:14). The judgment involves everybody, Christians and non-Christians alike. In the case of believers there will be reward or loss according to the way in which they have used the talents and opportunities entrusted to them (Matthew 25:14-30; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

Christ's coming as Judge is also and supremely his coming as Saviour. His people will be set free from sin and corruption to become like him. They will no longer be harassed by temptation and they will be made perfectly holy (Philippians 3:21; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; 1 John 3:2). They will take their seats at his table and reign with him forever (Matthew 8:11; Lk. 22:30; Revelation 22:5).

The Resurrection of the Dead (1 Corinthians 15)

The second coming of Jesus is accompanied by the resurrection of dead believers to join him (1 Thessalonians 4:14-16). The state of the dead before the resurrection is presented in various ways in the Bible. In the Old Testament it appears to be the common fate of all the dead to be in Sheol or the grave. While there are some inklings of hope of resurrection (Daniel 12:2) or of transfer to the presence of God (Psalm 73:24), in general the Old Testament writers lacked the fuller revelation brought by Christ. If the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is to be taken literally (which is not certain), we may be entitled to deduce from it that a separation already exists between believers and unbelievers, the former being at peace and the latter in torment. But we must be careful about pressing the details of this or any parable. We should not, for example, want to apply the picture of the ruler gloating over the execution of his enemies before his very eyes (Luke 19:27) to God. We get a clearer picture from Paul who knows that after death he will be with Christ (Philippians 1:23) and speaks of those who sleep by Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:14). The penitent thief was promised that he would go to paradise with Jesus (Luke 23:43), and the martyr Stephen saw Jesus standing in heaven to receive him (Acts 7:55-59). All this suggests that death ushers a Christian into the presence of Christ. Nevertheless, there are indications that this is not a final or complete state. The fate of the unrighteous is not described at all. We have to be content to leave the whole matter in the hands of God.

At the second coming of Christ two events take place. On the one hand, those who died as believers in Christ are raised from the dead and join his triumphal entourage (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17; 1 Corinthians 15:23, 51-57). On the other hand, those believers who are still alive at his coming are brought into his presence to meet him as he comes (1 Thessalonians 4:17). All who participate in this event, both the resurrected dead and the living, are transformed by the power of God and receive a new body. Since physical flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God and immortality, Christians receive a new "spiritual" body (1 Corinthians 15:44). Just as a seed "dies" and gives place to a plant which is organically related to it but very different in appearance, so our present physical bodies will give place to new and perfect spiritual bodies fit for the life of heaven (Philippians 3:20f.). What this means is beyond our comprehension, since the concept of heaven itself is unimaginable, but we may perhaps draw an analogy from the transfigured and resurrected glorious body of Jesus (Mark 9:2f.; Luke24:39). The significance of the point is that Christians do not look forward merely to the survival of an immaterial soul – with the consequence that the present physical body and its life are ultimately of no significance. There is a real continuity between our present physical bodily life and our future spiritual bodily life. Salvation is concerned with the whole person and not merely with a part of it. The life of heaven is to be a continuation on a more grand and glorious scale of life in Christ on earth.

Those who are not members of Christ's people naturally do not share in the glorification which characterizes the resurrection of Christians. There is, however, a resurrection of the unrighteous so that they may appear before God and Christ on the day of judgment (Matthew 25:41ff.; John 5:28f.; Acts 24:15; Revelation 20:11-15). The judgment which has already been passed on them in this life is ratified (John 3:18f.).

Those who are judged in this way are those who have refused the gospel of Jesus Christ and remained in their sins. They are not fit to enter into the heavenly presence of God and of Christ, and therefore they are excluded from the presence of God (2 Thessalonians 1:9). This fate is described as eternal punishment (2 Thessalonians 1:9) or as a lake of fire where there is eternal punishment (Revelation 20:10, 15). Opinions differ as to whether this means eternal conscious torment or annihilation. The question is again one of how far the biblical imagery used to describe the after-life is to be taken literally. Those who adopt the latter alternative stress that it in no way minimizes the severity of divine judgment on the wicked, annihilation being a fate sufficiently dreadful in itself. Nor does its view deny that the wicked do have to appear before God and bear his judgment. There is no suggestion that annihilation takes place at the same point as physical death.

A particular problem is raised by the fate of those who have never heard the gospel and had the opportunity of freely responding to it. The New Testament does not speculate much on this matter. It is much more concerned to place before the church its solemn responsibility to preach the gospel to all men, so that all may have the opportunity of enjoying the blessings of salvation in this life and in the hereafter. Nevertheless, there are hints that the heathen will be judged according to how they have responded to the light which they have had. There are some grounds for holding that men whose way of life was such that they would have accepted Christ if they had had the opportunity to do so will be saved at the last day, because the sacrifice of Christ avails for them also (Matthew 25:31ff.; Romans 2:12-16). We can safely entrust them to the great mercy and utter justice of God who desires that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4).

To affirm this is not the same thing as saying that all men will eventually be saved. Some people think that although the Bible contains numerous warnings about the possibility of the wicked being cast into hell, nobody will in fact finally be sent there: the mercy of God is such that he would not consign any person to hell, and the power of his love is such that all men must eventually respond to it, even if that response comes only after some kind of purgatorial suffering. The fact that Christ is said to have preached to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19f.; cf. 4:6) is sometimes adduced in support of this view, although this is not what the passage implies: it speaks rather of the proclamation of Christ's victory over all forces arrayed against him.

Two things must be said about this view. First, there is no suggestion in the New Testament of any kind of purgatorial suffering after the completion of which a person may reach heaven: such a suggestion would imply that salvation depends upon human acceptability to God rather than upon the finished work of Christ. A person's fate in the next life depends upon his response to Christ in this life (Luke 12:8f.; 2 Corinthians 6:1f.). Second, we must distinguish between the universal offer of God's mercy and universal acceptance of that offer. The universal availability of divine grace is clearly taught in the New Testament (John 3:16). But universal acceptance of grace is not taught. Jesus clearly stated that not all will be able to enter the kingdom of God (Luke 13:23f.). Nobody, therefore, can presume on the mercy of God to save them despite a life of sin and impenitence, and the church cannot evade its evangelistic responsibility by claiming that God will save everybody in the end anyhow. The doctrine of universalism inevitably weakens the moral and spiritual responsibility of men and blunts the evangelistic and missionary fervour of the church. It has no support in Scripture and a false soft-heartedness should not blind us to what is taught there: the awful responsibility of accepting the gospel in this life.

The Life of Heaven (Revelation 21:1-22:5)

With the day of judgment comes the end of the present world system, corrupted as it is by sin and evil (Romans 8:19-23). The old era comes to a final end, and it is replaced by a new era. A new heaven and a new earth come into being, and since they are righteous they are eternal (2 Peter 3:13). The new home of redeemed men and women is spoken of as a new Jerusalem, for it is the holy city to which the earthly, sinful Jerusalem points. Sin and sorrow pass away, and eternal bliss is the lot of God's people. The old is finished and all things become new.

It is possible to concentrate attention on the various pictures used to describe the future life of believers – the great banquet, the heavenly city, the river of life with its fruit-bearing trees – and to miss the reality to which they all point: the life of heaven is heavenly life because it is life with God and Jesus. The fellowship between man and his Creator, which was broken by sin, is now fully restored. God's presence among his people is no longer confined to his temple, as in the imagery of the Old Testament (but see also Isaiah 57:15), or to his unseen presence among believers (Matthew 18:20); he is visibly in the midst of them, and they can see his face. Both the Father and the Son are the light of the new Jerusalem, and the Spirit of God summons men to enter the city (Revelation 22:17). Thus, finally, redeemed men and women enter into that fellowship of love which binds Father, Son and Holy Spirit together, and the holy love of God becomes final and full and victorious reality (1 Corinthians 13:13). God is at last all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).

Questions for Study and Discussion

   1. "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:19): discuss.

   2. If Christians are merely "strangers and pilgrims" in this world, how far should they participate in its life? Should they simply concentrate on preparing themselves and other people for the after-life? If not, why not?

   3. Discuss whether the different forms of millennialism make any difference to the present Christian lives of those who hold them.

   4. "In a universe of love there can be no heaven which tolerates a chamber of horrors, no hell for any which does not at the same time make it a hell for God" (J.A.T. Robinson): how would you answer this criticism of the New Testament doctrine of the final destiny of the wicked?

   5. If heaven is not rightly pictured in terms of figures dressed in nightgowns, sitting on clouds and playing harps, what sort of pictures can we use to express its true character?

* From: Chapter 8, A Pocket Guide to New Testament Theology by I. Howard Marshall,
© 2000 I. Howard Marshall.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 1,000 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by