Future Grace for Finishing the Task

Part 4

International Missions Week | Ridgecrest, North Carolina


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

Since there are new folks among us, it might be good for me to take two or three minutes and try to sum up the last four sessions, and show you the relationship that they have to where we’re going to go. I lifted up three passions that are driving me.

  1. Passion for the supremacy of God — by this I want to stress that God’s heart for God is the foundation of our heart for God and our heart for the nations. And so God has a supreme passion for his supremacy.

  2. Our passion for joy — and this is not at odds with the first because God is most glorified in us, most magnified in us, when we are most satisfied in him.

  3. Passion for holiness — love for Christlikeness, or purity of heart, or radical obedience, however you want to describe it. And the first two yield the third one: that if your heart is satisfied in God, you do lead a life that is radically different.

I call this life living by faith in future grace. And I define faith as: a being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus, and I argued for that with texts like John 6:35 and others, where Jesus beckons us to come and he who believes will never thirst. So, belief is a coming to Jesus to drink such that we are no longer craving what the world offers.

Living by Faith

And the reason that living by faith, understood this way, breaks the power of sin is because nobody sins out of duty. People sin because of the promises of happiness that sin makes. And the only way to break the power of the promises of sin is with the power of a superior promise or a superior satisfaction. Sin offers you a very short-term — or as it’s called in Hebrews 11:26, “fleeting” — pleasure. And when you find that promise compelling, sin is your master. And if you can break the power of the compelling promises of sin in your life, you will triumph over sin. And you break the power of the promises of sin by the power of superior promises, which I call future grace. And therefore, faith in future grace is the power whereby you get victory over sin, which means it’s the key to holiness or radical obedience or love.

And then we began to unfold practical instances of sin that we can get victory over. And I want to just do a little more of that now. Then I’m going to take the third of these, covetousness, and make it a stepping-stone into the book of Hebrews. But you will find, and it’s no accident, that the thought structure of the book of Hebrews is the same thing we’ve been looking at. Because I learned this structure of living by faith in future grace in large measure from the dynamic of the book of Hebrews. So that’s the plan and the connection between where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

So I want to take three more sins or temptations this morning and operate with them in view of how to triumph over them by faith in future grace. And the ones I want to work with this morning are lust, sexual lust and temptation. And secondly, bitterness and unforgiveness. And lastly, covetousness. And then we’ll move into the book of Hebrews from that jumping off place. So the reason for taking these sins is not necessarily that they’re the biggest sins or the worst sins, but because they are sample sins that everybody struggles with and we need to just see how — if I’ve been on the right track with living by faith in future grace — you can get victory over the sins.

Stay Mighty in the Spirit

And this has universal application for the Christian life, whether for missionaries or for ordinary saints in the churches at home, because being a missionary doesn’t change anything; it just changes the forms or the place. Missionaries struggle with lust. Missionaries struggle with covetousness. Missionary struggle with anger and bitterness and unforgiveness. And missionaries come home because of sins. They don’t come home because of anything magical on the mission field. Missions are destroyed because of sin.

And so if we can get triumph, in measure, over some ordinary sins, it might be that we’d stay on the field, and it might be that churches would flourish, and it might be that people would come to Christ and churches would be planted more successfully than if we succumb to sin over and over again.

In fact, I’ll just mention right off the bat that one of the big concerns I have for the mission field is videos. I had one of my staff come back from a year on the field. We send a staff person overseas pretty much all the time. We give staff a year off to serve on the mission field in some capacity, teaching or as a chaplain at a camp or something. And they enrich us because of that. But the stories they come back with are both wonderful and awful. And one of the awful stories is the bondage of missionaries to videos, and they’re pretty corrupt videos. I mean, I am real hard on my staff. I don’t dictate what they can watch, but I’m in their face all the time about purity of heart and mind. Because we’re going to be weak as a church if my staff are watching R-rated videos or PG-13 videos every other night with their kids. They’re just going to be worldly.

And they come back with the stories of how these missionaries — they’re tired, they’re discouraged, they’re not accepted, they’re not having the success they had dreamed of — just kick back with these crummy videos that their worldly friends send them. When I hear about it and I look at what they’re watching, I wonder: How are they going to be mighty in the Spirit, mighty to defeat the devil, when they’re feeding on the stuff of the devil every night? How in the world is that going to happen? And so I just plead with you: if that’s where you are, maybe what I do here would help you get some victory over that.

How to Battle Lust

So let’s talk about sexual lust for a minute and temptation. What do you do with it? And let’s just be as biblical as we can here. There are many strategies, and you must learn strategies to fight because it is war. And Jesus made very clear that it’s war, and he did it in the Sermon on the Mount with some pretty graphic illustrations, as you know.

When you’re talking about faith in future grace for triumph over temptation, there’s a negative side to it and a positive side to it. The positive side we’ve been stressing — namely, believing promises, and I’ll get to that in a minute with regard to this issue. But faith in future grace is also a thankfulness to God, and a trust in the wisdom and goodness of God, and the warnings he’s given us — not just the promises he’s given us, but the warnings.

Warned to Stay Alive

Warnings are sort of the bottom side of promises. They’re what will happen if you disbelieve promises. And so Jesus is real big on warnings. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:29, you know that he says that if your eye — and he’s talking about lust here — causes you to sin, pluck it out. For it is better with one eye to go to heaven or to enter into life than with two eyes to go to hell.

Now everything about that word is offensive. It’s offensive to talk about hell in relation to lust. I mean, we believe in eternal security, for goodness’ sake. So don’t talk to us like that. Don’t threaten us in this room with hell because of what we do with our eyes. We believe in eternal security, so don’t talk to us that way. That’s really the way a lot of people read the Sermon on the Mount in our churches: “That can’t apply to us. Don’t threaten us with hell.” Well, pastors and missionaries ought to threaten their people with hell if they live hellish lives. They ought to talk the way Jesus talks. Those who are born of God will take heed to the warnings, use them as means of grace, persevere in faith, and won’t go to hell.

They are eternally secure, and they bear witness to their eternal security by the fact that they have the Spirit within them, enabling them to appropriate the warnings, use them to gouge out their eyes if they must and stay on the narrow path, which alone leads to life. There’s a wide way that leads to destruction. There’s a narrow way that leads to life. If you stay on the narrow way, you get to heaven. If you leave the narrow way and apostatize, forsake the faith, embrace lust, you’re gone. And what you experienced when you were in the revival fifty years ago was not real.

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (1 John 2:19)

That’s the way the New Testament handles eternal security: if you leave and you forsake and you’re no longer a professing believer or no longer a real believer — living like the devil — then you probably never were a believer. So one reason it’s offensive is because it talks about hell.

Another reason it’s offensive is because that’s gory. What do you use? A screwdriver? I mean, you really must let the words of Jesus hit you here. This is gross. This is gory. This is horrible. If you don’t, in your battle with Internet pornography and your battle with television mess and your battle with all kinds of stuff on billboards and movies and newspaper advertisements and Time magazine — if you don’t skip some pages with a fear of your eye being gouged out or going to hell — you don’t get it yet. You just don’t get the nature of the battle and how serious it is.

And many people just don’t get how serious the battle is with lust. Our whole culture makes light of it. Everything is sold with it. Sex, and the way women dress, and the way men act toward women, all these things are considered so light, so superficial, so insignificant. Our evangelical daughters just cluck their tongues when the word modesty is spoken about. And the way many women dress in our churches is absolutely ridiculous; it’s just borrowed straight from the world. And they don’t get it. I mean, most of these men and women who treat lust and sex so lightly, they’re not doing it out of any assault. They just don’t get it. They’re naïve, and they need help. And Jesus gives them help with words like:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. (Matthew 5:29)

Whatever It Takes

There’s a story of a man in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania who was out in a logging camp, and a tree fell on his leg and trapped him, and he was alone. He had a bulldozer. He was out moving stuff, and he got out of the bulldozer and a tree tumbled over and trapped his leg and broke it very severely — compound fracture just below the knee. And he called and he called and he was bleeding severely. He said, “I’m going to die.”

Perfectly conscious, able to handle himself, do you know what he did? He took out his pocketknife and he cut off his leg. That’s in the newspaper. He cut off his leg. He unlaced his boot, formed a tourniquet above his knee, tied it as tight as he could, took the rough side of his pocketknife, and cut his leg off below the knee. Hot on the bulldozer, drove himself to his pickup truck, which was a straight shift. He drove a straight-shift pickup truck to a farmhouse, stumbled out of it, almost dead, bleeding, and lived to tell about it.

Now the reason that story is important is for one reason: Do you know why he cut off his leg? He wanted to live. Do you want to live? Gouge out your eye. Another warning comes from 1 Peter 2:11:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.

We’re in a war. Most people have such a jolly view of Christianity today. There are a few people that feel the mega weight of the war that we’re in just to save our souls. There are fleshly lusts that wage war against our souls. And the enemy — our own flesh, the devil, the world — are warring to destroy us and our souls through all kinds of visual temptation.

Choking Pleasure of Life

Another warning: Luke 8:14 in the parable of the soils. The third soil, that’s the biggie for us in America; that’s the biggie. We are the third-soil generation, country, era. It’s the soil of the thorns, and in Luke these thorns grow up around the word, and begin to grab us and choke our life and kill. And they are called two things: the anxieties of this age and the pleasures of life. What kills Christians in America? The pleasures of life.

And one of the massive pleasures from the head to the groin to the bottom of your feet is sexual pleasure — and it is killing people. And the more private it becomes with the Internet, the more insidious the destruction becomes.

Once you had to be so bold to get to pornography, to venture into some peep show or some bookstore or some X-rated movie. And then, lo and behold, Satan, under the providence of God, because it can be turned for good as well, invents videos. And you can take them home. But you had to kind of get your TV out and set it up and turn it on. And the children or the wife could walk in, unless you get up in the middle of the night to do it. And then along comes the Internet — anywhere, anytime. And now you don’t even need to be plugged in, and you can have it, even the most wild kind.

And so it all boils down to your heart, doesn’t it? No outward constraints anymore. Nobody watching but God, and your concern that you not be choked to death. Do you want to die? Watch out for these thorns.

Kill Sin by the Spirit

Here’s a fourth warning text, which moves into a positive strategy.

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:13)

Let’s ponder that positive statement for a moment: “if by the spirit you put death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Now to put something to death, you need a weapon (unless you’re going to choke them or punch them hard enough). But it says “by the Spirit.” So what is the weapon? The sword — “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). The Spirit is God. I don’t wield the Holy Spirit; he wields me. I’m an instrument of his. Well, what do you mean “put to death . . . by the Spirit”? To do something by something, I need an instrument in my hand. And God says, “How about the sword of the Spirit?” So when he says to put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, he probably means: avail yourself of the power and the instrumentality of the Spirit, which is the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

So you’re going to slay the temptation with a sword in your hand. The sword in your hand is going to be the word of God. So you stock your arsenal, your mind and your heart, full of daggers from the word of God. And when Satan or the flesh or the world approaches you with a temptation, you reach and you draw quickly. Here’s my read on this: I think you’ve got a window of about five seconds — not much longer. If the image appears somewhere, if the thought enters my mind, I’ve got about five seconds or it’s a lost cause.

And so within those five seconds, I do two things. I immediately say either out loud if I’m alone, or in my head if I’m not, No, to the thought, to the image, to the devil, to whatever. No. And then I reach for a sword. And it may be a word, it may be an image of the cross. I’ll give you a few of the texts on the positive side here. I failed in battling lust a long time as a teenager, as most guys do; I fell prey to masturbation and fantasies. And one of the big failures was the No by itself, out of a guilty conscience, doesn’t work. It’s not enough.

You have to put something in the place of a powerful image or a powerful promise. “Come on, come on, this is going to feel really good. Maybe not more than five minutes, but it’s going to feel really good. Come on, come on, yield to this fantasy. Yield to this. Flip the pages. Hit the buttons. Do whatever you have to do. This is going to feel really good.” Now that’s a promise held out. The only way to defeat this thing is with the power of a superior image, a superior pleasure, a superior promise. I didn’t realize that as a teenager. I just didn’t get it. I didn’t have the spiritual categories. I didn’t have the wherewithal.

Superior Promises

And I’ve devoted my life for about the last thirty years trying to figure out the positive side of Christian Hedonism because the negative never worked. It never produced holiness. It never produced joy that triumphed over the pleasures of sin. But now I think I’m getting it. And so, behind the No, within the first five seconds that you’ve got to win here, comes some words or some images over against the images.

And sometimes they need to be very rough, gross images of Christ on the cross. This is a very effective one for me. I’ll picture Jesus on the cross screaming. I just let his voice scream with pain in my mind and watch him heave up and down, as his lacerated back goes up and down on the cross. And I see the flesh rending in his feet and his hands. And I see these awful thorns poking in his head. And he has to turn, and one of them goes in a little deeper. And I just let that grip me.

And I say, “[He] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). He did that from my purity. If I yield here in the next five seconds, I stab him with a sword. I can’t do that. This was for me. You’ve got to fight like that with your mind. The Bible is constantly telling you to direct your mind somewhere: direct your mind to heaven, direct your mind to Jesus, direct your mind to the Bible. You can do these things in the power of the Holy Spirit. Put to death the deeds of the body with the Spirit. And so you take the word and you thrust it forth triumphantly. And then you do it over and over.

I used to think that if I said No enough, that would work. It’s like saying, “Don’t think of white elephants. Don’t think of white elephants. Don’t think of white elephants. Don’t think of white elephants.” And every time you say, “Don’t think of white elephants,” you’re seeing white elephants, and it’s still there. So how can you get rid of it by saying, “Don’t think of white elephants”? And that’s the mistake of the negative. You can’t defeat lust negatively. You cannot defeat lust with “Thou shall not lust.” That simply gets you started. “Fantasy, go away. Fantasy, go away. Fantasy, go away.” It’s always there in the very word.

And this is a miracle of the Spirit when this happens, but you have a hand in this: you must set your mind on another thing and say that thing, see that thing, this word of God, this image, over and over, until God has freed you. And I’ll tell you, after many years, it works. It works. You can have freedom. As one who’s known bondage and now knows great freedom, it works.

Positive Promises

I’ll give you an illustration — I mean, just real practical on how I do this. We live in the inner city of Minneapolis. I’m out cutting the grass last Thursday. Noël told me last week that behind our garage, there was a couple having oral sex. She calls the police. The police come get them and take them away.

She shouldn’t have told me that probably, because this is in my mind now: that behind my garage is people doing this sort of thing. I’m out cutting the grass. And I push the lawnmower by the garage and that thought comes into my mind — just a thought. Nobody’s there. I’ve got five seconds before I begin to put myself there, watching that; I’ve got five seconds. And I know I’m messing you up right now. I’m causing big-time trouble. This is a huge risk, what I’m doing right now, because you’re going to have to deal with this all day long today. But if I’ve succeeded, you’ll get victory over this. So at that moment I say to that thought No. And then I begin to think another thought.

It took me about eighteen passes of the lawnmower — up, down; up, down — before that was completely gone. But I wouldn’t let go of the positive thought. I just wouldn’t let it go. I held on to it. I kept saying to myself over and over again the positive promise. I can’t remember right now which one I used. But if you let it go, you’ll sink right back into the default fantasy. The default thought. So learn to use positive promises.

Divine Power

Now, here’s the underlying text. If you need a theological foundation for living by faith in future grace with regard to lust, it comes from 2 Peter 1:3–4.

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 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.

So power comes through knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence. That is what I mean by living by faith in future grace: getting promises. So, for example, I say,

the Lord God is a sun and shield; . . .
No good thing does he withhold
     from those who walk uprightly. (Psalm 84:11)

Yes, I’m going to deny myself the short-term pleasure. But God says that no good thing will he withhold from those who walk up rightly. Therefore, every good thing that God can conceive for me is mine if I walk with God here. And I preach that to myself over and over again, and believe that he is going to give me every good thing as I walk uprightly with him and I put to death the deeds of the body with that sword of the Spirit.

Promise of Purity

Or another one would be Matthew 5:8:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

There comes a point in your Christian life where you want to see God so badly, you will gouge out your eye so that no other sin will keep you from it. Do you want to see God so badly that when another sight begins to contaminate your capacity to see him and enjoy him and delight in him and rebel in him, you will do anything — including gouge out your eye so as not to see what would blind you to the beauty of God?

I think it was about when I was maybe 18 or 19 or 20, right in there, when these things were awakening to me as I began to have spiritual tastes and capacities for pleasures higher than groin pleasures. It was the capacity to look at a sunset, to look at a woman as a human being who might one day be a wife, or to look at my mother, or to look at a little child, or to look at a poem, or to look at Christ on the cross, or to look at heaven, and to begin to feel spiritual delights and pleasures in these things that were being destroyed day after day through fantasies and masturbation. And I began to say to myself, “I want those things. I want to see those things.”

Close to twenty years ago now, in the first issues of Leadership Magazine, there was an article called “The Anatomy of Lust.” It was a powerful, anonymous testimony of a man in the bondage to lust and how he got free after about twelve years of bondage. And the answer was he saw purity in a novel by François Mauriac. And he fell in love with purity and realized he was destroying himself and wanted it so badly.

Those lusts are lusts of deceit (Ephesians 4:22; 1 Peter 1:14; 1 Thessalonians 4:5). The promises of lust are lies; they’re deceitful. They’re called “lusts of deceit” — lust what you had in your former ignorance, Peter says. So how do you feel being ignorant, guys? How do you feel being deceived by your own desires? Do you feel big, noble, strong, courageous, free, venturesome by being a dupe? No, you don’t; you feel like a dog in heat. Sex puts you aside.

How to Battle Bitterness and Unforgiveness

How should we battle these things bitterness and unforgiveness? They probably destroy more of us than sex does. We talked about loving our enemy. So we maybe don’t need to say too much about this — except let me add one thing: holding grudges is a deadly thing. It will kill you and it’ll kill your life. It’ll send you to hell because Jesus says,

If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14–15)

You become a chronically unforgiving, grudge-holding, bitter person. You will so shrivel up on the inside that you will no longer be capable of delighting in the forgiveness of God in your life. And if you can’t delight in the forgiveness of God in your life, you’re not forgiven. You never tasted it. So being a grudge-holding person is deadly. It’s just as deadly as lust, and you need to fight it with all your might. I’ve talked about how you can fight it by faith in a great reward.

He Who Judges Justly

But now I want to add one more little thing. One of the hardest things about letting go of a great sin against you in the past — say, a father who abused you, either sexually or terribly abused you some other way. Or it might be that there was a tragic divorce in your background, and owing to no really serious fault of your own, your spouse simply forsook the faith, or fell in love with another person, or just utterly betrayed you. You can list your own horrible experience by which you were really wronged. You were really wronged.

Now how do you handle that forever? You just go seething on and on and on and on, year after year. How can you lay that down? And one of the big obstacles to letting it down, laying it aside and not letting it destroy you, is that there’s a real sense of justice in the world. Justice should be done, and it hasn’t been done. And it comes back to you again and again. Justice hasn’t been done. “He never got what was coming to him.” “She never got what was coming to her.” “She’s got it real good, and my life is one mess.” This is absolutely unjust — and it is. And that’s what makes it so hard to let it go. So what do you do when it’s really unjust and they haven’t got what’s coming to them?

Do you know what the Bible says about that? They’re going to get what’s coming to them. Do you think that’s a Christian motive to be free from anger? Do you know who used it? Jesus. I’ll read you the text. It’s 1 Peter 2:22–23:

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

Yes, he did pray, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Yes, he did. But whether they would receive that and repent and be saved, that’s not said. What is said is: “Father, I am not going to take vengeance right now. I’m not going to pull myself off the cross like I could and slay all these enemies who are doing me this grave injustice. I’m going to stay right here, and I turn judgment over to you.”

The Lord Repays

Now, if you say, “Well, should we copy him in that?” We certainly should because Romans 12 commands us to.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. (Romans 12:19–20)

Now think about that. What is he saying? “Don’t avenge yourselves. Vengeance is mine. I will repay. That’s a promise. I will repay. You feed your enemy. You love your enemy. And if your enemy stays an enemy, hardens his heart against your compassion, I will take care of that.” Which means we don’t have to bear the burden of being the judge of the universe. We can relax that the abusing father or the offensive husband or the enemy on the mission field or whoever year after year scorns our tenders of mercy and forgiveness, will be dealt with justly.

This hit me in the summer of 1971 like a ton of bricks. Sitting in Noël’s mom’s and dad’s patio, swinging on a swing, reading [The Nature of True Virtue] by Jonathan Edwards. In the universe, there is much evil and injustice. God is a God of justice, and he is sovereign. Sometimes it is Christians who hurt us, and sometimes it is unbelievers who hurt us. Sometimes those Christians will die having never made it right. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). And sometimes it doesn’t lie within you. You do what you can, and you can’t make peace. And some are unbelievers and they die in unbelief.

And the thought hit me: We’ve got two problems here: We’ve got unbelievers and we’ve got believers, and we’ve got unsatisfied injustices against me or against somebody. And I feel offended by the fact that justice has not yet been done and they’ve died. And these two truths came to me out of the word: either the injustice will be settled in hell for unbelievers, or for believers, it will have been settled on the cross. Which meant for me that when I thought about believers who have offended me and hurt me and disappointed me and never seemed to make it right, I am offending Christ not to forgive them; I am belittling the cross not to forgive them. Because when Christ died, if — this a big if, and you don’t have to decide this if; God does — if they are Christians, he bore it.

That’s part of the weight, crushing him down. What they did to you crushed him. He bore it. It hasn’t been treated lightly. It hasn’t been swept under the rug of the universe. It killed him. That’s big. Don’t belittle that. Jesus bore it. And if they turn out not to be Christians, but fake Christians, they pay forever. And you don’t need to add to that payment one minute of vengeance. We are the freest of all people from revenge. You do not need to settle accounts with those who have hurt you so badly. You don’t need to take them to court (1 Corinthians 6:1–8). You don’t need to have the last word in an argument. Give it up to God. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, either in the execution of my Son because I love them, or in their eternal execution in hell because they never received my offers of forgiveness.”

So we battle against bitterness and unforgiveness by faith in the future grace of our deliverance from our enemies, as we go to heaven and are covered by the blood of Jesus, and they are sentenced to everlasting condemnation. And we trust God’s justice in the future.