How Does It Work Against Sin?

Session 7 – Part 1

The Pursuit of Holiness in Life and Ministry

The following is a lightly edited transcrtipt.

In this section, it’s the flip side of what we just looked at. We just talked about how living by faith in future grace releases love or produces holiness. That’s the positive way of talking about it.

How Does Faith in Future Grace Work Against Sin?

Now answer the question: How does it undermine, destroy, overcome sin — typical sins? So we’re going to spend all the remaining time walking through sample sins, and get down to the nitty-gritty of the battles of our lives: sins that get in the way of love, sins that get in the way and are the opposite of holiness. That’s where we’re heading.

How to Battle Anxiety

And we’ll start with the sin of anxiety, or the unbelief of anxiety. A definition of anxiety: the loss of confident security in God, owing to feelings of uneasiness or foreboding, that something harmful is going to happen. That’s my definition of anxiety: loss of a sense of confident security, because feelings are arising of uneasiness or foreboding that something bad is going to happen.

Battling Anxiety in General

We’ve already looked at Matthew 6:25–34, so I think I won’t look at the whole thing. There are eight arguments against anxiety in this passage, and most of them have to do with the future. But rather than walking through it in detail, let’s just look at Matthew 6:31–33 and relate it to Lamentations 3:22–32.

Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, . . .

That’s one negative argument. You don’t want to be like the nations that have no hope in God. When you behave and pursue the things that they’re pursuing, you look like you have the same treasure, which dishonors your treasure.

. . . and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Clearly the implication is: God knows you need them, and he’ll provide what you need. Just let that be your focus — not what you wear, what you drink, your house, your car, your clothes. Don’t focus on those things. Those are just way, way down on the list of priorities. And, “Let those things be added to you.”

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Light fell on that passage for me when I related it to this passage in Lamentations 3:22–23. Now, this is spoken in the midst of the rape of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Women were boiling their children and eating them (Lamentations 4:10).

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
     his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning.

And it seems to me, there’s a relationship between these texts.

Grace for Tomorrow

Each day has enough trouble of its own. Enough for what? What does that mean? What’s enough? I think what he’s saying is that in God’s economy for his elect, there is a perfect correspondence between the amount of trouble planned for you and the amount of mercies to sustain you in those troubles. They go together perfectly. Therefore, don’t pile into any day troubles that don’t belong there. There will be trouble tomorrow; count on it. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Paul taught that to every church on his first missionary journey. Count on it: there will be trouble tomorrow. And count on it: every morning, there will be new, new mercies. His compassions, his mercies, never fail; they are new every morning.

In other words, the compassions that arrive today are new; they’re not for yesterday’s troubles and they’re not for tomorrow’s troubles. There will be new ones for tomorrow. Today’s mercies and compassions are designed for today’s troubles. That is an amazing way to think about your future. I have had so many crisis situations in which a man or a woman will say to me, “I don’t think I can make it. I don’t think I can make it.” A child just died, a husband just got cancer, a job was just lost. Four blows in a row in one week, and the word is: “I don’t think I can make it.” And this is unbelievably helpful at that moment.

Because here’s what’s making the person say that. They’re looking at the resources they have for the next six hours, and they feel, “I might make it six hours.” And then they’re looking at the testing for cancer, and the chemo, and the hair falling out, and the nausea again. They’ve done it three times and they see it’s coming tomorrow, and today’s resources are not there for that. They feel that, and that’s what they mean by, “I can’t make it.” And the answer is: That’s right. What you have today to get through the next six hours is not enough to get through tomorrow. And then you remind them: But what God calls you to do now is not to feel what you need to feel tomorrow. You need to trust that it’s going to be there tomorrow — sheer trust on the basis of promises. And promises are enough to get you through today, knowing that tomorrow’s grace will be sufficient for tomorrow’s trouble.

Fresh Mercy

So we fight against the sin, the unbelief, of anxiety by this kind of thinking: Every day has its troubles that tend to make me anxious. And every day will have God’s compassions that never fail; they are new every morning. Isn’t it a thrilling thought that amid the pleasures, delights, joys, pains, frustrations you’re feeling right now, God says to you, “Tomorrow, I have some new compassions for you — not today’s, but new ones tomorrow”? I just find that absolutely thrilling. Tomorrow morning will be new. You think, “I can’t do tomorrow what I’m expected to do; it’s over my head.” It is over your head. But there will arrive, tomorrow morning, a mercy for it.

Now let’s go directly to the specific kinds of anxieties we have. And here’s what I’m illustrating in these texts: living by faith in future grace should not merely be a vague general sense that “God is going to help me.” That’s good and it’s wonderful, but I believe the Bible is a book replete with specific promises of grace, tailor-made to specific temptations of anxiety and other kinds of sin. God wants us to know enough of his word so that we can take a specific promise, and lay it on a specific temptation, and kill it. Let’s look at specific kinds of promises designed for kinds of temptations to anxiety.

Battling the Anxiety of Uselessness

And we’re talking now about the fear of being useless. This may be when you’re young, and you look at your gifts and you think you don’t have any significant gifts, and everybody around you seems to be so competent. And you think to yourself, “My life is not going to be of any count.”

Or it might be that you’re 65, and they’ve just told you you’re done, and you wonder, “Is there any use between now and the grave?” So here would be one text.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

I have used that to establish my heart at moments in the ministry over and over again. You undertake to do something, and it looks like it’s just hardly succeeding at all — some outreach effort, some teaching effort, some counseling effort. And I think, “This is just not a success. This is not going the way I hoped it go.” And what do you do at that point? You feel useless. You say, “I’m wasting my time. I tried, and wish I could just bail on this plan.

But instead you say, “Nothing, nothing done in the name of the Lord for the glory of the Lord is in vain. Nothing is in vain.” I have walked into settings where I’d hoped for crowds. I remember doing a seminar, I think it was in Kansas City, and they botched the advertising so badly. They rented a 1,500-person sanctuary and 36 people showed up for this seminar. And you’ve been flown in for this seminar. Emotionally, what do you do with that? You go right here: your toil is not in vain. One person — one person — impacted with the truth might be a Billy Graham or a Mary Slessor, or just a marriage might be saved. Would you fly to Kansas City to save a marriage? You preach to yourself promises like that. You tailor the promise for the particular temptation to anxiety.

Battling the Anxiety of Weakness

You feel weak, and you think, “My weakness is going to make me useless.”

But [Jesus] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)

That changes your orientation to be anxious about your weaknesses. Christ is strong in me.

Battling the Anxiety of Difficult Decisions

Do you have any difficult decisions in front of you? And you don’t know what’s the best thing, and you’re anxious that you might make the wrong decision? What do you do with that anxiety? It’s sin to be anxious. You attack it with faith in future grace by getting some particular promises about that issue. For example,

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
     I will counsel you with my eye upon you. (Psalm 32:8)

And you read that, and you get on your face before the Lord and you say, “I’m banking on that, Lord. I’m banking on your counsel, I’m banking on your instruction as I walk into this conversation and we have to make a decision.” Or suppose you feel unworthy of the help of the Lord for counsel. This is awesome:

Good and upright is the Lord;
     therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
     and teaches the humble his way. (Psalm 25:8–9)

So do you qualify for the counsel of God? Well, are you a sinner? Yes, we’re all sinners. And how does that sin affect you? Does it make you proud so that you say, “I’m really glad I’m a sinner”? No, it humbles you. OK, now you’re a candidate for the counsel of God. Which is so encouraging because the devil is going to tempt you by saying that the promise of Psalm 32:8 doesn’t apply to you because you’re not good enough to get the counsel of God and to get the leadership of God. So you fight that lie with Psalm 25:8 and say, “No. No. No. No. He said, ‘Because he’s upright, he instructs sinners in the way, and he leads the humble.” So what he expects from me now is to regret my sin, be broken, be on my face, pleading for his help. And if I am broken for my sin and pleading for mercy, he’s going to help me make this decision, and the anxieties go away.

Battling the Anxiety of Opposition

You’ve got people in your life who are hard on you; they make life miserable for you. Where do you go to fight this anxiety?

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)

Of course, we answer, “Lots of people — lots of people are against us.” But what does it mean? He knows that. Jesus got killed. Paul got put in prison. So what does “Who is against us?” really mean? And the answer is: Who is against us successfully? Nobody. They think they’re succeeding against us by putting us in prison. They think they’re succeeding against us by reproaching us or firing us; they’re not. That promise transforms your anxious response to people in your life making life hard for you.

“Nobody can be against me successfully if God Almighty is for me. Because if he’s for me and he’s Almighty, he’s governing all their reproaches for my good. And they are becoming the agent of my sanctification and the lackey of God. Though they rage against him, they serve him for my sake.”

And that’ll change your whole anxiety response towards the people in your life.

Battling the Anxiety of Affliction

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
     but the Lord delivers him out of them all. (Psalm 34:19)

I’ve quoted that more times than I can remember in hospitals, and on phones, at funerals, and lost jobs. It’s my default comfort verse for somebody who’s just had one, two, three blows. And I say, “This doesn’t take the Bible off guard: many are the afflictions of the righteous. And this deliverance here is not from them all, but out of them all. You’re going to come out. You’re going to come out. I promise you, on the basis of God’s word, you’re going to come out. And it doesn’t say how or when.”

And that great passage from Romans 5:3 about afflictions:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, . . .

Isn’t that amazing? Do you do that? A thing goes bad and you say, “Amen! Praise God! I’m having a hard time today!” Exult in your afflictions, tribulations. And then here comes the ground of how you can do that: you know something; you’re confident about something:

. . . knowing that suffering produces endurance, . . .

It’s like a muscle, a bicep. What do you do to make it strong? You push, you create tension. By making life hard for this bicep, it builds the bicep. That’s the way faith is. Tribulations bring about perseverance. Because you might say, “Well, really tribulations test perseverance. I might quit believing if you treat me this way, God.” And God is walking the fine line: “You will not be overtaken by any temptation that is beyond your capacity to endure, but I’m going to test you because I want that bicep working long-term in this life and working well. I’m going to push on it.”

. . . and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. (Romans 5:4)

Because now I see that I’m authentic. I’ve endured a trial and my faith is held firm, and therefore, my hope is real. And hope does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out. So that kind of dynamic and Psalm 34 help us defeat the anxiety about afflictions.

Battling the Anxiety of Aging

I called my dad on the phone yesterday. He lives in a home for the elderly in Greenville, South Carolina. And they don’t know if he has Alzheimer’s. I asked a doctor one time, “How can you verify a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s?” And he said, “Do an autopsy.” It’s a very tricky disease. You go on the basis of symptoms. And my dad is forgetting a lot of things. He still knows me well, knows his Bible, but we repeat a lot of things on the telephone. And he was just stunned when I told him about Hurricane Katrina and all that happened. He said, “That’s terrible. I can’t believe that happened.” And then by the end of the conversation, he was hearing it again for the first time.

So that’s what my dad is dealing with. He’s 86 and I’m 59. So likely, that’s me. I mean, every reason to think that’s going to be me. I have a back problem exactly the same as my dad. I’m losing my hair exactly the way he lost his hair. I just watched my dad move through the seasons and I see me. I mean, I probably won’t live till 86.

So should I worry about that? It’s really sad to watch, a man so full of the Holy Spirit, so full of spiritual power, so effective in the ministry for fifty years. “Well, did it have to go like this, Lord? Won’t you just take him.” And he’s the happiest man you could ever talk to. Isn’t that glorious? May that be true. I mean, my dad has been always way happier than I am; that’s why I’m always on a quest for joy. I want to be as happy as my dad was.

But I say, “Daddy, how’s your health?” “Oh, my health is wonderful, Johnny. Just wonderful. God is so good to me.” “Well, how are your accommodations?” “Oh, this place. They’re just so good to me.” He doesn’t even know where he is. He said, “I hope you’re coming down soon. Lavonne will have a place for you.” Lavonne has been dead for four years. He doesn’t even know he’s not at home and he’s full of the Holy Spirit, full of the Bible and full of joy. Which is a beautiful thing, but not the way I would like to go out. So anxieties can come, right?

Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
     all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
     carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
     and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
     I will carry and will save. (Isaiah 46:3–4)

This seems like the Lord wants to drive home to us: “I’ll deliver you. I’ll bear you. I’ll carry you. I’ll bear you. I’ll be the same for you even to graying years.” So my only hope is that when the senility and the memory loss comes — and it’s coming now at age 59; I know how much harder it is to memorize Scripture, I know that I forget phone numbers and names more quickly. It’s coming now. The way to have peace is to say, “He will carry me. There will be grace for tomorrow’s senility. He will guard me from sin and from making shipwreck of faith and bringing reproach upon the name of God by any kind of slippage into worldliness or selfishness.”

Battling the Anxiety of Authenticity

And the big anxiety that probably plagues us as much as any is our own faith and our own real authentic standing with God: Am I really a Christian? Will I persevere in faith? Am I one of those first three soils in the parable? Well, I know I’m not the first one because I’ve been a professing Christian for quite a while. So the seed didn’t get plucked off the ground by the devil bird right away; it has taken some root. But will enough tribulation come that I dry up and bear no more fruit? Will I last? Will I abort and prove to be a fake someday? There have been pastors who’ve served as long as I have who have totally forsaken the Lord. So we go to the Bible to fight for faith in future grace.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)

And you say, “God, my only hope to endure is that you will work in me.”

He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:25)

You preach the fullness of the gospel to yourself, including things like: “He is at the right hand of God with blood on his hands, poured out for me, speaking words of intercession to his all-holy Father on my behalf. I’ll make it.” That’s the way you preach to yourself to overcome the anxiety about perseverance. This is probably one of the best promises in all the Bible about perseverance from Jeremiah 32:40:

I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.

What makes you think you’re going to wake up a Christian tomorrow morning? What makes you think that when you wake up tomorrow morning, you will believe in Jesus instead of disbelieving in Jesus? Most people have not posed the question: Why do I wake up every morning with the same faith that I had yesterday? What’s keeping it going? And then I ask rhetorically: Do you think it’s owing to your remarkably faithful, autonomous free will? And that you can count on that to the end? “My free will will keep me a believer till the day I die.” Don’t count on it. You’re about as fickle in that as anybody. Your free will may or may not choose Jesus tomorrow morning.

If the devil chooses to make an alternative treasure look more attractive, your free will may totally cave. So don’t bank on your free will. Bank on the promise that as a covenant member in Christ, blood-bought forever, God will not let you turn away. When you go to bed at night, you feel some anxiety about persevering to the end through a long life of battling unbelief, and you say, “I don’t know if I can make it.” Say, “I can make it, but I have promises like this that I will make it. And I bank on his faithfulness, not my fickleness.”

This is really helpful for young believers. I don’t know how many people you’ve dealt with who are just trying to cross the line into Christianity. You know one of the big obstacles to people who are getting to catch onto the gospel, they look around at the church, they think, “If I become a Christian, this is going to be so unbelievably different. I don’t think I can live it. I don’t think I can last it. I mean, I’ve got 18 or 38 or 48 years of doing my thing. I know this way of life really well; I can do this. On the other side of this line called faith, there is so much unknown to me that I don’t have any confidence that I can live that.”

That keeps a lot of people out of the kingdom; it does. So we need to be ready with promises like this. We need to show people, “Look, of course, here at the front end, this is all new to you. And of course, you can’t imagine what it would be like to persevere for fifty years in the faith, and grow up to be a saint. That’s just so foreign to you right now. You can’t even imagine what that would be like. Can I show you a promise or two that God will take that on himself? When you are united to Christ by faith, the Holy Spirit comes into you and he makes promises to you like this: “I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so they will not turn away from me.” Will you look at Jesus and his purchase on your behalf, and throw yourself on him, and trust him to do that — not you to do that?” I don’t know how else you get over the line into the kingdom without some hope that God’s going to be there to keep you believing.

Battling the Anxiety of Death

Death, of course, is just a huge anxiety, but it’s not different than all the ones we’ve looked at. You go to specific texts about the promises of God in the face of death.

For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. (Romans 14:7–9)

Some of you are preparing for ministry. All of you know somebody who one day will die, and God may call you to go to their bedside as they’re dying. I think every layperson —not just pastors, but every layperson — ought to be able to minister in that situation. And I would just commend that text right there to you. Store it up. Maybe at the front of your Bible, put: Death verse. Or memorize it. I memorized it years ago.

This is a delicate call, and you have to be sensitive to the relatives and to others. Maybe you’re just standing around the bed. Are you going to make the call they’re dying? Because sometimes relatives don’t want to get close to that. They know it’s true, but they don’t want to talk about it. And if we’ve got a believer in front of us, I’m going to say to the relatives out in the hall, “Look, if you were dying, if I were dying, I would not want that to be concealed from me. I want strength. I want help. They’re dying, are they not? The doctor said they’re dying. They’ve got a day or two, or an hour. Let’s talk about it with them.

And you reach down and you say, “James, you know the word from the Scriptures: ‘None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord. And if we die, we die to the Lord.’ So James, whether you live or whether you die — and it looks like you’re going to die. Whether you live or whether you die, you, James, are the Lord’s.”

Get real. You don’t play any games here. “You’re the Lord’s. ‘For’ — you know how we’ve talked about ground clauses through the years in preaching, James? You know how I’ve always given reasons from the Bible to believe things? ‘For to this end Christ died, that he might be Lord of the living and of dead.’ He’s going to be your Lord tomorrow, whether you’re in this bed or in heaven. Isn’t that glorious?” Give a squeeze of the hand, and pray. “I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow, or I’ll see you in heaven.”

That’s ministry. Everybody can do that. You don’t need to go to seminary to do that. You just need to know Jesus, and know the word and lean on it, and fight your own fight of faith day by day. And then just share with people what the Lord is doing for you.