Here is one of the largest issues in the Christian life: How do you handle your personal sin? Or in one particular, how do you react when you fall? Do we attempt to make up for sin by subsequent good actions, for example Bible reading and confessional prayer? While it is quite clear that these actions do follow from a mourning of sin (1 John 1:9 essentially commands the believer to confess sins to God), in my mind I can confuse these actions as somehow atoning for my sin, somehow erasing and balancing out my past actions, somehow zeroing out debt owed to God. It is exactly this trap that the people of Judah fell into during the last years before the Babylonian captivity. Let us consider the historical record.
Jehoiakim is king in Jerusalem. Jeremiah stands at the gate of the temple and preaches a message spanning from Jeremiah 7-10 calling out the sin and hypocrisy of God’s people. In Jeremiah 7:21-26 he says:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh. For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, “Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.’ Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward. Since the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have sent you all My servants the prophets, daily rising early and sending them. Yet they did not listen to Me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck; they did more evil than their fathers.”
And in verse 4 we heard Jeremiah proclaim:
“Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ “
Between these two passages a historical fact should become clear: the people of Jerusalem were depending on their ritual sacrifices and temple worship, and probably trusting in the mere presence of God’s temple, to exempt them from the consequences of their idolatry and social sins. This gives us a great test case to see what God thinks of this sort of behavior.
At this time the people of Jerusalem, and the people of all Judah, have slipped into gross idolatry. According to Jeremiah 11:13, the number of idols in Judah rivaled the number of towns, and the number of idols in Jerusalem rivaled the number of streets. The numerous social sins in Judah at the time (oppression of widows, orphans, and strangers; perversions of justice; etc.) are always laid out in parallel with this idolatry, assuming that the idolatry is the source of the social evils (for example see Jeremiah 7:5-7). Frequently compared to ridiculous levels of adultery (most graphically in Ezekiel 16), the idolatry of Judah left her completely, morally bankrupt. As a modern reader of the Old Testament, we feel safe to conclude that these were not nice, religious, church going people. That, however, would be dangerously wrong.
The people of Jerusalem never forsake worship of YHWH, at least in an outward sense. They still offered sacrifices at the temple. They maintained the Levitical priesthood. They honored new moons and sabbaths. They knew their religious and national history. For example, because of God’s deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrians during Hezekiah’s reign, Jews assumed that God would protect His temple from all assaults, and therefore (mis)placed their faith on the temple of YHWH in Jerusalem rather than on YHWH Himself. Similarly, they (mis)placed their faith on the sacrifices they made, hoping for a free pass on their prior sins, rather than on the God they sacrificed too. But outwardly, the Jews of Jeremiah’s time, particularly during the reforms of King Josiah, appeared to be religious followers of YHWH. However, they used this outward religiosity to pardon their idolatry and social ethic failures.
As one could imagine, God didn’t like this. We see that in verses 21 to 23 in Jeremiah 7 (see quote above). God says something surprising (in English): “I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Didn’t God inspire Leviticus? I mean, we all struggle to read it, but we do believe it’s inspired by God right? Why does He seem to deny authorship of the Mosaic law? Because he doesn’t. In Hebrew, what we translate as absolute negatives in English were intended in Hebrew to express extreme comparison. The purpose of the Mosaic law was not outward conformity to ritual, but internal commitment to worship and love of God, manifested in obedience. The entire purpose of the Mosaic law was a blessed personal relationship between God and His people; “I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.” God has never wanted mere external conformity from His people; He has always demanded the devotion of the human heart.
Naturally, then, God cannot tolerate idolatry. YHWH is a jealous God, one that must be worshipped exclusively, and thus cannot be worshipped alongside idols and ethical perversions. That the Israelites sinned so grossly against YHWH and then expected the temple and their sacrifices to make up to God for their transgressions denies the basic theological truths of God’s uniqueness, jealousy, and universality. To live a double life implies that one believes God does not demand everything from you. That is an insult to the God who created you.
Readers familiar with the New Testament could already point me to several passages reflective of the same truths (e.g. Matthew 6:24; Romans 6:1-3). So let’s try to apply the principles we found in Judah’s sin to our own lives. Do we do the same things the Israelites did? Almost certainly. When I attempt to appease my own conscience’s guilt at particular sins by Bible reading, prayer, going to Christian events, listening to sermons, serving in the church, having spiritual conversations with people, evangelism, or any other apparent service to God, I fall into the same trap that the people of Jerusalem did during the time of the prophets. These sacrifices of mine cannot expiate my guilt, and putting my faith in them to allow my conscience to forget my sin, allowing myself license to continue in my sin, is a perversion of God’s gifts to me. Things like Bible reading, communion, baptism, prayer, preaching, corporate worship, and fellowship are called “Means of Grace,” because they are means by which God bestows greater blessing and sanctification on us, means through which God gives us His grace. To abuse them as license for my sin is gross perversion, throwing an insult in God’s face, spiritual adultery. Why would I think singing “10,000 Reasons” or “Nothing But the Blood” would somehow make up to God for my past actions? Or setting up chairs for a church event? Or giving an encouraging word to a struggling fellow believer while taking that perfect instagram picture of the lunch meetup? What makes me think I am somehow immune to the sins of ancient Israel? I am just as prone to external ritualism as they were.
Most importantly, falling into the trap of perverting the means of grace is a denial of the gospel. When I use various external Christian exercises to excuse my sin, I tacitly assume that sin isn’t that bad in God’s eyes, that I can personally atone for my personal sins, and that I don’t need a savior. After all, if actions I do make up for other actions I do, then I can work my way to heaven and beyond if I try hard enough. God hates the hubristic lack of faith demonstrated by this works based system just as much as the idolatry demonstrated in my sin (for any sin is an idolatry, prizing something else over God Himself). The sin of works righteousness is itself an idolatry, as it places the self in the place of God in deciding its own salvation, and denies worship and glory to God when it inevitably pats itself on the back for a job well done in pleasing the Deity.
Romans 6:1-3 highlights what may be the grossest perversion of them all—abusing God’s forgiveness and grace by using it as license to sin. This denies the Gospel at its core. By giving the believer license to sin, it effectively states that God’s purpose in saving His elect was allowing them to sin without fear of consequences, which rather than glorifying Him and showing His power to redeem broken, sinful individuals, gives pleasures to the creature at the expense of the creator. God’s plan of redemption necessarily entails the sanctification of believers (Ephesians 2:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:3). God brings glory to Himself by showing the world that He, and only He, has the power to take the spiritually dead, redeem and forgive them, set them apart to Himself, and make them pure and holy once again. For the Christian to pursue sin is a denial of God’s purpose in his salvation, which therefore evidences that individuals unregenerate state, i.e., that he is not in fact a Christian at all.
Ultimately, then, as believers in the gospel, we are to put faith in the forgiveness and removal of our sins on the forgiveness and grace of God and sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, trusting in the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross for our justification rather than on our own works. This is how the believer handles his personal sin: with the Gospel.