Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
I remind us of the larger context here. The worst danger we face is causing someone else to stumble. The only way we can keep from doing this is by looking to ourselves first. Jesus’ message is clear. Nothing is worth keeping if it causes us, or someone under our influence, to sin.
Matt. 18:8-9 (Holman) If your hand or your foot causes your downfall, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, rather than to have two eyes and be thrown into hellfire!
Few Bible passages cause more consternation. Jesus issued this warning twice (see also Matt. 5:29-30). It was obviously important to Him.
The question is, what did He mean? I’ll try to answer this question by asking five other questions. Question one: Amputate? No. Jesus was speaking figuratively, not literally. Amputation is not a spiritual gift. Sadly, some have taken Jesus’ words literally. To avoid sexual temptation, Origen, a Church Father, had himself castrated. The soldier generally credited with shooting John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, did the same later in life.
I feel there are two obvious reasons why Jesus could not have been speaking literally. One, had He been doing so, there would not be enough hospitals to hold the amputees. We all sin. If amputation were a recourse, no one would have hands, no one would have feet, no one would have eyes.
Two, amputating a limb will not make us sin less. Nothing can be cured by removing the physical instrument through which our sin expresses itself. Amputating a body part would leave the root untouched.
The ultimate causes of sin are not found in our physical bodies. Our flesh is the final object and recipient of temptation, but the instigating problem is the thoughts and intents of our hearts. “Each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin” (James 1:14-15a).
This was illustrated by what Achan did after God warned Israel to take no spoils from Jericho. Achan saw (eyes) and took (hands) forbidden items. He then carried them to his tent (feet) to be hidden. Achan recognized the root problem, confessing, “I coveted them” (Joshua 7:21).
Question two: What did Jesus’ figurative words mean? This figure of speech was His way of saying we need to drop all enticements that hinder us spiritually, even if they are as dear to us as our eye, hand, or foot.
However much we value vision, skill, and mobility, remember holiness matters most. Nothing is worth risking our walk with God over.
We are responsible for protecting our own spirituality. No one can do more damage to our spiritual lives than we can. We have to be our own lawyer and doctor, indicting ourselves and checking our own pulse.
We are expected to do our own self-cutting. We can’t blame anyone else for our sins. The cause of every sin we commit lies in us. Blame is ours. Thus, the remedy must be ours. Only God can sanctify, but we must be willing to accept His scalpel as He performs spiritual amputation on us.
Spiritual progress is never achieved easily or by accident, but from intentional pain, drastic action. Sin is so terrible, so intertwined with our innermost selves, that it cannot be set aside as easily as casting off a scarf.
The only remedy is stern self-denial. Our sins die only by our own violence. We must crucify our lusts, and bleed out the life-blood of our sins.
Double your time in prayer and Bible reading. Flee temptation. Gather helpers, accountability partners. Sin is serious business. Act like it.
Question three: Is radical effort worthwhile? “Eternal fire” (v. 8) and “Hellfire” (v. 9) answer for themselves. The kindest of all lips voiced this woe. Jesus was obviously in dead earnest here. What if the removal lames us financially, socially, professionally? Better than eternal fire and hellfire.
Guard the inner life at all cost. We don’t want to pay the high price sin requires of us. When we sin we are own worst enemies. Pandering to the outer self poisons the inner life. Failure here is a result worth dreading.
Question four: Was Jesus saying we can lose our salvation? No. He was saying anyone not serious about removing sin needs to do self-analysis to make sure they are saved. Few things are more dangerous than being convinced we are saved, yet living a sinful life yielding no evidence thereof.
Question five: What should we do? Remove anything from our lives that might tempt our hands to reach for a forbidden object, our feet to run into the quick-sands of sinful places, and our eyes to lust and covet.
The correction has to begin before temptation begins. Don’t claim to fear sin if we don’t fear temptation. We must preempt the temptation.
We all have activities in our lives that are harmless to many others, but that become, if unguarded, hatcheries of temptation for us. By giving this list, I am not advocating legalism. Doing these things will not put you in danger of losing your salvation. We are saved and kept saved by grace.
I am not saying these are any worse than other activities. This list is representative and indicative, not exhaustive.
I am not telling you how to live your Christian life. No believer has the right to lord over others in matters not clearly delineated in the Bible. Beware believers who say “I couldn’t ever do that” meaning “You shouldn’t.”
I am not saying we should give up everything susceptible to being abused. To do this, we would have to abandon all, and live in a cave.
I am not saying total 100% avoidance in these things is necessary, even though abstinence is often easier than trying to cut back, as chocolate addicts can attest. It’s much easier to eat zero brownies than to eat only one. My goal is to help us examine ourselves for our own spiritual benefit.
Is it a sin to watch TV or movies? No. But some enjoy them so much that they are not careful to avoid those that are profane, sexually explicit.
Is it a sin to read novels and magazines? No, unless they are the conduit for spiritual trash into our essence.
Is it a sin to listen to rock or country music? No. But it is a sin to listen to a vulgar song, whatever its genre. When praying about whether or not to come be your Pastor, I gave up country music in order to meditate more clearly. It dawned on me, if it helped me then, it would always help. I never picked it up again. I love it, and enjoy hearing it in the background at restaurants. But for me, and I’m speaking only for me, I needed to let it go.
Is it a sin to have unbelieving close friends? No. How else will they be won, except through our friendship? But what if we feel the lure to sin? Run. If we sin, we kill the main reason for our friendship in the first place.
By the way, let me give the same warning about certain Christian friends. Loneliness in purity is better than companionship in sin.
Is it a sin to play video games? No. But some of you, if you quit playing them today, could easily accomplish at least four of the five goals we have set for 2011: read the entire Bible, tithe or give two percentage points more, touch the poor, go on a mission trip, be in a small group. Just one little change, four goals reached, examine yourself.
Is it a sin to enjoy the arts? Of course not. I read of a Pastor who in younger years struggled between his love for the violin and the call to preach. The violin more and more became his passion. It totally obsessed him. But something down deep called him to a higher calling. One day he cut the violin strings, and never replaced them, to enter the ministry.
Another man wanted to be an artist, but felt in that world a tug toward sin he feared. Temptation grew. He finally left it behind, saying he never visited an art gallery again. Many can be okay as artists. He couldn’t.
Are we pursuing anything that is beginning to obsess us, to cause us to neglect the spiritual? To suffer the loss of anything is better than to sin.
I plead with us. Give evidence of salvation by rooting out causes and occasions for sin, even if they are as dear to us as our hand, foot, or eye.