This past year, Tom Magliozzi of Car Talk fame passed away (Nov. 3, 2014). Although the Magliozzi brothers stopped airing new shows back in 2012, Tom’s passing sounds the end of an era. I used to really enjoy listening to their radio show on Saturday mornings on the NPR station in which they would give advice – often really funny advice – to callers who were having problems with their cars. I’ll never forget one show in particular. As far as I can remember it, here’s how the call went. A young lady called in about her father’s car that had died years ago – and as the call progressed, it became obvious that she wanted to know if she was the one responsible for that. You see, she had taken her father’s car on a road trip, and during the trip the check engine light came on. Since the car still seemed to be working, she just ignored it. Later, when sounds began to emerge from the engine, she decided she would fix the problem by putting some tape over the light so it wouldn’t bother her anymore. She made it home, but the next morning when her father got in the car to go to work, the car’s engine basically blew up. Evidently, her father never suspected her, and years later she was calling Click and Clack, probably hoping they would tell her, no, she had nothing to do with it.
If that was her hope, she was grievously disappointed. Not only did they tell her it was her fault, they actually were able to coax her father’s work number from her and then called him up at work, told him what had really happened, and then got her – she was still on the line – to apologize to her father for basically destroying his car.
Sin in the life can be a lot like engine trouble. It doesn’t usually start out with smoke billowing out of the engine. It usually starts small, but our conscience, like the check engine light, warns us that if we don’t correct ourselves and repent, there will be consequences to follow. It is tragic when, like the young lady in her father’s car, we ignore our conscience, when we put Band-Aids over sin, when we refuse to follow the sin to the ground and root it out of our lives. It is tragic because it is inevitable that serious consequences will inevitably follow upon ignored sin, no matter how small, how invisible to others, how seemingly insignificant the sin started out.
Unfortunately, all too often we just put tape over our conscience and keep on sinning. And the reason we do so is often because what our conscience is warning us about is a sin that only we can see or know about. That is to say, the sin is in our hearts and nobody can see into our hearts, and as long as it stays that way, we think we are all right.
There are two problems with that reasoning. First, it is not true that nobody else sees our sin. God sees our sin: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3). “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings” (Jer. 17:9-10). Of all those who might know our sin, we really shouldn’t be concerned about other people: we ought to be concerned that God knows and sees our sin. But the fact is that he sees every sin, no matter how hidden away we keep it.
And that leads to the second problem with thinking that secret sin is okay as long as it stays hidden: God will always deal with sin, either in the present in the form of discipline or in the future in the form of eternal punishment. And since he sees all sin, there is no sin that will not be dealt with. And in this connection the words of Hebrews 10:30-31 are significant: “For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord will judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
However, the fact of the matter is that we all have the tendency to externalize our obedience to God and be happy with ourselves as long as the way we are living appears righteous on the outside. It is a strange thing that although religion has to do primarily with God, we tend practically to make it primarily about other people.
And that’s precisely what had led to the false interpretation of Exodus 20:14. Just as the scribes had misinterpreted the prohibition against murder in a way that ignored the attitudes of the heart that lead to murder, such as unrighteous anger, even so they had misinterpreted the prohibition against adultery in a way that ignored the lusts of the heart that lead to adultery. As John Stott has put it, “They thus gave a conveniently narrow definition of sexual sin and a conveniently broad definition of sexual purity.” Thus, Jesus says, “Ye had heart that it was said [to] them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” In other words, “Any and every sexual practice which is immoral in deed is immoral also in look and in thought.”
A couple of points need to be made with reference to Jesus’ words in verses 27-28.
First, the prohibition against adultery and the lust that leads to it is not to be narrowly restricted to instances of men cheating on their wives or vice versa. It is a prohibition against all sexual relations outside of marriage. Nor is the prohibition directed only against men. Women are not off the hook, as the rest of the Law demonstrates. Under the Mosaic covenant, both men and women were punished for breaking the seventh commandment. So we must not think of Jesus’ words as applicable only to men. To define the terms of these verses in such narrow ways is to be guilty of the very sophistry that Jesus was seeking to correct.
Second, the emphasis of Jesus’ words is on the desires of the heart, on the imagination of the mind. According to our Lord’s words here, fantasizing about sin is sin. The reason is clear: you don’t usually act out a sin that you haven’t already played and replayed in your mind. That doesn’t mean that the act of adultery is not bad; it is. Our Lord doesn’t repeal the seventh commandment and replace it with something else. The point is that we shouldn’t think that we’re okay as long as we haven’t committed the act. Rather, we are truly obeying the seventh commandment if we are fighting the sin on the heart level so that it never reaches the physical level.
Our Lord then goes on to in the next two verses (29-30) to apply and motivate the command of verse 28. “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that they whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut is off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that they whole body be cast into hell.”
Here is how it is applied: if sin begins in the heart, then we should be very careful about the inlets to the heart. The eye is an obvious one. Lusting is generally preceded by looking. Eve looked at the forbidden fruit before she ate it. David looked at Bathsheba before he sinned with her. So if your eye causes you to sin by becoming an inlet for sin in the mind, then you need to pluck it out. Job learned this: “I made a covenant with my eyes; why then should I look on a maid?” (Job 30:1). Then he goes on to speak of his heart: “If . . . mine heart walked after mine eyes. . . . If mine heart have been deceived [enticed] by a woman, or if I have laid wait at my neighbor’s door” (v. 7, 9). The same is true of our hands or feet (cf. Mt. 18:8). We need to be careful about anything that might cause us to sin, that would introduce sin’s deceitful lies into our mind so that it begins to wrap itself around our hearts. Jesus is saying what Paul would later say to the Romans, “Make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof” (Rom. 13:14).
Now, it should be pointed out that Jesus was making his point by the use of hyperbole. He didn’t mean for us to actually cut off our hands or pluck out our eyes. Unfortunately, some early Christians – like Origin – took our Lord literally here and mutilated themselves. However, that is a gross misapplication of our Lord’s words. It should be obvious that our Lord is not calling for physical mutilation. After all, his whole point is that sin is a thing of the heart and is to be dealt with on the heart level, and anyone should be able to see that even if you literally pluck out your eye or cut off your hand, that doesn’t root sin out of the heart. A blind man can still sin in his imagination. So mutilation doesn’t fix what Jesus meant to fix: sin in the heart.
What was Jesus doing? He was simply putting in as gripping language as possible the utter necessity of dealing with sin on the heart level and removing anything that might tempt us to sin in the heart. He is telling us that nothing should be more precious to us than obedience to God. A book, a magazine, a movie, a place, a friendship, a job – if it causes you to stumble into sin, if it provides an opportunity for sin to find a place in your heart, then root it out, no matter how much it hurts to do so.
With these words, our Lord is not only helping us apply his command, he is also motivating us to do so. You see that in the words, “it is profitable for thee. . . .” Here is the amazing thing: as bad as plucking out an eye is, as bad as cutting off a hand is, it is still better for you to do that than to go before God with an eye that had let sin go into the heart or with a hand that has become an occasion for sin against God.
Hear what Jesus is saying. To profit in this connection is to escape being cast into hell. Jesus is helping us to put things into perspective. Sin can offer you no sweetness that will make it worth being cast into hell for it. I can assure you, on the authority of God’s word, that there is no person in hell who thinks that the life they lived is worth suffering under the wrath of God for it.
There was a man who came up to a pastor and told him that he was in the grip of lust and was going to commit adultery. The pastor said something that a lot of pastors would never say, but in light of Jesus’ words here, I think was entirely appropriate. He grabbed him by the collars, got up in his face, and told him, “If you do it, you’ll go to hell. Don’t do it.” Now this pastor believed that all God’s people will be saved and not one of them will be lost. But he also believed, and rightly so, that no one can say that they are one of God’s people if they are living in such blatant sin. He also knew that warnings like the one in our text are meant to act, under God, as motivators to obedience so that the saints will persevere. Now I’m not sure that I would have been as straightforward he was, but it is clear from Jesus’ words here and from his words in verses 21-26, that those who give themselves to such sin are clearly in danger of hell-fire. The only way we can make our calling and election sure is if we are repenting of sin and walking in obedience to our Lord, if we are becoming the Beatitudes.
Now, I think at this moment, it’s important for us to stand back and survey what our Lord has told us about sin in verses 21-30. We need to hear what our Lord says about sin because otherwise we are going to be programmed to think about it in the way the culture wants us to think about it. And of course our culture wants to either to ignore sin or to make light of it, especially things like anger and lust.
First of all, our text tells us something about the nature of sin. Sin defiles and pollutes the heart before it ever gets to the surface in overt acts. As Jesus put it in other place, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45). That is why he hammers things like anger and lust. Many, if not most, instances of murder wouldn’t happen if anger didn’t already exist in the heart of the murderer. No one would commit sexual sin if it weren’t for lust.
It also tells us something about the power of sin in the heart. An angry person at first does not suspect that what they are feeling could very well end up in murder. But how often has it done just that? We must not fool ourselves that we are not like such people, that we would never commit murder. To say such a thing is just to set you up to do the very thing. If King David – a man after God’s own heart – was complicit in the murder of Uriah in order to cover up adultery with his wife, any of us could do it. Or how often has a hidden sin like pornography led eventually to enslavement to lust and then unfaithfulness in marriage? We need therefore to take sin seriously, not just after it breaks out in sinful acts, but long before when it is first stirring in the heart.
The second thing our text tells us about sin is the seriousness of sin. Sin is not primarily serious because of the consequences in the here and now. Jesus does not exhort us to steer away from anger problems because we might lose a job or alienate our loved one – or even because it might cause us to commit murder. He warns us against it because sin brings people under the judgment of God – it exposes them to the danger of hell-fire. The same with lust. Why should you guard your heart? He doesn’t tell us to do so because otherwise you might commit adultery and ruin your marriage. He tells us to guard against sin in the heart because a failure to do so exposes us to hell.
We must never forget that though salvation is all of grace, damnation is all of man. People go to hell not because of what God has done but because of what they have done. According to our Lord’s words in John 5:29, those who will receive the resurrection of damnation are precisely those “that have done evil.” We must never forget that “when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (Jam. 1:15). We must never forget that whereas “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”, nevertheless it is equally true that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Note that the death in Rom. 6:23 is contrasted with eternal life. The implication is that the death under consideration is eternal death.
The third thing this text tells us about sin is that we need to mortify the sin in our lives. This follows from the seriousness of sin. If it as bad as our Lord tells us it is, then we need to mortify it. “Mortification” is an old word that means “to put to death.” The KJV uses it in Rom. 8:13 to translate thanatao: “For if ye live after the flesh ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.”
There is a school of thought in the Christian community that teaches that growing in holiness is the easiest thing in the world, as long as you have enough faith or believe the right things. But Paul’s words, and our Lord’s words, should forever put that thought out of our minds. To deal with sin is to put it to death. It is to cut off a hand or pluck out an eye. It can be at times a very painful experience. You see a picture of it in Isaiah 6, when after he had confessed the uncleanness of his lips, an angle takes a hot, burning coal from off the alter and touches his lips with it to purge the uncleanness. What a painful experience that must have been! And yet that is what must be done when it comes to the sin in our lives.
If you take this passage seriously, you are going to have to amputate anything in your life that is a temptation to sin. The thing may be innocent in itself, but if it is for you an occasion to sin, then you must cut it off.
That is why it is useless to try to lay down man-made rules at to what a person can see or where you should go or what you can do. What may be a temptation to one person may not be a temptation to another. People have different temperaments and react to things differently. What may be a cause of sin to one person may not be to another. However, that being said, we should not take Christian freedom as an excuse to sin. Far from it. Our Lord tells us that we should put to death anything in our lives that is a stumbling block to us. If something causes you to sin – no matter what it is – cut it off! As Christians, there are going to be places that we cannot go because to go there would be to make provision for the flesh. There are going to be books that we cannot read or movies that we cannot watch because to do so would be to give sin an opportunity to gain mastery over our affections and imagination. It is true that some people may not understand. Some Christians may not understand! But it is more important to obey Christ, even if it means plucking out an eye, than it is to avoid being thought of as a cultural Philistine.
So put sin to death! Think of this: the sin that you are toying with in your mind and heart is the very kind of thing that nailed Christ to the cross. Jesus didn’t just die for murderers and adulterers. He died for people who have problems with anger and lust. He bore the wrath of God upon those sins just as much as he did the wrath of God upon the more open sins like murder and adultery. God can no more have fellowship with a man whose heart is full of lust than he can with a man who has been unfaithful to his wife. God can no more have fellowship with an angry person than he can with a murderer. All sin is rebellion against God, no matter what its consequences are for those around us, and God cannot have fellowship with rebels. That’s why it took the death of Jesus on our behalf to bring us to God, because all of us are guilty of breaking the sixth and seventh commandments in our heart and therefore all of us are exposed to God’s wrath. We should put our sin to death, because our sin put Jesus to death. If we really believe that, we cannot have a kind of lazy attitude towards sin.
May God give us such a heart for holiness, and such a love for his Son, that we make no bargains with the sin in our heart, but mortify it and put it to death.