striving against sin

Striving Against Sin

The Epistle to the Hebrews is unique among the books of the New Testament. It is the only epistle whose authorship is unknown. Not only is its authorship uncertain, but so is the place of its writing, its date, and its originally intended readership. It contains some of the most polished Greek in the New Testament with a significant amount of its vocabulary used only here in the entire Bible. But despite all of Hebrews’ uncertainties some things about the letter are very clear, and one of those certainties is that it was written to a small group of beleaguered Christians who were facing increasing hostility, opposition, marginalization, and ostracization from the surrounding culture, and as such it contains a very needful and urgent message for professing Christians today. In the face of mounting opposition these Christians were beginning to wither, their knees were beginning to buckle, and a pall of spiritual lethargy and capitulation was spreading over this congregation (3:7-4:11; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39). Does any of this sound familiar? So to try and prevent their spiritual shipwreck the author of Hebrews wrote his beloved friends “this word of exhortation” (13:22).

The primary need of this congregation was endurance, perseverance, to hold fast to the truth (10:36). They needed to accept and embrace the economic, social, and cultural consequences of their faith (10:32-34). Their only other alternative was to “shrink back to destruction” (10:39), to compromise with the spirit of the age, to attempt to be “relevant”, to accommodate other beliefs, to blend in with the culture, to become just one of many alternative religions. Just like an athlete in a race, these Christians had need of endurance if they were to run the race which God had set before them (12:1) and not come short of the prize. But unlike an athletic competition this race is not a race of speed, it is not even a long distance race where the person with the most stamina wins. This race is a race of attrition, all who finish win, and to finish requires endurance – more endurance than these Christians were currently demonstrating.

In order to encourage and inspire these spiritual athletes in their race the author of Hebrews fills a stadium with examples of people from the Old Testament who endured and persevered in their faith (11:4-12:1), and then for the ultimate example he points them to Jesus who endured the cross and the hostility of sinners. In essence the author is implying, “If Jesus was willing to endure so much for you, are you unwilling to endure so little for Him?” – which brings us to Hebrews 12:4 and the primary point of this essay.

The author reproves his readers by reminding them that “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin” (12:4). Yes, you have suffered some persecution, but nothing like the people I just mentioned in chapter 11, especially verses 36-38, and certainly nothing to the extent Jesus suffered. Two key words in this verse are found only here in the New Testament, “resisted” and “strive against”, and both have the meaning of “to stand in opposition to; to struggle, fight against”.  The particular object of this opposition is “sin”, not “sins”. The author is telling his readers, “You have not strived against sin to the point where your opposition has resulted in your being killed. You have not faced the same level of hostility from “sinners” as Jesus or those in 11:36-38.” And why is that? Because they have not yet been as outspoken against sin as was Jesus and these other Old Testament saints! In Hebrew 12:4 we find an important and often forgotten spiritual principle, and that is – the opposition and hostility of the world/sinners to Christians is proportional to the Christian’s resistance to and striving against sin. The more someone identifies sin for what it is, the more opposition he/she will face from sinners.

The church in America has by-and-large never suffered from the persecution which the church in other parts of the world has suffered, largely because there was a moral consensus among the majority of Americans of what constituted sin, but not anymore. Today virtually every sin has been psychologized into a disease or disorder, or turned into a virtue. And once a society has normalized sin it will never tolerate having it identified for what it is – sin – which begs the question, why is the church in America today still facing so little hostility from sinners? According to the author of Hebrews it is because there is so little opposition on the part of professing Christians to sin.

Sadly the church today in its fanatical zeal to be relevant has become largely irrelevant because it has ignored its greatest danger, namely that in seeking to gain the world it has lost its own soul. This people have traded the eternal for the temporal, the sacred for the profane, faith in Jesus Christ for faith in itself, the hope of redemption for personal empowerment. Their belief in God is illusory and a product of their own imagination. They work with hysterical energy to solve political, social, and economic problems and ignore the primary problem of sin and that we need a Savior and a Redeemer. They are blind to the reality that there is a devil who can lead people around by the nose in the midst of all their counterfeit religion and blind them to the truths of Scripture. The vast majority of professing Christians have shipwrecked themselves on this dangerous rock called God who is not mocked. They have traded the worship of the one true God for the idolatrous worship of success.  This is the form of idolatry which Satan cultivates most tenaciously, and under the influence of this idol most professing Christians have stopped asking in whose name and at what cost this success has been achieved.

The Apostle Peter wrote that judgment first begins with the household of God (1 Pt 4:17). Chaff is always easier to see than wheat. The wind of God’s judgment is blowing on America and it will soon become evident if we are wheat or chaff. The days of comfortable, cultural, respectable Christianity are coming to an end. Those who call themselves Christian because it is the respectable thing to be, or who only hope thereby to gain some temporal blessings or personal benefit will soon be blown away like chaff in the wind.

Suffering gives faith credibility, it purifies, and it makes important distinctions among people. There is a huge difference between the suffering that is the result of living in a sin cursed body in a sin cursed world and the suffering that is the result of being a Christian. The first is common to all people, but the latter is reserved only for Christians. If the church today is suffering persecution it is not for the same reason as the early church. The persecution which the church faces today is the result of its own sin – of its failure to preach truth, to call sin sin, to preach the necessity of holy living, of its idolatrous pursuit of success, of its message of cheap grace, of its worldliness and capitulation to the idols of the culture – in a word, for its failure to be the church, the pillar and support of the truth. Judgment begins with the household of God.

The church is weak because it has twisted, reinterpreted, and corrupted grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote,

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church…Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheap-jack wares…In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin… Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner…it is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.[1]

If the church cannot be faithful when it faces so little opposition and when it costs so little, how will it be faithful when it may cost us everything? If we cannot see the value of a little suffering now, how will we be prepared for much more later? If the truth is so cheap to be sold at the price of success and our own personal comfort, what value will it have when confessing and defending it may cost us our job, a friend, family, our tax-exempt status, or our life? If we can’t be loyal to the cause of Christ, if we can’t endure when times are easy, how will we when it may cost us dearly? If Jesus was willing to endure so much to redeem His own, how can His own not be willing to endure so comparatively little? The cost of discipleship is never cheap.

As America sinks deeper into its love affair with sin, true Christians will face an increasing onslaught of hostility from sinners, and all the more if they are faithful to obey God’s word by identifying sin as sin and calling people to repentance and faith (Eph 5:11). I seriously doubt that very many reading this have ever resisted and strived against sin to the point of shedding blood. Rather than viewing such suffering as an unwelcome intrusion, a threat to our religious liberties, or abandoned by God, we need to see it for what it is – clear evidence of God’s love for us (Hb 12:5-12). Adversity, hardships, and suffering in the cause of Christ are the means God uses to wean us from this world, from self-reliance, and from all but Him. They drive us to Him, not from Him, and anything that drives us closer to God and to a greater dependence on Him should be embraced with open arms – “For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart” – Hb 12:3.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Macmillan, 1949), 45-46.

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