Private Sin Is Never A Private Matter

“What I do in private is between me and the Lord.”

This a thought I’ve heard from several believers. Others, when confronted about ongoing sin in the body retort Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” not realizing that Jesus also said in that same chapter, “You will recognize them by their fruits” and, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (vv. 20, 21).

Scripture clearly teaches us that we are members one of another (Romans 12:5; Ephesians 4:25) and therefore our private sins are not really a private matter. Such thinking reveals we’ve adopted a little more of the culture’s mindset than we may like to admit. But the Bible says our personal identity is always connected to our corporate identity as members of our local church body and the two cannot be divorced from one another. We may assume that since we’re positionally right with God through faith in Christ, then what we do in the dark affects no one but ourselves. Wrong. If there is one thing we learn from the story of Ananias and Sapphira, it is that unrepentant, secret sin in our lives affects the health and witness of the whole body. Our gossipy whispers and the silent glow of our phones in the dark must not deceive us. Our Lord told His disciples, “…nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops” (Matthew 10:26b-27). Paul likewise told Timothy, “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later” (1 Timothy 5:24). In Acts 5, God teaches His young church several important lessons, but one such lesson is that private sins in the life of a church member are a public matter for the church.

Luke provides us with several amazing snapshots of the early church in the first chapters of the book of Acts (1:12-26; 2:42-47; 4:23-31; 4:32-37; 6:1-7). In one such scene, we read this, “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (4:34-37). All was well. This was a church marked by unity, prayer, love, Scripture, holiness, and Gospel witness. Then we notice what happens when some believers give way to personal sin: “But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him” (5:1-6). The story continues as Sapphira is also struck dead by the Lord a few hours later.

What they did was wrong (the privacy of the sin doesn’t make it any less sinful)

I remember being confused upon my first reading of the account of Ananias and Sapphira. I thought to myself, “What did they do wrong? Don’t we all keep back a portion for ourselves when we give to the Lord?” But the problem for Ananias and Sapphira isn’t that they kept back some for themselves. Peter tells Ananias in verse 3, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” The problem was that they lied about what they were giving (v. 3). This is why Peter questioned Sapphira about how much the land was sold for compared to what they’d given the apostles (v. 8). We may say something was a “white lie” or that we “stretched the truth,” but God calls a spade a spade: “You have not lied to man but to God…you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord” (vv. 4b, 9b). In the same way, private sins are not somehow less sinful. The sin of Achan was a private sin and yet God called His people to purge the evil from among them (Joshua 7). And many times in Israel’s history, private sins which were otherwise unknown the the whole assembly had to be made known in order to experience the blessing of God upon them.

What God did was right (the public nature of the judgment upholds God’s holiness)

Many in our culture aren’t even aware that they approach the Bible with a lens of superiority and judging. They stand in judgment of it instead of letting it stand in judgment of them. I remember teaching through this scene years ago and a man sharing how he thought God’s judgment here was too severe. He said the punishment didn’t fit the crime. We need to be reminded, however, that God is the only truly just Judge there is. If a judgment seems too severe, the problem isn’t with Him…it is with us. The problem here is that we are looking through the wrong end of the binoculars. There is no such thing as a little sin because there is no such thing as a God who is a little holy. I’ve heard the illustration that if you punched a stranger on the street, you’d get punched in return. If you punched a police officer, you’d get a jail sentence. If you punched the President, you’d get a life sentence or the death penalty. It was the same crime, but the penalty is heightened with the authority of the one we offended. It is the same with God. Every sin is major to God and especially sin in the church. What good could come from such severe discipline on sin? We see it in verses 5 and 11: “Great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.” Luke had said that the apostles had great power and great grace was upon them (4:33), and now he says that great fear came upon all. God was upholding the purity of His holiness along with the purity of His people.  And He was doing this before the eyes of a watching world.

What we do in private matters (the church must be a repentant, distinct people)

The church is to be a purified people, but not because we are better than others. Our purity is derived from repentant faith that clings to the Gospel day after day. We must regularly come for cleansing, even though we’ve already been washed from sin’s penalty (John 13:5-10). How do we regularly remain clean and pure as a church? We confess our sins to God and one another and pray for each other (James 5:16), and we discipline the unrepentant among us (1 Corinthians 5; Matthew 18:15-20). As we do these things, we are lovingly preparing each other for the great Judgment to come on each of us. A church that doesn’t discipline sin in its midst will not have this penetrating impact on the culture around them as did the early church. We read, “None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (5:13-14). If we wish to be a purified people that pierces the darkness of this world, we must be truly repentant of sins and distinct.

May we never view our private sins as private matters before the Lord.

The Fear of God is for Christians Too

“It will put the fear of God in you.”

This phrase is often stated by someone as a warning to another before they try some fiery hot sauce, watch a scary movie, or ride a looping roller coaster. Parents have even said it to their wayward children to warn of future discipline if they disobey. Outside of these uses, we don’t often hear much of the fear of God these days, but the Bible talks a lot about it. The fear of God is a theme taught throughout the pages of Scripture and which shows up hundreds of times in our Bibles. 

Some may consider the fear of the LORD to be something for non-believers and they say true Christians shouldn’t fear God. They may even quote 1 John 4:18, which states, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” But we must never build a system of theology on one verse, but instead let the whole of revealed Scripture illuminate a matter. The verse from 1 John reveals not that we shouldn’t fear God, but that our fear of God is different now that we’re in Christ. 

The great protestant reformer Martin Luther is known for distinguishing between servile fear (that of a child facing an abusive bully at school each day) and filial fear (that same child’s deep respect for his loving father and the desire to only do what pleases him). This is illustrated well in one of my favorite books on the topic: The Joy of Fearing God by Jerry Bridges. In his book, Bridges uses the illustration of a soldier who trains under a strict drill sergeant and is terror-stricken around him. But as the soldier gradually moves up in rank and begins to have a deeper respect for this officer over him, his fear of him changes. Eventually, the soldier and his commanding officer are both in an IED attack and the soldier is injured badly. While in an army hospital, the soldier’s commanding officer visits regularly to check on him and the soldier’s fear grows even deeper towards such a loving and yet authoritative man. Sinclair Ferguson has defined the fear of God as, “that indefinable mixture of reverence, fear, pleasure, joy, and awe which fills our hearts when we realize who God is and what he has done for us.” 

So how does Scripture address us with this concept of the fear of God?

1. The fear of the LORD compels…our proclamation

Sharing Christ with another person can be scary work. Our minds so quickly and unconsciously present us with a multitude of possible negative outcomes: “What if they think I’m a weird religious fanatic? What if they never want to talk to me again? What if they insult me or make fun of me in front of others?” Jesus told his disciples, “…proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell…So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 10:28, 32, 33). Jesus often answered our unhealthy fear of persecution or lack of provision with a healthy fear of Him. Paul likewise told the church at Corinth, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:10-11a). In both Jesus’ words and Paul’s, we get a sense that our evangelism and witness are to be driven by the fear of God. Our proclamation of the Gospel should be bold even in the face of opposition because both we and our hearers will answer to God in the end.  

2. The fear of the LORD compels…our worship

There are so many factors that can negatively affect our worship of God: impure motives, unrepentant sin, prayerlessness, wasting our time. Yet we must remember just who this God is that we’re to worship and how He alone is worthy of our whole-hearted worship. The author of Hebrews tells us, “let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28b-29). Unacceptable worship is any worship that fails to rightly acknowledge the awesome majesty of the God before whom we come. So we must approach Him as those who deserve His just wrath and yet enjoy His smile because of the wonder of Christ’s propitiation. Our prayers must be humble and serious, our Scripture reading must be disciplined and meditative, and our service must be zealous and grateful as sinners redeemed by the blood of God’s Son.

3. The fear of the LORD compels…our holy living 

The pursuit of holiness is hard work because we are fighting against ourselves for ourselves. One of the reasons we struggle with practical holiness is that we forget how it is to be motivated by our fear of God. Anytime we divorce holiness from a healthy reverence for God, we turn it into a self-wrought work or a set of morals. Paul told the church at Corinth, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). We see this also in the Old Testament: “And he said to man, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding’” (Job 28:28). Here God equates fear of Him with personal holiness. One who is not growing in holiness is not living with a fear of God. God told the prophet Isaiah, “For the LORD spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Is. 8:11-13). How do we not walk in the way of “this people” who don’t know God? By a letting God be our fear and dread. 

4. The fear of the LORD compels…our bold obedience 

This is similar to the others and yet distinct. A fear of God produces a boldness that chooses to obey Him no matter the cost. Among the hall of faith in Hebrews 11 are two women who protected the Hebrew baby boys from evil Pharaoh in Moses’ day. Where did they get such boldness in the face of such evil and opposition? You guessed it: the fear of God. Moses records their names for us and informs us, “But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” He later tells the people of God wandering through the wilderness, “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 10:12).

5. The fear of the LORD compels…our fellowship with God 

If we want close communion with God, we cannot have it without a fear of Him. David writes, “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant” (Ps. 25:14). In other psalms, we are informed: “Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him,” and, “The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them” (Ps. 33:18a; 34:7). In each of these psalms, David shows us that a right fear of God leads to the blessing of His friendship. Some may think they’d never want to be friends with a God who demands we fear Him, but any lesser god isn’t worthy of our friendship. Think of the wonder of these verses! The God of all creation is inviting us to be His friends! We ought to enter in with joy-filled reverence before such a God. Why wouldn’t we want such a friend on our side and for us?

6. The fear of the LORD compels…our safety 

Solomon writes, “The fear of the LORD leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm” (Prov. 19:23). Yes many who feared God have died martyrs for Christ, but they’ve never truly been, “visited by harm.” Listen to Jesus’ words to his disciples: “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Lk. 21:16-19). Read over that again. He is literally saying, “They are going to hate you and beat you and arrest you and kill you…but you will live.” I was speaking with a pastor friend about this one day and he said something that really struck me: “In reality, nothing bad ever happens to the Christian.” Sure you may get COVID-19 or pancreatic cancer or you might be killed by a drunk driver or die at the hands of some vigilante, but this is all part of God’s sovereign plan. Isn’t that glorious! How liberating the fear of God is for us!

7. The fear of the LORD compels…our prayers 

We are told in Jeremiah 26:19b of King Hezekiah, “Did he not fear the LORD and entreat the favor of the LORD, and did not the LORD relent of the disaster that he had pronounced against them?” Want a more earnest and passionate prayer life? Then before you pray, contemplate who it is you are approaching. A good fear of God will make for good prayers.

8. The fear of the LORD compels…our church health 

One of the major errors of the church growth movement was a failure to stand on the truths that highlight the fear of God. Doctor Luke informs us that it is this fear of God which grew the early church. “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (Acts 9:31). A healthy and multiplying church isn’t one whose mere numbers grow, but whose members grow in the fear of God. Even when God’s hand of discipline fell on wayward members, we’re told, “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:11-14). A church that fears God will be marked by holiness among its members and will eventually grow numerically as outsiders see Christ among them.

9. The fear of the LORD compels…our labors 

Paul told the church at Colossae, “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Col. 3:22). Here the Bible’s reference to earthly masters and bonderservants has been compared to more of an employer-employee relationship and not so much the American system of slavery with which we’re familiar. Paul addressed those in the congregation who were bondservants because God cared about their daily lives just as He did the others in the flock. He commends a fear of God which lends itself to honest and diligent work. Find a man or woman who fears God and you’ll find someone who refuses to cut corners at work or steal time from the clock. They don’t hold back from these things because they’re afraid of God, but because they wouldn’t dare offend such a gracious and good God who has given them His only Son’s life.

10. The fear of the LORD compels…our leadership 

Every organization needs good leadership and yet the best leaders aren’t those who’ve built great empires, but those who fear a great God. When Moses’ father-in-law recommended a plurality of leadership to help he and the struggling flock of Israel, he wisely instructed him to look for men of both caliber and competence. “Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens” (Ex. 18:21). David’s last words even highlight the beauty of God-fearing leadership. We read in 2 Samuel 23:3-4, “The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me: When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.” Leaders who fear God are a true blessing to those under their leadership. 

May we all learn to live with this fear of God and let it pour down into every aspect of our daily lives so that all may see the glory of our great and awesome God.

Tremble at the Word

When is the last time you trembled?

Maybe it was when a semi truck came uncomfortably close to your vehicle on the interstate or when you showed up to class only to discover the term paper was due and you forgot to finish it last night. The last time I trembled was one sunny day (or so I thought) when I was getting the kids ready to go play outside and was startled by a booming thunderclap. The flicker from the corner of my eye was met a second later with such a loud cannon blast that it left the house shaking for a few seconds. Needless to say, we stayed indoors till the storm passed. What makes us tremble in these moments? It is the sudden realization that we are not that powerful after all. In these moments we are brought down to size and reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

In Isaiah 66:2, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah and declares, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” Then a few verses later we read, “Hear the word of the LORD, you who tremble at his word.”

The trembling that brings a blessing with it is this soul trembling God calls for in response to His Word. But what does it mean to tremble? We know it cannot mean trembling for fear of punishment, for Jesus bore all God’s wrath for the believer on the cross. What it must mean then is a humble and prayerful listening to the Word from the heart; the opposite of an independent and boastful attitude which thinks we know best apart from the Word.

Then the question arises: “What if I’ve lost this sense of trembling over God’s Word? What if the Word that once seemed so alive is now dry and lifeless to me? How can I recover this trembling at the Word?”

To rekindle this sense of the fear of God as we read His Word we must…

Read Scripture as though God were speaking to us (because He is)

2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” so we must read our Bibles as though God were speaking from heaven to us. In his recent book, Reading the Bible Supernaturally, John Piper compares our Bible reading to a conversation over the lunch table with a friend. He says if he finds his mind wandering while reading the Bible, it’s just as rude as letting your mind wander when someone is talking to you over the lunch table. Since you would apologize for not listening to a real person, we should also confess to God when we aren’t listening to Him speak in His Word. We all would love to hear the audible voice of God guiding us in the course of this life like Moses did on Mount Sinai or like Peter did on the Mount of Transfiguration. Ironically, we have the voice of God before us in black and white and often don’t tremble over it. Peter himself tells us, “We ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention…” (2 Pet. 1:18-19a). As I’ve heard it said, if we want to hear God speak out loud, all we have to do is read the Bible out loud.  

Pray as though God were listening to us (because He is)

If we wish to tremble at the Word, we can’t just read it though. We’ve got to respond to it in prayer. One practice I’ve always found helpful, which I got from Piper, is to pray before you read that God would show you His glory, pray as you read that God would help you understand, and pray after you read that God would help you respond appropriately. But if we’re not careful we can even feel numb in our prayers to God. We must remember Who it is we’re praying to and what it cost us to even approach Him. At the Together for the Gospel pastor’s conference a few years back, I’ll never forget how David Platt brought this home in his prayer. Before praying, he noticed that the 10,000 pastors in the room were being irreverent in the way they were casually walking around and texting and talking when we were about to pray to our most awesome and holy God. After he rebuked us for our lackadaisical attitude to prayer in such a conference setting, a sudden hush fell over the massive gathering and it felt as though we were all united in prayer with this man. This is how we must bring ourselves to pray every time we do so; with the realization that we’re approaching the Holy of Holies.

Live as though God were watching us (because He is)

If we are faithful to read Scripture with trembling and pray with trembling, but we aren’t faithful to live with trembling, we’re missing the point. At the beginning of our text, we saw how God said, “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit.” It should humble us that God is the watcher of all mankind and yet it should even more greatly humble us that He will look with special affection on those who fear Him. Francis Chan has rightly noted, “The fact that a holy, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, merciful, fair, and just God loves you is nothing short of astonishing.” Since this holy God looks our way in Christ, we should live daily in the fear of Him. In his book The Joy of Fearing God, the late Jerry Bridges defines the fear of God as reverential awe. Our daily decisions and encounters with temptation should be marked by reverence for who God is and awe before Him. If we wouldn’t say, do, or think something if we knew people around us were fully aware of it, we shouldn’t with such a God fully aware of it. This is why Paul tells the church at Philippi to, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). This is also why the author of Hebrews tells us, “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28b-29).

My great uncle Clark Harrison was paralyzed by a sniper bullet in World War II. After a period of licking his wounds so to speak, he decided he would not give up on life. He went on to be one of the founders of the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta and even got his pilot’s license. One day while sitting on the wing of his plane as it sat on the tarmac, he noticed the smell of burning flesh and looked down to discover his numb, paralyzed legs had received second and third degree burns from the wing by sitting there and he didn’t even know it.

Like my great Uncle Clark, we must remember that when our hearts grow numb to God, this does not minimize in any degree His blazing holiness. If you find your heart hard and numb and cold, confess it to God and repent. Use all manner of His ordained means to once again tremble at His Word. Pray, read, and live in a way that acknowledges you are nothing without Him and He is worthy of your zealous worship. Then this holy God will once again lead you to tremble at His Word.