The Word of God has much to say to us about ‘the deceitfulness of sin’ (Heb. 3:13). The evil that is sin will do all it can to persuade you to taste its wares, to embrace its offers, to sit at its table and eat its food. I would like in this pastoral letter to reflect with you a little on this subject.
God’s Word seems to make deceit the fountainhead of every sin. The very first sin began in deceit. Eve, we are told, was deceived before she ate the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:13). Deceit went before the transgression. In the New Testament we read that Satan is still following the same strategy (2 Cor. ll:3). Indeed, all the works the devil does in this world in opposition to the Lord Jesus Christ and his kingdom he accomplishes by deceit (Rev. l2:9). He truly is ‘the deceiver of the whole world’. Men and women would not be prevailed on to continue in Satan’s service to their eternal (and sometimes temporal) ruin, were they not utterly deceived. This is why there are so many cautions in Scripture to beware of deception: ‘Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience’ (Eph. 5:6); ‘Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, not adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God’ (1 Cor. 6:9-10); ‘Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap’ (Gal. 6:7) – and so on.
Now the theologically acute among you will have realised by now that all I have written thus far is taken from John Owen’s magisterial treatise on Indwelling Sin1. Owen, in his own inimitable style, shows us how this deceit operates and how, by God’s grace, the Christian can resist and triumph over sin’s deceitfulness. For Owen, the great battle lies with the mind. Our great need is to see and feel the evil and bitterness of sin. Look where sin leads: it leads to death and eternal misery.
One of Owen’s great concerns is to awaken us to sin’s deceitfulness in its ‘abuse of gospel grace’. The gospel is God’s glorious remedy against all the evil, filth and guilt of sin, and all its dangerous consequences. It delivers our souls from sin and death. But, and here is one of sin’s deceitful stratagems, Satan will suggest to you that God’s grace is so great, so rich, so free, that even if you go on sinning, God’s superabundant grace will see you through. This is a mockery and travesty of gospel grace, for at least this one reason: what does the grace of God teach us? Read Titus 2:11-12, ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.’ Grace is antithetical to sin, because the grace of God is really the God of grace! Grace is not a spiritual commodity or substance; God’s grace is Jesus Christ (see John 1:14,17; 2 Cor. 8:9). And so Owen writes, ‘much of the wisdom of faith and the power of gospel grace lie in opposing this deceit’ – the deceit that if we go on sinning God’s grace will continue to abound towards us.
One more thing: It is absolutely vital that we do battle with sin’s deceitfulness in fellowship with God’s people. This is what the writer to the Hebrews pressed upon his readers (who were in grave danger of being taken in by sin’s deceitfulness): ‘But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today”, that none of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.’ We need the fellowship of our brothers and sisters as we seek to live lives that please and honour our Lord and Saviour. We need to look out for one another. We need to ‘exhort’ or ‘encourage’ one another. In this context, ‘faithful are the wounds of a friend’.
Stop reading and ask yourself, ‘Am I, in any sphere of my life, being taken in by sin’s deceitfulness?’ Or, ‘Is anyone I know being taken in by sin’s deceitfulness?’ If so, do something about it.
- The Banner of Truth has a modern updating of this great work in its Puritan Paperbacks series, Indwelling Sin in Believers – abridged and made easy to read!
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church, now worshipping God on Sunday mornings in All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge and in the Lutheran Church, Huntingdon Road, on Sunday evenings.
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