The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached November 15, 2020*
Sermon Audio: Jesus and Sin (Mark 9:42-50)
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” – Mark 9:42-50
What would you do to save your life? When I was a child I remember having firefighters come to our school to tell us what we should do in case of a house fire. “Don’t try to grab any of personal belongings, just get out of the house as soon as you can.” Picturing my house burning down with all my worldly treasures was upsetting to think about. Surely, I could grab some things on my way out of the house, at least my Nintendo! No, they explained, “things can be replaced, but you can’t.” What the firefighters wanted all of us to understand was the value of life over possessions. When there is danger to your life, you are willing to part with what you love, what is precious to you, in order to preserve life.
Aron Rolston’s story, however, provides a more dramatic and harrowing choice one has to make to save life. Rolston was hiking alone in Bluejohn Canyon in Utah in 2003. He had not told anyone where he was hiking and didn’t have any means of contacting anyone. While climbing down a small slot canyon, Rolston accidentally dislodged a boulder and fell to the bottom with the boulder falling on top of him, pinning his right arm against the canyon wall. Rolston struggled desperately to free his pinned arm, but it would not budge. After five days, Rolston decided that the only chance of survival he had was to cut his right arm off. So he broke the bones in his forearm and used a dull two-inch blade from a cheap pocket knife to amputate his arm; it took over an hour and he lost nearly a quarter of the blood that was in his body. But, miraculously, Rolston survived.
As I read Rolston’s story this week, to be honest, I felt uncertain that I would be able to do what he did. It made me queasy just thinking about it. But, then again, I’ve never been in that kind of danger, that kind of desperation, so who knows? Jesus in our text today, however, seems to tell us that all of us are in this kind of dangerous, dire situation. “If you don’t cut off your hand and throw it away, you will go to Hell.”
What on earth could Jesus mean by that?
Of all the things we need to keep in mind today friends, we need to realize this: Jesus wants you to treat sin with a deadly seriousness.
The Salt of the Earth
“Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another,” Mark 9:50. What does Jesus mean by this? Well, here in this text it is contrasted with the kind of sin Jesus has been describing in the previous verses, we know that it is “good,” and is further displayed by being “at peace with one another.”
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus famously compares it with light, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven,” Matthew 5:13-16. Salt has a distinctive taste that stands out from other flavors just as light stands in stark contrast to darkness. In the same way a Christian is to be distinct and different from the world around it. In what way? In our good works. Paul elsewhere applies this specifically to how we speak, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person,” Colossians 4:6.
In our actions and our speech Christians are to be distinct, set apart. Friend, I wonder what is distinctive about your life. What is present in your life that is different than your non-Christian neighbors and co-workers? How you use your time? What media you consume? How you treat your spouse, your parents? What about how you speak? Is your speech filled with vulgarities, crude jokes, gossip, slanderous speech? When someone speaks with you are they loaded down with complaints and criticisms, or are they lifted up with gospel-encouragement?
Jesus highlights one aspect of Christian-saltiness: be at peace with one another. Brothers and sisters, is there anyone in this church you are not at peace with right now? Is there anyone that you have been withholding forgiveness from? Don’t wait. Go, be reconciled now.
The Horror of Hell
Jesus repeatedly stresses the horrors of Hell through evocative images. We are told that it would be better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown in the sea than to go to Hell (9:42). It is described as a place of “unquenchable fire” where “worms do not die” and fires do not go out (9:48). Luke 16 describes Hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment. Matthew 25:30 describes it as “outer darkness” where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 describes it as, “the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” Revelation 14, 19, and 20 describes the fires of torment as something that goes on “forever and ever.” There is some debate about whether or not the fire of Hell is a metaphor or symbol, or is a literal picture of what Hell is like. But it matters little. Isn’t a symbol giving a picture of a greater reality which can’t be put into words. If the fires of Hell are metaphorical, they surely are a metaphor for something far worse than fire.
Friends, Hell is not a place you want to go. And it isn’t a place that God wants you to go. How can a Calvinist like myself say something like that? Because that’s what the Bible says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” Ezekiel 18:23. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance,” 2 Peter 3:9.
As I was studying for this sermon I was surprised at how many pastors and theologians of earlier centuries had no problem repeatedly writing on, describing, and warning others about Hell. But, when looking at more recent work done, there is very little discussion of Hell in sermons, books, and writings. Why is that? It isn’t like the danger of Hell has lessened. It might be partially due to a good desire to not try to use fear of Hell as a means of conversion. We don’t want to give people the impression that simply not wanting to go to Hell is all it takes to go to heaven. We want to be careful about rightly explaining the gospel and the right motivations for believing it: love of God, an understanding of our own sin and helplessness, a need for a Savior to accomplish what we cannot on our own.
But I think another element has a lot more to do with our discomfort with the doctrine. We don’t think about death nowhere near as much as earlier generations did and so we don’t think about what happens after we die. But friends, our comfort doesn’t determine what we believe. And God never tells truth unnecessarily. What He has revealed about the reality of Hell is not something that is irrelevant for us and can be ignored. Here, we are told that reflecting on the reality of Hell is meant to encourage our repentance. So, if we ignore this doctrine are we not cutting ourselves off to one of the means God has given us for our sanctification, for our growth?
If you ignore the reality of Hell, you will never understand the immensity of what Jesus has done for us on the cross. Our sins have offended a holy God, a God who deserves our worship, our obedience—we have not given it to Him. Instead, we have flaunted His laws, we have ignored Him, acted as if He was a trivial figure one step above Santa Claus or Zeus. We have hurt other people with our sins, we have defiled God’s creation, we have plunged ourselves into all kinds of wickedness. And God, righteous and just, because He is good, will give full vent to His judgment. This is what Hell is—the eternal outpouring of God’s wrath. But there is one other place where the full fury of God’s wrath is assuaged: Calvary. At the cross, Jesus takes on Himself His people’s sins, and bears the punishment we deserve. The eternal God takes the vast ocean of His infinite wrath, and funnels its immensity through a pin-hole in time, aiming its obliterating destructive force at….His Son…so sinful creatures like you, like me, can be forgiven, can have our sins removed from us, and can be brought into God’s family. Jesus bundles up the horrors of Hell and swallows them for us.
Friends, have you been functionally living as if Hell does not exist? Christian, has your evangelism been lackadaisical, half-hearted? Have you been toying around with unrepentant sin, acting like there is no real danger? Non-Christian, have you been flirting with the idea of religion, dabbling with it with a kind of bemused interest you would give to joining some rec-league or contemplating some vacation you might take one day. There’s interest, but it can be settled later; it isn’t really of great importance. But dear friend, there is nothing in your life of greater importance. Everyone in this room is going to die, and after that, everyone in this room will live forever. And we will either live in the presence of God, or be cast from His presence eternally, left in outer darkness and unquenchable flames.
The Cost of Sin
Jesus, because He loves us so dearly, wants us to see how dangerous our sins are. “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire,” Mark 9:43. Two more times Jesus repeats this warning, using feet and eyes as well. What does Jesus mean? Jesus does NOT mean that we are to mutilate our bodies to keep us from going to Hell. Jesus is using exaggerative, hyperbolic language here—if you go home and cut your hand off or rip your eye out, you will keep on sinning. No, Jesus is explaining that we need to be willing to take radical steps and actions in order to cut sin and opportunities for sin out of our life. Jesus is talking about the need for repentance, which begins at your heart and is manifested through outward actions. It isn’t merely outward actions alone. Paul warns about this kind of shallow repentance: “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh,” Col 2:23.
Jesus is making a number of assumptions here:
1. Repentance is necessary
Jesus says that if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off because it is better to enter life crippled than with two hands go to hell. So…what happens if you don’t cut off your hand? What would have happened to Aron Rolston? He would have died. And dear friend, the sin that is pinning your arm to the ground will drag you all the way down to Hell if you do not sever it from your life. Point nine of our new statement of faith describes repentance and faith as “inseparable graces.” What does that mean? It means that all real faith is always accompanied by real repentance.
What is “faith”? It is trusting and submitting to Jesus Christ as the King over your life and the all-sufficient Savior of your soul. What is “repentance”? It is an acknowledgment that the sin you have been participating in is contrary to your King’s commands, a sorrow over your sin, and an earnest desire to remove that sin from your life that manifests itself in action. You cannot have faith without repentance, and you cannot have repentance without faith. If I say I love my wife, but routinely have affairs on her and apologize, but intend to keep having affairs, do I really love her?
James warns us, “Faith without works is dead,” (James 2:17) And Paul tells us, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live,” (Rom 8:13). If we do not, by the Spirit, kill sin, it will kill us. Titus explains to us, “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,” (Titus 2:11-12). God’s grace trains us to renounce ungodliness and to live godly lives. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works. We are not saved by our act of fighting sin, by our victories over sin. The fight of faith warring against sin is never a perfect fight, but it is a fight. And if there is no fight against the sin? If we simply make peace with it, accept it, embrace it, excuse it, love it…then we likely have never had true faith.
John warns of the danger of those who have embraced a sinful lifestyle and abandoned the church: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us,” 1 John 2:19. Their abandoning of the faith didn’t mean that they had “sinned their way out of heaven,” but meant that they never were there from the get-go. And friends, the
So, dear friend, is there sin that you have been making peace with in your life?
“Sin aims always at the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go out to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression, every thought of unbelief would be atheism, might it grow to its head…And herein lies no small share of the deceitfulness of sin, by which it prevails to the hardening of men, and so to their ruin…it is modest, as it were, in its first motions and proposals, but having once got footing in the heart by them, it constantly makes good its ground, and presses on to some farther degrees in the same kind.” – John Owen, Mortification of the Flesh
2. Repentance is costly
Maybe the very thing keeping you from repentance today is what repentance will cost you. What will happen if you have to tell your spouse the truth? How much more inconvenient will your life be without this comfort, that opportunity? People might think less of you, might even start to suppose even worse things about you that aren’t true if you come clean. Life without a hand, foot, or eye is very inconvenient. And friend, you need to fear God more than you fear men to repent wholly.
3. Repentance is possible, not perfect.
What Jesus is teaching here is not impossible, dear Christian. It may feel that way. Your sin may have been around for a long, long time and it feels like it is just a part of you. And as you hear this sermon, you may be just sinking deeper and deeper into despair: How am I to do that?
Repentance is often described as “turning around.” You are walking one way in a pattern of sin and repenting means to make an about face, and walk in the other direction. And that is true. Turning around is relatively simple while you are walking. Turning around while you are riding a bike, however, is a bit more complicated. It takes more time and maneuvering than when you are walking. Further, turning around while driving a car takes even more consideration and space. But what if you are driving a river barge loaded down with freight? It may take miles for you to turn around. Friends, our fighting with our sin may take years before we see that particular habit eradicated from our life. We may spend our whole life fighting it and only find relief when we die. True repentance is not only found in the simple, easy repenting. Sometimes the fruits of our repentance are shown in the midst of a day-to-day struggle that is filled with frequent stumbling and failure. It may take considerable time for that barge to turn. We are not saved by perfect repentance, but all who are saved will make an effort towards persistent repentance.
So, what should you do?
Remember the gospel—the Lord has accepted you, forgiven you, and made you His own. Your zeal for repentance is the by-product of already being saved, not the test you must pass in order to be saved. Read Psalm 103.
Ask yourself: Have I made peace with this sin?—do you have a real, genuine desire to cut this out of your life? If you could have a guarantee that you could continue doing this thing and no one ever found out about, would you keep doing it?
See it the way God sees it.—Do you make excuses for this? Do you try to paint it with cheery colors and make it sound understandable, necessary even, given the circumstances? Or do you see this sin the way God does: vile, damnable, bring dishonor to His name.
Confess—confess your sins to God and to another brother or sister, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another,” (James 5:16).
Ask for the Spirit’s help—it is only by the Spirit that we put to death the deeds of the flesh; ask Him for help.
Take action—whatever needs to be done to make your repentance concrete, do it. “Cutting off your hand” may look like getting rid of your smartphone, apologizing, telling your boss what you have been doing, asking for help setting up a stricter budget, telling the bartender not to serve you anymore, etc.
Repeat—the whole of Christian life is a life of repentance. We don’t stop till God kills us or comes again.
Remember—No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. – 1 Cor 10:13