Losing a sense of God’s holiness is the first warning sign of entering a spiritually dangerous place.
Externally, everything might look fine: Our families might be well, our ministries might be flourishing, we might be receiving recognition and walking powerfully in our spiritual gifts. But inwardly, we’re wandering.
External phenomena do not reliably indicate our spiritual health. Families and ministries can struggle and go wrong for reasons that have nothing to do with our spiritual states. And history is full of examples of men and women who exercised spiritual gifts with great power for a period of time — even when involved in gross secret sin. Besides that, externals are usually lagging indicators of spiritual decline. By the time our decline starts surfacing, it often has reached a serious state.
What to Watch
The thing to watch is our sense of God’s holiness.
I don’t mean our doctrinal knowledge of God’s holiness. That’s something we might affirm and even teach when secretly we are in a place of decline. The doctrine of God’s holiness is real to us only when we have real fear of God. And one clear evidence of this is our fear of sin. The loss of the sense of God’s holiness always produces the loss of the sense of sin’s sinfulness. When God is not feared, sin is not feared.
A tolerance of habitual indulgence of sin — a lack of fear over what slavery to sin might imply (John 8:34) — is an indictor that the fear of God is not governing us. And when we are in such a state, Jesus tells us what we need to do: cut off our hand.
Absolutely Terrifying Reality
Matthew 18 is a sober read. Jesus gets very serious about the extremely horrible consequences of sin. And he says this:
Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matthew 18:7–9)
Note the words eternal fire in verse eight. For most of the history of the church, some have asserted either some form of ultimate universal salvation for everyone or ultimate annihilation of the lost. But for the entire history of the church, the vast majority of Christians and the vast majority of the church’s most eminent and reliable theologians have affirmed that what Jesus and the apostles taught about hellis eternal, conscious punishment. Those three words describe an absolutely terrifying reality.
Metaphor, But No Hyperbole
I used the words “extremely horrible” and “absolutely terrifying” very carefully and intentionally. They are among the only fitting words we have to describe hell, the eternal death that is the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). No one wants to experience this. And it will be the reality experienced by everyone who is a slave to sin and not set free by the Son (John 8:36).
That is why Jesus uses the extreme metaphor of cutting off our hand and tearing out our eye. Extreme danger calls for extreme measures of escape. Yes, the mutilation imagery is a metaphor, but it is not hyperbole. We know it is a metaphor because the literal loss of a hand or an eye doesn’t get to the root issue of sin. But radical and painful amputation of stumbling blocks out of our lives may be the only way to escape falling headlong into sin’s insidiously deceptive snare.
We may need to “mutilate” — chop off — a habit, a relationship, a career, certain personal freedoms, whatever is causing us to stumble. Because far better that we enter life having lost those things than kept them and lose our souls (Luke 9:25).
Cut Off Every Hand
When we lose the sense of God’s holiness, Jesus’s warnings in Matthew 18 land lightly on us. We reason that such a warning is for someone else. We don’t seriously think it applies to us. Nor do we seriously think it applies to other brothers and sisters who are characterized by worldly concerns and pursuits and are rather numb when it comes to sin.
We might take consolation that our affirmation of orthodox doctrine, external affirmations, and “fruitful” labors demonstrate we’re on the right path. But if in the secret place, we’re tolerating sin, tolerating relative prayerlessness, tolerating a lack of urgency over lost souls, it is an indicator that something is wrong. If we don’t reverence God as holy in our private lives, we are on a perilous path that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13).
Jesus provides us the cure to this deadly infection: cut off every hand that is causing you to stumble. And he really means it. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart” (Hebrews 4:7). Whether we have just ventured on to this road or been on it way too long, the time is now to repent and take the extreme measure to amputate whatever is entangling our feet in sin (Hebrews 12:1). We must plead with the Lord and do whatever it takes to see the fear of the Lord restored in our hearts.
For the Christian, the fear of the Lord does not compete with our joy in the Lord. Rather, it’s a source of our joy in the Lord. Isaiah prophesied this about Jesus: “And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3). Jesus delighted in the fear of his Father, and God wants us to enjoy this delight too. Because “the fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (Proverbs 14:27). And “the friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant” (Psalm 25:14).
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). Conversely, losing the fear of the Lord is the beginning of foolishness. The reward of such wisdom is eternal life (John 3:16) and fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11). The reward of such foolishness is absolutely terrifying.
When we notice a diminishing of our healthy fear of God, the loss of a sense of his holiness, that is the time to take action. Let us repent by cutting off every foolish hand and, as Deuteronomy 30:19 says, choose life.