The closest I have ever come in 26 years to being fired from my position as a pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church was in the mid-1980s, when I wrote an article for our church newsletter titled "Missions and Masturbation." I wrote the article after returning from a missions conference in Washington, D.C., with George Verwer, the head of Operation Mobilization.
Verwer's burden at that conference was the tragic number of young people who at one point in their lives dreamed of radical obedience to Jesus, but then faded away into useless American prosperity. A gnawing sense of guilt and unworthiness over sexual failure gradually gave way to spiritual powerlessness and the dead-end dream of middle-class security and comfort.
In other words, what seemed so tragic to George Verweras it does to meis that so many young people are being lost to the cause of Christ's mission because they are not taught how to deal with the guilt of sexual failure. The problem is not just how not to fail. The problem is how to deal with failure so that it doesn't sweep away your whole life into wasted mediocrity with no impact for Christ.
The great tragedy is not masturbation or fornication or pornography. The tragedy is that Satan uses guilt from these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had or might have. In their place, he gives you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures, until you die in your lakeside rocking chair.
I have a passion that you do not waste your life. My aim is not mainly to cure you of sexual misconduct. I would like that to happen. But mostly I want to take out of the Devil's hand the weapon that exploits your sin and makes your life a wasted, worldly success. Satan wants that for you. But you don't!
What broke George Verwer's heart back in the 1980s, and breaks mine today, is not that you have sinned sexually. It's that this morning Satan took your 2 A.M. encounterwhether on TV or in bedand told you: "See, you're a loser. You may as well not even worship. No way are you going to make any serious commitment of your life to Jesus Christ! You may as well get a good job so you can buy yourself a big widescreen and watch sex till you drop."
I want to take that weapon out of his hand. Yes, I want you to have the joyful courage not to do the channel surfing. But sooner or later, whether it's that sin or another, you are going to fall. I want to help you deal with the guilt of failure so that Satan does not use it to produce another wasted life.
God Makes a Way
The backdrop of Colossians 1-3 is Colossians 3:6: "On account of these the wrath of God is coming." Hanging over the whole world is the holy, just, unimpeachable anger of God at sin and rebellion. His wrath is coming, and the salvation spoken of in Colossians 1-3 is the only rescue from it. No one wants to meet the wrath of "the Lamb" when it comes (Rev. 6:16). So God in his mercy provides a way out.
Christ did something in history before we existed that obtained and guaranteed our rescue and the transformation of all who would come to trust in him. The distinctive and crucial thing about Christian salvation is that Christ accomplished it decisively, outside of us and without our help. When we put our faith in him, we do not add to the sufficiency of what he accomplished in covering our sins and achieving the righteousness that counts as ours.
The clearest verses on this point are Colossians 2:13-14: "And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the Cross."
Those last words are the most crucial. God set aside this record of debt that stood against us, nailing it to the Cross. Make sure you understand this most glorious of all truths: God took the record of all your sinsall your sexual failuresthat made you a debtor to wrath. Instead of holding them up in front of your face and using them as the warrant to send you to hell, he put them in the palm of his Son's hand and nailed them to the Cross.
Whose sins were punished on the Cross? The sins of all who despair of saving themselves and trust in Christ alone. Who was punished on the Cross? Jesus. That is the beautiful thing we call substitution.
Paul wrote in Romans 8:3, "By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh." Whose sin? Ours. Jesus had none (only the likeness of sinful flesh, not sinful flesh). Whose flesh? Jesus'.
Have you ever wondered what the next verse, Colossians 2:15, means? Right after saying that God nailed the record of our debt to the Cross, Paul says, "[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him." This is a reference to the Devil and all his demonic hosts. How are they disarmed? How are they defeated?
They have many weapons. But they are disarmed of the one weapon that can damn usthe weapon of unforgiven sin. Be sure you see the connection between Colossians 2:14 and 15. In 2:14, it says God nailed the record of our debt to the Cross. It's punished. It's finished. And in the next breath, it says that God disarmed the rulers and authorities. He triumphed over them. Sure, they can beat us up, tempt us, scare us, and accuse us, but they cannot damn us. That weapon is out of their hands. Only unforgiven sin damns. And that was nailed to the Cross.
Many see so little of the beauty of Christ in this salvation that the gospel simply sounds to them like a license to go on sinning. If all my sins are nailed to the Cross, then let's all sin that grace may abound (Rom. 6:1). Paul confronted that blindness in his own day and said, "Their condemnation is just" (Rom. 3:8). The reason they will be condemned is that we are saved by grace through faith. This faith connects you with Jesus so that his death counts for your death and his righteousness counts for your righteousness (compare Rom. 5:1, "by faith," and Rom. 8:1, "in Christ"). This faith receives Christ. It's not an adding to what Christ has done. It is a receiving. Saving faith receives Jesus as Savior and Lord and the Treasure of your life.
This faith will fight anything that gets between it and Christ. The distinguishing mark of saving faith is not perfection. It is not that I never sin sexually. The mark of faith is that I fight. I fight not with fists or knives or guns or bombs, but with the truth of Christ. I fight anything that diminishes the fullness of the lordship of Jesus in my life. I fight anything that threatens to replace Jesus as the supreme treasure of my life.
So if all you can see in the Cross of Jesus is a license to go on sinning, then you don't have saving faith. You need to fall on your face and plead that God would open your eyes to see the compelling glory of Jesus Christ.
I haven't mentioned justification, but it is very closely related to the work of God in nailing our sins to the Cross. Justification is the act by which God declares us not only forgiven because of the work of Christ, but also righteous because of the work of Christ. God requires two things for our right standing before him: (1) Our sins must be punished, and (2) our lives must be righteous. But we cannot bear our own punishment, and we cannot provide our own righteousness (Rom. 3:10).
Therefore, God, out of his immeasurable love for us, provided his own Son to do both. Christ bears our punishment and performs our righteousness. When we receive Christ as the Savior and Lord and Treasure of our lives, all of his punishment and righteousness is counted as ours (Rom. 4:4-6; 5:1; 5:19; 8:1; 10:4; Phil. 3:8-9; 2 Cor. 5:21). Justification conquers fornication.
Being armed with biblical knowledge of God, Christ, the Cross, and salvation can give such ballast to the boat of your life that the wind of temptation will not be able to tip it over easily. The reason this is not a popular remedy for temptation today is because it is not a quick fix. It's the work of a lifetime.
You have a tremendous weapon against the Devil when you know your punishment for sin has already been paid in Christ and your righteousness before God has already been achieved in Christ, and you hold fast to these truths with heartfelt passion.
With this passionately embraced theologythe magnificent doctrines of substitutionary atonement and justification by faith (even if you don't remember the names)you can conquer the Devil tomorrow morning when he lies to you about your hopelessness.
I Will Rise
What will you say to him? Micah 7:8-9 is a picture of what you say to your enemy when he scoffs at your defeat. I call this practice "gutsy guilt." The believer admits that he has done wrong and that God is dealing roughly with him. But even in a condition of darkness and discipline, he will not surrender his hold on the truth that God is on his side. Pay close attention to these amazing words. Use them whenever Satan tempts you to throw away your life on trifles because that's all you're good for.
Micah 7:8-9 is what victory looks like the morning after failure. Learn to take your theology and speak like this to the Devil or anyone else who tells you that Christ is not capable of using you mightily for his global cause. Here is what you say.
"Rejoice not over me, O my enemy." You make merry over my failure? You think you will draw me into your deception? Think again.
When I fall, I shall rise. Yes, I have fallen. I hate what I have done. I grieve at the dishonor I have brought on my King. But hear this, O my enemy, I will rise. I will rise.
When I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me. Yes, I am sitting in darkness. I feel miserable. I feel guilty. I am guilty. But that is not all that is true about me and my God. The same God who makes my darkness is a sustaining light to me in this very darkness. He will not forsake me.
I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. Oh yes, my enemy, this much truth you say: I have sinned. I am bearing the indignation of the Lord. But that is where your truth stops and my theology begins. Hethe very one who is indignant with mewill plead my cause. You say he is against me and that I have no future with him because of my failure. That's what Job's friends said. That is a lie. And you are a liar. My God, whose Son's life is my righteousness and whose Son's death is my punishment, will execute judgment for me. For me! And not against me.
He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication. This misery that I now feel because of my failure, I will bear as long as my dear God ordains. And this I know for sureas sure as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is my punishment and my righteousnessGod will bring me out to the light, and I will look upon his righteousness, my Lord and my God.
Falling Less Often
When you learn to deal with the guilt of sexual failure by this kind brokenhearted boldness, this kind of theology, this kind of justification by faith, this kind of substitutionary atonement, this kind of gutsy guilt, you will fall less often. Why is this so? Because Christ will become increasingly precious to you.
Best of all, Satan will not be able to destroy your dream of a life of radical obedience to Christ. By this Christ-exalting gutsy guilt, thousands of you will give your lives to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.
John Piper is the pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. This article is adapted from a message delivered at Passion '07.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Piper appeared in Christianity Today's "Passion Takes It Higher," "Young, Restless, Reformed," "What's Next: Local Church," "The Top 25 Most Influential Preachers," and "The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals." Christianity Today also reviewed his books, God is the Gospel (an excerpt is available on our site), and Don't Waste Your Life.
He wrote "The Morning I Heard God's Voice" for Christianity Today.
Other articles on sexuality and gender are available online.
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