Monday, March 16, 2009

Extreme Purity: A thought on Matthew 5:27-30

Matthew 5:27-30 27 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

We all recognize that these verses have in the history of the church been taken too literally. I believe it was Origen who actually castrated himself because of his problem with lust. This brings up a two fold issue: (1) Jesus is often quite clear that cleaning the outside does little good without cleaning the inside; and (2) Jesus is using obvious hyberbole.

Whenever we talk about sanctification there is a danger of replacing method with miracle. The work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to sanctify us is a miracle. He brings life to my dead heart. It is the life of Christ's resurrection that begins working inwardly and will one day transform my entire person. Today's evangelical culture is obsessed not with the miracle of the gospel but with the method of the gospel. We love to craft new methods that will "work". Thankfully, we never go to this extreme like Jesus (so much for WWJD) but we love giving a method that can take care of keeping us from any besetting sin if you just have a stronger accountability group, avoid this or that scenario, or eat this power bar (ok, scratch that last one). I never want to deny that my sanctification will evidence itself in the concrete actions I take or do not take in the physical world. But what I wish to highlight is that it has to flow from a transformed heart. No method will ever work reversely from the outward to the inward. This is not behavior modification; it is the gospel.

Now with that caveat in place, I do want to ask the rather obvious question: given that this is hyberbole what should we take from it? I would suggest that a proper application would be that we should at times take extreme measures to cut out sin from our life. One obvious example would be that if a person is prone to drunkenness he should avoid and all occassions to consume alchoholic beverages. That too me seems rather obvious (particularly if you come from a tea-totalling background in evangelicalism). But I would suggest there are other areas of our lives it may be beneficial to cut off certain opportunities to sin.

For example: does the internet or TV cause you to get a little imaginative and lusty when you preview a certain 'harmless' show? We love to say "well it's not the really bad ones" but what if we unplugged the net or the TV? What if we got rid of the cable? What if we had our wives control the computer passwords or TV remote? (That last one is tough because I love to channel flip but I can't stand when my wife does the same thing... it's a control thing).

Of course we need to be careful... radical asceticism has never been a real path to sanctification (Col. 2:18-19, 23). The irony is that just because we 'cut off' the physical 'flesh' does not neccessarily mean that we've curtailed 'fleshly indulgence'. [1] Certain things restricted on the outside do not automatically translate into transformations on the inside.

In terms of applying Matthew 5:28-29, I would suggest this principle without neglecting the intent of sanctification which is to be more like Jesus on the inside: we should be willing to remove those things from our lives that have been occasions for us to sin so that we might consecrate the whole of our life to the Lord.

Here is a couple links to some pastors who set up some rather "strict" boundaries for their personal lives and ministries (HT: Josh Reich). I would not want to legislate these one people simple because I do not think we should bind people where the Word of God does not bind us. However, I do think there are a number of wise principles from these men. The call to discipleship is radical. In our day and age we tend to neglect the radical steps we should sometimes take in personal restrictions if we are prone to sin in a certain area. I would charge that we flee from legalistic application but curtailing opportunities for license is hardly legalism.

My point is: Jesus speaks in obvious hyperbole but we should not let the hyperbole soften the degree to which he would have us go in order to keep our paths from sin. What are some ways that you might personally apply Jesus' radical call to obedience?

[1] Paul makes an obvious play on the word flesh and the range of meanings it can have. The word flesh can refer to our body, or physicality [Jesus took on flesh], or as in Romans 8 'flesh' can refer to that sinful "nature"/identity that is inherent in Adam/the old man. Here of course Christ has the likeness of sinful flesh... i.e. physical flesh withouth the inherent sinful state of those who are 'in Adam'.

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