Our Besetting Sin
To possess something which others have not, is a very deeply seated desire of the heart of fallen man. It is, however, a desire only realizable by the few; the many therefore content themselves with pretending to possess that which renders them superior to the majority of their fellows. Such pretensions are held very dear, and men fight very keenly to preserve them.
This being so, it is not difficult to see that, inasmuch as a Christian really is through grace possessed of a whole region of spiritual blessings quite unknown to the natural man, he, above all others, needs to be on his guard lest taking up Christian blessings in a natural way, he falls into this very thing afresh—a veritable snare of the devil for his soul.
It is seen in a gross form with many professing Christians, who use all Christian blessings as though they were solely intended to confer honour and distinction upon us as men in the flesh. So savage races of mankind have a way of hanging about their own persons nearly all they possess. Anything showy or bright pleases them, they promptly annex it, and quite irrespective of its real use or value, wear it somehow about themselves. They think it adds to their importance, however grotesque it all appears to civilized eyes. Even so is it in the thoughts of many as to Christianity. Every blessing which Christ brought they look upon as being intended for the elevation and glorification of man as he is.
In another form the evil works with true Christians—those who recognise that Christianity is founded upon the utter condemnation of man as he is, and consists in the revelation of a new and heavenly Man with His race, and a whole world of blessing which finds its centre in Him. Such, while avoiding that of which we have just spoken, are more likely to develop pretensions—either individual or collective—to superior knowledge or intelligence, or spiritual state.
It is remarkable how this sin—if one may so say, the Church’s besetting sin—raised its head in the early days of Christianity.
Acts 5 records it as being the first evil to enter into the bosom of the Church. Ananias acted a lie. Sapphira told a lie. But what lay behind their lying was the desire to pose as being more heavenly-minded, more spiritual, more devoted to Christ’s interests than they really were. Pretension to higher spiritual condition was the first recorded sin, then, in the Church’s history. It will also be the last, as we shalt see.
Let us now quote a few scriptures from the epistles which show how the careful apostolic eye discerned its workings in various churches during those early years of freshness.
“For I say . . . to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think” (Rom. 11:3).
“If any man think that he knoweth anything he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:2).
“Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).
“If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual,” etc. (1 Cor. 14:37).
“If a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself” (Gal. 5:3).
Those were the days when indeed there were men who knew the things of God if anyone ever did. There were those who stood, who were prophets and spiritual, and therefore were something in the divine way of reckoning, but these were just the ones who were happily occupied with Christ and His blessed service, and not thinking of themselves in any shape or form. Those who were doing the thinking were largely pretenders. This the Apostle’s language indicates. In two instances above cited he plainly says, “he knoweth nothing,” “he is nothing”; in the others he plainly infers that the pretenders were not by any means all they thought themselves to be.
Perhaps, however, the most striking exemplification of the point we are considering is in the prophetic addresses of the Lord Jesus Christ by His servant John to the seven Churches of Asia, recorded in Revelation, chapters 2 and 3. In six out of the seven Churches the sin of pretension is in some way or other alluded to.
To Ephesus he says: “I know . . . thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars.”
To Smyrna: “I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.”
To Thyatira: “Thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants.”
“To Sardis: “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.”
To Philadelphia: “I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.”
To Laodicea: “Thou sayest I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind and naked.”
In these scriptures notice several things.
First of all the claimants here are companies rather than individuals. It is “them” which say. Jezebel is a typical woman representing more than an individual. To Laodicea it is indeed “thou” sayest, but that is the angel, the representative of the Church, i.e., “thou” there is virtually the whole Church at Laodicea.
Then it is “say” here and not merely “think.” The evil has intensified since the day of Paul’s epistles. An hour had arrived when these pretensions were not only in people’s minds, but said boldly out in the ears of all.
Further, viewing the Churches as prophetic history, it seems that the evil deepens as we go along.
Ephesus was troubled with a little band of men who claimed apostleship. This was a claim likely to deceive in the days when most of the apostles had been removed by martyrdom and the canon of Scripture was hardly complete.
In the age of Smyrna there was trouble and bitter opposition from a certain clique, who claimed a place analagous to that which the Jew had claimed—ritualists and religionists without reality.
There is a distinct lowering with Thyatira. Jezebel who calls herself a prophetess—i.e., Rome who arrogates to herself, in the person of the Pope and college of cardinals, the exclusive right of interpreting the Scriptures and voicing the mind of God—is suffered. The pretender here is thoroughly inside the Assembly and in power.
Out of this state of things Sardis springs. Protestantism—using the word in its largest sense, has a far more respectable exterior, and has established for herself a certain reputation. She has no need even to say that she lives. Yet she is dead. It is no longer a question of the pretensions of a clique, but the whole Church is thus characterized
In the Philadelphian stage we get a little glimpse of the brightness and reality which marked the Church at the beginning. Once again, pretension is confined to a clique outside its pale rather than inside. The religionists who love to claim a place on earth again appear.
In the last stage, Laodicea, we reach the sad climax. The whole Church is infected, as in the case of Sardis, but whereas there it was only a claim to live, here the Church actually claims to be a paragon of perfection! She ends, “I have need of nothing!” Could pretension go further? And could the Lord’s condemnation be more severe?
Notice one thing more. In every case the Lord, who scrutinizes the Churches with eyes as a flame of fire, disallows the claims, and that in most incisive language. In not one case does there appear to be the smallest foundation in fact for that to which they lay claim. The very reverse. “Liars,” “synagogue of Satan,” “dead,” “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, naked” are some of the terms He uses.
Has not all this, beloved brethren, a very distinct voice to us? We live in an age which is becoming more decidedly Laodicean every year. And, alas! for years the spirit of all this has been painfully manifest amongst some of us, who have sought—in obedience to God’s Word, as we believe—to walk in separation to the Lord from the great religious organisations which fill Christendom.
The rival claims of the leading systems of the day are pretty well known to all of us, but what have not we suffered from this very sin?
We are the “new lump.”
We are “Gideon’s three hundred.”
We have “new light.”
We are “standing for God.”
We have the “needed truth.”
We “bear the ark of the testimony.”
We are “the spiritual.”
These are phrases with which many of us are alll too familiar. How largely the enemy has used them to the injury of the true interests of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God, it is undoubtedly a fact that there are upon earth today spiritually-minded saints who are in their measure standing for God, bearing His testimony, and ministering needed truth. He knows them all, and their secret approbation is with Him, as is also their public recognition in the coming day (Rev. 3:9). If we know any we may well be thankful, but let us beware of trying to label them lest we fall into the fearful folly of conceiving ourselves—those with whom we meet, or something of that sort—to be such, and labelling ourselves thus. But if we cannot label those who are these things, we can safely label some who are not. To CLAIM to be or have anything special is infallible proof that we are or have nothing of the kind. This all the above- quoted Scriptures show plainly enough.
What, then, is our path in the Laodicean age?
First. To recognize the Lord in the character in which He presents Himself to us (chap. 3:14).
“The Amen.” The One in whom is the completion and perfect response to all the purposes of God.
“The faithful and true witness.” The One who stands forth as the perfect representation of all that God is. Truth perfectly displayed; and that in spite of the shameful failure of that which professes to be here for Him.
“The beginning of the creation of God.” The One who in resurrection is God’s new start and centre upon whom everything is reared. This demolishes all man’s pretension at one blow.
Second. To bow under His chastening hand and repent (chap. 3:19).
We have been chastened indeed. Love is behind it. That we may repent, and in particular repent of that pretension which has brought His chastening hand upon us is the great end in view.
Third. To swing the heart’s door—as a saint—widely open and bid Him enter, and take His rightful place.
That He will take His rightful place if He enters is shown by the record of the two going to Emmaus (Luke 24). They bade Him enter. He did so, and immediately became the Host and controlled the proceedings. He will sup with us, i.e., enter into and control our affairs; we shall sup with Him, i.e., have the great privilege of entering, as taught by Him, into His things, the things of that heavenly resurrection world where He is.
Brethren, do I go too far when I say that if there be one verse which, above others, ought to ring in our ears and exercise our hearts, it is this:
“As many as I love I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and REPENT.”
Oh that God may grant to us, and to all His people, such genuine repentance that we may henceforward forsake this our besetting sin of pretension. We shall in that day learn just exactly what we have been, or have had, from Him beneath whose eye we now walk. Be it ours to give Him His rightful place, and enjoying His company and service, to claim nothing.
If any of us have stood for Him, or helped to carry His testimony, better, far better, just go on doing it, through His grace, and leave Him to say it of us when everything passes in review at the judgment seat.
The Lord grant that this paper may not be written in vain.
Words of Grace and Encouragement 1909