PassageChristians sometimes create a false dichotomy when it comes to Grace vs. holiness: there are times when Grace is emphasized so heavily that it doesn’t seem like a Christian needs to worry about holiness at all, and, contrarily, sometimes holiness is emphasized so heavily that we start to act like we can “earn” our salvation by being good, or doing good things. Sometimes we think we can earn salvation just by not being bad—or by not being too bad.
To be fair, this is a complex topic, and North Americans are not fond of nuanced arguments, so it can be hard to talk about one without seeming like you’re neglecting the other. Even the Apostle Paul struggled with this. He spends much of the first five chapters of the book of Romans explaining Grace (that’s an oversimplification, I know), and then feels he has to stop in Chapter 6 to answer a question he imagines his readers might be asking:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? (Romans 6:1 (ESV))Not surprisingly, Paul’s answer is no, we shouldn’t, and that’s what Romans 6 (ESV) gets into.
Because of this issue I know of pastors who try to make it a point to mention both Grace and holiness any time they mention either, trying to balance them out in their sermons, because they know that if they don’t, any time they talk about Grace they’ll get people coming up to them after complaining that it was implied we can all live like sinners, and any time they talk about holiness they’ll get a different set of people complaining that some kind of “works righteousness” was preached. (It doesn’t matter if you preach Grace for forty-five minutes one Sunday and then preach holiness for forty-five minutes the next, on the second Sunday there will still be people coming up to you and complaining that you neglected Grace. And vice versa.)
In this particular passage, Jesus talks about holiness—or at least about striving to cease our sin—and it’s all he talks about. It’s true that we’re saved by Grace, and I talk about that a lot on this blog, but in no way does that imply that living a holy life isn’t important. It is; thus saith the Lord. In this modern day and age we sometimes fall in line with the rest of the world, thinking that sin doesn’t matter, but this passage should set us straight: sin is important, and we need to eliminate it from our lives.
There are three parts to Jesus’ argument:
- Jesus indicates the child (who is still in their midst from verses 30–37) and tells his disciples that it is very serious to cause a child who believes in Him to sin. It would be better to have a millstone hung around your neck and get thrown into the sea than to do such a thing. (I think the implication here is that you’d rather deal with being drowned than face the wrath of God for this type of act.)
- He tells us that we should eliminate the things in our lives that cause us to sin; if your hand or your foot or your eye cause you to sin, then you should chop it off—it’s better to live life without that hand or that foot or that eye than to go to hell.
- The last few verses of this passage are somewhat difficult to understand—not just for me, but the ESV Study Bible notes say so too—but essentially I think that Jesus might be telling us to be holy as light to the world. He definitely tells us to be at peace with one another.
ThoughtsSince I’m no better than any pastor (and worse than most), I will also mention Grace before I talk about Jesus’ point about holiness: just because Jesus is stressing the importance of holy living in this passage, and telling us that sin is a serious issue which needs to be excised from our lives, it doesn’t mean that Grace ceases to exist. When it says that it would be better to be drowned in the sea than to cause a child to sin it doesn’t mean that causing a child to sin will negate one’s salvation. What it does mean is that causing a child to sin is serious business, and that we should not take such matters lightly. I think this verse goes very well with James 3:1 (ESV): “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Are you a teacher in some kind of Christian ministry, a Bible study or Sunday School or something like that? Then you need to be careful what you’re teaching people, because God is going to judge your actions with greater care than He would if you were just having a casual conversation with friends. Are you teaching children? Then all the more you need to be careful what you’re teaching those kids! Don’t ever take a position at your church teaching Sunday School or doing other types of teaching just because you think it gives you prestige in the church, or because you think it’s an honour; take this seriously, and consider whether you understand the Word before you try to deliver it to others.
I’m mostly speaking to laypeople here, but this applies all the more for actual pastors. If you’re going to be getting up in a pulpit every week and telling people what you think the Word says, then you’d better be serious about learning what it actually says. It’s serious, and God will be judging you with greater strictness than He will judge other forms of speech.
Then, when Jesus talks about cutting off a hand or a foot or an eye that causes you to sin, I don’t think he’s literally talking about hands and feet and eyes; realistically, how is your hand or your foot going to cause you to sin anyway? (We could maybe make a better case for the eye, when we consider lust, but even that’s metaphorical. The eye doesn’t cause anything, it’s being led by the lust in your heart/brain.) What he is saying is that we have to be willing to remove the things from our lives that cause us to sin, even if removing those things is going to be painful, even if removing them is going to cause us hardship. It is better to endure that pain and hardship than it would be to continue on sinning. It is tempting to get lost in higher-level theological issues and confuse ourselves, asking, “How can it be better to endure hardship than to sin when we know that Jesus has already taken care of our sin on the cross?” It’s fine to have these types of probing questions, and to wrestle with them, but before you do (or while you do) you need to listen to what Jesus is actually saying in this passage: sin is serious, and we need to eliminate it from our lives. Trust in that and believe what He says, even as you’re trying to wrestle with other issues. If you’re studying your Bible seriously you can’t come away with the idea that sin isn’t important because Jesus specifically tells us in this passage (and Paul tells us in Romans 6) that it is.
And then finally we have some verses that are hard to understand:
“For everyone will be salted with fire. 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.” (verses 49–50 (ESV), Jesus speaking)I could quote the ESV Study Bible note on these verses but it’s kind of long and doesn’t really add any clarity, since there isn’t a “definitive” answer as to what Jesus means here. Lots of people seem to view this passage as saying that believers are sacrificed to God akin to the Old Testament sacrificial system, where the “sacrifice” is suffering and hardship, but there’s disagreement on what the salt in this metaphor represents, with some saying it represents the Holy Spirit and others saying it represents the suffering and hardship. I don’t know about any of that, I just have no frame of reference to know what might be correct.
What I do find interesting, however, is Jesus’ last point to His disciples: be at peace with one another. If we are to really take our sin seriously, and to strive to eliminate anything in our lives that causes us to sin, and to take seriously the charge to teach one another to ensure that we only teach biblical truths, what will the Church on earth look like? We’ll get along. I think that would help our evangelical outreach far more than any miracles, far more than any fiery preaching, far more than any though-provoking seminar. If people see us at peace with one another it would make us so different from the world that we’d stand out.