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The Rev. Roger Salter: “Standing Firm? Be Careful!” (1 Corinthians 10:12)

August 26, 2009

From the Rev. Roger Salter of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church near Birmingham, here is a meditation titled ” Standing Firm? Be Careful!” which is based on 1 Corinthians 10:12:

Every spiritual condition has its dangers. Dejection of spirits can lead to unbelief and murmuring; spiritual elation can engender self-absorption and over-confidence. The human heart is always faced with hazards and the apostolic injunction to walk constantly in circumspection and cautious dependence upon God is most wise. Feelings are not necessarily an accurate gauge of spiritual wellbeing and a sense of exuberance following times of blessing can fail to detect the traps that lie in our path. Like Simon Peter we can over-estimate our strength and resolve and find ourselves craven under pressure (Mark 14: 66-72), or as with David, periods of calm may precede the onslaught of temptation and the storms of passion (2 Samuel 11:2ff). Weakness is the mark of our creature-hood, and frailty is the feature of our new life in Christ. There are forces within us that God subdues, and foes without that God restrains. These dynamics are often operative beyond our awareness and we may never congratulate or rely on ourselves whenever we are enabled to stand firm. A firm stance in our faith is entirely a gift of God. Perseverance is through his grace alone. Our many falls along the way are designed to teach us these things, to prevent pride, and cultivate compassion. Each of us is a sinner with our particular predispositions and susceptibilities, and however familiar these may be to us in the daily struggle, we may discover, also, surprising tendencies we never suspected until the opportunity for temptation arose. God secretly delivers us from so many obnoxious propensities and occasions of disgrace.

The plague of sin afflicts every heart with various inward stirrings and external manifestations. The sins of the spirit are not as discernable as the sins of the flesh, but they are so subtly and deeply dangerous because they are camouflaged as elements in our natural constitution, the way we are and instinctively think and behave, and are not immediately recognized as evil. The sins of the flesh are also deadly, but being more obvious in conduct and consequence they are more likely, through the shame and pain they cause, to drive the guilty to the physician of souls, hence the Saviour’s observation that the first shall be last and the last first (Matthew 21:31-32, Luke 13:30). We can never trust our own self-assessment as to how we stand before God. Sins of the spirit may be concealed, unknown to us, and even covered by the veil of self-righteousness. But when we know the reality of the Fall and its disastrous effects upon each individual ever born we are less likely to condemn our fellow felons from a self-righteous point of view even though we are never to condone the presence or performance of anything unholy in others and especially in ourselves. We recognize our common plight, shared weakness, and the universal inability to deal with our predicament, and our only option is to cast ourselves upon the mercy of God and plead earnestly for others. Sin is always and invariably abhorrent but we are all diagnosed in the same way – as incurably evil – and whilst the fact alarms us it should never make any of us adopt a sense of superiority or exemption from culpability and the just displeasure of God.

The seriousness of sin, the dimensions and dominion of evil in human life, are not normally fully comprehended, hence the glibness with which it is regarded and spoken of, and the legalism with which it is treated. Lightness of approach, or moralistic attitudes fail to recognize the extent of our collective depravity and the fact of our deadness in sin. Only supernatural intervention can deliver any of us. Our condition is not superficial or intermittent. Our lostness is complete and helplessness total, and to think anything less of the matter, or minimize its seriousness, is to diminish the scope of the plan of salvation that God has instituted in Christ for our rescue. We think little of him because we think little of sin, or dismiss it casually by a premature and presumptuous “acceptance of Christ” without realizing the gravity of our situation, the reality of guilt, and the greatness of grace. Grace becomes cheap and our talk of it cliched. We do not see the power in salvation or identify it clearly as utterly undeserved and un-obligated compassion. Hence when we see sin we condemn without admitting our own equally deserved condemnation for equally contemptible reasons, and we deny the kindness that we would expect as our entitlement should any fault occur in us.

The way to a true appreciation of the gravity and “gi-normousness” of sin is to consider the magnitude of the remedial measures God has taken to expiate and eradicate it – the death of his Son, his only Son, the Prince of heaven, as the only way to cleanse the offences of this earth and clear its inhabitants of guilt. The cross both convicts and cures the heart of sin. It provides the only safe way in which we can consider our problem, and grasp its scale. Otherwise we would either trivialize sin, or plunge into despair. How much mercy and wisdom there is in the presentation of the crucified victim to our view. Our sin is measured by the action God had to take, and simultaneously we see mercy solving the insoluble: How can I give you up . . . . All my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger” (Hosea 11:.8-9).

In the light of the universality of sin, and the prevalence and power of temptation in every heart, the gentle prayer of C.J. Vaughan is very apt: Make us tender and compassionate towards those who are overtaken by temptation, considering ourselves, how we have fallen in times past and may fall yet again. Make us watchful and sober-minded, looking ever unto thee for grace to stand upright and to persevere unto the end; through thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. An alleged episode in the author’s life made him both contrite and compassionate in the exercise of his ministry. “A bruised reed he will not break” (Isaiah 42:3). “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

For the believer the sin he perceives in himself becomes more and more horrid. He is safest when he sees and feels his unworthiness: “Walk humbly with God. Acts of self-condemnation are, next to acts of faith in Christ, the most profitable of devotional exercises. I have grown best and done best when most frequent in them” (Thomas Collins). “I have always judged it better to loathe myself the more, in proportion as I was assured that God was pacified towards me (Ezekiel 16:63) . . . . There are but two objects that I have ever desired for these forty years to behold; the one, is my own vileness; and the other is, the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ: and I have always thought that they should be viewed together” (Charles Simeon). If the convinced sinner received his due deserts – pure justice – he would be demolished, but his plea is identical to those of David and Jeremiah combined in the penitential introductory sentence to Morning Prayer in the BCP 1662: O Lord correct me, but with judgment; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing (Jeremiah 10:24. Psalm 6:1.). The drift of Holy Scripture is that the regenerate are more likely to examine and judge themselves than others: “First take the plank out of your own eye” (Matthew 7:1-5). The caution issued in the Word of God is not to feel secure in oneself: “So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). The expectation in the Bible is that, “We know that anyone born of God does not continue in sin (1 John 5:18a). The reassurance the believer has, in the consciousness of his frailty, is, “The One who was born of God [Jesus Christ] keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him” (1 John 5: 18b).

This sermon makes me think of something I saw that was attributed to Jerry Bridges: “Our worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.”  Because of this – that we are never beyond the need of God’s grace – we certainly should seek to live humbly, without pride.

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