Baptism in the Holy Spirit: Part 4- The “Second Experiences” of the Book of Acts

Little bit of a recap on where we are in this series: In part 2 I sought to show from Scripture that “baptism in the Holy Spirit” is an experience that happens to every believer upon conversion, and not something that all believers must still continue to seek.  Part 3 was where I addressed the question of why the disciples who had clearly already been believers in Christ didn’t receive the Holy Spirit until the day of Pentecost.  My conclusion there was that Pentecost was a unique experience because it was a unique event in history.

But even if you’ve agreed with me up to this point, there’s still three huge “Yeah, BUT!!” examples later on in Acts that seem to completely undermine what I’ve said.  The first is in Acts 8, where believers in Samaria aren’t baptized in the Holy Spirit until John and Peter come and lay hands on them.  The second is in Acts 10 where Cornelius, who was already “a devout man who feared God”, didn’t receive the Spirit until later.  And the final one is in Acts 19 where we come across the disciples in Ephesus, who had not received the Holy Spirit when they believed.  “And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.” (v.6)

So what do we do with these?  Do these examples prove the doctrine of subsequence?  Journey with me…

1. The Ephesian Disciples (Acts 19:1-7)

“You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
-Romans 8:9-

When Paul arrives at Ephesus, he comes across “some disciples” and asks them whether or not they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed, to which they responded “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”  Probing further, he asked what they had been baptized into.  “Into John’s baptism,” they replied.  (vv.1-3)

These men were in fact disciples of John the Baptist, the forerunner to Jesus, and the last of the Old Testament-era prophets.  The difference between John’s baptism and Christian baptism is a subject for another entry, but for the purposes of this entry it’s enough to know that they aren’t one and the same.  John the Baptist had said, “‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, who sandals I am not worthy to carry.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.'” (Matt.3:11, cf. Acts 1:5)

Since John testified to the fact that the coming Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit, it’s unlikely that these disciples of his who had made their way to Ephesus were ignorant of the Spirit’s existence.  Rather, what they mean is that they were ignorant of the fact that the new covenant era had begun, where those who trust in Jesus for salvation are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19), and where those baptized in the name of Jesus “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

Upon meeting these disciples, Paul, perhaps observing the lack of the Spirit’s presence in their lives, felt the need to ask them whether they had received the Spirit or not when they believed whatever it is that they had believed.  Paul’s not asking them if they had been baptized in the Holy Spirit after believing in Jesus.  He’s asking them if they’re even believers in Jesus.  Since the church was to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the fact that these men hadn’t even heard that the Spirit had come told Paul all he needed to know.  In the words of John Stott, these guys “were still living in the Old Testament which culminated with John the Baptist. They understood neither that the new age had been ushered in by Jesus, nor that those who believe in him and are baptized into him receive the distinctive blessing of the new age, the indwelling Spirit.”

Paul then did what came naturally to him.  He preached Jesus to those who were ignorant of him.  “And Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.’  On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.  There were about twelve men in all.” (vv.4-7)

In short, these men received the Holy Spirit at conversion, not subsequent to it.

2. Cornelius (Acts 10)

Corn-Dawg, “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (v.2), lived in Caesarea.  He was a Gentile and had great admiration for the God of the Jews, even though he had not submitted himself to be circumcised. (Acts 11:3)

You can read the full story in Acts 10, but basically the guy is visited in a vision by an angel who tells him to send for Peter, who was meanwhile having his own visions.  The purpose of Peter’s visions was to teach him that what “God has made clean, do not call common.” (10:15)  In non-visiony terms: Don’t call the Gentiles unclean.  When Cornelius’ servants arrived where Peter was, he followed them to Cornelius’ place and preached the Gospel to him and his fellow Gentile buddies.  And as he was sharing the Gospel with them, “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.” (10:44)  Since the Holy Spirit fell on a man who had already been “an upright and God-fearing man” (v.22), does this mean that we should seek a post-conversion Spirit-baptism, too?

The answer, like in the Ephesian disciples case, was that Cornelius wasn’t a Christian until Peter preached the Gospel to him.  Where do we see this?  In Acts 11:13-14.  There, Peter recounts his experience with Cornelius to the Church: “‘And [Cornelius] told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.'”  Cornelius was to hear a message by which he “will be saved”.  Salvation for Cornelius was still future.  Additionally, if you look at what Peter was telling them when the Holy Spirit fell on them (vv.34-43), he’s just straight up preaching the Gospel, indicating that these people needed to hear it.  Furthermore, the Church concluded that this baptism in the Holy Spirit (11:16) was the result of God granting to these Gentiles the “repentance that leads to life.” (11:18)

3. The Samaritans (Acts 8:4-25)

“Jews have no dealings with Samaritans”
-John 4:9-

Philip had gone to Samaria to preach the Gospel and had some pretty good results to show for it.  The crowds had “with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did.” (8:6)  But then we see a few verses down that it wasn’t until Peter and John came to Samaria, laid hands on them, and prayed for the new believers that the Holy Spirit fell on them.

Is this just another case of people who we have assumed were believers but really weren’t?  I don’t think the text really gives us that option here.  First of all, what Philip had proclaimed was Christ. (v.5)  He “preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” to them, and as a result they were baptized in the name of Jesus (vv.12, 16), which meant that they had passed into Jesus’ ownership.  Whereas Paul knew the Ephesian disciples weren’t believers because they had only been baptized into John’s baptism, the Samaritans appear to have baptized with a Christian baptism.

Secondly, they “had received the word of God” (v.14) which, as Sam Storms points out, is “identical terminology to [Acts] 2:41 and 11:1, where genuine conversion is in view.”

Finally, whereas Peter preached the Gospel to Cornelius before he was baptized in the Holy Spirit, all that Peter and John do here is lay hands on the Samaritans and pray for them, which then results in the Holy Spirit falling on them.  They didn’t preach the Gospel to them first because they had already had it accurately preached to them and believed it. What we have here is genuine believers in Christ receiving the Holy Spirit after they had believed.  The question now is why?  Is this normative?  Or is it, like Pentecost, unique?

This is a very unusual case in the book of Acts, and before going further with it I feel the need to address some very important rules to interpreting Scripture.  The first is always compare Scripture with Scripture.  The second is closely related: don’t create doctrines out of obscure texts.  Parts 2 and 3 in this series were my argument for why being baptized in the Holy Spirit is something that happens to all believers at their conversion.  If you believe in the doctrine of subsequence, your argument with me is over those two entries, not this one.  In other words, if I’ve faithfully built a biblical case for why Spirit-baptism occurs at conversion, then the three instances addressed in this entry are, at best, exceptions to the rule and not the rule itself.  Or to say it yet another way, the doctrine of subsequence can’t stand on these three passages alone.  I say all this because even though two of the three cases can simply be written off as unbelievers becoming believers, this one can’t.  And since the rest of Scripture links Spirit-baptism with conversion, we need to be wary of taking the Samaritans’ experience and saying that it should be all Christians’ experience.

Peter had linked faith with receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), and Paul claimed that if anyone didn’t have the Spirit, he did not belong to Christ (Romans 8:9).  Luke, the author of Acts and a companion of Paul, would have been familiar with this link, which is probably why even the way he recounts the Samaritan experience indicates the uniqueness of it.  He writes that the Spirit “had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (v.16)  “Only,” writes James Dunn, “implies that the two things were expected or accustomed to go together.”  John Stott explores this further:

…contrary to expectation, water-baptism had been received without Spirit-baptism, the sign without the thing signified.  There was, Luke implies, something distinctly odd about their separation.  It was because of this irregularity, Professor Dunn writes, that ‘the two senior apostles came down hot-foot from Jerusalem to remedy a situation which had gone seriously wrong somewhere’.

Not only was this the first time the Gospel had been preached outside of Jerusalem, it was the first time it had been preached in Samaria.   The reason that God withheld the Spirit from these new converts is most likely due to the relationship between the Jews and Samaritans.  These people hated each other.  While we can utter the words “good Samaritan” without choking, this was a contradiction of terms in the Jewish mind.  When Jews had to pass from Galilee to Judea or vice versa, they would literally go out of their way to get there since a direct path between the two would take them through Samaritan soil.

This incident was most likely God’s way of preventing ethnic-schism between Jew and Samaritan from becoming schism within the body of Christ.  The cross of Christ tears down barriers (Gal.3:28), and unifies all believers.  Thus, as the Gospel spread into hostile territory, God wanted the leaders of the Jerusalem church to see for themselves the Holy Spirit come upon those who were formerly enemies.  This “extension of Pentecost” was a necessary “demonstration of the power of the Spirit to convince die-hards among the Jewish Christians that it was really proper to bring the gospel to the Samaritans.” (Anthony Hoekema)  As Geoffrey Lampe writes,

…at this turning-point in the mission something else was required in addition to the ordinary baptism of the converts.  It had to be demonstrated to the Samaritans beyond any shadow of doubt that they had really become members of the church, in fellowship with the original ‘pillars’ [John and Peter]…An unprecedented situation demanded quite exceptional methods.

Like Pentecost, this was a unique historical situation.  It was the first time the Gospel had been preached outside Jerusalem.  And this first time happened to be among people the Jews had traditionally hated.  God was making a unique and visible demonstration of his commitment to bring salvation to those “‘in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.'” (Acts 1:8)

In the fifth and final part of this series, I’ll address the question of what it means to be “filled with the Spirit.”

Kindness and Mercy

“‘Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.'”
-Luke 6:36

The mercy that Jesus calls us to is not isolated acts of mercy, but “to a merciful disposition of heart, to lovingkindness.” (Dave Harvey, When Sinners Say ‘I Do’).  Kindness is a posture.

God’s kindness leads to repentance (Rom.2:4), meaning he is kind toward us before we ever repent of our sins (Rom.5:8).  In all our relationships, be it our spouse or other friends, we sow kindness with every little act of love and grace, regardless if it’s “deserved” or not.  As Dave Harvey writes, kindness is not a personality trait but rather a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal.5:22; Col.3:12).  Thus, kindness in our relationships (and by implication, their flourishing) is dependent on both parties growing more desperately dependent on the God who alone can grow that fruit in them (John 15:4-5).  Mercy counter-attacks the poison of bitterness.

“‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.'”
-John 15:16

Seven Ways that Satan Attacks Believers

I might pump out some entries in the near-ish future concerning spiritual warfare, so I wanted to put up some basic info now.  This list is courtesy of Joel Beeke, and I believe it’s a very good summary of the methods that Satan frequently uses in his attacks upon believers in Christ.  Stuff like this is important to know, because if we know how our enemy plans to attack us, we will know how best to defend ourselves.

Satan puts blasphemous thoughts into your mind, and then whispers that you cannot be a child of God if you have such thoughts.

Satan gets you to question the truth of the promises of God and the mercy of that God who has never treated you ill.

Satan seeks to persuade you that you have no part in the matter of salvation, for you have only begun with the Lord and not he with you.

Satan argues with you that no child of God could be like you: so weak in faith, so corrupt, so hard and prayerless, so foolish and vain.

Satan comes as your accuser, leading you to despair, or as an angel of light, leading you to presumption.

Satan presents the world to you in fair colours, attempting to move you back into worldly customs, friendships, and vanities.

Satan presses you to indulge in the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.

-from Striving Against Satan

What Kind of Mountains Does our Faith Move? (Learning to Interpret Scripture Well)

“‘Honey, maybe God didn’t mean a literal flood.  Maybe he meant a flood of knowledge, or emotion, or awareness.’
‘If that’s true, I’m going to be SO pissed.'”
Evan Almighty

That’s one of two totally awesome lines I remember from an otherwise “meh” film.  If I remember correctly it comes as Evan Baxter and his family are standing on a huge ark that he built amidst much despair and persecution, waiting for a flood that doesn’t seem to be coming.  (Though it eventually does.)  His wife is the one who suggests that maybe the flood that God (played with uncanny resemblance by Morgan Freeman) promised Evan would come was more of a metaphorical one.

Sometimes we find ourselves in similar predicaments when reading Scripture.  For those of us who uphold the Bible as God’s inspired, infallible word to man, some verses just sound awkwardly extravagant.  Acting on the belief that God wouldn’t lie though, we say: “Maybe it’s a metaphor.”  But then we place ourselves in this awkward position: “Well if this is just a metaphor, what else might be?”  If the Bible is God’s word, we can’t just “metaphorize” the passages that make us uncomfortable.

Here’s an example verse:

[Jesus] said to them…’For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.’ (Matthew 17:20) 

What do we do with this?  Is Jesus being literal or metaphorical?  In the past I’ve had an almost ultra-conservative approach to Scripture that might have looked at verses like this and determined that the plain reading of the text must the right one.  If Jesus says that our faith can move mountains, you better believe he means that our faith can move actual, literal mountains.  If he means anything less than that, you’re tampering with God’s word and are thus a jerk.  Any attempt to say that moving mountains refers to moving the mountains of trial in our lives sounded a bit too fluffy for me and was the first step down the liberal theologian road where Scripture means whatever you want it to mean.

It’s worth saying at this point that this entry isn’t really about Matthew 17:20 per se.  Rather, I’m using that verse as an example of how to (and how not to) approach and interpret Scripture.  Today if you were to ask me how I interpret that verse, I’d say that Jesus was being metaphorical.  (“What!!!  Burn the witch!!” -Eight years younger version of me.)  How do I believe this and still maintain my belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture?

You have to remember that nothing in the Bible was written to you. What I mean is that while the Spirit of God moved through humans to write Scripture that is authoritative and instructional for us today, Scripture was written with a specific, then-alive audience in mind.  So when Paul commands believers to “[s]ee to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ”, while he would certainly command every believer for all time to follow the same rule, in the Bible he’s specifically saying this to the Colossians.

This is so important to remember when reading Scripture.  When you realize that books like Colossians were written to a specific first-century audience, you’ll be mindful of the fact that the author will use terms and phrases that were familiar to them, not you.  For example, if you were to read the statement “The man was gay” in a book, how would you interpret it?  Depends on when the book was written, because how that statement is used today is very different from how it would have been used two centuries ago.

When we get to Jesus telling the disciples that their faith can move mountains, he’s saying it to specific people at a specific time in a specific context.  In fact, he’s actually using a Jewish idiom while he’s talking to these first-century Jews.  “An idiom,” writes Robert Plummer, “is an expression whose nonliteral meanings have become customary in a language.”*  So as D.A. Carson says: “Removal of mountains was proverbial for overcoming great difficulties.”  Relevant verses throughout Scripture include Isaiah 40:4; 49:11; 54:10; Zechariah 14:4; Matthew 21:21-22; Mark 11:23; Luke 17:6; 1 Corinthians 13:2.

Jesus is not preparing his followers to work for coal-mining companies- moving the tops of physical mountains.  Rather, through faith in God, Jesus’ followers will overcome seemingly impossible obstacles.
-Robert Plummer

This is far from being a loose interpretation of Scripture.  It is in fact the most faithful interpretation of what Jesus meant, making it the interpretation we must cling to.  And though the idiom he used was a first-century Jewish one, his message is one that has relevance for believers of all eras as they make their difficult pilgrimage through this world to the gates of heaven.

So be encouraged by the meaning of Matthew 17:20.  But also be encouraged in your study of Scripture to widen the scope of your study when you encounter difficult or unclear passages.  The more I study the Bible, the more convinced I am that one of the best defenses of Christianity is simply understanding it better.  While critics will bring up alleged inconsistencies, I have always found reasonable explanations by widening my search to include contextual evidence.


For the first time ever on my blog, I’m issuing you, the reader, some homework.  And if you don’t do it, I can’t really do anything about it.  But it would be a good exercise in what I’ve been talking about in this entry.  Here ya go:

Some critics of Christianity say that the Bible never claims that Jesus was God.  How does Philippians 2:9-11 refute this claim?


*Plummer gives the English example of telling someone to “hit the lights.”  To “hit” them means to turn them off, not to literally strike them. (from 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible)


The Cross Frees You From Trying to Forgive Yourself

In my recent post entitled God Doesn’t Want You to Forgive Yourself, I argued that the concept of “forgiving yourself” is not only unbiblical but counterproductive to growing in your faith.  In this follow-up, I wanted to address the pain and guilt that leads people to feel like they must forgive themselves even though they know God has already forgiven them.

What I do appreciate about encouraging hurting people to forgive themselves is that there’s a recognition that something is not right.  If after you’ve confessed your sin to God and to others you still feel a paralyzing guilt, an ingredient is missing.  But if that ingredient isn’t forgiving yourself, then what is it?

A passage from Matthew’s gospel I think gives us a good answer.  Matthew 9:1-8 is the famous story of the paralytic who was brought by his friends to Jesus in the hopes that he would be healed:

…And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.’  And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’  But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts?  For which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven, or to say, “Rise and walk?”  But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ -he then said to the paralytic- ‘Rise, pick up your bed and go home.’ And he rose and went home.  When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.

What exactly is going on here?  While Matthew only writes that the Pharisees called Jesus a blasphemer, Luke (and Mark for that matter) fills out the picture a little more about why Jesus was accused of blasphemy: “And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, ‘Who is this who speaks blasphemies?  Who can forgive sins but God alone?'” (Luke 5:21)  As I wrote in the previous entry on this topic, since all sin is ultimately against God (Ps.51:4), only God can offer forgiveness of sins.  The Pharisees understood this well, which is why they accused Jesus of blasphemy when he claimed to forgive the paralytic’s sins.  He was claiming the ability to do something only God could do.

But there’s more to the story than this.  Any nut can claim to forgive a person’s sins.  So Jesus backs up his claim by healing the paralytic.  Why is this relevant to him claiming to be able to forgive sin?  Michael Green explains:

There was a deeply rooted conviction in Judaism that all suffering was a result of personal sin, and that nobody could be cured until he or she was forgiven.  For instance, Rabbi Chija ben Abba said, ‘No sick person is cured from sickness until all his sins have been forgiven him.’  Rabbi Alexander agreed: ‘The sick does not arise from his sickness until his sins are forgiven.’

The scribes and Pharisees felt that since Jesus had blasphemed God, he would not be able to heal the man.  So by healing the paralytic’s illness, Jesus was proving his authority to cleanse the man’s deepest and most difficult paralysis: sin.  It was his moment of vindication.

So what does this story have to say to those who struggle with lingering guilt?

First, it serves as a reminder that only the one sinned against can offer pardon for sin.  Jesus has authority to forgive sins, and he promises to permanently wipe clean the sins of anyone who comes to him (John 6:37).  He promises to cleanse us of our sins when we confess them (1 John 1:9), and as a child of God he separates our sins from us as far as the east is from the west (Psa. 103:12).

Secondly, in light of this it also reminds us of a huge truth: You are who God says you are and nothing less.  If you know that God forgives you but you struggle to forgive yourself, you need to start looking in a new mirror.  You’ve too long been looking in a mirror that reflects a failure, an addict, a pervert, a drunk, a whatever….  It’s a false mirror though.  It’s the mirror Satan wants you to look in.  But God holds up a different mirror.  Looking into it, you see Christ.  You see sinlessness, perfection, holiness, and a royal child of the Most High God.  Yes, I know you still sin.  And God knows and is grieved by those sins you still commit.  However, when it comes to your eternal salvation, God is judging you by the perfect life lived by Jesus.

Third and finally, I think this passage illustrates well the missing ingredient that people are looking for when they feel like they have to forgive themselves.  The greatest need of the paralytic was the same as ours: forgiveness for the sins which have made us enemies of a holy God.  Jesus provided this ultimate need for the paralytic, and if you’re a believer in Christ he did the same for you.  But he didn’t stop there.  He healed the man’s paralysis, and commanded him: “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.”  And the guy freaking did.  If you have truly confessed your sins to God, you’re forgiven.  And now Christ is commanding you to live in light of your new-found freedom.

God has forgiven you, and now you must rest in his forgiveness.  Instead of trying to forgive yourself, rise, pick up your bed, and start walking like a forgiven person.  Stop lying down on your bed dwelling on your former paralysis after Jesus has commanded you to rise, and accept the fact that you have new freedoms.  Every command that Christians are given in the New Testament stems first from who we now are because of our union with Christ.  For example the first three chapters of Ephesians are all devoted to reminding believers of what God has done for them and what is now true of them as a result of his work.  It isn’t until the last three chapters that all the commands start.  The point is that we can only ever do anything of worth for the Lord by first comprehending what he has done for us. (Eph.2:8-10)  As a child of God, the Bible says far greater things about you than you would ever dare believe about yourself.  And it’s belief in those things that’s the missing ingredient when you feel the need to forgive yourself.  Stated positively, when you accept who God says you are, you won’t feel the need to forgive yourself.

“‘I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.'”
-Isaiah 43:25

Learning to Hate Your Sin

If you’ve ever listened to a John Piper sermon, you’ve probably heard him talk about fighting sin by replacing sinful desires with superior pleasure in the glory of God for his supremacy manifested through Christ to the nations for his global cause.  (If you’ve listened to him, you get the joke.  If you haven’t, that didn’t make sense.  Keep reading!)  Basically, we grow in Christlikeness and experience victory over the sins we’ve been enslaved to by learning to find more joy in God than in sin (a process called “sanctification”).

A huge ally in the sanctification process is hatred of sin.  And while many Christians struggling with habitual sin know that they should hate their sin enough to forever flee from it, the reality is that a part of them still loves it.  And that can be confusing.  How can you love God so much, read his Word all the time, go to weekly accountability meetings, and still be enslaved to this sin?  Ultimately, I think it’s because we still love that sin deep down.  And I think the reason we still love it deep down is that we don’t hate it deep down. (Did I just blow your mind??)  So why don’t we hate it?

A big reason hatred for sin is lacking could be that we don’t see it for the cosmic treason that it is.  We give it less-than-horrible names and thus treat it lightly.  Or to say it another way, we just don’t call our sins for what they are, because to do so would be to face the ugly truth about ourselves.  Here are some examples of ways I’ve typically heard myself or others describe sin.

1. “I screwed up last night.”
2. “I’m struggling with anxiety.”
3. “I’m having a hard time getting in the Word.”
4. “Prayer hasn’t really been consistent.”

The problem with these phrases is that none of them sound that bad.  They succeed in getting across a “This isn’t ideal” vibe, but also a “Oh well no one’s perfect” one, and that’s the problem.  They don’t capture the magnitude of the fact that your sin cost Jesus his life.  Here’s the same list again, in the same order, worded now in such a way to capture what’s really going on:

1. “I looked at porn and masturbated.”
2. “I don’t trust in God’s goodness and provision.”
3. “Other things are just more important to me than God.”
4. “Prayer has no value to me.  I feel like God’s either not there or doesn’t care.”

Things like these are a lot harder to say.  The more specific we get with our sin, the more uncomfortable it becomes to confess it, because we’re starting to see it for what it really is.  The lines in the first list aren’t untrue.  But I don’t feel as terrible saying them since they’re sugar-coated.  When I go deeper though and say the words in the other list, I’m far more ashamed and disgusted.  It’s a lot more jolting.

Sin says something about how we view God.  When you’re anxious, you’re not really “struggling with anxiety.”  You’re struggling to believe that God loves you and is guiding your life according to his purposes.  When you’re “struggling” with inconsistent time in prayer, you’re struggling with a consistent arrogance that makes you feel like you don’t need God.  The tricky thing though is that we’re not always aware of these deeper heart issues.  Rather, things like praying to the almighty God of the universe are talked about in terms of personal discipline rather than personal obedience.  So when we’re not praying, we think the problem is our schedule (external) and not our hearts (internal).  And when we fail to pray, we feel like we’ve been defeated by something external rather than taking ownership for our own sin.  Jerry Bridges says it this way:

When I say I am defeated by some sin, I am unconsciously slipping out from under my responsibility.  I am saying something outside of me has defeated me.  But when I say I am disobedient, that places the responsibility for my sin squarely on me.  We may, in fact, be defeated, but the reason we are defeated is because we have chosen to disobey.

If we’re not calling sin for what it is and owning up to it, we’ll never learn to hate it.  Sin is personal, not abstract.  For example, if a wife catches her husband looking at porn, she’s going to take it personally.  What he’s doing says something about how he views her, in this case her desirability.  Similarly, sin says something about how we view God.  Struggling to find time to get in God’s Word isn’t primarily a discipline issue.  It’s an issue of you not finding God desirable enough to spend good quality time with him.

The process of sanctification is a long and painful one.  But it has an end, and it’s joyful along the way.  For the purposes of hating your sins and enjoying God, get good at calling sins for what they are.  And remember that the presence of the God you’ve offended is a safe place for doing that.

“Oh you who love the LORD, hate evil!”
-Psalm 97:10

God Doesn’t Want You to Forgive Yourself

I’ve heard it.  And you’ve heard it.  “Yeah I know God forgives me.  I just can’t seem to forgive myself.”  One time I even heard a pastor counsel a friend of mine to forgive himself as he was burdened with the guilt of some recent sin in his life.  Is there any merit to this?  No, there’s not.  Not only that, I believe that harboring this kind of mindset is very dangerous in that it completely undermines the gospel.

I don’t want to be insensitive to the feelings that make one believe that they need to forgive themselves.  I’ve been there a million times.  You confessed your sin to God, asked him to forgive you for those sins, and yet you still feel horrible.  You can’t shake the guilt you feel over that sin.  It grips you and won’t let go.  What are we supposed to do with this?  Forgiving yourself not only won’t help you alleviate that guilt.  It will actually push you further away from comfort, because saying “I know God’s forgiven me, but I can’t forgive myself” is a form of pride.  Here are five reasons this statement is misguided:*

1. It makes you a bigger judge than God.

You say “I know God forgives me…”  If you acknowledge this much, then you’re acknowledging that the highest judge in the universe has looked at you and declared you innocent.  Paul writes, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.” (Rom.8:33)  In other words, if the highest judge justifies, who is going to contradict him?  You?  Fact: the highest court always overrules the lower ones.  If what God says about you isn’t the final word, then he’s not the highest court in your heart.  You are.

2. It shows that you’re trusting in something other than God for justification.

Sometimes what feels like guilt over sin is in actuality guilt over failing to achieve a goal you’ve set for yourself.  Timothy Keller, in his excellent book Counterfeit Gods, writes:

When people say, ‘I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself,’ they mean that they have failed an idol, whose approval is more important to them than God’s.  Idols function like gods in our lives, and so if we make career or parental approval our god and we fail it, then the idol curses us in our hearts for the rest of our lives.  We can’t shake the sense of failure.

So you’re a seminary student, heavily involved in your church, a model of personal piety, and everyone looks to you for guidance.  Then one night you go a little too far with the godly woman you’ve been seeing.  You’re devastated.  You’ve confessed it to the Lord, but that doesn’t seem to be enough.  It could be that the guilt you feel isn’t from sinning against the Lord.  It could be that you haven’t lived up to who you have built yourself up to be in your mind: a super-godly person who would never do what you did.  In the words of David Powlison: “So often when people feel remorse for what they’ve done wrong, it is a remorse against their idealized self-image, a remorse in their own eyes, and a remorse against what other people think about them…”  None of which is remorse against God.

3. It means that your sin is a bigger deal to you than it is to God.

All sin is ultimately against God. (Ps. 51:4)  He above all is the one offended by your sin.  Your sin cost him his Son, and as a result of his sacrifice on the cross God now forgives you.  If you’re still trying to forgive yourself after he gave everything to forgive you, then that just means that your sin didn’t offend God as much as it offends you.  Mike Wilkerson notes that “[i]t is the height of self-centeredness to think your sin somehow offends you (or anyone else, even) more than it offends God.”

4. It could be a refusal to honestly confess your sin.

It’s worth considering that you may still feel unforgiven because you haven’t actually turned to God to confess and repent of your sin.  Plagued by the guilt of what you did or said, you figure that God is too mad to listen to you.  It’s “safer” instead to console yourself by distracting yourself from the guilt.  So instead of going into God’s presence you turn on the TV.  Instead of reading his Word, you read gossip articles online.  God = conviction = discomfort = finding something that won’t make you feel horrible.

“Without confession I will remain unforgiven,” Miroslav Volf writes, “not because God doesn’t forgive, but because a refusal to confess is a rejection of forgiveness.  Refusing to confess, I refuse to make forgiveness my own through confession of wrongdoing and joyful gratitude over it not being counted against me.”  (my emphasis)

5. It could be a form of works-based salvation.

We as Christians have a strange tendency to want to punish ourselves more than God wants to punish us.  We know that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1), but there’s just a really good feeling we get when we condemn ourselves anyway.  It feels…noble.  Humble.  Righteous even.  The more we punish ourselves for our sins, the more righteous we must be since righteous people hate sin, right?

But God doesn’t want us to do penance for our sins.  It’s one thing to mourn our sinful condition while keeping our eyes on Jesus and the fact that we’re getting credit for his life and not ours.  It’s something else entirely to feel like God will accept you more as you punish yourself more for sin.

“Jesus frees me from trying to impress God or others because he has impressed God on my behalf.”
-Jonathan Dodson


*I’ve adapted this list from Mike Wilkerson’s book Redemption: Freed by Jesus From the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry, pages 78-80.