“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Why? Because God is infinitely holy and excellent, perfect in every way, the source and sustainer of all things, apart from whom we have nothing, and to whom we owe perfect love and honor, always. God’s “foremost commandment” requires an internal and external response consistent with God’s glory. Sin includes anything less than what He deserves and properly requires of us. Thus, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Which of the following appears to you as virtuous: a selfish bribe given without concern for the recipient, or a gift motivated by selfless love? Or, which of these honors God: service that seeks to earn salvation from a disregard of the perfect saving work of Christ, or service from a heart of love and thanksgiving for the free gift of salvation? The obvious answers illustrate for us that identical outward actions can be good or evil, or pleasing or contemptible before God according to the motive or inclination behind them. At the same time, Scripture contains many warnings that God will judge our every action. Indeed, “every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment” (Matt. 12:36). Yet, God never judges actions apart from the heart that motivates them. “I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds” (Jer. 17:10). We may distinguish internal motives or inclinations of the heart from the actions they produce, but we can never separate them.
Moreover, God judges the nature of our thoughts and desires even if we don’t act on them: “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). As unbelievers we “lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind,” and we were “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3, emphasis mine). And while we are cautioned against judging what we cannot see in the hearts of others, God does exactly that, “Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God” (1 Cor. 4:5).
As God requires a pure heart and pure actions, our wicked desires merit condemnation before a holy God. As Christ said, “everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth what is evil” (Matt. 12:34-35). Notice that the evil “treasure” produces the evil action. In His condemnation of religious hypocrisy, He points to the heart: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me” (Matt. 15:8).
The heart transformed to love God loves holiness, the perfection that defines God’s perfect character and renders all His perfections lovely. The indwelling Holy Spirit loves holiness and grieves over unholy thoughts and desires, even as He works to cleanse and produce in us holy appetites and actions. Therefore, a holy and redeemed heart recoils at desires contrary to the holiness of its first love. We run to Christ in love and gratitude for His righteousness and plead for deliverance from impurity. We pursue the renewal of our mind by His powerful Word (Scripture) and the other means of grace He has provided for our growth in holiness (prayer, worship, fellowship, etc.). But, we don’t define holiness down or compromise God’s standard of righteousness by proposing that impure thoughts and desires are not sin until we act on them. A healthy cure begins with a proper diagnosis and understanding of the disease, not a redefinition of it.
Christ’s earthly ministry was sinless and free of unholy thoughts and desires. He clearly saw and understood the wickedness of the world, but rightly viewed it as a disgusting affront to divine holiness, a horrible perversion of God’s original and righteous design and creation. And while He was tempted in all things, even as we are, He was never tempted by the force of a sinful inclination or desire for unholy things. Perfect holiness cannot be incited by unholy thoughts where no unholy thoughts are possible. The essence and weight of His temptations lie elsewhere (to be discussed in an upcoming post). And once we pass from this life to the next, we will never again have an unholy thought or desire. But until then, our most perfect works and motives are as filthy rags in light of what God deserves and when considered apart from the righteousness of Christ by which we stand.
“The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). As we better understand the depth and breadth of our depravity, we grow in purity, faith, and a greater appreciation of the forgiveness and righteousness we have in Christ. The greater our understanding and appreciation for God’s infinite love of the sinful and unlovable, the greater will be our love, holiness, and service to Him and our neighbor. May we not compromise God’s revelation of our total need of Christ—the greatest need of the church and the unredeemed world—by redefining sin, our greatest enemy. Rather, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). In Christ we have new life, a new love, forgiveness for the worst of our sinful acts and desires, and help for growth in a holy love and knowledge of God. May we seek Him all the more diligently when we struggle with the sin that would dishonor His name and destroy our testimony to His grace and power to change lives. To Him be all the glory in our thoughts and deeds. Amen.
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, © Copyright The Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1988, 1995. Used by permission.
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