Sin is Serious, Hell is Real — Video Sermon + Transcript
Preacher, Alistair Begg
From: Truth For Life The Bible-Teaching Ministry of Alistair Begg
Sermon given: July 18, 2010
Temptations to Sin
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’
Mark 9:42-48 — English Standard Version
We live in a culture that has grown indifferent toward sin and the notion that God will execute holy justice upon it. Jesus took sin seriously and provided sobering instruction on how his followers should fight sin in their lives. Alistair Begg teaches us that even though we are secure in Christ, we should not think that we are no longer obligated to battle sin.
Our reading is from the Gospel of Mark and chapter 9, and we’re going to begin reading at verse 42 to the end of the chapter. It’s page 715 in our church Bibles, if you don’t have a Bible and would like to follow along, and I suggest that you do that to make sure that what’s being said is actually in the Bible. And I will read from verse 42, Mark chapter 9:
“And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where
“‘their worm does not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’
Everyone will be salted with fire.
“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make you it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
Father, we pray for your help as we turn to this passage, that you will take my words and speak through them, take our minds and help us to think through them, take our hearts and renew them by your grace and in the image of your Son Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Well, as we come to the end of chapter 9, we are aware of the fact that it is some time since we began our studies in Mark’s Gospel. We began on that first morning with Mark’s declaration, “The good news begins here.” And what we’ve been doing for these past months is looking at the good news as it is described for us by Mark. And we’ve been discovering that this good news is essentially the account of what God has done for us in the Lord Jesus Christ in order to save us from sin and from the devil and from hell.
The mention of hell, of course, is immediately tied to the passage that we’ve just read. And in this passage we discover Jesus telling his listeners that sin is serious and hell is real. And the gravity which attaches to the words of Jesus is more than matched by the levity which characterizes our contemporary culture’s view of such ideas. The idea of man’s problem, the problem of humanity, being somehow to do with his sinful propensities is at war with contemporary philosophy. And along with that, the idea that there would ever be a judgment, that there would ever be a time when God would execute his holy justice upon the rebellion of man, is also regarded as being just too bizarre, too Middle Age, too Dark Ages ever to have any relevance whatsoever.
And so, we live in a culture that has grown accustomed to toying with sin and trivializing any notion of hell. I was just in New York a couple of weeks ago. In the mornings I went for coffee at a particular place where I like to meet a man that I’ve known for some years; he lives in a trailer park there, his name is Stanley. And he told me with great mirth that his favorite thing in the morning was seeing if he could be the first amongst all of his acquaintances to tell somebody to go to hell, and that that is their early morning greeting, and if you can be the first, then I think you get a free coffee, or whatever it might be. And I said to him, “Stanley, I don’t think you know what you’re saying. And I’m here to tell you, Stanley, you should go to heaven.” And he said, “Well, I don’t know about going to heaven.”
Well, he’s really representative of the majority view, isn’t he? But the fact that an approach is taken or a view is held by a majority doesn’t mean that it is true. And, in fact, that the notion serves to reinforce what Jesus says in Matthew 7: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.” In other words, the population is filling it up. “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” No, the fact that most people believe something doesn’t make it true.
Hell Shows Us God’s Love
And there is, we must confess, an understandable reaction to the whole notion of hell. It’s not my purpose this morning to address this subject topically, but just a couple of observations as we move into our text: The fact of the matter is, hell shows us just how much God loves us. That may seem immediately crazy, because people’s reaction is usually to say, “What kind of God is this, that would execute wrath and judgment and speak in terms of hell? How could God be a good God, be a loving God, and yet be a God that entertains the notion or devises the notion of hell itself?”
Well, doesn’t love often fill you with anger? Aren’t you often angry because of the intensity of your love? If an acquaintance with whom you spend little time turns his back on you and walks away, you feel a little pain. If someone who’s a core member of your inner circle does the same to you and reviles you, it would feel worse. If your spouse walks out and says, “I want nothing to do with you again, I never want to hear your voice, see your face,” wouldn’t you be justifiably angry?
And what the Bible says is that God, because of his love, expresses his love by stepping back from any thought of indifference. A father can never be indifferent, if he loves his son, to the drug abuse of his son. He will be angry beyond description, not because he doesn’t love the boy, but because he loves him with such a passion. A surgeon who cares for his patients, a surgical oncologist who loves her patients, knows the anger that she feels when, having commenced the surgery, she realizes that there is nothing that she is now able to do because this cancer is beyond her ability to cope with it. And so, she is angry.
God’s wrath as expressed in hell is not a fiery outburst. It’s not a cranky emotional explosion. God’s anger in relationship to this is his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating the insides of humanity. And it is wrong for us to see an antithesis between what Jesus here says about the reality of hell and what he does in himself in his death on the cross. Because in his death on the cross he takes hell for us. It is in his not only bearing our sins but enduring hell for us that the love of God is magnified.
People want to have it one way or the other, but you can’t have it one way or the other. Every so often in a summer evening in Northeastern Ohio, I say to my wife, “Well, this would be a terrific place if it weren’t for these bugs, if it weren’t for these mosquitoes.” And then I get a big lecture on the ecosystem, and how that you need these things, because these things preserve other things that you like, and if you want the things you like, then you have to have these things you don’t like; you have to have the nasty predators so that the nasty predators can make sure that the eco-balance doesn’t go wrong so that all the good things don’t get all completely out of whack. (Thank you for that.) All right. I still wish they weren’t here. And the fact is that the same is true: that if you remove the bad news of hell, you actually interfere with the balance of theology, and you gut any significance from the good news of heaven.
But as I say, it’s not my purpose this morning to address the issues of hell per se, but just to get you thinking in the right direction.
Addressing the Subject of Hell
The reaction of men and women to the notion is not, I fear, simply because of the cultural and philosophical preoccupations of the twenty-first century, but is in part a reaction to the way in which some of us who actually want to believe the Bible and take it seriously have gone about the business of proclaiming a passage such as this. And in seeking to be truthful, where we’ve fallen down is in our tone. And the tone of things so often conveys more and superimposes itself on the very truth. So, the person who’s speaking about hell speaks about hell with dry eyes. How can you speak about hell dispassionately? How can we ever take seriously what the Bible says about the eternal destiny of our loved ones, our work colleagues, our friends, our next-door neighbors, and somehow or another just propound it like hellfire and damnation? Sometimes you listen to some people talk (I do on the radio or on the television), and it sounds to me that they’re actually delighted about this—that somehow or another this really gets them up in the morning, you know, that they’re able to make sure that everybody understands this.
Well, do they understand that Jesus wept over Jerusalem? Do they understand that God does not desire the death of a sinner, but prefers that that sinner turn from his or her wickedness and live? Do they not realize that Jesus laid down his life, if you like, right at the very entryway into hell so as to say to men and women, “Don’t go there! You need not go there. I have gone there so that you don’t have to. I have gone there because your predicament is so grave that only by my expressing the Father’s love in this way could deal with it.” No, a man or a woman—as one of our preachers some years ago told us—a man or a woman needs to trample over the body or the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ if they’re going to go to hell.
Having said all of that, the strongest words of the Bible concerning hell come from the lips of Jesus, who died in order that we needn’t go there. You need to keep that in mind. The strongest and most striking statements concerning hell came from the lips of one who died in order that we wouldn’t have to go there. And interestingly, when you read the Bible—and I think you can check this for yourselves—you never actually hear Jesus expounding hell to publicans and sinners. He doesn’t do that with the woman at the well, does he? He does say to her, “Why don’t you call your husband?” She says, “Well, I don’t have a husband.” He says, “Well, you’re dead right. You’ve had a few of them, and you got a live-in lover.” But what does he say to her? He says, “You know what? If you ask me for a drink of water, then you would realize that you’re looking for love in all the wrong places. Your substitute gods—your sex, your fulfillment, whatever it is—is a master. It will enslave you. You’re enslaved by these things. If you drink my water, if you drink the water that I give, you’ll be set free from these things.” He doesn’t he doesn’t give her hell. And we could go through the whole place.
No, actually, fascinatingly, the Lord Jesus spoke of hell to those who professed to be saints, and he spoke of heaven to those who were prepared to admit that they were sinners. Something is really wrong when from my pulpit I seek to reverse it. Huh? Well, that’s what we think of when we think of this subject being addressed. And we have to be honest and say we’re killing ourselves with friendly fire. We’re shooting ourselves.
A Warning about Causing Others to Sin
Well, to our text. Verse 42: “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck.” Not a good day, I think you would agree. We have a warning here, first about causing others to sin—a warning about causing others to sin. In verse 41, the “cup of water” verse, we have been reminded that God doesn’t overlook even the smallest act of kindness by which the life of a believer may be enriched. That’s the significance of verse 41. God sees when even somebody offers a cup of cold water to you because you believe in Jesus. “His eye is on the sparrow.” He sees these details. He doesn’t overlook the smallest act that enriches the life of a believer, nor does he ignore the act which endangers the life of a believer. And so, from 41 he goes to 42.
Now, the context is such that Jesus is clearly not, here, simply referring to children. He’s used a child as an illustration, as we saw in a previous study, as an indication of the fact that those who become the followers of Jesus are little, and they’re small, and they’re vulnerable. And so, he says, “If anyone causes any of these little ones who believe in me to sin…” I want you to know this morning that I am a little one who believes in Jesus. I may be fifty-eight years old, but I’m a little one who believes in Jesus. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. And little ones to him belong, and I am weak, but he is strong.” Therefore, since I am a little one who believes in Jesus, what verse 42 says is, if you are responsible for causing me to sin, to shipwreck in my faith, to fall apart in following Jesus, it would be better for you for a large millstone to be placed around your neck and you were drowned in Lake Erie. And the same is true in reverse.
The gravity of what Jesus says here is unmistakable. The picture is actually grotesque. The closest I came to this in a recent film or movie—I think from memory, and I didn’t go back and check—was in watching Prison Break. And in Prison Break there is a scene where somebody has two big blocks of concrete tied around their ankles, and they are pitched into the ocean—I think in New York, or somewhere. And there is no question but the writer knew exactly what he was doing. There is no doubt in my mind. I don’t know who the writer was, but there’s was no doubt in my mind, because of the nature of what had been done: the person who ended that way had killed the child of this individual. And so he took vengeance in himself, and tied concrete around him, and dropped him into the depths of the ocean: “If any one of you causes one of my little ones like this to stumble, it would be better that this happened to you,” and that is exactly what happened to him. And the image is absolutely there in my mind, because it is a grotesque image.
The millstone here is a large millstone in the time of Jesus that would be pulled at the mill by a beast of burden—not a smaller millstone that you might use in your home, but the large one. That’s the word that is used here in Greek. It had a large hole in the middle of it as a mechanism. And so the picture is absolutely unbelievable. It is like, “It’d be better that you wore it as a collar and were thrown into the depths of the ocean.”
What is Jesus saying? “You dare not be indifferent about the impact that your life has on those who are the little ones who follow me.” Says R. T. France, paraphrasing it, “To be the cause of another’s spiritual shipwreck is so serious an offense that a quick drowning would be preferable to the fate it deserves.” You’d be better to drown than face up to what awaits you in hell.
A Warning about Causing Ourselves to Sin
Now, in verse 43, the thought moves on. As you can see, it moves on from causing someone else to stumble and sin to causing oneself to stumble and sin.
Now, I did a little bit of stumbling two nights ago as I was trying to make my way in the darkness from one side of the room to another. And I had occasion to mention some things to my wife which she didn’t think were very apropos, but I realized that if I turned the light on, I wouldn’t have been in the situation in which I found myself. I think, if I recall, she pointed that out to me. And it was a perfect reminder to me of the fact that it’s easy to trip up in the dark. It’s easy to stumble in the dark. And the entrance of God’s Word brings light. And that is one of the primary reasons that we study the Bible together: so that the light of God’s Word might shine into our darkness, tell us bad things that we don’t really want to hear but need to hear, and tell us good things that go with the bad things that make sense of the entire story. But unless we’re actually reading the Bible for ourselves, looking into it, considering it, having it preached, then we will discover that we are much more vulnerable to the possibility of stumbling and falling. And so, the exhortation here is apropos.
If verse 42 is a warning about causing another to stumble, then verse 43 and following is a warning about playing fast and loose with sin—an approach to the Christian life which says, “It doesn’t really matter. Nothing really matters. ‘Jesus paid it all. All to him I owe. Sin had a crimson stain. He washed it white as snow.’ I can go out and do what I like.” Jesus says, “No, you better not even think that for a moment.” No. Because the Father’s love for you has set you free from the tyranny. That which held you in its grip has been dethroned, but it hasn’t been destroyed—that sin no longer reigns in the believer’s life, but it remains in the believer’s life. And therefore, the way to progress and the way to heaven for the Christian is the way of understanding how to deal with sin when it comes and approaches us.
And, as we’ve seen earlier on in 7:20, every sin is an inside job. Remember, Jesus had to explain that, first to the Pharisees and then to his disciples. They were getting uptight about the fact that they weren’t doing the ceremonial washings and so on before their meals, and Jesus jumps on this and uses it as an opportunity to say, “If it were only that simple. If it was only so simple that you could fix it on the outside with externals. But it isn’t,” he says. “Because the things that defile a man come from inside a man.” And then he lists them all. I won’t read them all—“evil thoughts … immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice,” and so on—he says, “All of that is an inside job.”
His brother James essentially reminds us of the same thing. When picking up on Jesus’ words, he says in James 1:14, each of us, “each one is tempted when, by his [or her] own evil desire, he [or she] is dragged away and enticed.” Okay, everyone, “each [of us] is tempted when, by [our] own evil desire, [we are] dragged away and enticed.” Well, we understand that, don’t we? Sin is no respecter of persons. But some of us may be more prone to the sin of gluttony than others. And suddenly, we’re finding ourselves pulled away and enticed: key lime pie, rhubarb cranberry, apple, donuts. “Where you going?” “I’m being enticed at the moment. I’m going…” Now, what are you gonna need when you get there? Hands. What helped you on your journey? Eyes. What got you to the other side of the room? Feet. Okay? Starts in our minds. That’s why our Sunday school teachers told us—they’ll probably put this on my tombstone—“Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.”
That’s what Jesus is addressing here. What he’s saying to us is, “If immediately you are confronted by these things in these areas, you have to get on and deal with them.” The children’s hymn again helps us: “Be careful, little hands, what you touch; be careful, little feet, where you go; eyes, what you see; lips, what you say. For there’s a father up above, and he’s looking down in love, so be careful, little feet, where you go.” The Sunday school is really helpful. I’ve never really graduated from the elementary Sunday school. I absolutely have not. I think I can make my way through my entire Christian life on the strength of my Sunday school teachers. Let that be an encouragement to every one of you that teaches children in the elementary ranks of Parkside Church. What you’re doing may prove to be of lasting and eternal value. Don’t ever forget that on a morning when you wake up and say, “I don’t think they’ll come,” or “I don’t think they’ll listen,” or whatever else it is. They will listen and they will come. And you can tell them these things, and they’ll remember them when they’re old, like me.
Their hands need to be under the control of Jesus, ’cause they may use their hands to fight or they may use their hands to steal. Their feet need to be brought under the control of Jesus, because their feet may take them places that they shouldn’t go. And there’s no better place to help yourself and help another in this matter of the feet than in the early chapters of Proverbs, where, for example, in Proverbs 4:14 Solomon says, “Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evil men. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn [away] from it and go on your own way.” If you go with the crows, you’re sure to be shot. If you put your feet on that path, you open yourself up to the possibility that all that is available on the path of evil will become the occasion for your eyes to see, your hands to touch, and your feet to dance. So it’s real simple: don’t go.
“In fact,” says Jesus, “if you find that you can’t stop yourself from going, chop one of your feet off. That’ll help you. Or if you find you can’t stop yourself and your eyes taking a third and a fourth and a fifth look at whatever it is or whoever it is, then poke one of your eyes out”—which, in contemporary terms, means, “Take a large ten-pound hammer to your internet mechanism. Just smash the sucker up.”
“Oh, but it’s very helpful. I do my banking there.” I know you do your banking there, but that’s not all you do there. And since that’s not all you do there, you can’t do your banking there anymore. You’re done with banking there. “Who says?” Jesus says. “Well,” you say, “he doesn’t say anything about the internet or taking a ten-pound hammer to it.” No, actually, his thing was a little worse than my suggestion. He said, “Poke your eye out.” It’s hyperbole. It’s about dealing with it immediately and graphically. It’s about realizing what Paul says: “You[’re] not your own; you were bought [with] a price.” You don’t belong to yourself! Everything belongs to Jesus. “Therefore [glorify] God with your body.” And when we’re going to do this, we need to do it in a way that is absolutely radical, because “without holiness no one will see the Lord.”
Jim Packer has a wonderful little section—I was looking for something else this week, and I went into a book, and then it got me off, and it was a profitable excursus, but it lasted longer than it should have done—but I came across a little statement where Packer says the Christian’s motto ought not to be, in this regard, “Let go and let God,” but it ought to be “Trust God and get going!”—“Trust God and get going!” In other words, if you know yourself—your own heart—is susceptible to A, B, or C, then the answer to that is not to sit around and wait for God to intervene in your life and transport you to, you know, another arena. No, the answer is for you to devise a strategy to prevent yourself from ending up in that predicament. And Jesus says it is so important because what we’re talking about is life and death and heaven and hell. “You’d be better,” he said, “to be limping around and going to the kingdom of God than be dancing around and go into hell.” In other words, we have to work out a strategy for the eradication of sin—to eradicate sin. Either we kill sin, or sin’ll kill us. That’s what he says.
Therefore, we need to deal with it when? Let me tell you when the devil says to deal with it: starting tomorrow. Always tomorrow. He’ll always tell you, “It’s a very good sermon. Don’t worry about it tonight; you’ve got places to go, people to see, things to do. Start tomorrow.” It’s always the devil’s word. It’s always tomorrow. The Bible’s word is always today, it’s always now. Therefore, when this needs to be dealt with, it needs to be dealt with immediately, it needs to be dealt with decisively, it needs to be dealt with radically, and it needs to be dealt with consistently.
Those of you who are surgical oncologists understand this perfectly. Because you have seen the mass, you have viewed the blood reports, and you are now about to take action. And you’re going to do so in a way that seeks to drive that cancerous mass as far from your patient as you possibly can. You absolutely are angered by what that mass is doing to your patient, because you have enjoyed having her as your patient, and you have grown to love and respect her and know her family, and so on. And the revulsion that you feel for that does not even come close to the revulsion that God feels for that which eats away the soul of those whom he has made for a relationship with himself. If it is a safe and a right approach in matters of oncology, then it is a safe and right approach in matters of personal holiness.
What this passage reminds me of is in part the need for humility on our part—that we’re humble enough to say, “This is a very important passage for me. Because I know how susceptible I am to all of this.” If you find yourself saying, “This is not really that significant to me, I dealt with that some time ago,” you know, whatever it might be, you’re in greater danger than you realize. Also, it is a passage that smacks of such reality, doesn’t it? There’s no denial of things; there’s no suggestion that things are different than what they are. It’s very realistic. I like how realistic it is. ’Cause it’s a reminder of what Paul says in the second half of Romans 7: “The good that I want to do, I don’t do, and the bad I don’t want to do, I end up doing”—that I am, in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, as a Christian, involved in “a continual and irreconcilable war.” All of my inclinations that are sinful, I say again to you, have been dethroned, but they haven’t been destroyed. And so when I read my Bible and when I’m confronted by passages like this, as in Romans 7, I’m reminded of the fact that although I am in Christ, I am failed, I am weak, and I am guilty. How many days of the week? Seven! Seven days of the week I’m failed, I’m weak, I’m guilty.
Chapter 8 of Romans tells me that I am loved, I am saved, and I am safe. How many days of the week? Seven. Well, what’s going on? Well, the reality of Christian experience! We are a work under construction. We’re like a building site. And God hasn’t finished with us. And what he’s saying to us in a passage like this is, “Don’t ever be indifferent to the impact that your life, your words, your example will have on the people that are around you. And don’t, whatever you do, fall into the trap of saying, ‘I can play fast and loose with sin. I’m above this. I’m a pastor. I’m a…’ whatever.”
C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity has a wonderful little section—and with this I’ll stop—in which he uses that very same analogy of God being at work in constructing us. And he says, “Imagine yourself living in a house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he’s doing: making basic repairs. But then he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably. It doesn’t make any sense.” So, you come to trust in Christ, and you know that you were in need of a Savior; you were worshipping substitute gods, or your ladder was propped up against the wall, and you were up at the top, but you found out that your ladder was propped up against the wrong wall, and you discovered forgiveness and freedom in Jesus, and you were so enamored and delighted with this. But now, you’re coming around, and you’re reading your Bible, and you thought, “Well, I would be done with this by now,” but the longer you go, the more you read your Bible, the more you realize, “I’m flawed, and I’m a failure, and I’m weak.” And you say to yourself, “What is God doing?” “Well,” says, Lewis, “I’ll tell you what he’s doing. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but he is building a palace. And he intends to come and live in it himself.”
You want to be a miserable little cottage? Or you want to be a palace? Do you want to be a little dark cottage, tolerating your lustful gazes, and your tramping into Bypath Meadow, and your dalliance with that which God says you’re to leave alone? Well, why would we ever settle for that? “No,” he says, “take seriously my Word. Respond to what I’m saying.”
Kendrick helps us on this, doesn’t he, in the song,
Count it joy, pure joy,
[When trials come, ’cause]
When troubles come,
Many trials will make you strong.
And then he says,
For God is at work in us,
Molding and shaping us,
Out of his love for us
Making us more like Jesus.
He never hurts us to harm us. Every bitter blow that falls from his hand falls from the hand of a Father who “loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever”—whoever—“believes in him need never go to hell but will have everlasting life.”
It’s a great story. It’s the story of the Bible. We have a little booklet called The Story. If it would be helpful for you to have one, through the doors to my right and your left at the end of this time somebody will give you one, and you could take it away and think some more about these things.
I hope you will come this evening. We’ll try and finish up chapter 9 tonight.
O God our Father, thank you that “your Word is a lamp to [our] feet and a light [to our] path.” Thank you that because of the intensity of your love you vented your wrath against sin. We would find it hard to believe in you were it not for the cross, for there on the cross we discover the appeasement of your wrath in the expression of your love through the gift of your Son. Make it clear to us, Lord, that if ever we are to continue in our rebellion and end up banished from you from all of eternity, we will have had to navigate our pathway into that bottomless pit and worked our way around your saving work upon the cross.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one who believes, today and forevermore. Amen.