The Lord's Day Morning

January 23, 2011

“Temptation, Sin and Faith”

Luke 17:1-6

The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 17 as we continue our way through the gospel of Luke together. If you take a glance at these first six verses in Luke 17, I want to remind you that as we've worked our way through Luke 16, repeatedly Jesus has been dealing with a problem with both the Pharisees’ lives and their teaching. They are lovers of money and so the stories He has told in Luke 16, at least in part, are designed to hold up before their eyes that besetting sin which is encumbering them and keeping them from understanding God's Law in the way that they ought. And of course their very sin itself is leading astray the people of God. And so in Luke 17 verses 1 to 6, Jesus is concerned to say to His disciples, “Do not live and teach like the Pharisees. You’ll lead people astray; you’ll endanger your own souls.” And so in many ways it's a contrast; it's a positive exhortation in light of His negative criticism of the Pharisees in Luke 16, but in this passage you will also see teaching that goes a long way to helping us understand how to live the Christian life. And as we read it, I want you to be on the lookout for three things.

First of all, if you look at verses 1 and 2 you will see Jesus give an exhortation to His disciples not to lead His little ones into temptation by your behavior. You’ll see that in verses 1 and 2. Then in verses 3 and 4, you’ll see Jesus give an exhortation to pay attention to one another's souls; pay attention to yourselves. And He especially highlights the area of forgiveness and repentance. Are you repenting and seeking forgiveness? Are you rebuking and prompting repentance that leads to forgiveness? Is this the way you’re dealing with one another? Are you paying close attention to your souls in this way? And then third, notice how the apostles respond to what Jesus has just said about not leading others into sin and about living a life of forgiveness as an expression of paying attention to one another's souls. Look at how they respond in verse 5. And then in verse 6 this amazing statement that Jesus makes about the place of faith in the Christian life. Yes, this is a passage about temptation and sin and faith, and yes it is a rebuke to the Pharisees and yes it is an exhortation to Jesus’ immediate circle of disciples, but it is also a word that was written for our instruction.

Let's pray and ask God's blessing before we read it.

Lord, this is Your Word and You know that there is a word for us in it today. We pray that in this Word You would show us both Your grace and Your call to godliness and that we would understand the Gospel clearly and also that we would understand more clearly the life that the Gospel initiates and enables. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your Word. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

This is God's Word. Hear it:

“And He said to His disciples, ‘Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.’

The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Just how do we live the Christian life? How do we go about living the Christian life? We know how it is that we're saved. We’re saved by grace, through faith, not by works lest any should boast. We don't make ourselves right with God. We don't do things in order to get God to forgive us. God does in the Gospel what is necessary for us to be reconciled to Him and Him to us. And so our salvation is not by our doing. Other religions may say that the way into fellowship with God is in doing this or in doing that. You must make yourself right with God. We know that we cannot do that because we are sinners to the core.

Derek prayed eloquently confessing sin and asking God to show mercy in the midst of the genocide of abortion, but it is possible that there is a woman here today who has put the child that she carried in her womb to death, or that there is a man who slept with a woman who was not his wife and caused her to be with child and them impelled her to put that child to death. The Gospel does not say to you, “If you are going to be right with Me now, you must make yourself right with Me. You must do something that will make up for this great crime that you have committed.” The Gospel says, the Father says, “I have given My Son for you, child. My Son has borne the penalty of the sin that you committed. He's done this and I've given Him so that you could reach out to Me and simply cry, ‘Father, forgive me, because I have sinned against You.’ And I will accept you, not because of your doing, but because of My Son's doing, not because of your deserving, but because of My grace. I’ll receive you and I’ll wash you and I’ll make you clean and I’ll make you My child.” We know that's the Gospel. We know that our doing plays no part in it, that God does the doing in our saving. We’re not saved by our works; we're saved by grace. We know that.

But then, how do we live the Christian life? Is it a matter of dependence, dependence on the Lord, just like we depended on Him to forgive us when we first came to Him? Is it a matter of dependence or is it a matter of discipline? Is it a matter of grace or is it a matter of obedience? Is it a matter of faith and resting or works and living? And the answer of course is — yes. But how you put those things together is very important and this passage actually helps us put them together rightly. But before we can get there, we need to understand specifically what Jesus is doing, so walk with me through three parts of this passage.

First, look at verses 1 and 2. Here, Jesus gives His disciples a very direct imperative. He gives them an instruction, a command, and it's a negative command. And the command is, “Don't lead My sheep, don't lead the sheep that I'm entrusting into your care, don't lead the little ones whose faith that I've given you to cultivate, don't lead them into temptation by your teaching and your behavior.” Look at what He says. “Temptations to sin are sure to come – we're all going to face them — but woe to the one through whom they come. It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of the least of these to sin.” Jesus clearly has in His mind the Pharisees, who by their teaching and their lives are doing what? They’re leading the little ones astray. They’re claiming to be godly men while in fact they are lovers of money. They claim to love God while in fact they love mammon more than anything else. And what does that do? It leads people astray because people instinctively sniff out their hypocrisy and so their religion becomes hypocrisy like their teachers’ religion is hypocrisy and their teaching is wrong.

And Jesus is consistently critiqued it throughout the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is turning to His disciples here in Luke 17:1-2 and He's saying, “Don't be like them because your life and your teaching can lead people astray, and it would be better for you if a millstone were wrapped around your neck and you were dropped into the Great Marianas Trench than for you to lead one of My little ones astray because God will judge.” You know, in the background of this you hear Paul, don't you, in the Pastoral Epistles saying to Timothy, “Timothy, watch your life; watch your doctrine.” And you hear James, Jesus’ half brother, in the little book of James saying, “Let not many of you become teachers because you will incur stricter judgment.” You hear these things echoing as Jesus tells the disciples, “Don't lead people astray by your life and your teaching.” And every teacher with ears to hear trembles.

I can remember when I was about twenty-four years old at Covenant Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri, in the basement of the church building teaching a Wednesday night Bible study to a high school youth group, when in the middle of my Bible study a young woman in the youth group with her Bible open took her pen and began to write in the margins as I taught. It scared me to death because it occurred to me, I think there for the first time, “There are people out there who take my words very seriously, to the point that they will take notes and write them in the margin.” And Jesus is saying to His disciples, “Your life and your teaching could lead someone astray.”

And Christian, I want you to pull back and think, this is not just about teachers, this is about all of us. Have you ever thought that what you chose to do and say and how you live could actually lead someone astray, eternally astray? This is especially a terrifying thought to parents. And Jesus says to His disciples, “Don't do that.”

And then, look at verses 3 and 4. Now the exhortation is a positive exhortation to their mutual soul care. “Pay attention to yourselves.” Again you hear Paul saying to Timothy in echo, “Watch your life.” But here it's corporate, isn't it? It's the disciples looking out for one another's souls. Pay attention to yourselves. Pay attention to one another's souls. And then He says, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day and turns to you seven times saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” So Jesus first says, “Here's the exhortation: Pay attention to one another's souls, be accountable to one another, watch out for your eternal wellbeing, see how it is with your souls, care about one another in things that pertain to your relationship to the Lord.”

Two of the most encouraging conversations that I've had in a long, long time I've had in the last two weeks with congregation members. I won't give you many details so I can protect the privacy of the friends who came and spoke with me, but one dear friend, one longtime friend came to me to say that he had been struggling somewhat with indifference to his fellowship in this congregation, and that in a particular context where he saw God's people reaching out and supporting and ministering to one another in the midst of crisis, he had been gripped by the realization that, “These are my people and I need them.” And he was coming to tell me that he wanted to renew his commitment to the life of this congregation because the way he had seen the congregation ministering to one another in a time of difficulty, and he wanted to be a part of that because he recognized he needed that himself. And then another was a friend who was telling me that in a particular situation in his life some friends of his in his Sunday School class had seen a sin in his life and they had come to him and they had taken him aside and they had sat him down and they rebuked him. And he was coming to me to thank me that we had people that cared enough about his soul in the congregation that they would do that because he realized how absolutely crucial it was in his life. It was a major step forward in his life.

Well Jesus is saying to His disciples, “Pay attention to one another's souls! You need one another. You need one another to be looking out for you and encouraging you.” And He picks the issue of forgiveness — ouch! And He says, “Here's one way that you need to look out for one another's souls — Are you repenting and are you forgiving? Are you rebuking and are you repenting? Are you being forgiven? Are you forgiving?” He says, “Look at your forgiveness, look at your repentance — are you doing that?” That's a hard area. You know my guess is that there are some people in this room today who have experienced hurts that are so deep and so profound that they have really struggled with forgiving the one or ones who have administered those hurts and wounds. Jesus is saying to His disciples, “No matter how deep that wound is, no matter how hard that hurt is, if that brother, that sister repents, you must forgive.”

I had a dear sister in Christ meet me at the door after the early service and say, “Ligon, I'm trying to forgive my husband but he irritates me so!” Are there things that you just can't forgive? Jesus’ words here are, “You must forgive him.” So it's no wonder that if you look at verses 5 and 6 that you see a third thing here. The apostles response here is, “Lord, increase our faith! This is really hard what You’re asking us to do! You’re telling us to make sure that we don't lead people astray and You’re telling us to pay attention to one another's souls and to forgive and this is beyond us! Please Lord, give us faith! Increase our faith! We need help to do this! We can't do this!” And Jesus’ word to them in verse 6 is, “By trusting God, you can do these things and He can do these things in you.”

Do you see how He explains it here? “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted.’” The mustard seed is a very tiny seed, maybe the smallest seed known to those people to whom He would have been speaking. Mulberry tree — known for its very broad root system; hard tree to uproot. “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to that mulberry tree with its broad root system, ‘Be uprooted and then be planted in the sea.’” Can you even picture that in your mind? Now Jesus’ point, I think, is not to rebuke the disciples because they've given the right answer. They know that with regard to these kinds of commands you've got to live by faith, so they know they need faith. But Jesus says, “I don't want you to be focused on the size of that faith or the quantity of that faith — if you have faith the size of a mustard seed — nor even the quality of the faith.” I think Jesus is pointing them to the reality of faith. It is faith that you need in order to receive God's grace and power to do these things.

But in so doing, notice how He points to both dependence and devotion. He wants them to be utterly dependent upon God in order to do these things but He expects them to be disciplined in their devotion. In fact, He starts the passages with the commands. “Don't do this, do that. Depend on God. Trust in Him. Put your faith in Him.” He is talking about grace enabled discipleship. He's talking about God working in you so that you express the devotion that God's work in you is designed to create. There's no better passage in the Bible to explain this than a passage we've already quoted. Turn with me to Ephesians chapter 2. In Ephesians chapter 2, in a couple of verses that many of you have probably memorized, Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved” — Are you saved by your doing? No. Are you saved by your deserving? No. How are you saved? By grace. Who's grace, yours? No, God's grace. You’re saved by grace, through faith. Are you saved by grace plus your works? No. Are you saved by grace plus your obedience? No. Are you saved by grace plus good intentions to do good works? No. You’re saved by grace through faith. And what does faith do? It looks away from you and it looks to the One who gives grace. Just in case you've missed this, Paul repeats, “and that not of yourselves.” So anybody thinking there might be something in you that saves you, that gets you forgiven, that gets you justified, “that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.”

He says a fourth thing here. It is the gift of God. You’re saved by gift, you’re forgiven by gift, you’re justified by gift, you’re accepted by gift, you’re adopted by gift — you don't do anything. And just in case you haven't gotten that he says it one more time in verse 9 — “not as a result of works that no one should boast.” No wonder nobody can boast in his or her salvation because we haven't contributed anything to it. Then he says in verse 10, what? “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” So good works play a role in the Christian life; they just don't play a role in our justification. Good works play a role in the Christian life; they just don't make us right with God. They are not added to God's grace to make us right with Him; they are the product of God's work in us. We are not saved by our works; we are saved for works which God prepared beforehand.

Paul says the same thing again, by the way, if you turn over to Philippians chapter 2. Look at Philippians 2, end of verse 12 — “work out your salvation” and maybe here his point is your sanctification, your growth in grace, your living of the Christian life — “work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” In other words, Paul is emphasizing grace enabled, grace dependence, discipleship and devotion. So how do you live the Christian life? By dependence or discipline? Yes. Grace dependence discipline. It doesn't justify you, it does not contribute to your justification, but it is the product of and the expression of God's work in you.

So when the disciples say, “How can we do this? You’re telling us that we can lead people astray by our lives and by our lips and You’re telling us to forgive in places that it's hard, how can we do this?” And Jesus is saying, “Do you believe Me? Do you trust Me? Do you trust that God is at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure? Do you believe that? And do you really want that? Ask Me. Ask and it will be given to you. Trust Me.” You may be thinking right now, “I just don't think I can forgive in the situation that I'm in.” And Jesus is saying to you, “Do you trust Me? Do you really want to do and be what God has called you to do and be? Ask Me. Ask and it will be given to you. Trust Me.”

You know, Augustine had a prayer that he prayed that went something like this — “Lord, command what You will and give what You command.” Pelagius hated that prayer. What Augustine meant by that is, “Lord, You can command me to do anything You want me to do as long as You’ll enable me to do it.” Because you see, sometimes in our hearts we don't really believe the promises that God has given us and we don't really want to do what He's commanded us to do. And in the face of that we pray, “Lord, command what You will but give what You command.” We live the Christian life in grace enabled, grace wrought devotion and discipline. Jesus gives the command, “Don't lead others astray, do watch out for your own souls, do forgive one another.” “But Lord, I can't do that!” “Do you trust Me? Do you believe Me? If you have that much faith, you can say to that mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea.’ Do you trust Me?”

I don't know any author in our times that has done a better job of explaining this than Jerry Bridges, and he's explained it over and over in just about every book he's written in the last twenty years. Pick up, Trusting God. That would be a great place to start. Jerry Bridges’ Trusting God. But really, you can pick up just about anything that he's written in the last twenty years and he just explains this so simply and clearly over and over. Why? Because this is so hard to get. We either want to think, “Thought about grace…there's nothing to do!” Or we want to think, “Okay, God saved me; now I've got to do the rest myself.” And neither of those is the Biblical answer as to how you live the Christian life. Jesus calls us to devotion and to discipline and to obedience but it's grace enabled devotion and discipline and obedience.

And He's teaching His disciples something about this in this passage. At least the disciples get it. They understand that there’re not four easy steps that you follow to live to Christian life. No, the things that Jesus asks you to do are, from the standpoint of our sinful, fleshly selves, absolutely impossible. But while it is true that apart from Him we can do nothing, and while it is true that without faith it is impossible to please God, it is also true that we can do all things through Him who strengthens us. And Jesus wants His disciples to know that and Jesus wants you and me to know that. Trust Him. Ask Him.

Let's pray.

Our Lord, these are easy things to say and so hard to believe, but I ask that You would help Your people not just to understand these things but to trust and live them, remembering that we have a Savior who's always helping and always loving and always guiding and always keeping us. And I pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Would you take your hymnals in hand and turn with me to number 498 and let's sing praises to the One who is a friend to sinners like you and me.

Christian, struggling to live the Christian life, receive the Lord's blessing. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.