Dealing with Habitual Sins

by John MacArthur

The following message was delivered at Grace Community Church in Panorama City, California, by John MacArthur, Jr. It was transcribed from the tape, GC 80-106, titled "Dealing with Habitual Sins." A copy of the tape can be obtained by writing, Word of Grace, P.O. Box 4000, Panorama City, CA 91412 or by dialing toll free 1-800-55-GRACE.

Tony Capoccia

Take your Bible and turn back to the text which I read earlier in Hebrews, chapter 12. As you know, this is a great and monumental Scripture; there is much here to be considered. In the brief time that we have as we anticipate sharing in the Lord's Table, I want to focus only on one phrase, just one phrase of great import -- and that phrase is found in verse one. It says, "The sin which so easily entangles us."

I want to see if we can't this morning talk about dealing with entangling sin. It is the nature of man, even the nature of a believer, to be easily entangled in sin. It happens so easily, and frankly there are certain sins which more easily entangle each of us than other ones. Each of us, in our own lives, have certain propensities for specific kinds of sins. It can be because we have in the past life cultivated habits of sin which now plague us even after our salvation. It could be because in our spiritual weakness even after becoming Christians we continued to develop habits of certain types of sin; certain specific sins that now we find more easily than others do entangle us.

It is true of every Christian that we have certain sins that easily capture us, but it is also true in general that sin easily entangles us. Not all sins are what we could call our personal entangling sins or our personal besetting sins: our personal habitual sins; the sins which we commit and then confess, and then commit again, and then confess, and then commit again, and then confess, and go on that way in our lives. Some sins fall under this category, but in general all sin seems to have sway with us. And maybe it will help you to understand why that is true if I just give you three very simple points about sin.

1. Sin has great power over our flesh.

The reason it so easily entangles us is because of its power, its strength, its force. It exerts strong influence on our will, it exerts strong influence on our emotions, it exerts strong influence on our affections. It rarely suggests things to us, it almost always commands them. It rarely leads, it most always pushes from the rear -- drives, forces. Galatians 5:17 says, "The flesh sets its desire against the Spirit. They are in opposition to one another so that you may not do the things you please." The beach head that sin has with its power is our flesh, and sin exerts tremendous power, tremendous strength against our flesh. It is a very powerful force and it finds in our flesh a very willing ally, a very receptive environment.

2. Sin easily entangles us because it is so close.

More than just forcing its way from the outside powerfully on our flesh, it forces its way on our flesh, as it were, from within us -- from within the very flesh. It is very close; in fact, it is in our being. You can become a monk and sit in a cave and you will still deal with sin. Jeremiah 13:23 says, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil." The point being: you can no more change the internal sinfulness that is a part of your life than the leopard can change his spots or the Ethiopian can change the color of his skin. It is a part of what you are. Sin is very powerful and finds a willing ally in your flesh because your flesh is fallen and your flesh itself has propensities towards sin. Sin is very close.

Your heart, says Jeremiah 17:9, "is deceitful." It "is more deceitful than everything else and is desperately sick."

There is a third component that makes sin easily entangled into our lives and that is that:

3. Sin does not remain separate but it mingles in all our motives and all our actions.

Sin is powerful. Sin is near, in that it is in us. And it isn't categorically separated. You can't draw a line and say "Well, this is where my righteousness ends and this is where my sinfulness begins." It has a way of weaving itself into the fabric of all our duties, and all our motives, and all our thoughts, and all our actions. It entangles itself with our purposes, and our plans; in fact, even your best deed. Even your best deed is not unmixed with sin. It is tangled up in our lives. In Romans 7, Paul cries out, "Oh, wretched man that I am!" Why? Because no matter how I try, I cannot disentangle myself from sin.

So sin is powerful, and sin is near -- even within us, and sin does not separate itself but is mingled into everything. It is interwoven with everything in our lives. The best that we do is somehow corrupted in some way -- large or small by a taint of self-will, or self-pleasure, or self- aggrandizement, or self-righteousness, or self-gain, or whatever. And so we become easily entangled, and as I said, there are certain sins that more easily entangle us, each of us, than others do. But if we are going to be the kind of Christians God would want us to be this verse says, "Let us lay aside the sin which so easily entangles us." Put it aside; put it away.

Now the question comes, "How do we do that?" It is not the first time we have been commanded to do that:

2 Corinthians 7:1 says, "Let us cleanse ourselves of all filthiness of the flesh."

Ephesians 4:22 says, "Laying aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit."

Romans 6:12 says, "Don't let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts."

1 Peter 2:1 says, "Lay aside all evil." Verse 11, "Abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul."

So we are very often told to set this aside. The question comes, "How do we do that?" From a practical standpoint we know, yes, it is the work of the Spirit and if you walk in the Spirit you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. We give all the credit for this to the divine Holy Spirit and yet there is a responsibility that is ours as we yield to the Spirit. How can I lay this aside? Before I answer that question let me suggest to you that this is an appropriate moment to be discussing this.

I suppose that it would be typical for many Christians, if not most, to come to the Lord's Table and confess their sins, in order that they might partake of this table and not bring judgment upon themselves as Paul warned us. So we tend to come here, perhaps, with our accumulated sin from the last time that we had communion, or the last time we seriously confessed our sin, but with really very little change in the pattern of sinning; and that's because while we want to confess our sins and have the confidence that He is faithful and just to forgive them, we don't take the steps, the necessary steps to so live that every time we come there is a decreased load of sin -- the list is a little shorter because we're dealing with it on a day to day basis. We are laying it aside; we are not just accumulating it at the same rate, dumping it all, as it were, on Christ, receiving His forgiveness in those great moments of confession, but seeing no diminishing pattern of sin in the day to day routine of our life.

So let us then, this day as we come to unburden ourselves of the accumulated sin and confess it and make our hearts right with God, also make a covenant, also make steps of commitment to start out a new pattern of life in which we will take strides, take the necessary strides to lay sin aside. A preventative act, not simply a remedial act of confession. Let me give you some principles that will assist you in laying aside sin.

1. Don't underestimate the seriousness of your sin.

I think the major reason we don't deal with sin strongly and firmly is because we underestimate its seriousness -- to God, to us, to those with whom we fellowship, to the church, to the unbelievers. Our sin steals joy; our sin ruins fellowship with God; our sin diminishes fruitfulness; our sin robs us of peace; our sin renders our service useless; our sin mitigates against our effectiveness in evangelism; our sin hinders our prayers; our sin brings the discipline of God. We need to understand the seriousness of our sin. It violates first and foremost our relationship with the Lord.

One of the most tragic days in the history of England was August 17, 1662. A tragic day because it was the last day for certain pastors to be able to preach to their congregations before they were exiled. Some of them lost their lives, some of them were exiled out of England to other countries. What precipitated this was something called the Act of Conformity. Through the years there had been developing in England a group of preachers and a group of churches that were called Non-conformists because they did not subscribe to all of the ritual and ceremony of the Church of England, nor did they confine their worship to the Book of Common Prayer. They were more concerned about Biblical Christianity; they were more concerned about teaching proper doctrine; they were more concerned about worshiping God in Spirit and in Truth and so they were known as Non-conformists. Many of you would know them as Puritans.

They did not conform to the strictures of the Church of England, which of course had neglected the Word of God and the gospel for the most part, and so a law was passed making them illegal. Twenty-five hundred of their ministers were exiled -- forbidden to preach. Three-thousand non-conformists were killed and 60,000 families were disrupted. It all came to focus on August 17, 1662 because that was the last Sunday when these Non-conformist preachers could preach in their churches. For the last two weeks I have been reading a book called "Farewell Sermons." It is a compilation of 24 of the sermons preached on that day. Sermons from a pastor who would never see his people again: some of them died in exile; some of them later came back. But this was the end of their ministry and this terrible, terrible thing was being done, this terrible act of persecution and they were being dispossessed. The churches were losing them as their pastors; there was going to be none to replace them and they were being shipped off to exile.

It is very interesting to see their approach, to hear their sermons, to see and hear what was really on their hearts. None of the sermons which I have read so far were self serving. None of them condemned, really, the government for what it did. None of them were vengeful or retaliatory. There was a common thread in all of them. All of them sort of were along this line: "This is the will of God. We accept the will of God. We gladly suffer with Christ and our greatest concern is what happens to you."

One of the sermons struck me as extremely powerful, preached by a man named Calamy. He made one statement in this sermon that struck me; he said to his people, "You have experienced a calamity. This is a calamitous thing; this is a calamitous event," but then he said this, "There is more evil in the least sin than in the greatest calamity." "There is more evil in the least sin than in the greatest calamity." Then he later said, "There is more evil in the least sin then in the greatest misery." That is profound.

You look at your life and generally speaking you are distressed about your calamities and you are distressed about your miseries, but you are tolerant about your sins. You do not understand what that man understood: "There is more evil in the least sin than the greatest calamity." A calamity, a certain misery is not necessarily sin. Sin is sin. Treat your sin seriously -- it dishonors God; it abuses mercy; it despises grace; it presumes on forgiveness; it defiles worship, service, and fellowship. It stains, and taints, and poisons, and destroys everything good and holy.

Secondly, another principle that is necessarily understood if you are to lay aside sin:

2. Strongly purpose and promise God not to sin.

Take a solemn vow and say, "God, I do not want to sin. I don't want to break Your law, I don't want to grieve Your Spirit, I don't want to dishonor the Name of Your Son which I bear." The Psalmist did that in Psalm 119:106, "I have sworn, and I will confirm it, that I will keep Thy righteous ordinances." Unless you have that kind of resolution in your life, you will find it more easy to be entangled by sin. In fact, I believe that it is that kind of heart purpose, it is that kind of bold affirmation that is at the root of all holy living, and until you make that kind of conscious commitment to the Lord, you are going to battle the same things over and over and be defeated.

There is a great verse, verse 32, in the same Psalm, Psalm 119, "I shall run the way of Thy commandments, for Thou will enlarge my heart." It is a very beautiful picture, "I shall run the way of Thy commandments, for Thou will enlarge my heart." What it means is, I am going to run in the way of obedience because I have a heart to do that. It starts in the heart. It is like a runner -- very good illustration. A great runner, a long-distance runner, an endurance runner, a marathoner, very often has an enlarged heart muscle because of the tremendous development of his running ability and the strengthening of his heart to keep pumping all that is needed to that body as it pushes itself beyond normal limits. A great runner can run the way he runs because his heart is enlarged, and the Psalmist is saying, "I will run in the way of Your commandments because You have enlarged my heart. You have given me a heart for obedience." That's the kind of purpose that is absolutely essential.

There is a great difference, you see, between sin dwelling in us, and sin entertained by us. There is a great difference between sin remaining, and sin harbored, or sin preserved. To lay aside sin means to purpose and promise God to obey -- a firm promise. I promise You, I will obey You!

There is a third component in this kind of commitment to lay aside sin, and it is this:

3. Be suspicious of your own spirituality.

Paul said it this way, "Let the one who stands take heed lest he fall." Job 31:1, Job says, "I made a covenant with my eyes; how then can I gaze on a virgin?" He said, I have got to be careful where I look because I don't trust myself. I got to start with what I see because I don't trust myself. Proverbs 4:23 says, "Watch over your heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life." There is a certain watchfulness; you have to be watching for sin's subtle movements within your own supposed spirituality. Your heart is as I noted -- desperately wicked, very deceitful, and Satan is desperately wicked and very deceitful. The seducing motions of your own heart can sometimes rise out of the moments of your most supposed spirituality. Be suspicious of your own spirituality -- don't trust it. Understand that except for the grace of God you would fall into any and every sin -- and you can be deceived so easily.

4. Resist the first risings of the flesh and its pleasures.

Don't try to stop the process near the end; stop it near the beginning. James notes for us a certain process: people are tempted when they are carried away and enticed by their own lusts, "Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin." Well, you want to stop it at the point of conception -- not try to stop it at the point of birth. You want to stop sin at conception, not after it has been conceived and run through a certain period of pregnancy (if you will) and now is about to give birth to the sin. You don't try to stop it at that point. You resist and oppose the first risings of the flesh and it's pleasures. Sin comes to you promising pleasure. You remember at the very outset: my goal is not to please myself, but to please the Lord.

There is a fifth principle in this and that is:

5. Meditate on the Word.

There is a wonderful verse, verse 31 of Psalm 37, you probably should write this down. Psalm 37:31; it is a bit more obscure than some, but it really is very, very important. Listen to what it says, "The law of his God is in his heart; his steps do not slip." When a heart is controlled by the Word, the steps don't slip. Another more familiar text dealing with this, and a wonderful one at that, is Psalm 119; and you remember that that Psalm begins in the very first part of those 176 verses with these words, down in verse 9 of Psalm 119, "How can a young man keep his way pure?" How can you lay aside sin? How can you win this battle? "By keeping it according to Thy word." By guarding it with Scripture.

It is the constant input of the Word of God that begins to fill up the mind and control the thinking, and that alone becomes the strength and resource in us that can resist the initial impulses of the flesh. "How can a young man keep his way pure?" By keeping his heart completely committed and guarded by the Word of God. Then in verse 10, "With all my heart I have sought Thee; do not let me wander from Thy commandments. Thy word I have treasured (or hid, or kept) in my heart that I may not sin against Thee." It is the Scripture that must be meditated on.

Meditate on the Word of God. You are always studying the Word, studying the Word, learning the Word, learning the Word, meditating on the Word as you get the Word -- so filling you up so that it, "Dwells in you richly," (Colossians 3:16). You will find that it controls you. And as you start into some kind of attitude of sin or some kind of act of sin, the Word of God will act as a restraint. When you feel the impulse of the truth you know, meditate on that, not on the enticings of the flesh and its pleasures. So watch for sin's subtleties and don't trust your own spirituality. Resist and oppose the first risings of the flesh and its desires to please itself, and meditate on the Word -- the ingrafted Word, which is able to save your souls.

6. Be immediately repentant over your lapses.

It says in Matthew 26:75, that Peter, having obviously been aware of his sin at the crowing of the cock, "Went out and wept bitterly." There is something very admiral in that. We castigate, and rightly so, Peter for his defection, but we must also honor and respect him for his immediate -- his immediate remorse. Be immediately repentant over your lapses and go back to the place of confession. Repentance isn't only saying, "I'm sorry Lord, forgive me." It is saying, "I'm sorry Lord, forgive me, and I don't want to ever do that again." That's the stuff of real repentance. If that third element isn't there then you're not fooling God about the genuineness or lack of genuineness.

When you confess your sins and when you say, "I'm sorry I did that, please forgive me -- I don't ever want to do it again," name it -- name it specifically. Let your own heart and even your own ears hear the naming of that sin, so that you develop in your heart a high degree of accountability with God for having named the very sin for which He is holding you accountable not to commit again. That's how you develop accountability; that's how you develop the fear of God. If you hold back from naming your sin, it's because you want to do that again; and it is bad enough to sin without having to be responsible for telling God you didn't want to do it and defying what you told Him. So you would rather sin only once, rather than twice; that's why you don't want to name your sin. Then you're guilty not only of sinning again but of being hypocritical before God.

True repentance will name the sin; specifically name the sin. Be immediately repentant over your lapses.

7. Continually pray for divine help.

Ephesians 6:18, after all the armor is put on and the battle against Satan and demons, after all of the warfare has been set and the battle is engaged against Satan and all of his forces, he says, "Praying always, with all prayer and supplication." Jesus said to His disciples, "Watch and pray for you know not when you are going to enter into the hour of temptation." "Devote yourself to prayer," (Colossians 4:2) "being alert in it." Don't fight the enemy on your own. When you engage the enemy -- pray, plead with help.

But even in a preliminary sense, I really think anticipatory prayer is the most effective. You need to start your day, "Lord, this is the way you taught us to pray, 'Lead us not into ...'" What? "'temptation and deliver us from evil.' Lord, please, today lead me away from temptation -- please, today Lord, deliver me from evil." You need to set the course of your prayers before the tempter arrives, before the flesh begins to rise and entice.

8. Establish relationships with other believers that hold you accountable.

"Bear you one another's burdens," says Paul in Galatians 6, "and so fulfill the law of Christ." We are all in the same boat folks. We all struggle the same way and we need each other. "If a man is caught in a "paraptoma" (a fall; a sin; a trespass), you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Each one look into yourself, lest you to be tempted. Bear one another's burdens." We are all in this together. It might be you going down this time; it might be me going down next time, but between the two of us, we are going to hold ourselves accountable for holy living. By the way, that is in my judgment, the greatest factor in a Christian marriage -- is the intense, and intimate, and spiritual accountability with regard to sin that exists at that level. That is a very, very important reason for Christian marriage.

I believe that there ought to be in every single sense a high level of spiritual accountability between a husband and a wife for every aspect of their life in that marriage. The most intimate knowledge of my spiritual life, apart from God Himself, is in the mind and heart of my wife. The most intimate knowledge of her spiritual life and her struggle as a Christian, apart from God Himself, is in my mind and heart. We know each other better than anybody in the world knows us. Therein lies the highest level of spiritual accountability -- for me and for her. No one apart from God Himself holds me as accountable for what I am before you and before the Lord as she does, and vice versa, and that is what makes a Christian marriage really Christian and really distinctive.

That's the highest level of accountability. But beyond that there are other relationships in which you engage that can be very, very strengthening for your own spiritual life. You want people around you who lift you up, not people around you who pull you down. You want people around, associated with you as friends and close co-workers, who will see your failures just like you will see theirs, love you in the process and lift you up and demand of you the highest standards.

How are you going to come to the place where you lay aside the sin that so easily entangles you, and especially those besetting sins which you tend to fall into over and over again? First of all, realize sin is powerful. It is near, even in you and it is intertwined with everything in your being. And in order to deal with it you must understand its seriousness; you must promise God not to sin; you must watch carefully for your own spiritual weaknesses; don't trust your spirituality. You must resist the first risings of sin in the flesh; you must meditate on the Word; you must be repentant immediately for the lapses that come; you must continue in prayer and dependence on God's power and establish intimate relationships of spiritual accountability.

I would say that there is no better place to start this kind of life pattern than right here at the Lord's Table. We are here not only to unload the burden of sin we've accumulated for which we will be forgiven, but I hope we are here to start afresh in the new course that's going to bring us back here next time with a lighter load and a shorter list. Maybe the sum of it all is found here in Hebrews, chapter 12, in those wonderful and magnificent words, verse 2, "Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith." Listen, He is one who in His striving against sin never fell. "He was in all points tempted like as we are, yet He was without sin." He never fell, He never succumbed; so, if you are going to look at somebody as a model -- look at Him. He was striving with sin even to death and never fell. He's our model; He's our example.

So we are here to remember His death; we're here to ask His forgiveness, and we're here to ask Him again, to be our example as we lay aside our sin and fix our eyes on Him to follow the path of victory over the sin that easily entangles us.

Let's bow together in prayer. Father, we thank you again that your Word speaks so pointedly and powerfully and directly to our hearts. We thank you that you have given us the resident Holy Spirit who can enable us to be obedient when we otherwise would not have the strength. Help us this morning to make the vows that we've learned about as we've considered entangling sin and how to deal with it. Help us to take these steps so that we can pursue the path of holiness and not need to be disciplined as often, so that we cannot miss the joy and the peace that should be ours, and the usefulness, and the worship, and fellowship, and ministry.

Now, as we come to this table we pray that as we think of the bread and the cup, we will remember what a price that our Lord paid for our sin. And we will take it seriously, as you do. We come to confess our sin and to renew our covenant to lay sin aside and to walk in a holy way. We now confess our sins, all of them, and ask you to wash us and make us clean. Forgive us every sin -- known and unknown -- every sin. Help us Lord not to do them again, but to walk in obedience. Amen.

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