2010 Ligonier Pastors Conference - Steven Lawson (IV)
In his lecture titled “Respectable Sins,” Dr. Steven Lawson, senior pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala. and teaching fellow for Ligonier, speaks about subtle sins that can often be overlooked in ministry.
Before looking at specific “respectable sins,” Dr. Lawson began his lecture by looking at what the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy in 2 Tim. 2:20–23:
Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.
These words are a call to personal holiness, not only for Timothy but for the entire body of Christ. In these verses, Paul compares the church to a large house, in which there are many utensils or vessels. Some vessels are useful for the master — some are not. Not all are the same. There are vessels that are less noble, they are wood and are earthenware. And the purposes they serve are to take out trash. Paul then makes this application about the honorable vessels: they must be clean, pure, sanctified if they are to be ready for every good work.
Our own godliness must be more important than our own giftedness. We must be personally involved in holiness if we are to call others to holiness, otherwise we become like the Pharisees and are “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). It must begin with us. It must begin with the elders. The congregation will not grow more than their leaders. We must pursue personal holiness. As Robert Murray McCheyne once remarked, “The greatest need of my congregation is my own personal holiness.”
In his book, Respectable Sins, Jerry Bridges speaks about how Christians have so preoccupied themselves with the major sins of society that we have lost our need to deal with our own more subtle sins. Bridges list the following as those subtle or “respectable sins” that we can so easily overlook: ungodliness, anxiety and frustration, discontentment, unthankfulness, pride, selfishness, lack of self-control, impatience and irritability, anger, judgmentalism, envy and jealousy, sins of the tongue, and worldliness. During this lecture, Dr. Lawson focused on discontentment, impatience, envy, and sins of the tongue.
Discontentment can be marked by severe frustration, dissatisfaction which can lead us to fanaticize about how much better it might be to serve the Lord some where else or under different circumstances. But if God has placed us where we are, we need to be content in giving ourselves where we are.
When in prison in Rome, Paul speaks to the church in Philippi about contentment: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Phil. 4:11). Note that Paul says that he has “learned” to be content. This is not something that we are naturally inclined to, but Paul while he is in chains, thinking that he will likely go before Nero (often called “the madman”), he writes of his learning to be content and then calls others to be content in their given situation and circumstances. This word for “content” carries with it the idea of “having enough” or “sufficient.” In helping to describe the word, one ancient writer points to a country that needed no other country or nation to supply its needs. Likewise, it’s important to recognize that when we put our trust in the Lord, there is a sufficiency that comes with being a believer. True contentment cannot be found in this world, but only in Christ.
Notice what Paul says in verse 12: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Whatever secret Paul has discovered, this is what we need to discover. This verse covers the full spectrum of ministry “brought low…abound…plenty…hunger…abundance…need” (v. 12). In any and every circumstance in ministry or life, Paul says that he has found the secret to being content. We will be jerked in every direction, but if we cling to the sufficiency that is found in the Lord Jesus Christ alone, we can be in prison and still be content.
Looking at verse 13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Paul has learned the secret of being content in all things. It is a respectable sin to walk in the flesh and to lean on our own understand, rather than submitting to Christ who gives us strength. We see this when we look at Peter walking on water in Matthew 14:28–33. Peter looks at the Lord and is doing well, then Peter cast his eyes on the waves crashing around him and begins to sink. We need to keep our eyes on Jesus (Heb 12:1–2). We need this resolve, knowing that the Lord has put us in this place for His good purposes no matter the waves that may crash around.
So it is contentment that we need in ministry (1 Tim. 6:8; 2 Cor. 12:10; 1 Tim 6:6). Contentment is realized when we put our trust in the Lord. Discontentment happens when we are not trusting in the Lord’s providence.
This is a sin by which we fail to wait upon God and God’s perfect timing. It causes us to become restless when we are waiting on God’s response or God to react. Abraham became impatient with God and has Ishmael, when he should have waited for Isaac. The Children of God became impatient in the wilderness, and thus rebelled against God (Ex. 16:3).
Isaiah 40:31 emboldens us to wait upon the LORD: “they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” This waiting literally means to “hope in the LORD.” Those who wait patiently for God’s perfect timing, and those who wait and not react impulsively will gain new strength. The idea is exchanging our weakness for His strength. Conversely, those who are impatient with the Lord will wear out and be weakened. The language here is emphatic, meaning “they and they alone” will be the ones who shall run and not get tired and shall mount up with wings like eagles.
It should be known by now that God is not in a hurry to get things done, and that God can do more in five minutes than man can do in 50 years. It is a sin to be impatient with elders, with staff, and with where we are in life. This is not a pass for mediocrity; conversely, it is those who are patient that will mount up with wings like eagles.
It is a respectable sin to be impatient. Patience is the ability to wait for the Lord and keep His way (Ps. 27:14; 37:34; 37:7; Gal. 5:22).
Envy and discontentment go hand and hand — it is a resentful discontentment. It is the feeling of displeasure when hearing of the prosperity of others. John MacArthur has put it this way: “The envious person cannot be satisfied with what he has and always wants more.” Titus 3:3 says, “ Gal 5:21 “evny is on of the “
How does envy relate to ministry? For Paul, we read in Philippians 1:15 that “some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.” Interested in their own self-advancement, these that Paul speaks of were preaching Christ, but from envy and rivalry. We tend to first envy those we are closest too for those attributes we most desire. We must root out envy with radical repentance. When envy moves in, our appetite for the Word moves out.
Sins of the Tongue
With the divine calling of pastors to use the tongue, James gives writes to us that “not many of you should become teachers…for you know that we who teach will be judge with greater strictness” (James 3:1). There will be a greater strictness with how we use our tongues in our ministry. Ephesians 4:29 reads, “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” When Paul says “let no corrupting talk” this means unwholesome or foul. It was used in this day to describe rotten food. Paul is not saying a little bit of corrupt talk is okay. He is saying that no corrupt talk come out of our mouths. The next verse is crucial: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (v. 30), for when we use our tongue in an unwholesome manner we greave the Holy Spirit of God. We must take care to use our tongues only to build up and edify the church.
Similarly, Ephesians 5:4 reads, “let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” There ought not to be silly, foolish, stupid or dirty talk.
We must use our tongues to speak to those who are down trodden and build them up. Let’s be those that use our mouths to promote holiness and spread godliness. Let us not only pay attention to the substance of our words but the tone and trajectory.
These are just some of the respectable sins that we deal with. We need to be confessing them when we commit them and turn in a different direction.
As we consider the state of our heart and our souls, let us close by looking to how David concludes Psalm 139:23–24:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
David is crying out because he knows only God can truly know his own heart, and only He can reveal David’s heart perfectly. So David pleads to the Lord: explore my heart and bring it out in the open so that I can deal with my heart, because I know that you will only use something that is clean and pure, and holy, and you will only pick up a clean vessel. David wants to be used for honor and not be a vessel put aside because it has only dishonorable use.
“The everlasting way” in this Psalm is the narrow path of holiness and sanctification. May we be instruments that are pure, clean, and being sanctified by the Word of God.
In the end, there are no respectable sins, for it is sin that ultimately lead Jesus Christ to the cross. The greatest need for our own flocks and congregations is our own holiness.