Pr Samuel Goh
Message at the Friday Night Prayer Meeting, 26 May 2023
You absolutely need God because you have sin in you. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Noah was drunk. Abraham and Isaac lied. Simeon and Levi massacred a city. Judah did not keep his promise and engaged the service of a prostitute. David committed adultery and murder, and took pride in the size of his army. Solomon had multiple wives, and Peter denied the Lord thrice.
We Are All Sinners
When we read of the sins of the saints in the Bible, we think that no one is perfect, all are sinners, and we are saved only by the grace of God. And you are right. However, when other Christians sin against you repeatedly, will you let it slide to say after all we are sinners saved by grace alone, or will you say, how can Christians behave in such a way? How can Christians be like that?
We see a tension that on the one hand all are sinners, and on the other hand Christians are not supposed to live in sin, to live under the dominion of sin or to let sin control them. We know that Christians can sin and do sin, but the unbroken pattern of sin may indicate that they are under the dominion of sin. Meaning, they have not been born again.
But do you know why Christians still sin even when they can keep themselves from sinning? Sins are symptomatic of a greater problem. Your sins and my sins may not be decisively indicative of our salvation but it is definitely indicative that we are not living with God. Trials and temptations do have pedagogical or teaching value. It is to expose our sins and imperfections. However, if we do not care to identify points of failures, weak spots, loopholes to improve upon, then their value is diminished. Yes, we are still humbled by our sins and repeated failures, even egregious sins, but if we do not learn from our failures, we will continue to commit the same sin over and over again.
We Need God and His Word
Yes, we know that we all need God to be saved, but for day to day holy living, do you see your absolute need of God? On examination yes. In practice yes, mainly in critical times. In the ordinary daily mundane life, it is often no.
Bible-emphasising churches tend to divorce God from the Bible, while Spirit-emphasising churches tend to divorce the Bible from God. When you divorce something, it means that you do not want something. While we praise God that we uphold and emphasise the Bible, we must not neglect our dependence on the Spirit. We may regularly attend meetings and services where the Bible is taught. We may read the Bible but being a Christian is more than that.
You need God to overcome any one sin and any one temptation. You also need God in every temptation. And more importantly, you need God to transform you. In the spiritual warfare with sin, the dimension of worship is often not in view. If we limit it to our sins and temptations, it is always about ourselves whether we obey or disobey. But with the dimension of worship, it is all about God. It is not about me, my performance, my sins, my obedience. It is as John the Baptist says, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Your love for God must motivate you to see your need of God. The Psalmist prayed, “Incline my heart unto thy testimonies, and not to covetousness” (Ps 119:36) because he loves God and knows the goal. The goal is holiness, to be holy as God is holy. To love the things God loves, to hate the things God hates, to think God’s thoughts after Him.
Supposing you can change yourself, will you need God? You will just do it. The psalmist prays, “incline my heart.” In the verse before, he prays, “make me to go” as though his feet are not functioning. In the verse after, he prays, “turn away mine eyes” as though he cannot shut his eyes or turn his head to look elsewhere. He is not a person with physical disabilities. He is presenting the spiritual reality he is experiencing. He sees his need of God to make him disposed towards God’s words. John Calvin says, “Were we naturally and spontaneously inclined to the righteousness of the law, there would be no occasion for the petition of the Psalmist, ‘Incline my heart.’”
We cannot transform or reform ourselves. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (Jer 13:23). Even though we are born again, with the holy nature in us, we cannot transform ourselves without God. The psalmist is a believer. He takes a delight in God’s law (Ps 119:35). But delight alone does not give him the power to follow God. One commentator says, “Warm as that delight may be, circumstances and flesh will cool it, and it is ever a struggle to translate desires into deeds.” In Romans 12:2, Paul commands us to be transformed. Paul did not say transform yourselves, but “be ye transformed.” This indicates that we need an external agent to transform us. We are incapable of transforming ourselves. It is common for Christians to think they can transform themselves by doing. They confuse spiritual growth with the mere accumulation of Bible knowledge.
Reading the Bible Alone Is Not Enough
But information alone is not transformation. That is why you need God to transform you. The psalmist knows that God’s words are good for him that he wants his heart to be inclined towards God’s testimonies. This assumes a knowledge of God’s words. It is not that reading the Bible is not necessary but that reading the Bible alone is not enough. How do you produce a wooden furniture? You need wood and a carpenter. You have a carpenter, but without wood he cannot produce a piece of furniture. If you have wood but no carpenter, the wood cannot transform itself into a piece of furniture. You need both. The psalmist understands that being a Christian is more than having propositional truths of God, of the Bible. It is about knowing God personally, relationally, experientially. He knows that eternal life is to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent. It is not just propositional knowledge, but intimate relational knowledge of God. He did not divorce the Bible from God because he prayed to be inclined to God’s testimonies. For what you may ask. It is to keep the law according to the spirit of the law.
Psalm 119:33–34 says, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of thy statutes; and I shall keep it unto the end. Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart.” 1 Kings 8:57–58 tells us the Agent who can incline our hearts to God and the purpose for inclining our hearts to God, “The LORD our God be with us, as he was with our fathers: let him not leave us, nor forsake us: That he may incline our hearts unto him, to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and his statutes, and his judgments, which he commanded our fathers.” The psalmist did not rest content with knowing God’s words. He wants to walk in God’s ways. He wants to obey God. He also needs the power to obey God’s Words. Power without desire leads to inactivity—no action taken. Desire without power leads to empty talk or failed attempts. We need both the power to obey and the desire for God’s words to obey God. We want to obey God successfully, as perfectly as possible. Albeit our obedience is not meritorious as though ours replace Christ’s obedience, but we obey to overcome temptation, to love others, to please God, to bring God glory.
If you have ever worked in a rigid organisation like the military, you would soon find that not everyone agrees with the rules. More often than not, the people obey the rules not because they love the rules or the leaders who set the rules but because they have no choice—their year-end bonus is at stake. They are not bothered about whether they like the rules or not as long as they are not affected. Christians however are not like the world. The law does not hang over our heads since our salvation is secured by Christ. We have a higher motivation. We are changed by God and have the bias after God’s own heart. The issue then is to live according to this new life in the reality of Christ.
Seek God’s Presence and Blessing
Read your Bible and seek God’s presence and blessing each time you read your Bible. God must be present to bless, or else the mere reading or studying of the Bible will not profit you. This is why you profoundly need God. Your Christian life depends on Him. Jesus in John 15 commands you to abide in Him and He in you if you want to bear fruit. The outward attachment, association or external identification with Jesus will not help you bear fruit if you do not receive His life-giving sap as fruit-bearing branches do from the vine. Paul said, “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (1 Cor 3:6–7). Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (John 17:17).
The psalmist in Psalm 119:36 singles out “covetousness”. The word “covetousness” (betsa ’) can be translated as “dishonest gain” or “unjust gain.” Covetousness is an evil desire within that seeks to possess more than or beyond what is God’s will for you. It could be the objects you covet are forbidden. It could be the means to which you obtain the coveted object that is forbidden. It could be both the means and the objects are forbidden. Of covetousness, Matthew Poole said, “This lust is most spreading and universal, and there is scarce any man who doth not desire riches either for the love of riches, or upon pretence of necessity, or for the service of pride or luxury, or some other lust.”
Covetousness is a hidden sin. People think it is fine to entertain covetousness, but not to the psalmist. The psalmist is acutely aware of his natural propensity to sin. We do not know the extent of covetousness he had, but it is enough to disturb him and cause him to pray. Sin is a monster that must be overcome, that must be defeated. On our own strength, we cannot defeat sin and that is why we need God. That is why the psalmist also prays, “Incline my heart… not to covetousness.”
In summary, you absolutely need God because you cannot change yourself for the better. Information is not transformation. You need God to transform you with His Word. You also need God because of sin in you. Sin draws us away from God; it also distracts us from following God.
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