Taking Every Thought Captive

As a follow-up to our last post, here are a couple of examples from my own experience to help us understand the difference between temptation and sin.  But first, let’s be reminded of the temptation-to-sin progression from James chapter 1.

“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.  But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.  Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished it brings forth death” (James 1:13-15).

Let’s say that you are sitting in a Monday morning staff meeting.  And everyone is taking their turn reporting on what they accomplished last week.  How many sales calls, how many deals closed, how many call backs, etc.  For you personally, it has been a terrible week.  You have literally accomplished nothing for various reasons, one of which might be your own lack of initiative.

So you begin to say to yourself, “Well, I am going to have to make up a pretty good story about what I got done last week.  In fact, I wonder if our managers ever follow up on what we claim was done.  Because, when it is my turn to report, I really am going to have to outright lie to get out of this spot I am in.”

Or how about this scenario?  You are working on your tax return.  You realize that, “Hey, if I just move this decimal point over a couple of places, I can claim an additional $100.00 in my refund that is actually not due me.  But how can they ever find an error this small?  Plus, the IRS has bigger cheaters to be looking for.  I think I could get away with this one.  I think I could get an extra 100 dollars in my pocket for free.”

In both cases, you are now at the fork in the road where God is waiting to meet you.  Are you going to continue down the temptation road until sin is accomplished and lie about your week’s activities or cheat on your income taxes?  Or are you ready to hear from the Lord that lying is not who you are, cheating is not who you are?  Are you ready to turn your back on these temptations and tell the whole truth, enter the correct numbers?  The choice is in your hands.  And the power to make the righteous choice is in your being, through Christ living His resurrected and righteous life in you.  The choice is yours.

So far these have been a temptation, but you are on a path where sin is just around the corner.  This is where I believe taking every thought captive comes in.  “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (II Cor 10:5).

We have been erroneously taught that “taking every thought captive” means we do not even have these thoughts to sin, these temptations in our minds.  Somehow we block them out through I don’t know what.  Will power?  Self-discipline?  To not have these thoughts, to not face these temptations, you would have to not be in this world.  If we see these initial thoughts as sin, we will always feel defeated in life because these temptations are inevitable, they are part of being human.

I believe taking every thought captive starts after those thoughts to sin come flooding into our brain.  God has given us the power over sin to capture those thoughts before they turn into sinful actions.  We can capture them.  We can bury them.  We can overcome and resist the temptations by the power of Christ living His live in us.  What does the passage say?  “Taking these thoughts captive leads us to obey Christ.”  Obedience is what the new you is designed for.  This is who you are!

Temptation or Sin?

One of the most persistent questions I receive when I explain our new righteous identity to friends is this, “How do I reconcile my label of righteous and saintly with my experience of sin.  That is, if holiness is my new default mode, why is sin the first thing that crosses my mind when I face a moral situation?”  Let me give you a small example, recently shared with me by a friend.

My friend was in the produce section of the local grocery store when she noticed an unattended cart complete with an open purse and wallet sitting on top.  Her first thought was, “I could take that wallet and no one would know.  I think I could get away with it.”  Her question to me was, “If my new nature is so powerful, why is this my first reaction?”  A legitimate question.  My response to her was a question in return.  “What did you do?  Did you take the wallet?”  She answered, “Of course not.  In fact, I stood close by making sure no one else took it until the customer returned to her cart.”  So was the thought sinful, but the action holy?

Based on the biblical progression of sin, I believe the first thought was not a sin at all, but only a temptation.  What we do next in reaction to that thought is either a holy response or a sin.  My friend’s first thought to steal the wallet was a temptation.  The decision to stand guard over the wallet was a holy response.

The Bible explains it this way.  “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.  But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.  Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished it brings forth death” (James 1:13-15).

Do you see the progression?  This is so important to understand.  The temptation is not sin.  The first thought is not sin.  It has been drilled into us – due to a misapplication of Jesus’ words about sinning in our minds – that thinking these thoughts is a sin.  But that is not the case.

According to these verses, the enticement brought by our own evil desires is a temptation, not a sin.  Sin is what we do next with the temptation.  When we resist the temptation, all is well.  Is there is a path where temptation does lead to sin?  Yes, and it comes when we fertilize, rather than resist, the temptation.  James calls it “lust has conceived”.  And what happens when lust has been fertilized and conceived?  A birth comes next.  In this case, the birth or bringing forth of sin.  When lust has conceived, it brings forth sin.  Conception, not just enticement, is required for sin to occur.  It is following the temptation with a sinful action.

But Christ has given us, in our new identity, in our new “Christ living His resurrected life through us”, the power to resist the temptation.  When we walk by the Spirit, we are making choices in line with our new identity, in line with the Holy Spirit who indwells us, and “we will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16).  We will not succumb to the temptations of the flesh.

This distinction between temptation and sin is so crucial to understanding how we experience our incredible freedom in Christ, our freedom from the power of sin.  If you think of these initial thoughts as sin, you will feel discouraged and weighed down and view yourself as a sinner.  You will have difficulty seeing yourself as a saint with the resurrection power of Jesus inside you.  But if you see these reactions for what they are; temptations that you have the power to resist, you will experience the power and the joy of the Christian life.

Entering God’s Rest

We have been writing about the almost too good to be true grace of God.  Grace that not only is the door by which we enter the kingdom, but grace that is also the pathway where we live, move, and thrive in the kingdom.  And just like no work-to-earn in entering the kingdom, there is no work-to-earn once inside the kingdom; inside living the Christian life.  Religion demands “work”.  Grace demands “rest”.

In the book of Hebrews, the author gives a long explanation of the believer’s rest – in the here and now, not a future heaven.  Rest is the present promise of God to His children.  And He compares you and I entering His rest today to the Israelites entering the promised land many years ago.

This is what God says about the Israelites turning their back on God’s promise on the doorstep of Canaan.  “And with whom was God angry for forty years?  Was it not those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?  And to whom did He swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient?  And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief” (Heb 3:17-19).

Unbelief, a lack of faith, kept the children of Israel out of the promised land for forty years.  No other enemies would have been able to accomplish this.  This promised land, this place of rest, is a picture of the rest that Christ intends for us to walk in today.  And we enter that rest by faith.

The expectation that God had for Israel was to enter the land by faith.  Likewise, we too are invited to enter God’s rest by faith.   We live the Christian life the same way we entered the Christian life; by faith.  We live by believing all the promises of God; all the promises of a new birth, a new identity, a new heart, a new Spirit, a new nature, a new self, a new freedom, a new power over sin, and so much more.  And in living this life, in living into these promises, our faith overrules any attempts to work-to-earn God’s favor.

This comparison between Israel and us continues in the book of Hebrews into chapter 4 and in reference to us God declares,  “There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God.  For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His.  Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest” (Heb 4:9-11).

If there is any “work” to be done, it is this.  Make every effort to enter God’s rest.  Various Bible translations give the last sentence as “Let us strive to enter that rest” (ESV), “Let us make every effort to enter that rest” (NIV), “Let us be diligent to enter that rest” (NASB), “Let us labor to enter that rest” (KJV).  How do labor and rest go together?  They sound a little bit like opposites.

God’s rest is free.  God’s rest is a gift of grace.  But according to Hebrews 4, we don’t just fall into it.  I know it sounds like a paradox, but there is “work” required from us to enter His rest.  The “work” is our faith.  And in its shortest explanation, we enter that rest by believing and allowing Jesus to live His promised resurrected life through us.

The rest of God is leaning into the abundant life He promised us.  And it is exactly where He intends us to live.  It is peace.  It is joy.  It is purpose.  It is love for one another.  It is service.  It is pro-active.  And it takes diligence, effort, striving, and labor to enter His rest.

But that striving is not self-effort.  And here is the beauty.  The very Spirit of God lives in you.  The very Spirit of God empowers you.  The very Spirit of God is the wind in your effort.  And this wind that carries us along leads us to rest and ultimately to freedom.  For in God’s rest, we find freedom from shame, guilt, fear, worry, insecurity, pride, and so much more.

So stop striving for position, for knowledge, for acclaim, for religious performance, for self-righteousness.  Only one thing is worthy of striving for:  seeking and finding the path to the beautiful life of rest.  Easy burdens, light loads, and freedom.

As we travel along on the path of grace, may our melody be … simply believe and simply rest.

The Unending Gift of God’s Grace

We often think of God’s grace in terms of our initial salvation.  We are saved by grace.  We are released from the penalty of our sin by God’s free gift; by Christ’s death in our place on the cross.  When we place our faith in this free gift, we are saved.

But God’s grace continues to be extended to us long after our salvation decision.  We are not saved by God’s grace and then left with a list of instructions of “how to live the Christian life”.  No, the Christian life itself is an ongoing and never-ending gift of God’s grace.  We can only live as God would have us live by the power of His grace.  God’s grace literally fuels the life we live; a life of setting aside lawless deeds and becoming zealous for good works.

Paul explains it this way.  “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:11-14).

God’s grace has appeared to all men so that those who receive it would, in the here and now, and by His grace:

  • receive salvation.
  • be instructed in saying “no” to sin.
  • be instructed in saying “yes” to righteousness and godliness.
  • be hopeful for His return.
  • be set free from every lawless deed.
  • be made pure.
  • be Christ’s own possession.
  • be zealous for good deeds.

All of these things are made possible by God’s ongoing grace.  Remember, the Christian life itself is a gift of pure grace.  Or to put it another way, “Grace is not just a door by which we enter the Kingdom.  Grace is how we live, move, and thrive in the Kingdom.”

Too Good to Be True?

From the time we were children, we were instilled with the idea that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.  You will reach a stage in life of ownership and accomplishment only through hard work.  There may be some luck along the way, but by and large, you will work for what you get.  It is that straightforward.  It is that simple.”

Now grace comes along and turns that idea completely on its head.  Let me explain.  I am not against hard work.  We taught our children how to work, and they have carried that on into their adult lives.  I am happy about that.  The problem comes when we take our work ethic into the realm of religion.  Yes, I said religion on purpose.  Because apart from Christianity, every religion in the world taps into this “work for what you get” mentality.  You “earn” through how hard you “work”.

The Christian message, the gospel message, the good news?  You receive because you believe.  You receive because of what Christ did.  You receive because Christ did the “earning” in your place.  You receive because Christ has given life to you by His grace, completely apart from any work by you.  Simply believe!

But we aren’t so sure.  We want to be rewarded for our effort.  We want some credit.  We want to bring our work-to-earn thinking into our Christianity.  But Christ will have nothing of it.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that salvation is not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph 2:8-9).  No work-to-earn here.

So why do we resist the idea of this free gift?  I think there are at least two reasons.  First, it just doesn’t sound right.  It goes against what we have been taught.  It goes against the outcome we expect.  I guess you could say that it appears too good to be true.  But it is true.  “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, and that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7).  No work-to-earn here; just the good news of grace.

Second, we like to look at how we compare to those around us.  If everyone is getting this salvation gift for free, how can I compare my effort to the other guy?  He looks like he is not working as hard at this Christian life as I am.  How can he receive the same gifts; the gift of God’s presence, the gift of eternal life, the gift of a new nature and new heart, and so much more?  There needs to be some scale to the gift that is commensurate with my effort.

No, the gift of God’s salvation, the gift of God’s love, the gift of God’s approval and acceptance are completely free.  If there is a “work” to be done, Jesus explained it this way … “Then they said to Jesus, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’  Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (Jn 6:28-29).  Jesus’ answer to the “work” to be done?  Simply believe.