Earlier this week I published a short excerpt and elaboration from Paul Tripp’s In the Redeemers Hands, a book on what it means for Christians to help apply the gospel to the lives of one another. It should be no secret that I love everything that comes from Paul Tripp’s ministry, and so to that end I am going to share another excerpt from this same book. This passage needs no elaboration from me. Allow this illustration to simmer, and reflect on the seriousness of sin.
A woman once approached me during a seminar on this material and asked, “If I have the Bible in my hands and the Holy Spirit in my heart, why do I need to be counseled by others?” How would you answer her? Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the Wonderful Counselor of the church. He enables us to understand God’s Word, convicts us of sin, works in us a willingness to obey, and enables us to do what we have been called by God to do. But does this mean that I no longer need one-on-one ministry? You could use the same logic to argue that you don’t need public worship and the public ministry of the Word. This woman was missing something significant, which is captured by a few short verses in Hebrews: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:12-13).
There is a lot packed into these two short verses. First, notice that the passage is written to “brothers,” that is, to believers. The writer us addressing issues that are part of the normal life of every Christian. He is not talking to those outside the faith or to some special class of believers. The writers is saying that there is something in each of us that places us in danger, and because of that, we need the daily ministry of others.
Next, look at the content of the warning: “See to it that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving (i.e. turning away, ultimately hardened) heart.” The fact that there is a need for this kind of warning should get our attention. What is being described here is a process, one I have seen many times in people I have counseled.
It all starts with the person giving in to the sinful desires of his or her heart. A married man becomes interested in a woman at work. He thinks about what it would be like to get to know her better. He begins to spend way too much time studying the way she dresses, the look of her face, the way she keeps her hair, and the shape of her body. As he does this, his desires grow. He has not considered a physical relationship, and he is not thinking of leaving his wife at this point. He decides to talk to the woman. What harm could it do? After all, she is a colleague, so he ought to have a good relationship with her.
It isn’t long before they are having long lunches together and talking often during the day. One day he offers to take her home and spends forty-five minutes sitting closer to her on the couch. He touches her hand and tells her how much he appreciates their friendship. On the way home, for the first time he wishes he wasn’t married. When he arrives home he is careful about how he reports on his day. That night he lies in bed next to his wife, thinking about the woman at work. He is progressively giving in to subtle patterns of sin, but he doesn’t see them for what they are.
Yet there is something else going on inside him, the conviction of the Holy Spirit. He is uneasy. He feels a bit guilty. He doesn’t experience the joy he once did at seeing his wife at the end of a long day. He knows he is all too excited to go to work in the morning. He knows he has begun to be more critical of his wife and that he feels a unique kinship with this other woman. So he argues with himself, trying to quiet his conscience. He doesn’t see it, but he is responding to subtle patterns of sin with subtle patterns of unbelief. He tells himself that he hasn’t done anything wrong, that the Bible does not forbid a man’s friendship with a woman, that he is a faithful husband, and that he hasn’t done anything adulterous. He convinces himself that this relationship is a good thing, that he needs more of these kinds of relationships at work, that he has existed too long in the comfortable Christian ghetto, and that God is actually pleased he has reached out to someone.
Not only is he acting upon the sinful desires of his heart, he is subtly backing away from the interpretive authority of Scripture. Giving in to patters of sin has been followed by unbelief, and all the while the man and his wife are actively involved with their church. But underneath, he has begun to lose his spiritual moorings. A childlike trust in and obedience to the Word has been his moral anchor. He had been sensitive to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. But now he has cut the anchor chain and is adrift. And he doesn’t even know it.
Because he has lost his spiritual moorings, he drifts away further. Before long he and his coworker are leaving lunch and not returning. He begins to volunteer for business trips when he knows she is going. The relationship is increasingly physical. His relationship with his wife is disintegrating, but he doesn’t care. In fact, he wonders why in the world he married her. He is spending more time at work in the evenings and on weekends, and so he is less involved with activities at his church. He has quit reading his Bible and praying; he feels quite trapped by the whole “Christian thing.” His wife pleads with him to go with her for counseling, but he is not interested.
There are more evenings when he doesn’t even come home. Lies fill his conversations with his wife. His pastor pursues and pleads with him, but he is unmoved, no longer attentive to the Word or sensitive to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. His heart has become hard. He is not sure he believes “that stuff” any more, and before long he is making plans to leave his wife.
Sinful -> unbelieving -> turning away -> hardened hearts. What a terrifying progression! Perhaps you are wondering, “How could this happen to a believer?” This passage answers the question with its detailed description of how things went wrong. Notice the words in Hebrews 3:13: “so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” This explains why we need the daily ministry of fellow believers.
-Tripp, In the Redeemer’s Hands, 51-53