“I’m not getting any better,” he muttered from across the room. We gave an understanding nod. “I’m trying—I really am—but sin keeps tripping me. I don’t know what else to do.”
Our high theology did nothing to calm his despair.
But our pastor was unburdened by the moment. He looked the man in the eye and said, “The primary aim of the Christian life is not to avoid sin but to follow Jesus.”
I didn’t expect this response. Then again, the gospel is always surprising.
THE DANGER OF SIN
Sin is everywhere. But sin is not only a danger outside, it’s a danger inside as well. Sin is a part of us, living in our hearts since birth. Sin is the disease we can’t cure, the ailment we can’t ease, the problem we can’t solve. Words of despair are the only rational response to sin in all its ugliness. We need someone who can fight for us.
In Numbers 21, the Israelites grew impatient with God as he led them to the Promised Land. They tired of the food and water God provided—the miraculous bread from heaven became a bore; the fish of Egypt tasted better. They spoke against God, blaming him for their plight as he led them into plenty.
God’s punishment was swift and strong: “The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Num. 21:6). Throughout the Bible, the serpent symbolizes Satan and his schemes. The venom was a painful reminder of their rebellion against God.
What were the Israelites to do?
THE PROBLEM WITH MOST ADVICE
What advice would you give those with venom in their veins? Some would say they only need to go to the doctor. Stand up and walk toward the healer. But how can a paralyzed person walk? Others may say they need to have enough faith to believe God will heal. But how can one who’s unbelief got them here make such a quick turnaround?
Most advice doesn’t account for our complete inability to fix ourselves. Fearing sin only takes us so far; it does nothing to keep us from sin altogether.
Too often, the despairing man or woman across the room receives a head-nod and a handful of suggestions. They’re told to cut the cord, smash their idols, maybe get outside more. Some say they’re too hard on themselves. After all, they can’t be as bad as other people. But none of this helps. In fact, it may grow our fears. How can we be sure we’re doing enough?
The bad news is our effort doesn’t overcome our sin. The good news is our effort doesn’t overcome our sin. Left to ourselves, we would fail. But left in Jesus’ hands, we receive his success.
Sin is overcome by Jesus’ grace applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit. We don’t need a list of suggestions any more than the dying Israelites needed to stand up and get moving. We need a rescue. We need a savior. Effort may give us a chance, but the gospel gives us far more—the gospel gives us Jesus.
LOOK TO JESUS!
As the snake-bitten Israelites lay dying in the desert, God commanded Moses to construct a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole. It’s an odd prescription, but God’s ways are not our ways. His response to sin is to present a savior to behold, not a list of rules to follow. It’s the looking and believing that makes the difference.
In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul says “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The Israelites in the desert looked at a statue of the thing killing them. At the cross, we too behold the image of the thing killing us—ourselves. Jesus became human. And on the cross, Jesus became sin. All the ugliness of our sin was there, clinging to the skin of Jesus, seeping into his body, infiltrating his perfect heart. The sin that paralyzed us paralyzed Jesus.
With his last breath, he proclaimed, “It is finished.” Death flooded in. Salvation was at hand. A centurion saw and said, "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (Mark 15:39).
Those who beheld his crucified body went home despairing. How would they ever get better now, after the one they thought would save them had died? Then something remarkable happened. Three days later a stone rolled away, and Jesus walked out of the grave. The serpent’s bite was overcome!
THE GIFT OF SIGHT
Before Jesus died or rose, he had a conversation with a Pharisee seeking God named Nicodemus. He wanted to know the way to life. Jesus told him he must be born again. But that made no sense to Nicodemus. How can one be born when he is old?
There was a way, Jesus said, but only through himself: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
What snake-bitten sinners need is to look to the One who can save them.
How were the paralyzed Israelites saved in the desert so many years ago? It was not through their effort. It was not because of their good deeds. It was not even their amount of faith. It was beholding the serpent lifted up.
What you get depends on what you set your eyes on. Jesus was raised on the cross so our eyes would raise to him. He was raised from the grave so our eyes would continue to look to our living Savior.
Sin is scary. It should be. But Jesus has conquered it on our behalf. As Al Mohler has said, “Christianity isn’t about how Christian you feel, but how faithful Christ is.” With Jesus, what you see is what you get—a complete Savior for your complete need.
A friend of mine lost part of her eyesight last year due to an optic nerve injury. She has no hope of a complete recovery. But in her blindness, she sees the sharpness of Jesus. She recently told me, “I can’t see very well, and it’s not going to get better in this life. But, you know, I don’t think that when I stand before Jesus he will be blurry.”
If your life is blurred by sin and you’re not sure what to do, look to the One who’s making all things new, including you. The way to get better in the Christian life is by looking to Jesus rather than fearing sin.
David McLemore is the Director of Teaching Ministries at Refuge Church in Franklin, Tennessee. He also works for a large healthcare corporation where he manages an application development department. He is married to Sarah, and they have three sons.