THE SIN WE
TREAT AS A VIRTUE
The Major Issue in Christ’s Teaching
Here is “What Lies Ahead” (the Introduction to the book),
and Chapter One:
WHAT LIES AHEAD
This book is for all those of us who love the Lord Jesus: because this whole topic is an issue that deeply concerns every one of us, and it really matters. Is there indeed a sin we treat as a virtue? Could this possibly be true of us, of me? Could there really be something that the Bible identifies as sin which, unrecognized, I am not only allowing a place in my life but which I have come to regard as something inevitable—or worse, as something right, as something good ? If there is something basic in biblical teaching about the way I live that is somehow slipping past me, then I will indeed want to find out about it. I will want to do something about it. I will be eager to learn what it is, so that I can bring my life into line with the will and plan of God, by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit: because of my love for the Lord Jesus - the One who said to his disciples, “If you love me, you will do what I command you” (John 14:15).
Fact is, this book is about a biblical teaching that affects every Christian, every single one of us who claims the name of Christ, who comes humbly to Christ as Lord and Saviour. He says straightly to those who claim to be his disciples, “How can you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things that I tell you?” (Luke 6:17, 46.)
This book is for Christians who want to learn the nature of the danger which Jesus talked about more than any other, and which he warned against in the strongest possible terms: “Beware! Take care! Watch out!” This is the sin which, as the Gospels show, is keeping many people out of the Kingdom and eternal life; and it is the sin which is insidiously at work in the church and which is seriously affecting its work and witness in the world.
More than that: this book is also about the very opposite kind of attitude which the people of God should have: the principles which Scripture teaches that Christians are called upon to adopt in their lives, and how we are to put them into practice.
So, this book is for non-Christians also, in order that they may know what being a Christian involves. This is for the not-yet-Christian, the almost-Christian, for the one-on-their-way-to-becoming-a-Christian, the one near the Kingdom but not quite in it (Mark 12:34). For, time and time again Jesus plainly said to would-be followers, to potential disciples, “Count the cost. Understand exactly what it means to follow me. There is a wide entrance and a broad road that leads to destruction, and many are the ones travelling down that path. But narrow is the gate and hard the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
The fact that Jesus spoke so often and so strongly about this whole issue indicates to us how serious it is. And today the danger confronts us as seriously as it ever has before. Indeed, this sin has been turned into a virtue by the world at large, and many Christians are, in practice, treating it in the same way.
Let us look at the warnings which our Lord gives us, so that we can take them to heart; let us give our attention to the very different kind of spirit which we are called upon to have instead.
This book is written for all those who care what our Lord Jesus Christ says, and what the Scripture teaches—and especially for pastors and teachers, and all who as leaders in the church are responsible for giving a Christian example and setting standards for Christian living, and preaching and teaching the message of the Bible.
It examines the nature of the problem, the answer to the problem in the Old Testament and then in the New Testament, and how that problem impacts upon the church and upon us personally in today’s world. And it discusses the biblical answer: the path that Scripture sets out for us to follow, and what this will mean for us in the practical realities of life.
Jesus considers that these things matter.
So should we.
The sin we treat as a virtue is also the sin (and its remedy) which was the major issue in Christ’s teaching, the one he warned against in the strongest and most severe terms. It is the sin that Paul called idolatry, and that he said he personally found to be the trickiest of them all. It is probably the most common sin we commit. Certainly it is the most comfortable of our sins, and the one we are least likely to recognize in our lives—even while it is doing the greatest damage to us.
1.1 THE MAJOR ISSUE IN CHRIST’S TEACHING
What then is this sin that we treat as a virtue? In a word: greed. Or, as it is sometimes rendered in various translations of the Bible: avarice, or covetousness. The Tenth Commandment is directed very explicitly against this sin, in its various forms. Jesus said to beware of it at all costs (Luke 12:15)—it keeps people out of the Kingdom. Paul says that he found this sin very insidious, and he needed the clear word of Scripture to straighten him out about it. He describes the devastatingly deadly damage it does to our lives (1 Timothy 6:9-10). Its consequences are immense, and both Jesus and Paul give a lot of attention to what we must do about it. By far the most dangerous thing we can do is to fail to take these warnings to heart.
Richard Halverson tells us truly,
Jesus Christ said more about money than any other single thing. 
Richard Brott amplifies this:
In the Four Gospels, Jesus talks about money issues more than salvation issues. Doesn’t this tell you that He knows how greedy and selfish we can be? Surely He knew that we hold on to that which we cannot ultimately keep. Greed comes from selfishness.
This question of greed—and of materialism, money and wealth—is indeed the major issue in Christ’s teaching. It featured more often and more prominently in his ministry than any other issue. It arose in incident after incident—the rich man seeking eternal life, the tax collector up a tree, the brother asking Jesus to judge a financial dispute, the widow’s mite, the payment of the temple tax or the tax to Caesar. It was the focus of two-thirds of his parables. It was constantly raised in all his major teaching addresses recorded in the Gospels, and is the crux of many of his short sayings, and the point of his sharpest warnings. These will all be discussed in the course of this book.
It demands our attention. It is a devastating danger to be avoided. It is the place where Christ’s teaching is most diametrically in opposition to the thinking of the people of his day—and the people of our day.
If we ourselves have not realized all this, we urgently need to do a complete rethink. Truly, if we do not recognize that this is the issue to which Jesus directed our attention more than any other during his earthly life and ministry, then our concerns are not in tune with the mind of Christ. For this is the major issue in Christ’s teaching, and he said that getting this right is central to how we live our lives. He said that this matter really matters.
1.2 THE SIN WE TREAT AS A VIRTUE
We live in an age which is making a virtue out of greed. Our economy is being tied more and more tightly, not to supplying the needs of mankind, but to increases in productivity, and therefore, to sales (there is no point producing more goods if you can’t sell them). This in its turn requires increasing success in the art of persuading more and more people to purchase things they do not need, using (in the case of many of them) money they do not have. This is always referred to as “improving our standard of living”. What in fact it is doing is brainwashing us into believing that our standard of living is entirely a matter of the things we possess. Contrast this with the teaching of One who said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed: a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15.)
The problem has many facets. One facet of it is the way greed so comes to control a man that he is totally obsessed with acquiring things. Think of some of the rich men you have seen on TV or read about during the past year: those who have acquired countless squillions, and who own and control vast media empires or resource companies or huge enterprises of every kind: what do you read about them? That they are satisfied with what they have? No, rather, you read how they are mindlessly squandering their money with wild abandon and, more often, how they are still driven by their “need” for more, so that they are taking over yet another multinational company. But it is not only the people who make the headlines who can be possessed by this obsession. Often we are able to recognize its insidious power at work much closer to home, if we are discerning enough.
Another aspect of greed is the way in which it distorts our perspective on everything about us. For we almost never see greed in ourselves. We are pretty confident that we are content with the bare necessities of life, more or less, though perhaps we may allow ourselves the occasional restrained indulgence or luxury. But how is our standard of living viewed by the three-quarters of the world’s population who have somewhat less than a tenth of what we own?
But the most damaging, and most damning, effect of greed is the way in which it prevents us from paying full attention to what our Lord and his apostles are saying to us in Scripture concerning the concept of wise and helpful use of our resources—that is to say, “stewardship”. This is frequently an aspect of the teaching of Scripture to which we pay rather little heed: indeed, it is one which probably we do not hear very much about at all.
Yet by God’s grace the biblical teaching about stewardship—and the actual practice of biblical stewardship in our lives—will set us free from the deadly grasp of covetousness and greed. What John Wesley said in a broader context is very specifically true concerning the Bible and greed: “This Book will keep you from sin. Or, sin will keep you from this Book.”
If we will notice what the Bible says, it is clear from the teaching of Scripture that we are under obligation to use our resources not just to benefit ourselves but also for the benefit of others. In particular we are to help those who are in need, and support those who are engaged in Christian ministry (both ministry to ourselves, and also ministry on our behalf to others).
And from our reading of the New Testament we will know, moreover, that our contributions to others are to be generous. But what more is to be said than this? What guidance does God give us as to what this means we should do in practice?
1.3 CHRISTIAN PRINCIPLES
Some Christians consider that it is all up to us: a matter of our own personal choice. We are to be as generous as we can, and we are left (they contend) to decide for ourselves how much that will mean we should give to God’s work. Other Christians believe that there are principles and guidelines in Scripture concerning our use of our resources, just as there are principles and guidelines concerning other aspects of living the Christian life. Has God indeed said anything about the matter?
The fact of the matter is, there is a considerable amount of specific teaching in the Bible concerning how we are to handle our resources. There are four basic principles for us to note.
Firstly, we are to recognize that everything we have has come to us from the hand of God. This should lead us to have a thankful heart for the Lord’s gracious generosity to us.
Secondly, what we have received is not given to us for our own exclusive use and enjoyment. On the contrary, we are trustees and stewards of what we have received. We are to use these resources in accordance with the will and purposes of God the giver, to whom we must give account.
Thirdly, we find in Scripture that there are indeed specific guidelines given to us concerning how we are to use our income and possessions: God has a number of requirements in this regard for his people.
Fourthly, we are taught in Scripture that we should work to earn an income not solely to provide for ourselves, but in order to be able to contribute towards the help and support of others.
These principles shall all be discussed in this book, in the light of the teaching of Scripture.
1.4 OBEYING CHRIST’S LAW AND COMMANDMENTS
All these comments which you have just read may well have been greeted with horror by some readers, who will be almost inclined to put the book down at this point. Isn’t this all pure legalism (they protest), which has been abolished by the gospel of Christ? Shouldn’t our giving be spontaneous and from the heart, not the outcome of observing written regulations?
Others will greet what I have been saying with horror for a different reason: isn’t our Christian giving (they say) a private and personal matter, just a question of what we ourselves individually decide to do about it?
To those who are open to being instructed by the teaching of the Bible, I say: read on, and see what the Scripture says about these matters. The fact is, the Bible (especially the New Testament) has quite a bit to say about all these issues, and it is part of Christian discipleship and Christian behaviour for us to learn what this teaching is, and to work through the question of how it affects us in our lives today. A Christian has been called from a life of selfishness, self-centredness and rebellion against the Lord to learn the path of obedience to the Lord’s will. There most certainly are requirements which we receive as part of the gospel of God’s grace, and which we are to obey.
James describes these requirements as the “royal law found in Scripture” (James 2:8) and “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (James 1:25; 2:12, NRSV), by which we are to be judged.
And Jesus says, in his final instructions to his disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” This Commission is about as plain as language can get. Those who receive and respond to the message of the gospel of Christ are disciples: they are to be baptized, and they are to be taught to obey the word of Christ which he has given to us through his apostles.
This book examines the teaching of Christ and his apostles, as recorded in the New Testament, concerning the insidious danger of greed and the Christian’s attitude to money, possessions, and income. All these Scriptures impact us personally. This is not a question of correctly understanding some doctrine—it is a question of how we live our whole life on earth. And, Jesus says, of eternity. If we belong to Christ, then we need to know what he has said about these matters, and what his apostles have said, so that we can be sure that we are doing what he requires of us.
It is no small matter.
Let us note the word of James: he instructs us (James 1:22), “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
. Matthew 19:16-30//Mark 10:17-31//Luke 18:18-30; this is discussed in #2.3.
. Matthew 8:19-22//Luke 9:57-62; Matthew 10:37-38//Luke 14:25-33
. Matthew 7:13-14.
. Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21-22.
. Romans 7:7 (ESV, NRSV): “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’”
. Richard Halverson Perspective, 59.
. Richard Brott Tithing and Giving 41.