Responding with Fire and Water

Keep a watchful eye on the habits developing in your life.

You’ve got a favorite shirt.  It’s just soft enough, just thick enough.  It’s your go-to shirt.  But it has a stain on it—a blotch of bacon grease, or coffee—that won’t come out, even when coaxed with special cleansers.  The discoloration sits at waist level, highly noticeable.    

But if you tuck in the shirt tightly enough, no one will see it.  You can live with the stain if it’s out of sight.  Besides, you don’t want to throw the whole shirt away over a silly little mark…or two (there’s also a smudge on the back where you leaned against a freshly painted wall).  

And this happy arrangement describes the way we Christians often make peace with the things we’ve come to call “besetting sins.”  That is, stubborn sins that have become permanent fixtures in our lives.  They have resisted our efforts to make them go away, therefore we make provisions for their continued existence, instead.  In surrendering, we look for ways to normalize them.    

Obviously, we won’t know complete victory over sin until the glorification of our bodies, however, this does not mean we passively accept sin today, especially in view of its ability to deface whatever it touches.     

Let’s stick with the example of a garment.  Clothing in scripture acts as a ready example of our outermost deportment, the external forms and habits of our life.  In Ephesians 4, Paul says, “put off your old man” (v. 22), that is, our old manner of life, as if it were a garment hopelessly stained.  You don’t even wear it to cut the grass.  You discard it.      

Paul could have likely adopted this image from the holiness code of Leviticus.

There, if leprosy occurred in an article of clothing, (possibly referring to mold or mildew), and it spread, the garment was to be burned (13:47-52).  That was how to deal with corruption on a ceremonial scale.

In New Testament terms, the harshest form of dealing with the corruption of sin is to bring the judgment of the cross upon it.  Calvary was where God’s consuming fire thundered down upon the sins of the world.   

Likewise, when something ungodly begins to invade our lives, we don’t excuse it.  We don’t try to find a psychological warrant to make peace with it, by blaming parents or background.  I’ve also heard people exonerate themselves from transgressions by saying, “Well, we all sin.”  True enough, but we are not justified by sin’s popularity.  We are justified by faith, specifically faith in the shed blood of Jesus.   

That is why we bring our sins to the cross, confessing them as sin.   

And yet there were cases in the Old Testament where a splotch appeared in a garment, but didn’t seem to spread.  It looked innocuous, maybe just a case of ring-around-the-collar.  The people were then told to wash it.  If it laundered out, all was well  (vv. 53-54).  

In New Testament terms, I’ve often found something questionable breaking out in my life that seems isolated, not spreading, perhaps not even identifiable as sin.  It might come from being in a low mood, or simply from picking up the general dirt that comes from daily contact with the world.  Too much cable news, a less than satisfactory encounter with someone, or a day crowded with to-do items can leave my spirit exhausted.  Under those circumstances, I’ve often needed to present myself to the Lord for “washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:27).  Anytime we open the Scriptures, we open ourselves to a bath in the Holy Spirit.      

But, as Leviticus says, if washing does not eliminate the stain, then burn the garment (vv. 53-55).  Don’t tolerate it.  Bring the flame.  Frequently, we will not only need to confess our sins to the Lord, but take steps to prevent falling into the same situation again.  This is the practical aspect of judgment by fire.  

If washing makes the stain fade, though, tear out, remove, the affected area.  Later, if staining returns in any other area of the garment, then burn it (13:56-58).   

The overall message is clear:  the people of God never accept personal corruption as allowable.  We should find ourselves “hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 23), and always respond with the divine provisions of fire and water.

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