We are living in bizarre times. The world is caught in the grip of fear—fears over deadly diseases, financial ruin, unchecked violence, government overreach, and political upheaval. For the last several months, much of America has been on fire—both figuratively and literally. Our lives are essentially dominated by chaos and confusion, as we careen from one emergency to the next.
We shudder to think how society could degrade into further corruption, darkness, and disarray, and yet the world keeps finding new lows to which it too-willingly sinks. Should the Lord tarry, we might eventually look back at 2020 as “the good ol’ days.”
On top of the endless chaos surrounding us, our society is drowning in a sea of lies, such that the culture is permeated by a sense of devastating insecurity. We no longer have confidence in politicians, health experts, social activists, academics, or the media—all of them have lost credibility by pursuing an agenda over honesty. Even religious leaders have shown a knack for doublespeak and outright deception when it suits their purposes. We have been lied to so routinely that we treat every claim as dubious. Living in that constant state of doubt and suspicion is both exhausting and exasperating.
However, there is One to whom we can turn and always hear the truth: the living God who has revealed Himself in the pages of Scripture. In a world dominated by chaos, corruption, and lies, only God is always faithful and true. His Word is truth (John 17:17), and if we want to make sense of the evil days we’re living in—and understand how God would have us respond—it is the only place for us to turn.
Upending God’s Law
We can begin by looking at the book of Isaiah. Seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, God was confronting another nation that had plunged itself into corruption and chaos: Israel.
Listen, O heavens, and hear, O earth; for the Lord speaks, “Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have revolted against Me. An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master’s manger, but Israel does not know, My people do not understand.” Alas, sinful nation, people weighed down with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who act corruptly! They have abandoned the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away from Him. Where will you be stricken again, as you continue in your rebellion? The whole head is sick and the whole heart is faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head there is nothing sound in it, only bruises, welts and raw wounds, not pressed out or bandaged, nor softened with oil. Your land is desolate, your cities are burned with fire. (Isaiah 1:2–7)
Throughout the Old Testament, we see the pattern of Israel’s spiritual infidelity and the Lord’s faithful judgment for their sin. Here at the beginning of Isaiah, God’s people were steeped in sin and transgression. They had rejected the Lord and His Word, and were on the brink of judgment. Through the mouth of His prophet, God was warning them of the desolation that occurs when a nation turns against God.
Israel was headed toward a devastating divine judgment. Through Isaiah, God provided some specific indictments about the sins that put them on this terrifying trajectory. “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20). Toward the end of the book, He condemns them again: “For your hands are defiled with blood and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken falsehood, your tongue mutters wickedness. No one sues righteously and no one pleads honestly. They trust in confusion and speak lies; they conceive mischief and bring forth iniquity” (Isaiah 59:3–4). Such moral inversion usually signals the coming judgment of God.
In their rebellion against God, Israel had flipped morality on its head. Their opposition to the Lord had turned their view of truth, righteousness, and virtue upside down. That is, in essence, the nature of fallen humanity—to believe lies, to overturn right and wrong, and to replace God’s holy standard with a flawed and feeble one of its own design. Does that sound familiar?
Much like Israel in Isaiah’s day, we are living in another historic manifestation of the corrupting, perverting influence of sin. We’re watching the same upending of morality happen every day, with the hearty applause of a rebellious culture fully convinced of its own merit and virtue.
Look no further than the recent headlines to see how sinners currently “call evil good, and good evil.” Peaceful protests result in riots, looting, destruction, and death. Those who claim to be anti-fascists shout down and violently suppress opposing viewpoints. Anti-racists argue for ethnic segregation, hiring quotas, and other forms of organizational and financial partiality. Law-abiding citizens are ordered to stay home, while the mayhem of violent mobs is indulged and encouraged. Protesters pour into the streets to proclaim that black lives matter, while proudly supporting an organization that slaughters nearly a thousand black babies every day. Others demand a self-styled justice based on scant facts and snap judgments. Criminals are mourned as martyrs while the police are routinely vilified.
What is wrong with this world? How did we get here, with everything upside-down? Is it the result of some social inequity? Is the problem educational, economic, or environmental? How did we become so twisted in our thinking?
The Problem of Sin Is Internal, Not External
To make sense of the wretched state of the world, we first need to see through the world’s deceptive excuses for sin. In particular, we need to understand that sin is not the fault of external factors—it can’t be blamed on your education, upbringing, or economic situation. The world of psychology will point to every conceivable external rationalization for why people act the way they do. But Scripture is clear—the problem of sin is internal.
Jesus Himself made that very point in a confrontation with the Pharisees. Israel’s religious elite were obsessed with external religion. They reduced the law of God to a burdensome list of rituals and practices, and held up themselves and their good works as the standard of holiness. But their piety was empty, and they hated Jesus for exposing their hypocrisy.
After one such confrontation in Mark 7, Christ explained why the external religion of the Pharisees was impotent to address the sinner’s true spiritual needs. Regarding the danger of eating ceremonially unclean foods, He said, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man” (Mark 7:14–15). His point was clear—the sinner isn’t corrupted by external actions, forces, or influences. His defilement is already present within him.
When the disciples later asked Jesus for further explanation, He drove the point home vividly.
Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated? . . . That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man. (Mark 7:18–23)
The threat of sin and corruption is not external. In the specific case the Lord cited, both clean and unclean foods are consumed and eliminated in the same way. They are of no lasting spiritual consequence—especially when compared to the corruption that already resides in the sinner’s heart. Christ is saying you’re not wicked because of what happened to you on the outside; you’re wicked because of what you already are on the inside. He’s saying there is something wrong with your heart—not the physical internal organ, but with your inner self, including your mind, thoughts, attitudes, motives, and desires.
In verses 21 and 22, Christ identifies some specific categories of sin that flow out of man’s corrupt heart. “Evil thoughts” refers broadly to the bad motives, designs, and intentions cultivated internally. “Fornications” encapsulates all kinds of deviant sexual sin. He adds “thefts, murders, adulteries”—all external sins that are initially conceived in the mind. “Deeds of coveting and wickedness” speak to sins of greediness, along with the kind of malicious intent that seeks to harm others. But because the point isn’t merely the outward expressions of man’s sinful heart, Christ also identifies some of the inward evil attitudes that give birth to those evil deeds, including “deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness” (v. 22).
The Lord concludes in verse 23 with the summary statement, “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” All of man’s sin flows from the inside out. The Pharisees were completely backward in their thinking because they had put their trust in external religion. At the beginning of Mark 7, they were criticizing Christ and His disciples for not observing the ceremonial laws regarding handwashing. Christ’s response was essentially, Your hands may be clean, but your hearts are filthy. They were counting on outward piety to win them favor with God, with no consideration for their internal corruption. They had neglected the lesson of 1 Samuel 16:7, that “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Sin’s Comprehensive Corruption
When it comes to the unregenerate heart, Scripture is clear about the depth and breadth of its defilement. The apostle Paul delivers a blunt assessment of man’s sinful corruption in his epistle to the Romans.
As it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving,” “the poison of asps is under their lips”; “whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”; “their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10–18)
It’s worth noting that none of the condemning statements in the above passage originated with Paul. With the words, “As it is written,” Paul indicates that he’s quoting extensively from the Old Testament—specifically from the Psalms and Isaiah. God’s Word has always been clear and consistent about the utter defilement of sinful mankind. In that sense, this statement is essential to our understanding of the chaos that surrounds us. Paul is showing us the pathology of sin and its comprehensive corruption of the sinner’s character, conversation, and conduct.
Regarding man’s character, Paul writes, “There is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). From the perspective of heaven, all sinners stand equally guilty. No amount of good works can counterbalance the weight of our sin—that’s why the imputed righteousness of Christ is crucial for our salvation (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). Moreover, Paul says, “There is none who understands” (Romans 3:11). In his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul describes the futility of the sinful mind—that it’s darkened, ignorant, and callous (Ephesians 4:17–19). Not only is the sinner incapable of righteousness, he’s incapable of understanding it.
Paul adds, “There is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside” (Romans 3:11–12). This is a damning commentary on the religions of the world. Paul is identifying them all as satanic counterfeits, sending men away from the truth about God. In the words of Isaiah 53:6, “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” Man’s natural disposition is to flee from God, and he invents false religion to accommodate his rebellion. Paul concludes, “Together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Romans 3:12). Man’s sin has thoroughly corrupted his character, leaving him ignorant, rebellious, deviant, and useless.
There’s more. Not only is the sinner’s character corrupt—so is his conversation. Paul writes, “Their throat is an open grave” (v. 13). We all try to be conscientious about bad breath. But in a graphic metaphor, Paul says the speech of the wicked carries the stench of death—their mouths are like filthy, putrid, open graves. He adds, “With their tongues they keep deceiving” (v. 13). Like a baited fishhook, they deceive in order to catch and kill. Even their words are venomous and deadly—“the poison of asps is under their lips” (v. 13). In verse 14, the apostle abandons all subtleties—no disguised hooks, no sneaking poison—and says plainly that the sinner’s “mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.” It is little wonder that Scripture says, “The tongue is a fire,” and that “no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison” (James 3:6, 8). As we see almost routinely today, the mouth of the unregenerate man is capable of great destruction.
Finally, Paul’s condemnation moves to the corruption of man’s conduct. He writes, “Their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known” (vv. 15–17). Human history vividly illustrates the truth of those chilling words. In John 8:44, Jesus describes the devil as “a murderer from the beginning.” Satan is the archetypal murderer, and his followers are likewise “swift to shed blood.” Humans are dangerous. In terms of lives lost, the six years of World War II are some of the costliest the world has ever known. As many as 85 million people died—at least 50 million were civilians. Given the opportunity, sinful man will attempt to exterminate his enemies.
While we don’t see the same staggering death toll in wars today, man’s bloodlust still rages. Since 1973, the United States has committed its own holocaust, executing more than 60 million babies in what should be the safest place for them—their mother’s womb. If you make laws that allow people to kill, they will kill. If you allow them to riot, they’ll riot. If you allow them to break windows, loot businesses, burn police stations, and run roughshod over whole communities, they will. The unredeemed heart has no interest in peace—Paul says it is bent in the pursuit of bloodshed, destruction, and misery.
The apostle concludes his condemnation with the summary statement, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18). That’s the driving reality behind the rebellion and wretchedness that surround us—this world does not fear God. Proverbs 16:6 says, “By the fear of the Lord one keeps away from evil.” Where there is no fear of God—no sense of eternal culpability, guilt, and punishment—the restraints have been removed and humanity is able to live out its corrupt, destructive desires.
The High Cost of Rejecting God
Hand in hand with the absence of the fear of God is the rejection of God. It’s not merely that unregenerate mankind dismisses God—they outright reject Him and His authority.
Paul wrote about the consequences of rejecting God earlier in Romans. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Romans 1:18–19). Planted in the heart of every human being is the knowledge of God. We don’t need to be told that God exists—our ability to reason, to understand the simplicity of cause and effect, is enough to point us to the existence of our Creator. In this case, the effect screams for the reality of the cause.
Paul makes that very point: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (v. 20). No one can claim ignorance of God’s existence—His creative work leaves them no excuse for rejecting Him.
The apostle continues, describing the extreme and irrational lengths men will go to in their attempts to deny God’s creative authority over this world:
For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. (vv. 21–23)
When sinners reject God, they rebel against reason. Reason recognizes that the intricacies of creation testify to a Creator—that His creation speaks to His character and nature, and points to His full self-revelation in His Word. But rebellion actually extinguishes man’s capacity for reason altogether—Paul says they become fools with darkened hearts, as they run from reason into the illogic of false gods and idolatry just to escape the truth about God.
But the tragic consequences of rejecting God don’t end there. In one of the most profound passages in all of Scripture, Paul illustrates the devastating results that follow, as God unleashes the full corruption of their sinful rebellion.
Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them. (vv. 24–32)
That repeated phrase “God gave them over” is legal terminology—God is handing those who reject Him over for the execution of His sentence and punishment. He turns them over to the pursuit of their sinful desires, and the destruction that follows.
Space won’t allow for a thorough exposition of these verses, but we need to pause long enough to recognize our own society amidst the rubble. God’s judgment turns people over to a sexual revolution, until the whole culture is swimming in a septic tank of pornography. Consider the way our society aggressively sexualizes children, corrupting their view of God’s design before they can even fully comprehend it. And it doesn’t end there—the sexual revolution gives way to a homosexual revolution that ushers in transgenderism and other kinds of unspeakable deviance. Such perversion has so thoroughly permeated our culture that we’re now debating the question of how young is too young for children to begin mutilating their bodies in defiance of God’s creative design.
Paul says such corruption ultimately leads to a “depraved mind”—that is, a mind that doesn’t function. It’s the inability to think straight or do right. It defaults to wickedness, selfishness, strife, and all the other sinful dispositions Paul describes. Moreover, the depraved mind applauds and promotes those who sin likewise. Today we have political parties that have constructed their platforms on killing babies in the womb, destroying the structure of the family, promoting sexual perversion, and many of the other sins Paul describes here in Romans 1. And with the hearty approval of other depraved minds, they are elected to office where they can institute and normalize their corruption.
What we see then—both on the pages of Scripture and in the chaotic world around us—is the dreadful cost of rejecting God. On top of man’s natural sinfulness is the added reality of divine judgment unleashing the full consequences of man’s rebellion. Based on the biblical testimony, we see mankind’s sinful corruption is systemic—not socially, but personally—and no one escapes. It’s not related to a lack of opportunity, money, privilege, or education. Man is a naturally sinful beast who rejects God and His law. All of us are born with that internal wretchedness that corrupts and defiles. It scars beauty, darkens wisdom, defiles love, robs purity, and steals peace.
Kicking at God’s Restraints
That brings us to a natural question: If man’s corruption truly runs that deep, is there any hope of restraining the sinful chaos it creates? Since humanity is so depraved, deceitful, degenerate, destructive, and deadly, how did God ever expect us to survive? How did He expect us to get through this life with any measure of meaning, fulfillment and joy—or even simply to civilize, socialize, and survive?
Of course, the only true hope for the sinner is salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Apart from that, he remains “dead in [his] trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Only through God’s mercy and love can the spiritually dead be made alive with Christ (vv. 4–5). And by God’s grace, He continues to redeem sinners, drawing them to Himself in repentance and faith.
But in the wisdom of His divine design, God has also placed restraints within us and within the structure of society to mitigate the effects of man’s corruption and hold back the full chaos into which the world repeatedly devolves. And when these restraints are carefully maintained, life can be enjoyable. But when they’re assaulted, diminished, or destroyed, life quickly becomes difficult and miserable.
The first restraint is built into the heart of every man—the conscience. We know the conscience exists because so many people are full of guilt, anxiety, fear, and dread. All those issues frequently point back to a conscience that won’t be silent. Why?
We look back to Romans for the answer. Paul writes, “For there is no partiality with God. For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law, for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified” (Romans 2:11–13). Put simply, all sinners stand equally guilty, regardless of their access to God’s law.
How is that fair? Paul explains: “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (vv. 14–15). Built into every human is a moral reality—a sense of right and wrong.
The conscience is a gift from God. In the same way that physical pain alerts you to not rest your hand on a hot stove, your conscience cries out to warn you of moral danger—it pleads with you to not do the thing you know you shouldn’t do.
The conscience isn’t a substitute for the law of God, or some means through which He speaks. Rather, it is aligned to the highest moral law it knows. That means the law of God that is written in every heart—don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t kill, and the other basic moral lines common to all people—can be overruled and replaced. In that regard, the conscience can be assaulted through misinformation. Some people have so twisted and distorted their consciences that they believe the right and moral thing to do is murder unborn children, attack police officers, or wear explosives into a crowded part of town to kill as many civilians as possible. History shows us just how susceptible the conscience is to propaganda and false teaching.
The conscience is also assaulted through abuse. Go back to the analogy of the hot stove—if you ignored the painful warnings long enough, not only would you suffer severe physical consequences, the consistent abuse could cost you the ability to recognize the pain altogether. If you ignore your conscience long enough, eventually there won’t be any alert to ignore. When you repeatedly ignore the internal warnings and return to a particular sin, you’re searing your conscience and destroying its ability to function properly.
One of the great costs of removing the Bible from a culture is that people can no longer make sense of the conscience—both what it is and how it should be informed. What should be seen as a great gift from God is considered a curse—one that must be silenced or reoriented. Of course, our therapeutic society is quick to tell people not to listen to their consciences in the first place. Psychologists are happy to redirect feelings of guilt and shame somewhere else. When that doesn’t work, many people turn to drugs and alcohol to drown out a conscience that won’t shut up.
And when the truth of God’s Word is withheld and denied from the conscience for long enough en masse, you wind up back in Isaiah 5, with a culture that calls good evil, and evil good. You have a culture like ours.
Because man’s conscience is so easily corrupted, God has also instituted external restraints and authorities within society for reining in the destructive chaos sin creates.
The family is one of those restraints. Of course, the Bible instructs Christian parents to raise their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). But even unbelieving parents have a restraining influence in the lives of their children. In that sense, the family is a divinely created institution for the formation of restrained sinners, who—through generations of morality, discipline, love, virtue, and obedience—become a benefit to society and enjoy God’s gifts with gratitude.
What we’ve seen in recent years is a comprehensive assault on God’s design for the family, and the subsequent short-circuiting of its restraining effect. Between the feminist movement’s subversion of male leadership, the explosion of divorce rates, and the widespread corruption of gender and sexuality, there’s significant confusion about what actually constitutes a family, let alone how it should function. When you consider the number of children born without both a mother and father in the home, combined with those who have lost that privilege through divorce, you can see why the family isn’t doing much to restrain sin and its effects in society today.
The breakdown of the family shatters God’s design for administering the love, discipline, and direction that little lives so desperately need. Today we see generations of young people who were never taught to respect and submit to authority, or to take responsibility for their actions and face the consequences. The Bible tells us, “He who withholds his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently” (Proverbs 13:24). Parents are meant to be a threat to unruly, disobedient behavior—they’re meant to rein in their children and teach them how to live and function as productive members of society. Today we’re seeing the mayhem that’s unleashed when the restraint of family fails.
In those instances, God has established a separate authority to restrain sin. We can think of the conscience as a kind of personal authority, while the family represents parental authority. God has likewise established the government as a social authority. The prime role of government is not material welfare—rather, as Paul describes, it is divinely appointed to bear the sword.
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. (Romans 13:1–4)
God uses imperfect means to restrain sin. Nobody’s conscience is perfectly informed and always accurate—no family is perfect, either. In the same way, God uses imperfect human governments—and imperfect agents of those governments—to hold back the chaos and corruption of sin. Imperfect though they may be, civil authorities were ordained by God, and anyone who opposes them opposes Him.
What we see today is a society full of people who were raised without the discipline, love, and stability of a family; people who have seared or silenced their consciences, and reject the notion that they need to submit to any authority. With catastrophic failures at the personal and parental levels, it’s left to the police to establish some order and sanity amidst the chaos.
Don’t miss the rhetorical question in verse 3: “Do you want to have no fear of authority?” Paul presumes an affirmative response, and answers his own question: “Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good” (vv. 3–4). The point is simply that there is no need for us to live in fear of the government’s authority—it’s not an inherent threat to those who abide by the law. Instead, it bears the sword and brings the wrath of God “on the one who practices evil” (v. 4). Their resistance and rebellion must be punished. Where the restraints of conscience and family might fail, the government represents a unique and potentially deadly threat against the chaos and corruption of evildoers. And just like the world’s attempts to destroy the family and quiet the conscience, the calls to defund and disband the police are another direct assault on God’s ordained means of restraining sin.
There is one more restraint God has placed in society—the church functions as its spiritual authority. God has called His people to be a righteous and sanctifying influence in this world. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ said,
You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:13–16)
We understand the effects of sin—how it has corrupted God’s creation and set it on a destructive trajectory. We understand the world is dark and decaying. But the Lord has established His church as the last line of restraint against sin’s influence. We are the salt that slows the decay and the light that diminishes the darkness. Through our Christlike influence—through our love, mercy, humility, kindness, compassion, and holiness—we’re called to restrain the corruption and chaos of sin. In that regard, the church is the most precious commodity in the world.
However, just as Christ warned, the effects of salt and light can be diminished. Salt can become impure and lose its taste. Light can be covered up and hidden. The tragedy today is that so many churches have failed to be a preserving, illuminating influence in the world. False teachers abound—charlatans promoting religious Ponzi schemes and selling phony miracles. Unholy and immoral leaders tarnish the church’s testimony. Worldly entertainments dominate, while hard truths are dulled or dismissed altogether. Whole denominations deny the authority, sufficiency, and inerrancy of Scripture. Others deny the deity of Christ. Too many churches don’t confront sin, don’t call for holy living, and don’t uphold the gospel as the only hope for salvation. What kind of restraint can a church like that provide?
We need to recognize the correlation between the state of the world and the state of the church. A weak, worldly, false church has no ability to restrain the chaos and corruption of this world. A church like that actually contributes to the problem.
God’s people need to be different. We need to be salt and light, and live holy lives that glorify the Lord and adorn His gospel.
Fulfilling the Whole Law
What does a holy, God-honoring life look like?
To answer that question, we need to briefly look at another altercation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Matthew records one of the religious leaders attempting to trap the Lord with a trick question. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36). It seems their plan was to pin Him down on one of the hundreds of ceremonial laws and rituals they had heaped on the people of Israel, only to contest whatever He said. They believed they possessed the superior knowledge of God’s law. They were wrong.
Jesus replied with a quote from the Mosaic law. “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment” (vv. 37–38). He was quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4–9 (specifically verse 5), a key passage of the law that links love for God with obedience, and which also figured prominently in the customs and ceremonies the Pharisees had instituted. Once again, He was contrasting the emptiness of their pious rituals with the comprehensive, full-orbed love God commands from His people.
But Christ doesn’t stop there. He says, “The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:39). Again, He’s pointing back to the Mosaic law—this time, to Leviticus 19 and God’s commands regarding the way His people were supposed to behave toward one another, and to strangers.
Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the Lord your God. You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another. You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the Lord. You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning. You shall not curse a deaf man, nor place a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall revere your God; I am the Lord. You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly. You shall not go about as a slanderer among your people, and you are not to act against the life of your neighbor; I am the Lord. You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. . . . When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measurement of weight, or capacity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin; I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt. You shall thus observe all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:9–18, 33–37)
God wove those specific provisions into His law to protect His people from themselves—to keep them from defrauding each other or leaving each other destitute. If you think about it, that’s really the purpose for laws—to protect us from one another.
The truth is, if we could truly love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and if we could faithfully, graciously, and sacrificially love our neighbor as ourselves, we wouldn’t need laws—we’d be living holy lives. Like Christ concluded in Matthew 22:40, “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” All of God’s commands, both the spiritual and moral duties He has given to us, are fulfilled in our comprehensive love for Him and our faithful love for our neighbors.
Paul picks up this same idea in Romans.
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8–10)
Reading that, it’s easy to see how that kind of love is missing in the human heart today. How our society runs in the opposite direction, with people demanding their own rights and privileges without a thought for one another, much less any consideration of God.
In a world of selfishness, greed, inequity, and injustice, believers need to be set apart by their consuming love for God, and their sacrificial love for others. That’s the kind of holy living that brings salt and light to this dark, decaying world.
Life Under the Sun
One last question remains: How should we respond?
As protests and riots raged across the country and around the globe, many Christians have pondered that question. In many ways, this discussion dominates the church today, but not all the proposed solutions line up biblically.
Some have offered specific strategies to show compassion and make a difference while the culture collapses around us. For example, many in the church have suggested that God’s people need to take an active role in changing the laws of the land, and putting new people into positions of power. I won’t deny that it is a tremendous blessing to have a voice in our political process, and that God’s people are responsible to support biblical standards of morality in society. But at the same time, we must recognize that there is no way to legislate true righteousness, and no human leader can hold back the tide of man’s corruption.
The Bible is clear about the state of the unrepentant soul. “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Paul reminds his readers of how they lived prior to Christ: “For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another” (Titus 3:3). Elsewhere he says, “The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Romans 8:7).
We can change the laws or add new ones, but sinners fundamentally cannot keep the law—changing policies can’t change the heart of man. The same is true when it comes to our leaders and elected officials. We can swap different sinners into positions of power, but we shouldn’t expect drastically different results. God’s people can’t put their hope in human leaders—as we’ve already seen, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Romans 3:10–12).
Other believers have suggested partnering with a social-justice movement like Black Lives Matter. And while everyone should agree that black lives do matter because they are made in the image of God, the movement itself is much more than that simple slogan. In their own documents, they eagerly affirm homosexuality and transgenderism. They argue for the dissolution of the family. They’re Marxist, atheistic, and anti-authority.
Put simply, there’s no partnership between a radical movement like that and the people of God that doesn’t defy the clear commandment of 2 Corinthians 6:14, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” Paul goes on to illustrate the futility and foolishness of believers forging unions with the very corruption from which God has saved them. Quoting from Isaiah, he says “‘Come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord” (v. 17).
Still others will argue that, even if a specific partnership like that isn’t an option, believers still ought to join the protests. That Christians need to speak out against injustice.
But remember what Paul explained in Romans 13—that we are to be subject to the governing authorities, because God Himself established them. Peter gives us similar instructions. “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13–14). Why? “For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men” (v. 15). How we respond to authority—whether just or unjust—has repercussions for our testimony. Our submission can actually silence those who oppose the gospel and are looking for reasons to criticize believers.
He continues on the theme of submission in verse 20, “For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.” Peter wants us to submit and suffer for the sake of righteousness—rather than suffering the consequences of our sin. But notice that he treats suffering—one way or the other—as inevitable. In fact, he says, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (v. 21). Just as Christ submitted to unjust suffering and abuse, we should likewise expect to suffer. Peter even says, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon your for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing” (1 Peter 4:12–13).
Suffering is the greatest tool in the life of the believer. It’s how the quality of our faith is tested and proven. It’s how we learn to rely on God’s strength instead of our own. It’s how the Lord displays His sufficiency and provision to the watching world. God has great purposes in our suffering. And as Peter reminds us, it’s temporary. “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). God is not unaware or unmoved by our suffering—on the contrary, He’s working through it to sanctify us and grow us in the likeness of His Son.
Having said that, Scripture is not blind to the injustices of this world. The book of Ecclesiastes gives us a wise and helpful perspective on the nature of this world and the place of God’s people in it. Regarding the prevalence of injustice, Solomon writes, “If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them” (Ecclesiastes 5:8). It’s presumed that human beings can’t be trusted. The whole reason for structured hierarchies is to make people accountable and mitigate the inequity and oppression that will inevitably occur.
We understand that life in this world will not be fair. “I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). We can’t guarantee equitable outcomes for everyone. But we know there is no advantage for those who do evil. “Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God” (8:12–13). The wicked may benefit in the short term, but they cannot avoid death and judgment. “Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness. I said to myself, ‘God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man,’ for a time for every matter and for every deed is there” (3:16–17).
God’s people don’t turn a blind eye to injustice or the chaos of unchecked sin. But neither do we take its punishment into our own hands. “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:17–19). God is the Judge—we should not attempt to do His work for Him.
We need to console ourselves with the fact that we won’t always know what God is accomplishing through suffering and trials. We have no choice but to trust in His sovereign timing. As Solomon reminds us, “He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). So how, then, do we live amidst the chaos and corruption of sin?
Solomon continues, “I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God” (vv. 12–13). We need to recognize this life for the gift it is. Again, “I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?” (v. 22). We don’t know what’s ahead for this world—how much worse it might get before the Lord returns. But in the short time we have, we don’t need to be part of the disruption and rebellion. Our lives “are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). We should be happy and enjoy the gift we’ve been given.
That’s not to say we should live self-involved lives in the constant pursuit of pleasure. Rather, it means that we take full advantage of the blessings God has bestowed on us. God wants us to make the most of the life He has given us.
Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. (Ecclesiastes 9:7–10)
In this fallen, corrupt, chaotic world, if you have any wisdom at all, take everything God has given you. Enjoy your work. Enjoy your marriage. Enjoy the fellowship of the church and the work of the gospel. Enjoy your life, and be happy.
It is not our calling to fix this world. God will deal with the corruption and chaos of sin in His own timing. In the words of Solomon, “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14).
© 2020 by John MacArthur. All rights reserved. Scripture quotations, unless noted otherwise, taken from the New American Standard Bible ®, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation and are used by permission.