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Rise mightily against the first actings of thy distemper, its first conceptions; suffer it not to get the least ground. Do not say, “Thus far it shall go, and no farther.” If it have allowance for one step, it will take another.
- Sin in our actions begins as sin our hearts:
20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Mark 7:20–23 (ESV)
Thus, sin first begins in our thoughts and affections, it is an idea and desire before it ever becomes an action. Read James 1:14-15: What are the steps there listed for the beginning of sin?
Read Genesis 3:6: What takes place in Eve before she takes the fruit?
What about sins which seem to spring up spontaneously without any precursor, such a rage of anger: in what ways do such sins have start? Consider a recent experience of anger: What thoughts and desires had to be in place for anger to be possible? How would an increase in humility, pity, love have altered your heart in such a way that anger would not have been expressed? By way of comparison — consider other sins which you see others commit but you do follow in yourself. What is different your thoughts and affections that lead you to not following in that sin?
- We must stop sin at first actings.
It is impossible to fix bounds to sin. It is like water in a channel,—if it once break out, it will have its course. Its not acting is easier to be compassed than its bounding. Therefore doth James give that gradation and process of lust, chap. 1:14, 15, that we may stop at the entrance.
Sin does not move like an animal or machine which will eventually expend all its energy and then stop. Sin moves like a fire, which gains strength the longer it continues. Sin moves like a flood where there is no end of rain.
There is an idea which holds that the way to deal with sin is to give it some indulgence, let it have its way and then it will be satisfied and stop. For example, it was common to teach people to “vent” their anger. This advice was foolish and since been rejected.
Solomon knew this 3,000 years ago:
Proverbs 17:14 (ESV)
14 The beginning of strife is like letting out water,
so quit before the quarrel breaks out.
There are two aspects sin gaining power: in the immediate action and in the habitual action.
Consider the story of Saul’s anger in 1 Samuel 18-20. What are the points of escalation of his anger?
Read 1 Samuel 15:23, to what Samuel compare Saul’s disobedience? Read 1 Samuel 28:3: what had Saul done? Read the remainder of the chapter: What is the irony here? To what had Saul’s habitual sin led?
Sin is of an encroaching nature; it creeps on the soul by degrees, step by step, till it hath the soul to the very height of sin.
David gives way to his wandering eye, and this led him to those foul sins that caused God to break his bones, and to turn his day into night, and to leave his soul in great darkness. Jacob and Peter, and other saints, have found this true by woful experience, that the yielding to a lesser sin hath been the ushering in of a greater. The little thief will open the door, and make way for the greater, and the little wedge knocked in will make way for the greater.
Satan will first draw thee to sit with the drunkard, and then to sip with the drunkard, and then at last to be drunk with the drunkard. He will first draw thee to be unclean in thy thoughts, and then to be unclean in thy looks, and then to be unclean in thy words, and at last to be unclean in thy practices. He will first draw thee to look upon the golden wedge, and then to like the golden wedge, and then to handle the golden wedge, and then at last by wicked ways to gain the golden wedge, though thou runnest the hazard of losing God and thy soul for ever; as you may see in Gehazi, Achan, and Judas, and many in these our days. Sin is never at a stand: Ps. 1:1, first ungodly, then sinners, then scorners. Here they go on from sin to sin, till they come to the top of sin, viz. to sit in the seat of scorners, or as it is in the Septuagint—τῶν λοιμῶν—to affect the honour of the chair of pestilence.
Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 1 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1866), 19–20.
- To stop a sin at the beginning consider where it will end:
Dost thou find thy corruption to begin to entangle thy thoughts? rise up with all thy strength against it, with no less indignation than if it had fully accomplished what it aims at. Consider what an unclean thought would have; it would have thee roll thyself in folly and filth. Ask envy what it would have;—murder and destruction is at the end of it. Set thyself against it with no less vigour than if it had utterly debased thee to wickedness. Without this course thou wilt not prevail.
Read Proverbs 5:3-6. This is a picture all temptations, not merely adultery. How is sin pictured in the temptation? But what does sin become if it is able to express itself?
Read Proverbs 7:6-9: How does the adultery begin?
Read Matthew 27:3-10. What happened to Judas? How did he respond as soon as sin had revealed itself to him?
Ah, souls! when you shall lie upon a dying bed, and stand before a judgment-seat, sin shall be unmasked, and its dress and robes shall then be taken off, and then it shall appear more vile, filthy, and terrible than hell itself; then, that which formerly appeared most sweet will appear most bitter, and that which appeared most beautiful will appear most ugly, and that which appeared most delightful will then appear most dreadful to the soul.
Ah, the shame, the pain, the gall, the bitterness, the horror, the hell that the sight of sin, when its dress is taken off, will raise in poor souls! Sin will surely prove evil and bitter to the soul when its robes are taken off. A man may have the stone who feels no fit of it. Conscience will work at last, though for the present one may feel no fit of accusation. Laban shewed himself at parting. Sin will be bitterness in the latter end, when it shall appear to the soul in its own filthy nature.
The devil deals with men as the panther doth with beasts; he hides his deformed head till his sweet scent hath drawn them into his danger. Till we have sinned, Satan is a parasite; when we have sinned, he is a tyrant.
O souls! the day is at hand when the devil will pull off the paint and garnish that he hath put upon sin, and present that monster, sin, in such a monstrous shape to your souls, that will cause your thoughts to be troubled, your countenance to be changed, the joints of your loins to be loosed, and your knees to be dashed one against another, and your hearts to be so terrified, that you will be ready, with Ahithophel and Judas,3 to strangle and hang your bodies on earth, and your souls in hell, if the Lord hath not more mercy on you than he had on them. Oh! therefore, look upon sin now as you must look upon it to all eternity, and as God, conscience, and Satan will present it to you another day!
Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 1 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1866), 17.
Exercise: Consider a sin which often tempts you. Rather than consider what the sin offers, consider what the sin costs. Read Proverbs 5:8-14 to see a list of what troubles came upon the man because of adultery. Take out a piece of paper and write out: (1) Where this sin will ultimately lead in terms of action: anger goes to murder, lost goes to adultery. (2) Where will this sin lead in terms of consequence to you and others?
- Conduct Changes Thoughts & Desires:
As sin gets ground in the affections to delight in, it gets also upon the understanding to slight it.
Human beings are a combination of actions, desires & thoughts: each of these affects the other two. Owen here explains that what we do will change what we think (“understanding”) and what we desire (“delight”).
This is a theme which runs through the Scripture, but it is routinely neglected.
Read Deuteronomy 6:1-2: Explain the relationship between conduct & fearing the Lord.
Read Proverbs 2:1-5: Explain the relationship between conduct, desire and thought.
Read Psalm 37:1-9: Explain the relationship between Thoughts, affections (emotions & desires), and actions.
Now these passages all speak to training ourselves to godliness (1 Timothy 4:8), but the same principle applies to sinful actions (see, e.g., Micah 2:1).