Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Serious Call to Sexual Purity
April 25, 2007
Listen to this Sermon
I received an email from a young lady I have never met. She happens to live in a country on the other side of the world. Because she reads my weblog, she felt like she could write and share her heart with me. This is part of what she had to say:
I think you might be surprised, but I’ve something personal to share to you. I came from a Christian family and knew Jesus at a very young age. Then I got involved with a guy and we started to engage in sexual intimacy. We never had intercourse though, because I didn’t want to despite his persuasions. I knew it was wrong, but somehow fell deeper into it, even after my baptism at age 15.
All along, I knew I wanted to get out of this, at times I refused his physical requests because I know I have to obey God, but other times I gave in to the sinful pleasures and also in a bid to not hurt him. With this relationship, I’ve done what I thought I’ll never see myself doing. The fact that I was attending a Christian school made me feel like a hypocrite evermore.
So, the sinful relationship went on for about six years. During this period of time, sometimes I tried to do the right thing and follow God; other times I gave in to sin, back and forth, hence our numerous breakups and reunions.
Finally I decided to terminate my relationship with this guy because I realized I’ve sinned against the Lord a great deal in this relationship and was always so weak in dealing with the sexual temptations that come with it. I always pray to follow God, but was rarely able to really walk my talk.
– Is my salvation truly genuine? I struggled with this because I thought if I really were saved then I would’ve long left this relationship and not continue to sin in it willfully.
– Is there something wrong with my conscience? Because I find it strange that I didn’t feel sad or guilty over what I’ve done that is against God.
Her words speak for a whole generation of young people who struggle with purity and feel guilty because they have failed again and again. I think the part that touched me most was her fear that perhaps she is not truly saved because of her past. She speaks for many church members, single, married and formerly married, who struggle deeply with feelings of shame and doubt.
What would you say to her? What does the Bible say?
I. The Challenge to Purity
Fact—Hardcore pornography has come out of the closet and on to Main Street.
Fact—Through the Internet the vilest forms of pornography are available to young children.
Fact—Homosexuality is now seen as an acceptable alternative lifestyle.
Fact—Most mainline denominations now have openly gay clergy.
Fact—We routinely watch things on television that would have made us blush 25 years ago.
Fact—Nothing much surprises us anymore. We’ve seen it all … and seen it so often we’ve lost our ability to be shocked. Adultery … premarital sex … group sex … lesbianism … wife swapping … pornography in our local convenience stores … x-rated movies on TV … easy divorce … multiple marriages … quick abortions … incest … child abuse … bestiality … teen pregnancy … gay churches … born again pornographers … pastors having affairs … radical sex education. And the list goes on and on.
Consider this note I received from a wife who speaks of her husband’s addiction to pornography:
Shortly after we were married I became aware of his extensive pornography use in all the classic forms. Of course I did not know what to do about it and was quite naïve about the whole thing and embarrassed to really make it known. Everything about it made me sick to my stomach. I eventually got my nerve to confront him without being able to say the word pornography. It was not even a word in my vocabulary before this. He told me he never wanted to hurt me and would try to work on it as to never do it again. I believed him, or should I say wanted to believe him so bad I denied any feelings I may have had or things I saw him do that proved otherwise.
The devastation that pornography does to a marriage and family is horrendous. It affects everyone involved in that addicted person’s life and then some. Pornography usage itself is like dominos; once you start it you can’t stop it until everyone in your life is hit with its tragic blow. My life has been turned upside down, in a whirlwind of emotions and turmoil. I cannot tell you how deep the pain has gone. I felt like I was being ripped in two. The one person I was supposed to be able to trust and run to when life hurts, was the one person who hurt me the most and who I could not go to for that loving comfort. I believe in the sanctity of marriage and believe me, that was my deepest desire for mine.
I mention this simply because it’s easy for us to think that the problem is “out there” somewhere on the other side of the church walls. But pornography (especially through the Internet) has become a major problem “in here” because it is so easily available.
II. The Call to Purity
The Bible has a great deal to say about moral purity. Consider these three passages.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God … For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, 7).
“Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:18—20).
As I studied these passages, something jumped off the pages of Scripture that I had never seen before. Let me isolate the key phrases for you:
See God … This is the will of God … God called us … Whom you have from God … Glorify God.
Purity is not primarily about sex.
Purity is not primarily about what you do or don’t do.
Purity is not primarily about what you watch or read or what you say.
Purity is about God!
Purity is the personal decision to glorify God with your body, soul and spirit. So many times when we talk about purity, we put it in terms of dos and don’ts. Can I go here? Should I read this book? Is it wrong to see this movie? Is this blouse too revealing? Should I listen to this music? Those are legitimate questions, but they are secondary to the real issue. God has a stake in your moral purity. He has called you to purity, and he is greatly glorified when you walk in purity. The real question is not “Do I want this?” or “Would I enjoy this?” or “Do I need this?” but “Will this honor God?”
Will it honor God for me to read this book?
Will God be glorified if I date this person?
Does reading this book dishonor the Lord?
Will I reflect badly on the Lord if I wear this dress?
Purity is not about you or your desires.
Purity is about doing what honors God.
Purity means living so that God’s reputation is enhanced by your personal choices.
Have You Been Circumcised?
Most of those choices are ones we make in very private areas of life. Let me illustrate. Each year during the winter I teach the book of Galatians to the students of Word of Life Bible Institute in upstate New York. Over the course of four days, I spend ten hours teaching 400-500 students the truths of this emergency letter written by the Apostle Paul to the young Galatian believers who were on the verge of turning back to the Law of Moses by allowing themselves to be circumcised. That’s the real issue of the book. After Paul had preached the gospel and taught the new believers in Galatia, he left to continue his ministry in another place. But as soon as he departed, certain so-called brothers from Jerusalem who claimed to represent the apostles in Jerusalem—especially James, Peter and John—came to Galatia and told those new believers they needed to be circumcised. This was shocking news to these young converts because they were Gentiles who had come to Christ from pagan backgrounds. Circumcision was a new idea to them. These so-called brothers from Jerusalem told the new believers, “If you want to be saved, you must be circumcised.” And some of them had complied. Many others were on the verge. When Paul heard the news, he became so alarmed that he sat down and wrote an “emergency letter.” It is emotional, personal and polemical. He is angry at the so-called brothers from Jerusalem for trying to force the Gentiles to be circumcised, and he is upset that the Galatians had been so easily bewitched (that’s the actual word he uses in Galatians 3:1) by the false teachers. They were rejecting the gospel of grace in favor of the yoke of the Old Testament law. Why would anyone exchange freedom for slavery?
Now all of that is a shortened form of my introduction to the book. Whether you can tell it or not from what I wrote, I get pretty jazzed about teaching Galatians. It’s an amazingly contemporary book. But here’s the problem. At first glance, it doesn’t seem “amazingly contemporary.” Certain parts of it contain intricate arguments from Old Testament history and Chapter 4 ends with an allegory about Sarah and Hagar that everyone admits seems foreign to our way of thinking. But there is an even greater hurdle I have to cross every year. Somehow I have to get the students interested in circumcision. I just stopped and smiled to myself because I know what a chore it is. Let’s face it. Most of us never think about circumcision except when a male baby is born. And even when we think about it, we put it in the category of “elective medical procedure.” It’s just a little operation performed on baby boys a few days after birth. Some boys are circumcised. Some aren’t. To those of us who aren’t Jewish, it has no religious significance whatsoever. We certainly never think, “I need to circumcise my son so he can go to heaven.” We can’t even conceive of thinking that way. But that’s precisely what the so-called brothers from Jerusalem were telling those easily-confused, well-meaning, relatively recent Gentile converts in Galatia.
Pastor Ray’s Circumcision Talk
So the problem for me becomes, How do I explain circumcision to 21st-century college-age students? I do it by taking some time for “Pastor Ray’s Circumcision Talk” in the third lecture. I step away from the lectern, sit on the edge of the stage, let my feet dangle, and have a frank talk with the students. I repeat everything I have said above, and then I tell them that circumcision was the God-ordained sign of the covenant for Jewish men. It meant they were part of God’s covenant family and agreed to live under his law. Circumcision was the door that opened into everything else—the priesthood, the sacrifices, temple worship, everything. But then I ask why God chose this particular sign. After all, it was so personal and private that no one else but a man (and his wife) would ever see it. From the outside, you couldn’t tell who was circumcised and who wasn’t. Why didn’t God choose some other mark on the body? Why not piercing the ear or cutting the cheek or marking the hand? Something that could be easily seen. Why choose something so private and personal?
At this point the normal rustling in the room stops. No one moves. I tell them that God chose this mark in a man’s most private parts so that in the most intimate moments of life, he would remember that he belonged to God. And if he decided to sin with a foreign woman, he would have to do it with that part of his body that had been set apart as holy to the Lord. Circumcision reminded a man in a way that he could never forget that he belonged to God—body, soul and spirit—and that even the most intimate moments, the things never seen by others, the part that goes on behind closed doors, that part must belong to God also.
Purity matters because all of life matters to God. In truth, nothing is private with the Lord. He sees it all, even the things we try to hide from him. There is no use in talking about outward purity unless we also talk about inward purity, which the New Testament describes as the circumcision of the heart. Circumcision still matters to God, only now it’s not the physical procedure, it’s the state of your heart that God cares about.
III. The Commitment to Purity
Many Christians say they feel far from God. One answer is to relentlessly pursue purity in every area of your life. As long as you harbor impure thoughts, words and deeds, as long as you continue to cover up the truth, you cannot get better. A wise man told me once, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Then he added, “If you’ve got a lot of secrets, you’re really sick.” Some of us are sick on the inside because of the secrets we hide from others. “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy” (Proverbs 28:13). If we ever have the courage to confess our sins, bring our secrets out into the open, we can be healed, cleansed, forgiven and be made whole.
But let me warn you that purity comes with a high price tag. The devil will fight you every step of the way. It’s not just lust that he uses against us. It’s the shame and guilt of what we’ve done, and the recurring thought, “What if others knew what you’ve been doing?” So we live in the shadowy realm of fear, worried that someone will find out the truth about us, desperately hoping for a way out. We will not get better until we decide to do whatever it takes to be pure before the Lord. You can’t have clean hands until you decide to wash off the dirt. For most of us, purity will be a lifelong struggle, a battle that never ends. We will wrestle with the world, the flesh and the devil until the day we die. And sometimes we will fail. But by God’s grace we can get up and walk again.
Purity is worth it because the pure in heart see God. They know him deeply, personally, intimately. They have an inner peace that others do not have. They see God and know the comfort of his presence and the joy of his blessing. Purity will cost you a great deal, but it’s one investment you will never regret.
I am keenly aware that some people reading my words feel totally defeated. Perhaps you have already blown it so badly that you feel there is no hope for you. Perhaps you have not been faithful to your husband or wife, and you wonder, “What’s the use?” Maybe you were promiscuous in your younger days or possibly before you came to Christ. It may be that you have burning memories of recent moral failure. Perhaps you have fallen victim this very week to Internet pornography. Is there any hope for you or must you remained stained and soiled for life? There are two answers to that question. The first is that sin always brings negative consequences. Nothing I can say will change that fact. And some sins bring large consequences that last for a lifetime.
However, I have some better news for you. Jesus has something he wants to say to you. “Rise and walk” is the Lord’s message to every broken sinner. “Go and sin no more.”
Many Christians waste a lot of time trying to have a better past. It’s a waste of time. It is what it is. You can’t change the past, but you can do something about the future. By God’s grace you can be clean and pure from this day forward. You don’t have to live in guilt or fear or shame any longer. Rise and walk, child of God. Get up out of the muck and mire of shameful defeat. In the name of Jesus, rise and walk!
I started this message by quoting from an email that arrived from a young woman on the other side of the world who struggles with feelings of guilt and doubt because of her past. She wanted to know if her sin means she is not a genuine Christian. Here is my answer to her:
Believe it or not, you’ve asked me a very easy question. I have no doubt that you are trusting Jesus Christ and that he is truly the Lord of your life. I know that because you finally had the courage to break up with your boyfriend after all these years. Finally, you got tired of that “yo-yo” lifestyle of walking in the light and then sliding back into the darkness. And you said, “Enough is enough.” That’s what true Christians eventually say. Though we may sin and sin and sin, eventually the Holy Spirit brings us to the place where we say, “I’m not going to live that way anymore.”
It is the characteristic of true believers that though we fall, and though we stumble, we keep on walking toward the light. You have stumbled many times, but because you are God’s child, you have taken courage and done the right thing. For this I salute you greatly.
Do not worry about whether or not you felt guilty. If you focus on your feelings, you will be misled. After all, it was your feelings that caused you to keep on sinning. What matters is not your feelings but the fact that you have chosen to do right.
One bit of warning. If I were the devil, I would put your newfound conviction to the test. Be on your guard. You may face temptation in another area soon. Very often, after we have made a big decision for the Lord, he allows us to be tested by the devil so that we prove the genuineness of our love for Christ. When that happens–and it will–do not despair or feel that you have somehow failed. The testing is a sign that you are truly God’s child.
So please take heart. From where I sit thousands of miles away, I hear the voice of a genuine child of God. Keep walking in the light. Keep taking tiny steps in the right direction every day.
I am very hopeful for this young lady because she has made a hard decision and is just now beginning to discover the freedom that comes with seeking purity in the intimate areas of life. If she continues to walk in the light, her joy will only increase.
When we walk in purity, God is greatly glorified and we are greatly satisfied.
Without God you will never be pure. After David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, when he finally came to his senses, he prayed like this in Psalm 51:10,
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
That is a prayer for all of us all the time. I leave you with one final thought. God loves you too much to leave you the way you are. He is going to do whatever it takes to make you holy. That includes making us miserable when we sin so that we will hunger for something better.
When you look in the mirror, are you satisfied with what you see? The answer is no for all of us. And the first step is the same for all of us. If you want a clean heart, ask for one. It’s as simple and as profound as that. For those who ask shall receive, those who seek shall find, and for those who knock, the door of heaven will be opened to them. Amen.