Read Mark 9.
Because we are sinners, it is easy for us to tolerate the existence of sin. If someone sins against us, that can be tough to take, but if we see one person sin against another or we sin against someone else, it is easy to excuse it. We don’t condone sin directly, but we say to ourselves, “I’ve sinned too” or “I’m capable of doing that” or “I’ve been tempted to do that” or the ever-present, “Nobody’s perfect.”
Jesus coached us to be much harder on sin than we are. Not to be hard on the sin of others, but to be hard on ourselves. We read about that in verses 42-48. In verse 42, he warned us not to cause someone else to “stumble.” Stumbling means to fall into sin.
Ultimately, we cannot force someone into sin but we can tempt him or her to sin. We can also put someone else in a position where they will be tempted to sin. I can’t make an alcoholic take a drink of whiskey, but I could invite him to go bar-hopping with me. If he decides to come along with me but tells himself he will not drink, he will find himself in an environment where it is easy to compromise. “Just one drink one glass of beer” he may tell himself as he orders a drink from the bartender. But then one glass may lead to two and, pretty soon, he’s falling down drunk. It was his choice, but I laid down in front of him and said, “Don’t trip and stumble over me!”
Jesus said that someone who causes one of his children–a believer–to sin will receive harsh punishment from God. He said it would be “better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.” That sounds like a terrifying way to die, drowning to death and unable to stop it. But Jesus said a person who drowns that way will be better off than the person who causes another believer to sin.
In verses 43-48, Jesus went on to warn us about causing ourselves to stumble. His advice was to deal radically with our sin. If it is your hand that causes you to sin, cut it off! Why? Because it is better to deal with the horrible wound of amputation and the disability of that amputation than to go to hell. Same with your eyes; if one of them causes you to sin, get rid of it so that you won’t go to hell.
What do we make of these warnings from Jesus? Is he suggesting that some sin could cause us to stumble so thoroughly that we lost our salvation?
Salvation does not depend on our efforts but on the grace of God. The point of these verses is not to teach us how to deal with sin. Our hands and eyes don’t actually make us sin; it is our hearts that lead us to sin. A person with no hands or feet or eyes or hearing still has a heart that desires evil things.
And that’s the point of these words–to teach us that nothing we can do would be radical enough to rid us of the sin tendencies that will condemn us to hell. Only God’s righteousness, credited to us in Christ, can get us forgiveness for the sins we have committed and will commit.
But, once God’s grace has saved you, it will change you. God gives each believer the Holy Spirit and a new nature within. These acts of saving grace will change our evil hearts so that we actually learn to say no to sin and yes to righteousness.
So the person who believes they will be saved on the day of judgement but who is careless and callous about his or her sin should read this text and realize how much trouble they are in. They should feel the desperation of a certainty in hell and fall on the mercy of God, asking him to save them from the eternity they deserve.
And God will be there to hear that prayer. God will answer that prayer of faith with full forgiveness and give you the power to change without amputating your limbs.
God sees the true danger of sin and wants us to be much harder on it than we tend to be, calling out for his grace and help. If you’ve never trusted Christ, this is what you need to do because cutting off your limbs won’t stop you from sinning. If you have trusted Christ, you need to pursue holiness in your life, asking God to cleanse you when you sin but also to purge from you the desire to sin, replacing it with a passion to be holy like he is.