One of the biggest challenges to repentance can be the feeling that we are “too bad” for God, or have gone beyond his salvation. In this short podcast John Piper challenges that view using passages from Hebrews to encourage us to turn back to God and see he can save us.
A man from Hong Kong, who asked not to be named, writes in to ask, “Pastor John, when do we reach the stage of Esau described in Hebrews 12:15–17, when he moved beyond the possibility of repentance?
“I have been a Christian all my life but have fallen deeply into sexual sin over a period of many years. My past includes pornography, an adulterous relationship with another man’s wife, and prostitution. I have never stopped fighting these sins. I hate them, and I am glad to say that God recently did a great work to liberate me from the adulterous relationship with the help of my pastor and other fellow Christians. This makes me believe he still cares to save me.
“However, sometimes I still find myself powerless against these sexual sins. I fear continuing to drift into sexual vice, as described in Hebrew 12:16, and ending up in a place beyond repentance, fallen from grace. How do I overcome this helpless drifting into sin and avoid a hardened heart that can no longer repent?”
Tony, I think I want to say a very brief prayer before I go here.
Yes, we must.
Father, I am not able to do the liberation here, but you are. You are. You and your word are able, so I ask you to come now for this man and, I am sure, a significant number of others and to do the miracle the word was designed to accomplish by the Spirit. In Jesus’s name. Amen.
Let me pick up on that last phrase: “this helpless drifting into sin.” I think I should warn this man in Hong Kong in the strongest possible terms that he should pick up his drooping hands, strengthen his weak knees, and make his paths straight (Hebrews 12:12–13).
If necessary, he should shout at the top of his lungs with clenched fists and gritted teeth in the face of Satan’s lie: “I am not helpless! God did not make me to drift. I am not a jellyfish in the currents of lust. That is not what God created human beings to be. That is not why Christ died for me. That is not why I have the Holy Spirit. That is not why I am a new creature in Christ. I am not helpless.
“I have Christ. I have the Holy Spirit. I have the blood of the cross of the Son of God. I have the hope of glory. I have the entire word of God. I have the promises of grace. I am not helpless. God, get that lie out of my life.” As long as men and women play the victim (as if lust is an omnipotent enemy, and they are helpless), they are done for.
“As long as men and women play the victim (as if lust is an omnipotent enemy, and they are helpless), they are done for.”
It is remarkable — wonderful! — that this man has focused on the book of Hebrews. In particular, he has focused on the warning against reaching the point of selling ourselves as helpless slaves of lust to whom God will no longer grant the ability to repent and find forgiveness in Christ.
That is right. That is a good place for him to focus. The book of Hebrews — the entire book — was written to help us persevere to the end in faith and obedience. Hebrews gets in our face when we play the victim card and pretend we have no resources against the powers of sin.
Let’s put the text that concerns him in front of us.
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (Hebrews 12:15–17)
That is a good place for a man to go when he is about to sell his soul again to lust. There came a point when God withdrew from Esau. Esau’s heart was so hardened that even his weeping in search of repentance was phony at its root. He “sought [repentance] with tears,” but they were fake. They were not penitent tears. He could not cry real tears of repentance anymore.
His tears were not true. He wanted the blessing. He wanted the safety. He wanted the gifts. He wanted the inheritance. He wanted heaven. But he did not want God. He loved this world. He traded something infinitely valuable for a single meal.
“Esau’s heart was so hardened that even his weeping in search of repentance was phony at its root.”
So, the fundamental battle we must fight (and can fight and win) is the battle not to see the world in such a grossly distorted way as Esau saw it. He looked at the inheritance promised by the almighty God, and he looked at a bowl of oatmeal. Let’s say he looked at a possible pornographic click or a possible prostitute fling, and he weighed the two in the balances of his mind. On the one side was the enjoyment of God forever; on the other side was the rush of a pornographic glimpse.
In his mind, he committed the ultimate outrage of the universe. The pornographic glimpse was weightier in the balance: more precious, more desirable, more beautiful, more satisfying. As for God and his infinite promises, they went up like dust.
Every man and woman must realize that at any moment while we are committing that outrage, God can walk away from us and never return. He would have perfect warrant, perfect justification, because every time we do that, we are saying to him, “Be gone. I prefer my single meal to you.”
The book of Hebrews is perfectly willing to tell us (and it does over and over again with the strongest possible warnings) that there is a “too late.” “Too late” arrives when you can no longer genuinely repent. If you can repent, my friend in Hong Kong, God will be merciful to you.
“There is a ‘too late.’ ‘Too late’ arrives when you can no longer genuinely repent.”
Oh, how patient he is. Oh, how many hundreds of times he has been willing to return to you and me. None of us deserved any one of those returns — not one. But we do not know when we may have sent him away for the last time.
Let us be clear: If he never returns, we are the ones who sent him away. We chose the single meal of lust. We sent him away. We said, “You go. I am done with you. I do not want you. I want this. Right now, I want this — not you.” We have sent him away. Any talk of blaming God is just another old victim card we play to justify our desires.
The answer to our friend in Hong Kong’s question — “How do I overcome this helpless drifting into sin?” — is this: Open your eyes. Open your eyes as you look at God’s crystal-clear word, God’s crystal-clear gospel, and God’s crystal-clear warnings.
See that God’s crystal-clear promises are ten thousand times more precious than any sexual escapade. Open your eyes to see reality for what it is. Stop seeing distortion. Stop seeing the ephemeral euphoria of a moment’s sexual rush as more valuable than inheriting the glory of God. See reality.
There is perhaps no book in the Bible like Hebrews to help you do this. The book exists to help you see the reality of God’s worth. This is amazing. The book exists to keep professing Christians from becoming Esaus. Our friend has got his finger right on the pulse of the book. That is why the book exists.
A friend of mine memorized the whole book. A few months ago, he recited it to his church to guard against becoming an Esau. I dare suggest to you, friend in Hong Kong: memorize Hebrews in your warfare. Your life may depend on it.
Your main problem is that you go in and out of distorted views of the world. Hebrews is an absolutely perfect view of the world, including adultery and pornography and every form of lust. The book was written to be glasses for you when you start seeing the world in a distorted way. Put them on.
“Be strengthened by grace. Know that you are not helpless, and put to death the lie when it comes.”
Your question grew out of Hebrews 12. Put on your Hebrews 12 glasses. There is a whole cloud of witnesses who finished the race (Hebrews 12:1). They have lined up along the racecourse of your life, and they are shouting to you from chapter 11: “You are not helpless. By faith you can do this. You can walk out of lust and out of pornography. By faith you can do this!” That great cloud of witnesses did not become Esaus. That great cloud ends with Jesus in Hebrews 12:2.
Let me end there: “[Look] to Jesus,” friend in Hong Kong, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated [not as an Esau] at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). He did it for you, and he will do it in you. Look to him. See reality for what it is. Be strengthened by grace. Know that you are not helpless, and put to death the lie when it comes.