Whenever I need deep, penetrating insight into Scripture, the human heart, and the spiritual-dynamics of our walk with Christ, I often turn to old books. Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections is a favorite. J. C. Ryle’s Holiness is always helpful in the same way surgery is: painful yet restorative. Whenever I ponder over Charles Bridges’ The Christian Ministry I am humbled and renewed to pursue pastoral ministry with greater humility and zeal for the glory of God. John Owen’s Temptation and Sin is full of useful, heart-searching insight into the nature of sin and God’s remedy in the gospel. Recently, I started, for the first time, Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices.
Precious Remedies against Small Sins
Brooks wrote Precious Remedies in order to provide Christians with wisdom to withstand, avoid, and overcome Satan’s strategy to make shipwreck of our souls. With millennia worth of data on human behavior, Satan has developed an arsenal of temptations for every man, woman, and child. Depending on our proclivities, gifting, place in life, and other personal factors, Satan will dispatch temptations that fit our person and present situation. Not content to scatter temptations haphazardly, Satan often crafts our temptations with strategic accuracy in order to inflict maximum damage.
One tactic that Satan uses often and with great success is persuading Christians to ignore small sins. Brooks writes,
Ah! saith Satan, it is but a little pride, a little worldliness, a little uncleanness, a little drunkenness, etc. As Lot said of Zoar, “It is but a little one, and my soul shall live” (Gen 19:20). Alas! saith Satan, it is but a very little sin that you stick so at. You may commit it without any danger to your soul. It is but a little one; you may commit it, and yet your soul shall live.Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, 38.
Brooks counters these deceptive tactics by offering biblical truths that unmask their real nature. For example, believers should, when they find themselves allowing small sins to pass unchecked through their life, recall the truth that small sins have occasioned God’s great wrath. Adam and Eve’s taking of the forbidden tree is the supreme example: the couple disregarded one little rule and hell was unleashed on earth. Hatred, murder, every conceivable evil, and worldwide death followed in the wake of one small sin.
Small Sins Lead to Greater Sins
But we should also keep in mind that sin works by degrees so that yielding to small sins actually leads to greater sin. “He that, to avoid a greater sin, will yield to a lesser, ten thousand to one but God in justice will leave that soul to fall into a greater.” Sin works to entrap us by gaining a foothold imperceptibly. “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” (39).
Specifically, “[Satan] 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” (39). David all too well knows the progression from small sins to greater sins (2 Sam 11:1-21). So do many of us. But the psalmist anticipates Satan’s gradualism and commends the one who doesn’t allow the progression to even begin by “walking in the counsel of the wicked” which most often leads to “sitting in the seat of scoffers” (Ps 1:1). Rather, the believer who delights in God’s law and meditates on it day and night will be the one who flourishes like a green tree (Ps 1:3). A mind full of God’s Word is a mind that will be able to resist the quiet encroachments of sin.
Far from harmless, small sins imperil the soul and can have an extensive influence on our lives. Brooks reminds us that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (2 Cor 5:6). In the same way that the smallest pinch of leaven will change the structure of dough, so will small sins weave themselves into every facet of our lives. Indeed, smaller sins may even wreak greater havoc than larger sins because they can attach themselves to our hearts without much consequence at first. Big sins may “startle the soul” and “rouse the soul to repentance” (42). Lesser sins can more easily lodge in our hearts without stirring up remorse and determination to repent.
In order to guard themselves from small sins, Christians should also remind themselves that “there is more evil in the least sin than in the greatest affliction” (44). This principle is seen in the death of Christ. “The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23); of sin, indefinitely, whether great or small. Oh how should this make us tremble, as much as the least spark of lust as at hell itself; considering that God the Father would not spare his bosom Son, no not for the least sin, but would make him drink the dregs of his wrath” (45). For our part, then, we should be willing to undergo the worst affliction rather than yield to even the smallest sin.
Small Sins and Christian Leaders
In a recent podcast, Cliff McManis and I reflected on the fall of several significant Christian leaders over the past decade. We were compelled to discuss this topic because we know that stories of fallen Christian leaders can have a destabilizing effect on believers. It is important to keep in mind, however, that Christian leaders like the men we discussed don’t wake up one morning and decide, out of nowhere, to cheat on their wives, misuse church funds, or unabashedly promote themselves across a host of social media platforms. No, these blatant public sins were the fruit of smaller sins that settled into the leader’s life and, over the course of time, weakened his defenses to greater sins.
While these stories are nevertheless troubling, the preventative remedy for us is simple: don’t ignore small sins. Take care of that wandering eye, tell the truth at all times, be generous and beware of a love for money, report your taxes accurately, keep a good conscience, and stop making provision for the flesh (Rom 13:14).
Small sins, like micro-levels of poison, will kill us. Satan’s tactic is to make us think that they pass through out hearts and lives without any residual damage. That’s a lie, and it’s a lie that, if believed, will lead to massive grief and destruction. But God has given us everything we need in Scripture to navigate past these time-worn tactics. We can, by God’s grace and the wisdom of his Word, avoid these temptations and put to death even the smallest of sins (Rom 8:13).