Towards the end of his epistle, the writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers to lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin that so easily entangles us (Heb.l2:1). Within this single exhortation, we are told something about how easy and how difficult it is for us to deal with our residual sin. We do well seriously to consider this dual teaching in this one exhortation.
The writer really tells us to lay aside two things: encumbrances and sin. An encumbrance would be anything that lures us into sin, or that is antithetical to our focusing wholly upon Jesus (v.2). The man who tends to drink wine to excess, for example, would do well not to partake of the fruit of the vine except within the holy and blessed confines of the Lord's Supper. Whatever forms our encumbrances may take (and they vary from person to person) the writer commends to us a holy ruthlessness when we deal with them. We are called upon to lay aside every encumbrance. Such a radical commitment to push aside all that would rob or even distract us from vital communion with Christ can appear quite excessive or fanatical in our day when toleration of so much is deemed a high virtue. However, it is only by such radical casting aside of all barriers to our fellowship with Christ that we prepare ourselves to stay out of sin's grasp and to experience consistent peace and joy in the Lord, as well as usefulness in His service.
Encumbrances represent outside interference with our attachment to Christ. Sin, however, is within us. Strictly speaking, no one or nothing outside of us can make us sin. Encumbrances can occasion our sin; they can facilitate our sinning; but they are never the cause of our sin. This being the case, we would expect the Hebrews writer to instruct us that the way we are to deal with our sin is more complex and difficult than the way we deal with our encumbrances. Yet he tells us to deal with each in precisely the same way. We are to lay each one aside. The image of our laying aside an encumbrance seems to be that of a rather easy one-man operation. We simply brush aside the impediments from our way. The image of our laying aside our sin appears to be one of removal of clothing. There is certainly nothing difficult about one's taking off a jacket or a pair of shoes. He requires neither a committee nor prescription drugs to do that. Can our dealing with our sin be so easy?
It is easy for us to deal with our sin when we rightly understand its power and its weakness in our lives. The nature of sin in the life of the believer is that it is a dominating enemy from which we have been delivered by Christ. Read Romans 6 to see how the Apostle Paul develops this. He tells us that we have died to sin through our union to Christ in His death, and therefore we are no longer slaves to sin (Rom.6: 5-7). But then he tells us that by faith we must apply this truth and not let sin reign in us, as its residual dregs can be stirred by Satan into a conglomerated mass that attempts to reasserted dominance over us (Rom.6: 12,14). Nothing could be easier than for us to know the facts of our redemption, to believe them, and to live accordingly. When we identify and nip resurgent sin in the bud, nothing could be easier than for us to cast it aside as the unwanted trash that it is.
However, the Hebrews writer tells us something about the power of sin in addition to what he tells us of its weakness. He says that our sin can easily entangle us. How are we to reconcile the exhortation that tells us on the one hand to treat sin like a jacket we can easily remove from ourselves, and on the other declares to us that sin is a power that can easily entangle us?
These features are rightly understood in this way: If we have a mind and heart to do so, we can identify both our besetting sin and those matters that facilitate it, and put those facilitating matters out of our lives. Those who seriously make the attempt testify to how easy it can be. It should be easy, for if we determine to do what God in His Word tells us to do, He will bless and enable us in our doing it. The next thing is for us to lay aside our sin. Here it is critical for us to understand that we are to do this as soon as we recognize the sin that is trying to assert itself in us. We must ruthlessly and without hesitation flee from our lusts, and, if we do so, we shall find that we have rather easily made good our escape. But, as the common saying rightly tells us, he who hesitates, especially in dealing with his own sin, is lost. If we fail quickly and decisively to lay aside sin, we shall find it to swell up quickly into an overwhelming power that will, indeed, easily entangle us. Therefore, the key to laying aside sin is the speed with which we identify and mortify it. Delay in this matter will always be deadly.
But what becomes of us if we do delay and so find ourselves entangled in sin and its miserable consequences? Here again, swift and right action is the key. Let us without hesitation confess our sin to the Lord, and we shall find Him most faithful fully to forgive and restore us (1 Jn.1:9). Let us, then, not empower sin by our contemplation of and delay in our rightly dealing with it. Let us rather conquer sin by our swiftly mortifying it. And if we do fail rightly to act in this matter, and so find ourselves entangled in the power of sin, let us not wallow in self-pity or guilty fears, but let us quickly cry out our confession to and supplication for forgiveness from the Lord. Then and only then will we be able to run the race set before us.
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk Virginia