Branch Sins & Root Sins

In his little book on repentance, Jack Miller distinguishes between two kinds of sins: “branch sins” and “root sins.”

Branch-sins are those faults which others most quickly see in us. They are the sins which most obviously get in the way of relationships with others. They are branch-sins, however, not because they are little sins—but because they are more observable than roots, and because branches derive life and strength from hidden roots.
— Jack Miller, Repentance, Page 33-34

The easier part of repentance is identifying and turning from the out-there-for-everyone-to-see branch sins in our lives. The harder part is identifying and turning from the root sins that give life to the branch sins, but are less obvious to others and ourselves.

My mind immediately goes to James 4:1-2, where James basically asks, “Do you want to know why you are always angry and willing to duke it out all the time (branch sins)?” His answer points to the root sin of self-worship, bowing to ourselves and serving our wants: “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:1-2).

Tree roots are a pain to dig out. They’re stubborn and always more widespread than you anticipate. But there’s a twofold beauty in spending time focusing on root sins in the heart: 1. Killing the root sucks life out of the branches 2. Root removal creates fresh space for God to come in and fill with his grace and presence.

Can you think of any root sins God might be nudging you to investigate?

Discipline and Dependence

Is the Christian life about grace or effort? Is it about working hard and being disciplined, or about living in dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit?

I love the following illustration from Jerry Bridges:

Think of yourself as seated in a jet passenger plane flying 35,000 feet above the earth. Suppose (I know this can’t happen in real life) the pilot were to say through the speaker system, “Folks, we’re in real trouble. One of our wings is about to break off.” Which one of the wings would you rather lose, the left one or the right one? It’s a silly question, isn’t it? No plane can fly with just one wing… Both are absolutely necessary.

Bridges suggests you visualize looking down on the plane from above:

“You see the fuselage, where you are sitting, the two wings, and the tail assembly. As you look at the two wings you see the words dependence on the left wing and discipline on the right wing. This airplane illustrates one of the most important principles in the Christian life. Just as the airplane must have both wings to fly, so we must exercise both discipline and dependence in the pursuit of holiness.

Bridges concludes:

The point of the airplane illustration is that we must not try to carry out our responsibilities in our own strength and willpower. We must depend on the Holy Spirit to enable us. At the same time we must not assume that we have no responsibility simply because we are dependent. God enables us to work, but He does not do the work for us.
— Jerry Bridges

All of this reminds me of the apostle Paul’s own testimony in 1 Corinthians 15:10: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

The Christian life is not a choice between being active or passive, working or praying, etc. It is about living in dependent discipline.

How Can I Find More Joy and Peace in My Life?

I recently picked up Christopher Wright’s new book Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Growing in Christlikeness. If you’re anything like me, always needing a little extra help to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in my life, I recommend getting your hands on this book.

At one point Wright says that “joy” and “peace” are like twins in Scripture because they frequently show up together and are related to each other. Here’s an example: “May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace as you trust in him…” (Romans 15:13).

Maybe joy and peace are twins in Scripture, but are they twins in our lives? If you’re asking me, it depends on when you ask. What does my bank account look like? Are there any relational conflicts in my life? What’s the state of my health and the health of those I love? Am I getting the things I want in my marriage and my job? Maybe joy and peace will be present together, but probably just one, or neither.

Wright points out that joy and peace show up when we’re trusting and depending on the God who has given us peace and gives us joy, rather than on ourselves and our ever-changing circumstances.

Christians will be noticed (and often asked questions) if they have the kind of joy that is not affected by the moods of cynical despair and negativity that can easily dominate groups of people thrown together by their work. But equally, their joy doesn’t come from getting swept up in the occasional crazy bouts of drinking and gluttony. Rather, they have a quality of inner joy that can be sensed even in times of pain, or loss, or suffering; an underlying joy that is not dependent on alcohol, sex, or money.

Similarly, Christians with peace, who are not racked by anxiety or driven by ruthless ambition, who are not devastated by failing to get promoted, or in despair because of the threat or reality of losing their job, but who rather have an inner peace that flows from trusting God—such people are bearing silent witness to the Lord Jesus Christ. They are being like Christ in trusting their heavenly Father in the midst of whatever life brings—even the tough things.
— Wright, page 59


I needed to be reminded of that this week. What we bank our lives on will determine how much peace and joy we experience. Trusting in other people, things (even good things!), and ourselves will drown us in anxiety (the opposite of peace) and sorrow (the opposite of joy) because they’ll always disappoint.

As we daily choose to trust and depend on God and his promises to us—things that never disappoint—these twins will become more and more present in our day-to-day lives. And let’s be honest: who doesn’t want to experience more of the inner joy and inner peace Christ gives us? I know I do.


More on Logs and Specks

Last Sunday I preached on Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 about the log and the speck. Jesus says that we often try to point out the sins of others when we don’t see our own sins clearly.

Recently someone reminded me about what social psychologists call “Fundamental Attribution Error.” In many ways, this is a modern description of the same reality that Jesus talks about in Matthew 7. The simple version goes like this:

When I do something bad, I attribute it to my circumstances. When you do something bad, I attribute it to your character.

We do this all the time.

If I fail to get certain things done, it’s because I am overwhelmed and exhausted. If you fail to get certain things done, it’s because you are lazy and irresponsible. If I say something sharp, it’s because I had a tough day. If you say something sharp, it’s because you are bitter. If I cut someone off while driving, it’s because something distracted me. If you cut someone off while driving, it’s because you are reckless.

On and on it goes.

How do we break free from this pattern? We need God’s help to see ourselves more clearly. Thankfully, God has given us resources that will help us do that. He has given us “the means of grace” (the Word, sacraments, and prayer as ways he brings his grace into our lives). He has also given us each other, other people in the body of Christ who know us and can say things we need to hear with love, humility, and gentleness. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6).

Finally, be suspicious of your own goodness. We all tend to overestimate the strength of our character. It could be, as Jesus said in Matthew 7, that you see the speck in someone else’s eye but you are missing the logjam in your own.

Being Interrupted by God

God has graciously transplanted each of us into the one body of Christ. We’re a family now. Like it works in any family, we have responsibilities to one another. Dietrich Bonhoeffer identifies one of them as active helpfulness:

This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.

Here’s the difficulty, though: active helpfulness is taxing on our time and resources. That’s hard for even the most sanctified among us! But check out the way Bonhoeffer links this challenging call with how God wants to shape our lives around the cross and work out his purposes in us:

We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks… When we do that we pass the visible sign of the Cross raised athwart in our path to show us that, not our way, but God’s way must be done. It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them…

They do not want a life that is crossed and balked. But it is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God.

Allowing ourselves to be expended for one another has a benefit that works in two directions: it blesses those in need and works Christ-like humility in those who help.

The King and the Carrot

This is a great little parable/illustration from a Charles Spurgeon sermon. I first heard it referenced in a lecture by Tim Keller.

Once upon a time there was a king who ruled over everything in a land. One day there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. He took it to his king and said, “My lord, this is the greatest carrot I’ve ever grown or ever will grow; therefore, I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” The king was touched and discerned the man’s heart, so as he turned to go, the king said, “Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I want to give a plot of land to you freely as a gift, so you can garden it all.” The gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing. But there was a nobleman at the king’s court who overheard all this, and he said, “My! If that is what you get for a carrot, what if you gave the king something better?” The next day the nobleman came before the king, and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, “My lord, I breed horses, and this is the greatest horse I’ve ever bred or ever will; therefore, I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” But the king discerned his heart and said, “Thank you,” and took the horse and simply dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed, so the king said, “Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse.”

Do you see how selfishness can create “the appearance of godliness” (2 Timothy 3:5)? Are we seeking the king or only his blessings?

Lies, Lies, Lies

Here are four lies that are easy to believe when you are depressed and feeling condemned.

These come from Ed Welch’s book, Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness:

Do you believe that some things you have done are too bad to be forgiven?

If so, you are believing Satan’s lie that the blood of Jesus can only handle little or unintentional sins. The truth is that, through the cross, the judgment for sin has been taken by Christ for those who believe, including yourself if you have claimed faith in Jesus.

Do you believe that it is impossible for the Holy God to love you and even delight in you?

If so, you are believing Satan’s lie that God loves you because of what you do. The truth is that he loves you because he is the God who loves, and the sacrifice of Jesus proves it. The cross of Christ expresses God’s delight in all who believe, and if you believe that Jesus is the risen Lord, he delights in and loves you.

Do you believe that you have no reason to live?

If so, you are believing Satan’s lie that you belong only to yourself. The truth is that you belong to God and you have a God-given purpose. Furthermore, the cross of Christ reveals that God’s purposes for your life are good.

Do you believe that these questions are unimportant?

If so, you are believing Satan’s lie that our relationship with God is unrelated to our struggle with depression. The truth is that your relationship with God is absolutely necessary, especially now. Your life depends on it.

The question when you are feeling depressed and condemned is: will you believe the lies or will you believe what God has said through the cross?

You Can't Count Jesus' Blessings on One Hand

As many of you know, I’ve spent the last several weeks studying for ordination exams. As I was studying, I was struck by one of the questions and answers in the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Question 36: What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification?

Answer:…. Assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end.

I think this Q &A shows us at least two things:

1. The benefits Jesus gives us can never be counted on one hand. Justification (I’m forgiven, accepted, and have Christ’s righteousness credited to my account), adoption (I’m part of God’s family and an heir of the promises), and sanctification (God is transforming me) are incredible truths. But they’re just the entrance into a mansion full of benefits. They’re the top of the iceberg.

2. The blessings we get from Christ are never supposed to just swim around in our heads, leaving our hearts unaffected. The content of these doctrines are deeply personal and life-altering. They’re bursting with encouragement and are supposed to penetrate our hearts and bring comfort.

Here’s my attempt at fleshing out each part of the answer to question 36. I hope it encourages you.

  • In a world where we love imperfectly and we’re loved imperfectly, God loves us perfectly and wants us to be assured of that.
  • Our consciences are often burdened with guilt and shame, but from God’s vantage point there is nothing but peace between Him and us.
  • Life is hard and sometimes disappointing, leaving us frustrated and even miserable. But we’re not alone—Jesus is present with us by the Spirit, shaping us through trials, and leading us to New Creation. We can have joy in His presence and purposes for us.
  • Our sin is often like a house that was smoked in for fifty years—no matter what you do, the smell lingers and never seems to go away. We feel helpless and wonder if God’s really working in us. But God hasn’t abandoned us or stopped the flow of grace in our direction. He’s in the middle of a remodeling project with each of us.
  • We fail people and people fail us everyday, but God will never fail us. He has us in his grip and will hold us until he brings us into glory.

Reservoir Power

Bernard of Clairvaux was a French abbot who lived in the 1100s. He once said something that has deeply informed my understanding of life in Jesus:

If then you are wise, you will show yourself rather as a reservoir than a canal. For a canal spreads abroad water as it receives it, but a reservoir waits till it is filled to overflowing, and thus communicates without loss to itself its superabundances of water.
— Bernard of Clairveau

This is my favorite Bernard quote (true confessions: this is one of the only Bernard quotes I know). But what does it mean?

A reservoir is a body of water that fills up and then overflows. The more you fill a reservoir, the more it overflows without ever losing any of its own fullness. This is an image of what our Christian lives should look like.

But a canal is the opposite. A canal just moves water from one place to another. It never fills up. It starts empty, then water flows through it, and it is empty again. This is an image of what our Christian lives often look like.

When we are canals, we are just moving grace from God to others. We think, “Help me be a good parent. Help me serve others at church. Help me be a good witness at work.” We can do these things for a while. But then the flow dries up and bitterness, resentment, and complaining set in because we are empty.

When we are reservoirs, we first meditate on God’s love and mercy in Christ. We think about how he shows kindness to us when we are so underserving. We read Scripture and attend the means of grace. And God floods us with his grace. We are full and brimming over! Now we work and live and serve others out of the overflow. We bring grace into the lives of others without being diminished ourselves.

Bernard concludes, “We have all too few such reservoirs in the Church at present, though we have canals in plenty.” Apparently the church hasn’t changed much in the last 1000 years. Pray today for more reservoir power.

Jesus Has It All

At least for most things in life, moving on to new and better things is good. A high-school student graduates and goes on to college. A long-time employee gets promoted to a new position with higher pay and better hours. Couples become parents, then empty-nesters, and then grandparents, and all of the sudden the family has doubled in size and joy!

But is there any equivalent to this in the Christian life this side of glory? Do we ever move on from the basics of trusting in and receiving from Jesus? Do we ever get to graduate from Jesus-dependence to self-dependence, taking off the spiritual “training wheels” as it were?

In his Institutes, John Calvin has an incredible section teasing out the reality that our entire salvation—every single part of it—is found in Jesus:

When we see salvation whole—its every single part is found in Christ, we must beware lest we derive the smallest drop from somewhere else.

If we seek salvation, the very name of Jesus teaches us that he possesses it.

Redemption when we seek it, is in his passion found; acquittal—in his condemnation lies; and freedom from the curse—in his cross known.

If satisfaction for our sins we seek—we’ll find it in his sacrifice.

There’s cleansing in his blood. And if it’s reconciliation that we need, for it he entered Hades; if mortification of our flesh—then in his tomb it’s laid.

And newness of our life—his resurrection brings and and immortality as well come also with that gift.

And if we long to find that heaven’s kingdom’s our inheritance, His entry there secures into with our protection, safety too, and blessings that abound —all flowing from his kingly reign.

The sum of all for those who seek such treasure-trove of blessings, These blessings of all kings, is this: from nowhere else than him can they be drawn; For they are ours in Christ alone.

(Institutes 2.16.19, taken from Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ, 55-56)

So rather than moving on from Jesus, we continue to grow further into our union with Jesus. Instead of looking elsewhere for something different (or better) than Jesus, Jesus invites us to continue exploring and discovering all that He is for us in the gospel. And what we’ll find is the more we explore, the more we’ll discover that Jesus is better, grander, and more sufficient than we originally thought.