Five Keys to Spiritual Growth: Watchfulness
Brian Hedges | January 12, 2020
Most of you know that I was raised in a pastor’s family. My dad became a pastor when I was, I guess, ten years old or so, nine or ten years old. He pastored a church for a number of years in Brownfield, Texas, where I grew up. Then, I guess when I was 17 or so, he resigned that pastorate and was called to another church that was a couple of hundred miles away, in Lawn, Texas. During that time we were commuting a lot as a family. We would drive to the church on the weekends, my parents had not moved yet at that time, and there were points where my dad and I would be the only ones who would go. There were some reasons for that within the family, but anyway, there were some days where we would get up really early on Sunday morning and we would drive this 200 miles or so.
I would often be the driver, and I would be driving these Texas highways on the way to church, and my dad would study his notes, he would read his Bible, pray, meditate. Sometimes he would take a nap; we were getting up really early in the morning to make it by the 10:30 service.
One day as we were driving, my dad was resting, took a nap, and we woke up at the same time. We were careening on the side of the road. I had fallen asleep at the wheel, and we were bouncing along. Now, Texas highways are not like Michigan highways; there are really, really wide shoulders, really wide margins. It was a four-lane divided highway, so there was no oncoming traffic. Nobody was hurt; I don’t think it even hurt the vehicle. It just shocked us, it alarmed us, and of course we felt that God had been gracious that there had not been an accident.
Ever since then, I have been keenly aware of the danger of falling asleep at the wheel. I’ll do anything on long trips to try to stay awake. I’ll drink insane amounts of coffee and I’ll chew on sunflower seeds and crank up music. I’ve even rolled down the windows, sometimes I slap myself in the face. I’ll do all kinds of things, because I don’t want to fall asleep at the wheel. It’s so dangerous. It’s only a few seconds, right, a few seconds between you and death.
I think that little story could function as something of a parable for the way many Christians live in the world today. There are a lot of people who are falling asleep at the wheel spiritually. They’re not wakeful, they’re not watchful. They are sleeping when they should be watching.
This morning I want us to consider the spiritual discipline of watchfulness. We’ve been going through this short little series, “Five Keys to Spiritual Growth,” and I so appreciate the two messages that have come before, Phil Krause’s message on prayer and last week Andy’s message on Scripture and meditation. I appreciate the things that they had to say and to teach us. This morning I want to talk about another spiritual discipline. It’s related to prayer and meditation on Scripture, but it’s somewhat different; it’s the discipline of watchfulness.
Now, this is not a discipline that we tend to hear a lot about today, but I noticed a few years ago, as I was reading in the Puritans a lot (especially in John Owen), that often you would find watchfulness listed along with prayer and meditation and other means of grace, in the same sentence. They treated it like a spiritual discipline. In fact, one of the earliest Puritans was a man named Richard Rogers. He wrote the first manual on spiritual disciplines for Protestants in the very early 1600s, divided those disciplines, those means of godliness, as he called them, into two lists (public means and private means), and the very first means on the private list was watchfulness.
This is very common in the older writers; the Puritans, the Methodists, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones. I was listening to part of a Lloyd-Jones sermon this morning; the whole sermon was on watchfulness. You have it, for example, in Wesley’s old hymn, when he said,
“I want a principle within
Of watchful, godly fear;
A sensibility of sin,
A pain to feel it near.
I want the first approach to feel
Of pride or wrong desire,
To catch the wandering of my will
And quench the kindling fire.”
This is, in fact, why the Methodists were called Methodists, because they lived by a strict method, they walked by rule. Spurgeon one time said in a sermon on Psalm 119:133, “Order my steps in my word,” Spurgeon said that "the grace of God makes us method-ists in the highest possible sense," because when God’s grace comes into our lives, we begin to order our steps; not just our way, but our steps, our daily walking ordered according to God’s word. That’s what watchfulness is all about.
This morning I want us to think about this discipline, this practice of watchfulness. Every single one of us needs it. I need it. As I’ve studied it again (I’ve studied this a lot over the years), I was again convicted this week of my need for this practice in my life. So I’m preaching to myself as I’m preaching to you, and I want to ask three questions: what is watchfulness, why do we need it, and how do we practice it? Really simple outline this morning.
I. What is Watchfulness?
Let me give you a definition. This is a fairly typical definition from a Puritan, this time the Puritan Thomas Brooks. Brooks says, “Watchfulness includes a waking, a rousing up of the soul. It is a continual, careful observing of our hearts and ways, in all the turnings of our lives, that we still keep close to God and his word.” That’s a good definition, a fairly typical Puritan definition. I could supply you with half-a-dozen similar definitions to watchfulness.
But I want you to see watchfulness in Scripture. This isn’t something that just the Puritans talked about or the Methodists talked about; after all, they’re not our standard, God’s word is the standard. I want you to see that Scripture has a lot to say about watchfulness, and as we look at a few texts we’ll see how Scripture gives some definition to what this discipline is. Let me just point out a few passages of Scripture.
First of all, Proverbs 4:23. Many of you will know this passage. It says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” This is wisdom literature, and a father is telling his son to watch over his heart. Some versions say “keep your heart” or “guard your heart.” That’s implied in watchfulness. Watchfulness is keeping the heart. It is watching over the heart, it is guarding the heart, because from the heart flow the springs of life.
You remember Jesus’s words in Matthew 26:41. He’s there in the garden of Gethsemane, he’s with his disciples, and he tells them to watch with him and to pray, and they fall asleep. Do you remember what Jesus says? He says, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Now, in that passage to watch means literally to stay awake. Jesus is literally telling them to stay awake and pray. Sometimes this has been the form in which watchfulness has been discussed in the church. It’s almost synonymous with a vigil, an all-night or maybe a partial-night season of watchfulness and prayer.
One author describes it in this way, that “just as in fasting we abstain from food in order to seek God, sometimes in a vigil we abstain from sleep in order to seek God.” I remember years ago having a friend I was traveling with in a parachurch ministry, and we were very busy, and sometimes it was hard to find times for quiet times and devotions, and he would wake up in the middle of the night, two or three o’ clock in the morning. He would wake up in the middle of the night, and that would be his time for seeking God. That’s practicing a vigil, and that can be helpful to do.
But most of the time in Scripture this language of being awake and being watchful has a metaphorical sense, and it carries the idea of moral and spiritual vigilance. It’s the idea of being spiritually awake.
For example, 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8, “Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night; but let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation.”
Now, in that passage sleeping is not talking about catching a few z’s, it’s not talking about your eight hours of sleep at night. Sleeping is descriptive, it’s an analogy for, a metaphor for the spiritual slumber that is characteristic of those who still live in darkness. Paul is saying, “You don’t belong to the darkness anymore! You don’t belong to the night; you belong to the day, therefore rouse yourself, be awake, and watch.” It’s a moral and a spiritual vigilance.
You have this same idea in 1 Corinthians 16:13. Four short verbs, staccato verbs, almost machine-gun style, as Paul is wrapping up this letter. He says, “Be watchful. Stand firm in the faith. Act like men. Be strong.”
Or take his advice to young Timothy, 1 Timothy 4:16. Remember, Timothy is a minster, he’s a pastor of the church of Ephesus, and Paul writes this letter for Timothy’s benefit, giving him advice as a young minister how he is to live. He says, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
But watchfulness is not just for pastors, it’s not just for spiritual leaders, it’s for everyone, because listen to what Paul says in Galatians 6:1-3. “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual—” that is, those who are filled with the Spirit, bear the fruit of the Spirit, live by the Spirit, walk by the Spirit (Galatians 5) “—you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”
Now, that’s just—what was that? Half a dozen, six, seven texts? It would be easy to triple or quadruple that. There are so many exhortations in Scripture to watch, to keep yourself. Then you have other kinds of language, such as, “Pay attention,” or, “Take heed.”
When you put all of that language together, it’s really clear what watchfulness is. Let me give you three ingredients of watchfulness, really quickly. These are three things that I think are implied in the spiritual discipline of watchfulness.
(1) First of all, attentiveness, paying attention. In Scripture, paying attention is usually paying attention to ourselves, our hearts, our souls; but also paying attention to the word. You remember how Jesus concludes the parable of the soils in Luke 8: “Take heed, therefore, how you hear.”
Pay attention to your heart, how your heart receives the seed of the word, so that the word does not fall on hard ground, a hard heart, it doesn’t fall on stony, rocky soil where it doesn’t get deep into the soil; it’s shallow, so it doesn’t get root and then bear fruit. Take heed that your heart is not full of weeds and thorns and thistles, the riches and the things and the pleasures and the cares and the anxieties of this life that choke out the word so that it does not become fruitful; but rather, have a good and honest heart, so that when the seed of the word comes in it will take root and it will bear fruit. Take heed how you hear. That’s attentiveness, paying attention.
(2) Second is vigilance. Vigilance adds the note of danger. Vigilance means be watchful, be wary, because there are threats. Proverbs 4:23, the ESV puts it this way, “Keep the heart with all vigilance.” With all vigilance.
You might think of the discipline of watching like a home security system. A home security system has lots of different components, right? It’ll include security cameras, motion sensors, floodlights, high-decibel alarm—all of those things, but they all serve one purpose. What’s that purpose? To keep intruders out. It alerts you. The alarm goes off when there’s a threat to the home.
In the same way, watchfulness is a practice and it’s a mental and spiritual attitude that incorporates many other subsidiary practices and disciplines, all with one central focus and attention to keep the heart, to guard the heart with vigilance.
(3) We’ll talk a little bit more about that in a moment, but here’s the third ingredient: expectancy. Now, this one’s important, and it’s easy to overlook. This adds the note of hope. It’s not just that there are dangers to avoid, but it’s also that there’s something positive for us to focus on, there’s a note of hope.
You see this especially in Jesus’s parables in the eschatological teaching of Scripture, where Jesus is talking about the coming of the Son of Man. You remember in Matthew 25, the parable of the ten virgins; they’re waiting for the bridegroom, right? And there are five wise virgins and five foolish virgins. The wise ones trim their lamps, they’re ready for when the bridegroom comes; the foolish virgins are neglectful, they’re not watchful, they’re not ready, and when the bridegroom comes they are shut out.
This is how Jesus concludes the parable in Matthew 25:13, “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Over and over again you’ll see this in Jesus’s parables. You see it in Matthew 25, you see it in Mark 13, you see it in Luke 21, that Jesus will say, “Watch!” It’s watching for the coming of the Son of Man. It’s a hopeful outlook, but it’s also a vigilant outlook, watching for the coming of the Son.
In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress he has two characters named Watchful. One of them is the porter of House Beautiful (and I’ve shared lots of illustrations about House Beautiful in the past). Here’s the other character: the other character is one of the shepherds on the Delectable Mountains. These shepherds take Christian and Hopeful to different mountains. They take them to Mount Error and show them those who have fallen off a precipice into moral and doctrinal error. They take them to Mount Caution and caution them about dangers. Then they take them to Mount Clear, and on Mount Clear there’s a telescope, and they look through the telescope and they see the Celestial City.
That’s part of watchfulness. Watchfulness helps to clarify our hope and to keep our sights set on the hope set before us. You remember that old poem, that saying, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last”? The mentality of watchfulness is a mentality of reminding us of that, keeping an eternal perspective.
One more comment here under, “What Is Watchfulness?” When you look at these three ingredients you could pretty much pair these up with three of the primary metaphors used in Scriptures, images used in Scripture for the Christian life. There’s the athletic imagery, there’s the military imagery, and there’s the pilgrimage imagery that’s used in Scripture.
What belongs to the athlete but attentiveness? Keeping your eyes set on the goal, the race that is set before us, running with endurance the race set before us; attentiveness of an athlete. Think of focus. Think about how much focus it takes for an Olympic athlete to train for the games. It takes single-minded determination and focus, and you and I are called to that in our Christian lives, to run the race of faith.
Then soldiers. Soldiers have to have vigilance, because they’re in warfare. They’re in enemy-occupied territory, therefore they need to keep their armor on. They always need to be wary of dangers, of traps, of strategies. Paul says we are not ignorant of Satan’s devices. He exhorts us to watchfulness because of our adversary.
Then the expectancy of a pilgrim. Have you ever been on a long journey, when you’re far from home? Maybe you’ve been in another country and you enjoyed being in another place of the world, but you just begin to long for home and you want to get home. Can you imagine, if you extend that—none of us have experienced this to the degree that others have, but when you’re on a pilgrimage towards your home country, you’ve been separated from it for some time, and you’re on this long pilgrimage back, and you’re not so much focused on the journey itself, you’re focused on the destination.
Every choice you make is meant to get you closer to home, and you and I are called to that kind of a pilgrim mindset, a pilgrim mentality. We live in this world as pilgrims. “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through,” the old spiritual says. Too many of us as Christians settle down and make this world our home. We forget that this is not where we belong. We forget that we’re on a journey to the Celestial City. We don’t have an eternal perspective, we don’t have the pilgrim mindset. There’s no expectancy, there’s no hope, so we settle for whatever comforts we can get right here rather than keeping that mindset.
Attentiveness of an athlete, vigilance of a soldier, expectancy of a pilgrim; this is what’s included in watchfulness.
II. Why Do We Need It?
Now, why do we need it? I want to give you two broad reasons, and I’m going to fill those up with different examples.
(1) We need it, first of all, because of our vulnerability to temptation from the world, the flesh, and the devil. “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation,” Jesus said to his disciples. “Watch and pray.”
John Owen wrote a whole book on this; in fact, some of the men in our church are studying this together in our men’s group, Intentional Men. It’s a book on temptation, it’s a book on this verse. It says a lot about watchfulness.
One of the things that Owen says is that the heart has to be made sensitive to sin, sensitive of our danger, of our helplessness. Owen says, “Let no man pretend to fear sin that does not fear temptation to it. These are too nearly allied to be separated.”
In other words, we have to realize our danger and the danger of temptation. Temptation is a real threat. It’s not something to dally with, it’s not something to toy with, it’s not something to play with; it’s a danger. Owen says that “if the heart be made tender and watchful here, half the work is done." So much of our watchfulness depends on just this, recognizing our sense of danger and our helplessness against temptation.
Now, I really think that most of us—and I would include myself—I think we just don’t realize how helpless we are in the face of temptation. We think that we are like a strong, fortified castle and temptation is like the morning breeze that kind of blows against the castle wall but won’t really knock it down. We don’t realize that temptation can come with all of the fury of a tornado, and it can rip through the strongest fortifications if we are not defended by something stronger than ourselves.
I remember a few months ago (this was back in the spring) I was watching some kind of news story, and there were really high winds in Texas at the time, and there was actually a news story (I saw this on a video feed) of high winds in Amarillo, Texas that was so strong that they picked up a semi-truck and knocked it over on the highway.
That’s how temptation can come. Temptation can become so strong that you could find yourself committing sins you never dreamed you were capable of committing. That’s how weak you are. That’s how helpless you are.
I mean, Peter’s the example, isn’t he? Jesus says, “Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation,” and Peter’s already said, “Lord, if all the others deny you, I’m not going to deny you.” What happens? Peter falls asleep on his watch and just a few hours later he denies that he knows Jesus, three times, with oaths and curses! Why? Because he wasn’t watchful. Because he was too self-confident. Because he did not know his helplessness.
Is it any wonder that Peter later wrote these words (1 Peter 5:8), “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” We have to know our vulnerability, our vulnerability to temptation, and temptations that can come to us in all these different ways, from the world, the flesh, and the devil.
When I was maybe 19 or 20 years old I had a summer job where I was working for this old West Texas rancher. Some of you maybe have heard this story before. I was working for this rancher, and I was essentially walking across miles and miles (or at least acres and acres) of uncultivated ranch land full of small, little mesquite trees. What he wanted me to do was kill the mesquite trees. So I had a tank of Roundup on my back and a sprayer, and I would just walk back and forth all day long. So boring! Not a fun job.
But one thing kept me vigilant: that was deep in the heart of rattlesnake country. I mean, this isn’t far from Sweetwater, where you have Rattlesnake Roundup every year. So I was watchful! I paid attention, because I never knew when there would be a snake. I was listening for the smallest hint of a rattle, right, or movement in the grass in front of me. There were a few times I jumped. I remember one time I kicked a stick and the stick kind of jumped up at me, and boy, I really jumped. Then I remember one time when I came within about 18 inches of stepping on a rattlesnake. So I was watchful, I was vigilant, because I knew there was a danger there.
If you and I go through this world thinking that we’re basically safe and there’s no danger, we’re not going to be watchful; but if we take heed to the warnings of Scripture, that these threats are around us, we will be watchful. We need to know our vulnerability. That’s first. That’s why we need watchfulness, because there are threats, there are dangers to our faith.
(2) Here’s the second reason, and this is a more positive reason. It’s because of the value of our hearts and our spiritual growth, our usefulness to others, and our fellowship with God.
Again, Proverbs 4:23, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.”
Another one of the Puritans was a man named John Flavel. John Flavel wrote a book called A Saint Indeed. It’s been republished many times under the title Keeping the Heart, and the whole book is on this verse, Proverbs 4:23. This is what Flavel says: “The greatest difficulty in conversion is to win the heart to God, and the greatest difficulty after conversion is to keep the heart with God. The keeping and right managing of the heart in every condition is the great business of a Christian’s life.”
Why do we need to keep the heart? Because it is the wellspring of life; because it is the essential you. The heart is command central. Right? It’s the core of your being, and from it flow the streams of life. It’s the fountainhead, and if you contaminate the fountainhead, you contaminate the well, all the streams that flow from it will be polluted. Therefore we need to keep the heart.
This also relates to our spiritual growth. “From it flow the springs of life.” Let me give you another analogy.
A few months ago, I decided to do something I’ve never done in my life: I got a gym membership. I’ve never been athletic kind of guy. I played baseball a little bit when I was a kid, but that was about it. I’ve never had a gym membership, I’ve never had a trainer; anything like that. But I decided to go for it, get a gym membership, get a trainer. So I’m meeting with this guy a couple of times a week.
I want you to know, there are muscles that I didn’t even know I had that have really hurt, because this guy’s working out everything! But here’s one thing that I found out pretty quickly: every single session includes ab work. Now, I probably hadn’t done 100 sit-ups since I was 12, and he starts me on these crunch machines, doing this every single time we meet. I mean, there have just been times where I have almost been angry at this guy, because it’s so painful, so hard. But every single time. Why is that? Well, he’s explained it. It’s because it’s your core, and the strength of your core is foundational to everything else. Every other kind of exercise you do depends to some degree on the strength of the core.
You might think of watchfulness as spiritual ab work, where you are exercising the core (that is, your heart), because the strength of your heart will determine the strength of everything else—all the other graces, all the streams of life, all the other spiritual disciplines. I mean, your prayer life will largely depend on the watchfulness of your heart. If you pray in a perfunctory way, without watching your heart, without paying any attention to what’s going on in your heart, you may just be mouthing the words, going through the motions, "drawing near to God with your lips, while your heart is far from him."
The same thing can happen in Scripture. Have you ever noticed that you’re reading the Bible, and you get interrupted, and you look up, and then you look down, and you have no idea where you were on the page? Because your mind was drifting. You were reading, but you weren’t really reading. Your eyes were going over words, but you weren’t paying attention. What is that? It’s a lack of watchfulness. So our spiritual growth largely depends on watchfulness and on keeping the heart.
Also, our usefulness to others. Now listen, there’s a sense in which God can use anyone. I know that and I believe that; thank God for that. But it is also true that it is possible for a Christian to make choices that so compromise their integrity, that so wound their testimony, that it ruins their ability to be largely useful to other people.
Do you remember David? I mean, here was a man after God’s own heart, but then David committed that egregious sin, committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then he murdered her husband, Uriah. You remember what the Lord said through the prophet Nathan? He said, “The Lord has put away your sin, but you have given the enemies of the Lord an occasion to blaspheme.” David’s life—you read the narrative—David’s life was never the same after that. Trouble just dogged his footsteps the rest of his life. He didn’t fully recover. He was forgiven, he was restored to fellowship with God, he was still the king of Israel; but it wasn’t like it was before. It wasn’t like it was before.
Now listen; if you have committed some kind of a terrible sin, I’m not saying this to pile guilt on you. Listen: the grace of God is sufficient to cover any sin. He will forgive you, he will restore you, and he’ll take you right where you are, and you use whatever influence God gives you in your family, in your sphere of influence, in your life, in your church. But I want to sound a note of warning to anyone who has not fallen in this kind of way: don’t go there, because you could ruin your influence, and you could take away your usefulness for God and his kingdom.
Then here’s the last reason why we need watchfulness: because of the value of fellowship with God, fellowship with Christ.
Did you know that it is possible to live in a kind of relationship with Jesus where you know his conscious smile? Where you know the warmth of his face shining upon you, and it floods your spirit with joy, even in difficult circumstances? That’s possible. Maybe you’ve experienced it.
Did you also know that it is very possible, while maintaining a Christian profession and basically doing all the things that you normally do, it’s also possible for your heart to grow hard and you lose the sense of that smile? You lose the fellowship.
Now, you’re still a son or daughter, you still have the relationship, but there’s an estrangement, there’s a growing distance between your soul and the Savior. That can happen, and it can happen so subtly. When it happens, sometimes we don’t even realize it’s happening, but when it’s restored (this is what happens in times of revival and spiritual renewal and awakening), that fellowship is restored and all of a sudden I realize what I’ve been missing! I’m back in fellowship with God! When that happens, you don’t want to lose it!
The Puritans talk about this a lot, and they often use the Song of Solomon for it. I just want to give you a passage—I know there are lots of ways to read the Song of Solomon, but for the sake of illustration view this as a parable of the relationship between the child of God, the Christian, and the Lord.
Song of Solomon 3, “On my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not.” There’s a distance here. She says, “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares. I will seek him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not. The watchmen found me as they went about in the city. ‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’ Scarcely had I passed them when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him and would not let him go.”
That’s the heartfelt expression of the watchful Christian. “I held him and I would not let him go.” May I just suggest this morning that if you right now are indifferent to fellowship with Jesus, you’re already off your watch. If it doesn’t bother you that distance is growing between you and the Lord, you’re already drifting. If little sins don’t bother you, if there’s not conviction, if there’s not a promptness to repent, if your conscience is never pricked, you’re already drifting, you’re already in a danger zone.
But when you’ve repented and when the fellowship is restored and when you’re close and when you’ve been with Jesus and you know you’ve been with Jesus, you’ve experienced the bright, shining face of Jesus, just between you and him, you know what that’s like and you’ve experienced that, you’re walking in that; you don’t want to interrupt it!
My hope is that God will give us grace to yearn for that if we don’t have it, to seek it out and get it back, and then to watch so that we don’t lose it. Redeemer Church, let’s live this year in fellowship with Jesus. If you’re not in fellowship, if you don’t know that things are right between you and the Savior, do some heart work this week. Seek the Lord.
III. How Do We Practice It?
We’ve seen what watchfulness is (attentiveness, vigilance, expectancy), we’ve seen why we need it (vulnerabilities on the one hand and the value of the heart and communion with God and spiritual growth and so on on the other); how do we practice it? I want to give you five quick strategies. I could give you 15, but I’ll keep it five. These are five things that I think if you will build these into your life, I think you will find that they will help you in the practice of watchfulness.
(1) Number one, labor to know your heart. Labor to know your heart. Listen to what John Owen says. “Let him that would not enter into temptation labor to know his own heart, to be acquainted with his own spirit, his natural frame and temper, his lusts and corruptions, his natural, sinful, or spiritual weaknesses, that finding where his weakness lies he may be careful to keep at a distance from all occasions of sin.”
That’s right at the heart of watchfulness. It’s knowing yourself, knowing your temptations, knowing your weaknesses, so that you can be on guard.
That requires some self-examination. It requires paying attention. It requires noticing what causes you to drift, what causes you to sin, what are the patterns in your life. You can’t do that without some periodic self-examination.
Here’s one of the things that I’ve noticed in reading some of these old guys. You take the names that are famous in Christian history, like Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Andrew Bonar…I mean, these are the people that were renowned for their close walk with God. A lot of them left journals and diaries behind, and if you read their diaries and their journals, you know what you find? You find them over and over and over again practicing self-examination, confessing their sins, bemoaning their sinfulness, talking about how far they fell from God. They are so acutely aware of their desperate need for Christ! They didn’t feel like they were great Christians; they felt like they desperately needed Jesus! You know why? Because they were in tune with the reality of their hearts. They had labored to know themselves.
You and I need to do that. I know there’s an unhealthy kind of introspection. I’m not talking about that. If you have a proneness to depression and to bad self-talk and so on, take this with the caution that there are other parts to this discipline that also belong. But for most of us, that’s not our problem. Most of us just tend to go merrily along our way, without actually thinking about our thoughts, our inner life, our behavior, our words. We need more care and consideration of our hearts. Labor to know your heart.
(2) Don’t give sin an opportunity. In Romans 13:14 Paul says, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”
Have you been reading any of the stories about the fires in Australia? Of course, just a few months ago it was the fires in California. Fires can be so damaging, so destructive, can destroy miles upon miles of forest and homes and so on.
But did you know that every single fire starts with just a spark? It starts with just a spark. It doesn’t start as a forest fire! It starts when somebody tosses a cigarette out the window or doesn’t put out a campfire, or it starts with a defect in some kind of electrical appliance or something, and there’s a spark, and something catches fire, and then it rages on.
Sin is the same way. It starts small before it grows big. That’s why we must learn to keep short sin accounts. It would be a helpful practice to regularly, even on a daily basis, pray something like the prayer of Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my thoughts. See if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Pray that way. “Lord, would you show me? Is there anything that I have done or thought or said today that displeases you?”
Then check it. Confess it. Confess it then, as soon as you’re conscious that you have committed a sin in thought or word or deed, stop then and confess it to the Lord. Make confession a regular part of your prayer life, of your daily walking with the Lord. Keep short accounts in order to make no opportunity for sin, so it doesn’t get a foothold in your life.
(3) Store your heart with the gospel. It’s not only that we want to keep certain things out of the heart; it’s that we want to keep certain things in the heart. Again, John Owen is really helpful, so one more Owen quote.
Owen says, “Be sure to lay in provision in store against the approaching of any temptation. This also belongs to our watchfulness over our hearts.” Now, let me interrupt here. He is building out of Philippians 4 (I won’t give you the text right now, but you can go read it). He’s building an analogy of a heart like a castle that is fortifying itself against an enemy siege. Every time I read it I think of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers. I think of that. Your heart is like Helm’s Deep, and the orcs of sin are coming, and you have to be fortified! How do you fortify? You lay up provisions. You’re storing up food and weaponry and an arsenal of thoughts and meditations and strategies and help in order to fight. That’s part of the watchfulness. That’s what Owen is talking about.
So he says, “Be sure to lay in provision in store against the approaching of any temptation. This also belongs to our watchfulness over our hearts.” And then he says, “Gospel provisions will do this work.” That is, keep the heart full of a sense of the love of God in Christ! “This is the greatest preservative against the power of temptation in the world.” Keep your heart full of the gospel, full of a sense of God’s love for you, Christ’s ownership of you, Christ’s purchase of you, the Spirit’s indwelling of you.
(4) Keep your eyes on Jesus. This is almost the same as the last one, but I do just want to signal this note, that—watching the heart—by that I do not mean that you mostly focus on yourself rather than on Christ. It’s actually the reverse of that. It’s that you cultivate an awareness of your need in order to be better focused on Christ.
M’Cheyne said it best (I quote this all the time), “For every one look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.”
The problem is, if you’re not watchful you’re not going to be thinking about Jesus. Thinking about Jesus depends largely on cultivating this sense of dependence on him. “For every one look at self, take ten looks at Christ.” Keep your eyes on Jesus. We’re looking to him, the author and finisher of our faith. That’s how we run the race that is set before us.
(5) Here’s one more, the fifth strategy: stay connected to other followers of Jesus. Listen to Hebrews 3:12-13, the very serious warning. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called today, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
There’s a lot packed into those two verses. He’s writing to Christians, “Take care, brothers.” He’s warning them that their hearts can become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, that their hearts can become evil and unbelieving. He’s warning them against the dangers of apostasy, of falling away from the living God.
You put that together with everything Scripture says about salvation, I don’t think it means that a genuine, born-again Christian can lose their salvation, but I think it does mean this, that one of God’s appointed means of keeping us in the faith is obeying commands like this, taking heed to the warnings. Take care, lest you fall away!
What’s the solution? Verse 14 gives the solution. “But exhort one another every day.” That’s the solution. How do you keep from developing an evil, unbelieving heart that would lead you to fall away from the living God? Exhort one another. In other words, it’s a community project. You need the church, you need brothers and sisters, you need a spiritual family. You need to get connected, you need to get plugged in.
Could I just say this with all kindness and with real care for your soul: if you’re somewhat new to Redeemer Church (and this would be true of any church you ever attend), it’s easy to come into a new church where you don’t know a lot of people and to make Sunday morning kind of the main thing. I love Sunday mornings, I think we should always gather for worship together; but it’s easy to just stay on the sidelines and not get to know people and not get connected and not join a group and not be in a class and not become a member and not really commit.
Can I urge you that staying there for too long is dangerous? It’s dangerous, because you need this. You need fellowship. If you can’t find it at Redeemer, find it somewhere else, but find it. Find a group of believers that you can live life with, do community with, so that you have people who will help you when you’re struggling, who will exhort you so that you’ll stay in the faith. We all need this. Stay connected to other followers of Jesus.
Let me end in this way. John Ortberg has written a very good little book called Soul-Keeping. In fact, it’s one of the few contemporary books that I think covers this issue fairly well. In his book, Ortberg compares the soul to this beautiful, crystal-clear stream high in the mountains, high in the Alps, that strengthened and refreshed a mountain village. This stream was fed by mountain streams, and it was tended by an old man who was called the keeper of the springs. His job was to remove branches and leaves and debris and other things that are worse, things that would pollute the stream, so that by the time the water got to the village it would be polluted and undrinkable.
One year the village decided to fire the old man and spend their money elsewhere, so nobody’s tending the springs. Of course, you know what would happen. The water became very polluted. He says, “Twigs and branches and worse muddied the liquid flow. Mud and silt compacted the creekbed, farm waste turned parts of the stream into stagnant bogs. No one noticed at first, but eventually the village was effected. People became sick because of the polluted water, children no longer played in the springs, the water lost its crisp scent and its sparkling beauty; all because the springs had not been kept."
Finally the council of the village reconvened and rehired the old man to clean up the springs. After a time the springs were cleaned, the stream was pure. Children played again on its banks, illness was replaced by health, and the village came back to life.
This is what Ortberg says. “The life of a village depended on the health of the stream.”
Are you keeping the stream of your own heart? Are you watching your soul? Is the innermost part of your being receiving regular attention? Are you living in the presence of Jesus, cultivating that fellowship on a regular basis, or have you neglected your watch?
Ortberg says, “The stream is your soul, and you are the keeper.” Watch and pray that you enter not into temptation. Let’s pray together.
Our merciful God, as we come before you once again we confess our terrible sins of neglect. Oh how often we short-circuit the process of spiritual growth! We spend too little time reading your word, too little time in prayer, too little time seeking your presence. We let little things go, we make small compromises, our hearts grow hard through the deceitfulness of sin, and we slowly begin to drift. The intimacy is lost, the fire of your Spirit is quenched, our usefulness to others is hindered, we lose the joy of our salvation, and we’re left sitting ducks for the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Lord, we regret this, we confess this as sin, and we ask you right now to forgive us for Jesus’ sake, to restore us to your fellowship, to give us repentant hearts and spirits that are sensitive to the conviction of your Spirit, sensitive to sin and quick to turn away from anything that displeases you.
Oh Lord, would you help us? We are so desperately needy for your grace and mercy. We’re entirely too self-sufficient. We don’t recognize our vulnerability and our weakness, and we don’t recognize the supreme value of living life in your fellowship. We’ve neglected it too much and we have short-changed ourselves of the joy and the peace that could be ours through walking with you.
Father, I pray that the results of this message and of this series and of our own engagement with your word this year would be a year that is lived in closer fellowship, closer walking, more serious pursuit of holiness than we’ve ever had before. Lord, may we pray with M’Cheyne, “Make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made.”
May that be true for us this year, and may it be true for your glory, for your kingdom, for the good of our families, our husbands, our wives, our children, our brothers and sisters in the church, our neighbors, our friends, and those who do not know Christ. Would you draw near to us in grace and in mercy? Help us to apply these things to our hearts. Work by your Spirit, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.