Of Fire Extinguishers and Temptation

In the state of New Jersey, in order for a certificate of occupancy to be issued, a fire extinguisher is required to be placed within 10 feet of the kitchen in every single or two family dwelling. We have one mounted on the wall just around the corner from our stove and oven. I know where it is. I know it is charged. I know how to use it, though I've never used one. But if the need ever arose, it is there to stop a fire from getting out of control and destroying my home. I'm glad it is there.

While I am glad the fire extinguisher is there, I never actually think about using it. I have never started cooking with the thought, "How far can I go in burning my meal before I need to pull that fire extinguisher out?" Never, not even once, have I started sautéing my vegetables and thought, "I'm just going to leave these here on high, because if they go up in flames, I've got the fire extinguisher." And yet, I frequently encounter this attitude when it comes to sin.

When I worked with college and high school students, the question I often got from guys in dating relationships was, "How far is too far?" How far, physically, could he go before it was sin? That is like asking, "How far can I burn my food before I need the fire extinguisher?" How many drinks can I have before it is too many? How much skin can I see on screen before it is too much? How flirtatious can I be with a co-worker before it is too far? How much can I take before it is considered stealing? How much can I say before it is gossip? We don't want to outright sin. But we frequently want to toe the line as closely as possible.

In Mark 10, the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce. "It is lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" Jesus responds by asking what Moses commanded. They reply with what Moses allowed. Did you catch the difference? Did you see how the Pharisees wanted to toe right up to the line? They answered by looking at a passage in Deuteronomy 24 that allowed for divorce in particular circumstances in order to protect the woman. It was a provision in the law to account for man's sin. It was not a license for sin. The Pharisees failed to understand this fundamental point, so their answer centered on what Moses allowed, not on what Moses commanded.

Moses' command goes all the way back to the created order. In Genesis 1 & 2, God created man and woman. He created them to complement one another. They fit together. Tangentially, for those who argue that Jesus does not address the issues of same-sex marriage, they are wrong. Jesus explains the nature and purpose of marriage by looking at the fundamental and essential order of male and female. Moses, as the author of Genesis, commanded the order and nature of marriage by pointing out the priority of one's spouse over other relationships. He highlighted the one flesh nature of marriage. And implicitly he condemned the violence that divorce does to that one flesh. The law did allow divorce because of the hardness of man's heart, but the law, through Moses, commanded, "what therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."

The Westminster Divines understood the weaselly nature of our hearts. We want to get right up to the line. We want to see how far can we go before we need the fire extinguisher. Before providing the biblical grounds that allow for divorce, they warn, "Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage..." (WCF 24.6). Yes, there may be circumstances that warrant divorce. But our sinful hearts will want to figure out and "study arguments unduly" so that we can get as close to sin as we can without getting singed.

Divorce is common enough that we have all been touched by it. And yet it is not so common, thankfully, that all have personally struggled with it. But I believe this fire extinguisher principle applies in a number of more common situations. There is the clear command of God's Word and then there is what we want to argue is allowed. The allure of toeing up to that line is strong. Yet James 1 gives us an important warning. "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death" (James 1:14-15). James describes a dangerous slide that leads to a deadly end. Perhaps when we are toeing up to the line of sin, we are not exercising Christian liberty, but we are intentionally enflaming a desire for sin. The result of that is not good. We would never go to the kitchen with the intention of getting as close as possible to the point of needing the fire extinguisher. We know it isn't right. But sometimes we do treat sin that way. And sin will get out of control and destroy a home quicker than a fire. Better to follow what God commands than to toe the line of sin.

Donny Friederichsen is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Short Hills, N.J. He serves as the editor for the Gospel Reformation Network.