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Do you have a besetting sin? Does every believer have a particular weakness that can cause him to stumble as he runs the Christian race? The most common notion alleges every believer has some spiritual or moral weakness, a propensity or inclination, to which they are particularly vulnerable, the sin that's most likely to trip them up. The phrase “besetting sin” has certainly taken on that meaning over time. The scripture tends to support that premise. Abraham twice misrepresented the truth about his relationship with Sarah to save his own skin. Samson, David and Solomon all had a weakness for sexual lust. The prophet Moses, the meekest of all men, had a short fuse for a temper. An untimely display of temper prohibited him from entering the Promised Land. It's generally accepted that every individual has an Achilles heel, so to speak, that represents a particular weakness for them. But is that what the writer of Hebrews had in mind back in the first century?
The single biblical reference to besetting sin is found in Hebrews 12:1: “the sin which doth so easily beset us.” The whole conversation about besetting sins comes from this text. The purpose of this document is to examine the text of Hebrews 12:1 and determine, from an exegetical-contextual standpoint, what the writer had in mind when he penned these words.
Let's begin with a bit of exegesis. The Greek of Hebrews 12:1 reads: τὴν εὐπερίστατον ἁμαρτίαν. The word for sin is ἁμαρτία (hamartia), “a missing of the mark.” It is singular, not plural. It is preceded by the definite article τὴν, which signifies a specific sin in contradistinction to other sins. Inserted between the definite article and its object is the adjective εὐπερίστατος (euperistatos), translated so easily beset. It's a compound word consisting of εὐ (well), περί (around) and ἵστημι (to stand). Literally: “a standing around well.” In the context, it signifies that which stands around (besets) the runner so well as to impede him, thwart his progress. By application, there's an obstacle to the Christian runner in any and every direction he chooses to run. So what's that singular impediment, in contradistinction to all others, that believers encounter as they run?
Based on the Greek construction, we can eliminate the idea it refers to a spiritual or moral weakness that differs with every individual believer. The scripture says it's THE (singular) SIN that besets all of US (plural). Moreover, all of US are exhorted to “lay aside” this sin along with every weight—things that may not be sin in themselves, but can serve as impediments or distractions to race progress. So what is this besetting sin, a sin surrounding us so well, that all believers encounter it no matter what direction they run in life?
I believe it is THE sin consistent with the book of Hebrews—UNBELIEF. It's not, however, unbelief that causes a man to DISOWN Christ, but rather to DOUBT him. A genuine believer can never DISOWN Jesus. But he can certainly DOUBT his Lord in the midst of life's trials. The story of Peter walking on water recorded in Matthew 14:22-33 teaches this truth unequivocally. What surrounded Peter on every side was a “boisterous” sea (14:30). So long as Peter was “looking unto Jesus” his faith enabled his mastery of the storm. But when fear crept in, he began to sink. After Jesus stretched forth his hand to catch and save Peter, he asked him: “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou DOUBT?”
In the closing chapter of his gospel, Matthew refers to this post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples: “Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some DOUBTED” (28:16-17). Some means more than one. And we know Thomas was in that number. In another context, Paul issued this caveat with regard to our Christian liberty: “And he that DOUBTETH is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of FAITH: for whatsoever is not of faith is SIN” (Romans 14:23).
In the broader context of Hebrews, we are taught to come BOLDLY unto the throne of grace to obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (4:12). Again, believers have (as a permanent possession) BOLDNESS to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus (10:19). BOLDNESS is fearless confidence. Fearless confidence is integral to FAITH. The entrance of DOUBT is destructive of both FAITH and BOLDNESS. The believer cannot exercise BOLDNESS while smitten with DOUBT. A Christian is totally dependent upon the resources ONLY obtainable from the throne of grace, the holiest, in order to run the race set before him. In addition to laying aside EVERY WEIGHT, we believers are exhorted to lay aside ALL DOUBT as to the total sufficiency of Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, for every pathway in life.
The interpretation of DOUBT as THE besetting sin is further attested by considering the target audience and the testimony of Church history. In Acts 15 at Jerusalem (51 A.D.), roughly twenty years after Pentecost, there were professing Jews (former Pharisees, 15:5) who taught salvation was contingent upon compliance with the Mosaic Law (15:1,6). In other words, there was systemic DOUBT among some Jewish believers (the target audience of Hebrews) as to whether Jesus ALONE was sufficient to save sinners. The Council concluded: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (15:11) is the sole basis of salvation for both Gentile and Jew. Thirteen years later (64 A.D.), when Hebrews was written, this systemic DOUBT still persisted. When the writer got to 12:1, he was essentially saying: “If there are ANY of you still in DOUBT about the total sufficiency of Jesus in light of new covenant truth I've set forth and expounded, please know God sees that DOUBT as SIN. Lay it aside and every weight (encumbrance) that threatens your progress, so you can run effectively the race set before you!”
We need to remind ourselves that Paul, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, had to lay aside any DOUBTS he might have had concerning the gospel of grace, the total sufficiency of Christ to save apart from the works of the Law. Paul began running his race on the road to Damascus. But according to the ministry time line he provided in Galatians 1, Paul spent years of revelatory solitude with the Lord Jesus, during which time the Lord helped him connect all the OT dots to arrive at the NT gospel of grace. In Philippians 3, Paul referred to all his law-based righteousness as DUNG, that he might win Christ. But Paul did not arrive at that conclusion overnight. So when he urges US to lay aside every weight and the sin that doth so easily beset US, I believe the laying aside of which he speaks is something he himself had to do.
The modern-day notion of besetting sin is consistent with what we know about human nature. Every individual has a moral weakness to which they are most likely to yield in time of temptation. The question: Does Hebrews 12:1 support that interpretation based on the meaning of εὐπερίστατος? Moreover, 1 Peter 2:1 admonishes: “Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings.” These are SINS (plural) we should lay aside. Yet Hebrews 12:1 speaks of THE SIN (singular, unique) we should lay aside.
The sin that so easily besets us all is DOUBT. It is THE sin common to all believers. I believe this interpretation is supported both exegetically and contextually. The believer is surrounded daily by obstacles and challenges that can instigate DOUBT in the heart. DOUBT finds an entrance when we take our eyes off Jesus as Peter did on that boisterous sea long ago. If a believer cannot lay aside his doubt, he cannot run an effective race for Jesus.