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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:God warns his covenant people against turning away from him
Text:Deuteronomy 29:18-19 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 29

Psalm 73:9 (after the law of God)

Psalm 1

Psalm 73:8

Hymn 78

Scripture readings:  Hebrews 12:1-17, Deuteronomy 29

Text:  Deuteronomy 29:18-19

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

One of the challenges facing every preacher is that in each congregation you have such a mix of different people in different situations.  This is true right now with me standing in front of you.  Every single person is in a different place.  That’s true with regard to your circumstances, but also with how you’re reacting to your circumstances.  All of you have different needs and it’s almost impossible to address every single need in every single sermon.  There are times when some of you need reassurance and comfort from the gospel.  There are times when some of you need God’s wisdom and direction for your life.  Then there are also times when some of you need God’s strong warnings to keep you from straying, or to return you in the right way if you’ve already been straying.    

That’s where we are this morning in Deuteronomy 29.  There can be times when some of us need to hear a message with a powerful warning about unbelief.  Deuteronomy 29 gives us one of those essential warning messages.  It comes in the context of God’s covenant with Israel – his relationship with them.  God had graciously established a bond with Israel where he would be their God and they would be his people.  Similarly, we too have a covenant relationship with the LORD.  God has made promises to us, promises that were publically signed and sealed in our baptism.  God has laid obligations or expectations upon us.  The covenant relationship doesn’t automatically work for our benefit.  There is human responsibility involved, and our passage for this morning speaks about that.

So I’ll be preaching to you God’s Word from Deuteronomy 29:18-19 and this will be the theme:  God warns his covenant people against turning away from him.

And we’ll see that from this warning we need to learn about:

  1. The deceptive nature of unbelief and idolatry
  2. The destructive consequences of unbelief and idolatry

Almost the whole book of Deuteronomy is essentially made up of three sermons.  They’re sermons preached by Moses.  He had led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.  For 40 years they wandered in the wilderness.  They were now about to enter into the Promised Land of Canaan.  Moses would not go with them.  Moses had been disobedient to God.  In Numbers 20, he struck the rock instead of speaking to it.  Because of this disobedience, Moses was disqualified from entering the Promised Land.  He would die before Israel took possession of the land.  You could say Deuteronomy is his farewell to the Israelites.

Deuteronomy 29 contains the third sermon of Moses.  It’s a renewal of the terms of the covenant relationship.  In other words, it contains promises and expectations.  It also includes threats and warnings if the terms of the covenant are not taken seriously by God’s people. 

The warning in our passage has to do with unbelief, and specifically unbelief as it rears its ugly head in the form of idolatry.  This was a familiar issue with the Israelites.  The Israelites were prone to fall away from God.  On numerous occasions, they refused to trust in him.  Think about why they had to spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness.  The story is in Numbers 13.  The spies went into the land and most of them brought back a terrifying report.  They said that the people were too many and too strong.  The Israelites were persuaded that they couldn’t trust God to save them and give them victory.  So an entire generation would have to die out in the wilderness.  All because of unbelief.

And then there was the idolatry.  Back in Egypt, the people of Israel had worshipped idols alongside the LORD.  During the Exodus, they sometimes worshipped the idols of the nations as well.  In Numbers 25, you can read of how the Israelites worshipped the gods of Moab.  God sent a plague in response and 24,000 Israelites died.  All because of idolatry.

So, historically speaking, there was a history of unbelief and idolatry among God’s people.  These things had happened in the past, and there was a real possibility that they could happen again in the future.  Just being part of God’s covenant people wasn’t enough to guarantee they wouldn’t go down that wicked path.  The same is true today.    

So in verse 18 there’s this warning against turning away from God.  Turning away from God is also known as apostasy.  You can also call it unbelief.  What it means is that you’ve heard God say he is your God.  You’ve heard him say that you are part of his people.  But then you say, “No.  No, he is not my God and I am not part of his people.”  Or you might still say, “He is my God,” but then your lifestyle clearly shows that he isn’t.  The way you live shows that you’re not trusting him, not honouring him, not following him.  So when there’s hypocrisy, when words and deeds don’t match up with any consistency at all, that’s also a form of apostasy or unbelief. 

There’s also this warning against idolatry.  The Israelites could be tempted to go and serve the gods of the nations currently living in the Promised Land.  So, gods like Baal and Molech.  So they would turn away from Yahweh the true God, and turn to false gods.

That could happen on several levels of society.  It could be just an individual man or woman.  But it could also become a more widespread thing, involving a clan or a tribe.  A whole family could go down this path and then even involve other families in Israel.  No matter what level it happens on, there has to be a serious warning against it.  Even if it’s just one person, one man or one woman, the alarm has to be sounded against this wickedness. 

Not only that, but God’s people also have to be aware of how this wickedness deceives.  It’s a tricky thing, this unbelief and idolatry.  The bait looks attractive, but the hook is sharp, and once you’re caught, it’s hard to break free.  Notice the way both verses 18 and 19 speak about the heart.  The heart is mentioned three times in these two verses.  In the Bible, the heart is often spoken of as the part of you that rules and directs your life from within.  Your heart is at the centre of your being.  Your heart includes your emotions, but also your desires and your thoughts.  And this problem of unbelief and idolatry starts right there, inside you, in your heart.  That’s where the deception begins. 

That’s why verse 18 speaks about the hearts of God’s people turning away to go and serve other gods.  It begins in the heart.  It might not be right away evident in your actions, but your heart has been made up to go a different direction than what God has in mind for you.  Then the one who goes down this track “blesses himself in his heart” – that’s in verse 19.  That’s another way of saying that he’s talking to himself and congratulating himself.  He congratulates himself because he thinks that he’ll be all right even though he knows that he’s walking (or living) in the stubbornness of his heart.  His heart is stubbornly not committed to God, but he thinks he’ll be safe.  In today’s terms, this person lives like a non-Christian, but says, “It’ll be alright.”  I can turn away from God, I can follow my idols, and everything will be just fine. 

And that is a lie.  It’s just not true.  For the people of Israel, God had promised them that if they would walk in his ways, there would be blessings.  If they would follow his commandments, life would go smoothly.  God’s commandments were meant for the flourishing of life and blessing.  But if they would reject God and turn away from him, there would be curses.  Deuteronomy 27 and 28 are chapters full of covenant blessings and curses.  The blessings are for obedience and the curses are for disobedience.  God is true.  Sinful human hearts will lie.  They will lie to others, but they will also lie to themselves.  Sinful human hearts will try to hold on to the lie that you can sin with impunity.  But it’s a fantasy.  The reality is in God’s Word.  The truth is there is no safety in turning away from Yahweh to follow idols. 

It was a lesson the people of Israel couldn’t learn.  Even though God warned them here in Deuteronomy, they were constantly drawn away by their sin, by unbelief and idolatry.  Later in Deuteronomy 29, God promised them that if they wouldn’t listen, eventually they would face exile from the Promised Land.  And eventually they did.  God was remarkably patient, but hundreds of years later, he did send his covenant people into exile in Assyria and Babylon.  They couldn’t be faithful to the terms of the covenant. 

They needed someone who would do this in their place.  They needed a Mediator who could offer the perfect obedience God required and also make the sacrifice that could atone for all their disobedience, for all their unbelief and idolatry.  Jesus Christ came to be that Saviour that they needed and the Saviour we need.  As you look at Christ, you see someone amazing and attractive.  He has a heart that never turned away from God to go and serve other gods.  He was faithful and believing, loyal and committed for 100%.  Though Jesus was certainly tempted, he never succumbed to the deceptive nature of unbelief and idolatry.  He resisted it and stood steadfast.  Loved ones, he did it in our place.  The Mediator of the covenant of grace has fulfilled for us what we couldn’t fulfill for ourselves.  He’s perfectly met God’s demands, and if we place our trust in him, we have two great blessings.  One, God looks at you as if you had perfectly heeded the warning in our passage.  Two, God forgives you for all the times you didn’t perfectly heed his warnings against turning away from him.  If you look to Jesus Christ and trust in him, you have his obedience and the forgiveness that comes through the cross.  God’s grace is there for you in Jesus Christ and isn’t that a wonderful encouragement! 

Brothers and sisters, that reality casts the warnings in our passage in a different light.  As a believer saved by grace through Christ, I hear these warnings as God’s mercy to me.  My Father, who has this covenant relationship with me, my Father wants me to be aware of the deceptive nature of sin.  In his love, he warns me because doesn’t want me to be tricked by unbelief and idolatry.  He wants to keep me close to him and away from idols.

Today those idols take different forms.  In Moses’ day, they had Molech, Baal, Ashtoreth and more.  We might be tempted to think that idolatry is just false religions like Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism.  However, the Bible is clear that idolatry is more than just statues and false gods like Krishna, Allah, or whatever else.  Idols come in many shapes and forms in our day. 

There’s a really subtle lie about idols going on in our society right now.  It comes when people talk about some people being religious and others not.        This is a subtle untruth covering up the idolatries of our age. 

The truth is all people are religious.  Maybe they’re not associated with an “organized religion,” but they are religious, which is to say there’s always worship, there’s always devotion, there’s always some kind of commitment to ultimate ideals.  If it’s not Christianity, there’s always idolatry.  In the world we’re in today, a lot of that idolatry has to do with the twin gods of pleasure and self.  When we talk about pleasure, it’s especially about the relentless pursuit of any and every sexual pleasure, but other forms are not far behind.  And then there’s the idol of self, declaring that you are god, you determine your own identity, your own gender, your own destiny, you are ultimate. 

Loved ones, do not be deceived by the lies of this age.  This is all religious.  This is all idolatry.  You see, it’s not just Christians who are religious or Jews who are religious – everyone is religious.  The question is:  is it true religion?  All people are inescapably religious – human beings are always driven to worship something.  The question:  who or what are you going to worship?

Brothers and sisters, let’s be aware of these idols, because they’re not only out there enticing people in the world.  They’re also tempting us.  If we have been redeemed by Christ through God’s grace, if the cross means anything to us, if we value God’s love, then let’s listen to his Word and heed his warnings.  Idolatry lies and says everything will be fine.  No worries.  In fact, following these idols will make you happy and make you feel fulfilled.  But in the end there are destructive consequences. 

Let’s now look at how our passage speaks of those consequences.  There are two images used in these two verses to portray the consequences.  The first is in verse 18 where the unbelieving Israelite is described as “a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit.”  As you probably know, the Bible often uses agricultural imagery to describe people.  Here we’re to picture a person like a rooted plant bringing forth fruit.  But the fruit is not only bitter – and therefore you can’t eat it, but it’s also poisonous and therefore dangerous.  It’s bitter, so you can’t eat it and it doesn’t nourish life.  It’s poisonous, so instead of nourishing life, it actually endangers life and extinguishes life. 

So what God is saying is that a person who turns away from him in unbelief and idolatry is like this.  That person doesn’t nourish life.  In fact, that person endangers life.  Destruction is bound up with the one who is such a root of unbelief and idolatry.  It’s destruction not only for the individuals involved, but for others too.  That’s a terrible and destructive consequence.  You become a destroyer.

It’s echoed with the words at the end of verse 19.  “This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.”  The picture here again is from farming.  You’re meant to imagine a well-irrigated field on the one hand and on the other hand a dry, arid desert.  On the one hand there’s nourishment and life.  That moist field grows beautiful and nutritious crops.  But on the other hand, there’s a place where nothing grows but death.  These are pictures of God’s people in two spiritual conditions.  On the one hand, the moist well-irrigated field is meant to portray a faithful believer walking with the LORD, producing good fruit.  But on the other hand, the dry desert portrays the unfaithful covenant member who doesn’t repent from sin and trust in God’s promises.  That person is spiritually dead, not producing any fruit.  So that’s what is meant with “moist and dry.” 

Now the remarkable thing here is that this sin of turning away from God to follow idols results in the sweeping away of both the moist and the dry.  The consequences are far-reaching.  They extend beyond the individual who’s doing it.  The consequences result in the sweeping away or withering away even of those who themselves might be walking with the LORD in faithfulness.  This is why God warns so strongly against it.  It affects everybody among the covenant people.

To illustrate somewhat, we could think of what happens in the book of Joshua in chapter 7.  In Joshua 6, the people of Israel had conquered Jericho.  It seemed all good.  But then you get Joshua 7:1.  Turn there with me for a moment to see what it says [read].  Notice that it first says, “the people of Israel broke faith.”  That’s a corporate, covenantal way of speaking.  But then it speaks about the individual, Achan.  Achan took some of the devoted things.  His idol was material possessions.  He wanted the cloak, the bar of gold, and the 200 shekels of silver.  But then look again at the end of the verse, “And the anger of the LORD burned against the people of Israel.”  Again, that’s a corporate, covenantal way of speaking.   The idolatry of an individual in Israel resulted in God’s wrath against the whole people. 

Now you might say, “Surely that was just Old Testament stuff.”  Well, there’s an example in the New Testament too.  In 1 Corinthians 11, a few people from the Corinthian church were profaning or dishonouring the Lord’s Supper table.  For example, people would come to the Lord’s Supper and get drunk.  They were eating and drinking flippantly, casually, without thinking about the Lord Jesus.  They were just having some fun at a religious ritual like they were in some pagan temple.  But there were consequences in the congregation, far-reaching consequences.  First Corinthians 11:30, “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”  It’s not said that it was necessarily the people who profaned the Lord’s Supper who experienced these consequences.  The whole covenant community suffered. 

As we read from Hebrews 12, God does that for a reason.  He disciplines entire covenant communities so they would wake up and deal with sin in their midst.  God wants to correct his people and point them in the right direction.  Discipline is ultimately an act of God’s love.  But nevertheless, as Hebrews 12 also says, discipline is painful rather than pleasant.  That’s why Hebrews 12 echoes the words of Deuteronomy 29 and issues the same warning.   Because the consequences are terrible, don’t head down this path.  Don’t head down this path because of the consequences for yourself, but also don’t head down this path because of the consequences for others.  Think of others.

You see, this destructive consequence is yet another feature of the deceptiveness of sin.  Notice how our text has the apostate Israelite saying, “I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.”  The word for “safe” in the Hebrew is “Shalom.”  “Shalom” is more than just being safe and secure.  It’s a word that speaks of peace and wholeness.  When there is shalom, things are exactly the way they should be, the way they were designed to be.  So the apostate Israelite says, “Even though I won’t listen to God, I have peace, wholeness, and things are just perfect.”  And notice that his focus is entirely on himself.  He doesn’t say anything about anyone else.  He just thinks that he has shalom.  But the reality is anti-shalom, not only for him, but for others too.

Loved ones, the warning is there for us too.  Don’t turn away from God and fall into unbelief and idolatry, because it will lead to destructive consequences for you, but also for others.  As someone once said, sin is less like a bullet and more like a bomb.  When the sin bomb goes off, there are victims left all around.  Do you need an illustration of how that might work?  Let me just give you one. 

Take the parent who regularly uses pornography.  This parent is a church member, goes to church every Sunday, maybe even goes to study club.  But in reality their heart has turned away from the true God and is chasing after an idol.  That person will face consequences already in this life for this wickedness.  But what about their child who finds out they’re doing this?  Seeing this hypocrisy in a parent can be devastating to a child in the church.  This is the sweeping away of the moist and dry alike.  The sin of unbelief and idolatry doesn’t just affect you.  This is going to be true for any form of unbelief and idolatry. 

Brothers and sisters, Christ is better.  That’s ultimately where the Holy Spirit wants to take us with the words of our text.  He wants us to realize that Christ is always better.  It’s always far better to turn from your idols and turn to Christ.  It’s always better to look to Christ in faith, to trust in him, and to live in union with him.  Unbelief and idolatry leave you with nothing but heartache in this life and hell in the next.  Christ gives you a heart full of joy and peace and the hope of heaven hereafter.  Christ gives eternal treasure that can never be taken away from you.  Christ is better.  When you’re tempted to turn away from God and chase after idols, tell yourself that.  Tell yourself, “No, Christ is better.  With Christ, I shall be safe.  I shall have shalom – peace, wholeness -- when I turn from my sin and the stubbornness of my heart and look at Jesus as my Saviour.”  The warning in our text is meant to land us at Hebrews 12:2.  It’s meant to have us “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” 

So brothers and sisters, young and old, I plead with you to heed this warning from God’s Word.  He gives it to you because he cares about you.  His will is that none of us should perish, but that we should all experience eternal life through Jesus Christ.  In his love, he warns you, his people.  In his mercy, he shows you that there is a better way through repentance and faith.  He is your God.  You are his people.  Hear his word, know his love and grace in Christ, and follow him wholeheartedly.  AMEN.


O Yahweh,

You are our God.  We are your people.  We thank you for the warnings of your Word to us.  Please help us with your Holy Spirit to heed these warnings.  We ask you to help us to see the deceptive nature of unbelief and idolatry.  With your Spirit and Word, open our eyes to how these deceive us.  Help us so we would not be tricked into following destructive lies.  We pray that you would preserve us from the destructive consequences of unbelief and idolatry.  Help us to repent quickly so that we and others wouldn’t be affected by our sin.  Father, we thank you for our Lord Jesus.  We praise you for his obedience offered in our place.  We worship you for providing us with forgiveness through his blood shed on the cross.  Please help us with your Spirit to live in union with our Saviour.  Let him be the vine, and let us be the branches.  Let him be our head, let us be his body.  Let him be our Master, let us be his disciples.  Please work in us so that we’re not roots bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, but plants bearing living sweet fruit for your glory.       


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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