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The Ten Commandments

The Sin Nobody Sees

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | June 15, 1986

Selected highlights from this sermon

The last of the Ten Commandments is perhaps the most dangerous one. It lurks down deep in our hearts, cloaked behind reasonable sentiments like prudence, planning, and fairness. 

Covetousness lies hidden through deceit. 

God hates a covetous heart, and yet we are usually unaware of it as we hoard wealth and talk about our needs. It is nothing short of idolatry, and only God can break it. He alone can end our covetous attitude and give us a heart of repentance. 

I suggest that if you make out a will, and you ought to have one incidentally. And if you have children I suggest you make it out very fairly, because if not, there’s going to be a bit scrap at your funeral. It happens all the time. You’d be surprised at the fine wonderful Christian homes that are split, torn in two by strife, and division and hatred, all because of the inequities of dividing up the loot after people die. I think of a man in New York, a Christian man, who said that because his brother tried to chisel him out of part of his inheritance, he actually plotted to kill him. Something happens when people realize that there was money that they were to receive that doesn’t seem to be coming to them.

One day Jesus was preaching a sermon and someone interrupted. Luke 12 tells the story. Maybe we should turn to that story. Someone interrupted and said, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” That seemed like a rather reasonable request. Jesus wasn’t actually asked whether or not he would be the arbiter. He was asked to take sides. The boy said, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But Jesus backed out of the responsibility. Instead he does something that you and I would never think of doing in a context like that, that seemed like a reasonable request. Jesus said to the young man, “Beware of covetousness because a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things that he possesses.” That’s what Christ’s response was.

And then Jesus goes on to tell the story of a farmer, who had lots of grain and he had more than his barns and his granaries could hold. And so he said, “I’m going to tear them down and I’m going to build greater and then I’m going to go to Florida where I’m going to spend the rest of my life. Eat, drink and be merry. Tomorrow we die. Enjoy it.”

Covetousness is a sin that is so subtle because, for one thing, nobody sees it. You look at the other commandments. Thou shall not commit adultery. Certainly Jesus said that we should not lust in our hearts. But basically adultery, as far as the act is concerned, is something that can be taken into account to judge a person. You take, for example, the sin of stealing or lying, but covetousness hides down deep in the heart and there is no law in the United States, nor in the state of Illinois that can ever try you for covetousness. I’ve never seen it yet. I’ve seen all kinds of interesting things in the Chicago newspaper, but I’ve never seen anyone tried for covetousness. It lurks within the human heart.

The Ten Commandments are all held together. I wish I had time to show that to you, but the two that hold them all together are the first one and the last one. They are almost identical. “Thou shall have no other gods before me,” and “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife, or his house, or his servants, or anything that belongs to his neighbor.” And it is impossible to touch any of the other commandments without somehow infringing on covetousness. It is tied together with all the rest. You can’t commit the other sins without committing this one.

Now let’s answer some questions regarding covetousness, and we’ve got to do this quickly. First, why is covetousness so deceitful? The Bible talks about the deceitfulness of riches, the deceitfulness of covetousness. Let me tell you very quickly that in 1 Thessalonians 2:5 the Apostle Paul talks about the cloak of covetousness. The reason that covetousness is so deceptive is that it always comes clothed in a way that is deceitful. It’s something like that Little Red Riding Hood story where the wolf first of all plays the grandmother so that later he can play the wolf.

Covetousness comes cloaked. How does it come cloaked? It can come cloaked under the doctrine of fairness. You look at this young man. He says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me. There’s nothing wrong with that. I ought to get what I have coming to me. We ought to do this properly, just as the will specifies.” That sounds right, and yet Jesus looks into the young man’s heart and says, “Oh, beware of covetousness. Wait a minute here. You have a legal problem but deeper than the legal problem is a covetous problem. It’s a problem of the human heart. So you see, under the doctrine of fairness we can hide the desire for things and to make sure that we are going to get our share because we have it coming to us. And we may legally, but the problem is that down deep within there is a covetous spirit.

It comes cloaked not only with fairness, but it also comes cloaked with prudence. You know, I reread this story of this rich man. I’ve never preached on the parable frankly. I am sure that I should have, but I never have. But I reread it this past week a couple of times and thought to myself, “My word, what’s so wrong with this man?” I mean he has no place to put all of his grain so he builds his granaries and his barns bigger, and he says, “I’m going to take all of them and put all this away, and then I am going to eat, drink and be merry.”

Isn’t this the American way of life? Wouldn’t this make an excellent story on the front page of the Wall Street Journal? Isn’t this what life is all about, to get as much as you can so that you can enjoy it, and you can travel, and you can have friends, and you can eat out, and you can live in a lavish place, and you can take care of everything? Isn’t that what we are all about?

My dear friend, under the guise of prudence can lurk a very covetous, grabbing, hungry, deceitful heart. See that’s why covetousness is a sin that probably I cannot convince you that you have it. Only God can show it to you. It is so deceitful, because people say, “Well, I’ve got to earn a living,” or “Other people are doing it and I’ve got to compete.” And all these excuses are given, you see, and it cloaks the hidden desire for things and for security. And down deep beneath the frugality and the fairness and the prudence, there is a heart that craves and desires more than other people have.

You see the problem is that the greed of the human heart can never be satisfied. That’s the problem. You know the Bible says in Ecclesiastes that he that loves silver is not satisfied with silver. Amazing, because what it’s saying is that you and I have within us an insatiable desire. If we love silver we will not be satisfied with silver. We will go on to gold and we will go onto this and onto that, and on and on it will go, and the thirst continues to get greater and greater, and it does not abate, no matter how much we feed greed.

Greed is like a cord that is wrapped around the human heart until it chokes everything, and you become miserly and withdrawn and stingy and irritable, and full of all kinds of schemes because of that greed, that covetous spirit of greed. People who are greedy are full of restless energy, wanting to grab. If you were to paint a picture of covetousness I don’t think it would be a person that was fat and clumsy. It would be lean, hungry, scheming, desiring. That’s what exists in the human heart. That’s why it’s so deceitful.

There is a second question and that is how is it detected? How do you know whether you have a covetous heart? Notice the text. First of all, we can tell it by what we say. Notice this man who speaks. He reasons to himself (verse 17). First of all, he’s speaking to himself. I guess it’s all right to speak to yourself, but when you begin to answer maybe you have some problems. I heard someone who said, “I always speak to myself because there’s nobody else around intelligent enough to carry on a conversation with me.” But this man was reasoning to himself, saying, “What shall I do since I have no place to store my crops? This is what I will do. I will tear down my barns. I will build larger ones. I will store there all my grain.” I, I, I! You’ve met people like that. In fact, take a good look in the mirror maybe.

You see, the Bible says that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. There are some people who cannot talk about spiritual things. It cannot come out of their mouths. All that they talk about is earning money. All that they talk about is things, things, acquiring, acquiring, and who has what and how much. That’s how you detect covetousness. It’s not only by what you say but also by what you do.

This man decided, of course, to make room for all of his grain instead of thinking that he really ought to give it away. He begins to use the things that God has given him, and to hoard those things, even more than he needs. Do you know that there are some people who have more money than they will ever need and they still don’t give it away? That’s amazing. Just think that there are people who have more money than they will ever be able to use up, and they still don’t give it away because of the greed that exists in the human heart. And God says, “Thou shall not covet.”

We’ve got to hurry on. First of all, why is it deceitful? It’s because it comes cloaked under the guise of very respectful ideas and concepts. Secondly, how is it detected? It’s by what we say and by what we do because out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Thirdly, why does God hate it so much? What’s God so uptight about when it comes to covetousness? The book of Proverbs says that God hates a covetous spirit. Why does God dislike this sin perhaps more than almost any other? It’s because covetousness is a denial of God. It is rebellion against God. How?

First of all, a covetous person denies God’s provisions. He’s saying, “God, I can’t trust you to take care of me. Consequently, I’ve got to grab for everything that I can in life. I’ve got to make sure that I have enough and even more than I can possibly use because I can’t trust God. I’ve got to go out there, and I’ve got to do it, and I’ve got to hoard. It’s rebellion against the provision of God. That’s why in the Old Testament when God said you can have manna, He said to them, “Go out every day. Gather it. If you store it in your tent one day it’s going to get old.” Why? It’s because God says, “I don’t want you to have two days worth of manna in your tent at one time, because if you do, on the second day you might not have to trust me.” And Jesus said, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

But you see, under the guise of proper planning, and we all ought to plan properly, can exist the most covetous spirit. A person who says, “I am going to make sure that even if God doesn’t come through I’m going to have enough,” there is rebellion against the provision of God. That’s why God hates covetousness.

It is not only rebellion against God’s provision and denial, but it is also rebellion against His providence because we may look at what others have and we may envy them, we may covet them. And actually what God is saying to us is that within His providence there are some people that are rich, and there are some people that are poor. I’m not saying that the poor shouldn’t try to earn some money and to become rich, but I’m simply saying that in this life there are all these inequities and in a sense, we must admit that God has a right to do as He wishes with His own. And therefore, when we begin to murmur and complain, and we are filled with covetousness, because whether we are rich or poor, we can have that kind of a heart, it is then that we are rebelling against God’s will and place for us in this world. And that’s why, in Colossians 3, Paul says covetousness is idolatry. What would we do here at the Moody Church if someone were an idolater, someone who would bow down to an image? We’d say, “Well, they should be disciplined.” But what do we say when the Bible says that a covetous person is an idolater? We say he has set up rival worship just like the Samaritans did. They rivaled the worship in Jerusalem. When God said, “Only in Jerusalem,” the Samaritans said, “It’s too far to go. We want to have our own worship center,” and so they worshipped Baal upon the mountain.

God says, “If you have a covetous heart, what you are doing is you are supplanting Me. You are saying that I am second and that you are inviting a rival into your life who is vying for your attention.” Covetousness is idolatry, says the Scripture. That’s why God hates it.

Remember the Bible says that we can trust God. “I will not fear what man can do unto me. But be content with such things as ye have for you know that the Lord has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” You see, contentment is related to the presence and the faith that we ought to have in God.

Another question is how can we overcome it? I want you to know today that you and I are born filled with covetousness. You say, “Well, you don’t even know me.” I don’t have to know you. The only requirement for me to say that is that you be a member of the human race. And you make your own judgment about whether or not you qualify on that score. We are born with a deceitful covetous spirit. And so how do we take that root that is within us, coveting our neighbor’s wife, our neighbor’s possessions, our neighbor’s house, anything that belongs to anybody else, desiring it, craving it, building in our imaginations the hope that someday it will be ours, the wish that it were ours? How can we take that awful root that is so implanted in the human heart and extract it? Well the answer is you can’t because covetousness is so much a part of you that it’s not even possible for you to get at it. Only God can take it out of our hearts. Only God can do it.

You know, you really know when God is able to change people. We say, “Can God change people?” I’ll tell you there are times when God has actually taken a stingy person and made them generous. Did you know that? That’s hard to believe. When I heard that I remembered hearing about a man who was so stingy and so miserly. Everything that he gave was so incredibly measured because he didn’t want to be guilty of over-generosity or over-giving. He wanted to keep everything absolutely right and just give enough to make it look good. And guess what! God took this Christian who had allowed that root of covetousness to grow up in his life, and God smashed him. He just took him apart piece by piece, with just one trial after another, one difficulty after another, butting his head up against a stone wall, until God showed him Himself and he was just absolutely broken in the sight of God, and he saw it in all of its ugliness. Stinginess, miserliness, covetous, desiring that which isn’t his, not being thankful for the fact that he had many times more than most of the poor people of the world! Absolutely unthankful, always desiring more! And then God began to take that root and to extract it.

How does God do it? First of all, he does it by repentance. I’ve already told you I cannot get you to see your own heart. Only God can by repentance. I have been slain just like the Apostle Paul was, as we’ll see in a few moments, by this commandment. Nobody can meditate upon the commandment, “Thou shall not covet,” without being absolutely devastated before God, because when you see yourself you know that you are guilty and you’ve got to see it and repent of it and confess it as sin, and recognize it as idolatry. The first commandment and the last are the same. Thou shall have no other gods before Me, and thou shall not covet are essentially the same commandment. Repent! Acknowledge that it is there.

Second, it is the matter of ownership. Give everything that you have over to God. Don’t own anything. That is the secret because covetousness says I own. This is mine and this ought to be mine. That’s the covetous spirit and God says, “You don’t own anything. Anything that I give you is nothing but a gift to be used in My work and I will hold you accountable for the way in which you use it, but I never lose ownership of it just because I entrust it to you for a short time.” Ownership! Consciously recognize that absolutely everything that you have belongs to God. Give it over to God.

Have you ever been on vacation and spent a lot of time worrying whether or not a thief was breaking into your neighbor’s garage and stealing his car? You say, “Oh no! Why would I worry about whether a thief was stealing my neighbor’s car?” Well then whose car were you worried about? “Oh,” you say, “mine.” Well then wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t own one? It would free you from a lot of worry. So what you do is you take and you give your car to God, and then you don’t own it anymore, and it’s God’s responsibility to look after it. And if you come back from vacation and find your garage has been broken into then simply say, “Lord, I don’t know why it is that You didn’t take better care of your stuff.” That’s right. We will always be covetous as long as we possess. Always! God says, “I am the owner.”

I remember the revival in Canada. Here was a woman who was trying to back her car into a space out on the street and one of those light poles happened to jump out and hit the car. You know how that happens. She lived with a husband who was covetous. How do you know if a husband is covetous? Watch how he takes care of his new car. She parked the car in the garage and when he came home he came through the garage, and she was waiting for the storm. The kids were upstairs in the closet with the door closed. I’m telling you a true story. But you know when he hugged his wife and gave her a kiss she thought that he hadn’t seen what happened, but he had. He’s the man that I was telling you about a few moments ago who God took apart piece by piece.

We are so concerned. A scratch on his new car would mean much more to him than whether or not the neighbors understood that Jesus Christ died on the cross for their sins. A covetous spirit right to the core! Always justified by saying, “Well, we should take care of the things that God gives us,” of course. Do you remember what I told you about covetousness having a cloak of respectability, always coming clothed in righteousness, and in sensibility and in wisdom and prudence and frugality? Those are the cloaks that covetousness wears. And you see, what that man had done is he finally gave that car to God. He finally relinquished ownership.

What you and I have to do is to relinquish ownership. When we relinquish ownership we’ll find it so much easier to give money. You know, here at the Moody Church we need about $25,000 a week. Sometimes I am amazed. I don’t know where it all comes from, and we just thank God, but there’s no question but that as a congregation we will give more to the ministry of Moody Church, we will give more to missions (and incidentally our missions fund needs some extra money), we will give more in all of these areas with liberality, generosity and freedom once we say, “God, this is yours; it is no longer mine,” and we repent of a covetous heart.

So there is repentance, there is ownership, and once you are devastated by God, there is changing your focus. I want you to turn to Romans 7 for just a moment because the Apostle Paul was slain by this commandment. Do you remember the young man who came to Jesus and he said, “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” And do you remember how Jesus Christ did not say to him, “Have you ever heard of the four spiritual laws?” though I am not critical of the four spiritual laws. But Jesus said to him, “Well, you are a young man. You have read the law. What do you think?” He said, “Well, I think we should keep the commandments.” Jesus said, “Fine. How many of the commandments have you kept?” And he said, “I have kept all of the commandments from my youth on.” “I’m okay,” the young man said, and of course, “since you are Jesus, you are okay.” I’m okay – you’re okay.

Jesus said, “Wait a moment. I’m okay but you’re not okay. You think that you have kept all of the commandments. Fine. If you keep them all that’s really all that can be expected. I mean if you are perfect then it’s true; you don’t have to be saved.” But Jesus said, “What you do is you go and sell everything that you have and then come and follow me.” Why did Jesus say that? It’s because the Bible says that this man had great possessions and Jesus wanted to point out that he was as covetous as any person could possibly be. Just ask a person to sell everything and to give it to Christ, and then see whether or not they have a covetous heart.

But the Apostle Paul was once struggling with lust, with desire, with covetousness. He says in Romans 7, “What shall we say then? Is the law sin?” I wish I had time to give you the whole context, but he’s discussing the role of the law, and his answer is, “May it never be. On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the law, for I would not have known about coveting if the law had not said, ‘Thou shall not covet.’” What Paul was saying is, “I was going along quite well and thinking to myself I’m keeping the commandments; I’m not committing adultery, I’m not lying, I’m not stealing, and so forth.” But then he says, “There was one commandment that absolutely chilled me – thou shall not covet (verse 8) - but sin, taking opportunity through the commandment produced in me coveting of every kind.” He said, “The minute I heard that commandment it was as if all of the covetousness of my heart came to the surface. It exposed me for what I was.”

Verse 9, “And I was once alive apart from the law. I thought I was doing well but when the commandment came, sin became alive, and I died. And this commandment which was to result in life proved to result in death for me.” He said, “I thought that the law was given for me to have life,” but he said, “I realized it can’t give life. All that the law can possibly do is to expose sin.”

If you are here today and you are not a Christian, for me to expect you to stop coveting would be the most foolish thing that I could ever imagine. If you don’t know Christ as Savior there is no way that you can stop coveting. It would be like telling an elephant that if he really tried hard he could fly. There is no way that you can stop coveting. Covetousness is so ingrained in the human heart because a little drop of Satan’s rebellion fell on every single human heart, and Satan is, above all, a possessor – someone who wants to own, to possess, to covet, to hoard. And that exists in every human heart, and no way can it be extricated.

Paul says, “All that the law can do is to point out that it’s within me, but it can’t change me.” That’s why when he gets to verse 24 of this chapter he said, “Oh wretched man that I am, who shall set me free from the body of this death? How am I going to get out of this? I hate coveting but I do it all the time. Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

And then he goes to chapter 8, verse 1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” Paul says, “When I begin to contemplate what Jesus Christ has done for me, when I remember as a believer that I am in Jesus Christ and part of him, then I begin to release the power of the Holy Spirit and I take courage and I take heart and I remember that legally God does not condemn me. God accepts me, and that doesn’t justify the covetousness, but what it does is it gives me encouragement and hope that as the Holy Spirit of God works in my life I can be free from that coveting, scheming, miserly heart.” That’s what Paul says.

We changed through repentance, we changed through a transfer of ownership, and we changed through focusing on what Jesus Christ has done for us, and the fact that we have acceptance before God despite our struggles. And therefore the power of the Holy Spirit of God can be released. When God begins to work on us, covetousness is the one sin that is the most stubborn, the most deeply ingrained, and the most deceptive. But it is his desire that as believers he work with us, expose it to us, ask us to repent, to give him everything that we have, and to begin focusing upon Christ who was so incredibly generous that he accepts sinners, forgives them and receives them, and welcomes them into the forever family.

Now I told you a moment ago that if you were here and you were not a Christian, for me to expect you to stop coveting would be the most foolish thing I could ever do. I wouldn’t even bother you with the attempt. There would be nothing ahead of you except frustration and helplessness if you could only see yourself the way God sees you. Nobody can stop coveting. But what you have to do is to realize that before you can even begin to stop or try to stop you must see that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross was a sacrifice for sins including covetousness, and that His death was the means by which God and you can be reconciled. You can be brought together because of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. And when you put faith in Him, admitting your helplessness, and trust Him, you can become a different person. I mean here’s a young man, like the young ruler that came to Jesus, successful in business, success keeping him away from Christ. But then he sees his need, trusts Jesus Christ and puts faith in Him and God makes him into a different person, the kind of young man that could stand in front of twelve or thirteen hundred people and tell them about Jesus Christ. What He did for him, that’s what Jesus Christ can do for you. But it’s only through faith in a Savior who died as a sacrifice for you that you might be reconciled to God and become a member of His family. And then God begins to go to work on you too. Become free and victorious over the awful sin of covetousness, which is idolatry.

Let’s pray.

Our Father, today you know our hearts and you know, Father, how often all of us come short, and we are basically at root covetous. Oh God, You know that there exists within every human heart the desire to own, possess thanklessness, greed, and the desire to hoard. Today, Father, expose us in your presence that we might be able to confess it, to forsake it, and to let You into every room of our lives. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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