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Money, Sex, and Power: Definitions and Foundations | Messages | Churchisonline.com

by John Piper
Saying No Is Never Enough


It may be helpful if I tell you how I have conceived of these three messages and how they fit together.

The first thing I think we need to do is talk about definitions and foundations. Definitions of money, sex, power, and the Light in which Christians live. What do we mean by those four things?

What I have found over the years is that the effort to define things at the beginning, almost always reveals that what you thought you were dealing with is the tip of an iceberg. You thought you were dealing with money — paper currency and coins. But in fact underneath you’re dealing the pleasures and advantages money can buy, or the status money can signify. And then you realize, no, that’s not the bottom, because underneath that is covetousness, and greed, and fear and cravings for safety or prestige or control. And then again, no, that’s not the bottom either, because the Bible says that there is another reality — a condition of the heart — deeper than all those sins, and producing them like bad fruit on a bad tree.

And we realize — just by trying to define what we are talking about — that this thing called money — or sex, or power — is like the fraction of an iceberg you can see above the water. It’s not the problem. What you can see isn’t going to sink your boat. It’s those massive, jagged, saw-tooth ridges of sin below the waterline that will put a gash in your boat and send you to the bottom of the ocean.

And then, as you sit and ponder the definitions of money sex and power with the help of some thoughtful friends, you realize that you have just used an image that sets the whole thing up in a totally negative way, and missed an even more foundational reality. You talked about currency and beneath that the pleasures currency can buy, and beneath that covetousness, and beneath that a condition of the heart that produces covetousness. So money sex and power are an iceberg that can sink the boat of your life. True.

But what about currency that you use to support a missionary or buys a gift for friend? What about the underlying generosity, and the heart that produces it? What about the good tree that produces good fruit? So it turns out that money sex and power are not always an iceberg about to sink you boat. They may be floating islands of food when the stores of your ship have run out, or fuel when you are stalled in the water, or the rarest fruit to sweeten your dreary sailing diet.

In other words another foundational reality we have to deal with is that money, sex, and power are from the beginning, gifts of God — good gifts of God. And if they sink us, it isn’t because God gave us bad gifts; it’s because something happened inside us to turn gifts of grace into instruments of sin — altars and incense and bells in the temple of pride.

And so the first thing we need to do is talk about definitions which lead us to see certain foundational realities far deeper — and far bigger — than the dangerous icebergs or the floating treasure-islands of money, sex, and power. So that’s today’s message — definitions and foundations.

Then in the second message, we will focus on the peculiar dangers of money, sex, and power (the icebergs) and how to avoid them or defeat them by living in the light. And then in the third message, we will focus on the peculiar potential (the treasure-islands) of money, sex, and power and how to deploy them in the cause of Christ-exalting love and worship. So that’s the plan: Definitions and foundations. Dangers and how to defeat them. Potentials and how to deploy them. Define. Defeat. Deploy.

Money: Definition and Foundation

We start with money. Money is some kind of currency — it might be paper, or metal, or in other cultures, perhaps, stones, or in our culture electronic records. This currency functions as a culturally defined representation of quantities of value, so that the currency can be used to pursue something you want, by spending it, or giving it, or keeping it.

So the currency itself is good gift from God that you can turn for evil or for good. You can spend it, to get something you value, like food, or a gift, or a lottery ticket, or a prostitute. You can give it away to advance some cause that you value, like a young person going on a mission trip, or to maintain a secret with someone who is blackmailing you, or by getting a job through bribery. Or you can keep it to solidify some value that you have like the security of a thick financial cushion, or like saving wisely for a future purchase to avoid debt.

In other words money — the symbolic representation of quantities of value — becomes a moral issue because of the rightness or wrongness of what you pursue with this gift God has given you and how you pursue it. You can pursue good and you can pursue evil. You can use it to show that you value what money can get you more than Christ. Or you can use it to show that you value Christ more than what money can get you.

Which means that the currency itself is not the issue we must wrestle with. There is something much more foundational. Something far deeper than wealth or poverty. Even deeper than greed or generosity. In sum, then, money is one cultural symbol that we use to show what we value. It is a means by which we show where our treasure is. Who our treasure is. The use of money is an act of worship — either of Christ, or something else.

Sex: Definition and Foundation

By sex I mean experiencing erotic stimulation, or seeking to get the experience, or seeking to give the experience. And when I say that, I mean that sex is a good gift from God in all those ways. Experiencing sexual stimulation, or seeking to have it, or seeking to give it, is God’s good gift which we may enjoy as he appointed, or exploit as we please.

Three clarifications. I know that the word “sexual” can be used much more broadly than this. A husband and a wife may have deep and wonderful conversations or shared activities that are sexual in the broad sense that she is female and he is male, but have no erotic element. That’s true, and that is wonderful. But I’m not talking about that.

A second clarification is that I have in mind a wide range of sexual activity from the most casual and even accidental stimulation as well as the most intense and intentional stimulation. A man may have erotic thoughts about a woman worship leader when she has no intention to cause that at all. Or a woman may have sexual feelings about a pastor, wishing her husband were more spiritually passionate. And that pastor may have no intention or desire for such a thing.

One more clarification. This means that sex may be happening when there is no erotic effect whatsoever, because the one trying to stimulate the other (for example, by how he or she acts or dresses) may not succeed at all. So by my definition, sex would be happening, but no one is getting any pleasure.

So you can see that the experience of erotic stimulation itself and the effort to get it or give it may be a good use of God’s good gift, or a merely selfish exploitation. What makes sex virtuous or not is not the pleasure or the pursuit, something deeper. There are foundational issues of submission to the word of God and the condition of the heart.

Power: Definition and Foundation

Power is the capacity to get what you want. The capacity may lie in the fact that you have great physical strength. Or in the fact that you have a gun. Or that you have a position of authority: like a parent or a teacher or a policeman, or a member of parliament. Or it may lie in the fact that you have more money than anyone in the group. Or that you are very beautiful or handsome.

All of those capacities are good gifts of God. You don’t have any of those capacities solely by your own design or effort. God is the decisive giver of them all. And all those capacities to get what you want can be used to do evil or to do good. How you use your power shows where your heart is, shows what you love. Shows what you treasure most. What you worship.

What Money, Sex, and Power have in common

Perhaps it’s becoming clear why in my planning for these three messages I didn’t plan to do one talk on money, and second talk on sex, and a third talk on power. The reason is that at root — at the foundations — they are fundamentally the same. They are ways of displaying God’s supreme worth in your life, or they are ways of displaying the supreme worth of something else. The way you think and feel and act about money, sex, and power, puts your heart’s treasure on display. Either God, or something he made.

Power is a capacity to pursue what you value.
Money is a cultural symbol that can be exchanged in pursuit of what you value.
Sex is one of the pleasures that people value and the pursuit of it.

Therefore power, money, and sex are all God-given means of showing what you value. They are — like all other created reality in the universe — given by God as means of worship. That is, as means of magnifying what is of supreme worth to you. All your power, all your money, all your sexual desires are God’ gifts for putting on display the supreme worth of God’s glory.

Turning to the Foundations

You can see that we have moved somewhat beyond definitions — down to the foundations that reveal what money sex and power are really about in a God centered universe like ours. So what we need to do now is go to the Bible and see how God makes clear what these foundational issues are. What, at root are we created to be? What are we created to do with the good gifts of money, sex, and power? And what’s wrong with us at root, that instead putting the worth of God on display with our money, sex, and power, we actually make him disappear as if the creator and sustainer and goal of all that is were inconsequential. That is the greatest outrage in the world. Christ came to turn that around — in your life, and in this world.

What is the condition of the human heart?

So turn with me to Romans 1:18ff. Here we find a description of our deepest problem and the glory from which we have fallen and the glory to which in Christ we can return. Paul drills down beneath sinning to the heart that sins. He drills down through destructive behaviors to depraved hearts, my heart and yours.

Let’s start with verse 18, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness (ἀδικίαν) suppress the truth.” Here mankind in general is described as “ungodly and unrighteous.” That is our condition. All of us. When he finishes his analysis of the human condition he sums up in Romans 3:9, “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” So we are all in this condition of “ungodly and unrighteous.”

And the first thing Paul says about this condition is that it causes men to suppress the truth. Romans 1:18b: “By their unrighteousness they suppress the truth.” Another way to describe what happens is that we intentionally blind ourselves to the light of truth. The theme of these three messages, remember, is “Living in the Light: Money, Sex, and Power.” Living in the light. So right here we are seeing why this is so crucial.

Sin repels the light of truth and runs to the darkness of falsehood. Jesus said that we are sinners not because we are victims of the darkness but because we are lovers of the darkness. John 3:19, “Light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light.” The first mark of our sinful nature is that it inclines us and empowers us to suppress the truth. To hate the light.

What truth, what light, specifically does our sinful nature hate? The next verse tells us. Romans 1:19. The reason we know that men suppress the truth is “Because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” Knowledge of God (the light of God) is repulsive to our sinful nature. Our deepest problem is not ignorance. Verse 19 says, “what can be known about God is plain.” It is known, Light is shining.

And look at verse 20. “His invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” And verse 21: “Although they knew God . . .” The problem is not ignorance. The problem is “in our unrighteousness we suppress the truth. We hate the light. And we love the darkness.

So at the end of verse 20 Paul says, “So they are without excuse.” Why? Verse 21 gives the answer that goes to the root of problem: “Because although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” They did not glorify him as God and thank him. They chose the darkness of man-exaltation over God-exaltation.

Our sinful hearts do not love to glorify God — to treasure God as glorious, and delight in God as supremely beautiful, and display God as our greatest treasure. Our sinful hearts do not want to treasure God as glorious and thank God for everything. That’s what the word “ungodly” means in verse 18. In our “ungodliness” we do what ungodliness does: It suppresses the truth that God is to treasured as supremely glorious and generous. And our sinful nature hates the light of God’s supremacy, and runs to the darkness where we are supreme.

When the truth is suppressed, and the light is rejected, and the glory of God is disregarded, something else always takes their place. The human heart hates a vacuum. We never merely leave God because we value him little, we always exchange God for what we value more. Verse 22: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” They became fools. This is the ultimate foolishness. This is the most foundational meaning of sin — exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images.

So underneath all the misuses of money, sex, and power is this sinful heart condition — this depravity. So my definition of sin based on this passage in Romans 1 is: Sin is any feeling or thought or action that comes from a heart that does not treasure God over all other things. And the bottom of sin, the root of all sins, is such a heart — a heart that prefers anything above God, a heart that does not treasure God over everything else, and everyone else.

The deepest problem of all

That is the deepest and biggest and most pervasive problem of the human race. It is the deepest distortion of the beauty of what we were meant to be. We exist to know God and to glorify and thank him. We do that not by exchanging him for something, but by preferring over everything. We glorify God by treasuring him over all treasures. Enjoying him over all pleasures. Desiring him over all desires. Prizing him over all prizes. Wanting him over all wants.

These are the two great heart conditions in human life. A heart that values God over all. Or a heart that values something else more. One heart is happy in the light of God’s supreme worth. The other heart is happy in the darkness, fondling images.

Money, sex, and power are three good gifts of God. And in the next two messages we will see that we can use them to reveal a heart of darkness or reveal a heart of light. A heart that treasures this world above God, or a heart that treasures God above this world.

Power — the capacity to pursue what you value most: the glory of God or something else.

Money — the cultural symbol that can be exchanged in pursuit of what you value most: the glory of God, or something else.

Sex — one of the pleasures people value and the pursuit of it: as a taste of the glory of God, or something else.

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