Seven Steps to the Grave
Robert Wurtz II
“And the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” (Genesis 6:3 NKJV)
“But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:16 NKJV)
“Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience,
again He designates a certain day, saying in David, “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 4:6–7 NKJV)
Over the years, I compiled a mental list of seven means by which God deals (often progressively) with individuals to lead them to repentance and establish them as obedient children in His kingdom. First, however, I need to say that it is impossible to apply them strictly. Instead, it is a general pattern that I have observed in Scripture and life. I’m calling these means “Seven Steps to the Grave.” Why “to the grave,” you ask? Because the grave (or physical death) signals the end of God’s dealings.
Generally speaking, God employs these means in a more or less progressive way between the cradle and the grave. However, in some cases, he uses these means simultaneously. The goal is to lead a person to repentance, and all are an expression of His goodness and benevolence. What are these means or measures?
- The striving of the Spirit
- The Word of God
- Divine Intervention
The conscience is that inner voice inside of humankind that convicts and reproves us of thoughts and behaviors that conflict with our sense of right and wrong (John 8:9). We are all born with a basic sense of right and wrong, and the conscience is the internal mechanism that enforces that basic sense. It “speaks” before, during, and after we do something wrong but speaks loudest after we have done wrong. It has been called that unaffiliated member of our being that speaks on behalf of God. Therefore, we cannot control our conscience, but we can sear it (as it were) with a hot iron so that we’re no longer sensitive to it (1 Timothy 4:2). Simply put, the conscience is the first and most universal way that God deals with humankind.
The striving of the Spirit
God revealed to Noah that His Spirit had been striving with the people that they resisted His dealings. The Hebrew word translated strive is diyn, and it means to bring justice, pass sentence, contend, govern, act as judge, plead with, and quarrel. The Holy Spirit of God strives with people, as individuals, to convince them to repentance. Thus, we could say that the Spirit works in concert with the conscience to change a person’s mind and turn them from their rebellion and sin. The Holy Spirit presses upon people inwardly and shows them their error plainly. The Scripture speaks of people quenching, resisting, grieving, vexing, and blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Therefore God told Noah, “My Spirit will not always strive with man (…).”
The Word of God
In time, God began giving humankind His Holy Word inspired by and in agreement with His Holy Spirit. Paul tells us that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16 NKJV) It was first delivered to Moses by angels and written down. Additional writings came about over time as God spoke and holy men of God recorded the words. The Word of God is the official and authoritative written representation of His counsel. When God speaks, His word contains within itself the power to accomplish it in those who hear it and mix faith with it (Hebrews 4:2). We are accountable to God for how we respond to His word and will ultimately be judged by its standards.
“The words of the wise are like goads (…)” (Ecclesiastes 12:11a NKJV). One example of this is the preaching of Stephen in Acts Chapter 7:1f. Saul (later known as Paul) is listening to Stephen preach along with the rest of the people. He is the most important figure in the crowd, so the message is tailored to him. God is dealing strongly with Saul by combining His anointed Word with the godly disposition of the preacher (Stephen), which was almost angelic (Acts 6:15). Saul “kicked” against this sermon and many other dealings of God designed to secure his repentance.
Jesus told Saul, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” The Greek word for goad also carries the meaning “to sting” and is translated as sting in 1 Corinthians 15:55. So whether the emphasis is on goading or stinging, the connotation is that God made Saul’s rebellion painful.
There are many examples of God intervening to deal with a person’s rebellion. Some are quite spectacular, like when Balaam, insane with greed, saddled his animal to go and curse Israel. They arrive at a bridge where an angel is waiting to kill Balaam, but the animal stopped and would not proceed. So Balaam gets into an argument with the animal and threatens to kill it. What happened? “And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me: And the ass saw me, and turned from me these three times: unless she had turned from me, surely now also I had slain thee, and saved her alive.”
(Numbers 22:32–33 KJV)
Like many people today, Balaam was so greedy that he narrowly avoided destruction and possibly damnation. Sadly, some people are too greedy to be saved. They serve Mammon and not God, and He has done almost everything imaginable to get them to repent of their idolatry (Colossians 3:5). Peter commented on these types of people, saying, “They have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness; But was rebuked for his iniquity: the dumb ass speaking with man’s voice forbad the madness of the prophet.” (2 Peter 2:15–16 KJV)
Sometimes an intervention is like Saul experienced when he was smitten blind on the road to Damascus. Or, sometimes God allows us to fall in our own self-confidence as he did Peter when he denied the Lord and swore with a loud oath. Anything that “awakens” us to our need for God is an intervention. It could be the death of a loved one, signs of the times being fulfilled before our eyes, or a prophetic utterance that comes forth in a meeting and convinces the person of God’s dealings (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).
Paul warned the Corinthians that “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.” (1 Corinthians 11:30 KJV) Notice this progression. In my estimation, these are the last two tools that God uses to change a person. We will deal with them as the sixth and seventh step to the grave. Weakness could be a general weakness of the body that reduces a person’s capacity to function normally. Bear in mind that “sleep” is not a means of securing repentance; it’s judgment being served. Its impact is on the living who know (as with Ananias and Sapphira) that a person was smitten dead by God for their sin. In that case, sleep serves as an intervention for those who witness it.
Apart from prophetic discernment, it is impossible to know if a weakness, sickness, or death results from God’s judgment. But the passages in Corinthians ought to alert us of the real possibility that behavior could be impacting the physical health of a church and its members. Not just as individuals, but the whole body. We should not be quick to dismiss these things but ought to examine ourselves and judge ourselves regarding our behavior (1 Corinthians 11:30-32). If we live in love with a pure conscience, we are likely clear of this type of God’s dealing. But if we are behaving like Corinthians, be afraid, for God is no respecter of persons. He is just as concerned for our church as He was the Corinthians church and will deal accordingly.
God’s Deals with Bad Behavior
The Corinthian example demonstrates how people can miss the point of being a Christian altogether. God had worked all the dealings mentioned earlier to bring them to repentance and make them Saints, yet all these measures and means failed to do the job. Not even the Lord’s Supper could bring them into a state of love and unity. Instead, they used it to push and shove and get drunk. As a result, the poor were mistreated, and Christ was dishonored. Little did they know that their bad behavior was causing weakness, sickness, and death. Instead, they were eating and drinking judgment (1 Corinthians 11:29 Greek word krima).
Why does God use all these measures to deal with people? Because He is not willing that any perish, but that all come to repentance. Why does He use these measures with believers? Because He is determined to make us true Saints who love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. He will not tolerate bad behavior that puts the church at risk of failing to be what He designed it to be. So it’s up to us. How will we respond to God?
“For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.” (1 Corinthians 11:31–32 KJV)