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Wordwise Insight, Issue #024
December 14, 2006

WORDWISE INSIGHT is the free, informative monthly newsletter of


BIBLE INSIGHTS. The grace of God; the fallibility of self knowledge; how to be blessed

READER Q & A. The Bible's teaching relating to masturbation; a hymn question for you; a questionnaire for pastoral candidates

REVIEWS & IDEAS. Early recordings of sacred music available!


I wonder how many people over the years have sung the hymn “Amazing Grace” with little or no appreciation for its theme. The grace of God is what makes salvation possible, and it is what makes the Christian gospel unique. Various forms of the word are found nearly 200 times in our English Bibles. Consider the following qualities of the grace of God. It is:

1) Great grace (Acts 4:33),

2) Abundant and abounding grace (Rom. 5:17, 20),

3) Reigning grace (Rom. 5:21; cf. Heb. 4:15-16),

4) Sufficient grace (II Cor. 12:9),

5) Glorious grace (Eph. 1:6),

6) Rich grace (Eph. 1:7; 2:7).

7) Saving grace (Eph. 2:8-9)

The Bible says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). Desperately wicked, meaning incurably bad. The heart is so corrupted by sin that it robs the individual of the ability to accurately assess his own condition. The sinner is self-betrayed and will remain blind to his own true state apart from the convicting work of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 16:8).

Only God Himself is able to properly understand what is within each of us. Thus the answer to the question raised in our text comes in the following verse. “I, the Lord, search the heart...” (vs. 10). But as for man himself, he is chronically self-deceived. Ironside cites as an example Benedict Arnold. Arnold rose to the rank of major general in the American military. But he was extravagant in his lifestyle, and quick to take offense. Charges were brought against him of misuse of his military powers. In revenge, he sold out to the British in 1780. His name as become synonymous with treachery and betrayal. Yet he wrote to his fiancee, “I daily discover so much baseness and ingratitude among mankind, that I almost blush at being of the same species.”

The inability to properly see our own faults also affects how we direct our steps, the life we live, the goals we set, and so on. Proverbs says, “There is a way that seems right to a man [in his blinded condition], but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 16:25). If we cannot see ourselves accurately, how can we find our way? Recently the A & W fast food chain came out with an advertising slogan that said, “Listen to your cravings. They are wise.” But how contrary that is both to reality and to God’s revealed truth. “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:22).

Early in the book of Revelation we find this promise: “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3). This is the first of seven beatitudes in the book (cf. 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7, 14).

1) The REVELATION given – a prophecy of future events

2) The RESPONSE expected – read, hear, keep

3) The REASON explained – the time of fulfilment is near

4) The REWARD promised – the blessing of God

Revelation is the only Bible book promising blessing to those who study and apply it (though there is a general promise regarding meditation on God’s Word in Ps. 1:1-2). Some avoid the book as being too confusing, or too difficult to understand. However it is said to be a “revelation” intended to “show” us things (vs. 1). And since there is a blessing awaiting those who dig into it, we must not cast it aside. Lord willing, in the new year, I hope to put a series of discussion Bible studies on the website on the book of Revelation. It is hoped these will help to unravel some of its mysteries.

For your meditation, regarding Revelation 1:5-6...

1) We are CARED FOR – Christ loved us (some manuscripts have a present tense, “loves us”–both are true)

2) We are CLEANSED – washed [or set free] from our sins in the blood of Christ

3) We are COMMISSIONED – as kings and priests (or, constituted as a kingdom, and as priests of God).

Let us not be content merely with the first to, to sit and soak and sour until God calls us home. As New Testament priests of God (cf. I Pet. 2: 5, 9) we have a responsibility to offer praise and prayer to Him, and to minister to those around us (Heb. 13:15-16).

On the website there is an article about discipleship called The Learner-Servant Principles. Extensively referenced to Scripture, and with many diagrams, this material will give you a unique perspective on the subject. The seven basic principles are interconnected. They show the essence of discipleship as it is revealed in God’s Word, four key things God expects of us, and how sin contrasts with the four. As well, you will gain a helpful understanding of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and walk in the Spirit. The framework described can also be used to analyze passage after passage in the Bible. Please study the material, put it to use, and pass it on!

TRUTH IN OUR TRIALS. Check out the extensive outline study on the subject of suffering at Truth About Suffering.

THE DA VINCI CODE is often in the news these days. The novel by Dan Brown claims to be based on fact. Is it? Check out the resources in this newsletter, as well as the following article The Da Vinci Code.


Question: Brenda asks, “Is masturbation a sin? Both men and women do it. What are the passages that pertain to this?”

Answer: Brenda, thanks for a good question on a sensitive issue. I will try to give you a clear answer, while being as discrete as I can. I will also aim to be balanced in my response and avoid extremes. Undoubtedly some who read the following will feel I have gone too far. Others will conclude I have not gone far enough. But perhaps these thoughts will lead to greater light and understanding in either case.

Masturbation (also called self-stimulation, and auto-eroticism) is sexual activity involving one person. And first it should be said plainly: there is no clear passage in the Bible that forbids this practice. Years ago, Genesis 38:8-10 was thought to relate to the subject. The passage concerns a man named Onan (giving rise to calling auto-eroticism “Onanism”). But the verses do not apply. They actually concern the ancient practice of levirate marriage–which later became a part of the Law of Israel (Deut. 25:5-6).

The law said that if a woman’s husband died, the brother of the dead man was to marry the widow. Then the first-born son of that union was legally considered the heir of the dead man. It was a way of preserving a family line, and keeping an inheritance within the family. However, Onan did not want to father a son that was not his own. In disobedience to God he practiced what is technically called coitus interruptus, withdrawing during the sex act, prior to ejaculation, so that fertilization and pregnancy would not take place.

When I was growing up, masturbation was referred to as “self abuse,” and young people were warned that terrible things (impotence, blindness, etc.) would happen to them if they adopted this evil behaviour. Much of this involved well-meaning–but misguided–scare tactics, often having little basis in fact. Attempts have also been made to read the specific practice of masturbation into more general passages of Scripture about immorality or uncleanness. These may or may not fit the case. But, again, there is no specific passage forbidding the practice.

Having said that, however, it is important to add that the mere absence of a topic from Scripture cannot be interpreted as implying God’s approval. The Bible says nothing about smoking, either. But we now know the use of tobacco can do great and deadly harm. Yes, the activity under discussion is a common practice in today’s society. (Sadly, so is smoking!) But just because a lot of people do something does not make it right. We should not decide a course of action by a vote of the majority. (Experience should tell us that the majority is too often wrong!) And when the Scriptures do not deal specifically with a subject, we need to look for general principles that can be of help. Here are some thoughts for your consideration.

While the procreation of children is an important function of our sexuality (Gen. 1:28; Ps. 127:3; Mal. 2:15), God could have accommodated this without providing for physical pleasure to accompany the sex act. It must therefore be something of which God approves. The Lord made us as we are, and declared the result to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31). One whole book of the Bible (the Song of Solomon) deals poetically with the romantic and physical aspects of love between a man and a woman.

Sexual pleasure is not sinful. God created us to enjoy it, within the boundaries He set–namely the faithful and enduring union in marriage of one man and one woman (Gen. 1:27-28; 2:18, 21-24; Matt. 19:4-6; Heb. 13:4). One of its purposes is to nurture loving intimacy between husband and wife. The Lord Jesus placed His seal of approval upon marriage by performing His first miracle at a wedding supper (Jn. 2:1-11). Later, the uniqueness and holiness of this union is confirmed when the Bible compares it to the spiritual bond between Christ and His church (Eph. 5:22-27).

The importance of faithfulness to one’s marriage partner is emphasized many times in the Word of God. At the same time it stresses the need for married couples to find pleasure in one another, and show real love to one another (Prov. 5:15-20; Gal. 5:19-23). Marriage provides a bond for the mutual and ongoing love, support, and pleasure, of each partner. Married love involves considering one’s body as belonging to the other person–who in turn is to treat it with respect and loving care (Jn. 15:13; I Cor. 7:3-5; Eph. 5:28). True love is outward looking. God’s intent for a loving relationship is that our main desire should be to give, rather than to get.

It is just at this latter point that masturbation runs into a problem. The purpose of this act is basically self-gratification, rather than kindness and caring toward another person. It tends to be a selfish and self-centred act–which is the antithesis of the outward focus of Christian love (Gal. 5:13; I Pet. 1:22). It is also a secretive act which can arouse a fear of “getting caught,” producing guilt feelings in those involved. Not surprisingly, those who have this habit sometimes struggle with problems of self-consciousness, and a loss of healthy self-esteem. They may also have more difficulty relating to others in an open and wholesome way.

A further danger of masturbation comes from the immoral fantasies often involved. These are sometimes fueled with the use of pornography which makes depersonalized sex objects of women. Though it is speaking of ancient idol worship, the words of the prophet Ezekiel have relevance to the modern plague of pornography. He says, “The word of the Lord came to me saying, Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts [harbouring sinful desires], and put before them [before their eyes] that which causes them to stumble into iniquity” (Ezek. 14:2-3). Involvement with pornography makes it difficult for a man to relate to women properly in real life, to see them as persons who need Christ, rather that objects to be used selfishly for his own pleasure.

Job said at one point, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; why then should I look upon a young woman” (Job. 31:1). Obviously he did not mean he would never look at women at all–an impossibility unless he lived in an all male society. Rather, Job was saying, “I will not look lustfully upon them. I will not focus my gaze upon them, harbouring impure and lustful fantasies.” This ties in with something Jesus said, that to look upon a woman with lustful intent is a form of adultery (Matt. 5:27-28). Physical acts are preceded by mental images, and sin begins not with outward action but with inward intention (Jas. 1:14-15; cf. Mk. 7:20-23).

The Bible says, “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel [body] in sanctification and honour, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter” (I Thess. 4:3-6). (To be “sanctified” in this context is to be set apart from sin and unto God. It describes godly Christian living.)

The use of the word “defraud” in the First Thessalonians passage is most instructive. If a fantasy (an imagined action) cannot be righteously fulfilled, we are to dismiss it from our thoughts. To do otherwise is to emotionally “defraud” (to cheat, to take unfair advantage of) ourselves and others. In the context, the emphasis is on how things like seductive dress, speech or behaviour affects others. To arouse desires that cannot be satisfied without sinning is to defraud the other person. But clearly it is possible to cheat ourselves as well, by awakening fantasies which we cannot rightly act upon.

Wheelchair bound Joni Earekson Tada provides a non-moral example that applies here. She speaks in one of her books of times when she imagined how wonderful it would be to walk and run again. But Joni says she came to realize she needed to discipline her mind not to dwell on such things, since they tended to produce dissatisfaction and discontent in her heart. The same can be said for sexual fantasies which cannot be righteously fulfilled.

First Thessalonians 5:23 speaks of our beings as having three parts, or inter-related elements: a spirit, a soul, and a body. Our spirits, energized by the Holy Spirit, give us God-consciousness, a sensitivity to spiritual realities, and the ability to respond to them. Our souls are our minds, including our ability to think, decide, remember and feel emotions. (The New Testament uses the Greek word psuche for "soul," from which we get our English word psychology.) The soul gives us self-consciousness. Then, our bodies give us world-consciousness, an awareness of the world around us, through our physical senses.

This has to do with our present subject in the following way. In the development of male-female relationships, the kind that progress, as appropriate, from friendship, through dating and engagement, and on to marriage, the order of relating to one another should follow the pattern in the above verse.

First should come a growing awareness of the other person’s spirit. Is he or she a Christian? What level of spiritual maturity does the other person possess? Is fellowship with him or her going to strengthen me spiritually, or weaken me? And how can I cooperate with what God is doing in the person’s life to help him or her to grow in grace and the knowledge of Christ (II Pet. 3:18)?

Then, the dating process is a time to discover whether there is a kinship of soul (knowledge, attitudes, interests, goals, etc.). Finally, within the bounds of marriage, there is a physical union which completes the picture.

The problem is that today’s television, movies, music, advertising and so on, all turn this pattern on its head. We live in a sex-obsessed culture. Physical attraction is the focus above all. This cannot help but promote unhealthy relationships and inordinate temptations to do what displeases God. Youth today need to be challenged to think of their relationships in a godly way, avoiding those things that awaken sinful desires (II Tim. 2:22). A good question to ask about masturbation or any practice about which we have doubts and questions is: Will engaging in this tend to health and wholeness in my life, and to wholesome and edifying relationships with others? Or will it put a barrier in the way of such things? (Sometimes the very fact that we have uncertainty suggests at the very least that there are dangers there.)

Acts that are habit-forming, which self-gratification tends to be, can also lead to bondage. While engaging in this act occasionally is not physically harmful, it can be psychologically addicting. In contrast, the Bible presents the proper attitude: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (I Cor. 6:12). Further, even if we were to decide this practice is acceptable for us, we should never advise or tempt others to do it, for reasons outlined above. The Bible says, “Beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak” (I Cor. 8:9).

The answer for those who are convinced this form of self-gratification is wrong is to stay away from temptation as much as possible. This may involve choosing some new friends who engage in more wholesome activities. First Corinthians 15:33 warns us, “Evil company corrupts good habits.” We also need to avoid those things–reading, recreation and so on--that excite sinful desires. The Bible says we should “make no provision for the flesh, to fulfil its lusts.” Perhaps you have heard of the insightful little poem written by an Indian long ago: “Two dogs fight within my breast: / The one is cursed, the other blessed. / The one I love, the other hate; / The one I feed will dominate.”

For those who are tempted to inappropriate activities, it is not simply a matter of avoiding things that excite the desire, but of filling their minds and their lives with other things. That is the principle described in Philippians 4:8, “Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy– meditate on these things.” If we seek out edifying company, good books to read, healthy recreation, and so on, we will be the better for it. Above all, if we busy ourselves with righteous activities, seeking to serve the Lord and bring glory to Him, it will crowd out a lot of other things that are unwholesome or dangerous.

Bottom line: While the Scriptures do not specifically forbid the act being discussed, a number of principles provided in the Bible to guide us in living a life that pleases God certainly raise warning flags about it. The sex drive and sexual appetite are normal and God-given. However, compare our appetite for food. It is possible to eat the wrong things, or eat too much. All our appetites must be subjected to godly wisdom and spiritual discipline. I hope these few thoughts will point you in the right direction.

A Hymn Question for You: Sue asked me for background on a gospel song called “O I Love to Talk With Jesus.” (“O I love to talk with Jesus for it smooths the rugged road; / And it seems to help me onward, when I faint beneath my load; / When my heart is crushed with sorrow, and my eyes with tears are dim, / There is nought can yield me comfort like a little talk with Him.”) So far, I have not been able to trace any information for her. The old book in which the song is found lists neither author nor composer. Is there anyone out there who can provide some information on this, or on the date and circumstances of the writing of it.

Next Month: What does the Bible teach about SUICIDE? Will one who commits suicide go to heaven?

SEEKING A NEW PASTOR for your church? Check out the Pastoral Questionnaire.

BIBLE STUDY: Available now on the Wordwise website is a discussion Bible study on The Lord's Prayer. Why not check it out at The Lord's Prayer.


Would you like to know how hymns were sung, and how they sounded, a hundred years ago and more–back in the day when some of the authors (such as Fanny Crosby and others) were still alive? Though experimental recording was done as early as the 1870's, recording music for sale and distribution was still in its infancy in 1898-1910. Nevertheless, there are some examples available from that period.

Ira Sankey (!840-1908), the gospel singer who worked with Dwight L. Moody, recorded a number of hymns late in his life. His voice had lost much of its quality by then, but the work is interesting, nonetheless. (Seven of those songs are available on a CD called “There’ll Be No Dark Valley–Hymns and Sacred Songs Sung by Ira Sankey.”) There is also a CD collection of 28 “Hymns and Sacred Songs” by various soloists, groups and instrumentalists. Either of these can be ordered (quite inexpensively) at where many other old recordings can also be found.

You may find the style amusing at times, as it is quite different from what many are used to today. But there is a sincerity and warmth that comes through these remarkably clear recordings that has its own charm. Highly recommended.

2) THE BEST BIBLE STUDY TOOL EVER. At least, the best one I have ever discovered, is fully described on the website. Strictly speaking, this is not an idea for your church program but for you, personally. However, if you try it, you may want to share it with your Sunday School class or Bible study group. If a number of you begin using it and trading insights, you may be amazed at what will happen! See Best Bible Study Tool.

3) Is your church thinking of purchasing A NEW HYMN BOOK? Check out Choosing a Hymnal for Your Church on the website, for nearly three dozen excellent tips and ideas to help you make your choice.

4) Check out EXPLORING CHRISTIANITY, a Wordwise Bible study series to help seekers, or new Christians! A wonderful "review" for long-time believers as well! The free 10-part series is now available at Exploring Christianity.

If you have a question or an idea to share, please go to the Wordwise website and use the question form.
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