Achan, Identity, and Repentance

(adapted from a recent sermon on Joshua 7)

So the guy takes a few thousand dollars in silver and gold… and a coat… he pleads guilty… and they give him the death sentence, ALONG with his family, a bunch of innocent animals, AND everything he owns. They essentially erase him.

I’ve come across different responses to a story like this:

1. Folks who think God unreasonable – and his followers a bunch of loose screws.

2. Folks who distance themselves entirely from God in the Old Testament. They say things like “MY God wouldn’t,” or “only the fundamentalists believe this stuff really happened. It’s probably an allegory. Let’s move forward a few hundred pages.”

3. Folks who celebrate the judgment of God falling upon others. They say things like “he had it coming. An example had to be made.”

I try – and it’s tough sometimes – to fit into a fourth category… folks who are heartbroken to see judgment carried out, not because we think God unjust, but because a fellow image bearer is taken – but who also trust that God has revealed himself to be good, a goodness that finds its ultimate expression in the gift of life won by Jesus Christ. The expression of the gospel reminds me that there has to be more to the story.

But how does a story like this INCREASE my affection for God through the good news of Jesus?

This story revolves around the treatment of these devoted things. What on earth are devoted things? In this story, they are things devoted to God, some for kingdom use, some for destruction. The common thread is that they are things devoted, irrevocably, irreversibly, in order that God’s will would be accomplished. If that meant rendering something to God for his service, so be it. And in this chapter, if that meant rendering something to God for removal so that his will is not impeded, so be it.

Jericho was devoted to the LORD. That meant everything that could be employed for carrying out his will was preserved and delivered to the treasury. Everything that was a stumbling block was removed, blotted out. God’s people here were instruments of his will in time and space.

Is that easy to swallow? Not necessarily. But if God revealed himself to be good? Better.

Why was Achan’s sin a big deal?

By taking and hiding silver and gold, Achan wasn’t stealing from the Canaanites. He was stealing from God. As the Creator, God ultimately owns everything. And in this case, he had reclaimed the silver and gold for his purposes.

God rolled away the reproach of Egypt when he called Joshua to circumcise the Israelites in Joshua 5. Rolling away the reproach is God’s way of saying he was renewing their lives and their identities, marking them for himself. They had once been identified with Egypt, with death, but God made them new. This applies to us when we receive new life and a new identity in Christ.

By taking the devoted things, Achan was identifying with things rather than with God. God rolled away the reproach of Egypt, Achan rolled on the reproach of Canaan. He shifted his trust and his identity away from God and placed it firmly in the things of this world. His sin had far reaching consequences. He brought reproach upon himself, upon his family who became guilty alongside, upon his nation, whom God held responsible until they purged the evil from their midst.

Achan poised himself as an enemy of God. Sadly, this is a familiar place for mankind.

According to Romans, we are all suppressors of the truth, bearing the wrath of God because we’ve exchanged the truth for a lie, worshiping created things rather than the Creator of all things. The earned and deserved sentence for sin is death.

Could it be that we are bothered by God’s judgment of Achan’s idolatry, his covetousness, his theft, his deception, because we, too, are guilty of the same sin? Sure, I never stole a pretty Babylonian coat, but sin is a matter of the heart. And if we are guilty of the same sin before the same holy God, would it not mean that we have earned the same fate?

Here’s another question. What happens when you find out you’re under the wrath of God?

I’m reminded of a hymn by Isaac Watts, a reflection on Romans 7:


Lord, how secure my conscience was, and felt no inward dread.
I was alive without the law, and thought my sins were dead.

My hopes of heaven were firm and bright, but then your standard came
With a convincing power and light, to show how vile I am.

My guilt appeared so small before, till terribly I saw
how perfect, holy, just, and pure was your eternal law

Then felt my soul the heavy load; my sins revived again;
I had provoked a dreadful God, all my hopes were slain.

My God, I cry with every breath for some kind power to save,
to break the yoke of sin and death, and thus redeem the slave.


The essence of the song is that we’re upbeat about our personal goodness, until we’re shown exactly how sinful we are. And it’s in those moments of clarity that we are most broken, most terrified of the holiness of God. And unless he gives us a reason to hope, some kind power to save, some redemption for our slavery to sin, we are lost.

Joshua calls out to the people, “There are devoted things in your midst, O Israel. You cannot stand before your enemies until you take away the devoted things from among you. In the morning therefore you shall be brought near… and he who is taken with the devoted things shall be burned with fire, he and all that he has, because he has transgressed the covenant of the LORD, and because he has done an outrageous thing in Israel.”

Achan knew. He knew he was sunk.

The knowledge that sin is sin is meant to awaken a struggle within us. Revelation of our sin reveals death. Consequence. Awareness of sin should show us the helplessness of our cause apart from God so that we cry out in desperation like the apostle Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death!?!”

That, apparently, didn’t happen for Achan. The whole next morning ordeal wouldn’t have been necessary had he been moved to confession & repentance for his sin. Had he cried out to God for mercy.

Surely he was grieved over what was coming. But it wasn’t the godly grief of 2Corinthians 7 – the kind of grief that moves us to repent. He didn’t repent. He hid.

He decided to take his chances.

Achan didn’t see God as merciful. He couldn’t have. When you see God as a God of mercy, which he is, you plead for mercy – you don’t turn away. Though you know the penalty, you still plead because there is no other hope.

You don’t hide from the light when you know there is safety in the light. You only hide from the light when you’re afraid.

In the morning he waited. He watched. He sat back while the lots were cast… slow… agonizing… sealing his fate, round by round. He waited. And when it was clear that God had drawn his sin to light, had brought him to judgment; then he admitted his guilt. He confessed.

It was a polished confession. Neat. Eloquent. He used all those churchy words. Truly I have sinned. Coveted. But it was heartless. No repentance, just words. True confession comes from a humble heart. True confession is born of godly grief over having sinned against the Creator. True confession brings us in line with God’s truth, crying for the treasure of God’s grace.

Achan didn’t treasure the LORD. Achan was buried with his treasure. This has to be true because God has promised mercy to the humble and contrite heart.

You can wait like Achan.

You can provide a smooth answer like Achan.

But if your heart is not repentant when you face your sinfulness, then your answer isn’t worth the breath you’ve spent to deliver it.

One day you will face the risen Lord Jesus. One day your knee will bow. Your tongue will confess Jesus Christ is Lord. No one has ever entered the presence of the glory of God without confessing this to be true. The Scriptures testify. It WILL happen. But if the final judgment is the FIRST time you are brought low before him, the Word says it will be too late. Every man has been given this one life, and with it this one chance to repent. We are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment.

But the good news of the gospel is that mercy has been given! The blood of Jesus has been shed. The perfect Son of God came to earth as a man in order to live a perfect life. A perfect life in preparation to be the perfect sacrifice, so that his shed blood would pay the penalty for the sin of any who would turn to him in humble submission, in repentance and faith.

The good news of the gospel is that the penalty of death was transferred to God’s only Son so that everyone who calls upon his name would receive life. Mercy. Grace. Love.

We are called to repent and believe.

This story of Achan increases our affection for God by showing us our sin, by leading us to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ and the fountain of life which flows. As we are brought low, he is lifted high as the only avenue of grace. The LORD turned from his anger when sin was removed from the people.

History here teaches us, not to execute the sinner, but to see that sin itself was given a death sentence in the ministry of the Lord – and so the call in the life of the Christian is to put to death the remaining sin, assuming a posture of repentance, receiving the gift of forgiveness in Christ alone.

Achan was called to grab hold of the promise of redemption given when sin entered the garden. We are called to grab hold of the promise of redemption fulfilled at Calvary.

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