Studies in Our Sins No. 1


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Tonight we begin another short series organized around a subject rather than, as you might have expected, plunging into our next exposition of a book of Holy Scripture. We have had two such subject series recently in our evening worship: one devoted to the Bible’s doctrine of work and man’s life as a working life and the other devoted to the Sabbath, the day of rest. We finished another short subject sermon in the morning service this morning, three sermons on homosexuality. Biblical exposition – by which I mean the setting forth of the meaning of the text of Holy Scripture, usually one book of the Bible at a time – will always be the mainstay of preaching here, but from time to time it seems right to me to address certain subjects so that we might give more concentrated attention to them than we would be likely to do were we simply working our way through a text of Holy Scripture paragraph by paragraph.

On our recent trip to Scotland we enjoyed Sunday dinner with Josh and Bryonie’s pastor, Alasdair MacLeod. Mr. MacLeod is a very able expositor of the Bible and we heard an excellent exposition of a paragraph of 1 Thessalonians that morning in the worship service. In the course of our conversation at the table, apropos of something I cannot now remember, he recounted a friend’s visit to Westminster Chapel, London, in the heyday of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The great preacher was making his way through Ephesians – his method was also ordinarily to preach through books of the Bible – and he had come to 6:11 and Paul’s admonition to Christians to put on the armor of God so that we may be able to stand against the Devil’s schemes. The KJV had, if you remember, not “schemes” but “the wiles of the Devil.” Well, it happened that this friend returned to Westminster Chapel some several months later and the Doctor was still at the same place, now up to his twentieth “wile” or “scheme” of the Devil. He preached 21 sermons on the wiles of the Devil. Well that is not really expository preaching; that is making a subject out of a biblical idea and preaching the subject. All well and good, but you understand the difference it represents in approach. Still, there are good reasons to take up subjects from time to time and I think there are good reasons for us to take up the subject of this new series which I am entitling “Our Sins.”

Sin is so mighty a power in our lives, it is a force so consequential, its grip upon our lives and upon even the deepest thoughts and motives of our hearts is so unrelenting, its capacity to harm us and others, to darken our lives, and, since we are Christians, its capacity to spoil the indescribably great gifts and opportunities lavished upon us by our Savior is so great that surely it is the foolish man or woman who does not want to understand this power and to know how to root out this virus. Ralph Venning, the 17th century Puritan, wrote a famous book about sin which he entitled The Plague of Plagues.

It was first published in 1669, four years after London had suffered the last great outbreak of the bubonic plague in the city’s history. He used the scourge of that plague, its terrifying onset and its deadly consequences, to make his readers feel sin’s horrifying nature and deadly effects. And in our day of medical advances and scientific research we could do the very same thing. When there is an outbreak of some contagion somewhere in the world – SAARS or the Ebola virus – medical researchers descend on the place and the people affected. They take blood samples and other evidence away to their laboratories. They work hard and fast to isolate the virus, to study it, to become familiar with it. Why? Because it is in this way only that they can find a cure. To produce a vaccine, one must first have discovered, isolated, and come to understand the virus.

What is more, when governments grow worried about the possible effects of a flu strain – such as the Asian Bird flu – or of some other deadly contagion – such as Mad Cow Disease – they tell the press and the press trumpets the dangers to the general public. The idea is that when there is an awareness of the danger, of the risk, people will not only be more alert, more careful, but there will be pressure applied to find a cure. People only demand that the government act and spend whatever is necessary when they are afraid for their lives and the lives of their children. People will put up with almost any inconvenience if they believe that their welfare depends upon it. Well, in a similar way, the Bible tells us often of sin’s deadly effects and horrifying consequences for the very same reason: to motivate us to find sin’s cure and to take the steps necessary to curtail and finally destroy its influence in our hearts and in our lives. So long as a person is unconcerned about his sin he will never take those steps he must take to find forgiveness and deliverance. As has many times been pointed out: he who despises the disease, despises the doctor.

Paul, in Romans 7:9-13, provides an autobiographical reflection on this very point. He writes:

“Once I was alive apart from law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good. Did that which is good, then become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.”

There is much to comment on in that remarkable paragraph, but for our purposes it suffices to say this: Paul, by his own admission, was a self-righteous, self-confident prig until he was forced to confront the facts about his own sin. For years, well into his adulthood, he had never done that because he had been inoculated against true conviction of sin by the false understanding of righteousness in which he had been raised. But then everything changed. By a deft use of the Law of God, especially the tenth commandment, the commandment of all the ten that strikes most obviously at the attitudes and motives of the heart, the Holy Spirit brought home to his conscience just how comprehensively, how willingly, and how enthusiastically he had violated the law of God all his life, all the while thinking himself to be good. He had been blind to himself because he had been blind to his sin. And when he suddenly saw his sin, he died – that is, he realized he had no life in himself, no hope if left to his own attainments for, in truth, he was, morally speaking, a miserable failure – and in that condition of spiritual death he looked for the first time to one who could conquer death. The law of God had exposed his sin and the knowledge of his sin had driven him to Christ.

And, of course, this is and remains the experience of every Christian, even those who were born into believing homes and have been themselves believers as long as they can remember. Though they never had Paul’s experience of being hunted out of their self-confidence and though they were never suddenly shattered to find themselves in truth very different people than they had always imagined themselves to be, they too know the power of sin to make them come to Christ. Again and again it is the sense they have of their sin and guilt before God that assures them that there is no other way, no possible way, of being right with God except that of faith in Jesus Christ, the righteous one.

Paul’s experience – the experience he describes in Rom. 7:9-13 – after all, is not an experience he had but once. However dramatic, however life changing it was to discover himself a great sinner for the first time, it was a discovery that was repeated virtually every day of his subsequent life and always to the same effect: to keep him looking to Christ for his righteousness with God in the certain conviction that he had none of his own to offer God. I have written in my Bible two very true and very beautiful expressions of this reality – Paul’s experience becoming the experience of every Christian no matter when or how he or she became a Christian. The first is from a sermon by Alexander Whyte in which he describes the experience of the prodigal son in the Lord’s parable as the continual experience of every Christian.

“…we are always returning home from the far country, and we are always saying, ‘Father, I have again sinned.’ And our Father is always saying over us, ‘Bring forth the best robe and put it on him.’ Every morning you rise put on again the best robe and every returning night lie down again in it. Go out to your day’s work always wearing it. Make it your morning coat and your evening dress. Be married in it, if you would be married in the Lord, and make it your winding sheet, if you would die in the Lord. Die in it and awake in it and go up to judgment in it. Stand at the right Hand of the Great White Throne in it, and enter heaven shining like the sun in it.” [Thomas Shepard, 161-162]

You see the point. The understanding, the conviction by which and in which a convert first becomes a Christian is and remains the understanding and the conviction of any Christian for the entirety of his Christian life. And this is why the conviction of sin, an active awareness of it and understanding of its place, its power, and its effects in our hearts remains so important to the Christian. Sin leads us to seek grace from God through Christ our Savior and to keep seeking it.

The second citation is this: Samuel Rutherford, in a letter to Lady Kenmure, puts it this way.

“I find you complaining of yourself, and it becometh a sinner so to do. I am not against you in that. The more sense the more life. The more sense of sin the less sin. Oh, how sweet a thing it is to give Christ his handful of broken arms and legs, and disjoined bones.” [Letters, Bonar ed., CVI, 219]

In fact, so fundamental is this honest acknowledgement of one’s sins and sinfulness that it can be truly said, as Pascal said it, that “There are only two kinds of men: the righteous, who believe themselves sinners, and the rest, sinners who believe themselves righteous.” [Pensees]

And what is true of the difference between Christians and non-Christians can as well be said of the difference between Christians who at any particular time are growing in grace and those who are not. The Christian who is most conscious of his sins is the very one who is likely to be most eager to put them to death and the Christian who has grown complacent about his sin is very likely the one who is doing nothing about them. That explains the very obvious fact that the sections of the Bible that are addressed to real Christians, to genuine believers – such as the letters of the Apostle Paul to the various churches – continue to expose the sinfulness of our lives, continue to shame us for indulging our many sins, continue to warn us of their consequences, and continue to exhort us never to relax in our effort to put them to death. The Christian never gets past the need to notice, to acknowledge, and to reckon with the evil and the consequences of his or her sin. It is an engine that drives the Christian life forward. It is a principal motive for the on-going practice of one’s faith in Christ. It is the chief reason one strives to be more and do more as a Christian in this world: the active recognition of how much wrong there remains in his or her life.

This brings us to the daring and dangerous, but unmistakably true doctrine of felix culpa, “happy guilt” “or fortunate crime.” Sometimes the doctrine is applied only to the Fall of man into sin itself. It is obvious that had there been no fall; there would have been no divine love for sinners, no redemption, and no cross. So there is an inescapable logic to Thomas Ken’s verse:

What Adam did amiss?
Turned to our endless bliss.
O happy sin, which to atone,
Drew filial God to leave his throne.

As Augustine put it, “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to permit no evil to exist.” [Enchiridion 8.27] Or, as Rabbi Duncan put it, “There would certainly have been no display of some of the divine attributes had sin not been. They would have been conserved forever in the depths of the adorable Godhead.” [Just a Talker, 73]

But the doctrine of felix culpa can be as well applied to the ongoing experience of fallenness and of sin in the individual life. It is by sin, for example, as Paul teaches in several places, including the one we read earlier, that people are taught their need of a Savior and driven to Christ for peace with God. But the principle continues to be valid through the entire length of a Christian’s life in this world. Here too it remains true that “where sin abounds, grace much more abounds.” According to this understanding, taught by wise and discerning experts in the Christian life through the ages, there are advantages to be gained from a Christian’s continuing sinfulness. Evil as our sins are, much as we ought not to commit them, harmful as their effects no doubt are and will be, ashamed as we ought to be of them, nevertheless, in the perfect wisdom and goodness of God, such is his sovereign love that our heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit turn even our continuing sinfulness to our advantage.

You can immediately see the danger of such an idea: how easy it would be for us to take our sins less seriously or to fight against them less furiously because, after all, they are also doing us some good. Well, we must never make that foolish mistake or we will pay a terrible price for it. But, still, O felix culpa! In a letter to a correspondent, John Newton writes in regard to this, “The unchangeableness of the Lord’s love, and the riches of his mercy, are…more illustrated by the multiplied pardons he bestows upon his people, than if they needed no forgiveness at all.” By this means the Lord is more endeared to the soul. He goes on to say further that the spirit of humility, which is the strength and beauty of a Christian profession, is greatly promoted by the feeling that when we would do good, evil is present with us. Experience shows, he says, that the exercise of all our graces is in proportion to the humbling sense we have of the depravity of our nature. “But that we are so totally depraved, is a truth which no one every truly learned by being only told it.” Whoever is truly humbled by this acquaintance with his own sinfulness will not be easily angry, will not be rash, will be compassionate toward fellow-sinners, knowing that if there be a difference, it is grace that has made it, and that he has the seeds of every evil in his own heart; and, under all trials and afflictions, he will look to the hand of the Lord, and lay his mouth in the dust, acknowledging that he suffers much less than his iniquities have deserved. Thus far John Newton. [Letters of John Newton, pb ed., 133-135]

It is precisely this principle that led Samuel Rutherford to say, “Christ has a use for all your corruptions” and John Bunyan to say, “The guilt of sin did help me much.” Bunyan went on to list some of the advantages of his still so many and great sins. 1) They make me abhor myself; 2) They keep me from trusting my heart; 3) They convince me of the insufficiency of all inherent righteousness; 4) They show me the necessity of flying to Jesus; 5) They press me to pray unto God; 6) They show me the need I have to watch and be sober; 7) they provoke me to look to God, through Christ, to help me, and carry me through this world.” According to Alexander Whyte, God employs the believer’s indwelling sin to show the saints the plague of their hearts, to make them watchful, to teach them to war, to test their love, and to extol and exalt his grace. [Bunyan Characters, iii, 291-292]

Think again of Paul. What did he say of himself? That he pressed on toward the goal precisely because he did not consider that he had yet laid hold of it. And what, more than anything else, proved that to him day after day and night after night? It was his permanently bitter sense of moral failure. “Oh wretched man that I am…I remain a bondslave to sin” as he put it later in Romans 7. Paul was moving forward in every grace until the end of his days precisely because his sin drove him on. The love of God drove him on, of course, and so did the hope of reward, as he says; but it was the bitter acknowledgment of his own sinfulness and failure that lay beneath and at the bottom of all his magnificent motivation and spiritual drive. And so it has been for the best of the saints through the ages.

This is bracing realism for people, even for Christians, in our day. We live in a day that has made an art of accepting people as they are. We have raised a refusal to judge and to condemn from mere good manners to an article of our secular faith. We have become past masters at silencing the conscience and have almost entirely forgotten how to awaken it. The parts of the Bible that seem most alien to the modern ear are now precisely those parts – and they comprise a large portion of Holy Scripture – that lay bare the sinfulness, the wickedness, the inexcusable and ugly venality, self-centeredness, and disobedience of even the very best human life. We hardly know what to make of statements like these of which the Bible is full:

“There is no one righteous, not even one.”
“There is no one who seeks God.”
“All have turned away, they have all become worthless.”
“There is no one who does good, not even one.”
“All your righteous acts as filthy rags.”
“Your righteousness, not your unrighteousness,” Isaiah says to people who, like people today, thought so well of themselves. “The best part of you is awful!”
And such a statement of Paul, many years into his Christian life, “I am a bond slave of sin.”

In an age when it is almost axiomatic and intelligent people repeat it almost as a mantra that people are basically good, it is no wonder that people find it beyond comprehension that what they are in themselves, their ordinary day to day selves, the Bible finds so disgusting and repellent. They don’t see themselves as haters of God, but that is what their attitudes, thoughts, and behavior make them according to the Bible. They don’t imagine that they are the children and servants of the Devil, but that is what the Bible says they are. They certainly don’t think of themselves as murderers, adulterers, thieves, liars, and idolaters, but the Bible says they are – all men, all the time. They certainly don’t believe that they deserve divine wrath, God’s fury, and that they deserved to be punished with everlasting destruction for who and what they are and how they live, but the Bible says they do. And, more and more, Christians themselves don’t think in these terms even though the Bible very clearly and emphatically teaches that they remain all such things even though they have been born again and are new creations in Christ and have become the children of God and have been numbered among the saints.

I read an editorial in Touchstone magazine, this week [Sept. 06, 3-4], that ably drew attention to the fact that, as an indication of this changing perception about human sin – its universality, its reality, and its gravity – the meaning of the word “conscience” itself has been quite dramatically altered in recent years. People used to speak of the conscience and, by it, ordinarily meant that demanding oracle of judgment inside of them that condemned them for doing what they knew or should have known was wrong and refused to give them relief when they tried to excuse their behavior. The conscience was, first and foremost, a gift of God that kept men and women from utterly abandoning his will. But nowadays it is more likely to be used in the sense of a man being his own judge and the ultimate judge of what is right and wrong. “It has been turned into a self-issued bland permission slip.” This conscience does not nag, does not condemn, it “liberates.” It does not warn against sin; it warns against allowing anyone else to accuse you of sin. And so nowadays we are often hearing that it is the conscience that has driven the agitators in a Christian church to protest the church’s historic Christian teaching. A group of Australian Catholic theologians, for example, denounced their cardinal to the Vatican recently as a heretic because he reminded them that conscience is not the ultimate criterion of truth. For supposedly Christian men to complain against such a teaching is nothing short of breathtaking. In our day conscience has ceased to be understood as the voice of an unalterable divine law in the human heart and is now understood as the voice of the self demanding to be heard and insisting on the authority of its opinions. But this is not Christianity.

It is very clear in the Bible that no one can live the Christian life by co-opting or placating his conscience and by ignoring the fact and the ugliness of one’s own sin. As C.S. Lewis famously said,

“A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of his to be true, though we are part of the world he came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom his words are addressed.” [Problem of Pain, 57]

It is interesting, by the way, that in the middle of the 20th century, Lewis would have spoken of the recovery of the old sense of sin. It was obviously something that had been lost and had to be rediscovered. It could not be said that it had been lost during the 19th century. Perhaps the seeds of its demise had been sowed, but there were many great preachers still hammering away at the reality of sin and guilt and hunting out and exposing the futility of the excuses that people typically made for themselves. But by the early 20th century, Western culture was no longer interested in hearing about sin and Western people wanted what they felt was a more positive message. There was a crisis of sorts in the ministry of Alexander Whyte, pastor of Free St. George’s, of which church I made mention last Lord’s Day evening.

In the opening years of the 20th century – that is, exactly one hundred years ago (that doesn’t seem so long ago now to a man who is now 56 years of age!) – Whyte was not unaware that people were losing interest in the sterner aspects of Christianity. Remember, the First World War was yet to come and the Second after it; the Communist Revolution had not yet occurred. Life seemed quite rosy in Edinburgh in those days, especially in an upper class congregation like St. George’s. More and more, especially among the younger people, would have been happy to have sermons more like those that are common today, focusing on self-improvement and societal-improvement, sermons on love and the power of love and so on. Late in his summer vacation in 1907, Dr. Whyte wrestled with this question. As was typical of him when he needed to think a matter through he took long walks. He told his congregation – some of whom heard to their displeasure – that it was on one of those walks that

“…what seemed to me to be a Divine Voice spoke with all commanding power in my conscience, and said to me as clear as clear could be: ‘No! Go on, and flinch not! Go back and boldly finish the work that has been given you to do. Speak out and fear not. Make them at any cost to see themselves in Gods’ holy Law as in a glass. Do you that, for no one else will do it. No one else will so risk his life and his reputation as to do it. And you have not much of either left to risk. Go home and spend what is left of your life in your appointed task of showing my people their sin and their need of my salvation.’ I shall never forget the exact spot where that clear command came to me, and where I got fresh authority and fresh encouragement to finish this part of my work.” [G. F. Barbour, Life of Whyte, 531-532]

Perhaps it might be said that that promise of Dr. Whyte was the last gasp of that kind of preaching – at least by a really prominent preacher – for a half century (until the preaching of Martyn Lloyd Jones). No wonder Lewis should have spoken of the need to recover the Bible’s sense of sin.

And so for our own benefit, and for the benefit of one another – for our sins are burdens not only to ourselves but others – and for the glory of God and Christ in our lives, we will seek to recover that sense of sin the Bible would instill in us. In coming weeks we will do this by considering more carefully some of our sins. Not all of them, to be sure. There are too many. And not perhaps the sins you might think we should first consider. I’m not going to consider lust, for example. It is a sin that many struggle with, especially men, and I take comfort from the fact that what we have to say about other sins will be of practical use in that struggle. But lust is a sin that Christians generally realize is a sin. Their struggle there, their shame, their confusion, their near despair, in a strange way, I’m going to argue, is precisely what we all ought to be experiencing and feeling about some other sins, sins that should but do not produce the same strong reactions of guilt, remorse, fear and concerted effort. In this series I am going to be more interested in sins that we ought to be more ashamed of than we are!

So, off we go, into the real world, the world of our sin and our sinfulness. And in that world, we will find that Christ our Savior from sin shines more brightly and is a greater joy to us and still more the object of our love than ever he is elsewhere.