Studies in Our Sins No. 2


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Last time we introduced this series of Lord’s Day evening studies by pointing out how fundamental to everything true and good in the soul is the acknowledgement of one’s sin and what sorts of benefits accrue to the man or woman who does not deny but openly faces the full measure of his moral failure before God and man. “My sins have done me more good than my graces,” said John Foxe, the saintly author of the famous Book of Martyrs. As J.I. Packer puts it,

“The subject of sin is vital knowledge. To say that our first need in life is to learn about sin may sound strange, but in the sense intended it is profoundly true. If you have not learned about sin, you cannot understand yourself, or your fellow-men, or the world you live in, or the Christian faith. And you will not be able to make head or tail of the Bible. For the Bible is an exposition of God’s answer to that problem of human sin, and unless you have that problem clearly before you, you will keep missing the point of what it says. Apart from the first two chapters of Genesis, which set the stage, the real subject of every chapter of the Bible is what God does about our sins. Lose sight of this theme, and you lose your way in the Bible at once. With that, the love of God, the meaning of salvation, and the message of the gospel, will all become closed books to you; you may still talk of these things, but you will no longer know what you are talking about. It is clear, therefore, that we need to fix in our minds what our ancestors would have called ‘clear views of sin.’” [God’s Words, 71]

It has always been difficult to get such clear views because we don’t like to be told that we are bad and we don’t like to think about our badness. The self-defending and self-excusing instinct in us is very strong. What is more, we do not live in a time that has very clear notions of God’s holiness. And without a sense of that holiness it is hard for us to appreciate, really appreciate our unholiness. The measurement of sin is by way of a contrast, a comparison with the standard. And if the standard does not appear in brightness in our minds, its contrast must remain vague as well. A young Anglican clergyman once asked Alexander Whyte whether it was not possible here and
now to be sanctified and kept free from sin, and quoted the testimony of a friend whose surrender had been so complete as to enable him to say that sometimes for days together he had not consciously disobeyed God. “No sir,” Dr. Whyte replied. “No man who knows what God is would say a thing like that – no man who has seen the exquisite holiness of God would say a thing like that.” [G.F. Barbour, Alexander Whyte, 532-533] I have often cited these sorts of statistics to you – these surveys of Americans’ opinions of themselves – but they just keep coming. These are from a survey taken in the autumn of 2005 and reported in the Washington Post in February of this year. 94% of Americans said that they were “above average” in honesty; 89% above average in common sense; 86% above average in intelligence; and 79% above average in looks. Every survey measuring such self-assessments tells the same story. Americans think, human beings think, far more highly of themselves than they ought to think because they do not know the holiness of God. They are judging themselves by themselves, the very thing Paul says is not wise!

How much more honest a self-assessment such as this by John Duncan, the famous “Rabbi” Duncan of the 19th century Scottish Presbyterian Church:

“I have never done a sinless action during the seventy years [of my life]. I don’t say but by God’s grace there may have been some holy action done, but never a sinless action during the seventy years. What an awful thing is human life! And what a solemn consideration it should be to us, that we have never done a sinless action all our life, that we have never done one act that did not need to be pardoned.” [In Moody Stuart’s biography, 150]

There is the honest and accurate assessment of a man who has beheld the holiness of God and so knows what holiness is and what it is not! The biblical doctrine of sin has been secularized in our modern times. People may still talk of sin but they no longer think of it theologically, in reference to God and his will, as an offense against God. Now sin is only a breach of accepted standards of decency, standards men have created and men can change. Sin will never be taken very seriously if it is only viewed as a breach of etiquette. But when the Bible speaks of sin it means an offense against the Living God. It may be committed against men as well, but its gravity and its evil stem first and foremost from the offense it is to God, a God so holy that the Bible describes him as “angry with the wicked every day.”

But last time we also noted that in our culture it has become still more difficult, in a way, for Christians to be as honest with themselves as they ought to be. Our culture has become so habituated to vice that it is harder for anyone to take it seriously.

“Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,”

cries Lady Anne to Richard III. But many of us have almost lost the capacity to blush and sins that should turn the face red are now not only tolerated but actually commended. We may still refer to Las Vegas as “Sin City,” the City actually advertises itself thus, but very few people are any longer embarrassed to go there. But the Christian life absolutely requires an honest reckoning with our sin. You cannot go up high or down deep in the things of God without it. Humility – a virtue dependent upon this conviction of one’s sin, the enormity of it, the inexcusability of it, the disgusting character of it – is the bottom grace of Christian godliness. It is this sin in our hearts and in our lives, after all, that was the reason for Christ’s errand in the wilderness of this world. If we take a light view, an indulgent view of our sin, we cannot appreciate as we should the incarnation, the humiliation, the suffering, and the death of the Son of God, because all of that was for our sin. If we think small thoughts of our sin, all of church history shows, we will soon lose touch with Christ and his salvation. High thoughts of man, high thoughts of ourselves must lead to low thoughts of him. Thinking of man’s basic goodness – a commonplace nowadays – must lead to indifference to Jesus, precisely what has happened in our time. Happily, we don’t have to believe the Bible’s teaching about man’s sinfulness, about our own sinfulness, against the evidence of our eyes. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, the doctrine of original sin – however unpopular – is the only biblical doctrine with universal empirical demonstration. One has only to open his eyes and observe the behavior of human beings, from the baby in the crib to the urbane and polished sophisticate, to confirm the truth of another of Shakespeare’s line:

“…but I can see his pride
Peep through each part of him.”
[King Henry the Eighth, 1.1.68f.]

Selfishness, pettiness, and bondage to desire are the mark of every human life and any honest person knows it. And that is before we begin to reckon with that standard of heart, speech, and behavior according to which the Living God judges our lives. How well does anyone keep his commandments? How good is anyone if judged by God’s standard? We noticed last time that Paul had for years indulged the illusion that he was a good person. How many times do we hear people say that nowadays? “I’m a good person!” But when the law of God came home to his heart, when he finally realized what God’s law actually requires, it was as if he died from the horror of the discovery of what he was in himself. Paul says that, in his case, the Holy Spirit made use of the 10th commandment, the commandment against coveting. That commandment explicitly reaches into the attitudes and desires of the heart. They all do, of course, but Paul didn’t realize that. He’d never reckoned with the fact that the 10th commandment required him to have selfless, generous, kindly, submissive thoughts toward God and man and Paul knew very well his thoughts weren’t like that. He was an intelligent man. He was even a devoutly religious man. He had as a man and as a seminarian and then as a rabbi thought about sin and preached about sin. I expect – just knowing the man – that Paul, before his conversion, had something of a reputation for being a preacher of sin. He may have been, I suspect he was, something of the hellfire and damnation type. He was very much, he tells us, into righteousness and one can’t be into righteousness without being, at least in some way, into sin.

But he didn’t really understand what sin was! He thought of it almost exclusively in terms of outward acts and a very specialized set of outward acts at that. He never faced the real truth about himself until the Holy Spirit came to him with God’s Law in hand and shown a bright light into his heart. And what Paul saw there for the first time left him shattered: a seething cauldron of evil desires, of greed, of pride, of hatred, of indifference to others. He realized for the first time that love was the fulfillment of the law and love – real love – was the one thing he didn’t have much of.

Jesus said that you can sum up the entire law of God, his will for the life of every human being, in two commandments: love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. And Paul knew in a heartbeat that he had never loved God that way and that there probably wasn’t a neighbor in the world whom he loved with a tenth of the passion with which he loved himself. How about you, my friends, my brothers and sisters: how many neighbors are there whom you love as much as you love yourself? I won’t make it difficult. I won’t ask you to name ten, or even five. Just one. And remember you have to answer honestly. This neighbor has to think you love him or her as much as you love yourself. You can’t simply say that you do; he or she must say that you do! Is there one; even one?

Well, it was that discovery, the true measure of his moral failure that set Paul on the road to all truth and to all happiness. So long as he indulged the illusion of his own goodness he was cut off from Christ, from salvation, and from the true fulfillment of human life. As soon as he honestly acknowledged the truth about himself he found a savior, forgiveness, a purpose in life, and the hope of life forever.

Now our point in this current series of evening sermons is precisely that once that discovery is made there can be no going back. Once a man has seen himself a sinner and gone to Christ for forgiveness, he cannot then begin to think and act as if he were not a terrible sinner or as if his sin were of no great consequence. Facts are facts. And that fact must be given its due and, as we said last time, an honest reckoning with our sin continues to be the engine that drives the Christian life forward, that keeps Christians close to Christ, keeps them hard at work pursuing holiness, keeps them humble before God and man, keeps them at prayer, and keeps them looking and longing for heaven.

Tonight, I continue our introduction to this series on “Our Sins,” adding some further fundamental perspectives before we take up some particular sins, one by one.

We have said that it continues to be important for Christians to consider their sin and to face their sins. By “sin” in the singular I mean that fundamental inward bent away from God and goodness that lies deep in our characters and personalities. By “sins” in the plural I mean the various ways in which that inner corruption expresses itself in thoughts, words, and deeds, in omissions and commissions of all kinds. My pastor in Aberdeen, Scotland, William Still used often to say that our great problem is not sins but sin and that our great mistake is to focus too much on our sins and not enough on our sin. He meant that we needed to go down deep to where the individual sins come from if we are to have real success in putting them to death. Fever, sweat, headache, and pain in our extremities are symptoms that often have to be addressed by sending something down into the stomach or getting something into the blood stream. Our sins come from somewhere. That somewhere is the inner corruption of our nature, the visceral love of evil and distaste for good that festers in the innermost recesses of the inner life. The problem for man is not first that he lives in darkness. His first problem, as John put it, is that he loves darkness. He does not love the light. He has a sinful nature, a bent, a disposition that is deeply sinful. And that continues to be true of the Christian.

Now, to be sure, when a man or woman, boy or girl, is born again, is recreated from the inside out by the Holy Spirit, is made a new creature in Christ, has his or her heart of stone removed and replaced by a heart of flesh – all metaphors for this spiritual transformation that begins the Christian life – there is a very real sense in which that bent away from God, that deep inner corruption, that spirit of rebellion, and that love of sin has been replaced by a spirit of submission to God and love of goodness. In Christ, Paul says in Romans 6, we died to sin and rose to new life. Using still more daring language, Paul says that we have been freed from sin and that the power of sin has been broken in our lives and that sin is no longer our master. We have been made holy and are now slaves to righteousness. We were slaves to sin but now are slaves to righteousness.

And in recent years, through the writings of the theologian John Murray and others, there has been a new emphasis – an entirely proper and needed emphasis – on what is often called definitive sanctification. There was a cleansing of our hearts and lives when first we became followers of Christ; there was a decisive break with sin; there was a new beginning morally and spiritually. All of that is true. Prof. Murray emphasized the point by insisting that a proper exegesis of such texts as Ephesians 4:22 and Colossians 3:9 requires us to stop talking as if our old nature still existed, as if what Paul calls the “old man” had not been put to death and buried in the death of Christ, that death that we participated in because we were with Christ and in Christ when he went to the cross. Paul puts it bluntly in Romans 6:6: “our old man was crucified with Christ.” The old man, therefore, is as dead as Christ was dead on the cross!

There has long been a way of thinking about the old man in Christian spiritual writing that seemed to suggest that the sinful nature still operates within the Christian, unreconstructed, unrepentant, full of life and determined to have its way and that the struggle of the Christian life is a struggle between two still living natures: one old, one new. Christians were spiritual schizophrenics, inhabited, as it were, by two persons fighting over control. Murray was right to remind us that the New Testament contradicts this way of putting things and this way of thinking about the Christian life and the Christian warfare with sin.

I agree with all of that. There is a great need to do justice to the emphatic description of the decisive, radical break that is the new birth or the new creation. The old is done away, all things have become new. The heart of stone is gone; the heart of flesh has replaced it. We must never forget this. Paul makes it the cornerstone of the Christian’s view of his calling to live a holy and loving life. We are not the same people we once were and are no longer in thrall to sin.

But, typical of the Bible’s dialectical presentation of the truth, that is but one pole on this particular continuum of teaching. Even in Paul it is by no means the whole story! The other pole is that, whatever one calls it, however one describes it, and however one relates this to the truth of the death of the old man, the remnants of the old man, the sinful nature remains a great power in the Christian’s life. If we should no longer speak of the old man as still living – in order to do justice to Christ’s conquest of sin and its power in our lives – we must face the fact that the old man’s corpse is still rotting in our hearts. Or, if the old man is dead, there is a sense in which he has imparted his rigor mortis to our spiritual natures.

Paul’s language forces us to face this fact as well. For example, Paul uses “flesh,” the Greek word σάρξ to describe both the fallen, dead, rebellious, defiantly sinful nature of the unbeliever and the power of sin that still remains in the Christian and against which he must struggle all his Christian life. “Flesh” is a synonym of “old man” in a passages like Romans 8:6 – “for the mind of the flesh is death” – or texts such as Ephesians 2:3 – where Paul describes the Ephesian Christians before their conversion as “dead in their transgressions and sins…when they lived…gratifying the carvings of their flesh – or Galatians 5:19 – when Paul writes “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity…hatred, discord, and so on.” There the flesh is the same thing as the old man. It is the sinful nature that renders every human being a bond slave to sin, the nature that must be overcome in the new birth.

But, at the same time, he very clearly speaks of the flesh as a living power in the Christian’s life in such a passage as Romans 7:25 where Paul describes himself as a Christian as a slave to the law of God in his mind but a slave to sin in his flesh. Similarly, in Galatians 5:16-17 Paul describes every Christian’s struggle to live a godly life as a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit. In other words, there is something within us, deep within, that still pushes us powerfully in the direction of sin. There is penchant for sinning, an inclination, a tendency of our will in the direction of what is evil. There still is, no matter that we are Christians.

There is, therefore, a very real sense in which the power of sin has been broken in a Christian’s life and a very real sense in which it has not. And every Christian must live in the tension of that reality. How to describe this tension between the death of our sinful nature and its continuingly vicious assault on our hearts may not be easy to know, but every Christian knows very well that both things are true. He is not the same person morally he once was. He has very different aspirations, very different standards, and in very real ways he has a different life. His attitudes are different, his thoughts, and his actions betray the fact that he is a new creature in Christ. They may not to the extent he wishes – they do not to the extent that he wishes – but they do mark him out as a Christian. But, at the same time, he must bitterly confess that he is far too much the same person he once was, that his desires are far too much the desires of his flesh and not of the Holy Spirit, that his old nature exercises far too much influence and his new nature not nearly enough. If his old man is dead, well it is sometimes hard to tell that he is. [We are going to deal with this reality at the end of this series when we take several Sunday evenings to look at Paul’s anguished confession of his still far too great sinfulness in Romans 7:14-25.]

A good illustration of this tension is G.K. Chesterton’s remark to the American author and critic, Alexander Woollcott, that if a rhinoceros were to enter the restaurant in which they were dining, there would be no denying that the animal would have great power there. “But I should be the first to rise and assure him that he had no authority whatsoever.” [In BOT 509 (Feb 2006) 8] So with sin in the Christian. It still has power. It has no authority.

In our experience, perhaps much of the time, the difference between the two things, the difference between the old self and the new self is primarily the difference described in Proverbs 24:16:

“…for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again,
but the wicked are brought down by calamity.”

In any case, every Christian understands Augustine’s comment: “In this life our righteousness consists more in the remission of sins than in perfection of virtues.” [City of God, xix, 27]

So there is this in the first place: as we look at some of our specific sins, it is important that we face them and deal with them in this larger context of Christ’s victory over sin and his destruction of our old man on the one hand and the continued existence of a powerful penchant for and preference for sin deep inside us. We will, in that way, neither despair of improvement nor take the challenge lightly.

But there is one more thing to consider. If the origin of our sins, the sins we must continue to face, acknowledge, repent of, and work to put to death, is Sin, singular and capital “S,” deep within, perhaps, at the last, all our sins are really but one sin, or at least the manifestations of but one sin. Perhaps all the different moral failures we find in ourselves are really just the same thing in different guises. To know that might help us in waging war on our sins. Perhaps there is, after all, but one sin to kill, one tendency to stand against with might and main for Jesus sake.

Through the ages Christian theologians have debated this and considered what might be the essential nature of sin, what is the one sin from which all sins spring. But they have not agreed as to what that essential nature is. Some have, following Augustine, argued that the bottom sin, the essential nature of sin is superbia, pride. It is the assertion of the self against God and against others. We see this in Satan’s fall – at least the Bible seems to intimate this of Satan’s sin, that it consisted in a seeking for himself a higher place, a place alongside God himself – and we see it in the sin of Adam and Eve. They felt they should have more, be more, that they deserved more. It is not difficult, of course, to see virtually any individual sin as an instance of pride expressing itself. Every act of selfishness, every unkindness, every lustful thought places the individual in the center of the universe. Others exist for him and ought to serve him in whatever way he wishes. William Temple, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury – perhaps the last decidedly Christian Archbishop in the biblical sense of the term – defined original sin in these terms.

“I am the center of the world I see; where the horizon is depends on where I stand… Education may make my self-centeredness less disastrous by widening my horizon of interest; so far it is like climbing a tower, which widens the horizon for physical vision, while leaving me still the center and standard of reference.” [Cited in Dudley-Smith, John Stott, i, 110]

To be in God’s world and to think that the world revolves around you. Preposterous! But that is what men are like – all men, all the time. Augustine described this pride in man as a condition of homo incurvatus in se, man curved in on himself. We hate it in others, we excuse it in ourselves. But it defines every human being all the time.

The other candidate for the essential sin, the bottom sin, is concupiscentia or evil desire. After all, sin as we experience it both in ourselves and others always has this element of desire in it and a desire that is inordinate, improper. Whether we are thinking of greed or lust or simply the desire for attention or ease or money or some other pleasure, sin is a craving inside of us.

One scholar interestingly remarks,

“It is worth pondering that in Latin, Roman Catholic, frolicsome southern Europe sin was and is especially viewed as desire, while in Germanic, Protestant, and ‘Faustian’ northwestern Europe and North America it is especially regarded as pride.” [H. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 191]

But the fact is the Bible never really reflects on this question. It never really works to distinguish between pride and evil desire as the first motivation of sin and, for that matter, never actually tells us what Satan’s first sin was. In Holy Scripture sin is, much more simply and practically, as John tells us, lawlessness: the breaking of God’s commandments, the failure to obey God’s law. Sin is particular even if it comes from deep within us and sins can easily be differentiated from one another as they are in the various lists of them that we find often enough in the Bible. Our Catechism is only being faithful to the Bible when it defines sin as follows:

“Sin is any want of conformity to or transgression of the law of God.”

Whether it stems first from pride or evil desire is beside the point. All roads may lead back to the same place, to a self absorbed with itself and full of evil desires, but that does not seem to be particularly useful information so far as dealing with our sins is concerned. It is, of course, useful to reflect that whatever our sin may be it will be, you can be sure, both pride and evil desire, as well as some particular violation of the commandments of God. That should help us be more disgusted with the sin itself, more fearful of what it says about us, and more determined to be rid of it as soon as possible. But identifying its root cause does not, in the Bible, seem to be essential to our efforts to put that sin to death.

So we are ready to dig in to some of our sins, one by one. We begin that next Lord’s Day evening. It won’t be the most pleasant series of evening sermons, but we will bank on it being true, as Tennyson said in The May Queen,

“He taught me all the mercy for he showed me all the sin.”