‘Not for your Righteousness’ Deuteronomy 9:1-29 June 21, 1992

(Read vv. 1-6 and summarize the remainder as providing examples and demonstrations of the unrighteousness, the ill-desert of the people of God.)

It is a very interesting fact that all of the examples which Moses uses to demonstrate how unworthy Israel is of the gift she is about to receive are from the life of the previous generation, not this generation about to cross into the promised land, not the people he is now speaking to. The folk who aroused the Lord’s anger at Mt. Sinai, who cavorted before the golden calf, and then who later rebelled at Kadesh Barnea — they all lie dead and buried back in the wilderness. They had forfeited the promised land by their faithlessness. But, with that sense of family solidarity which is so common to the Bible, the present generation is addressed as if they too had been at Horeb, they too had worshipped the golden calf, they too had participated in the cowardly refusal to enter the promised land at Kadesh Barnea.

As a matter of fact, this generation was not and would not prove to be so faithless as their parents. By no means perfectly, but really, they were to follow the Lord and trust him The book of Joshua will demonstrate this. But, the fact is, they too were guilty of the sins of their parents — if not in the same utterly faithless way — those sins were present in their hearts and lives as well. Their parents were unworthy of the promised land, but they were as well. They too were a stiff-necked people, they too were always saying and doing things which offended the Lord. And the Lord is here reminding them, in the most emphatic way, that the land he is about to give them they did not deserve.

Remember that! Remember your own unrighteousness! The Lord says it plainly. Your getting this lush and fertile land has more to do with the wickedness of the people who now live there than it has to do with any righteousness on your part. It has to do with my faithfulness to the promise I made to your forefathers, not with your deserving. Remember this, he says, understand this, because you don’t really understand it and you will quickly forget it, unless you set your mind to this and lay the truth of the matter up in your heart.

And in this, the Spirit of God is speaking as surely to us as ever he was speaking at that moment to the people of Israel. We too are an unrighteous people, we too have been given a great gift — a still more wonderful promised land — which we have not and do not deserve in the slightest, and we too are always forgetting and slighting that tremendously important fact.

You and I live in a day which in the most profound and resolute way has turned against a biblical view of human sinfulness. Oh, you will hear the odd person make some throw-away comment about the evil in us all, or someone will repeat Karl Menninger’s question: ‘What ever became of original sin?’ But it is worth pointing out that he asked that question more than 25 years ago and there is a far greater unwillingness to admit original sin now than there was when Menninger noted the disappearance of the idea.

I was speaking with a counselor not long ago about a person whose behavior was thoroughly sinful, but the counselor assured me, with all the seriousness in the world, that there wasn’t an evil bone in this person’s body. When professionals in the field of human behavior seriously make statements like that, we should not mistake the philosophical and religious revolution which has occurred in this country in the last three decades. We see it constantly and baldly in public discourse, as politicians point to every cause of social problems except their primary cause, human sinfulness. And [we see it] in the media, which has lost all sense of the responsibility of human beings for their bad words and actions and in which sinful actions are now presented with no suggestion or thought whatever that they are wrong or are in any way to be condemned. There is more promiscuous sex on a single day of television today than there was in a year of television in its early days and a young person could almost be forgiven for thinking that to restrain one’s desires and to practice self-control was a sign of social backwardness and maladjustment. The idea that we human beings are full of badness — however obvious it may be to even the most casual observer — is the chief heresy of our modern man-worshipping American religion. Obviously, no religion criticizes its god; and when man became the god of American social religion, by rigorous necessity it became necessary to revise its doctrine of human sinfulness.

These same forces, pressing on us all the time, have penetrated the church. In some parts of the church sin is virtually as taboo a subject as it is in the general culture. It is regarded as settled that men are not in themselves evil in any significant way and that it is harmful to suggest that they are. That development had its origins long ago. Late in the last century already, you began to have preachers, like Scot Henry Drummond, whose message was almost entirely the happy side of the Christian faith, the pleasing and positive and endearing parts of life. Alexander Whyte once told a friend: ‘The problem with Hen-a-ry is that he does-na-ken anything aboot sin!’

In the rest of the church you will find more talk about sin, but it is talk that is detached, impotent, irreal in far too many cases. Do we not find it so ourselves, brothers and sisters? Be completely honest with yourself. Have you not been profoundly effected by the diminishment in the sense of personal sin and evil in our day? Has this diminishment not also occurred in your own heart? Are you not, much as you may know it wrong, are you not in this a child of your time? Could it be otherwise than that we be effected by such a profound development in our culture and one that is taught so pervasively and held so tenaciously by our social elite.

We who belong to the Reformed tradition of Christian thought and life think that one of our strengths is that we take the sterner aspects of the Bible’s teaching more seriously than do other Christians. Perhaps we do, in one way. But does that doctrine of sin which we claim still to hold fast to, does it live in our hearts, or only rest in our creed? That is what I am asking you this morning. It is no proof that a person’s personal and mental culture is of the high and refined type simply because he or she complains from time to time that more people don’t read Shakespeare. True refinement is demonstrated rather by a person actually reading and knowing Shakespeare for himself or herself. And it is hardly proof that a Christian feelingly believes about himself or herself what the Bible teaches to be the truth, that he or she every now and then utters some public support for the Bible’s doctrine of sin or complains that other Christians are forsaking it.

The demonstration of a true sense of our real sinfulness comes in other ways.

For example, William Law, who was a very spiritual and serious Christian, once said that he would rather be hung by the neck until dead and his body thrown into a swamp, than that anyone should be allowed to see what was in his heart. Samuel Rutherford, and a holier and more Christ-loving man has hardly lived, once wrote that if Scotland could see his heart he wouldn’t have an admirer left in the land.

Now, I’m not asking if you are impressed by statements such as those. With our doctrinal convictions we can easily see the rightness of them and praise the honesty of them. But, I’m asking you if you ever, or very often, feelingly think the same thing? Do we think about ourselves in that way? Do we live with a perpetual sense of shame? That is the question! Are we bowed down in our hearts, often and really bowed down, by the shame we feel for our thoughts, words, and actions, and as much or still more by all the thoughts we never think, the words we never say, and the actions we never perform? It isn’t enough to admire Rutherford for saying what he said; the issue is whether we think the same way about ourselves, genuinely, sincerely, strongly, and frequently.

Or, take this example. Take these famous and magnificent verses from John Donne, the 17th century Anglican poet and preacher. Here is his cry of the heart to God for the forgiveness of his sins, from his sin in Adam to his own sins of thought and life.

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun

Which is my sin, though it were done before?

Wilt thou forgive those sins, through which I run,

And do run still; though still I do deplore?

When thou hast done, thou hast not done,

For, I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin by which I have won

Others to sin? And, made my sin their door?

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun

A year, or two: but wallowed in, a score?

When thou has done, thou hast not done,

For, I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun

My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;

Swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son

Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;

And, having done that, thou hast done,

I fear no more.

Do you really plead that way for the forgiveness of your sins — not ask, but plead? Are they so great and so ugly and so vicious and so wrong in your eyes that you often feel that — even knowing what you know about Christ and the cross and the mercy of God — you very often feel that you must plead with all your heart that God would not hold those sins against you, that he would not let the mountain of your guilt fall back to bury you? Do you ever lie abed, as John Donne did, and suddenly find fear striking into your heart, fear that sins as great as yours might at the last be too great, that sins committed against divine light and divine love as your sins have been, might prove at last that yours was no living faith in Christ at all?

Is it possible that a man or woman who knew sin as the Bible describes it and was honest about his or her own sinfulness would not spend a sleepless night from time to time for fear of sin and of sin’s punishment?

Take a test such as this. John Chrysostom, the greatest preacher of early Christianity, was once threatened by his monarch unless he should stop preaching against her pet heresies and sins. His reply: ‘I fear nothing except sin!’ In other words, ‘do your worst; your threats aren’t nearly so worrying to me as my commiting an act of disloyalty to Christ and to my calling as a Christian and a Christian minister.’ Are we so afraid of sin that we are willing to cast our lives and pleasures and our ease away in an almost desperate urgency not to offend and displease the Lord God?

Or test your sense of sin this way? We sing in church such unspeakably powerful words about sin and forgiveness? Do we really mean them?

Nothing in my hand I bring,

Simply to the cross I cling,

Naked, come to thee for dress,

Helpless, look to thee for grace;

Foul, I to the fountain fly;

Wash me Savior, or I die!

Really! You don’t mean that? Do you, really? If a person really meant such things would there not be more evidence that he or she thought salvation to be an almost indescribable wonder? Wouldn’t the love of God and the salvation of Christ be more obviously and evidently the preoccupation of his or her mind and heart? Wouldn’t we love the Lord Christ much more passionately and be much more often overwhelmed or at least deeply moved by the thought of what he had done for a person as bad as I am? Wouldn’t such a person from time to time be racked by a terrible shudder that others will be forever cast away from God for thinking and saying and doing exactly the same things that I think, say, and do?

Must we not confess that one of our very greatest sins, one of our most intractable and inexcusable and dangerous and harmful sins is just our lack of a true acknowledgement and honest measurement of our sins and our lack of an appropriate shame and disgust and terror on account of our sins.

The Lord thought that was to be one of Israel’s standing sins and standing dangers: that she would not measure her own sin aright. And in the rest of the Bible the same point is reiterated, the same warning is made countless times over. Indeed, the Lord Jesus’ own great controversy with the scribes and pharisees in the day of his ministry was really about this same matter. The problem the pharisees had was that they did not take sin nearly seriously enough. Like their forefathers and like the generality of Christians today, they had an altogether inadequate doctrine of sin.

This is Jesus’ point time and again. They did not see sin as the cancer that it is. They did not see it as lying deep in the soul and as permeating the substance of the soul and staining and corrupting and twisting every attitude, motive, thought, word, and deed. They thought, as many think today, that sin is a manageable thing, that can be contained and controlled and that it is not so great that we cannot make up for it by acts of goodness and obedience to God. They were very good people and, in many ways, very obedient — but Christ Jesus said that unless your righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and pharisees you would never see the Kingdom of God. Why? Because their righteousness, stained by sinful motives as it was, corrupted and cancelled out by constant sinning in thought, word, and deed, every day, didn’t amount to a hill of beans over against the holy and just standards and requirements of the Almighty. Their best acts were sins, their most heroic acts were sins both for the motive for which they were done and for the imperfections of every kind in the act itself. And against a very few of what Augustine called ‘splendid sins’ they had piled up mountain ranges of ordinarily ugly, petty, cruel, thoughtless, selfish, corrupt, hurtful, ungrateful, proud, and God-dishonoring sins!

Compared to what they were made to be, and what we know they ought to be, and what our conscience requires them to be, and what others need for them to be, and what God deserves for them to be, human lives are all so miserably disappointing! I want you all to believe that with all your heart. It is not simply something the Bible teaches as a doctrine, it is also a very large part of the foundation upon which an authentic Christian life can be built. Unless a person feelingly acknowledges his or her own sin and does so as a rule of daily life, true spirituality and true godliness cannot thrive.

In just a few moments let me indicate to you why this is so, why the true and heartfelt acknowledgement of our own sins’ reality and ferocity and shame is so crucial to a holy and happy Christian life.

First it is so because it is, after all, the truth that we are really that sinful and that our sin is really that shameful. No life can successfully be built upon a massive falsehood. We have the evidence of that tragically before our eyes every day in this society. The more determined this society has become to exonerate itself of evil, the more evil and the more ugly an evil has continues to break out. Sin is the one undeniable fact of human life. Why did the Soviet Union fall? Why are so many marriages ending in divorce? Why do companies go bankrupt? Why do individuals and families stagger under the weight of debts? Why are so many in the grip of habits and dependencies that ruin both their Jives and those of others? Why are so many people so regularly cruel to others and why are we all so generally indifferent to others? Why has the sexual dimension of life become so dangerous and so hurtful in our day? Why are so many relationships, virtually every relationship so much Jess than it could be and less than we wish it were? Why are there so few people we really admire?

It is because of the universality and reality of sin. In attitude, motive, thought, word, and deed, we know that human beings are the palest shadow of what they ought to be, a cruel corruption of the ideal of humanity. And, however much a great change comes over the man or woman, boy or girl, who is now inhabited by the Spirit of God, sin remains, enough of it to damn every Christian all over again, day after day, were it not for still greater grace and forgiveness poured out from heaven to cover our sins. Sin’s true recognition is the foundation of a true Christian life because sin is the reality of life, like it or not, it is.

Second, a feeling acknowledgement of our sin is the prerequisite of an authentic Christian holiness because it is the indispensable means of the conquest of sin in a Christian’s life. If sin is a little thing to a Christian, or even a big thing but only theoretically, no Christian will ever muster the determination and the desperation which is required to fight this life-long battle to the death with the sins of our heart and life. If it is possible for you to make peace with your sins, you will! Christian though you may be, if your soul will let you, you will make peace with your sins and they will lie virtually undisturbed in your heart and life for weeks, months, and years on end. This is, alas, the chief reason why so many Christians live such pathetic Christian lives! And this is the reason why so many Christians reach a certain point of spiritual progress relatively early on in their Christian lives and go not one step further all the years they remain in this world.

It is Christians who keep alive the enormity of their own sin and sinning and its shame and ugliness and danger who can never make peace with their sin, who are always found crying out to God for deliverance from it, and who are always to be seen moving heaven and earth to kill their sins and keep them dead.

And, finally, the feeling acknowledgement of our sin is the prerequisite of an authentic Christian life and a holy and happy life because it is the engine which drives the heart to love and praise God. Think of sin as a little thing, or marginalize your sin and a matter of only theoretical interest and importance, and you cannot help but find that your gratitude to God, your amazement at his mercy and grace, your wonderment at his salvation and at the love and cross of Christ, and your sense of the impressiveness of the stupendous achievement of your Savior is diminished terribly. As Augustine put the law long ago: ‘the more desperate was my disease, the greater honor to the Physician who cured me.’

It is the person who feels the flames of hell licking up into his or her soul who knows what is owed to the Redeemer and to the Father’s love. And it is the person who continues to feel that who wants always to speak and sing and live to the praise of that love and that redemption. For as often as the sin rises in all its ugliness before the mind’s eye, so often rises the cross and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The true acknowledgement of our sin is a burden which can only be lifted off the heart by praise and thanksgiving and by the grateful consecration of our lives to serving the Lord. And those who labor under the burden of their sins have always found and will still today find that that praise and worship and love said and sung to God and is the true path to relief and to the joy of one’s salvation.

Show me a Christian who understands how great and how evil and how ugly his or her sin has been and continues to be and I will show you a useful, fruitful, wise Christian who, if not already happy with the joy of the Lord, has planted his or her feet on the path which leads to it. Show me some professing Christian who thinks little about sin and is little bothered and seldom troubled and unsettled and shamed by his or her own sin, and I’ll show you a thief, who is robbing God of his glory.

Alexander Whyte, in a day when the consciousness of sin was already beginning to wane, said that he wanted to be an expert in the study of sin. And that is what Moses and the Lord are calling upon us to want for ourselves as well: to be experts in the study of sin. You won’t master this subject accidentally. Your soul is too averse and unwilling. You must set yourself to be a student. And you already have the only book you will ever need: your own heart.

Look into that book long enough and learn how much good you know but how little you do, how much you have been given and how little gratitude you have shown, how high is your calling and how low is your living, how great is your God and how petty and meagre and pathetic the honor your show him and you will never again think or allow yourself to imagine that in even the slightest respect you deserved the salvation you have in God through Jesus Christ. And it will become the controlling passion of your life to declare the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into his glorious light.

And we too will be able to say, O that we shall be able to say — you and I — at the end of our lives, as a godly man long ago could say at the end of his: ‘And thus, like one of the heralds, I have endeavored, to the utmost extent that my ability allowed, to do honor to Christ riding magnificently in his royal chariot drawn by four horses.’ [Calvin]