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Jerry Bridges, in Respectable Sins, observes that sin has fallen on bad times in our society. We don’t hear the word sin hardly at all any more outside of church. Even inside the church, Bridges argues, sin has fallen out of favor and the evangelical church has not been spared. Few of us seem to notice and our culture has made it easy to minimize or ignore sin. Why is this the case?

First, our society has interpreted as social or political or economic malfunctions many actions and attitudes that should be classified as sin. For example, in the West, we consume resources at an alarming rate, while our brothers in most of the rest of the world suffer for lack of basic needs such as adequate housing, clean water, balanced diets, and basic health care. We blame this on governmental inefficiency, but we do not name it as sin. Examples very likely abound, but we are so steeped in our own culture that identifying systematic sin is very difficult apart from the light of God.

Second, amongst religious people, sin has become a private affair, a matter between me and God. We thereby are blinded to the truth that our interior behavior contributes to the righteousness or to the sinfulness of the world around us.

Third, our society has trivialized grave wrongdoing by changing its name, or by saying, “Everyone does it,” or “It’s just the way our culture is,” or “It happens,” or even, “That’s the way God made me.” Such attitudes provide an excuse to rename sin, effectively softening or eliminating the seriousness of the offense. As Bridges observes, “People no longer commit adultery: instead they have an affair. Corporate executives do not steal: they commit fraud.”

If we explain away or otherwise minimize sin, one must wonder if we are even sure what sin is, considering the emphasis that the Bible puts on it. In general, we understand sin in the context of God having given us moral law. Breaking God’s law is simply wrong and we call it sin. To avoid sin, it would seem quite reasonable to focus on the law, asking, “What does God want me to do?” But, we immediately run into some frustrating roadblocks. First, our personal histories, the history of Israel, and the Scriptures themselves, provide ample evidence that obedience to the law is extraordinarily difficult. Impossible is the biblical characterization.

As serious as this is, there is yet another problem that is even more concerning because it effectively “locks people out of the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 23:13, NRSV) Jesus said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain.” He spoke these words directly to a group of Pharisees, people who excelled at obedience to the law. That Jesus spoke such harsh words to a group of people who kept the Law better than anyone in Jewish history indicates that, despite their faithfulness to the law, they were missing something crucially important: “…their hearts are far from me.” We must be careful to note that Jesus acknowledges that these distant hearts engaged in the worship of God! In this declaration, Jesus highlighted a ubiquitous problem, which is… religious activity that is carried out in the absence of God, accompanied by self-deception that zealously justifies the activity. Surprisingly, perfect obedience to the law that effectively excludes God, despite ongoing worship of His holy name, is sin.

As difficult as this may be to hear, it is not the first time that Jesus uttered such a sobering assessment. On another occasion, Jesus said, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” (Matt 7:22-23) Jesus will say “I never knew you,” to people who preached his name, cast out demons, and did many good and wonderful things in the name of Christ! The parable of the prodigal son conveys the same message: the older son faithfully obeyed as he conducted his father’s business, but his heart was far from his father.

Our inability to keep the law to the satisfaction of God the Eternal Judge is one thing. To miss finding God, at all, is quite another, especially when He has cleared the way to His throne at the great cost of the blood of Christ. Legalism requires that we ask, “If sin amounts to the breaking of God’s law, how else am I to avoid sinning except through obedience?” That is the wrong question, as Jesus made clear to the Pharisees. By the surpassing mercy of God, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God has converted this question from an eternally crucial one to a clearly secondary question. It is not the question that God wants us to ask. The question we should be asking is, “What does God really want?” The answer, surprisingly, is not obedience, first and foremost. The Psalmist wrote, “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” The story of the prodigal son makes the same point: God wants my obedience, but He mainly wants me. God wants my obedience, but not if it is based on a sense of religious obligation. He wants a relationship that is grounded in and driven by love for Him.

From this perspective, then, why is sin bad?

First, sin does great harm to me, many times in ways that I never think about or notice. I have told so many lies over the course of my lifetime that one more does not seem such a big deal. Besides, there have been times where telling a small lie makes my life much easier, not harder. How can that be so bad? This is what I mean by not being able to discern the harm that sin does to me. I am like the wife of an alcoholic, who gets beaten half to death every Friday night. When her husband finally dies of cirrhosis of the liver, she remarries… an alcoholic! Such a decision is surprisingly consistent for women in this situation. Of course, it makes no sense to those of us who have not walked in her shoes. Likewise, my lying makes no sense to Jesus. The fact remains that sin has wrecked my life and, because I have never lived in a world without sin, I pray to God for the wisdom to see the horror of sin in my life and my world.

Second, my sin has the practical effect of keeping me from God, and I lose as a result. Yes, His throne of grace is always available. But I cannot have my cake and eat it, too, or as the apostle Paul put it, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” Grace may abound, but I must recognize that my sin keeps me from being intimate with God. This becomes more clear when I consider that sin boils down to a desire for something other than God, Himself. The author of the wonderful little booklet, The Cloud of Unknowing, spoke to this: “Lift up thine heart unto God with a meek stirring of love; and mean Himself, and none of His goods. And thereto, look the loath to think on aught but Himself. So that nought work in thy wit, nor in thy will, but only Himself.” The apostle John was similarly straightforward in his admonishment: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.” Love for this world, even a little, will keep me from loving God with my whole heart. I pray, therefore, that God would put His finger on the sin that is buried deep in my soul, that keeps me away from His heart.

Third, my sin hurts God. Since He is invisible, I cannot ever see the look on His face, or His immediate reaction whenever I do something sinful. However, I have witnessed the reaction of my wife many times as she responded to something I did that offended her. Because I love her, I do not want to offend or hurt her. My love relationship with her provokes me to behave well. It is not a legal obligation, but a desire driven by love. And that is the subject of my prayer, in both my marriage and my relationship with God.

The question is not, “What sin do I need to work on today?” It is, “How can I love God more today than I did yesterday?” The implications of switching one question for the other are life-changing.

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Phil 1:9-11)