A little naughtiness or something far, far worse?
A couple of years after I became a Christian, I was walking through the office that I worked in carrying a Christian book. A couple of people saw the title of it and mocked. It was an old book (old in terms of when it was first written) called "The Sinfulness of Sin" by the Puritan Ralph Venning. I remember thinking then that if they knew the real seriousness of sin they would not have mocked.
This came back to my mind recently because, at a meeting of local FIEC ministers, I raised the question as to what important doctrines (Christian truths) we tended to neglect in our teaching that we ought not to neglect. Now, at one level no Christian truth should be neglected. But there are some core things without which Christianity is either unintelligible or becomes distorted. One of these is that of sin.
We live in a culture where sin is now reduced to a bit of (rather delicious) naughtiness on the side, or to calories in a weight control programme. Sin has lost its sting. But that should be no surprise to Christians who understand what Paul is saying in Romans 1. He tells us that although men and women know, deep down, the truth of God, they suppress it and turn from him to things in the created order to do for them what only God can truly and fully do. We end up worshipping, devoting our lives to, something else. In our current western world, that might mean money, sex, sexuality and sexual inclination (see how many want to define themselves by their sexual orientation as though the desire for sex were all that matters as to who we are). It might mean status, good looks, and so on. And Paul says that this turning from God to worship things in the created order leads to us undertaking sinful actions but pretending to ourselves that they are not sinful, not bad. We take the unnatural, start acting it out, and pretend to ourselves that it is natural. Plus, Jesus tells us that it takes the work of the Holy Spirit to convince people of sin. Therefore we ought not to be surprised at how non-Christians view sin. They see the world through different lenses than we do.
But what is far more worrying, is that I suspect that many of us, as Christians have too low a view of sin as well. Sure we acknowledge it. Sure we say it is wrong. But we tend to diminish it none the less. How so? Well, I suspect that many think they are sinners when they sin, when they do wrong or fail to do the right. But actually we are sinners before we do acts of sin. It is because we are sinners that we do wrong, not that we do wrong and become sinners. Sin is a deep seated heart problem that infects the human race and has done so since Adam. It is why we of all people ought not to be baffled, as so many non-Christians are, by the intractability of human evil. Sin is our inner pre-disposition to resist God, to deny him and to refuse to obey him. It is far worse than that we do wrong things and fail to do right things. They are the fruit of the deeper heart problem (see Mark 7:20-23). Jesus uses the analogy of a fruit tree to teach the same truth. A bad tree cannot produce good fruit (Matthew 7:18).
And, to return to Venning, the true sinfulness of sin is that it is against God. God who is the holy, righteous, just, powerful, awesome, majestic God; the one who is compassionate and slow to anger but who hates sin. And it is this one, against whom sin offends. Against the one who is the source of all life and love and beauty, without whose say so the universe would not have come into being (the alternative being the bizarre idea that something came from nothing - an implausibility that atheists have to resort to).
And the Bible says that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, if you remain in that state of outright and willing rebellion against him. And it is because our problem is so radical that the solution had to be radical. God the Son became man for our sake, bore in himself the wrath that should have fallen on us so that, if we believe in him as Saviour and Lord, we can be set free from condemnation and be invited into restored communion with Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Getting sin right matters, therefore, for our understanding of the depth of the rescue we needed. But it also matters for assurance of forgiveness of sins. Too often we act as though God, in Jesus, is like a cosmic goalkeeper constantly saving us from each individual sin provided (in our own minds) that we have repented enough and haven't sinned too badly. But when we see that the forgiveness we got was of the inner corruption that leads to individual sins, then we can have renewed assurance that God does indeed forgive, has indeed forgiven, all our sins because he has forgiven the bigger inner corruption of sin itself. He has dealt with the root so that we can trust he will also deal with the shoot. And this should aid us in putting to death sin in our lives. If God has pardoned it at root then we need not fear its condemnation, need not cling to guilt, and that liberates us, not to sin all the more, but to turn from it daily as we trust God to finish in us what he has started.