Posts Tagged ‘sin’
A number of pastoral issues have arisen recently which have brought home to me some particular truths and some particular emphases arising from them. Many of these situations are on the fringes of church life or outside it (though I sincerely hope that some of them might, under God’s gracious influences, come within it in due course). How much we need to grasp spiritual realities with scriptural definition! It is a great distress to see how often false religion dismisses the former and degrades the latter, but even more grievous is to see professing Christians mishandle matters of central importance. (Please understand that these are not veiled critiques of events in the Christian stratosphere, but observations about concrete situations in local churches, or at least those places which call themselves churches. But you are wise, and may apply it.)
One area where this has cropped up recently is in the matter of grace, what Matthew Henry somewhere describes as “the free favour of God and all the blessed fruits of it.” In common Christian parlance, grace seems to have become a catch-all noun to describe a certain kind of softness and carelessness with regard to sin. When acts and patterns of sin are exposed, we are encouraged to be gracious, but that grace is often not defined or ill-defined. When criticisms are made of certain acts and their actors, the rebuke is readily offered, “That is not gracious!” Grace, apparently, can ignore the sin that calls forth the critique, but not the sin of critiquing it!
So, for example, when there is gross sin in the church, we must show grace. When someone is acting wickedly, it is gracious not to condemn it. When a lie is told, grace will ignore the matter. When leaders fudge matters of righteousness, ignore God’s truth, and expose God’s flock to harms because they will not deal with transgressors, they are showing grace, and we must show grace by not charging them with any failings.
But this nebulous notion of grace is very far removed from the spiritual reality with scriptural definition that we find revealed and displayed in our Bibles. Gospel grace does not excuse or ignore or neglect sin. Gospel grace is never casual or careless with regard to transgression. Gospel grace, whether patterned in God or echoed in man, never pretends sin is not sin. Gospel grace does not expose the flock to harm because it will not identify error and heresy and defend against errorists and heretics, even in the name of love. Gospel grace suffers long, but it is not a disregard for iniquity that is dishonouring to God and dangerous to men. Gospel grace does not call evil good, and good evil; it does not put darkness for light, and light for darkness, or bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter (Is 5.20).
Gospel grace always faces and addresses sin, though it does so in a gracious way. If you want a seasonal example, think of that just man, who did not want to make the woman he loved a public example, despite what he was legitimately persuaded was the growing evidence of heinous sin, and “was minded to put her away secretly” (Mt 1.19). Grace took no delight in parading sin, but it did not pretend that it was not (as far as could reasonably be determined) sin. When Joseph was enlightened concerning the reality of the situation, would he not have been relieved that he did not have an immediately ungracious response, and make of Mary the most public example he could? Grace prevents us making errors born of harshness, and allows for the easy correction of mistakes.
Remember that fervent love is commanded among the saints, a love which will cover a multitude of sins (1Pt 4.8 cf. Prv 10.12), but consider that such love recognises sin as sin and chooses that, for good and proper reasons, it will be discreet in dealing with it or covering it. Again, to quote Matthew Henry, this love “inclines people to forgive and forget offences against themselves, to cover and conceal the sins of others, rather than aggravate them and spread them abroad.” We read that “the discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory is to overlook a transgression” (Prv 19.11) – he decides, as appropriate, that this transgression is not something that needs to be dealt with immediately and publicly, though he still recognises it as transgression, and there may come a time when a pattern of transgression requires him to stop overlooking and start acting. We do not pull one another up on every slip of deed and word, but take account of our frailties and failings as sinful creatures, creatures with remaining sin even as redeemed men and women. This is the grace of God as Father, who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Ps 103.8–14).
Notice here the hints at the greatest expression of grace: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in coming into the world to die on the cross for his wretched and sin-wrecked people was at once the clearest recognition of sin and the highest expression of mercy. God did not pretend that there was no sin; he saw it more clearly than we ever shall, but put it away by the sacrifice of Christ Jesus. The cross is at once the revealing of the sinfulness of sin and the demonstration of the graciousness of grace.
Gospel grace does not revel in the public exposure of sin and aggressive shaming of sinners, like a church boasting of how many cases of corrective discipline it has handled recently. But neither does it sweep sin away as if it were of no moment. True gospel grace, patterned in a gracious God and echoed in gracious men, always faces sin head on. It is patient and kind, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, but it is also fiercely committed to the glory of a God who is holy and to the good of those who are called to be holy just as he is holy. It calls sin sin, and it considers the nature, occasion and consequences of any particular sin and responds appropriately.
Grace is not, then, an excuse to downplay or dismiss sin as if it were of no consequence, to go on neglecting to deal with it. Grace does not make sin of no account. Grace is the most honest in dealing with sin. Grace always takes account of sin, it looks sin in the ugly eye and – one way or another – it puts it away, sometimes at great cost to itself, dealing fairly and even tenderly with those in whom that sin is discerned, as occasion demands.
Grace, ultimately, is Godlike. It is not a commodity, a mere thing, but an expression of the heart of God in Christ Jesus his Son. If we would have a pattern for gospel grace, we must find it in Christ crucified. Bring all sin into the light of the gospel, put all sin under the shadow of the cross, and there you shall find wisdom in how to deal with it. Deal with it graciously, but deal with it you must. There is nothing gracious about pretending otherwise.
The new year is not far away. That is when we will being that new regime of diet and exercise, start taking our health more seriously, get a grip on ourselves, whip ourselves into shape, and so on. Tomorrow is always the big day, the start of something good and new?
So, today? Well, let’s eat, drink and be merry, and tomorrow we’ll try. Perhaps one of the reasons why the festive season is one of such excess and abandonment is because we indulge with the self-satisfying assurance that we will be sorting everything out tomorrow. So, whether it is food and drink, spending, or general laziness and laxity, we let it all hang out because tomorrow will be different.
We can do the same thing spiritually. We promise ourselves that tomorrow is the big day, the day when we will really begin to pray against a particular sin, wrestle against a particular temptation, address a particular habit. And what happens? First of all, our own sinful hearts will incline to one last fling, one last binge – after all, we will be taking ourselves in hand tomorrow. But more than that, Satan will begin to whisper. He will assure us that we might as well give in to temptation – after all, we can repent later and start over the day after. And how often does this happen?
Furthermore, that temptation to have one last day of high living weakens all our resolve. Compromise breeds compromise, in the same and other areas of life. A little indulgence here weakens our determination there; pandering to this appetite primes us to gratify that one. It may seem strange, but the wall of the soul needs to be maintained all the way round, all the year round. Persuade yourself that you can eat that food, and it will be easier to watch that film. Let anger take control, and it will be easier to submit to sexual lust. A habit of watchful maintenance on every side is the only way.
And then, of course, once we have indulged, the Adversary will return. Having assured us before that the Lord will forgive so we might as well sin, he will now insist that, having sinned, there is no forgiveness for sin. Distress and even despair enter in. And the result? Well, you might as well give in again, and plunge into the pit of indulgence more entirely – after all, the whole thing is blown apart anyway.
So, in whatever sphere, let us not fall into the trap of making tomorrow’s promise an excuse for today’s indulgence. Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, and can do with a good and well-instructed conscience, do all to the glory of God” (1Cor 10.31). Especially in a season when careless indulgence – if not quite riotous excess – is the name of the game, let us keep up our guard.
From J. C. Ryle:
The Christianity which I call fruit-bearing, that which shows its Divine origin by its blessed effects on mankind – the Christianity which you may safely defy unbelievers to explain away – that Christianity is a very different thing. Let me show you some of its leading marks and features.
(1) Fruit-bearing Christianity has always taught the inspiration, sufficiency, and supremacy of Holy Scripture. It has told people that God’s Word written is the only trustworthy rule of faith and practice in religion, that God requires nothing to be believed that is not in this Word, and that nothing is right which contradicts it. It has never allowed reason, a person’s mind, or the voice of the Church, to be placed above, or on a level with Scripture. It has steadily maintained that, however imperfectly we may understand it, the Old Book is meant to be the only standard of life and doctrine.
(2) Fruit-bearing Christianity has always taught fully the sinfulness, guilt and corruption of human nature. It has told people that they are born in sin, deserve God’s wrath and condemnation, and are naturally inclined to do evil. It has never allowed that men and women are only weak and pitiable creatures, who can become good when they please, and make their own peace with God. On the contrary, it has steadily declared a person’s danger and vileness, and their pressing need of a Divine forgiveness and satisfaction for their sins, a new birth or conversion, and an entire change of heart.
(3) Fruit-bearing Christianity has always set before people the Lord Jesus Christ as the chief object of faith and hope in religion, as the Divine Mediator between God and humanity, the only source of peace of conscience, and the root of all spiritual life. It has never been content to teach that He is merely our Prophet, our Example, and our Judge. The main things it has ever insisted on about Christ are the atonement for sin He made by His death, His sacrifice on the cross, the complete redemption from guilt and condemnation by His blood, His victory over the grave by His resurrection, His active life of intercession at God’s right hand, and the absolute necessity of simple faith in Him. In short, it has made Christ the Alpha and the Omega in Christian theology.
(4) Fruit-bearing Christianity has always honored the Person of God the Holy Spirit, and magnified His work. It has never taught that all professing Christians have the grace of the Spirit in their hearts, as a matter of course, because they are baptized, or because they belong to the Church, or because they partake of Holy communion. It has steadily maintained that the fruits of the Spirit are the only evidence of having the Spirit, and that those fruits must be seen, – that we must be born of the Spirit, led by the Spirit, sanctified by the Spirit, and feel the operations of the Spirit, – and that a close walk with God in the path of His commandments, a life of holiness, charity, self-denial, purity, and zeal to do good, are the only satisfactory marks of the Holy Spirit.
Summary ► Such is true fruit-bearing Christianity. Well would it have been for the world if there had been more of it during the last nineteen centuries! Too often, and in too many parts of Christendom, there has been so little of it, that Christ’s religion has seemed extinct, and has fallen into utter contempt. But just in proportion as such Christianity as I have described has prevailed, the world has benefited, the unbeliever has been silenced, and the truth of Divine revelation been acknowledged. The tree has been known by its fruit.
via J.C. Ryle Quotes.
Sin is inherently anti-God, inherently pro-self. Each time I sin I make a statement about myself and a statement about (and against) God. Each time I sin, I declare my own independence, my own desire to be rid of God; I declare that I can do better than God, that I can be a better god than God.
Tim Challies does an outstanding job of unpacking this declaration. Please check it out.
According to Al Mohler (as summarised here), there are at least fourteen noetic effects of sin (i.e. the effects of sin on the intellect):
- Faulty perspective
- Intellectual fatigue
- Failure to draw right conclusions
- Intellectual apathy
- Dogmatism and closed-mindedness
- Intellectual pride
- Vain imagination
- Partial knowledge
Check . . . check . . . check . . .
. . . one of the consequences of the internet-trained brain seems to be an inability to hide very much – not much of the Word of God, to be sure – in our hearts. That results in a crippling weakness in the battle for godliness.
Yours truly offers some thoughts on hiding God’s word in our hearts at Reformation21.
Conrad Mbewe tells us the sad story of a pastor who fell into sin and – overwhelmed by shame – took his own life. He draws out a single, primary lesson:
I have only one appeal: Pray for your pastors. The devil is real and there is only one that is stronger than him—not your pastor but God. Satan knows that if he can strike the shepherd, the sheep will scatter. Hence, he targets pastors with his most potent missiles. Many Christians are oblivious to this fact. They tend to simply admire their pastors as if they were super humans. They project their childhood invincible comic heroes (Spider Man, Mr America, etc.) upon their pastors and simply watch them as they fight sin with heroic energy in the community and in the church. They forget that pastors are also fallen creatures.
I will be the first one to confess that there are times when my struggle with my own fallen nature is so vicious that I wish I were still a private unknown Christian plying out my trade as a mining engineer in the Zambian copper mines. I would be less overwhelmed by my failures and would not carry so many people down with me. So, I end this blog post with an impassioned plea that all those who know me (and especially the Christians in my own church) should pray for me to run my race well to the very end. As Paul pleaded with the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 5:25), I say, “Brethren, pray for us!”
Pastors are not super creatures but fallen creatures, not uber-Christians but frail and dependent saints. I heard of the story told by a man not given to fancy and exaggeration of how he knew of Satan-worshippers pleading with their dark lord for the downfall of pastors, to the destruction of their families and the devastation of their churches. It was for this reason that I wrote in A Portrait of Paul that if
you find faithful men full of the Spirit of Christ, diligent in the discharge of their stewardship from God, then esteem them, love them, help them, encourage them, be open to them, and never stop praying for them. There is a real sense in which the shepherds of Christ’s flock wear an insignia that marks them out as overseers. In the same way that snipers in combat identify officers by their badges and pick them off first to create disorder and confusion in the ranks, so Satan’s snipers will seek to pick off those who wear the insignia of the shepherd, knowing that it is still a functioning principle that if you can strike the shepherd, the sheep will be scattered. Bless God that the Great Shepherd is beyond their reach, but be warned that the undershepherds are exposed still and daily expose themselves by the very nature of the work that they do on the front lines in Christ’s great battle with sin in the flesh, in the world, and from the devil.
The devil passionately hates Christ’s pastors. If he can make them stumble, he knows that more often than not others will stumble with them. Your faithful pastors are marked men. For their sake and for Christ’s, daily stand in the gap for them; pray that their faith may not fail them.
Every tale told of a man, a brother in arms, fallen in this way, ought to bring to the hearts of God’s under-shepherds the cry, “Lord, keep me!” and an answering prayer in the hearts of all those who are led by those men.