We sin more often and more terribly than we ever like to admit. And this is good news to us, because the Holy Spirit shows us the extent of our sin to show us the extent of Christ’s love. He also does so to give us hope that we can repent and change.
Take worry. I worry about things, but I also just worry. I feel anxious, scared, confused and like I want to run away. It isn’t always that powerful, but it comes and goes. And my worry is sin. It is sinful to be anxious. In Philippians 4v6-7, Paul commands:
‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’
Here anxiety, the sort of tiring worry that I have been noticing in my life over the past few weeks, is forbidden. Paul says that the Philippian Christians should not be anxious. Our Lord never gives us arbitrary commands, and here Paul sets out why we should not worry. It is because we can bring any request to God. We have a Father in heaven who loves us with a kindness and a care that far surpasses the very best of earthly fathers. He is able to show his kindness to us with a power that far surpasses the greatest king, general or chief executive.
As Paul puts it like this we see why worry is so serious. When I worry I am failing to pray, I am failing to trust my Father God to care for me. I am failing to be thankful, my gaze entranced by the single sight of my fears, refusing to see the great extent of God’s love for me shown in a thousand causes for thankfulness.
When I worry, I am denying everything I claim to believe about Jesus, his love and his goodness. I am living as though I had not died to sin with him. I am living as though I had not risen with him to the freedom of the gospel. My worry is sin. And it is not our only sin!
When tested on what he considered the greatest commandment, Jesus’ reply was crystal clear:
'"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.' – Matthew 22v37-40
The first commandment is to love the Lord. This is a love that consumes us – heart, soul and mind. It is a burning, real, deep and true love. Jesus then shows how this love will unfold in the rest of our lives. When we love our God with a true love, with a love that mirrors the love he has for us, then that loves must flow on into love for others. If we love God, we will also love our neighbour. And when we love like this, we will fulfil all the law and the prophets.
This is a bold and beautiful vision. Jesus holds out the vision of a people in God’s own image, a people who are saturated with a powerful love. It is also a terrible condemnation of our view of sinless righteousness. Jesus didn’t speak these words into a vacuum. He spoke them to Pharisees who had sent one of their experts to test him. These words are pointed! Jesus speaks to an expert in the law, and expert in keeping the letter of every rule in the Old Testament. Every rule except the two most important ones! This Pharisee was surely careful to give every penny the law required to the Temple (see Matthew 23v23), but he was never a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9v7). He gave to look good, he gave to buy God’s love, he gave to satisfy his desire to be in control. I guess he was anxious like me!
It is Jesus’ summary of the law that leads Paul to write barely believable words in 1 Corinthians 13v3: ‘If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing’. He is saying that you can die, burned as a martyr for Jesus, and it is empty and meaningless if you do not do so out of love for your Saviour. Jesus demands our hearts, not just our hands. He cares as much – indeed more – about our motives than he does about our deeds.
How much of today has your heart been filled with a deep and true love for God your Father? How much of today has your heart been filled with a deep and true love for your neighbour? That is the amount of today that you have spent not sinning.
So, you go to the church prayer meeting to impress the pastor: sin. Cook a romantic meal for your wife because it has been a long time and you ought to: sin. Work diligently and long so your boss will be impressed: sin. Meet a friend for coffee to encourage her because you want her to rely on you: sin.
Sin is pervasive. It is also horrendous:
‘Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.’ – Revelation 20v11-15
Here we see Jesus on his throne. This is the one who came to die in the place of his people. He came to suffer the anger, the wrath, of God as he carried our sins in his body on the cross. He went through our hell, he died our death, he destroyed our sin. He did this to spare us from the day John saw in his vision. The day when Jesus, who loved us to the full extent of his infinite love, will judge and punish those who have not accepted his forgiveness and love. Isaiah describes judgment as Jesus ‘strange work’ and ‘alien task’ (Isaiah 28v21). It does not come as naturally to our great Lord as salvation does. He is inclined to rescue us, not to judge us. He weeps over our sin. But that will not stop him judging any and all who do not turn to him and receive his free offer to be his friend rather than his enemy, to be married to him, the great Bridegroom and to be adopted by his Father.
Jesus will judge the nations because sin is horrendous and serious. David grasped this when he wrote Psalm 51. It begins like this:
‘For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.’ – Psalm 51v1-5
The title tells us the occasion of David’s poem. It is when he was caught in sin by God and his prophet. The nature of David’s sin was to rape his friend’s wife and then have his friend killed to cover up his crime. Uriah was one of the men who had stood shoulder to shoulder with David in countless battle-lines, and this is how his king repaid him. It is shocking sin.
Just as shocking is the way David saw it. He said that his sin was against God. Our natural response is to cry, ‘What about Bathsheba? What about Uriah?’. We naturally see sin in terms of how it affects our family, our friends and maybe our neighbours. David saw his sin as being a rejection of God, a denial of his Lord’s love and a rebellion against the Almighty’s law.
Our sin is pervasive in its scope and horrifying in its depth. We tend to minimise both of these. We reduce ‘sin’ to a few acts. For some these will be extreme acts committed by others – murder or slavery, perhaps. For others they will be the greed or injustice they see in society. Maybe it will be the licentiousness or the legalism of others in your church. We reduce the scope of sin so that we can conquer it, so that we can be righteous. We might laugh at the Pharisees when they agonised over how far it was legitimate to walk on the Sabbath, but we so often play the same game. How much do I need to give to church?
Then, like the Pharisees, we reassure ourselves that we are righteous by judging others. Our church only buys fair-trade goods and has a homeless ministry, not like that bunch who are obsessed with endless genealogies. Or maybe you look down on the others for being Pharisees – ‘thank you Lord that I’m not judgmental like that guy’…
When we get a sight of the scope of our sin, we then tend to forget its seriousness: ‘My sin may be frequent, but it isn’t that bad. It is only in response to the sin of others. Compared to most husbands or fathers, I’m a saint. Oh, and I was tired when I said that.’
We minimise the scope or the seriousness of our sin. Often we do both. We do this because it feels like it would be crushing to admit that we sin much of the time, and that our sin is a wicked denial of everything God is and all he has done for us.
Strangely, this is not the result. To see how sinful we are frees us to approach the real problem. Where does all this sin come from? What difference does it make in our lives and, crucially, how does Jesus end it for us, how can we be free, how can things change?
The circumstances of our lives are often hard. I am amazed at just how much pain and suffering there is in the lives of most of the people I know. The ordinary stresses and pressures of work (or the lack of it), running a house, making a marriage work or parenting children can feel like a relentless grind, with moments of relief on Friday night or on holiday feeling very temporary. Then add in debt, redundancy, ill-health, bereavement and the other less constant but overly common hardships of life.
We tend to see these as the sources of our sin. Our anger, sadness, anxiety and fear come from the pain and difficulty of life, and they result in sin. I speed because I am late getting the kids to school. I shout at the kids because my husband left the breakfast things all over the kitchen. I drink more than I meant to because I am so stressed by the demands of my boss. I put my wife down in the way I speak to her because she has not brought the happy-ever-after the films promised me.
The wonderful news of the Bible is that these are not the sources of our sin. These are merely the circumstances of our sin. This is wonderful news, because it means that there is hope. There is hope for me to love my wife and children and treat them with generous kindness even when I feel tired, stressed and taken for granted. The sufferings of my life do not cause me to sin, rather they are temptations that I can fall into or resist. Before we get to that, though, let’s look at the real causes of our sin. There are three: the flesh, the world and the devil.
The ‘flesh’, or the ‘sinful nature’ is the nature that each of us was born with. It is what David referred to in Psalm 51 verse 5 when he said, ‘Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me’. It is the innate rejection of God that we all find so easy. Unless we have been born again as new creations in Christ, we are controlled by the sinful nature. Even if you are a Christian, you wage war against it. One place where the Bible discusses it is in Galatians 5v16-21:
‘So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.’
Sin comes from within us. We do not need difficult or stressful circumstances to sin. It is there, in our natures. I sin because I see myself as a god, and the gratification of my immediate desires for control, power or status as supremely important.
That doesn’t mean that we are immune from outside influences, though. My sin comes from my flesh, but it also comes from the world around me, just in different ways to those I expect. The ways the world works is outlined in 1 Corinthians 1v18-24:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
The ‘wisdom of the world’ us what the world values, what the world sees as significant. For the Jews it was miracles, for the Greeks it was wisdom. So if I wanted to be an impressive preacher in a Jewish context, I would have majored on the supernatural. In a Greek context I would have rehearsed philosophical speeches.
Our culture values success, looks, wealth, celebrity and a host of other ways of seeming ‘wise’. And these influence us. We want to feel impressive, significant, loved and good, and what that means is shaped by the world we live in. The world does not value weakness or foolishness, and it sees God’s ways as weak and foolish. We will always be tempted to live according to the beat of the world’s music rather than the distant-seeming song of heaven.
And there is one who will use every weapon he has to keep it so. My sin comes from me, it comes from the world around me, and it comes from a powerful and subtle enemy who delights to destroy my love for Jesus and to draw me away from him.
My flesh pushes me to seek satisfaction in selfish pursuit of whatever I want. The world attracts my gaze away from what God wants for me to what will make me look good in the eyes of others. But the most dangerous is the devil, because he whispers the oldest lie into my ears all the time. In Eden, Satan told Adam and Eve that God did not love, them, that he was not trustworthy and that he did not do things for their blessing: ‘“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”‘ (Genesis 3v4-5).
Satan tells us as often as he can that God does not love us, that he is not to be trusted and that we are better off without him. It is the saddest and most powerful lie that has ever been told. It is ridiculous, and I believe it all the time.
The sin that pervades our lives flows from these three sources. And we will never be able to dam them or stop them up. And that is scary when we consider the frightening effects that sin has on us.
Sin has four major effects. It brings guilt, shame, slavery and misery on us. These are often expressed differently in the world and in the Christian culture we live in. we know these in our lives, we know the damage they do, we know the misery they cause to us and to others. We need to see how they relate, and then we can grasp how much our sin impacts our lives.
The first effect of sin is guilt. Sin makes us guilty before a good and holy God. God’s verdict is recorded in many places, including the unambiguous conclusion of Romans 3v10, ‘there is no-one righteous, not even one’. We are guilty before God. We have spurned the love of our Father and broken the good laws of our King. We are guilty. And we feel it. Sometimes it strikes us how wicked we are. This comes when we see the hurt we have caused others, often deliberately. We try to avoid our guilt by looking at the worse guilt of others. We feel outrage when we read about the offences of a paedophile and it masks the guilt we feel at our porn habit. But we know that the worse guilt of another does not expunge my guilt. As Christians we are tempted to minimise this to only apply to obvious moral failure, or to sins that I used to fall into but defeated eight years ago.
Our objective guilt, which we sense, is related to shame which we feel before one another. We know that we are wicked, and so we don’t want to be known. We cover up and avoid. We see shame in the first reactions of Adam and Eve when they first sinned:
‘When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.’ – Genesis 3v6-7
We are embarrassed at our sin, so we lie, cover-up, avoid and excuse. This is why genuine community is so hard to find. Sadly it is often hard to find in the church. We have believed the lie that mostly people don’t sin, and if I am the only sinner in church, I’d better not let anyone else know! How much more integrity, openness and love would we enjoy if we simply believed that there is horrendous sin in the lives of everyone? Then I wouldn’t be surprised at your sin, and I wouldn’t need to hide my sin from you.
Sin makes us guilty, and it makes us ashamed. It also makes us slaves. Romans 6v16 says, ‘Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?’
Sin promises freedom from a God who we see as indifferent to us but actually it delivers slavery to a devil who hates us. We are not free to choose our own destiny. Our sinful nature is enthralled to the world, with the devil blinding us to our slavery by telling us that this job, child, house, toy, marriage or whatever will be the one that finally satisfies the desperate longing we are trying to avoid admitting we have. The world knows we are slaves – the language of addiction is applied far beyond those substances that can claim a physical pull on us. Of course it is, because the language of addiction recognises that someone can be enslaved to the gods of sex or shopping. Enslaved to sin.
And slavery to such a cruel master as sin is utterly miserable. That is why we don’t believe that sin can be our fault. It makes me so miserable that it surely can’t be my doing. This is perhaps the cleverest move that Satan makes. He convinces me that I can’t be responsible for bringing such miserable slavery into my life. So my misery cannot be my fault. It must be your fault. You treated me badly, you were unkind, you did not affirm me, and I was tired too.
It must be your fault, or it must be God’s. We cannot speak that, but how often we Christians feel it! You can’t say it in church, but you can shout it into the night. Because we think God should make us happy, and our sin makes us miserable, somehow God must be responsible for our sin.
But he is not. We are guilty and ashamed, enslaved in misery to a master we have chosen. We are sinners. And that is more terrible and terrifying a statement than any other which could be spoken over us.
Or it would be apart from one shaft of light that changes everything: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1v15).
We were sinners, but when Christ came, everything changed.
Jesus saved us from sin in ways that are total, wonderful, multi-faceted and steeped in shining hope. He saved us from the guilt, the shame, the slavery and the misery of sin. And he did so absolutely in a way that makes a real difference to us right now. Let’s taste and see – the Lord is very good.
Jesus saves us from the guilt of our sin. Amazingly, he does this by taking it on himself. Galatians 3v13 says, ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree”’. Jesus was cursed, indeed he became a curse, to carry our curse, our guilt. When Jesus died on the cross, it was the death that we deserved. More than that, he died cursed, hanging under heaven and facing the wrath of God at our sin. He was cut of from the love and goodness of his Father, forsaken by the One whose love had delighted and sustained him through all eternity. He was cut off from God so that we never would be. The Holy Spirit unites us to him, binds us into his death as his bride, his body. He took our sin and all its guilt.
And then he went one further. He did not just take our sin. He gave us his righteousness. Like a poor, debt-laden scullery maid who was married by a rich, good, generous (and probably charming) prince, we don’t only find our debts wiped out, we find ourselves a princess. We receive the righteousness of Jesus.
When the devil waves our guilt before us, we find that his hands are empty. Jesus has taken our guilt and nailed it to his cross. More than that, we can live righteously. Our guilt is replaced by Jesus’ spotlessly bright righteousness and we can live that way. I am no longer controlled by my flesh, the world and the devil. I am filled with the Spirit of Christ and thus given power to live righteously. When I fail, I find my guilt cancelled, and I find fresh power to live out the righteousness which is mine by Jesus’ gift.
It is the same with our shame. We are no longer naked and ashamed. Instead we are given white robes to wear, robes washed in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7v14). Jesus was stripped naked and shamed on the cross, but he scorned its shame because his eyes were fixed on the joy it would bring (Hebrews 12v2). He went to his death with joy. The joy of obeying his Father and the joy of winning his bride. Though they shamed, scorned and mocked him, he was not ashamed. And now he is not ashamed of us. He is not ashamed to call his people his brothers (Hebrews 2v11).
If Christ has taken our shame from us and clothed us in his righteousness, we do not need to fear being known. We are not naked and vulnerable, we are clothed in Christ. We can be honest about our sin because our sin does not define us. It is paid for, gone, destroyed. We are defined by Jesus. We are his bride, his brothers, not sinners cut off from his love. And so our sin loses its power to shame us, if only we trusted each other enough to prove it!
It is the same story with our slavery. Jesus frees us from slavery to sin, but he does so in the most incredible way. Romans 8v15-17 are some of the most striking verses of the Bible:
‘For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’
We are no longer slaves, we are sons. We have been adopted by our Father God into the same relationship that Jesus enjoys with him, the relationship of sonship. This is why we are sons as well as children – not because of a distinction between male or female but to emphasise that we are co-heirs with Christ. We inherit God himself, as his sons, like his Son.
The slavery of sin is powerful, but we can walk in the freedom of the sons of God. We have been set free. We have been adopted. There is power here to break whatever sin you keep falling back into. And even if you don’t break it soon, even if you die with your addiction to alcohol, control, sex or shopping it will end there. You are a child of God and your destiny is to enjoy him day after day in the New Creation forever. There will be perfect freedom then, and now there is hope for that day, and power to suffer for Christ, to flee the world and stand against the devil. This power comes through the Holy Spirit and is found in the church he has formed around Christ.
And that is where we find joy. Sin is so miserable, but when its power is broken we can know the joy of the saved. Jesus was full of joy, the happiest of men according to Psalm 45v7. He saves us to enjoy his love and kindness. We are not sinners, we are Christ’s beloved bride, and our joy springs from the amazing truth that he delights in us. The blood-bought church, who only love God because he first loved us, is the apple of Jesus’ eye. How does your Saviour think of you, sinner? These are the words of the husband in Song of Songs 4v9-10, which he speaks over his bride on his wedding day. They are the words of Christ to his church:
‘You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much more pleasing is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your perfume than any spice!’
John Hindley is an elder of BroadGrace Church in Norfolk, England and a church planter with Acts 29.