Posts Tagged ‘sin’

know_god_1What is the essence of sin?

In some evangelistic presentations it’s all about falling short.  God demands perfection.  We do our best – some more so than others – but none of us reach God’s standard.  And that’s sin.  Essentially.

Within such a framework it seems that the effort to earn salvation is laudable.  What’s sinful is precisely our failure to establish a righteousness of our own.  I hope I don’t need to spell out the problem here!

Other presentations try to go a bit deeper and get to the attitude of the heart.  That’s certainly preferable to a behaviouristic definition.  So in these presentations sin is the rebellious spirit we display towards God.

It’s climbing onto the throne of your life

It’s stealing the crown for yourself

It’s shaking your puny fist in the face of God

It’s saying “Shove off God, I‘m in charge, No to your rule”

self throne

Here sin is basically self-rule as opposed to submission to God.

I’m not doubting for a second that these statements of rebellion describe sinful attitudes.  But are they describing the essence of sin?  Is this what sin is at its root?

Before we think about it theologically, just think of it practically.  Don’t such definitions of sin strike you as quintessentially western?  Don’t they seem particularly aimed at the children of the Enlightenment, rather than the children of Adam more generally?  I mean…

What do you say to the Iranian refugee working his fingers to the bone, sending back every penny to the family, seeking no identity of his own but in constant fear of what his community thinks?

And even in the West…

What do you say to the woman serially abused by the terrible men she invites into her life?

What do you say to the drug addict whose only remaining desire is the hell-bent drive to throw his life away?

What do you say to the down-trodden mother who’s completely lost herself in her family?

What do you say to the self-harmer consumed by self-loathing?

All these people are sinners.  But is their sin best captured by a definition of “self-rule”?  Surely not.

If you want to convict people of sin, “rebellion” will speak to a good number of teens and to many confident, middle class go-getters.  But it completely misses the Muslim, the mother and the meth-head.

So practically “self-rule” doesn’t work as a definition (unless you want to confine yourself to youth work and ministry among western, middle class professionals.  But no-one wants to limit their ministry so narrowly, right?  Right??)

But besides its practical failures, the position is theologically untenable.

To characterise our sin as basically self-rule is far too flattering a picture of human nature.  Biblically speaking we are dominated subjects in Satan’s kingdom (Ephesians 2:1-3).  We are captives in the strong man’s house (Mark 3:27).  We are helpless slaves to sin (John 8:34).  We are whores besotted with terrible lovers (Ezekiel 16).  We are sheep following after bad shepherds (Ezekiel 34).  We are thirsty beggars drinking from broken wells (Jeremiah 2:13-14).  We are lost and must be found (Luke 15). We are snake-bitten and need healing (John 3:14f).  We are dead and need raising (John 5:24f).  We are famished and need Bread (John 6).

Our problem is not that we are little kings and queens, ruling our miniature kingdoms!  Our problem is – as Luther has said – we are beasts ridden either by the devil or God.  We don’t stand between Christ and Adam, sovereignly choosing who we will emulate.  We stand in Christ and/or in Adam.  Our destiny is determined by their choices not ours.  In other words we have not climbed onto the throne of our lives!  Someone is already on the throne – and it’s not us!

It is of course foolish and blasphemous if someone declares themselves the captain of their soul and master of their fate.  But such a “declaration of independence” is not the essence of their sin.  Because in fact no such independence exists.

Our problem, most basically, is not that we are competing sovereigns with Christ.  Our problem is that we are subjects in the wrong kingdom.  Now obviously, some subjects have delusions of grandeur, fine.  But A) let’s not agree with their delusions but unmask their true condition and B) let’s realise that there are many, many subjects who make no pretence of self-rule.  But they share in the same problem and qualify for the same solution.  We are not rulers, we are ruled.  The only question is, By whom?

Think about the beginning and end of the bible: One powerful perspective on the fall is to see it as man’s abdication!  I’m not saying this is my bedrock definition of sin but I can’t help thinking that Adam should have ruled more in Genesis 3.  A kingly edict rather than an impotent silence might have saved us a lot of trouble!

And at the end of the bible, we’re not looking forward to man getting off the throne.  Precisely the opposite.  Salvation involves being invited onto the throne, to rule with Christ (Revelation 3:21).

The “gospel” of submission ends with the challenge “Get off the throne”.  Isn’t it pause for thought that the bible finishes with “Get onto the throne”?

What’s gone wrong with the “gospel” of submission?  Well it begins with a monadic doctrine of  God (more here).  And it continues with a definition of sin as rebellion against the Almighty.  Such a definition doesn’t work practically and it doesn’t work theologically.  Certainly we are rebels. But sin as rebellion will capture only some of our hearers and only part of the story.

In John 16, Jesus actually gives us a definition of sin.  He tells us why His Spirit will convict the world of sin.  What is the bottom line for humanity?

They do not believe in me.  (John 16:9)

The world has not received Jesus (believing = receiving cf. John 1:12).  This is the world’s great evil, for which it is rightly condemned (John 3:18, 36). Humanity has refused the Fountain of Living Waters and, before it has dug any of its own broken wells, it has first refused to receive from the Giving God (Jeremiah 2:13-14).  For more on Jeremiah 2 see here but note that every instance of idolatry is in fact secondary. Originally we forsake Christ’s Gift, then we “look for love in all the wrong places.”

Our great treachery and our great tragedy is our disconnection from God.  In Him we live and move and have our being.  And yet we don’t know Him!  Not naturally.  How can this be!?  How can we be estranged from Him who is our life?  But we are.  We don’t want Him.  We’re dying of thirst, drinking from every other poisonous well in the desert, but refusing His life and love.  This is our problem.  And therefore, having defined our problem thus, the solution should be obvious… We have refused Christ, we must receive Him.  This makes sense once we have defined sin properly.

But if sin is fundamentally “self-rule” then Christ becomes sidelined in salvation.  He may be important for taking the punishment which rebels deserve, but the real work of reversing the sin-problem remains in our hands.  If the problem is self-rule then the solution is submission.  And thus, in this kind of evangelism, the “business end” of proceedings is not Christ and His self-emptying but us and ours.

And the irony is this – when self-rule is defined as the problem we are thrust into the centre of the gospel.  Suddenly, we are not lost, enslaved, needy beggars.  We are bold, self-directed rulers who happen to be misusing our powers.  And so the evangelist treats the hearers as free sovereigns who need to rule wisely.  Now they need to choose salvation rather than damnation.  So the evangelist (maybe) speaks of a redemption by Christ, but it can never come across as the central act.  If the sinner is on the throne then Jesus might command, cajole, and “clear the path”, but He can’t actually do the saving.  It’s all down to the sovereign chooser.  And if they decide to submit we can all praise… um… them.  We can praise them for avoiding the punishment due to rebels.  Of course now they no longer are rebels.  They have made themselves subjects and solved the whole self-rule problem.  All through the exercise of their… um… their self-rule.

The whole position is riddled with contradictions.  You’d think that a “gospel” of submission would attack pride wouldn’t you?  Actually it fuels pride.  Horrifically.  The power of the sinner, their wisdom in choosing, their piety in submitting – all these things come centre-stage when sin is defined as rebellion.  In other words, such a gospel does not exclude but excites “boasting in the flesh”.  And all the while it fails to reach the sinners who know that they are lost – the “sick” for whom the Doctor actually came!

For more on a true definition of sin, see Mike Reeves’ two talks

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From Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Gulag Archipelago

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

From Philip Roth The Human Stain:

“It is in everyone…Inherent. Defining. The stain is there before its mark. Without the sign it is there. The stain so intrinsic that it doesn’t require a mark. The stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all the cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. The fantasy purity is appalling. It’s insane. What is the quest to purify, if not more impurity?”
From the Minnesota Crime Commission, 1926:

“Every baby starts life as a little savage. He is completely selfish and self-centered. He wants what he wants when he wants it — his bottle, his mother’s attention, his playmate’s toy, his uncle’s watch. Deny him these wants, and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness, which would be murderous, were he not so helpless. He is dirty. He has no morals, no knowledge, no skills. This means that all children, not just certain children, are born delinquent. If permitted to continue in the self-centered world of his infancy, given free reign to his impulsive actions to satisfy his wants, every child would grow up a criminal, a thief, a killer, a rapist.”

Miroslav Volf, from Exclusion and Embrace:

‎”Forgiveness flounders when we exclude our enemies from the community of humans and when we exclude ourselves from the community of sinners.”

Russell Brand (thanks Simon)

“All addictions comes from the same root – an inability to cope with some sense of longing and yearning – whether chocolate, sex or drugs… I would say ultimately all addiction comes from the same root… We all have a yearning… All desire is the inappropriate substitute for the ultimate desire to be at one with God.”

Do you have some quotes? Share the wealth in the comments…

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A little confession of mine…

I desire in all things to be effortlessly superior

Of course between effortless and superior there’s a trade-off.

Usually I favour the effortless.

only do what’s easy or what shows me off best.

I serve myself.  Always.  Even when I’m serving you.

I’m entitled – entitled to ease, respect, acclaim, admiration, understanding.

I’m outraged when this sovereign sphere is infringed.


I try to appear better than I am

I need to be right

I enter each conversation with a persona and an agenda

I don’t enter the conversation with me and a servant heart

I rob people of a true heart-to-heart by trying to appear cool/knowledgeable/funny/attractive

If I can’t appear cool/knowledgeable/funny/attractive I’ll withdraw

I’ll give you my talents, knowledge, anecdotes, humour.  I won’t give you me.

The ‘me’ and the persona have become difficult to disentangle anyway.


I’m not a bit player in your story, you’re a bit player in mine.

In my story I am a noble sufferer, a heroic knight, a whimsical comic and a wise sage.

I force myself into this role.  And I will force you to play along with my fantasy.


Your mistakes are crude, mine are complicated

Your mistakes have no excuses, mine have many excuses.  Let me list them…

Your mistakes show your true colours, mine are out of character


If your sins are different to mine, I dismiss you as freakish

If your sins are the same as mine, my inside knowledge makes me dismiss you all the more


I’m devastated by my sins – but only for how bad they made me look (to others and to myself)

I hate myself – but only because I think I deserve better

I’m self-deprecating – but only because it plays well

I’m shy – but only as a cover for real engagement

I’m quiet – but not listening.  Just self-absorbed.


By the way… I desperately don’t want you to know all these things.   So I’ve got to keep you close enough to buy the persona but not close enough to see through it.  In other words, I’ve got to manipulate you.  Constantly.

I have a plethora of warm, witty, charming falsehoods to draw you in.

I have an arsenal of cold, sharp, closed quips to keep you back.

This is my complicated splendour.



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From the very first verse, Job is presented as a blameless and upright man.

The LORD is proud of Job’s matchless virtue (1:8; 2:3).  Job fears God and shuns evil.  And even when calamity falls he does not sin by cursing God (1:22; 2:10).  Instead, through all his laments and complaints, the LORD is still able to conclude in chapter 42 and verse 7 that His servant Job has spoken what is right.

And yet, in the verse immediately preceeding this Job has just said:

I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:6)

Uh-oh, we think.  Someone’s got self-esteem issues!

But no.  In fact Job hasn’t been esteeming himself at all.  He hasn’t been contemplating himself.  This is not the fruit of meditating on his sins or even on his sufferings.  He hasn’t been berating himself because he’s a stupid, fat, ugly, unpopular, awkward, friendless failure.  He hasn’t had a thought about himself for four solid chapters.

Because for four solid chapters he has borne the brunt of the LORD speaking out of the tornado.  Job’s eyes have been dramatically lifted from himself and fixed on this Warrior Creator Commander called Yahweh.  He has experienced the LORD’s unanswerable wisdom in surround sound.  And so in verse 5 Job summarizes exactly where his self-appraisal has come from:

5 My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. 6 Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”  (Job 42:5)

“I despise myself” says Job.  By comparison with the LORD – upright Job falls flat on his face, confesses himself to be a sinner and says “I despise myself”. And that’s a good and right and true and psychologically healthy thing to do.  Not that Job wondered to himself “What would be the correct response to meeting my Maker?” It just came out.  But as it came out it was extremely healthy.

Now there is a wrong despising of self.  There is someone who is not looking at the LORD at all.  Instead they look at themselves.  They are self-absorbed and with their gaze fixed firmly on their belly-button they are despising themselves.  We’ve all been there to some degree or another.  And it’s wrong.  But mainly it’s wrong for where the self-hater is looking.  The object of gaze is the issue – we must get our eyes off ourselves.  Then, when looking to Christ, a true appraisal of self will follow – we are (in Tim Keller’s words) more wicked than we had ever realised but more loved than we had ever dreamed.

So there is a wrong despising of self – it’s when you’re focussed on yourself.

But… there is a right despising of self – when you’re focussed on the LORD.

Isaiah has a similar experience.  In Isaiah 6, he sees Jesus in the temple seated on the throne (cf John 12:30f), high and lifted up, the angels are calling out ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, the temple is shaking, smoke is everywhere and Isaiah cries out:

5 “Woe to me!  I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

Isaiah wasn’t feeling particularly sinful that morning.  He wasn’t running through a list of his prior misdemeanors.  No-one was reminding him of past sins.  Isaiah felt no guilt at all that morning… until he saw the King.  Then he said “Woe to me, I’m ruined!”

Or think of Peter fishing with Jesus in Luke chapter 5.  He’s in the boat with the LORD of Isaiah chapter 6.  And they have a miraculous catch of fish. And Luke 5 verse 5 says:

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”

Peter confesses to being a sinner when he sees the glory of Jesus.  Peter hasn’t just remembered some sins from his murky past.  He’s not even thinking about his sins, he is simply looking at Jesus and saying “I do not match up.”

Of course the ultimate place to look to find a true estimation of yourself is to Christ crucified.  That’s the sinner’s fate.  And that was your death – you died with Christ, the old man crucified.  You will never be able to feel your way towards this verdict.  Preachers, no matter how keenly they focus on individual sins you’ve committed, can’t whip up this sentiment.  And turning to yourself in order to work it up is itself sinful.  Instead I look to the LORD high and lifted up (Isaiah 6:1 <=> 52:13).  I allow the cross to be God’s verdict on me.  I am co-crucified with Christ and therefore reject the old self completely.  And yet

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)

The true and right self-hatred is fundamentally to allow the cross to be God’s verdict on the old you.  And your true and right self-appreciation is not gained by trusting in the new you.  No, the life you live in the flesh you live by faith in the Son of God.  Trust His love for you shown decisively right when you were most hateful.



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I’ve written a little gospel presentation on Emma’s site.  It’s for anyone but I’ve had in mind younger folk who have difficult relationships with food and their bodies.  It’s called Good News for Dark Places.

It’s raised the question in my mind – how do we address the problem of sin with those who might well be very religious and already they are full of self-destructive feelings?

It’s important in any setting – but here it’s particularly vital – to define sin as a failure to receive.  I don’t think you’ll do much good in pastoral settings if you’re not convinced that sin is, at base, not receiving from God.  Let me know what you think…

[I’ve just described the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in loving union]…
This is who the real God is – a community of love and absolute togetherness.  In fact their life together is too good to keep to themselves.  They want to share it with others.

So this God made something else – a world – so that we can share in this life.  We exist so that we can pull up a chair at the table.  The meaning of our lives is to join this Party.

But there’s a problem, and it goes back to our first parents.  Humanity has always said to God: “No, I’ll make it on my own.”

God is a family of love, but we prefer our own company.  God is a fountain of life but we go off and dig for mud.  God is a community of light, and we slink off into darkness.

It’s so easy for us to think of God as a kill-joy.  But this God is not the kill-joy, it’s us.  We are offered the deepest relationship and joy possible but we have refused it.  We close ourselves off and will not receive His love.  This is the essence of our problem – what the bible calls ‘sin’.

Many people think that sin is about doing naughty things – as though it’s basically about what we offer or don’t offer to God.  The Bible has a different take.  God isn’t needy!  He’s the Giver.  So at the heart of it, sin is us refusing to receive from God.  Do you see the difference?  It’s not so much that I’m a bad offerer, I’m a bad receiver.  My problem’s not so much how I perform for Him, my problem is not resting in Him.

Sin is closing ourselves off to the life of God so that now we manage out of our own resources.  And so, as sinners, we’re condemned to live our lives cut off from His life.

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Oh it’s bad.  It’s very bad.  It’s murdering your Maker.  It’s cheating on your Lover.  It’s grieving His Spirit.  It’s tearing apart your soul.  It’s bad.  Bad, bad, bad.

But not receiving forgiveness is far worse.  Failure to accept the grace of Jesus dwarfs all other sins in its monstrosity.  To refuse the vulnerable humility of God; to trample on the Lamb and blaspheme His Spirit as they offer blood-bought mercy and cleansing – this is unspeakable evil.  It’s the reason people perish eternally.

Don’t believe me?  1 Thessalonians 2:10:

They perish because they refuse to love the truth and so be saved.

Those in hell are there for refusal to love the life-saving truth of the gospel.  To sin is one thing.  To refuse forgiveness is itself unforgivable.

Now we know this on a macro level.  We know that eternity does not depend on minimizing sin.  It depends on receiving forgiveness.  We believe it for that Day, but do we believe it this day?  Do I live today as though sinning (or not sinning) is the ultimate spiritual barometer?  Or is my spiritual barometer daily calibrated to the forgiveness of Christ?

Here’s how I naturally assess my Christian walk.  I rate my ‘performance’ largely by how much distance I’ve managed to put between me and my last ‘big sin.’  (Of course it’s ‘big sins’ I’m interested in, if I worried about the little ones my holy-count would never get off the ground).  When the number of ‘sin-free’ days hits double figures I’m doing great.  In fact, once I’m talking in weeks rather than days it rockets me into the righteousness stratosphere.  Best of all, it finally allows me to minister to people from the safe distance of ‘All-figured-out-holiness.’

Of course when I sin it sucks.  Why?  Because I’m back to zero.  My functional righteousness is caput and I’ll have to endure the hassle of a ‘holy’ fortnight before I can feel good again.  If I minister to people it will have to be out of broken messiness and a dependence on the grace of Jesus.  Ewww.

Now that’s a stark way of putting it.  But I don’t think there is a nice way of portraying this mindset.  While ever we pursue the Christian life as though sinning is the worst thing and ‘not sinning is the most important thing’ then such a foul system will develop.   But it’s to entirely forget the gospel.

So friends, perhaps you’ve really blown it recently.  Praise God this could be the opportunity to realize your profound and continual need for the blood of Jesus.  Allow this to teach you the truth – the person you showed yourself to be in your sin is the person you have always been.  It springs from a heart full of evil which you will carry to the grave.  Your only hope lies far above and beyond yourself at God’s Right Hand.  He is your profound and continual need.

Perhaps you blew it a while ago but you just can’t seem to get beyond it.  Friend – the Word of God forbids you to take your sin more seriously than Christ’s forgiveness.  Is your sin great?  Yes.  But is it greater than the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world?   Is it beyond the redeeming value of God’s own blood (Acts 20:28).  I think your sin has met its match in the blood of God, don’t you?

Perhaps you haven’t blown it for a while now but you’re realizing you operate according to a functional righteousness.  You hate sin only because it spoils your ‘holy count’.  You’re proud and graceless.  Well meditate on Philippians 3:1-11.  Know that such ‘righteousness’ is dung and reckon it all as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ.  He alone is your life and peace.

Or perhaps you’re a blogger who writes about grace.  You can dissect the sins of works-righteousness and see through latent Pharisaisms.  Well neither are you righteous for your pithy critiques of the flesh.  You haven’t got it figured out.  If you know anything it’s that you’re ignorant.  If you have any strength it’s only found in your helplessness.  There’s no credit to your insight, there’s only rest in His mercy.  You are nothing.  Jesus is everything.


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Luke 15: Younger Brother sermon here

Luke 15: Older Brother sermon audio here

The world is naturally divided into sinners and slaves.  Sinners seek freedom.  Slaves seek reputation.  And they hate each other.  Sinners think the world would be so much better without the slaves.  Slaves think the world would be so much better without the sinners.  We all exist somewhere along this spectrum.

Jesus comes and says – You’re both wrong.  You’re both wretched.  You’re both equally far from heaven’s banquet.  That’s the meaning of Luke 15.

Jesus comes to bring a new kind of humanity.  Not half-way in between but something else.  Not sinners, not slaves but sons.

Sinners wish God dead by taking His stuff and leaving.
Slaves wish God dead by despising His grace.
Sons are brought from death to life in His embrace.

Sinners are strangers to God in the far country.
Slaves are strangers to God in the field.
Sons are sinners in the Father’s arms.

Sinners seek freedom yet find deeper slavery.
Slaves seek righteousness yet find deeper sin.
Sons seek Christ and find both freedom and righteousness.

Sinners are wretched in their rebellion.
Slaves are wretched in their righteousness.
Sons are wretched in His robes.

Full sermon text below….


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