There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
What interest there is today in the science of human behaviour. There is a specialised vocabulary which is often used to express man’s assessment of the lifestyles of men and women. The Marxist speaks of ‘alienation’ and the existentialist of ‘inauthentic existence’ and the Greens’ concept is of ‘ecological neglect.’ We are even more familiar with the concepts of immorality, and inappropriate behaviour, and crime. These and other words and phrases are used by men to express their own evaluations of their fellow men and their actions.
Now if we turn to Scripture we would find that there is a tremendous concern in the Book to understand human behaviour, and to pass judgment on it, and diagnose it, and describe certain remedies for it. Yet Scripture doesn’t talk of ‘inauthentic existence’ and ‘psychological self-abuse.’ It doesn’t speak of harassment and crime. It speaks broadly in terms of one great word, the word ‘sin.’ Perhaps it is at such points that man’ assessment and the Biblical assessment diverge most radically the one from the another. The world’s scientists, and psychiatrists, and social workers and politicians know nothing of sin, but in the word of God it is sin that above all is important.
This difference in vocabulary expresses a more radical difference. It is a difference in posture and attitude. It is a difference in the standards applied, because all our human sciences of behaviour assess men and women in terms of human norms.
We have our own classification, and our own chosen human categories. We assess men in terms of these, the ‘normal’ and the ‘abnormal.’ By those standards we come to make moral evaluation. We are concerned again only with a creature’s standards, with the moral consensus and with social approbation, with what is practical and with the voice of the conscience of a particular age or place.
Scripture comes with a wholly different point of view. It looks at human life not in terms of human standards but in terms of one great norm, in terms of the law of God. It weighs and measures by that standard alone, and it is in terms of those balances, in terms of God’s absolute and eternal balances, that it passes its own judgment on human behaviour. Now sin is not primarily a violation of conscience; it is not a violation of the social consensus; it is not a violation of the expedient or the practical. It is a violation of the law of God.
- HOW SIN IS DESCRIBED IN THE BIBLE.
There are a number of different words in the Scriptures used to define sin.
i] Sin is to miss the target. The one target before all men has been created and set up by God. It is to glorify God and enjoy him. It is to become conformed to his will. The old archer trains his son to hold the bow and draw the string, and keep his arm straight and pull back the string to touch his nose, and look down the arrow at the target, judge the direction and strength of the wind and fire. So the target God sets for man is to love him with all our hearts, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Scripture says that every human life has missed that target. No one has hit the bull’s eye.
ii] Sin is lawlessness. “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness” (I Jn.3:4). We have been created to live a theonomous existence, but men choose to live an autonomous existence. They make their own laws; the law of the cannibal; the law of the tyrant; the law of old unchallengeable traditions. They are all lawless when set besides God’s law.
iii] Sin is transgression. In other words the commandments of God are like ten boundary posts, beyond which we may not trespass. They are a great line of demarcation and beyond them there is a total exclusion zone. They say, “Have no other gods but the Lord; don’t make for yourself idols and worship them; don’t take God’s name in vain; remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy; honour your father and mother; don’t do violence against anyone; resist every form of sexual sin; do not steal or lie or covet.” Within the borders spelled out by those commandments we are to live our lives, but all men and women have crossed the line. They have wandered from the path. They have trespassed in forbidden territory. They have broken through the barriers many times.
iv] Sin is unrighteousness. The righteous God loves righteousness. He spoke to our first parents and gave the norm to them of lives honouring him their Creator in a holy way. God has spoken and he says, “Enjoy my creation. I give you all things richly. But remember there is forbidden fruit.”
God has the right over his creatures to determine that those he sustains should also obey, not defy, but alas we hear the constant human response of “No! I’ll do it my way.”
This is the meaning of our text, this very familiar and very simple assertion that all men and women everywhere have sinned. Every life misses the target; every life is a lawless life; every life transgresses; every life is unrighteous. Then there are the striking images of sin in the Bible that help to bring our emotions under this truth. Sin is a stony heart; sin is a stiff neck; sin is blindness; sin is an indelible scarlet stain; sin is a beast crouching at the door; sin is stinking clothes; sin is a limp; sin is a parasite.
What then are the peculiar emphases of sin? What are the characteristic teachings of Scripture? Let us proceed to look at the dynamics and inter-faces of sin.
2. SIN IS SOMETHING INWARD.
Of course there are obvious, actual, visible, concrete sins. When men think of sin then it is customary that they think particularly of sexual misbehaviour, or they think of abduction, or murder, or violence, or theft. It is always so external. Men are concerned about their actions, and about observable human conduct and of course that is immensely important, but the Bible is much more rigorous.
Scripture looks not simply at what is outward and what is in your face. It goes in and in, right into the depths of human life. It says that sin is there also, not just in our words and actions but in our thoughts and in our ambitions, in our desires and imaginations, in our aspirations and judgments. The Lord Jesus said that sin wasn’t so much what was taken into the body, in what people ate – say, unclean food with unwashed hands – but what came out of their hearts. That is what defiled a person. The anger and jealousy and greed and unbounded ambition and envy and lust and hatred that all simmer in men’s hearts – that is what defiles people.
The Lord Christ said that in man’s heart the real problem lay. It is not only human actions that are unrighteous and lawless. It is not just that human speech has missed its target. It is the human heart. You can parallel so many of the ten commandments from contemporary moral codes. You can examine all the world religions and find many of the great emphases of the moral law there, and yet there is one thing that is virtually peculiar to Scripture and it is this – “Thou shalt not covet.” Coveting is the restless, aching, longing itch for something that belongs to another. It is the envy we feel for another’s possessions. There is the resentment that such a thing is not yours. There is the accompanying bitterness and unhappiness at what you cannot have.
Do you see that the Bible is not looking simply at what we say, or at what we do. It is going right down into the well-springs of human behaviour. It tells us that covetousness is a sin. It might never lead to sinful speech. It may never lead to any action, but it is the sinful desire that God has forbidden. It is illegitimate itch for something else. It may never speak; it may never register by a flicker on your face.
It may never in human history injure another human soul, and yet the desire itself is sin. Not only the sinful action or the sinful word, but it is our sin if it is at all tolerated in our hearts.
I think we are inclined too much to think that as long as we can keep the lid on sin, and it doesn’t speak, and it doesn’t act that then it is not sin. But the Bible says that the very desire to sin is sin. Illicit lust, inordinate desire is itself sin, because sin is something inward. Think of our Lord’s explanation of the meaning of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” He broadens its meaning beyond the command not to do injury to a person physically and cruelly. It doesn’t just refer to muggings, and domestic violence, and assaulting a man in the street. Its meaning isn’t exhausted in manslaughter and murder and assassination. It also refers to hatred. The Lord Jesus says the commandment embraces anger. The malicious thought, the vituperation spoken under your breath as you turn away, we may keep the lid on all that well of iniquity, and yet inside we may be burning with all kinds of malice and different forms of hostility to another. Yet there are the constraints of respectability and criminal law and these may be preventing any outburst of that hatred into physical action. Yet, says Christ, to be angry is a sin. To be contemptuous of someone is a sin.
Our Lord does the same thing with adultery. It isn’t a question of the actual act. Again it’s a question of the unlawful desire, maybe it’s the desire for someone of the same sex as you are. It’s a question of lust, and longing which might never express itself in a word or a touch and yet it exists in our hearts. These, say Christ, are sinful in and of themselves.
So we’ve got to say to ourselves that sin is not simply a matter of words; it is not only our actions. It is also a matter of what lies in the depths of our own hearts. The young people can take notice of this because very often they lack the physical strength to express their sin in action, and it is so tempting to think that it is exclusively the actual deed. It is not. It is a sin to covet, the sin of never being satisfied with what we’ve got, the heart that says constantly, “More . . . more . . . more . . . more!” It is always crying for more, and that is my sin. The heart that is angry; the heart that is hateful; the heart that is malicious, and these are only inside ourselves, and we have to learn to go to God and confess them, not simply that we have done sinful things, and said sinful things but to confess, “Lord God, I have had sinful thoughts, and had sinful ambitions, and sinful longings.”
Yet we must press even further, and go into the whole realm of our emotional lives. How much there is in that area of human life which psychologists acknowledge has its own tensions, and how much is there in our affections that is deranged. How much sinful anxiety? How much sinful discouragement? How much sinful paranoia is there? There’s the feeling that we are being persecuted, and the feeling that people don’t think of us as highly as they ought to think. How much sinful withdrawal from reality are we ourselves guilty of? How often do we react excessively emotionally to situations? How much do we react insufficiently emotionally to other situations? We can look at violence, and we can hear of tragedy, and we can refuse to be moved as we ought to be, and that is as sinful as the unbounded sorrow and depression with which we sometimes meet personal difficulties. We are often guilty of an extreme which is the opposite of an excess, that our hearts do not break when they ought to break, and that is as sinful as the heart that breaks when it ought not to break. So we have this tremendous emphasis upon sin as something inward, sin not simply of words and deeds but of the heart, and the intention, and the desire, and the emotion, and the aspiration. And then there is another emphasis . . .
3. SIN DOMINATES OUR LIVES.
Sin is a dominating authority over us. Two metaphors; we are its prisoners; we are its slaves. This is what Paul says in Romans 6 and verse 16, “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?” Or again he says this in Galatians 3:22, “the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.” There is no moment when we are freed from the lordship of sin over us. There is no act, and no area of human life in which does not affect us.
Think of the slave. He was not a slave from 9 to 5 just five days a week with a month’s holiday every year. He was his master’s property. That slave had no time of his own, no property of his own, no talents of his own and no wealth of his own. There was not a moment in which he could say, “This is my own time.” There was never such a moment. He was always his master’s possession. His every hour, and all his talents, and what he possessed was all his master’s. Paul tells us that we are slaves of sin. Sin is our master and he lords it over us. He plays the king. Sin is in control. He is a merciless despot.
There was once a circus performer who had a boa constrictor in a basket, and he would give a command and the snake would come out of its basket and circle itself round and round the man from head to toe. Then at another command it would unwind itself and return to its basket. But one day the performer gave the boa constrictor the command to unwind and return to the basket, but it did nothing, but rather tightened its muscles more and more and it choked the man to death. That is sin; we imagine we are in control of our thoughts and feelings but sin lords it over us, and one day it will show whether we are the free men we boast about, doing things our way or whether we are slaves to sin, and it will in time destroy us. The wages of sin is death. Sin is in control while giving us the impression that we are free men, making our own free choices in saying no to God.
Sin is giving us the orders for each day, and sin says, “Again today I don’t want you to think about God. Ignore him. Ignore his Son, and ignore his Word. When his people try to talk to you about him then change the subject. Don’t trust in Jesus Christ. Do not pray. Think that everyone’s opinion is on the same level,” and you obey your master because you are a prisoner to sin.
It is the most staggering concept and the most tremendous shock to our complacency. That our decisions are under the influence of sin, and even our silence and our talents and our actions and every facet of our personalities are slaves to the one we obey. And I would ask myself, do I accept this? In my human self-confidence and pride, that tremendous word of prophetic denunciation that my righteousness is as a filthy rag, that even when I do good works that I do them as a prisoner of sin. Sin is in me, and I am in sin, and sin controls the direction, and disposition of my whole life.
4. SIN AFFECTS EVERY PART OF ME.
That has been the theme that Paul has expounded in the earlier part of this chapter, when he goes through our organs of sight and speech and thought. Every part has been affected. As a totality we are contaminated. No organ and no disposition are unaffected. When God scrutinises and puts me under his microscope or takes a scan of me then sin is found everywhere lighting me up like a Christmas tree. Nowhere is there any original righteousness. I would say again, isn’t that immensely offensive? Can I accept that in my pride? That I am corrupted in the whole of my nature? Yet that is the insistence of God’s word that the whole head is sick and the whole heart is faint and no area of life has escaped.
Let me remind you of the human intellect. “Well,” we say, “surely that’s escaped.” Yet there, perhaps above all, we serve sin. The history of science is full of examples of men imposing their own prejudices and views and interpretations on brute factuality. I have just been reading a new biography of Charles Darwin by Paul Johnson. Darwin’s views of women, and of non-white races, were deeply prejudiced and they had mighty influence for ill in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Let’s remember that even our powers of observation and of logical deduction and analysis have suffered from sin. Let us remember that there is no such thing as an unbiased mind, and no such thing as neutral observation because sin has destroyed and impaired our logical powers. It has impaired our powers of estimation and calculation and removed the whole possibility of impartiality. Every human mind is prejudiced. Every human mind is anti-God, it is ungodly and unholy. Paul has shown how man can look at God’s creation and he will scorn the truth that God made the heavens and the earth because unregenerate minds are unrighteous. They suppress the truth and distort it. They wrest it to their own destruction.
I am saying that we have to lay the axe to the root of our own pride of intellect, and our glorying in our contemporary world, and all man’s scientific achievements, and remind ourselves that there at the very heart of human logic and at the basis of human experimentation and verification, in our very acts of observation, there too we are servants of sin.
You protest, “But hasn’t the human conscience escaped?” No, says the New Testament. They will take the Lord Jesus and they will crucify him in conscience. They will torture him to death on theological grounds. They will kill him and think they are doing God service. They will persecute and harass and torment the members of his church. It is religious people in Sudan today, not secular people, who have condemned a woman to 100 lashes and to being stoned to death for professing her faith in Jesus Christ. They are doing that in conscience and they believe that God is pleased with them and they believe that because the light that is in them – that light is darkness. Conscience is no safe guide. Conscience is depraved. The abominations of mankind’s religions are conscientious abominations. I say that our intellects are sinful and our consciences are sinful.
Perhaps most of all, our wills are slaves to sin. You will remember that Paul said that the good that he would do he didn’t do. He had a certain desire, some appreciation for what was good, but he had no strength of will (no ‘will power’ we say), no resolution in terms of some projected enterprise, to carry it out. The will is weak; the will is a prisoner of sin. Man’s greatest problem is the bondage of the will. You have our Lord’s tremendous word again, “I would have gathered you, and I pleaded with you, but you would not.” You said, “We will not be gathered.”
You remember today the reason why we are not all Christians. We can come from Christian homes and have the most marvelous Christian people in our families but we are not ourselves Christians. We have the audacity sometimes to think that this is God’s fault, because he hasn’t given us a certain experience and that is why we are ‘unconverted.’ We are waiting to get ‘conversion’ like getting a cold. God’s perspective is this; “whosoever will may come” and you have been unwilling to come. It is not ignorance of the gospel that today is keeping you from Christ. It is not the lack of a warrant to come. There is a free invitation and a command to repent and to come to the Saviour. It is not that you have no right to come. It is quite simply that you will not. It is entirely a matter of the will, because that is the citadel of the soul and that is where sin reigns in you and that is where you tolerate it reigning. So sin is inward, and it lords it over our lives, and it affects every faculty of our beings.
5. THE WAGES OF SIN IS DEATH.
In other words, if you are serving sin then sin will be sure to give you wages for what you have done. It will repay you and it pays in the deadliest of terms. It kills you. There is always a relationship between sin and death. You sow the seed of sin and you reap the harvest of judgment. You sow a wind of unbelief and you reap the whirlwind of destruction. You sin and you answer, because there is not only the sowing, there’s the harvest. There is always the problem of the wages, an imminent and looming problem, the moment when the bill comes in and there is an account to be rendered. The wages of sin is death. It is not that you sin and you pay for it. No. Sin itself pays you wages and they are death. The solemn fact of our own decease, unavoidable and absolutely certain. It is appointed unto men once to die, and beyond that the judgment, the evaluation of our lives.
And beyond that there is that solemn and awesome reality called in the book of Revelation, “the second death.” It is described as a lake that burns with fire and brimstone, a place which is the cesspool of the universe, that appaling cosmic incinerator into which on the great day God will gather all the refuse of the world and there will be the bonfire of the vanities. It is the place where the false prophet is and the dragon and the beast is and where everyone will be unless he deals with his sin. I am not going to analyze it for surely the symbol is eloquent and moving enough.
It is the place where their torment ascends day and night for ever and ever. That is the logic of sin. That is the divine response to persistent impenitence and final disobedience. There is a day of reckoning when God comes and delivers the account of sinning to us.
6. WHAT DOES GOD THINK OF SIN?
God condemns sin, actual sins, original sin, external sin, inward sin, sin in the root, sin in the faculties. God is not indifferent to sin. He doesn’t shrug at the torturer and the rapist and the poisoner. Have you ever gathered together some of the great biblical statements and descriptions of sin? We evangelical Christians are notorious because we are preoccupied apparently with depravity, and yet the most appalling utterances about sin are not found in John Bunyan or Jonathan Edwards or Spurgeon. They are found in Scripture. The most horrific phraseology and the most disgusting pictures are there. Have we ever pondered what human society is like in God’s sight? It is like a herd of swine wallowing in the mire. It is like a pack of dogs eating their own vomit. Isn’t that utterly disgusting? Just imagine if John Calvin had said that. Yet it was Jesus of Nazareth who said that.
What is human society like? It is like a pit full of writhing snakes with venom in their mouths. What is it like? Isaiah the greatest writing prophet tells us. It is like a man covered in boils and ulcers, from the crown of his head to the sole of his feet there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores that have not been bound up nor mollified with ointment. You cannot bear to look at this man and yet that man is a picture of human society. What is it like? Again the book of Revelation will tell you. It is as if the bottomless pit were opened, and stinking smoke of hell in all its depravity poured out and obscured the sun and the light and a great pall of darkness hung over the human race.
You want to verify it? Those disgusting pictures and words, those sickening phrases, do they go too far? You look at Western Civilization with its allegedly Christian foundation and its biblical veneer, and ask again what is the record of that civilization. You ask what it did to those it judged to be nonconformists and theological heretics? What did it do to children in the factories and down in the mines? You ask what it did to the African, those men who whipped their slaves as they went to church and they sang from the psalter. What did it do to the Jew? It wasn’t the sin of savages. It was the sin of men who sang the hymns of Martin Luther. It was the sin of scientists and doctors and affable family men who gave gifts at Christmas. That is sin. You read your papers this week and you will see how men treat men, and men treat women, and men treat children, and men treat animals. And not one word is to be spoken in its defence because if there is then we stand where the depraved stand and where the godless ultimately stand, if we are fascinated by them or gripped by them. If we secretly think, “Lucky dog!”
I have reminded you of our history in the western world, but there is another history that men will not write about. There is my history, and my life, and my file and yours. What do I mean? Am I cautiously agreeing with God, yet saying, “Yes, but . . . yes but.” Will I dare say it? “Yes, but . . .” Every mouth is to be stopped and the whole world lies guilty before God; my actions, my words and my thought life. By our own lives we are condemned. I did those things. This body. This brain. This soul. I don’t need to look at the monster figures that people like to hate. I know my own record, I am acquainted with it. My only plea . . . “I’m so sorry. Have mercy Lord. O Lord forgive.”
The only way to deliver man from the wags of sin and reconcile him to God was the coming of the eternal Son of God into the world, his adding to himself frail flesh and blood, born of a virgin, dwelling amongst men. He preached the Sermon on the Mount and displaying his extraordinary signs and wonders, and serving and giving his life a ransom for many. He was the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world. There was no other way, because that is who God is. Grace always comes to us with blood on it.
The Son of God became incarnate and freely and lovingly took the guilt and shame of sin, such sin, in his own body on the cross and he took it into the grave and he did it as our substitute. He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. All we like sheep had gone astray, we had turned every one to his own way, and the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. He did not impute their trespasses to them but to the Son of his love. God delivered him up to the anathema for us all. We are spared because he was not spared. We go at last to heaven saved by his precious blood. That was the only way we could be saved from sin and the consequences of our indefensible lives.
So how do you plead today? “Guilty. Lord cover my life.” That’s all, and can we get away for ever from excusing our sins, and attempting to explain them, and plead some rationale, and suggesting to God that if he only knew all the circumstances he would know that we were justified in behaving the way we did. Can we get back to what is the only acceptable plea, that every mouth is stopped . . . every single one, and when at last God gives me permission to speak what does my mouth cry out? “I abhor myself.” Yes I abhor those who crucified the lovely Son of God, but that’s not enough. I abhor those who would stone a woman to death for being a Christian. It’s not enough. I say to God before the glory of his throne. I abhor myself. And have we ever got to that point when we morally abhor ourselves? “Wash me, even me. Make me whiter than snow, in Jesus’ name.”
15th June 2014 GEOFF THOMAS