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Guilt For Particular Sins

Yesterday at church we met up with some friends who, having just moved to a new community, are looking for a new church family. They have visited at least a half dozen churches in the area seeking one that honors God and, preferably, is close to home. Their search led them to Grace Fellowship Church where my family attends. As my wife and I drove home, and later as we drove to the home of a friend of Aileen’s family, we reflected on churches she and I have visited or attended and the most fundamental problem many of these churches displayed.

As we thought about these things, I was brought back to something I learned about Jonathan Edwards through Marsden’s great biography of the man (click for my review). As anyone knows who has studied the life of Edwards, he dedicated a large portion of his ministry to thinking, writing and teaching about the freedom of the will and eventually published a book by that name. In writing the book he thought back to the days when revival had swept his church, his community and even the wider area. And as he reflected on the individuals who had been swept up in the revival, or those who had made professions of faith in the years following, he realized a fundamental flaw in these professions. “Self-controlled individuals, as he had observed in his parishes for the past fifteen years, would acknowledge guilt for particular sins, but not guilt for their fundamentally rebellious hearts.”

Many of the churches my wife and I visited when we first moved to Oakville, and many of the churches we have attended for longer periods of time, were filled with people who were guilty of this same problem. We know of countless people who admit to sin in their lives and feel guilt and remorse for individual sins, but who seem unable or unwilling to admit the incontrovertible fact that their hearts are in rebellion against God. The Bible tells us in plain terms that we are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners. We do not need to seek forgiveness merely for the sins we commit, but for our fundamentally evil and rebellious hearts—hearts that, in their natural state, hate God and are fully and completely opposed to Him.

Marsden goes on to summarize Edwards’ assessment of this problem. “Guided by conscience, they saw particular sins as failures of will power, which might be overcome by exercising greater self-control.” When sin has been defined only as individual acts, it is possible for humans, even devoid of God’s help, to overcome those evil acts and deeds. A man who explodes in anger or a woman who grumbles against her husband can overcome those sins in their own power. Unbelievers can throw off addiction and poor behavior through an act of the will. But they can never address the heart of the issue. While they may make cosmetic changes, they can never overcome the deeper issues for they can never change their hearts.

Those who profess Christ can do this too. Christians are perfectly capable of overcoming the appearance of sin and the outward manifestations of sin in their own power. They can dedicate great effort and go to great pains to remove traces of sin from their lives. But all the time they may have done this without the aid and assistance of the Holy Spirit. They may never have owned up to their fundamental sinfulness, their natural enmity towards God. They may never feel or acknowledge guilt not only for what they do but for who they are.

Statistics show that many Christians, and most likely the vast majority of Christians, have a worldview that is functionally secular. Many people who go to church every Sunday, who read Christian books and who read their Bibles and pray every day, still think like unbelievers. Their worldview—their way of seeing and understanding the world—is no different from before they claimed to be Christians. As interesting as statistics may be, common sense and good reason show the problem to be severe. Jonathan Edwards, looking to the refusal of the people of his day to own up to their guilt, realized that “the liberal Christianity of the new republic would be built around such moral principles.” Modern day evangelicalism is likewise founded on such moral principles.

A couple of years ago I spoke to the administrator of a church in the area. This person had been a Christian for several years and was active as a leader in the church. Discussing a crime that had happened recently, this person told me, “I just don’t understand how anyone could do that. I don’t understand how anyone could be that bad. I could never be that evil!” As we spoke, I realized that this was a person who knew that he committed sins, and yet one who clearly did not understand his inherently sinful nature. He knew he sinned but refused to believe he was a sinner. Sin is what he did, not what he was. Yesterday my wife and I thought of a couple we know who seemed to become believers, but whose lives did not seem to change at all. They were quickly drafted into service in their church and were soon actively involved in leadership and service. They became members. And yet their lives, including one very obviously and blatantly sinful aspect of their lives, did not change at all. Neither did the church seem to require or expect them to change. They modified aspects of their lives, I suppose, but that fundamental change of heart just never seemed to happen. As of the last time we saw them, they still did not seem to think, act, talk and, in many ways, live like Christians. They knew they sinned but didn’t seem to know that they were and still are sinners.

Here is how Marsden concludes this short section.

Even the most popular evangelicalism of the next two centuries tended to emphasize guilt for and victory over known sins. Although the submission of one’s will to God and a subsequent infilling or baptism of the Holy Spirit typically would be urged as necessary to achieve moral purity, God’s power was most often seen as cooperating with or working through the native powers of the sovereign individual will. While American Christianity in general and evangelicalism in particular came in too many varieties to allow easy generalization, we can at least say that Edwards was correct in identifying a trend toward what he called “Arminianism” in what would become “the land of the free.”

The foundational problem that led to this low view of sin and God’s expectation of holiness was a wrong view of the freedom of the will. People did not realize that their wills are wholly bound by their sinful natures. They felt that they were able, in their own power and through their own freedom, to change their behavior. They may have sought God’s assistance in doing this, but did not rely on His grace and power. God merely cooperated with man’s inherent ability. And sadly, even centuries later, little has changed across a large spectrum of Christianity.

The solution today is the same as it was in Edwards’ day. “People needed to be properly convinced of their real guilt and sinfulness, in the sight of God, and their deserving of his wrath.” Every Christian needs not only to own up to his sin and guilt, but to admit that he is deserving of God’s wrath. No one has properly apprehended God’s grace until he has understood his own sinfulness and knows that he fully deserves God’s just and holy punishment. The evangelical church of our day is a wrathless church—a church that speaks often of God’s love and grace, but rarely of the deepest necessity of this love and grace. The church today needs an infusion of the gospel, the whole gospel, which speaks not only of God’s love, but first of our desperate need of reconciliation. The gospel paints us as we really are—as sinners who sin because of our fundamental guilt, our fundamental hatred of God. Only when we see ourselves as sinners can we truly see Christ as Savior.