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Sin: What We Do or What We Are?

As anyone knows who has studied the life of Jonathan Edwards, he dedicated a large portion of his ministry to thinking, writing and teaching about the freedom of the will. And, of course, he eventually published a classic work dealing with the subject. In writing the book he thought back to the days when revival had swept his church, his community and the area around it. 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 became aware of a fundamental flaw in many of 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.”

Little has changed. I have met countless people who consider themselves Christians and 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. And I don’t think we can overstate what a fundamental difference this is! 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 and gleefully and willingly opposed to Him.

In his must-read biography of Edwards, George Marsden summarizes 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 merely as individual acts of the will, 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 because they can never change their hearts.

Those who profess Christ can do the same thing; Christians are also capable of overcoming the appearance of sin and the outward manifestations of sin in their own power. Over the past week Aileen has dedicated a lot of her time to helping a neighbor who is preparing to sell her house. They have been painting the house and it is amazing to see what a fresh coat of paint can do to “clean up” a house. But it is merely a cosmetic change. Underlying issues, structural issues, can be masked for a time, but will show up again if they are not properly dealt with. Similarly, Christians 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.

The evidence proves that many Christians, and most likely the vast majority of those who identify themselves as 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. 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 lax 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 recent and high-profile crime that had been covered by the media, 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. Recently my thoughts turned to a couple we know who seemed to become believers, but whose lives did not seem to show much evidence of true life change. They were quickly drafted into service in their church and were soon actively involved in leadership and service. They were baptized despite highly-visible and unrepentant sin in their lives. They became members. And yet their lives, including this 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 of the book:

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 the will is wholly bound by the sinful nature. They felt that they were able, in their own power and through their own freedom, to change their behavior. They did not understand or care to understand the depth of their depravity. 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. Take a book from the shelf of your local Christian bookstore and you should not be surprised to read that your fundamental problem is not your sinful nature but your individual self-destructive acts.

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 portrays 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. Only when we have identified ourselves as fallen in Adam can we truly and properly identify ourselves as raised up and set apart in Christ.