The more important a biblical theme is, the more likely it is to be misunderstood, misrepresented, or mangled altogether. Thus going back to basics is never amiss in the Christian life, and that is why I so often return to some of these most fundamental of Christian teachings.
Without a proper understanding of the biblical conception of sin, we will never understand the biblical storyline. The entire Bible depends on a right conception of sin. Indeed, the entrance of sin into the world occurs in the very first book of the Bible, in the third chapter.
In the remaining 47 chapters of this book (Genesis), and the remaining 65 books of the Bible, God is in the process of undoing the effects of sin. Thus to understand the 99.9 per cent of the rest of the Bible, we really had better get right that first small introductory bit.
So we must understand correctly the Scriptural understanding of sin, or we risk emasculating and undermining our entire theological structure. As J.C. Ryle wrote in his classic 1877 volume, Holiness: “A scriptural view of sin is one of the best antidotes to that vague, dim, misty, hazy kind of theology which is so painfully current in the present age.”
And the first thing we must get right about sin is who it is aimed at. Ultimately every sin we commit is a sin against God. Sure, we can and do sin against others, against ourselves, and against our world. But at its very core, all sin is against God.
Until we grasp this most primary understanding of sin, we will never come to grips with what sin is really all about. A classic text here is Psalm 51. This is the famous confession of David after his horrible sins of adultery, murder and deception.
Read what he says in verse 4: “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.” Now did he sin greatly against Bathsheba, Uriah, and Israel? Absolutely.
But above all this was his sin against his God. That is the most heinous sin of all, because of who is being sinned against. A sin against a holy, pure, righteous and perfect God is a sin of incalculable proportions. As bad as every sin is in terms of people hurt and relationships broken, it is the slap in God’s face that is the most odious.
Plenty of Christians throughout church history have reminded us of these truths. Let me here just draw upon some rather recent Christian thinkers, theologians and leaders. Let me begin with American-based New Testament professor D.A. Carson.
Indeed, this article was in part inspired by some quotes found in two brand new books of his which I just purchased. Both had sections dealing with this very theme. In his book, The God Who Is There (Baker, 2010) he offers a popular level overview of the biblical storyline.
In his examination of the Fall he says this: “Genesis 3 does not think of evil primarily in horizontal terms but in vertical terms. When we do think of evil, we tend to think of evil at the horizontal level.” He offers some clear examples of this, such as the Holocaust, and then goes on to say, “But what the Bible most frequently says makes God angry is idolatry. This is evil’s vertical dimension.”
He says similar things in his other new book, Collected Writings on Scripture (Crossway, 2010). In a review of a recent book about Scripture by another major New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, Carson bemoans the fact that in Wright’s portrayal of the Bible’s big picture, there is nothing said about the wrath of God.
Says Carson, “Sin is not first and foremost horizontal, social (though of course it is all that): it is vertical, the defiance of almighty God. The sin that most consistently is said to bring down God’s wrath on the heads of his people or on entire nations is idolatry – the de-godding of God.”
Others have noted this as well. David Wells ties the doctrine of sin together with other major biblical themes in his important volume, God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994). He is worth quoting at length in this regard:
“Without the holiness of God, sin has no meaning and grace has no point, for it is God’s holiness that gives to the one its definition and to the other its greatness. Without the holiness of God, sin is merely human failure but not failure before God, in relation to God. It is failure without the standard by which we know it to have fallen short. It is failure without the presumption of guilt, failure without retribution, failure without any serious moral meaning.
“And without the holiness of God, grace is no longer grace because it does not arise from the dark clouds of judgment that obscured the cross and exacted the damnation of the Son in our place. Furthermore, without holiness, grace loses its meaning as grace, a free gift of the God who, despite his holiness and because of his holiness, has reconciled sinners to himself in the death of his Son.
“And without holiness, faith is but a confidence in the benevolence of life, or perhaps merely confidence in ourselves. Sin, grace, and faith are emptied of any but a passing meaning if they are severed from their roots in the holiness of God.”
Other somewhat earlier writers could say much the same. W. S. Plumer put it this way: “We never see sin aright until we see it as against God…All sin is against God in this sense: that it is His law that is broken, His authority that is despised, His government that is set at naught…Pharaoh and Balaam, Saul and Judas each said, ‘I have sinned’; but the returning prodigal said, ‘I have sinned against heaven and before thee’; and David said, ‘Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned.’”
Oswald Chambers got it right when he said, “The essence of sin is the refusal to recognise that we are accountable to God at all.” And when we lose sight of the main object of our sin, we lose sight of the need to radically deal with our own sin.
As A.W. Pink remarked, “The nature of Christ’s salvation is woefully misrepresented by the present-day evangelist. He announces a Savior from Hell rather than a Savior from sin. And that is why so many are fatally deceived, for there are multitudes who wish to escape the Lake of fire who have no desire to be delivered from their carnality and worldliness.”
Or as Jerry Bridges expressed it more recently in The Pursuit of Holiness (NavPress, 1978) “Our first problem is that our attitude towards sin is more self-centered than God-centered. We are more concerned about our own ‘victory’ over sin than we are about the fact that our sin grieves the heart of God.”
Exactly so. Until we view sin the way God views sin, and until we loathe sin the way God loathes sin, we will see little real movement forward in our Christian life or in the life of the church. But let me conclude with the words of someone far more qualified to speak of such matters than I – Charles Spurgeon:
“Sin is horrible to a believer, because it crucified his Savior! He sees in every iniquity the nails and the spear! How can a saved soul behold that cursed kill-Christ sin – without abhorrence? My soul, never laugh at sin’s fooleries – lest you come to smile at sin itself! Sin is your Lord’s enemy, and your enemy – view it with detestation, for only so, can you evidence the possession of holiness, without which no man can see the Lord.”