The Normal Christian Life: A Growing Awareness of Sin

Becoming a Christian, as important as that is, is simply the first step in a very long journey. Jesus did not come to earth, die a horrible death, and then rise again just so that we could be forgiven, as important as that is. He came so that we might be remade in his image.

That is why Christ suffered on a cross for us – not just to forgive us but to remake us. The Christian life is one long work of becoming more and more like Christ as we become less and less like our old self. That is an ongoing work which continues until the day we die. As J. Budziszewski said in The Revenge of Conscience: “Although the forgiveness of sin takes an instant, the cure of the sin-soaked soul is gradual and not complete until heaven.”

Justification is the very first vital step, but things do not end there. Indeed, the conception of justification without sanctification is nowhere found in Scripture. We are justified (made right with Christ) so that we might be sanctified (made like Christ). As Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it, “To divorce forgiveness of sins from the remainder of the Christian life and to regard it as if it were the whole is clearly heresy.”

We are first saved so that we might grow more and more in the image of Christ. That is the goal we all should be pursuing. If that is not your aim then you should well ask if you are in fact really a Christian. The New Testament is quite clear on this. Consider just a few key passages on this:

-Matthew 5:48: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-Romans 8:29: For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
-Galatians 4:19: My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,
-Ephesians 4:13: until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Becoming more like Christ certainly means loving what he loves and hating what he hates. Jesus, the perfect and holy son of God, of course loves righteousness and hates sin. That is exactly what we find in Hebrews 1:9: “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.”

So any genuine growth in Christ must be accompanied by a growth in an awareness and intense dislike of our own sin. When we first became Christians we repented of our sins, agreed with God about them, and received his forgiveness. But that initial conviction of the repellent nature of our sin was only the beginning.

As we grow in grace, holiness and righteousness, we grow even more aware of the horror of sin and the depth of our own rebellion and sinfulness. How can it be any other way? All true followers of Christ know this truth. As C S Lewis perceptively wrote in his classic book, Mere Christianity:

“When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.”

Or as Charles Spurgeon ?said, “You are not mature if you have a high esteem of yourself. He who boasts in himself is but a babe in Christ, if indeed he be in Christ at all. Young Christians may think much of themselves. Growing Christians think themselves nothing. Mature Christians know that they are less than nothing. The more holy we are, the more we mourn our infirmities, and the humbler is our estimate of ourselves.”

And that is exactly what we find with all the great saints, going right back to the earliest followers of Christ. The apostle Paul understood this and experienced it fully. The longer he lived as a Christian, the greater was his awareness of his own sinfulness and decadence.

As he grew more and more like his saviour, he grew more and more discontented with himself, his own righteousness, and his own sinfulness. Consider just three passages from his pen, covering a ten year period. The older and more mature Paul became, the worse he saw his own sinful condition. Consider this sequence:

-“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9 – written in mid-50s).

-“Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,   (Ephesians 3:8 – written in early 60s).

-“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15 – written in mid-60s).

Notice the clear progression here: from “the least of the apostles” to “the least of all God’s people” to the “worst” of sinners. The longer he went on with Christ, the more aware he became of his own sin, and the more it repulsed him. If this was true of Paul and all the great men and women of God throughout church history, should it not be equally true of us?

Should we not also be growing increasingly aware of how horrible sin is – especially our own?  And such a growing disgust of sin is a very good thing, because the more we see the horror of our own sin, the more beautiful the saviour becomes. As ?the great Puritan Thomas Watson wrote in the mid-1600s: “Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.”

Or as J.C. Ryle wrote several centuries later: “Christ is never fully valued, until sin is clearly seen. We must know the depth and malignity of our disease, in order to appreciate the great Physician.” Such a truth led Leonard Ravenhill to say, “There’s one thing we need above everything else; it’s something we don’t talk about these days. We need a mighty avalanche of conviction of sin.”

The church today is largely in such a mess because it has lost a vision both of the holiness of God and the heinousness of sin. The church of Jesus Christ desperately needs to recover both, and to do it quickly, before it is spewed out of his mouth. Well did Spurgeon proclaim:

“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.”

Indeed, three more short lines from Spurgeon are worth closing this piece with:

“O my dear hearers, do ask yourselves whether you have sorrowed for sin because it is sin against God; for any hypocrite is sorry for sin which injures himself, or which may damage his reputation among men; but the essential thing is to be sorry because the evil is a wrong done to God.”

”This day, my God, I hate sin not because it damns me, but because it has done Thee wrong. To have grieved my God is the worst grief to me.”

”If you can look on sin without sorrow then you have never looked on Christ.”

[1383 words]

20 Replies to “The Normal Christian Life: A Growing Awareness of Sin”

  1. I just read this by James Montgomery Boice:

    “It is not merely a question of our being delivered from the law’s condemnation. Christ has delivered us from the law’s power, too. He died to start the process of sanctification and not merely to provide propitiation from wrath. . . . Justification and sanctification always go together, so that you cannot have one without the other. . . . According to Romans 8:3-4, sanctification is the very end for which God saved us.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  2. You’re absolutely right, Bill. There’s nothing more repugnant that one who claims to be a Christian and tries to use God’s grace and forgiveness as an excuse to go on sinning.

    It is absolutely repulsing, not only that they can believe this, but that it is sometimes even taught by those who are meant to be shepherds to our souls.

    Thank God that there are still ministers that take their jobs seriously. I just pray that the hirelings would be revealed for what they truly are.

    Mario Del Giudice

  3. Like this one Bill,
    I never looked at Paul like that, but I do now.
    This may be funny to some, but when I tell people I’m an idiot, I mean it. They look funny at me and then try to encourage me in ways like, hey don’t say that about yourself?
    I then say but seriously I am a complete fool, if it wasn’t for God, I’d be dead.
    It’s that simple.
    Daniel Kempton

  4. Dear Bill, The first quote you used from Matthew Chapter 5 may be debated by some Christians. It is a direct quote from Leviticus. Some translations of the Bible state “Be ye holy as I the Lord your God am holy”.
    Yours with best wishes, Franklin Wood

  5. Thanks Franklin

    While it certainly is an echo of Lev. 19:2, it is not a direct quote of it. It is just as likely to be an echo of or allusion to Deuteronomy 18:13: “You must be blameless before the Lord your God”. The word for ‘blameless’ in the Septuagint of Deut. 18:13 is the same word Jesus used in Matt. 5:48: teleios.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. Great exhortation Bill!
    The beauty of confessing sin is a greater experiential awareness of what Christ did for us. Not recognising or confessing our sins is a sign of being in darkness. I personally find that confessing at the end of the day, even my little worries, gives me a renewed confirmation of that sanctifying work of the Spirit. It is such a blessing to taste Calvary’s victory for us each day. For freedom He came to set me free.
    Thanks Bill for reminding us of this subject.
    Evangeline Rykes

  7. Thanks for your refreshing words, Bill. I think that without dwelling on the holiness of God we will always minimise sin and its consequences. Sad that many people who are christian in name (and even in their own minds) happily crucifying Christ again and again, heaping more sin onto Him.
    He died because sin matters to God and God’s judgement is deserved by us all. That’s what’s so amazing about grace. When you know how much you are forgiven, you love Him so much you are extra careful to try to stay in His way. To recoil from being responsible for dragging His name down into the mud by our hedonistic pursuit of selfish gains. To be grieved that we might deter unbelievers who are watching to see if we ‘walk the talk’ or discourage other fellow believers by our foolish behaviour. Jesus’ reputation aside, even hidden sin hurts him. All will be laid bare on that great Day. The laws of sowing and reaping will prevail. We all need this reminder.

    Lesley Wall

  8. Said like a scholar Bill you have put into words what most of us have always felt. I fear we are on the road to no return. Only God knows who is going to pay the price for the ungodliness we are plunging into.

    Patrick Brahams

  9. So true;
    And the great thing is, the more I find out how pathetic I really am, and how sin-prone, and the more I “wake up” for my sin-slumber, the more relief I have that God actually likes me. It makes it so SECURE. The only response is “what can I do for You God?”
    Another way to look at it; a real Christian is quick to admit they are rotten to the core (in themselves), but a fake will defend themselves like crazy.
    I know I am thoroughly useless myself, but that is exactly why it is GOOD news! God actually likes me! ANd staying in that attitude – on purpose – makes holiness more natural.

    P.S.
    Paul’s list of quotes could have been made even more dramatic – (except that it might rev up the anti-Pauline conspiracists);
    E.g.
    “For I consider that I am not at all inferior to the most eminent apostles”. 2 Corinthians 11:5

    So he was a human. Fine. It’s still God’s Word. It’s better that way because without Paul the murderer, the average ratbag would feel disqualified and think the disciples/apostles were a bunch a goody two-shoes; like Peter who had “never eaten anything unclean”. Sheesh.

    Tim Lovett

  10. Hi guys, I am not a scholar or anything but I just wanted to add that I have become so aware of my own sinfulness lately that it sickens me…reading what you have written and also what Spurgeon wrote, helped me tonight. Thanks
    P.S. I have also noticed that as my love for Jesus grows, sin seems way more ugly!

  11. Dear Sir:
    Just this morning, I was convicted of how for most all my life, I have ignored Gods Word even in my so-called “Christian” life. I have gone to the Lord to confess my sin of hypocrisy, rebellion, deceitfulness and refusal to hear and obey. I had asked the Lord why it has taken me sooo long to see all this and I put my question into my search engine and this article popped up. God used your writing to reveal the answer and Spurgeon’s writings are my favourite to reveal truth to my soul. Thanks be to God for His Grace and Mercy to such as people like myself–a brand plucked from the fire.

  12. Hi thanks its good to know there are Christians out there with views like mine with awareness of the depth of sin.
    I have noticed that many Christians seem to struggle with forgiveness of self and others like me.
    I do struggle with forgiving someone I am angry with.
    I have found it easier to forgive myself when consciously aware of sin as long as I accept Christ forgiveness at the end.
    The worlds therapy seems to focus on the superficial (cognition) but Gods therapy is to the depth of our hearts and I thank God so much for letting me know.
    Love to you all and God Bless.

  13. Hello – great article! I have recently been coming back to the Lord after battling with drug and alcohol problems – I’m not entirely clean but progressing nonetheless – which is how I discovered article (I was researching articles on progressive sanctification). Anyway, your last few lines really made me think – typically when I sin (use drugs), I feel guilt and shame and disgust over consequences – so upon reading this, I realized that I need to know why I feel that way – for me or for God? Thankfully it is ultimately for God, and my inability to serve him fully if I am constantly sinning.
    God bless your ministry!

  14. bill, you may agree. you may not, i only stumbled across your site because of an occasional fall into drug use that is deadly. i come out hating myself for i have not only sinned against the lord but against others with my selfish choices
    i am not a fan of total depravity for there are some that suggest we dont have a choice. i have noticed when i dont see myself as clean before the lord and concentrate towards how depraved i am i seem to give up and fall. as i said you dont have to agree with me but i cant live with a calvinistic mindset, it nauseates me
    thank you

  15. Thanks Tom. Of course I did not say a word about Calvinism in my article – I simply quoted a lot of Scripture, and some great saints of God. But let me offer a few thoughts if I may:
    -The doctrine of total depravity simply means that all of our being is impacted by sin. That happens to be fully biblical. And it has nothing to do with saying we don’t have choices.
    -That Christians who grow in grace see themselves as still sinful because they see more and more of the holiness of God is also fully biblical.
    -That some Christians cannot forgive themselves or see that Christ has already forgiven them (providing we agree with God and repent of course) has nothing to do with Calvinism or things like total depravity. It just means they have issues that they need to deal with.
    But I will pray for you as you continue with Christ and grow in his grace. Bless you.
    PS – Oh, and I used to be a druggie as well.

  16. I agree that we must be aware of sin and its consequences. But we must understand that we have victory over sin because of what God has done for us in our new birth and what He continues to do as we abide in Christ.

    Please read the book “Birthright” by David Needham to get a deep Biblical understanding of our new nature and how we can keep from sin.

  17. Hi Bill. I’m new here and recently visited your site. I’m grateful you have written this article. That passage of Paul was illuminating. The Americanized Gospel has sold us the illusion that Christians are full of joy and wonders and that they are the happiest beings and most fulfilled. But that’s not true. We struggle every day, we stumble and continually have a growing hate of ourselves, and the culture tells us that we are fine or that hating ourselves is not healthy and we need psychological help for hating our own nature. We may be joyful in the sense that we have a future hope, but we struggle nonetheless. This sin nature of mine needs to die and I can’t wait for the Resurrection.

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