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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On Recovering the Reality of Sin

Jan 9, 2017

There was a time when everyone pretty much knew they were dirty rotten scoundrels. Of course back then most people had at least a vague belief in God as well. Today in the West we tend not to believe in either. We tend to believe that we are pretty decent folks, and that there is no God – at least no God who would make any moral demands on us, or hold us to any lofty standards.

We have either jettisoned God altogether, or remade him into our own image. That non-Christians would think and act this way is of course not surprising. What is surprising – and fully unacceptable – is that so many Christians now think and act this way.

sin-7And it is coming right out of our pulpits as well. Indeed, one can almost make this formulation: the larger and more popular a church is, the less likely you will hear about sin (and all the corollary teachings, such as wrath, judgment, hell, the need of repentance, etc) from the pulpit.

The sad truth is, some of the biggest churches in the West are those where you will least be likely to hear anything about sin. You will hear a lot about how terrific you are and how you are entitled to have your best life now. You will be promised all the goodies of life: fame, fortune, health and wealth, but you will hear next to nothing about the basic biblical truth that you are a sinner on the way to a lost eternity unless you repent and turn from your wicked ways.

The disappearance of the vocabulary of sin and related biblical truths is resulting in millions of people – all good church goers – likely heading to hell. Putting it quite simply, a church in which sin and repentance are not preached is not a true church of Jesus Christ.

But this is not a problem particular to the 21st century. It has been a huge worry for quite some time now. In fact, many decades ago it was being warned against by various Christian leaders. One of them was C. S. Lewis who discussed this very matter in various places.

Let me draw your attention to two of his main writings on this. The first is an essay he penned back in 1948 called “Difficulties in Presenting the Christian Faith to Modern Unbelievers”. We know it today as “God in the Dock” from a collection of his essays with the same title.

Says Lewis:

The greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin. This has struck me more forcibly when I spoke to the R.A.F. than when I spoke to students: whether (as I believe) the Proletariat is more self-righteous than other classes, or whether educated people are cleverer at concealing their pride, this creates for us a new situation. The early Christian preachers could assume in their hearers whether Jews, Metuentes or Pagans, a sense of guilt. (That this was common among Pagans is shown by the fact that both Epicureanism and the Mystery Religions both claimed, though in different ways, to assuage it.) Thus the Christian message was in those days unmistakably the Evangelium, the Good News. It promised healing to those who knew they were sick. We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect them to welcome the news of the remedy.

He continues:

The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.

Lewis dealt with this same topic some years earlier in his hugely important work, The Problem of Pain, which first appeared in 1940. In it he has a chapter on “Human Wickedness”. He begins by noting how hard it is to present this core biblical truth to modern men:

When the apostles preached, they could assume even in their Pagan hearers a real consciousness of deserving the Divine anger. The Pagan mysteries existed to allay this consciousness, and the Epicurean philosophy claimed to deliver men from the fear of eternal punishment. It was against this background that the Gospel appeared as good news. It brought good news of possible healing to men who knew that they were mortally ill. But all this has changed. Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis—in itself very bad news—before it can win the hearing for the cure.

He looks at various causes of this and then goes on to say:

A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity. Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of His to be true, though we are part of the world He came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom His words are addressed. We lack the first condition for understanding what He is talking about. And when men attempt to be Christians without this preliminary consciousness of sin, the result is almost bound to be a certain resentment against God as to one always inexplicably angry….

When we merely say that we are bad, the “wrath” of God seems a barbarous doctrine; as soon as we perceive our badness, it appears inevitable, a mere corollary from God’s goodness. To keep ever before us the insight derived from such a moment as I have been describing, to learn to detect the same real inexcusable corruption under more and more of its complex disguises, is therefore indispensable to a real understanding of the Christian faith. This is not, of course, a new doctrine. I am attempting nothing very splendid in this chapter. I am merely trying to get my reader (and, still more, myself) over a pons asinorum – to take the first step out of fools’ paradise and utter illusion.

He finishes the chapter with these words:

I have been trying to make the reader believe that we actually are, at present, creatures whose character must be, in some respects, a horror to God, as it is, when we really see it, a horror to ourselves. This I believe to be a fact: and I notice that the holier a man is, the more fully he is aware of that fact. Perhaps you have imagined that this humility in the saints is a pious illusion at which God smiles. That is a most dangerous error. It is theoretically dangerous, because it makes you identify a virtue (i.e., a perfection) with an illusion (i.e., an imperfection), which must be nonsense. It is practically dangerous because it encourages a man to mistake his first insights into his own corruption for the first beginnings of a halo round his own silly head. No, depend upon it; when the saints say that they – even they – are vile, they are recording truth with scientific accuracy.

Yes exactly. As Chesterton once quipped in his terrific volume, Orthodoxy: “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” The Christian gospel makes zero sense if it does not begin with the doctrine of sin and human depravity.

Until men recognise that they are lost sinners under the wrath of God headed to a place of everlasting torment, the good news of the gospel will mean nothing to them. So it is high time we rediscover and reclaim the vital biblical truth about sin and the fallen human condition.

And that must fully be part of the message we proclaim. All the great saints have known this. Let me conclude with just a few of them as they remind us that there can be no good news until we first proclaim the bad news:

“The first duty of the gospel preacher is to declare God’s Law and show the nature of sin.” Martin Luther

“The man who does not know the nature of the law cannot know the nature of sin. And he who does not know the nature of sin cannot know the nature of the Saviour.” John Bunyan

“Before I preach love, mercy, and grace, I must preach sin, law, and judgment.” John Wesley

“Never does a person see any beauty in Christ as a Savior, until they discover that they are a lost and ruined sinner.” J.C. Ryle

“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.” J.C. Ryle

“The effort of liberal and borderline modernists to woo men to God by presenting the soft side of religion in an unqualified evil because it ignores the very reason for our alienation from God in the first place. Until a man had gotten into trouble with his heart he is not likely to get out of trouble with God.” A. W. Tozer

“We cannot come to Christ to be justified until we have first been to Moses, to be condemned.” John Stott

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6 Responses to On Recovering the Reality of Sin

  • When you trash 6 day creationism for evolution , the image of God in mankind is gone. So men now hold down the truth in unrighteouness.

  • Can’t agree more Bill.
    It’s as if most self-confessed “Christians” are expecting God to say – “Oh, hell is just for the real baddies. My home is open to virtually everyone.”
    But if Jesus had to die such an agonising death for which he bears the scars in eternity, why should we be so glib about our own sin? Obviously Jesus was taking our sin very seriously, so why shouldn’t we? Yet we think that we make it to heaven with a quick raise of the hand to a sinner’s prayer and then carry on with our lives virtually identical to everyone else living in the suburbs.
    What if only 10% of Christians are anywhere near getting to heaven? What a disaster that would be. We need a serious re-assessment of this issue – it’s only the most important question of your life – “Am I going to heaven, and am I absolutely sure I am not getting this wrong”. The worse thing that could ever happen to a person expecting heaven is to wake up in hell. Forever!

  • Agreed with Tim & Bill’s article.
    Matthew 7:21-23 is coming to those who do not start with sin & seek redemption in Christ for it, before they start ministering in His Name.

  • Quite so. Yet there still may be evidence of the consciousness if sin, if in not so many words.

    All the time we hear that people need love.
    Very often the good news is still the proclamation that God loves us.
    All around we see evidence that some people are not loved.
    Also we see that many people do not love themselves.
    There is much crying out for love.
    A chronic need of love is an evidence of a lack, evidence of judgement, evidence of rejection.
    The judgement and rejection, whether real or just perceived, comes from a sense of falling short of a standard. Or falling short of the mark.

    If all this is correct, then there indeed is a sense of sin.
    Alas this may be accompanied by a total lack of the fear of God.
    The comment in Rom 1:28 that they “received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion” holds true at this level of sin too. The penalty may be emotional, psychological or physical, and if not dealt with will progress into all kinds of bondage, and maybe even death.

    I don’t believe the preacher of repentance has lost credibility yet.
    We can still speak the truth to this generation, but, as usual with all communication, we must start from where they are, from what they know, from what they feel, from what they believe.
    No doctrine needs to be watered down.

  • This article is so true, it seems that so many churches and their ministers or pastors have lost their way and are far from preaching the Full Gospel, Paul the Apostle states it very clearly, 1 Cor. 9:16: “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel”

  • One of the two forms of communion service we use at our Anglican Church includes the Confession, to be said by everyone, which says “Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…we acknowledge with shame the sins we have committed by thought, word and deed, against your divine majesty, provoking most justly your wrath and indignation…” and so it goes on. Such confession wouldn’t last a minute in many churches. The original version by Cranmer is even more stark in its recognition of the seriousness of sin.

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