Monday, October 06, 2008

1 The Essence of Sin (Revised)

“But Mr. Wolfe…”

I listened with some degree of amazement even though I was largely prepared for what I was hearing. Having been given the opportunity to offer a discipleship course to a class of seniors in a local private, Christian school I presented them with a version of the material you will soon read in this booklet. Having laid what I would consider to be a sufficient foundation I presented them with the challenge that I believed to be consistent with the teaching of John the Baptist, Jesus, the disciples of Jesus and the apostle Paul; all men, everywhere must repent or perish. Upon describing the nature of genuine repentance and making it clear that I wanted the students to examine their own hearts in order to honestly determine whether they were or were not truly Christians I received the following response from a student representative of the view being expressed. “But Mr. Wolfe, you know that no one has the ability to choose to repent – only God can determine who becomes a Christian.” In a manner of speaking the gauntlet had been thrown down. I stood staring at twelve years of theological training that was rearing its ugly head. What are the consequences of being convinced that one cannot do that which God tells them to do? How does one wisely and respectfully address such a situation?

Scripture states, “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable…”[1] I suppose I was about to find out something about the amount of wisdom I had. We also read, “…he who is wise wins souls.”[2] Fortunately Scripture also says “…if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach…”[3] Asking was definitely in order.

It’s interesting to consider the possibility that both my gauntlet tossing student and I embrace the idea that “…God…desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”[4] The question we must ponder is, “What are the implications of such a statement when examined from our respective views on the issue of man’s ability and the need for repentance?” Both my student and I are convinced that not all men will be saved – but why? Does it have to do with man’s choice or God’s choice? My choice is to investigate this issue and it is my hope that you choose to consider the findings revealed in the pages ahead.

The Essence of Sin

Though my main interest is to consider the nature of genuine repentance I would like to do a brief, preliminary investigation of the nature of sin and particularly the essential nature of sin. As we consider the topic of salvation we need to ask a very important question – “From what are we being saved?” It seems as though two answers to this question have become increasingly common. One answer is, “Hell” while the other is, “The wrath of God”. I do not deny that a saved person will avoid the undesirable destination of Hell and the unpleasant experience of God’s righteous judgment of condemnation yet neither of these two answers is sufficiently fundamental. In other words, Scripture appears to reveal that being saved from Hell and from the wrath of God is a consequence of being saved from something else. In a word, salvation is from sin. Consequently, one can not be saved from Hell without being saved from sin. Neither can one be saved from the wrath of God without being saved from sin[5]. I would like to suggest, therefore, that that which we are to repent of is sin[6]. The problem that God is aiming to address in salvation is a sin problem. In a sense we can say that sin is the “enemy”. When one attempts to eliminate an enemy, it is helpful to have good solid information and understanding about the enemy. Therefore, in our effort to understand what it means to be saved from sin, we must attempt to understand certain foundational truths about sin. This is a slightly different approach from the one I recently heard of as a very popular pastor stated that they do not talk about sin in his church. We will discuss this topic by working with a text found in Romans chapter one.

I’ve chosen this particular passage for predominately two reasons. First, it is a passage that says something significant about sin. Secondly, I am convinced that the background information that is present, though not specifically stated, in this passage makes Paul’s summation particularly powerful and meaningful. In other words, Paul’s Jewish background and Old Testament knowledge regarding the issue of sin is quite deep and rich. We could navigate our way through a multitude of Old Testament passages related to the development of a doctrine of sin but I am operating from the perspective that we would arrive at information that Paul already presupposes as he states his view in this passage. It would serve us well to attempt to appreciate what lies beneath the surface of that which Paul says in this passage.

Though we will focus on verses 18 through 32, I will begin with a few comments about verses 16 and 17. In verse 16, Paul speaks of the gospel[7] as “the power of God for salvation”. We can view God’s “power” in two quite distinctive ways. One is the power of moral suasion or influence (“That man is a powerful teacher / speaker”) while the other is the power of brute force or causation (“That man was so powerful I could not break free from his grasp”). What one concludes regarding this distinction can be something of a watershed conclusion. In light of the overall message of Scripture I would suggest that the power God has exercised in His provision to bring people to salvation involves a display of His self-sacrificial love[8], His wisdom[9] and His righteousness[10]. This display is designed to be a powerful influence (a moral persuasion) to which people must respond by trusting, believing and having faith in God if they are to be saved. It is the most appropriate and extreme influence God can righteously and wisely bring to bear upon the world of moral beings as He addresses the issue of sin and guilt in an effort to recapture our love, trust and obedience and provide us with pardon and deliverance. It is not the power of “brute force” or an omnipotent causation that overrides moral agency but the power of love and moral influence that recognizes and honors moral agency. If this outrageous act on the part of the most outrageous and majestic Being in the universe does not break our hearts and drive us to our knees in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21), nothing will. It would appear that this explanation is consistent with Romans 10:17 where we read that “…faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ”. It is a well presented explanation of the gospel (the power of God unto salvation) that pierces the heart of the sinner and inspires him to love and trust the God being described in our message. If we find that people are not responding to a good representation of this message, it does no good to simply replace it with a message that is only designed to appeal to the self-centered interests of the sinner[11]. Paul further indicates in verse 16 that even if others find this proclamation silly, foolish, disturbing or lacking, he is not ashamed of it.

As we proceed with this passage we will see that Paul is very God-centered; constantly drawing attention to some aspect, characteristic or attribute of God. In this particular verse he speaks of the “power of God”. I would suggest that we could benefit from doing the same in our effort to convert sinners, impact the world and to build and strengthen the church. It is too easy to bump God out of the center and replace Him with a focus or agenda of far less value and importance. It is against a backdrop of our understanding of God that righteousness, sin, atonement and salvation become most clear. It is very easy and all too common to become sinner-centered (or man-centered in general). When this is done, everything tends to be communicated in a new light – primarily that of the sinners benefit[12]. In this way we can easily turn the gospel into Christianized humanism. We end up asking people a accept Jesus as “their personal Savior” in contrast to calling them to surrender to Him as Lord and Savior. Even when we become church-centered (what’s it take to grow or build a big church, etc.) we tend to pervert the gospel of the kingdom of God. With a church-centered focus our activities and efforts rotate around having a church that attracts people instead of a body of people that please God.

In verse 17, Paul draws attention to the “righteousness of God” by indicating that in the provisions made through the gospel God was conscientious about providing for the pardon and delivery of the guilty in a way that does not infringe upon His righteousness or encourage our unrighteousness. Though we will not give attention to it in this booklet, the idea that God’s righteousness is revealed in His provisions of salvation is very important when forming a doctrine of atonement[13].

Now we turn to verse 18. Whereas in verses 16 and 17 we have reference to the power of God and the righteousness of God, we now have reference to the “wrath of God” – again, keeping the discussion God-centered. This particular reference to God describes a response on God’s part toward ungodliness and unrighteousness. To say the least, this response speaks of a very strong opposition and resistance on God’s part toward “ungodliness and unrighteousness of men”. Because of the way some people prefer to understand the concept of “love”, it is often difficult for them to realize or deal with the fact that God can have such a response as this; that there is truly room for wrath in the Divine experience. Though we will not probe this issue at this point, I believe that, when properly understood, it’s appropriate to realize that God’s hot opposition to ungodliness and unrighteousness is an appropriate expression of love in its fullest sense. It is also noteworthy to state that, though God experiences anger and other emotions, He is not controlled by them. God subjects all of His emotional responses to His ultimate resolve of living a life of love.

This verse also affords us an insight into the nature of ungodliness and unrighteousness which provides a big step forward in gaining an understanding of the nature and the essence of sin. This ungodliness and unrighteousness involves and result from suppressing truth. Suppressing truth presupposes the presence of truth and the ability to comprehend truth. We will soon find that Paul has a specific category of truth in mind but before we attempt to close in on the essential truth being suppressed, let’s consider what’s involved in suppressing truth.

First, what’s taking place here is represented in the present tense and the active voice. This would indicate that it is a continual position taken or a practice being exercised by an active agent. In other words, those referred to by this description are characterized by this particular response toward truth and by this approach toward life. Unrighteousness is descriptive of a person who is not interested in lining up with truth; with reality and that which is right. This type of person is pushing truth aside when it does not coincide with their own personal preference. Notice that the passage does not indicate that the person is unable to understand truth. What it says is that they do not allow that which they know to be the standard upon which they live and regulate their decisions, choices and conduct. As well, it does not teach us that they are unable to properly respond to the truth of which they are in possession. The verse simply says that they suppress or hold down the truth they should be receiving and acting upon. It does not say that they are incapable of receiving and acting upon it. They exchange the truth about what is right for that which is not right, acting upon that which is not right and, consequently, committing un-righteousness. This representation and concept is very consistent with the straight forward teaching of Jesus as found in Matthew 7:24-27. God’s response to this approach on the part of man is “wrath”. Understanding unrighteousness as a voluntary violation of man’s God-given design, capacities and capabilities makes sense of such a response on God’s part.

At this point it is worth making reference to the idea that God holds us accountable for the truth and the light we have and which we are capable of responding to properly. God is not so unreasonable as to require us to live according to truth that we have no ability to comprehend or respond to. We begin to get a clear sense that sin involves a “will not” as opposed to a “can not”. Though it is not the intention of this particular work to explore this concept in depth, it should be emphasized that there is also a dimension of accountability associated with behavior resulting from ability or capacity that an individual willfully destroyed or reduced.

Verse 19 begins to clarify the specific truth that is being suppressed when it refers to “that which is known about God”. It is truth about God that is specifically in question, as opposed to a wide range of other potential truth[14]. Once again, in developing his doctrine of sin Paul is maintaining a very heavy God-centered approach. The greater our understanding and appreciation of who God is, the greater our appreciation of who He created us to be and how He designed us to function. The more clarity we have regarding who God is and who He created us to be, the easier it is to identify the violation of our design and of our Designer. This violation (later referred to as falling short of the glory of God), in this case, is sin.

Paul continues in this verse to reveal that the basic knowledge of God that mankind has is knowledge that God Himself placed within us. This built-in, God-given knowledge is a portion of the truth that sinners must actively suppress as they purpose and practice a lifestyle contrary to the information and obligation this truth brings. The idea that God has given man a core truth about Himself that is inherent as opposed to acquired forms a very important presupposition for the development of ideas concerning man’s guilt and God’s justice. Thus far we are not given clarification regarding the specifics of this truth but we will soon draw certain conclusions on this level.

Next, in verse 20, Paul indicates that there are certain truths about God (His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature) that we can draw from the handiwork of His creation. The truth we referred to in the previous paragraph was a form of internal revelation while the truth referred to in verse 20 is external revelation. The universe we live in offers evidence of the nature of the Creator. This is an area of investigation (often called natural theology) that is not always exact but, regardless, opens the doors to the reality that we are dependent upon and accountable to one much greater then ourselves. The one who created and maintains this universe must be powerful, wise and knowledgeable, personal, etc. The knowledge and evidence we gain in light of the internal and external revelation of God (not to mention the current availability of written revelation) is sufficient to establish a right relationship with Him (if one’s response is right), consequent righteousness on our part (if one’s response is right) and accountability (in accordance with the enlightenment available). This is true of all sentient[15] beings throughout all history. This is true in such a way that, when people push this truth aside in order to do that which is contrary to it, we are without excuse! This is a very important and powerful statement when it comes to the doctrine of sin and man’s relationship with sin. The necessary truth that can establish a person in righteousness if properly responded to is the same truth that establishes a person in unrighteousness when improperly responded to. To say that a person is without excuse for responding improperly indicates they could have, if they’d chosen to, responded properly! When establishing a doctrine of sin, we must be careful that it is not understood and represented in such a way that the people we deal with go away with a nice little excuse tucked away in their pocket. Our doctrine of sin (in its essence) and what we had to say about sin should leave people with the realization that they have no excuse. The word “excuse” indicates that we can offer God no legitimate reason for pushing truth about Him out of the way. Truth is voluntarily ignored in our effort to do what we preferred over and against that which was right. In a very real sense, having no reason for such a response, we are safe to say that sin, in its essential form (and all forms for that matter) is unreasonable. When looking for a reason why all have sinned, we can say that it’s not possible to give a reason for that which is unreasonable. Rejecting God and His truth while embracing unrighteousness and ungodliness (sin) is the most unreasonable thing people do.

Verse 21 builds upon these ideas by revealing something quite amazing. Paul describes the approach of those suppressing truth about God and being without excuse by saying “even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God”. Their problem was not a lack of knowledge concerning God. The problem is that they did not honor Him as God; they did not receive and properly acknowledge and respond to the truth and knowledge that they were in possession of. Based on grammatical evidence this is an active, climatic resolve. It is important to clarify at this point that it’s not a matter of insufficient intellectual comprehension that is the issue at the center of this consideration but rather a willful refusal to embrace what is known. This has a tremendous impact on our understanding of sin. This verse further explains that right knowledge of God[16] was replaced with futile speculation. Futile speculations are ideas that are unproductive, counter productive or even destructive. When setting reality aside and acting upon these reasonable ideas we produce unrighteousness and ungodliness. This is an active, voluntary approach toward life which reciprocally reflects and affects the deepest part of human personality; the heart. We will explore further definition of the heart in later chapters.

Jumping to verse 24, we see that God does not simply prevent people from taking this approach if it is the approach they choose. He “gave them over”. He did not choose this path for them. He does not prefer or desire this path for them. They have chosen it and He has, in a sense, honored their freedom to do so which, ironically, results in human beings dishonoring one another. We will always promote increased levels of hurt and complication as we attempt to find a way of living other then the one God offers to lead us into.

We now come to verse 25 which makes a statement that is tremendously significant when attempting to understand the essence of sin and, therefore, the essence of repentance. This statement presents the idea that the sinner exchanged the truth about God (which God was revealing and which was evidenced in God’s handiwork of creation) for a lie. The word “exchanged” indicates that there is an active climax that one exercises in response to the option of receiving or rejecting truth. The bottom-line truth that is being exchanged is that God is, in fact, the Supreme Being who is to be honored and worshipped as such. The lie is that “I”, the creature, am the one who is to be the center of attention; worshipped. Sin involves a reversal of roles with God. This is the essential problem to be overcome! This is the essential nature of sin! Sin, at its foundation, is a resolve to live as though “self” is supreme. It is not necessarily the case that the sinner consciously declares, “I am supreme!” but rather, regardless of what is spoken, the individual lives a life of self-supremacy on a very practical level. The essential problem with this approach is that, in reality, none of us are qualified to live this way. It is always at the expense of the greater good that a human being takes this foundational approach. Therefore, God, in His righteousness (as opposed to selfishness) must oppose and condemn such an approach.

With this in mind, I will suggest that God’s plan of salvation is designed to correct and eliminate this fundamental discrepancy. Too often, people have conceived of and promoted a philosophy of salvation that does nothing to actually and practically impact this problem. If salvation is simply represented as a technicality that leaves the above situation unaffected, it is insufficient. As well, if sin and salvation are conceived of as something that simply happens to a passive agent, we are not effectively capturing and representing the Biblical revelation. The less accurate our representation of sin and salvation the less prepared we will be to minister to the real need of the sinner.

In light of the fact that I am aiming to speak of sin and salvation in its essential form, I would like us to realize that this is closely associated with the heart of man. Thus far, we have seen that an exchange of the reality of God’s genuine supremacy for our supposed self-supremacy is at the center of this matter.

Let’s close this chapter by first considering an illustration and then a story that relates to what’s been presented.

In an effort to encourage Christians to be more concerned over the plight of the sinner and the danger of the eternal damnation they face, an appeal has been made regarding the response one might have to an individual trapped in a burning building. The question is posed, “If you came across a child trapped in a burning building, would you not be compelled to make an effort to rescue them?” It is then pointed out that we should have such concern for the unsaved. This is a fine way to encourage more concern for the unsaved. However, to help the illustration more appropriately fit the case of the unsaved person, I believe we must add two elements. First, the person trapped in the burning building lit the match and started the fire that has them trapped and second, the property that’s burning doesn’t rightfully belong to them; God is the Landlord and property owner.

Paris Reidhead of Bible Teaching Ministries related his experience as a young missionary to an unreached tribe on the Continent of Africa. This was a people who had never seen a Bible, knew nothing of Christianity, the Ten Commandments or the Mosaic Law, etc. He told the story of a day when he was speaking with a group of men from the village by way of a translator. Without previously planning to do so, Mr. Reidhead picked up a stick and asked the men who were standing there if they knew who had made the stick. They responded with the name “Hwanameesh”. Finding this to be of interest, Mr. Reidhead made reference to various other aspects of creation (the river, mountains, sun, etc.) asking the same question. To each, the men responded with the same name. This was obvious testimony of the fact that they knew of a Creator. This is an affirmation of what is revealed in Romans chapter one. Mr. Reidhead proceeded by asking them what they knew about Hwanameesh. They said that He was angry with them.
“Why”, asked Mr. Reidhead.
“Because we’ve lied”, they responded.
“Hwanameesh is angry when you lie?”
“Yes, He does not like lying.”
“What else have you done?”
“We’ve stolen.”
“He is against stealing?
“Yes. He gets angry when we steal.”

Mr. Reidhead recalls that they listed about eight of the Ten Commandments as they discussed this issue. He then asked them why they would steal if they knew it angered Hwanameesh. They simply responded by saying, “He (another person) had what I wanted”. They knew there was a Creator – they knew what angered Him – they did what angered Him and they offered no excuse. This “primitive” people reflected the reality represented in the passage we’ve just considered in a very straight forward fashion without all the sophisticated and “advanced” efforts to explain guilt away and convince one another that “I’m okay and you’re okay” when in reality our sin has separated us from God.

As we prepare to be ambassadors for Christ, it is crucial to make every effort to divide the word of truth accurately. When attempting to do so, we can be assured that Satan is actively attempting to distort our understanding and representation of truth so that decisions are made on twisted information (Ge.3:1-7).

It is very important (though not always welcomed or pleasant) that we help the sinner understand that the essential problem that has resulted in their moral guilt is that they have denied the reality of God’s rightful place of supremacy and authority in their life. God’s interest in being recognized as supreme is not selfish but, to the contrary, springs from His heart of love that purposes the well-being of all. This is a foundation the sinner has willfully chosen and can offer no acceptable excuse for. This enhances the possibility of arriving at a clearly defined remedy because genuine conversion must be preceded by genuine conviction; an open and honest acknowledgement that the problem being encountered is the result of the wrong, voluntary usage of God given capacities. Recognizing that there are a wide variety of influences that one encounters in life the bottom line is that the sinner is an active rebel without excuse, not a passive victim. Let’s remember that in a system of justice it’s the criminal that is guilty and convicted, not the victim.

How then does this relate to the encounter I had with the high school student who was convinced that man has no ability to repent? In the broader scheme of this discussion it should be understood that there is a doctrine of sin which emphasizes that our current status as the human race is such that we have no ability to properly respond to God. According to this view we sin because we’ve lost all and any ability to do otherwise. Guilt is inherited and sin is automatic. This being the case, there is, as well, no ability to repent of sin. This particular booklet is intended to consider the issue of repentance. There is much more that could be said about sin but the purpose for this opening chapter is simply to heighten our appreciation for the connection between our representation of the problem (sin) and the way we understand and represent the solution.
[1] Proverbs 15:2
[2] Proverbs 11:30
[3] James 1:5
[4] 1 Timothy 2:3-4
[5] Matthew 1:21; 1 Timothy 1:15; James 5:20
[6] Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; 5:32; 15:7, 10; Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 2 Corinthians 12:21
[7] The “gospel” is both that which God has done and our description of that which God has done.
[8] Jn.3:16; Ro.5:8; 1 Jn.4:9
[9] 1 Co.1:23-24; Ep.3:8-11
[10] Ro.1:17, 3:21-26
[11] In our fourth booklet we will see that in the process of working with the sinner, there are times to appeal to their selfishness in an effort to move them toward a climate when it’s more appropriate to declare and explain the gospel.
[12] It is true that God’s provisions benefit the sinner when rightly responded to but the shift being spoken of has a negative effect upon the way the message is constructed and presented. The content of the message undergoes a variety of changes which seem to rob it of its transforming power.
[13] Consider Romans 3:21-26. I would suggest the works of Albert Barnes, Nathan Beman, Caleb Burge and Charles Finney.
[14] Though this principle applies to truth in general, Paul’s interest, as he deals with the essential issue of sin, is with man’s response to truth about God.
[15] To be sentient indicates that one’s moral faculties are functioning.
[16] Of course we understand that we are not speaking of comprehensive knowledge. We should, however, realize that we are speaking of an amount of knowledge that is sufficient for moral accountability.

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