How should we respond to sin in our lives?
One response is to think ‘Come on Glen, I’m better than that.’
Another is to think ‘Come on Glen, Christ is better than that.’
The first may produce a very moral life. But the devil is more than happy to concede to you a Christ-less morality. Self-righteousness is a far muddier swamp than unrighteous living. I am not better than my sin. I am not even better than the foulest evil I’ve imagined.
Instead, when I sin I am revealed as the person I’ve always been. Psalm 51:5 has often struck me. Here is David with blood on his hands. Yet his confession is that the man who committed adultery and murder is the man he had always been.
We think when we’ve sinned that it was just a blot on our otherwise acceptable record. The word of God says our sins simply express the person we have always been (Matt 7:17f). My gross sins are not ‘out of character’ – they are me with the hand-brake off.
No sin can shock me. Not my own, nor the sins of my brothers and sisters who confess to me. If the blood of God was shed for my sin (Acts 20:28) – then my sin is infinitely heinous. No, I’m not better than sin. But Christ is.
This is true in two senses.
First it’s true in the sense that Christ is more desirable than sin. In the wilderness of temptations, Satan can only offer me a bucket of salt. Christ always stands before me with living waters (John 4:10; 7:38; Rev 7:17). The father of lies tells me life is found in this sin. Jesus tells me it’s a broken cistern that can hold no water. Only His waters are truly life-giving. (Jer 2:12-13) I forsake even my precious sins because I have learnt that Jesus is more desirable.
But Christ is better than sin in another, much more important, sense. For He is the good person that I fail to be. He is the reality that stands before the holy Father – not my sin.
My sin, though it clings to my bones and sinks to the depths of my heart, does not define me, Christ does. When the Father looks to find me, He does not look in the record that stands against me (Ps 130:3; Col 2:14). He looks to His Beloved Son and finds me hidden there.
Which means even as the diseased tree of my flesh produces in me the very worst fruit, Christ is my Plea, my Status, my Righteousness. Even as the chief of sinners, even in the act of my worst rebellion, Christ – the One who is infinitely better – defines me and not my sin.
So Christ is better in both these senses. But – and here’s where this post has been heading – without being utterly convinced of this latter sense, the former sense could easily lead to a Pharasaism not unlike the ‘I am better than sin’ response.
Well if I respond to sin simply by saying ‘Jesus is more desirable’ it basically throws me back on myself. I am left with my own heart and its ability to desire Jesus. The work of annihilating sin becomes simply my work of destroying my heart idols. The work of liberation is simply the work of my affections desiring Christ with sufficient ardour. Where is the locus of this redemption? Me.
Now do my heart-idols need crucifying? Yes. Do I need Christ uppermost in my affections? Yes. But by golly, if I found it hard to reform my outward behaviour – how hard is it going to be to reform my inner world??! Impossible.
So, you say, that’s why we need the gracious work of the Spirit and diligently to employ the means of grace, etc, etc. Well… there’s a time and a place for that. But let’s think. If that’s our bottom line, doesn’t it sound exactly like the Catholic view of grace? “It’s all of grace” says the Catholic “… supernatural, infused grace worked in us, with which we cooperate, making us better and better over time.” Doesn’t that sound very similar to “We fight sin by enflaming our affections for Christ – flames stoked by the Spirit via His means of grace”?
It’s not that there’s no place for the ‘Christ is more desirable’ approach. It’s that we must recognize it’s true place – i.e. after we’re assured of the extrinsic work of Christ. “Grace” is not basically a supernatural empowerment to work at my salvation or to enflame my Christian affections. “Grace” is the work of Christ alone on behalf of sinners who contribute nothing. (This is similar to the points I made here – grace is not so much the bread David provides as the victory David wins).
Therefore my first reponse to sin is this – even in the very midst of sin, Jesus has been carrying me on His heart before the Father. Even ensnared in the darkest selfishness, the Spirit has been calling ‘Abba’ from within me. Even as my heart desired worthless idols, the Father loved me even as He loves Christ.
This is the truth that really changes us. It reveals to us that not even our sin can separate us from the love of God in Christ. We realize again that our darkness is not a locked basement to the Lord. Even our self-willed rebellion cannot remove us from His embrace. We sin in His face – this drives us down in contrition. And at the same time He is lifting us up to the Father.
The truth that really changes us is that our lives are not our own. Jesus has taken possession of us in spite of ourselves and wills to do us eternal good. The Spirit of sonship is already praying ‘Abba’ in you. The affections you are so keen to enflame are already ablaze – and that, even as you quench Him!
Now surrender. Now be conquered. Now receive what is entirely beyond you. And see if you don’t love Him with renewed and supernatural vigour! But don’t begin with your heart for Christ. Begin with His heart for you.
We love because He first loved us. 1 John 4:19