“Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”
I remember a lady telling me about a pastor in an ARP church in York county about a generation ago. The church had called this new pastor, and he was obviously a devout man of God. He read his Bible all the time and prayed all the time. Above all, he had a tender conscience. He was afraid that he might offend someone unintentionally. He was constantly examining himself for any signs of sin, any failure to completely serve God. He never had any money because he gave to whomever asked of him. It was said that he took food out of his own refrigerator that his family actually needed and gave to others whom he thought needed it more. Even so, this pastor become progressively more unhappy with what he regarded as his failure to entirely serve God. The lady who told me this story was a member of his congregation. She said you could see this sense of unworthiness increasing almost weekly in the pastor's demeanor and sermons. He began to emphasize his unworthiness to be a pastor, to lead God's people in worship. She said this was, or became, an obsession. He would read a few verses from the Bible and talk about how vile he was, how unworthy he was to talk about the Bible with God's people. Finally he decided that he was so despicable that he could not even look upon God's people. He would not go into the pulpit. He would stand to one side and look at the wall and talk to the wall. Shortly afterwards he resigned.
Now you might think that this pastor had some great secret sin in his life that was preying on his mind that caused him to act so weird. Of course we cannot get into another person's mind to find out what is going on there, but from what we know about the man it seems unlikely that he had any great sins to worry about. Just the opposite, everything we know about him seems to indicate that he was supersensitive about sin. He tried desperately to avoid even the least appearance of sin. He tried to do everything right. He wanted to please God. But I suspect that every time he looked closely at himself, he found these little flaws, little failures, little things that he never talked about with other people, but in his own mind these little secret things grew up into mountains of iniquity and he became convinced that he was a damned sinner, who was trying to hide out in church, and ultimately he could not hide out any more.
As we reflect on this little story, we must emphasize that in a sense that poor pastor was correct. He was not worthy to lead that congregation, but then no one is worthy. I am not worthy to stand in this pulpit and talk to you about God, but no one else is either. Apparently this pastor was so focused on himself, that he never realized that he was just a human being like the rest of us, no better and no worse. He held himself up to high standards of purity and holiness, and he failed miserably. But he could not see that we all fail. He was so focused on his sin, that he could not see that we are all sinners.
I have thought about this occasionally when we do the Lord's Supper. Am I worthy to present to you the body and blood of Christ. No. I am not, but no one else is either, so I might as well do it.
Now let me tell you another story that is just the opposite of the supersensitive York County pastor. You may know that today many ARP pastors have gone to Reform Seminary in Jackson, MS. One such pastor told me this story. He was a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, and it was the custom to invite local pastors to preach at the Seminary chapel. One day, one such local preacher proclaimed to the students what he called the higher life, a victorious life, in which they “got victory over sin,” which set them free from all conscious sin. He said that they might still make mistakes, but they should not consciously sin. In the course of his sermon, he said to this gathered assembly of students, “I have not sinned in three years.” The minister who told me the story said that he was there that day with his best friend. He had gone to college with this friend and now they were in seminary together. They were both committed to the Lord. They both wanted to go into missions.
But like many Christians, they were struggling with sin, and did not feel that they were succeeding all that well. After the chapel speaker said he had not sinned in three years, he went on to say something like this, “If you’re still struggling with sin, it is because you do not have enough faith. If you only had enough faith, you would have victory over sin, and you could live the higher life, and experience the blessedness of perfect love.”
Now these two students were very concerned about this message. They asked some friends who heard the same message, “Have you experienced this higher life? Have you found victory over sin?” “Oh, yes,” their friends said, and everyone else in the chapel that day was saying how great they all were, how they did not sin.
So the two friends began to wonder, “Is there something wrong with us? Are we the only people struggling everyday to serve Jesus as best we can and not always succeeding? Have we failed to achieve this higher life, just because of a lack of faith?”
That is the impression they got from the chapel speaker and from their classmates. They were really concerned. Fortunately for them, the next class after chapel had a more realistic professor, and they asked him about this victory over sin, this sinless life. He replied that the only reason the seminary invited that preacher to speak in chapel was that he had a large church with some donors who gave big money to the seminary, and they—the students--should not pay him much attention. More to the point, the professor said, the only people who think they are not sinners are people who do not think.
But we have a problem here between these two little stories about preachers. The first preacher, the York-County preacher, is convinced almost that he cannot breathe without sinning. The second preacher, the chapel speaker, is equally convinced that it is an easy thing to live a perfect sinless life. Which one is right? It depends on your definition of sin. Some folks define sin in terms of gross outward behavior.
Let us get personal here. I hesitate to confess this because I know it does not make me look good, but when I was a teenager I had a bitter argument with my father, so bitter I thought about killing him. I had been hunting. I had a rifle. And I was so mad that I thought about it. But I did not do it. Now as far as the law of the state is concerned, I am not guilty. I did not do anything. The state only punishes bad behavior. There were times when I was a parent when I wanted to beat my children with a ball bat. Did I do that? No. So, again, in the eye of the state I am not guilty. The state must function that way because the state cannot know our thought processes. So what you thought cannot be a matter for the state, only what you did. Now I suspect that the chapel speaker mentioned above interpreted sin in that same fashion. A sin is what you do and if you are not doing anything really bad then you can say that you have “got victory over sin.” If you do not shoot your father or beat your kids with ball bats, you can pretty much be sure that you are leading a perfect life and God stands in admiration of you.
I hope you know that the Bible does not teach anything like that. We have a very different relationship with God than we have with the state, thank God. The most basic definition of God is that God is everywhere and God knows everything that there is to know. That means that God is in here, in my mind and in my soul. That means that God knows not only every word I speak and every deed I do, but God knows every thought I have. That adds a whole different dimension to the idea of sin. That is what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, Mosaic Law says if you commit murder, you will be judged for that, but I say unto you if you are angry with someone you will be judged for that. Again Jesus says, Mosaic law says do not commit adultery, you will be judged for that, but I say unto you if you have looked upon another person with lust, you have already commited adultery. If you thought about doing evil and did not do it, for whatever reason, you are still guilty. If you were jealous of another person. She had that beautiful dress. He had all that athletic ability. She had a rich father. He had that wonderful sports car. If you were ever jealous, but you never actually did anything to harm those people. Then you are still a sinner. That is what Jesus said.
By now you have concluded that I am saying that the first pastor, the one of the supersensitive conscience, was right about sin. Given the nature of the world as it is and our human nature as it is, we live to some extent in a constant state of sinfulness. We all have moments when we are insensitive, unkind, even cruel. We may try to do better. We may want to do good, but the fact is, we are not always good.
We know that we ought to be perfect sinless heroes of God, and we want other people to think of us like that. We want other people to look up to us as role models, but we know that we are not quite what they think we are. So we cover up. We hide our secret sins.
In a speech Mark Twain gave before the Society of American Authors in 1900, he said: “I am constructed like everybody else and enjoy a compliment as well as any other fool, but I do have another side. I have a wicked side. Estimable friends who know all about it would tell you and take a certain delight in telling you things that I have done and things further that I have not repented. The real life that I live, and the real life that I suppose all of you live, is a life of interior sin.” Another time Twain commented: “Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side, which he never shows to anybody.”
The Bible says the same. Isaiah 64:6: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Then there is the verse we often repeat before our prayer of confession--1 John 1:8, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
Now that is harsh language, and you might respond by saying that first pastor I mentioned was almost driven insane by worrying about his sinfulness. If we try to apply these verses too closely to our lives, the probability is that we will wind up the same way--preaching to the wall and unable to look at another person because we feel so sinful.
That is true as long as we focus only on ourselves. We are sinners, and the more we try to cover up our sins and make ourselves look good the more we become aware of what we are. But there is a way out. The way out we sometimes call the Gospel. The word “gospel” derives from the Old English “god-spell,” meaning "good tidings" or "glad tidings". It is a translation of the Greek word “euangelion” (eu- "good", -angelion "message").
What is the “good news” or “good message?” It is that we do not have any way to deal with the sinfulness of our lives, but God does. The crucified Christ is God's answer. Jesus is our redeemer who came to reconcile us to God by his death for our sins.
So am I a sinner? Yes I am. Do I have “victory over sin”? No I do not. Even after I believe in Jesus, even after I accept Christ as savior and lord, I am still a sinner. I do not suddenly start living a perfect sinless life after I start believing in Jesus. Everybody knows that does not happen. My belief in Christ will cause me to strive for a holy life, I will try to do better, but I am never going to be either perfect or sinless as long as I live on this earth.
But here is the good news, I can trust God to take care of that. When the Apostle Paul said that we are not saved by any works of ours, he really believed that we are not saved by any works or actions or thoughts or words because all that we are always remains contaminated by sin. But through Jesus God has decided to accept us anyway.
Jesus was God incarnate, therefore, he was without sin. He died on the cross for us. When I say I believe in Jesus, I am saying that I trust in his righteousness for my salvation. To put it another way, I am saying that through Jesus God treats me as if I were holy. Now am I holy? Am I righteous? Am I perfect? No I am not. I am a sinner. But because of my faith in Jesus, God treats me as if I am holy and good as Jesus was holy and good.
Thus, the first pastor I mentioned was right about sin. Unfortunately, he never applied God's answer. Jesus.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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