Excerpts from Chapter 2
Waking Up With the Worst of Sinners
The News About Who We Really Are
The Biblical Reality of Joyful Wretches
This profound awareness of innate sinfulness is not some obscure theological point or an example of religious fervor gone to seed. A great awareness of one’s sinfulness often stands side by side with great joy and confidence in God. The same Paul who could call himself the foremost of sinners could exult two verses later, “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17).
It is a theme that also resonates through the Psalms. In Psalm 40 we see rejoicing in the Lord and lamentation over sin side by side.
As for you, O Lord, you will not restrain
your mercy from me;
your steadfast love and your faithfulness will
ever preserve me!
For evils have encompassed me
my iniquities have overtaken me,
and I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head;
my heart fails me.
What’s going on here? Is this some kind of bipolar spirituality at work? By no means! It is the joy of salvation breaking through, despite life in a fallen world and a heart still fighting against sin. It is reality as seen through biblical truth.
This reality is very different from what we’re usually up to our necks in—that slick, shiny, false reality of an affluent, comfort-driven society obsessed with self-esteem. Instead, this reality sends us to the Savior, who brings God’s holiness and mercy together in the cross. The great nineteenth century preacher, Charles Spurgeon, was another man who saw this reality in all its Christ-centered glory.
Too many think lightly of sin, and therefore think lightly of the Savior. He who has stood before his God, convicted and condemned, with the rope about his neck, is the man to weep for joy when he is pardoned, to hate the evil which has been forgiven him, and to live to the honour of the Redeemer by whose blood he has been cleansed.
Remember what Jesus said of the woman caught in adultery? “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). If like Paul (and David and Spurgeon . . . ) I recognize the enormity of my sin, seeing myself as the worst of sinners, then I understand I have been forgiven much. That’s when biblical reality begins to make sense. I start to see God as he truly is. His vastness becomes bigger than my problems. His goodness comes to me even though I’m not good. And his wisdom and power are visible in the perfect ways he works to transform me from the inside out.
So this sin—my sin and yours—is supremely ugly. It is vile. It is wicked. But at the same time it is the backdrop to a larger drama. We may be works in progress who are painfully prone to sin, yet we can be joyful works, for—thanks be to God—we have been redeemed by grace through the death and resurrection of Christ. Our Savior has come to rescue us from the penalty of sin and grant us an abundant life by his Spirit.
As two people in marriage embrace this view of reality, and live in accordance with it, their lives and marriage begin to look more and more like the picture God wants to display to a lost world. Until sin be bitter, marriage may not be sweet.
The Worst Thing About Sin
By this time you may be saying to yourself, This guy thinks about sin way too much! The worst of sinners? Man, take a chill pill and unplug the moral meter. What’s the big deal?
The big deal is that my sin is not first against me or my marriage. All sin is first against God. And that changes everything.
Look at it this way. My status as “husband” says something important about me: It says I have a wife. In identifying me it points to the reality of another—my wife. It also indicates who I am not, for if I am a husband, I’m obviously not single.
Now recall that the Bible has a specific way of describing human beings—as sinners (Psalm 51:5, Romans 3:23; 5:12). We are all in that category together. It’s hardly an exclusive club. To accept the designation of “sinner” is to acknowledge who I am in relation to God. It also says who I am not: I am not a neutral actor. By my very nature (which is sinful), I am an offense to God’s very nature (which is perfectly holy).
So the term “sinner,” when used in Scripture, clearly implies there is one (at least one) who is sinned against. When I speak a critical, unkind word to Kimm in front of our children, my sin is to some degree against the children. Obviously, it is to a much stronger degree against Kimm. What I need to see, however, is that this sin is most strongly, and therefore primarily, against God! And that is something it has in common with every other sin that has ever been or ever will be committed. Every sin, however small or great its apparent impact on people, violates the purity of the perfectly just and holy God. Sin is always aimed first and foremost at God (Deuteronomy 9:16, 1 Samuel 15:24, Psalm 51:4). Jerry Bridges brings it smack into the family room when he writes,
Sin is wrong, not because of what it does to me, or my spouse, or child, or neighbor, but because it is an act of rebellion against the infinitely holy and majestic God.
Several years ago I became aware of a subtle, destructive habit. Whenever I sensed I had sinned against Kimm I would go to her, confess, and seek to resolve the situation. Looks pretty good when I put it that way, doesn’t it? But I came to realize that my goal was far from noble. I wanted a quick and efficient restoration of our relationship so I could stop feeling bad and get on with “more important things.” In other words, the confession was basically a tool I was employing for my own sake. No wonder, then, that I was often left with a shallow, haunting feeling that I now believe was the kind prompting of the Holy Spirit.
After a time of prayer, I recognized that God had been surprisingly forgotten in my words of apology to Kimm. I saw that I had been almost completely unconcerned with the fact that my sin had been first against God, and that I stood guilty before his infinite holiness. I had regarded my sins as errors, or at worst, as “little sins” that required little consideration of my heart. My real goal was simply a kind of marital damage control, not an honest accounting before my Heavenly Father. But by God’s grace I began to see, as J. I. Packer says so well, “There can be no small sins against a great God.”
As biblical reality started to sink in, amazing things happened. I began to experience true sorrow for my “little sins.” My awareness of God and his mercy grew. In my marriage I began to notice the very real but less obvious sins I was regularly committing against Kimm—sins we had become “comfortable with” but they, nevertheless, were slowly eroding our relationship. I began to recognize situations where I might be tempted to sin against her, and I started to learn how to battle those temptations. My confessions, as well as our conversations about the problems in our marriage, began to have a rich and satisfying depth. These conversations were not always easy, but definitely helpful to our relationship. I had come to see God, myself, and my marriage a little more clearly.
Read an excerpt from Chapter 3