I was reading recently some words of George Swinnock (a mid seventeenth century Puritan) that seemed (at least to me) to describe twenty-first century evangelical Christianity: “We take the size of sin too low, and short, and wrong, when we measure it by the wrong it doth to ourselves, or our families, or our neighbours, or the nation wherein we live; indeed, herein somewhat of its evil and mischief doth appear; but to take its full length and proportion, we must consider the wrong it doth to this great, this glorious, this incomparable God. Sin is incomparably malignant, because the God principally injured by it is incomparably excellent” (Works Vol.4.456, Banner of Truth). Swinnock, of course, is saying no more than the Bible itself says. The ultimate tragedy of sin is not that it spoils my life, disrupts my relationships, scars my world, but that it dishonours, defies, and disgraces my God!
This is a truth, a most basic and elementary truth, that our present generation has all but lost sight of. Sin, if it is mentioned at all, is conceived of almost wholly in self-referential terms. It is described in terms of its “psychological pains and its relational disruptions.” And truly sin does produce deep psychological pains and relational disruptions. The heart and horror of sin, however, is not its effect on me, but its effect on God, “the incomparably excellent” God. This is remarkably highlighted in Psalm 51:4: King David had been deeply convicted of his sin by conspiring to have Uriah murdered. And yet, when he comes to cry to God for mercy, David prays, “Against you and you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” David is not denying his sin against Bathsheba, Uriah, his own family, God’s Church. He is, however, telling himself, and us, that the true horror of sin is that it is against God. Sin’s ultimate tragedy can only be defined theologically, not psychologically nor relationally.
This is a truth the evangelical church needs to be reacquainted with in our day. We live in a self-referential culture. The Church, rightly, wants to minister the gospel of God’s grace and love into this culture. The ever present danger facing us is that we contour the Bible’s teaching on sin to suit the felt needs of this culture. This is what “Alpha” seeks to do. The initial concern of Alpha was laudable: How can we best reach the unchurched pagans in our society with the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ? I, for one, deeply admire that desire, and am rebuked by it. But when you look carefully at Alpha, it basically seeks to present sin almost solely as a psychological, personal and social disrupter. And sin is such a disrupter. It is the root of all the evils in this world, personal and global. But until men and women are helped to see that the horror of sin is that it is against God, and makes you his enemy (Romans 5:10), Jesus Christ will never be seen for what he most essentially is, the One sent from God and by God to reconcile us to God, deliver us from the coming wrath, and fit us for eternal fellowship with God. The root of all our ills is our sin-ruptured relationship with the living God.
Many of the great theologians of the Christian Church have called sin “Deicidium,” literally “God murder!” Is that how you and I think of sin? We can so easily lose the felt sense, if not the theological fact, of the sinfulness of sin. If we do, we end up talking about sin in ways that sit easily with our culture. And, when we speak of sin only in self-referential and therapeutic terms, moral responsibility diminishes proportionately. Is there not an obvious connection between the loss of the theological dimension of sin and the moral collapse at the heart of professing evangelicalism?
Where does all this leave us? Not simply parroting what the Puritans preached four centuries ago. They were men of their times; they understood the times they lived in – and so must we. We must labour to speak relevantly into this culture. Paul’s address in Athens (Acts 17) is perhaps a model for us in many ways. We need to speak to people where they are, not where we would like them to be. We need to be less concerned with “success” and more concerned with “faithfulness.” We need to cultivate Paul’s confidence: “…we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” One of our great challenges is to commend the gospel relevantly without becoming gimmicky. This is easier said than done, but do it we must.
Where then do we start? With Sin? No. With God! Let me end, as I began, with some words from George Swinnock: “should this God of glory appear to thee…and show thee a glimpse of his excellent glory…should he discover to thee but a little of that greatness which the heavens and heaven of heavens cannot contain…of those perfections that know no bounds…what wouldst thou then think of Sin?” If we are to see sin for what it truly is, we must first come to see God as he truly is. And so Thomas Goodwin wrote, “if thou wouldst see what sin is, go to mount Calvary” – because there, we see God as he most truly is. The cross of Christ is the glory and the measure of everything.
On 12th December at Westminster Chapel Ian Hamilton is speaking on “The Puritan Doctrine of Sin and the Wrath of God.”