(I’m reading along with Tim Challies as he reads yet another Christian classic for his Reading Classics Together program.)
Once I heard a young seminary student say that he looked forward to the day when he could go a day, maybe two, without sinning. The remark surprised me. I’m not sure why he thought that someday he’d be sinless for short periods, but he did. Perhaps he hadn’t lived long enough to grasp the relentlessness of sin in our hearts. Maybe he had a limited view of sin.
This week’s reading in The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges reminded me of this long-ago comment. The chapter starts with William Carey, courageous missionary to India, as an old man, lamenting his innumerable “direct and positive sins” and his great “negligence in the Lord’s work.” The future the young man envisioned didn’t come to pass for Carey, and anyone who’s lived long enough and is honestly self-reflective knows there’ll never be a time when they go a day, maybe two, without sinning.
Jerry Bridges says Christians tend to think one of two ways, and neither is quite right. Either they have a “relentless sense of guilt due to unmet expectations in living the Christian life,” or they are satisfied in some measure with their own performance as a Christian. If we think like the last group, we risk becoming like the self-righteous Pharisee who prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” because he did not commit some of the more obvious sins he saw around him.
Like the Pharisee, we may think of sin as only the biggies—murder, lying, adultery, etc.—all the ones we don’t commit. But most often, writes Bridges,
our sin problem is in the area I call “refined” sins. These are the sins of nice people, sins that we can regularly commit and still retain our positions as elders, deacons, Sunday school teachers….
These are sins like having a critical spirit, gossiping, being impatient, irritable, unwilling to forgive, to list a few. These may be “refined” sins, but they are serious, for they acts of rebellion against God. And we can’t stop there: to the extent that we don’t exhibit the positive traits that God requires of us, we are sinning, too.
Believers are always, in this life, both saints and sinners: Saints in Christ; sinners in ourselves.
We really are new creations in Christ. A real, fundamental change has occurred in the depths of our beings. The Holy Spirit has come to dwell within us, and we have been freed from the dominion of sin. But despite this we still sin every day, many times a day. And in that sense we are sinners.
The older I get, the more I can admit to myself and to God how deep down my sinful bent goes. Even still, I know I’m not seeing even the half of it, maybe because I couldn’t endure the sight of the whole. I can admit more now because I understand the gospel better. In Christ, my sins—all of them—are forgiven, and better yet, Christ’s own righteousness is counted as mine. It’s knowing this last truth of imputed righteousness, by the way, that most helps me face my sin, as appalling as it is.