When I first became a believer my view of sin was incomplete. I mostly viewed sin as something outward and mostly related to behavior. The more I grew in the faith, though, the more I realized that the problem was my heart and the war of the flesh. The old adage proved true, “I’m not a sinner because I sin. I sin because I’m a sinner”. Realizing that my sin issues are heart issues and not just behavior issues has rescued me from legalism and has also provided great help in counseling.
But I want to kickback a little today.
There is a way in which we talk about sin, and I’ve noticed this especially amongst us Reformed folk, that shelters us from dealing with actual sin. Sin in the abstract is quite a bit easier to confess. And we’ve got some great Christian words to keep sin in the abstract—words which will make us think we are dealing with actual sin, but we are hiding from actual occurrences of sin.
Think of it this way. What would be easier? To say, “I lied on my taxes and stole money from the IRS” or “I have a greedy heart.” To say, “I cheated on my spouse and it was my fault we divorced” or “I have such a wicked and covetous heart. I am a selfish person who so often pursues my own interests”.
You get the picture. Both of the sentences are likely true. One penetrates the depth of the heart and the other deals with the rotten fruit it produced. I’m convinced the sentences belong together. “I have a greedy heart, and because of this I lied on my taxes and stole money from the IRS”. I cannot just address the roots but I also have to deal with the rancid fruit that my messed up heart produced.
Consider the heretics from 1 John. Because of their view of human nature they ended up denying not only our sin nature but also actual sins. John confronts both. It is true that I’m a sinner because I sin and it’s also true that I sin because I’m a sinner. We must deal with both. Sin in the doing of the thing and the heart which produces the thing.
I’ve hinted at this before when I spoke to the gospel’s root work and axe work. I’m saying something similar here. But what I’m really trying to get across is that the sin which finds its origin in our hearts will almost always impact someone else. And when we come to that point where we need to ask for forgiveness it would do us well to not camp out in the abstract.
Listen, if a guy is verbally abusing his wife what she really needs isn’t for him to spend the next 5 years trying to uproot all the heart issues which are causing him to be such a jerk. She does need that. But what she really needs is a husband who is tender and compassionate and gets on his face in repentance. And that repentance includes acknowledging actual instances of verbal abuse and not just some abstract heart issue. He needs to say to his wife, “I have an incredibly angry and bitter and self-centered heart and because of this I have been verbally abusive to you. Please forgive me, and by the grace of God I will be the man I’m supposed to be.” And then he is going to get busy on those heart issues and the outward fruits.
Luther once said:
If you are a preacher of Grace, then preach a true, not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. This life in not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says, we look for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. . . . Pray boldly-you too are a mighty sinner.”
That isn’t just abstract sin. That isn’t just saying, “I’ve got a selfish heart” it’s dealing with the nasty fruit of that selfish heart as well. Grace empowers us to not only own up to and deal with the uglies in the abstract as a “sinner” but also in the ugliness of actual day to day sins.