“But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?’” Exodus 3:11 (ESV)
I was reviewing my notes on Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush, recalling the two questions Moses asked of God: Who am I? Who are You? (Exodus 3:11, 13). These are great questions, in fact they are the most fundamental questions a person can ask. Once we know the answer—who we are & who God is—we can begin to live for God’s glory. John Calvin begins his Institutes with the following: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true & sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves.” He goes on to say, “It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating Him to scrutinizing himself.” This is the kind of knowledge that Moses was seeking—knowledge of himself in the light of the knowledge of God. The starting point for all of humanity should be a proper knowledge of self and a proper knowledge of God. Salvation depends upon this. Of course, such knowledge is dependent upon the sovereign grace of God. We cannot come to such knowledge by way of human intellect. It requires the divine work of the Holy Spirit.
Our Sinful Condition Before a Holy God
Knowledge of self out of necessity includes a knowledge of our sinful condition before a perfectly holy God; a condition for which we have no cure. In, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Dr. Plantinga states, “We are wrong at the core. A bad strain has gotten into the stock so that we now sin with ease and readiness of people born to the task. Sin qualifies as the worst of our troubles because, among other things, it corrupts what is peculiarly human about us. Sin attaches to intention, memory, thought, speech, intelligent action—to all the special features of personhood—and transforms them into weapons. Thus, the same gift that enables a scientist to conquer a disease also enables that scientist to manufacture one and sell it to terrorists.”
I reviewed an incredible sermon by Phil Johnson on 1 John 3:4, perhaps the best definition of sin in all of Scripture—“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” I am convinced that there is not enough that we can say about sin. The concept of sin is lost in our culture. Sin is now mainstream behavior. The only sin is to be intolerant of some else’s lusts or perversions. We have lost the concepts of good & evil. Our culture’s refusal to acknowledge sin & its guilt lies at the root of untold mental & social problems. This is a trend that is not improving. It is exponentially worsening. Personally, unless I am brought to a deeper understanding of the holiness of God and the depth & wickedness of my sin, I will not truly grasp the magnitude & wonder of the work of Christ on the cross and the splendor of the gift of grace.
Some of you will be familiar with this passage in John’s epistle. By way of summary, John’s purpose in writing this passage (1 John 3:1-10) is to make a clear distinction between believers & unbelievers. This is the purpose of the whole epistle. He is trying to shore up the assurance of true believers while destroying the false assurance of people who are over confident. True believers are those who purify themselves (1 John 3:3), while unbelievers are those who live lawless lives. It is as simple as that. Indulging in sin and simply sinning as a pattern of life is a sign of unbelief. To live in a lawless way is to live like the devil; then you are not a true Christian. People whose lifestyle is a pattern of unbroken & unrepentant sinful activity have no basis for thinking they are regenerate.
On the other hand, sin is not the dominant and driving theme of a true Christian. The true believer seeks to follow Christ. We do this imperfectly as fallen creatures. I am not saying that Christians will never sin. John is talking about the direction of your life & the inclination of your character. Everyone fits in one of those two categories: either you are purifying yourselves & moving toward Christ-likeness (may not be doing this with the speed & consistency with which you desire), or else sin is the ruling & defining characteristic of your life. There is no middle ground between these two. This is an instant barometer of our spiritual condition.
The Nature of Sin
Phil Johnson described three aspects of sin in his message: the nature of sin, the wickedness of sin, and the significance of sin. My focus here is on the first aspect. John’s definition of sin in 1 John 3:4 may well be the most comprehensive definition of sin found anywhere in Scripture (others to look at include Romans 14:23; James 4:17; 1 John 5:17). Sin is all wrongdoing (1 John 5:17)—anything which falls short of the divine standard of righteousness. How do we know the standard of perfect righteousness? Christ is the embodiment of perfect righteousness. Look at how far short we fall from perfect Christ-likeness. The standard of perfect righteousness is most clearly revealed to us verbally in the Law, the commandments God has given to us. Look at our definition of sin in 1 John 3:4—there is a legal standard that God holds us to. To break that standard is sin.
Although the Christian is not bound to the ceremonial aspects of the Law, the moral commandments are not abrogated because of grace. Living life without any regard for the moral law of God is lawlessness. We are not under law Paul says in Romans 6:14. Paul means, of course, that we are not under the law as a means of our justification. But we are not placed in a realm of moral lawlessness. The law’s moral demands reflect the very character of God. Those moral demands define the state of perfection towards which we are progressing, therefore we are never free from the moral demands of the law.
True Christianity establishes the law, not as a means of justification, but as a rule of conduct, as a set of guidelines which define for us what it means to be Christ-like. The law is not irrelevant for the Christian. Only the true Christian can truly appreciate the actual relevance of the law. The law points us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). And the law becomes something we love (Psalm 119). If you are truly redeemed the law has been written by God on your heart (Hebrews 10:15-17).
Are Christians Under the Law?
I am frequently asked the following question: Are Christians under the law or not? My response, as supported by Scripture: We are not under the law as a means of justification. But we are under the law’s moral precepts as a rule of life and behavior. Our knowing that we are justified by the atoning work of Christ yet wanting to abide by the law as a part of our sanctification is to have a right relationship to the law. We still need to let the law guide what we say & do. Hence the definition of sin found in the Westminster Confession of Faith— Sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God. Although we are not under the law as a means of our justification, we cannot progress in Christlikeness unless we obey the moral demands of the law.
We are all law breakers by nature. The NT makes it clear that no man or woman could ever suppose that the love of God has ever embraced him or her unless that man or woman has come as a sinner to the Lord Jesus Christ. The questions we must ask are these: “Have we come to Christ as a sinner? Have we come to Jesus confessing that we have no plea and admitting that our only hope for reconciliation with God is His perfect obedience to the law and His willing atoning work on the cross? And having been put in a right relationship with God through Christ, are we presenting ourselves as living sacrifices to God loving what is righteous and hating what is unrighteous?”
I preach these words to myself, more than to others. With love in the Lord Jesus,