As we continue our journey through some of the more unsettling results from the Lifeway and Ligonier Ministry The State of Theology survey, this week we are moving on from the doctrine of God to the doctrines of people and sin. One of the more common ideas about our status before God when we start out in life is that we are all born innocent in God’s eyes. Yet as we engage with the Scriptures carefully, we are greeted with the rather disturbing news that this isn’t the case at all. In this next part of our journey we are talking about why that is and why the truth is so much better. Thanks for reading and sharing.
Broken from Birth
I don’t watch as many of them as I used to, but I used to watch a lot of food competition shows. I’ll still occasionally tune in today just to see the sheer artistic splendor of the things the various food artists create. The level of detail and intricacy to some of their creations is simply jaw dropping. There’s a new series on Netflix called, “Is It Cake?” where judges have to guess which of the items on a display in front of them are cake and which aren’t. They get fooled a lot. The fact that someone can make a cake look so convincingly like something else like a shoe or a purse or even a burger and fries that you actually can’t tell which is which is amazing to me.
All the shows like that, though, tend to work about the same way. There are usually two rounds. In the first round, they make something fairly simple (right!) and small, and then in the second round, they make their real showpiece. In order to make the game aspect of the whole thing a little more fun, there is usually some kind of reward attached to winning the opening round. One of the most useful prizes is the ability to get a head start on the other competitors. Even if it’s only 20 minutes, when so much of the decorating these guys are doing is coming down to the final seconds, that can make a huge difference in terms of allowing them to get a few more things done to put them over the edge.
We like having head starts—especially if we are getting a head start no one else is getting. But even if the head start is made available to everyone, we’ll still take it because it gives us a leg up on getting to where we’re going. And this goes with pretty much every area of our lives including our spiritual lives. We like to imagine ourselves having a head start on a relationship with God (or whichever other deity we happen to be following). And one of the best ways we know of to accomplish this is by imagining ourselves as starting out on our journey through life on a level playing field morally speaking. Indeed, if we are starting out a step or two toward our goal, getting there is much easier and we have a bit of built-in wiggle room in case things go awry along the way. The trouble, though, is that as much as we may want for this to be the case, it’s not actually the case. This morning, as we continue our teaching series, What We Believe, we are going to talk about why, what’s true, and why the truth is better.
This morning finds us in the fourth part of this series in which we are taking a look together at some survey results from the Lifeway and Ligonier Ministries research project called The State of Theology. Every other year these two companies partner up to survey U.S. adults to find out our views on a number of ideas related to the Christian worldview and Chrisitan ethics. The results from this latest survey found that while the culture at large holds several theological positions that don’t cohere well with the Christian worldview—which comes as no surprise at all—so do committed followers of Jesus. That the culture around us holds these false positions shouldn’t even phase us. That so many folks in the church appear to hold similarly false positions should make us deeply uncomfortable because it means the church is failing in one of its most basic discipleship duties.
As it turns out, addressing these various biblically incorrect ideas has taken us on a journey through some of the high points of a systematic theology (which is just a fancy phrase for an approach to thinking through what we believe about God that is very orderly so that we don’t miss anything along the way). We started our conversation talking about God the Father and the idea that He’s happy to accept worship from all different religions. The truth is that while He absolutely wants us to be worshiping Him, He only accepts worship that is meant for Him. Worship of things that aren’t Him isn’t meant for Him and so He won’t accept it. The next week, Nate took you through an exploration of the personhood of the Holy Spirit. We don’t really know what to do with the Spirit if we’re being honest, but the language we often use for Him makes Him sound very impersonal—something like the Force from Star Wars—rather than a person. The truth, though, is that He is fully a person and the third member of the Trinity. Then, just last week, we addressed the divinity and eternality of Jesus, God the Son. While a lot of folks want to make Him out to be nothing more than a great moral teacher, the Scriptures simply don’t leave that option available to us. He is fully God and has been around just as long as God has…because He’s God.
Well, having spent the last three weeks addressing different parts of the doctrine (which is just a fancy word for “what we believe about ______”) of God, this week, we are going to turn our attention inward and spend some time thinking through some things we believe about people. Specifically, we’re going to do some thinking about the nature of people and where we stand with God as we come out of the starting gates of life.
That brings us to our survey statement of the day. If you happen to be keeping score at home, this is statement number 15 on The State of Theology survey. It reads like this: “Everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God.” Now, before I give you any actual data, think for a minute about how you would respond to that. From just an emotional standpoint, that’s a tough statement to respond to with anything other than some level of agreement. We’ve got a lot of little babies in the church right now and more on the way (I’m just talking about Zach; I don’t have any other surprises for you this morning in that regard). It’s pretty tough to imagine holding one of those little guys and thinking, “Wow, this cute, helpless bundle of joy is a dirty rotten sinner deserving of nothing other than judgment and eternal destruction.” I mean, sure, there are probably times their parents have processed something like that when they’ve gotten them up for the twelfth time of the night, but for most of the rest of us, that’s not a place our minds are going to go very quickly, if at all. Now, by the time they get to 5- or 6-years-old we have become convinced of the idea. Maybe even before then. But children are so innocent-looking. Who really imagines they’re anything other than innocent in God’s eyes?
And, the data bears all of this out. On the whole, 70% of U.S. adults agreed with that idea, most of them (53% to be exact) strongly. When you filter the data for followers of Jesus, most of them agree as well to the tune of 65%. As we have seen several times now along this journey, though, among committed Jesus followers responding to that statement, while the total level of agreement goes down just a touch, the percentage of strong agreement is 61%. To put some words to all of these numbers, more evangelicals (that is, our kind of people, theologically speaking) strongly agree with the idea that everyone is born innocent in the eyes of God than in the culture at large. So, not only do we get this idea wrong more often than we don’t, but we get it more wrong than the culture around us does.
Yet before we go talking about why this is the wrong response to the statement, let’s acknowledge one more time that it is a totally understandable wrong response…even among believers. This is not a doctrine we naturally want to be correct. The heart of this idea’s being wrong is that we are guilty before God from birth. No one wants that. We naturally recoil from that idea. Even among Christians with a healthy understanding of sin and salvation, the idea that anyone is guilty from birth is hard to stomach. The doctrine of sin as it relates to human nature is the one part of an orthodox Christian theology that we most want to be false. Yet when we understand properly what is true, its glorious nature washes away any discomfort lingering here.
Okay then, so, what is true? For help with this one, we are going to look at something King David wrote. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy this morning, find your way to Psalms 51. That psalm reference may ring a bell for some folks. It is one of the more well known psalms David wrote. He wrote it as a prayer of confession to God after getting called out for violently taking advantage of a married woman and, fearing he was going to get busted for it, engineering the murder of her husband to cover his tracks. It was a truly terrible thing that David did. And while that kind of thing may have been par for the course for the rulers of other nations, God was not going to put up with it from the leaders of His people.
As far as confessions go, this one is pretty good. David is thorough. He doesn’t leave you with the impression that he takes his sin with anything other than the utmost of seriousness. This is no half-hearted apology where he’s really only sorry that anyone was offended by it, not for having actually done it, or—worse yet—where he’s really only sorry he got caught. He knows that he is guilty and because of that is deserving of judgment. He throws himself on the mercy of God, begging for grace. At the same time, he knows that forgiveness by itself isn’t enough. He needs to be cleansed from his sin. He needs a new heart and spirit in him. He cries out to the Lord, “God, create a clean heart for me and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” A bit earlier he asks God to “purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” Finding freedom from his sin is something that will only happen in God.
As powerful as the entire psalm is, there are two verses I want to draw our attention to in particular this morning. They come pretty early on in the psalm, so let’s start at the beginning and read down to them. David opens with a plea for grace: “Be gracious to me, God, according to your faithful love; according to your abundant compassion, blot out my rebellion. Completely wash away my guilt and cleanse me from my sin. For I am conscious of my rebellion, and my sin is always before me.” Again, that’s a great statement of confession that you probably need in your life. It’s what comes next, though, that’s so significant for our purposes this morning.
“Against you—you alone—have I sinned and done this evil in your sight. So you are right when you pass sentence; you are blameless when you judge. Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me.” Now, if you’re the kind of person who is sitting there taking notes, this is the part where you’ll want to put down your pen, lean in a little closer, and pay extra close attention so you don’t miss what David is saying here. He says two different things here that are pretty earthshaking when it comes to how we normally think about sin. One is worth noting generally because of how it underscores our universal need for Christ, the other is crucial to where we’re going this morning. Let’s start with the first.
David makes the claim here that all sin is ultimately against God. In other words, whenever a sin is committed, no matter what form it happens to take, God is always one of the offended parties. For example, if I punch you in the face, number one, it’s probably not going to hurt very much because I have little, scrawny arms. More importantly, though, while I am going to have to get right with you at some point, I’m also going to have to get right with God. I’m going to have to get right with God because I’ve hurt His kid, and He’s not very big on that. Even if you are simply sitting in your living room at home thinking hateful thoughts about another person that you absolutely never act on in any way, shape, or form such that you don’t really have any person you need to get right with, you still need to get right with God for that.
Now, David’s claim that sin is only against God is a little hard to understand at first because our sin often does hurt another person with whom we then need to reconcile. I think this is a poet’s way of pushing us to understand that not only is God one of the offended parties whenever we sin, but He is in fact the chiefly offended party. How? Because although our sin may be directed specifically against a creature in His creation, He’s the one who created that creature. By our sin we are expressing the view that His creation isn’t good enough as He created and defines how life in it should work, and that instead, our way is better. Or, if you want to think about it like this, while our active sin may offend another person, the thought process that occurred before the active sin was committed offends God, thus He is the one chiefly, firstly, primarily offended by it.
So, all sin offends God and offends God first. Fine. But what about this second idea? “Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me.” What on earth are we supposed to do with that? Well, David is pointing to a doctrine theologians have long referred to as original sin. And the idea here is just as David expresses it. Far from our all being born innocent in God’s eyes, what David is saying here is that we enter the world not on a level moral playing field, but with the deck already stacked against us. We’re running uphill out of the gate with greased feet and a slimy track to climb.
Okay, but how is that fair? Well…it’s not. But neither is sin. And we shouldn’t expect it to be. The problem here is that we—and by “we,” I mean everyone whether in the church or not—tend to think about sin primarily as something we do. In other words, we think of sin mostly as a behavior problem. Because of this, many, if not most, of our solutions to sin involve some form of behavior modification. And yet—let’s be painfully honest with each other for just a second—how many times in your life have you taken a behavioral modification approach to some ongoing issue of sin and it didn’t work? If you’re at all like me, there may be too many to count.
The explanation for this persistent pattern of failure is found in what David is pointing to here. If it is true that we are guilty from the moment of our conception onward (and you don’t have to argue with me about that; you can take up your issue with David…as long as you understand that in doing so, you are taking up your issue with God’s inspired word; but that’s between you and Him, not you and me), what this points to is the need for us to fundamentally alter our thinking about sin. Sin is not primarily a behavior issue. It’s not even primarily a character issue. It is an issue with our nature. In other words, sin is not merely something we do, it is someone we are. We are sinners by nature.
The way Paul describes it to the believers in ancient Rome is that when Adam sinned, his nature was changed. It was corrupted by sin. No longer was he a man of righteousness, but a man of sin. And just like you can probably point to certain genetic traits that manifest themselves across multiple generations of a single family, because we are all children of Adam, we all carry the seed of his corrupted nature in us. In other words, we are sinners. But lest I leave you thinking this is only a nature issue, that seed takes root, grows, and starts bearing its bitter fruit awfully early on in our lives. The first time your darling little toddler looks at you and says, “No!” (maybe even with a foot stomp for emphasis), that’s sin already manifesting itself. And when that happens, sin becomes a behavior issue as well as a nature issue. It’s a double threat. A deadly one at that.
Okay, but does this mean babies who die go to Hell? I mean, if we’re guilty from birth, and if we’re saved only by grace through faith, and if they haven’t had a chance to consciously accept Christ, the logic isn’t flowing in a good direction here. This is probably the single biggest reason most people shy away from this doctrine…this and our natural desire for a head start we talked about earlier. The answer is, no, I don’t think they do. And you aren’t likely to find many theologians down through the centuries who would argue otherwise. Okay, but how?
Because of something that has a whole lot more to do with this whole issue than you might expect. The reason I don’t think that—and most theologians across church history agree—is because of God’s character. We trust in the character of God revealed in the pages of the Scriptures. The God we find there is a whole lot of good things, but two things stand out above the rest for our purposes right now. He is just and He is love. This means that God always does the right thing, and that His doing of the right thing is always tempered liberally with mercy. No one, regardless of their age, will be condemned without the opportunity to have received Christ. For God to do otherwise would be unjust and above just nearly all else He’s not unjust.
This means a lot of things, but let me say just two of them and we’ll move on. It means that if you know someone who has experienced this heartbreaking reality, assure them with confidence that their little one is with Jesus. It also means that as parents, we’ve got to start teaching our kids the Gospel from a really early age. And just so we’re clear: bringing them to church, while absolutely necessary, is not sufficient in and of itself.
That aside, let’s talk about what all of this means from an even bigger picture than this—this idea that we are sinners and thus separated from God from conception onward. More than just about anything else, we’ve got to understand that this all makes sin a much, much bigger problem than perhaps we previously imagined. To underscore this point yet again, the problem here is not one of behavior. Sin is not simply something we do. You’re not going to be able to just change your behavior and fix the problem here. Trying harder won’t get you anywhere. Solutions to sin that involve nothing more than admonitions to do better will always fail because they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the problem. The problem is one of identity. Apart from Christ we are sinners. And, just like you can’t change your personality by mere force of will, you can’t solve your problem of sin by wishing it away. Apart from Christ we are stuck in sin because of our nature, deserving of nothing but death, and unable to make any meaningful changes to that reality on our own.
Yet if all of this makes sin an even bigger problem than we previously imagined, it also makes grace an even bigger solution. This is something the apostle Paul pointed to in that same passage from his letter to the believers in ancient Rome we mentioned a little while ago. In Romans 5:20 Paul writes this: “The law came along to multiply the trespass. But where sin multiplied, grace multiplied even more so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness, resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Sin is a great problem, but God is greater still. He wasn’t content to leave us to our own devices, separated from Him, and bound for death because of it. He acted in a big way to meet sin’s big challenge. In fact, He more than met it. He confronted it with overwhelming force and left it totally defeated in Christ. As the apostle John put it, “For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus, God the Son, came down from His eternally preexistent post as the second member of the Trinity, took on human flesh, became fully as one of us, and proceeded to live a perfect life. Because of the unique circumstances of His birth, Jesus was born without the original sin the rest of us carry, but He still had the opportunity to sin at any point in His life. Yet He consciously chose not to again and again and again as He walked the path of righteousness the Father had stretched out before Him. Then, having walked in perfect righteousness throughout His life, He gave up His life so that sin’s price could be paid. To put that in other words: God sacrificed His only Son so that our sin could be forgiven in Him. Now, everyone who is willing to put their faith in Him can enjoy the eternal life He earned. That’s life now with all the hope and peace and joy and love and all the rest we can handle, and life then that stretches on into eternity.
With sin’s price paid and the indwelling help and presence of the Holy Spirit in us, our natures are renewed so that they are something different than they were before. Remember: sin is an identity issue. Apart from Christ we are sinners. In Christ, though, we are saints. How can this be? How can we come by this totally new nature? By being born again. Just like you can’t change your fundamental personality apart from getting a totally fresh start at life, the same is true of our spirits. In Christ, we are born again. That’s the language the various guys who contributed to the New Testament use (including Jesus Himself). Just like we are sinners because of our being children of Adam, when we make ourselves children of God in Christ, our new birth causes a change in our nature from one of sin to one of righteousness. This is what we experience by our faith in Him. This is radical stuff. It is a radical solution to a radical problem. Sin is worse than we think, but grace is greater than we imagine. Sin is worse than we think, but grace is greater than we imagine.
So, yes, the hard truth is that we are not starting on a level moral playing field when it comes to our relationship with God. Adam messed that up for us way back in the Garden of Eden. He made himself and Eve with him into sinners, and that nature has been passed down ever since all the way to you and me. We don’t have to be taught to sin. It is not a learned behavior. It’s simply part of who we are from the very start. No one is born innocent in the eyes of God. We are all born sinners. And we sin. A lot. Sin is worse than we think.
But our God is so committed to being able to be in a relationship with us that He broke down all the walls and barriers to our being with Him, came Himself in Jesus, and paved the way back to righteousness and life if we want it. Grace is greater than we imagine. Sin is worse than we think, but grace is greater than we imagine. May you know and experience that grace as you give yourself fully to Him to be not only cleansed of your sin, but enabled by His Spirit to sin no longer. Sin is worse than we think, but grace is greater than we imagine. May you receive Him fully as your own in Christ so that you can enjoy the life you were always meant to live. Sin is worse than we think, but grace is greater than we imagine. May you rest in that grace and live.