His sin, spurned by rage, carnal in nature, is real and tangible. It seems huge, heavy and otherworldly. I know I am a sinner, but my pebble-sized sins seem nothing in comparison to those of the man on screen. And yet… there is something of the essence of his sin that I recognise in my own. It seems I have just become more comfortable, more familiar, with mine.
We don’t talk about sin anymore – not in the same way as the self-flagellating medieval Church used to. The seven deadly ones – the capital vices and cardinal sins – seem foreign and old-fashioned; the words are outdated – gluttony, sloth, wrath et al. As Francis Spufford writes in Unapologetic: “The word ‘sin, that well-known contemporary brand name for ice cream. And high-end chocolate truffles. And lingerie in which the colour red predominates.”
Today, sin is reduced to naughtiness. And our generation, all too familiar and maybe too friendly with the bad stuff, apologise to God for being naughty (while reminding Him that we just can’t help it; we’re filthy sinners by nature, you see) and then quickly fast forward to the bit where we’re thankful for His grace.
We’re grace people.
As Tim Keller once said: “The gospel of justifying faith means that while Christians are, in themselves still sinful and sinning, yet in Christ, in God’s sight, they are accepted and righteous. So we can say that we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope – at the very same time.”
There are times when we feel “more wicked” than we can dare to believe. There are occasional glimpses into the blackness of our hearts and we are left breathless by the utter weight of it all; moments where we’re repulsed by our own sinfulness and can’t escape the nagging thought that we are no better than the man on the screen.
Wicked. Filthy. Evil. Sinful.
But the recognition is fleeting, because to dwell on it seems both painful and a betrayal of Christ’s atoning work; the grace gift that’s already been given, dealt with, finished.
It just takes a glimpse, a brief recognition of our sins, to realise – as Keller goes on to say – the more “precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears” in light of them.
And therein lies the rub. Maybe the fleeting glimpses are not enough. Maybe we’re not recognising our sin. As people of faith in an anything-goes culture, maybe we are being blinded by it all; skipping over the sin-induced chasm into the arms of grace and towards the god-of-anything-goes. Jesus himself says in Mark 3:28: “I promise you that any of the sinful things you say or do can be forgiven, no matter how terrible those things are.” And because the saviour says so, we treat grace like a get-out-of-jail-free card; living in an attitude of grace but at the same time helplessly saturated with sin.
We’re not the first ones to have gone through this. At the start of chapter six of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he warns: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!”
Maybe what we need is a bit more John Owen in our daily reading. In The Mortification of Sin, the seventeenth century theologian urges Christians to make no room for sin in their lives, to do battle with it – and to win. “Where sin, through the neglect of mortification, gets a considerable victory, it breaks the bones of the soul,” he writes.
He writes elsewhere in the book: “Sin will not only be striving, acting, rebelling, troubling, disquieting, but if let alone, if not continually mortified, it will bring forth great, cursed, scandalous, soul-destroying sins.
“The works of the flesh are manifest, which are, adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft; hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like.”
How many did you tick off that list?
And even if you’re holier-than-I, even your milder sins, the naughtiness not mentioned here, is heading towards becoming a big sin, according to Owen. A lingering glance at a man who’s not your husband is on a trajectory towards adultery; a jealous thought is ultimately heading towards the murder of that person you are jealous of. Jesus alludes to this in the Sermon on the Mount when he suggests the naughty thoughts might as well be the big sins.
Is it all hopeless then? Though we know we are in relationship with God, are we to dwell constantly on our sins, to live our lives prostrated before Him, unable to lift our heads, clothed in filthy rags, constantly reminding Him of our unworthiness?
Because trouble comes when we focus on ourselves and not to the One it’s all about, the reason why sin is so unacceptable – because of God and His perfect holiness. If we keep our focus on Him, maybe we’ll throw off all the bad stuff, the sin that “so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12). And run.
This article is from our Seven deadly sins edition. You can read the other articles here.