VICTORY OVER SIN AND TEMPTATION
Chapter 6: Some more questions about sin
The purpose of this chapter is to answer various questions about sin and temptation that we did not previously consider, or discuss sufficiently. We have collected them in this separate chapter so that the answers would not interfere with or confuse the discussion in the other chapters of this study.
1. “Why is sin part of the universe in the first place? If sin has resulted in such a mess, why did God allow Adam to sin?”
If we ask these questions out of our pain and sorrow as a complaint, or out of our anger as an accusation, or if we think that God is inept or unfair, then we will find no answers. One thing is for sure, the presence of sin in the world is not God’s fault. Nor is it evidence of God’s defective workmanship in Creation. God made everything very good. The ultimate reason God allowed Adam to sin is a mystery we cannot fully understand now. That limitation in our knowledge is humbling and reminds us of Who is in control of the universe (Deut. 29:29). The Bible states that we have a fundamental obligation to submit to all that God has revealed in His Word and trust Him for all He has not revealed. We must do that without full prior understanding, based solely upon a trust in God’s character and competency.
Nevertheless, there are some good answers that explain a lot to those who submit to the authority of the Bible. The universe that God created, which includes space, time and the people who inhabit it, is an arena in which God tests what He has made (Prov. 17:3) in order to show something important about mankind and about Himself. Through Adam’s sin, God is able to display many things.
For one thing, God displays something about the nature of man. Adam’s disobedience revealed the fact that even a perfect, sinless man in a perfect uncorrupted environment can sin. Man cannot maintain his perfection by his own effort, without the help of God. When Adam was tempted to eat of the forbidden fruit, his response should have been to cry out to God for strength to remain faithful. The message of the Bible is that a perfect man is by nature totally dependent upon God to continue to remain perfect and sinless.
For another thing, God displays something about Himself. The depth of Adam’s and all of his descendant’s subsequent personal corruption reveals how much God had to do and was willing to do in order to free His people from the burden of their sin. That is, God was able to reveal His amazing love (Rom. 5:8). In addition to that, the depth of mankind’s corruption reveals God’s amazing competency, as He flawlessly executed His salvation plan despite the impediment and opposition of a sinful world (Acts 4:25-28).
2. “Why does God punish sinners?”
Even though sin is as terrible as we have previously described, it still is fair to ask, “Why does God punish sinners?” After all, if God insists that we forgive, why does He judge? Doesn’t He tell us to love our enemies? Besides that, isn’t He big enough to forgive and forget? Can’t He let by-gones be by-gones?
Is it because people’s sins are so odious and obnoxious that they deserve to be punished? Their sins certainly are disgusting. For that reason alone we should not be surprised that God reacts in wrath to those who hate Him and who show it by their deliberate disobedience. The terror and horror of God’s wrath is equal to the wickedness of men’s sin. Men are as wickedly ungodly and unrighteous as the wrath of God implies. Therefore, punishment will come to them for all of their sins, as we read in Matthew 12:36-37 and Revelation 20:13-14. However, the punishment of sinners is not first of all based upon how wicked their thoughts, words and deeds are. The Bible says there are no levels of sin. Every sin is equally bad (James 2:10), beyond limits so to speak, and ripe for judgment.
Ultimately, God punishes sin because He has to. First of all, God must punish people for their sins because He said He would (Gen. 2:16,17). He must keep His Word (Num. 23:19, Rom. 3:5,6), He is the God of Truth (Deut. 32:4, Psalm 31:5, John 14:6). He cannot lie (Num. 23:19, Rom. 3:4, Titus 1:2, Heb. 6:18).
Secondly, God must judge sinners because He is Sovereign, in total control of His universe (Isa. 40:21-23, Rev. 4:11). We can understand this reason in the following way. If people disobeyed God’s laws with impunity, without any fear of consequences, and if people escaped the consequences of their sins, then they would do what is right in their own eyes and what satisfied their own personal desires. They would be in control. God’s moral laws would not apply as He has stated. His laws wouldn’t mean anything. Also, He would not be able to hold anyone accountable for their behavior. Therefore, He would not be God, the One who has total, absolute and final authority over all that He has made.
Thirdly, God must judge sinners because God created people in His own image. That means, among many other things, that God created people to be as righteous as He is (Matt. 5:48, I Peter 1:16). That is, God holds people to the same standard that He has for Himself. It is not that God is a slave to His own laws, but that God is who He is and His laws are statements of His character. He expects all people to display the same character He has, and holds them accountable for the difference. Anyone who is found guilty of sin, which reveals a character that is different than God’s, will endure the wrath of God. The Cross showed that. That is, God would not spare His own Son but judged Him who bore the sins of His people. God’s integrity was displayed in His judgment upon Jesus, which guaranteed the judgment of all who are condemned and must bear the punishment for their own sins.
Incidentally, our assurance that salvation is real is based upon the fact that judgment is real. Jeremiah 32:42 states, “For thus saith the LORD; Like as I have brought all this great evil (judgment) upon this people, so will I bring upon them all the good (salvation) that I have promised them.” Judgment and blessing go together. In fact, judgment shows mercy is certain. What is the connection between judgment and salvation?
For one thing, God claims that He can do both (II Peter 2:9). If He cannot keep His Word to punish, then how do we know if He can keep His Word to save? Judgment Day for unsaved people has not yet occurred inasmuch as the end of the world has not come. Yet there is a taste of judgment upon the world now, in the form of God’s curse, whose physical consequences even affects God’s people. This preparation for judgment, and the actual event of Judgment Day, show that God means business in all that He says, both to punish and to save.
For another thing, God’s judgment upon Jesus was the guarantee of salvation for His people. Not only did it provide the complete payment for sin that was required by the Law, but it also revealed God means what He says and that the fulfillment of the statement, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) is a certainty. If His Word of condemnation will not be compromised, even to spare His own Son, neither will He modify nor cancel His promise to save His people (Rom. 8:32).
However, we must be careful when we connect judgment and salvation. Judgment is an obligation that is based upon the integrity of God’s Word, and therefore the honor of His character. Judgment is His automatic, inevitable response to sin. We said God punishes because He has to. In contrast to that, however, God’s salvation is not automatic or inevitable. God saves people because in His own counsels He has decided to save some. Once He decided, He self-obligated Himself to be merciful to those people whom He had promised to save. So, we can say that God saves because He wants to, for His good pleasure and glory (Eph. 1:5-6, Rev. 4:11). In other words, punishment is a wage that must be paid but salvation is a gift that is pledged and bestowed by grace.
When we see the tokens of the final judgment such as the increasing evil in this world, we must not be fearful and unbelieving. We must flee to the Savior. The brokenness of this world shows that the Lord knows how to judge. Therefore, we are sure that He knows how to save. The present evidence that God is able to judge shows that His promised salvation is secure. When we see the token of the final judgment, we find comfort in the sure word of prophecy, for He who promised final judgment, promised complete salvation, too.
3. “Does God hate sinners?”
In Romans 1:18 we read, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” These words seem to support the common misconception of sin that is many times expressed as, “God hates the sin but not the sinner.” Such a view implies that sin is an evil object or malevolent force independent of people, or that sin is some enemy from whose clutches poor people must be rescued. That kind of thinking is very widespread and terribly wrong, and Romans 1:18 does not really support it. Although Romans 1:18 does say that God’s wrath is against unrighteousness and ungodliness, people are the ones who sin. Sin exists because people exist. Therefore, God does not punish sin. He punishes people. He does not send sin to Hell. He sends people to Hell.
Any attempt to separate people from the sin they commit is artificial and dangerous. It leads to the doctrinal perversion that God loves everyone in a redemptive way, when in fact not all people are redeemed. It also leads to an emaciated Gospel mandate that states Christians must not scare people into Heaven by talking about Hell and damnation but only show them God’s love in word and in deed. However, the Bible states that God hates the workers of iniquity (Psalm 5:5, 11:5, 26:5, 31:6, 139:21,22, Amos 3:1, Zeph. 2:5). Therefore, it is the job of every believer to warn all men of the danger into which their sin places them (Ezek. 3:16-21, II Cor. 5:9-11). If salvation is anything it is a rescue of people. It is a rescue, not from the moral and psychological manifestation and consequences of sin, but from the hands of an angry God (Heb. 10:31), Who will see to it that sinners receive the punishment they deserve (II Thess. 1:8, Heb. 12:29).
Romans 5:10 supports this idea. It states, “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” Also Colossians 1:21 states, “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled.” It is true that Satan is the sworn enemy of God and encourages people to sin. Satan also seeks to suppress God’s truth as well as remove God’s image from man. But we cannot blame Satan for people’s personal sins. From Romans 5:10 and Colossians 1:21 we learn that sinners are enemies of God, and that includes all the hatred we expect between enemies. As we learned previously, people’s sins against God are meant personally. Therefore, God punishes people personally in response.
And yet we might wonder, “Does God hate people before they are saved?” What we have said so far about God’s attitude toward sinners certainly applies to all people who die unsaved. In the sense that those people whom God intends to save are truly His enemies before they are saved, we could say that God’s attitude is the same as it is toward any of His enemies. However, in as much as those people whom God intends to save were always included in His Gospel plan, designed in His love before the foundation of the world, it is too much to say that God hated them before they were saved. That is, all of God’s enemies are not the same in His eyes. In themselves, all sinners are the same. There is no difference (Rom. 2:11, 3:9). However, by sovereign grace, God decides to make a difference and elects some to be His dear beloved children (Rom. 5:8, 9:11-13).
4. “Are some sins worse than other sins? Are there less serious ‘venal’ sins and more serious ‘mortal’ sins? Are there big sins and little sins? For example, are there “white” lies that are less punishable if they result in good? Are actions that are against the law of God condoned if they are done for a good reason?”
The answer to all of these questions is, “No.” It is true that some sins leave more noticeable marks upon the lives of people than other sins. It is true that some sins are more readily infectious and habit forming than other sins. It is true that some sins lead to a separation from the means of grace. It is true that some sins are private, affecting only ourselves, while others are public, affecting other people. It is true that some sins have more and lasting consequences in this life than other sins. However, the amount of embarrassment or pain our sins cause ourselves and other people, as well as the amount of serious and lasting consequences that result from our sins, are not a measure of the anger of God against those sins.
According to James 2:10 and I John 5:17, all sins are the same. In support of this, we should notice that the Tenth Commandment is the same as the First Commandment because if we covet, we place the object of our desire before God (Exod. 20:1-17). The object becomes our idol.
Also, committing a sin in order to accomplish a good purpose is based upon the premise that the ends justify the means. But that notion is really a statement of unbelief. It is saying that we cannot always trust God to work things out according to His will, but instead must assist Him by working things differently, otherwise His purpose would not be accomplished.
Therefore, all sins are equally terrible, no matter what the apparent result may be and no matter what motivation we think is behind it. All sins are rebellion against God.
5. “Do unborn children or little babies sin? Are they accountable to God?”
The answer is, “Yes.” All people are sinners from conception (Psalm 51:5, 58:3). The size of a person’s body or the level of his physical and mental maturity does not change his spiritual condition. A soul does not change its nature according to its age on earth. The statement in Proverbs 22:15, “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child,” applies to children of all ages. All people need salvation, even small children and babies. Wonderfully, some are saved even before they are physically born (Luke 1:41).
Jesus’ visit to the temple at age twelve is not an example of a person leaving childhood and becoming of age. That is, little children are not innocent and then become threatened by the wrath of God and Hell when they reach an imagined “age of accountability.” If that were so, then it would be better if all children die at a young age in order to guarantee for them a place in Heaven.
As a corollary to this, we should mention that, when we have the opportunity to bring the Gospel to a child, we must not have the idea that some biblical topics do not apply to children and so should be left out of our presentation. It is appropriate to use simple and clear sentences, having in mind their smaller vocabulary, rudimentary grasp of grammar and limited life experience. But all subjects to which the Gospel speaks must be included in what we say. That means we cannot avoid the ideas of sin and judgment. As it turns out, little children are able to understand more than we usually think. But more importantly, they need to hear the complete message of the Bible because, if they are not saved, they are yet under the threat of God’s judgment.
6. “Could I commit a sin that is so bad that it will never be forgiven by God? Can I ever be beyond hope? What about the ‘unforgivable sin’?”
When someone’s heart is smitten with remorse for the sins he has committed, he must remember the principle of Isaiah 1:18. As long as someone is physically alive, there is hope. There is always a way back to God (John 14:6). A person need only seek God for grace and mercy (Isaiah 55:6-7), that He would grant him the inclination and power to humble himself before God. Also, a person need only ask God for the ability to trust in His promise of mercy, made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Psalm 80:17-19).
If a person fears, it may be that he has a reason to fear. He may not be saved. But help is still available in the Gospel (II Cor. 6:2). If a person fears and is saved, it may be that he has been playing with a sin and is not ready to give it up. It could be that God is graciously working in his heart in preparation of pushing him to repent. Sin is behind all problems that a person may have. Therefore, it is always good for a person to review his fears, turn away from what is precious to his flesh, and turn toward what is important to God.
Having said all that, let us now try to understand the words, “hath never forgiveness,” found in Mark 3:29. First, we should set aside some wrong ideas about what people call the “unforgivable sin.” The unforgivable sin is not the same as committing a really bad sin, a sin so offensive to God that He is unwilling to forgive it. Otherwise no one would be saved, because the Bible states that all sins are the same (James 2:10). We must also reject the idea that the unforgivable sin is equal to refusing to believe in Jesus, or to resisting His Gospel call. All people do that before they are saved. Finally, committing “the unforgivable sin” is not the same as following another religion and calling the Gospel “not the way of salvation.” Before people are saved, they all believe in something else, even if they believe only in themselves.
What, then, do the words, “hath never forgiveness,” mean? What is this sin, also called, “blaspheme against the Holy Ghost”? Another verse that might help us is I John 5:16. Let us try to understand the phrases, “a sin which is not unto death,” and “there is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.” These are troublesome words to some people. The second phrase especially worries people. After all, how can a person possibly have any hope of salvation if he might have committed a sin for which he can never pray for forgiveness?
All sins are sins “unto death” in the sense that the consequence of sin is eternal condemnation in Hell (Rom. 6:23). Therefore, the idea of the phrase “not unto death” must refer to a sin which is not liable to that penalty. The idea is that if a man sinned and it was “not unto death,” that is, it did not lead unto his death in Hell, it is because he found salvation in Jesus Christ. The reason that the sin is “not unto death” is that Jesus removed the condemnation and the subsequent penalty of eternal death under the wrath of God by taking the penalty upon Himself. Maybe, to be most accurate, we could say that the phrase means “not unto the death of a sinner who believes,” for it was “unto Jesus’ death,” in as much as Jesus died for a believer’s sins.
On the other hand, in contrast to what we just concluded, we could say that a sin “unto death” is the sin of a person who remains under the condemnation of God. I John 5:16 adds, “There is a sin unto death ... I do not say that he shall pray for it.” Therefore, we are forced to understand the words, “there is a sin unto death” to mean there is a special sin for which there is no provision made on the cross because, according to I John 5:16, there is no use praying for the forgiveness of that sin. There is no use praying for a sin for which no payment has been made. The person who sinned that sin must face the judgment of God on his own without the benefit of a substitute.
The only sin recorded in the Bible which fits that description is the sin commonly called “the unforgivable sin,” as we read in Mark 3:29. That sin is defined as accusing Jesus of operating with the power and the motivation of Satan (Mark 3:22,30). Jesus is the only Savior which the world has and ever will know (I John 2:2). If a man decides and is fully convinced in his heart that Jesus is really working for and with the devil, then he has no other savior to turn to for salvation from the wrath to come. This seems to be a very special sin, not commonly found among even the most wicked men. A person who is guilty of this sin would never want the salvation of the Lord, because he thinks the gospel is not the promise of salvation. He is not concerned whether the gospel of the Bible is true or part of his life.
Therefore, anyone who is concerned that he may have committed a sin that is beyond forgiveness, has not. The fact that a person worries about it is a good sign. That attitude of alarm reveals that he has a fear of God. Anyone who sincerely believes Jesus is of Satan is not worried about this sin, or his standing before God, at least not on God’s terms. But, of a man who is worried that he might have committed the “unforgivable sin,” one thing is for sure. He could not be guilty of the “sin unto death” mentioned in I John 5:16.
However, he should not find any solace in the fact that he is worried, if he stops there. That worry ought to drive him to deal with any sin that makes him feel distant from God. He ought to seek reconciliation with God and put his worries aside. In fact, the Bible’s statement of the sin against the Holy Spirit is a test for all people. The question is, will that concern lead a person to self-examination, cause him to appeal for mercy, and result in his trusting God’s word of forgiveness? Or will the claim that he has gone beyond the point of no return be used by a person as a prideful excuse for refusing to submit to God’s Gospel plan? Will he, in perverted self-righteousness disguised as despair, continue on a path of his own choosing?
Incidentally, we do not know a person’s heart. We must leave the decision of a person’s destiny up to God alone. We must never decide that someone has committed a sin “unto death” and cease praying for them. Everyone we meet is a candidate for prayerful evangelism.
7. “What will happen to me if I die at the time that I commit a sin? For example, what if I commit suicide, or die because of my foolish carelessness? Will I be forgiven if I die before I can ask for forgiveness?”
First of all, salvation is totally a work of God, independent of anything that a person does. God alone places all of a person’s past, present and future sins upon the Redeemer. God alone works in a person’s heart to give him a new life. After someone becomes saved, no one can do anything to change that permanent standing before God.
Therefore, salvation is not dependent upon the action of asking for forgiveness for each and every sin, nor is it rescinded if someone neglected to ask for forgiveness for a particular sin. If God has paid for a person’s sins because He intends to make that person His child, then God will incline that person to ask for forgiveness for any sin that He brings to his attention, in faith and with a contrite heart. But a person’s request for forgiveness has no spiritual value or power in itself. His prayer for forgiveness is only evidence of the fact God has already paid for all his sins and is already working in his heart. The power of salvation rests totally in the Gospel (Rom. 1:16). The Gospel is a once-for-all work of God, that even a sin committed at death cannot undo (Rom. 8:1, John 5:24).
Secondly, everybody has many sins for which they have not prayed at the moment they die. No one would ever be saved if salvation depended upon asking for forgiveness for each sin, especially since we commit many sins of which we are unaware. Remember, salvation is a work of God that is dependent upon nothing, at least nothing we do or do not do. If we are saved, our actions cannot change our standing before God.
A sin such as suicide is dramatic and without recourse. It is understandable that people consider it to be particularly evil, especially when we realize that it is self-murder. No wonder people ask, “Can someone who commits suicide be saved?” As we stated, “Yes, he can be saved because salvation is totally a work of God, independent of his performance.”
However, if someone is in such deep despair that it leads him to take the extreme action of suicide, he displays a lack of trust in God. It is the same as turning his back upon God, as if God were no one to rely on for help. Anyone can sin like that momentarily and do something that will not allow him to think things out more rationally later. But the fuller answer is that we leave the spiritual destiny of other people in the hands of God. It could be that the person only appeared to be a believer, until his lack of trust in God was revealed under duress. It could be that the person was a believer who lacked a faithful habit of prayer and Bible study. At best suicide is a sign of great weakness and a poor testimony to trusting in God’s care.
8. “Can I sin without knowing it? Am I still accountable for sins I commit unawares?”
The answer is, “Yes.” Sin labels any thought, word or deed that is not exactly in accordance with God’s law. Our ignorance or misunderstanding of God’s law does not alter the results of a comparison between our performance and the perfect standard of God’s law. Acts 17:30 and I Timothy 1:13 do not excuse men. The verses simply remind us that God is patient with sinners who must repent. Disobedience is disobedience, a fact that is not canceled by our lack of conscious knowledge of the law’s demands (Lev. 22:14-16, Josh. 20:1-5, Psalm 19:12).
As it turns out, we all have a conscience that tells us what is wrong and right (Rom. 2:14,15), even though it may be a scarred and twisted conscience. So our claim of ignorance is not completely valid.
We can be confused, forgetful or misled and thus go contrary to God’s law. Yet it is still disobedience. And, if we are unsaved, we must give an account for the difference between our actions and the demands of God’s law.
If we are saved, the good news is that God’s sacrifice of Jesus covers all of our sins, those we know about and the ones we do not. We must keep in mind that salvation is a work of God alone and is not dependent upon our knowledge or effort. We are not asked to keep an accurate ledger of our sins in order to make sure we have asked for forgiveness for them all and are fully pardoned thereby. That attempt for completeness is a display of a gospel of works, that is, a salvation that is dependent upon something we do. Salvation is not equal to knowing all of our sins, repenting of all our sins and asking for forgiveness for all our sins. In fact, true believers will go to the grave not fully realizing the full extent of their disobedience. God alone realizes the extent of their disobedience, and pardons them fully for the sake of His Son, Jesus. That is a display of God’s redeeming love and grace toward His children.
If we are saved but not mature in our understanding of God’s Word, we can, in some matters, think incorrectly about what the Bible says. Our consciences may have been wrongly trained in the past and may continue that way until we mature in the Bible. However, if our hearts are right, we should follow our weak and distorted consciences, even if they give us wrong guidance. If we believe something to be right, whether it actually is or not, then we should not deliberately transgress what we think to be right because such an action would be rebellion (Rom 14:23). The reason is that why we do something is more important than what we do. Why we do something is a reflection of our heart attitude, but what we actually do is tempered by what we know.
Nevertheless, if we are truly saved, God will cause us to grow. Over time, God will reshape our consciences by means of His Word, a change that is welcomed by all true believers. Over time, God will renew our minds to conform to His, as we mature in our understanding of God’s Word (Rom. 12:1-2).
Because Jesus has taken the penalty for all of our sins, we will not be judged for any actions that are not in accord with God’s laws, whether we fully realize what we have done or not. The important thing is that we have hearts that seek to honor God and serve men. A right heart is a sign of salvation (Rom. 6:18).
9. “Will God allow a true believer to go far into sin?”
God deals with believers as a father does with children. Imagine that a father is in the front of his house working in the garden and his little child is playing near the sidewalk. The father may allow the child to wander a little way toward the street and the child may be scared by a large dog or a car that rushes by unexpectedly. But the father would not allow the child to be bit or enter the street and be hurt. Similarly, if we are God’s child, and yet have a stubborn insistence in one area of our life, God may allow us that indulgence to a degree, even to our physical and mental harm, but never to our spiritual destruction. That principle is illustrated in the lives of Abraham, Lot, David, Peter and John Mark, among others.
God has His own reasons for dealing with each of His children in various ways. But as has been said, “experience keeps a dear school” and often we will learn in none other. Many lessons are thoroughly learned only in the school of “hard knocks.” The lessons that God’s people gain from the consequences of their own folly are often etched into their memories and stand them in good stead for future challenges, as well as help them convincingly explain God’s ways to others.
However, if people who previously identified themselves with Christianity go completely away from the faith, it could be that they were never really saved in the first place, despite their apparent zeal and faithfulness. Their previous identification could have been based upon the fact they grew up in the church or maybe they thought they might gain some advantage associating with church members. If, on the other hand, people are truly saved, then their waywardness is part of their hard education in the harm and waste of sin. Eventually, God will draw those people back, sadder but wiser.
David’s sinful, foolish dalliance with Bathsheba and his successful scheme to kill her husband would make anyone think that he was not saved, for who would imagine that God would allow one of his children to wander so far? Clearly, we cannot make an assessment about another person’s spiritual condition based upon his outward behavior. God alone knows a man’s heart. But a person who truly is saved will not make excuses or rationalizations when faced with his sin. After Nathan pointed out David’s sin, the dagger of God’s Word cut deeply and David bitterly repented of his sin. Even though the physical consequences remained, David’s true love for God was revealed in the light of God’s Word.
10. “Does God view the sin a Christian commits differently than the same sin committed by a non-Christian?”
In one sense the answer to the question is, “Yes.” The sins that a Christian commits are covered by Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. Jesus has paid for them all, past, present and future. God remembers them no more. So, there are no eternal consequences for the sins of a Christian. In contrast to that, the same sins committed by someone who is unsaved will be reviewed by God on Judgment Day, the result of which will be to consign him to eternal Hell.
In another sense the answer to the question is, “No.” For one thing, the rules of God are the same for all. Christians and non-Christians must obey God. Christians must obey in gratitude and love for their Savior. Non-Christians must obey because they are God’s creatures and accountable as people created in His image. The law of God does not disappear from the life of a person who has been saved by God’s grace. A Christian cannot say, “free from the law, happy condition,” if he means that he does not have to live by God’s rules (Rom. 6:1-2). He is free from condemnation (Rom. 8:1), free from the obligation to obey the law in order to be right with God (Gal. 5:1) and free from the dominion of his sinful flesh (Rom. 6:17-18). However, any sin a believer commits is just as wicked as the same sin anyone else commits. In fact, his sin can be viewed as particularly horrid inasmuch as he sins despite having the resources at his disposal to resist its attraction, whereas as an unbeliever is spiritually dead and cannot respond to the commandments of God.
Also, the physical and mental consequences of sin are the same for both Christians and non-Christians. That means on this side of eternity, the physical and mental effects of sin are often indelible. To the general curse under which all people live, Christian and non-Christian alike, we can add the consequences of their foolish behavior. For example, an episode of sexual indiscretion can lead to a debilitating disease from which a person may suffer the rest of his life, whether he is saved or not saved. In another example, a man who is divorced and remarried is no longer eligible to serve as an elder in a church, even after he becomes saved.
The sins of a Christian and a non-Christian are equally expensive on this side of eternity. Sin often results in a loss of time, opportunity and human relationships. A Christian can repair some of the damage his sins cause, but there will always be a reminder of his past foolishness. This arrangement is God’s will and a token of His care. The painful reminders of past sins that come to a Christian’s mind serve to humble him. They also maintain and increase his appreciation for God’s past and present grace, and draw him closer to his Lord.
11. “Should I ask for forgiveness from someone against whom I have sinned? Or do I just ask for God’s forgiveness? What if the person is not aware that I have sinned against him?”
If the person is aware of your sin against him, then it might be right to ask for his forgiveness, depending upon the situation. For example, in a family, where people spend much time close together and know each other well, it is almost always appropriate to ask for forgiveness for sins committed between them. A husband should ask for forgiveness of his wife, and a wife of her husband. Parents should ask forgiveness of their children, and children of their parents.
Similarly, there are times to ask for forgiveness of co-workers and friends. But even in these cases, it is far better to repent before God, ask for His forgiveness, and take steps to change your thoughts, words and deeds, rather than rush to ask for forgiveness. A change in what you say and do sets the stage for peace between you and another person against whom you may have sinned. The reason a request for forgiveness may not be required is that a change in your words and actions will often resolve the problem and no further conversation is needed. Besides, a change in your words and actions is a lot more impressive Gospel witness and is usually necessary to ensure that your eventual contrite request for forgiveness will be taken seriously. Talk is cheap. People will be more likely to notice a clear and sustained change in you, even if you have not acknowledged and confessed the sinful words you may have said and the sinful actions you may have done.
If the other person does not know you have sinned against him in thought, word or deed, then it is best to talk to God alone about it and leave it with Him. Telling the other person could easily lead to his misunderstanding and may cause that person to have thoughts about you or the sin you committed that he should not think. For example, you should never encourage the attitude of self-justification in yourself or in another person, which an admission of guilt may cause. If you have repented and taken steps to change, then the problem is solved. Remember, ultimately your sin is against God, and you are accountable to Him alone, not to any man.
12. “Can I confess my sins to another person so that he can go to God and ask Him for forgiveness on my behalf? Can someone else pardon my sin as the representative of God?”
The answer to both questions is, “Absolutely no!” It is true that in James 5 we read the command “pray for one another.” We can and should pray for other people. Abraham prayed for the city of Sodom (Genesis 18:23-32). A certain ruler prayed for his daughter (Matt. 9:18,19). But we must never pray in place of each other, as a proxy. Only God in the persons of Jesus and the Holy Spirit does that (Rom. 8:26,27, I Tim. 2:5, I John 2:2). Each person must come to God on His own to plead for God’s mercy (Isaiah 55:6,7, Luke 18:13-14).
13. “When bad things happen to me, is God punishing me for my sins? When good things are denied or taken away from me, is it because I don’t deserve them?”
The answer to the first question is, “No.” But the reason why is different for non-Christians than for Christians. The bad things that happen to non-Christians are not punishments from God because the time for God’s punishment of unsaved people has not yet come. Punishment of all unsaved people will be administered at the end of the world (Matt. 24:29-30, John 12:48, Rev. 6:13-17). We must keep in mind that punishment is the payment a person receives for the sins he commits (Matt. 12:36-37, Rev. 20:12-13). But that payment cannot be given until after his deeds have been examined in order to determine what he has earned. In other words, a trial must precede punishment. That trial, when God will examine the lives of all unbelievers, occurs on Judgment Day. Inasmuch as that great trial has not yet taken place, it is not possible for God to administer any punishment now.
In light of that, we can understand the bad things that non-Christians experience to be a result of God’s general curse to which He subjected His universe and its inhabitants in answer to Adam’s sin. Also, we can recognize the bad things that afflict people as consequences of their own particular foolish behavior. Furthermore, the bad things that happen to people who continue as unbelievers until the end of time serve to prepare them for the judgment to come. Unbelievers are prepared as they react in bitterness and despair to their problems, a reaction that reveals their wicked hearts and their unbelief.
In contrast to that, the bad things that happen to Christians are not punishments from God because God’s time to punish those whom He saves has already come. In fact, true believers will never personally be punished for any of their sins because Jesus has taken all of their punishment upon Himself, which includes punishment for all of their past, present and future sins (I Peter 2:24).
It is true that people in authority on earth, such as parents or governmental officials, may punish who are under their jurisdiction. And they should, when it is appropriate. God has obligated them to punish (Prov. 22:15, Rom. 13:1-4). Among other things, any earthly punishment they dispense is a lesson that a man reaps what he sows. God wants His people to see a picture of His ultimate punishment at the end of time, in order that they might fear. God can use those earthly punishments to prepare the heart of an unbeliever for salvation. Also, God can use earthly punishments to make Christians walk more humbly. However, the earthly punishments Christians sometimes endure on earth now are not really punishments from God, that is, not in the sense that they are payment for the sins they commit.
In addition to that, some of the bad things Christians experience are totally unrelated to the idea of punishment, earthly or otherwise. For one thing, Christians can expect unbelievers of the world to abuse them because of their faithful life and testimony. For another thing, Christians can expect “chastisement” from their Heavenly Father. That is, God’s love is shown to His children in that He does not abandon them to their folly, but rather teaches them to walk away from sin and live more faithfully to Him (Heb. 12:6). Rather than giving them up to their own wicked devices, as He does unbelievers (Psalm 78:29, Rom. 1:24), God spanks his children through the hard experiences He sends their way in response to their sins. God teaches them valuable lessons thereby. The objective of the chastisement is not punishment, but the peaceable fruit of righteousness (Heb. 12:11). In that light, although we could say that chastisement is bad in the sense it is painful, it is not really a bad thing because it causes Christians to grow spiritually. In other words, Christians must understand that God works all bad things “for good to them that love God” (Rom. 8:28).
The second question can be answered in the following way. It is true, in general, that a person’s behavior which conforms to the will of God tends to result in benefits for him. It is also true that a person’s foolishness often causes him to miss a blessing. Furthermore, it is true that all men, Christians included, sin all of their lives on earth and do not deserve anything good. However, we must not think that God withholds or removes good things from a person because some of his particular sins make him unworthy of enjoying those good things. We must not make that kind of connection between a person’s specific sins and the blessings of God. For example, a child must not think, “My mother died of cancer because I do not deserve a mother’s care.” Nor should a child think, “My mother and father divorced because I don’t deserve to have any parents or a happy home.” God does not deprive a child of his mother or father based upon what He sees in that child’s heart and life. It is true that a child could do something accidentally or even deliberately that would naturally lead to his mother’s death. Or a child could be such a problem that it adds to the strain between his parents. But God does not remove a child’s parent in death or allow a child’s parents to divorce as a way to show the child he is not worthy of a normal family.
For one thing, many of the bad things that happen to a person and many of the good things that are denied a person cannot be automatically related to his particular sins. After all, there are factors which shape a person’s life on earth that are known only to God. The best way to analyze the experiences in a person’s life is through the lens of the Gospel. If a person is not a believer, then God may give good things to him or remove good things from him in order to prepare him for judgment or call him to His Kingdom (Rom. 2:4-5). If a person is a true believer, then God works all things together for his spiritual benefit, now and into eternity (Gen. 50:20, Prov. 12:21).
For another thing, the good things that come to a Christian are not related his own work but to the grace of God. Again, no one really deserves any benefits of family or health that come from God, benefits that many people take for granted. Any blessing a Christian happens to receive in his life is a gift. God gives good things far beyond what anyone has a right to expect. He gives as a Father to His children, according to the love of His heart, expressed in the promises found in His Word, the greatest which is an eternity of fellowship with Him in Heaven.
14. “Are the wicked things I do just a result of being human?”
Yes, in one sense, it is true that “to sin is human.” But no one can use that fact to excuse his sin. It does no good to complain, “I really can’t help it, that’s the way I am. Nobody is perfect. You just have to expect some sin in a human’s life. I am doing the best that I can and it is unreasonable and unfair to demand anything more from me.” Of course sinners can’t help it. Of course that is the way they are. However, that is the problem for which the Gospel was designed and brought to earth in Jesus. What a sinner cannot do, God can. God calls people to seek Him while He may be found. In that way they may find the supernatural motivation and power to turn from sin and obey God.
Is important to recognize that people are not sinners because they are human. Being human is not the crime for which people are condemned. After all, Adam and Eve were human and without sin before the Fall. Not only that, Jesus was fully human, but He never sinned (Heb. 2:14, 4:15, I John 3:5). The problem is not that all people are part of the human race but that they are part of a fallen human race. The sin of people is not a testimony to their design but to the fact that something is wrong with their hearts and souls.
It is not as if Adam and Eve were created sinful. Originally God created Adam as a perfect creature. Only after that, Adam sinned. Consequently, Adam died in his soul and became a sinner, that is, a person dominated by the sinful desires in his flesh. Then, Adam passed that sinful nature on to his descendants (Rom. 5:12). Thus, the fundamental problem is not that people are human but that they are corrupted and enslaved by sin. So today to be human means to be a sinner. This does not excuse us or provide a defense. It is just a fact.
I also would like to add that we do not share the guilt of Adam’s particular sin of eating the forbidden fruit. Nevertheless, we are Adam’s offspring, and each person inherits his cursed human nature because, according to the principle of creation, kind begets kind. All humans now are like their sin-corrupted father Adam. Also, like Adam, all people are created accountable to God so that the blame for any imperfection must be laid upon them and not upon God. Therefore, all people are trapped in the human race but are not off the hook. In addition to the condemnation that must come upon them because of who they are as part of the human race, they are condemned for all of their own personal sins that their fallen human nature causes them to deliberately commit.
Incidentally, we cannot use Matthew 26:41, which says, “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak,” as an excuse. Human weakness is not a reason for a person to justify himself. Certainly, people are not physically, morally and mentally strong enough to do all that they want to do or all they ought to do. They are weaker than they were originally designed to be because of God’s general curse upon the universe. Also they are weakened as a result of their own sinful behavior. However, people are not just frail; they are spiritually dead. Sin is disobedience against God that has resulted in and is the evidence of a spiritually dead soul.
15. “Are people wicked because they have been improperly taught? Are the evil things people do the result of the fact that they have been raised without the benefit of Christian instruction and so do not know the right thing to do?”
The answer to these questions is, “No.” Sin is not a result of ignorance. People know in their hearts what God requires of them (Rom. 2:14-15). They simply do not want to do it. Neither can people’s unrighteousness be corrected by education. In fact, education is often used to support their evil rebellion. People use what they learn about the universe in order to be more imaginative in their sin and more successful in fulfilling their own selfish desires. Education gives people the ability to sin more cleverly and effectively.
Certainly, sinful behavior can sometimes be arrested by making people aware of the dangerous consequences of their actions or by explaining to them the blessings that may result from their obedience. However, many times people will do what they want to do despite the harm or loss they know it brings to themselves and others. In the final analysis people do not operate upon the basis of facts and logic, but on the basis of their own foolish desires.
16. “Do people begin their lives as innocent children but lose their goodness by contact with a corrupt world? Are people at birth like clean slates, subsequently written upon by their evil environment?”
A person’s wicked behavior may be controlled temporarily, in a limited way, through the influence of good examples. But a good example will not solve his sin problem. In fact, a good example only serves to highlight his own deficient record of behavior in the past and his unwillingness to obey in the present. There is no human way to acquire goodness from the environment. Real and permanent goodness comes only through the transforming power of God’s grace as a result of salvation in Jesus Christ. So, the only way we can say that sin is the absence of good is to recognize that God alone is good and a life without Him is a life of sin.
The environment certainly contributes to the corruption of men both in the sense that one person encourages wicked behavior in another person and in the sense that the cursed universe is a source of frustration, anger and fear to each person who lives in it. But the origin of men’s troubles is not “out there” someplace. It is within themselves, in their own wicked hearts. People are not victims of a foreign, sinful invasion. They are willing and eager participants in rebellion against God.
Although people’s sin problems come from within, their help comes from without. They must seek the Savior who has come into the world to rescue sinners from God’s wrath and the misery of sin. In a manner of speaking, Jesus is the only Person in the environment who can remove their sin.
17. “What about our physical diseases, as well as our emotional and psychological sicknesses? Shouldn’t we be concerned about and deal with them, too? Aren’t they just as much a problem for us as our sins?”
It is true we are plagued by physical, emotional or psychological problems, and for some of us those problems are very serious. Those problems cause us much grief and hardship. Therefore, it is not surprising that we are concerned about our physical problems. In fact, the Bible recognizes that we have a concern for our bodies (Eph. 5:29). III John 2 describes John’s prayer for the physical health of a lady as part of his Christian concern for her. And Philippians 2:25-30 describe Paul’s concern for the health of Epaphroditus, even though a full understanding includes the spiritual lessons of those verses.
However, the Bible teaches that sin is the cause of the physical corruption and desolation of this broken world (Gen. 3:19, Hosea 4:1-3). Sin also is the cause of the moral and psychological burdens its inhabitants must bear. All of our shameful, painful and sad experiences are results of sin, our own sins as well as the sins of others. We experience physical, mental and emotional misery as a result of sin, both in the sense that God has cursed the universe in which we live, and in the sense that we often reap the bitter fruits of our own evilly motivated disobedience of God’s law. Therefore, the physical diseases as well as the emotional and psychological sicknesses we experience are not our real problems. Instead, they are consequences and symptoms of sin. Sin is the root source of our troubles and must be the focus of our greatest concern.
Let us assume, for the sake of discussion, that our physical problems were our main concern. Even then our highest priority would be to deal with our sins. One reason is that only when we turn away from our sins can we hope to arrest and partially repair the physical and social damage that they have caused. That is how the physical universe is designed. For example, when a person turns away from drinking alcohol, he often can experience better physical heath and a happier family life. And yet, the physical improvement is not always certain or predictable. Even though God does send physical blessings to all His creatures, He does not guarantee them. God does not promise physical benefits to people who turn away from a particular sin. It may be that it is God’s will for people to continue to taste the bitter fruit of their sins in order to accomplish His purposes. Nevertheless, on a physical level, it is generally true that a man reaps what he sows.
A second reason is that only when we turn from sin by means of the Gospel will our bodies have a hope of relief from the curse to which God has subjected His universe. That is, when we are saved and reveal it through a God-given desire and power to repent of our sins, we have the promise that our bodies will be raised incorruptible (I Cor. 15:52-53). This is a spiritual promise and not a physical promise because “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 15:50). Nevertheless, we have the promise that our bodies will have a share in the future restoration of God’s creation (Rom. 8:19-23).
A third reason is that, if we have not dealt with our sins in the Gospel, any physical health we might receive in response to treatment for our physical, emotional and psychological problems is temporary and vain. In time we will all die of some physical problem, unless Jesus returns before. In fact, if we have not dealt with our sins in the Gospel, that is, if we are not saved, we will use any physical vitality and abilities we have to sin even more.
In conclusion, even if we had a physical concern and wanted solutions to our physical problems, we must keep in mind that sin is the power behind the physical terror and destruction that wreaks people’s lives. No matter what our concern, we must deal with our sins.
And yet, the correct answer to the questions above is, “No.” The proper cry of a person who is suffering from a physical disease, an emotional problem or psychological sickness, first of all should be, “I said, LORD, be merciful unto me: heal my soul; for I have sinned against thee (Psalm 41:4).” Our greatest concern always must be to find relief for our spiritual problems. Our concern for our sins must be far greater than our concern for any physical problem we may have.
The Bible declares that we are born dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). That is, if we are unsaved, we are dead in our souls and are under cruel bondage to the demands of our sinful flesh. The Bible also decrees that if we are not protected by Jesus’ redemption, we will personally experience judgment, condemnation and eternal wrath (John 3:36, 5:28,29). Those spiritual perils are far more serious than the physical, emotional or psychological problems we may endure in this world as a consequence of our sins.
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