Is it good to take stock of our sin? Should we meditate on it and measure it against God and against the sins of others? Is it right to pay that much attention to sin? I think the answer is both yes and no, depending on how you do it.
Measuring Against God
The kingdom is given to those who are poor in spirit, humble, broken, mourning, and contrite over their sin (Matt 5.3-5). This only comes from rightly evaluating yourself before the throne of a holy God. Before we find any good in the gospel, we must find the bad (Is 6.1-7; Is 66.1-2). God is holy and we are not. Our sin, measured against his purity, means we are filthy before him (Is 64.6).
Measuring against God is a good place to start. It makes us realize our need for a Saviour who will take all our sin and pay all our guilt (Is 53.4-6).
Measuring Against Others (Bad Ways)…
… When I Sin More
There are two bad ways to measure our sin against others. One is to see our sin as greater than others in a way that changes how we think God will deal with us. So if I look at a brother and realize that he’s holier than me though he has been a Christian less time than me, I can begin to think things like this: ‘God must be growing tired of me. He must be disappointed. He’s probably ready to give up on me. Look at how this brother’s life is marked by faith in all the ways I’m marked by failure.’
When I think like this it’s because I’ve forgotten the gospel all together. He doesn’t deal with me as my works deserve, but when I measure myself against others this way I’m acting as if salvation (and God’s favour) are dependent on my performance. That’s simply not true and I will be robbed of the hope that only the gospel of free grace can provide.
… When Others Sin More
But there’s another bad way to measure our sin against others. Sometimes when we compare with others, our performance stacks up favourably for us. We can see our sin as being less than that of a brother or sister… and in fact, that may be accurate.
But if we, even for a second, allow the thought into our mind that our righteous performance began with us, we’ve forgotten the gospel again. If I think that my success in sanctification is somehow due to my strength I will immediately be tempted to pride and judgementalism and I will be robbed of the opportunity to freely and genuinely love my brothers & sisters as God has loved me in the gospel.
Measuring Against Others (Good Ways)…
… When I Sin More
A true measurement of our sin, when we honestly inspect the intentions of the motivations of the heart (Gen 6.5), will find us to be an even greater sinner than most people we know. That’s true from our perspective, even if it’s only because we can’t know the hearts of others like we know our own hearts. The apostle Paul knew this. And when he measured himself against other sinners he humbly recognized that the measurement of his sin was greater than all:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Tim 1.15-17)
When our sin is measured and found greater than others, rather than being depressed because our works aren’t sufficient, we can glory in the all-surpassing sufficiency of our Saviour who suffered to save us from ourselves. Yes, I may have sinned more — but God’s glorious grace now shines that much more clearly through me. An astounding benefit of this kind of thinking is also an increased love for God who has forgiven much (Luke 7.47).
… When Others Sin More
One day when Matthew Henry was robbed while journeying, he returned home to write this in his diary:
Lord, I thank you
that I have never been robbed before;
that although they took my money, they spared my life;
that although they took everything, it wasn’t very much;
that it was I who was robbed, not I who robbed.
What Henry saw was freeing. He knew that, given his nature and his propensity to sin, he could easily have been the one committing the sin that day. So when he measured the sin of another and found it greater than his own, he gave thanks to God who had not — in his wrath — given Henry over to sin (Rom 1.18-32). The fact that Henry had not sinned like this was not an opportunity for pride, but a chance to give thanks to the God of the gospel of grace who, in his grace, had restrained Henry from sin.
The Tale of the Tape
So yes, we should take stock of our sin. Since we’re all going to compare anyway, why not redeem it with the truth of the gospel? We should measure it first against God and then also also against others. But we must be intentional to do it in a way that engages and magnifies the gospel of grace rather than works-driven-legalistic-performance.
What else have you found helpful in turning comparison-type thoughts to worship? What truth do you engage in moments when you’re tempted to measure in non-gospel-honouring ways?