It can be both startling and surprising when I meet Christians (or engage with Christians online) who, for all their talk of Christianity, can’t seem to make sense of the Bible. How could this be?
How could it be that we would become so disoriented in our own worldview that our own book wouldn’t make sense to us?
JI Packer describes one prominent reason one reason why the Bible doesn’t make sense to people: they don’t understand sin.
The subject of sin is vital knowledge. To say that our first need in life is to learn about sin may sound strange, but in the sense intended it is profoundly true. If you have not learned about sin, you cannot understand yourself, or your fellowmen, or the world you live in, or the Christian faith. And you will not be able to make head or tail of the Bible. For the Bible is an exposition God’s answer to the problem of human sin, and unless you have that problem clearly before you, you will keep missing the point of what it says. Apart from the first two chapters of Genesis, which set the stage, the real subject of every chapter of the Bible is what God does about our sins. Lose sight of this theme, and you lose your way in the Bible at once. With that, the love of God, the meaning of salvation, and the message of the gospel will all become closed books to you; you may still these talk of things, but you will no longer know what you are talking about. It is clear, therefore, that we need to fix in our minds what our ancestors would have called “clear views of sin.”
‘The subject of sin is vital knowledge’ indeed. May God make us faithful to study it, know it, read the Bible, and relate to our God in light of all that he has shown us about our sin.
This morning I just wanted to offer three follow-up thoughts to my reflections on anxiety. Thank you to all who commented and offered feedback!
1. A Blog Post Never Tells the Whole Story.
It’s easy, I’m sure, on the basis of one blog post, to assume that you know me as ‘that preacher’ who yells and tells you to get over your sin and doesn’t seem to deal with any genuine struggles of his own. But that’s just not the whole story.
A quick search of this blog for ‘depression’, for example, will land you on a couple posts where I’ve mentioned and reflected on my own battle with depression and some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. There are many similarities, I think, between depression and anxiety.
And if you were to talk to me about anxiety — the real, genuine, gripping, out-of-nowhere kind — in a personal, conversational context, I could tell you about loved ones very close to me with whom I’ve had to work through these issues. I’m well aware — from first-hand experience — of how paralyzing mental states like these can be.
“Stress” is not a biblical word. “Worry” and “anxiety” are. And they are sins.
That’s the thought that started a conversation the other day. Can we actually say that something like anxiety is sin? What makes it a sin? Isn’t it just a weakness to be delivered from? Or, rather, shouldn’t we conceive of it as a mental illness?
There are a few different ways that we could go about answering. Let’s try beginning with the commands of Jesus himself.
It’s a Command
The command “Do not be anxious” is repeated several times by Jesus in Matthew 6 (Matt 6.25, 27, 31, 34) and it is repeated again in Matt 10.19.
While those commands deal with specific situations, the underlying reality at play is that if Jesus commands people to “not be anxious” we know that (1) it’s not just a chemical imbalance or a mental disorder, and, (2) there are at least some ways in which anxiety is a sin, simply because Jesus commands against it.
Jesus’s Theology of Anxiety & Trust
When Jesus commands people to not be anxious in Matthew 6 and 10, he is charging them not to be anxious about specific things: food, clothes, length of life, what happens tomorrow, and giving a defence for yourself when suffering because of the gospel. I think it’s safe to say, those are some of our most basic needs. By arguing from the most basic and elemental things, he is making the case that we ought not to worry in general.
In other words, if you shouldn’t worry about the most elemental things necessary for life, then what should you worry for? Nothing.
A prayer for growth in holiness:
Father, how could I sin?
Having seen your hatred for sin and your love for righteousness, how could I sin?
I have seen the fullness of your just anger borne by Christ for me. How could I be speak angrily to others?
I have seen your patience with me through decades of rebellion. How could I be impatient with others?
I have seen how you work the evil of others for good. How could I be bitter?
Some time ago I posted an article listing all the ‘sins’ of the New Testament. There I argued that if committing an act is actually sin, then we ought to use New Testament words and categories to discuss it.
One major question that arose from that article, however, was this:
‘Those are all the sins of commission (things that you do when you shouldn’t), but what about sins of omission (good things that you know you should do, but don’t do)?’
How can we identify those? Are they the same for everyone?
How can I inform my conscience to know when I’m not doing what is good for the sake of actually doing what is best? How can I tell the difference?
How can I know when it’s okay to not do something good? How can I know when not doing something is actually sin?
1. Ensure you’re working in biblical categories.
Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and then love your neighbour as yourself. That is the law that must govern you. Nothing else. Recognizing that you’re bound by this law, and then freed to do as you please is remarkably liberating.
2. Realize that you have gifts and you are a gift.
You are a gift to the church, a part of the body, and you have gifts that must be used for the building up of the body. No one else can be you or use your gifts. So the specific ways that God has gifted you and the specific needs of the specific family, church, and community in which he has placed you need to be taken into account.
Have you ever experienced an uneasy conscience? It’s not guilty, because you’re not sure you sinned, but it’s also not clear, because you’re not sure that you haven’t sinned. It’s just uneasy.
Have you ever tried to identify sin in your life so as to confess it to God or to others? Have you ever wondered if a specific action is something that needs to be repented of or whether it is acceptable?
Have you ever tried to lovingly challenge someone on something that seems awry in their life, but haven’t been able to put your finger on what the problem really is?
I’m convinced that a lot of time when we lack clarity in our conversations and prayers regarding sin, it is because we are not labouring to think in biblical categories. Several years ago, someone challenged me to try to keep my conversations about sin tied to biblical words. That way we can speak of sin as sin… and if something is not sin, then we must deal with it in the realm of preference or simply freedom.
This morning I was thinking about the sin that remains in me and how stubborn it is. I was frustrated that I’m not more holy already and discouraged by the pace of my growth in holiness.
As I contemplated the gospel and how it relates to my pace of growth in holiness I was first discouraged and then encouraged. Here’s what I mean.
Slow Growth is Discouraging Because It’s Not Right
My friend Rony preached at our church this Sunday from Colossians 1 and reminded us that the gospel is effective — it bears fruit and grows in the whole world and advances in us as well. In the gospel we are ‘strengthened with all power, according to [God’s] glorious might’ for gospel-living.
Or, as Jesus said, ‘A good tree cannot bear bad fruit.’ Or, as John said, ‘By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.’ Paul rhetorically asked, ‘How can we who died to sin still live in it?’
In Christ I have become a new creation and that new creation ought to look different. Growth should be evident and righteousness manifest. When it’s not, that’s discouraging.