In the previous post, we discussed what Scripture says about the Nature of Sin, and our being in a state of sin.
Having said all of this, we come to the burning question: From whence do we derive our knowledge of sin? How do we know how sin is defined, and, more importantly, how do we know that we are sinful? These are questions of unfathomable importance, and being some of the most important questions we could ever ask, we are quite likely to undervalue both the question and the answer – a result of our sinful nature.
The first way most of us have ever had any knowledge, or at least, sense of sin, is by our conscience. Scripture certainly acknowledges the conscience as a feature of our constitution as humans. But we cannot stress enough that because of sin, our consciences are anything but reliable. Moreover, we can quite simply kill our conscience by ignoring its warnings through repeated exposure to sin, or by creating a rationalization which justifies to our corrupt minds, the act we wish to commit. This explains the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as the societal evils of abortion and sodomy. Our natures are so sinful, that the least justification will do. In fact, in most cases, we don’t even need a justification, per se. We simply need to be distracted with shiny objects. I inadvertently caught a few moments of a home renovation show the other day. The “couple” who wanted work done on their house was homosexual. There is no question, but that there is an agenda represented in that fact. There is no doubt in my mind that someone wishes to promote the homosexual agenda by making them seem as normal as possible: They have the same frustrations we have with small kitchens and not enough storage space. Normalizing that which God has defined as sin only changes its intrinsic sinfulness in the minds of those who wish to live in rebellion against God. But this shows us the inherent weakness of the conscience. I can ignore it, or reprogram it and it will eventually shut up.
The ultimate and only reliable way to gain a knowledge of sin is by the Law of God. I have listed here what are commonly referred to as the “Three Uses of the Law.”
- First, there is the ‘pedagogical use’ of the Law. Scripture speaks of God’s Law as a schoolmaster leading us to Christ. Anyone who looks at the Law and says, “I can do this,” either has no concept of his own sinfulness, or is, in the words of Buddy Guy, “stone crazy.” The purpose for which God gave His law was to show us our absolute inability to conform to His holy will, thus driving us to seek the provisions for mercy and righteousness which He has supplied in the mediatorial work of His Son.
- Secondly, there is the ‘civil use’ of the Law wherein we acknowledge that only in conformity to God’s holy law can evil be restrained. Now, we must not confuse ourselves and imagine that an enforcement of “Christian values” somehow saves society and makes people Christian, but it does make the world a safer place to live than it would be it we jettisoned every restraint God’s word puts on human evil.
- Thirdly, there is what we might call the ‘moral use’ or ‘normative use.’ By this we mean that we view God’s law as the standard of living to which He calls us as those who are in covenant with Him. This is the standard for what can be defined as “holy living.” Again, we must be careful not to run into self-righteousness. The only safeguard against self-righteousness is an adequate view of our own, personal sinfulness. You will never be grateful for the gracious provisions of the Atonement if you don’t see or you lose sight of what you needed atoning for. Let the fact that Scripture (God’s word to His people) contains warnings against the grossest iniquity imaginable be a reminder to you that God is aware that that you are personally capable of those sins: That’s why you needed the warning.
We now need to ask a question: How does the Law work? As Romans 7 describes it, it does three things: It tells us what Sin is. It says, “Don’t do that,” which only makes us want to do what it forbade, and then it condemns us for having done it.
This leads to a consideration of the Deceitfulness of Sin.
One of the reasons why we minimize sin is because so much of the sin which we individually commit is perfectly suited to our own temperament. James 1:14 points this out. No one is going to be tempted by something he/she finds repulsive.
Another reason that sin is so deceptive is its noetic effects. By “noetic” I mean ‘of or relating to mental activity or the intellect.’ Sin has corrupted our minds to such a degree that they are utterly unable to form a correct view of anything apart from the direction of God’s Word. This has huge implications for us as Christians when it comes to our assessments of disciplines such as science, politics, justice, morality, and indeed, any and all fields of human knowledge. We must always take into account the noetic effects of sin. No study of human nature can be theologically accurate if it fails to take sin and its effects into account.
Furthermore, we must constantly remind ourselves that “objectivity” is a myth. There is no such thing as a completely objective observer. We approach everything we do with presuppositions and these presuppositions are sinful in their very core because we are sinful in our very core. This has profound effects on how we think about everything, or at least it should.
Let me illustrate: There is a qualitative difference between someone who was born blind and someone who lost their sight, at say, the age of 10. The person who lost their sight of the age of 10 will still retain many visual memories. Although they will no longer be able to see a sunset, a forest or a prairie, they will still be able to remember or imagine what one looks like – provided they had seen one before. The person who was born blind however, will not only have no visual memories of anything, they will not be able to form any visual mental images of anything. You will not be able to explain color, shade, proportion, or any other visual data which must be seen to be understood, because this person possesses neither the organ of sight, nor the capacity to process this data. This hypothetical person who was born blind may be able to amass a great deal of theoretical knowledge about the world around him through assiduous study. Notwithstanding, he will still have not seen the world in which he lives and will not be the best source of information – for that reason.
This is an accurate, albeit grossly inadequate description of the case of mankind due to sin. Because of sin’s damaging effects on the mind, the unregenerate, being as Scripture says “blind,” “having their understanding darkened,” “alienated from the life of God,” they have never rightly seen the world in which they live. And this is where the analogy of the person who was born blind falls short. The one fact which gives meaning to everything, which explains the existence of everything, and against which everything must be understood, i.e., the existence of God – this is the one thing our sinful nature obscures. And therefore it is not an overstatement to say that the unregenerate person has never seen the world rightly. He will never be capable or desirous of doing so. This is why I said earlier that this should have a profound effect on the way we think.
“Grant, Almighty God, that as the corruption of our flesh ever leads us to pride and vain confidence, we may be illuminated by thy word, so as to understand how great and how grievous is our poverty, and be thus taught wholly to deny ourselves, and so to present ourselves naked before thee, that we may not hope for righteousness or for salvation from any other source than from thy mercy alone, nor seek any rest but only in Christ; and may we cleave to thee by the sacred and inviolable bond of faith, that we may boldly despise all those empty boastings by which the ungodly exult over us, and that we may also so cast ourselves down in true humility, that thereby we may be carried upward above all heavens, and become partakers of that eternal life which thine only begotten Son has purchased for us by his own blood. Amen.” – John Calvin, Prayer on Habakkuk 2:4