The Problem of Not-So-Sinful Second-Generation Christians

Happy friends

Our church’s liturgy includes a confession of sin near the beginning of every Sunday morning worship service. This week, our pastor borrowed the words of John Calvin’s Strasbourg Liturgy. Calvin’s confession ends on a note of hope, asking God to “blot out our sins and stains… producing in us the fruits of righteousness and innocence which are pleasing to You,” but it takes a hard road to get there, mourning that “we are poor sinners, conceived and born in iniquity and corruption, prone to do evil, incapable of any good, and in our depravity we transgress Your holy commandments without end or ceasing.”

Such grim language feels out of touch with the cotton-candy religiosity of our culture, but we use it because it reflects how the Bible speaks of sin. It was not Calvin but God who warned through Jeremiah that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer 17:9). It was not Calvin but God who inspired Paul to declare that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). The Bible is not shy about calling us sinners, nor about declaring sin damnable apart from the grace of God, so Bible-believing churches teach the same. But unless we’re careful, these scriptural truths can make the gospel feel less urgent, less relevant, for those who grew up with all the advantages of a Christian family and a Christian community and struggle to see themselves as desperately wicked sinners.

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After We Sin

Kneeling man

There are few more famous sins in the Bible than David’s adultery with Bathsheba, followed by the murder of her husband. Yahweh’s anointed king, “the man after God’s own heart,” showed the ugliness that lurks in every one of Adam’s sons, and the Lord’s response was swift and angry. II Samuel 12 describes the scene as the prophet Nathan challenged King David, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?” The account only includes the initial, simple response of the stricken king: “I have sinned against the Lord,” but Psalm 51 conveys the depth of David’s repentance and grief as he writes,

I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.

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Born Bound Together

Crosses

According to the Bible, the sinful choice of one man and his wife thousands of years ago profoundly affected the course of every human life after theirs, including your own. As Romans 5:12 puts it, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” I Corinthians adds simply, “in Adam all die” (15:22). We are not told the precise mechanics of the Fall and how it influences us today, but the Bible makes it clear that it had debilitating effects on every one of Adam’s race. We still make real, meaningful choices whether to sin or not, but there is something ugly in us now; something which draws us to sin and keeps us from the innocence and freedom that Adam and Eve enjoyed, and squandered, in the Garden.

It’s easy to feel this isn’t especially fair. Why should the rebellion of the first humans have any effect whatsoever on their descendants? Why should we be tied to our first parents by metaphysical cords which pull us down after them?

On one level, the answers to these questions are simply a mystery. Perhaps we will understand more in Heaven, or perhaps not. Perhaps this is one of the ways in which God’s ways are not our ways, and our finite understanding cannot plumb the depths of divine wisdom. But that does not mean we cannot understand at all. As we consider why the Fall had such a morally crippling effect on the rest of the human race, something which appears at first glance to be another, different “problem” with the biblical account is both clarifying and comforting.

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Denying Sin and Rejecting Facts Left Us with Baskets of Deplorables

That's racist

A week ago, Hillary Clinton set political alarm bells ringing by consigning “half of Trump’s supporters” to “the basket of deplorables” in what was either a monumental gaffe or a brilliant strategic coup, depending on who you ask. (Time will doubtless tell, but he hasn’t yet.) Less discussed was the second half of her quote, as she elaborated on the nature of the “deplorables”: “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic…”

Personally, I liked the quote. It was neither gracious nor accurate, but the imagery is perfect. For many on the political left, these assorted phobias and ugly -isms function exactly as Clinton described—a basket into which any unwelcome sentiments can be cast and ignored. Worried about the potential of unlimited immigration to change Western culture? You’re a xenophobe. See some value in the definition of marriage which has been assumed for thousands of years? You’re homophobic. When “That’s racist” is a joke in high schools across the country, it may be a sign that your favorite condemnatory labels have been a bit overused.

Which is a pity, because racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and Islamophobia really do exist; are even, in fact, bigger problems than many on the right might like to admit. But instead of serving a useful purpose by calling out true wrongs, these labels and those who use them often just muddy the waters. The reason our phobias and isms are so imprecise and overused is because we have jettisoned the two most necessary criteria for moral condemnation: the categories of sin and objective fact.

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What Uzzah can teach us about religious exclusivism

One of the most important mindsets we can cultivate as Christians is the ability to see the full picture. The world loves to highlight some little part of what the Bible teaches and shout, “Hey, this is wrong and ugly!” Sometimes it even looks like they’re right, but that’s because we aren’t seeing the whole picture. If I tell you that a man hit a little kid, that sounds cruel and wicked–unless you know the child was choking and the man was pounding her back to clear an airway. It is easy to misunderstand a little snippet of a larger scene, and it is especially easy to do that with the Bible, because it is a huge book that is full of stories and teachings which sometimes make no sense until we step back and look at the full picture.

Today I want to consider two things the Bible tells us which look unpleasant by themselves but which make much more sense, and even combine into something beautiful, when we view them together.

The first piece is the strange story of Uzzah and the ark of the covenant. When King David was bringing the ark back to Jerusalem, II Samuel 6 records,

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When your child sins

Teens do a lot of astonishingly foolish things. They also do a lot of sinful things, and one of the great challenges of parenthood is the question of how to react to the inevitable foolishness and sin that come with learning how to be a man or a woman.

It’s easy for our love for our children (more charitably) or our pride (less charitably) to make us expect a sinlessness from them that we know is beyond our own reach. Every one of us could list persistent sins with which we’ve struggled for years: pride or lust or gossip or lack of faith. We can think back to sins we’ve committed that nauseate us with their selfishness or perversion or rebellion. The Christian is never satisfied with anything short of holiness, but we also recognize that sanctification is a process and the presence of sin does not nullify the promise of salvation. “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” Your children are born sick, just like you. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t need a Savior.

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Virtue, vice, and double negatives

You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.

Christian virtue offers just one example of the mysterious coexistence of divine sovereignty with human freedom and responsibility. Even for those who are saved, any attempt at self-reliant virtue promises to be about as successful as Peter’s stroll on the Sea of Galilee. We cannot foster our own holiness any more than a bee can conjure honey through sheer willpower. Yet on the other hand, the Christian walk is described as a fight, a race; we are exhorted to “run in such a way that you may win.” Like Peter, we’re entirely dependent on Christ for any hope of reaching our destination, but, also like Peter, it’s still our responsibility to fight our way over the waves.

Part of that fight is to resist sin. “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit”; being a Christian means learning to hate what our Father hates. In fact, one might easily imagine virtue as a sort of path threaded safely among various “thou shalt nots.” So we pray that our children will not fall into bad company and we exhort teenagers to avoid premarital sex and we counsel men on how to avoid being pushovers, and very often we completely miss the point.

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Could Jesus have sinned?

A discussion after church today raised the question whether the possibility of sin entailed, in itself and apart from any actual evil, a diminution of goodness. The question led me to suggest that Jesus could have sinned (suggesting, if true, that perfection is not incompatible with the possibility of sin), a position which seemed in retrospect to require further consideration.

Could Jesus have sinned? One can begin by stipulating that God is incapable of sin (e.g. Hebrews 6:18, James 1:13), but even this incapacity raises some interesting questions. I cannot fly, see through walls, or live a perfect life, because something limits me–whether external constraints or internal deficiency. Obviously, such a definition of “cannot” does not apply to a perfect, omnipotent God. Perhaps the closest human analogy to the divine incapacity for sin is “will not,” rather than “cannot”?

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Polygamy, the Law, and the New Covenant

The mother of one of my students recently emailed to ask for my thoughts on the question of why God allowed polygamy in the Old Testament, but prohibited it in the New Testament. (The question had come up in a Bible study.) It raised some interesting points having to do with the relationships between the Law and grace and between the Old and New Covenants, so I decided to post my response in edited form here as well.

When considering polygamy, it is important to begin by noting that permitting is different from sanctioning. God never specifically forbade the taking of multiple wives, but neither did He ever indicate that He approved of it. An obvious analogy is divorce, which was not forbidden in the Mosaic law, but which Jesus nonetheless condemned as wrong. “He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery'” (Matthew 19:8-9). Jesus says this despite the fact that Moses actually established rules for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

As Jesus makes clear in Mark 10:2-9, when considering either polygamy or divorce the key principle is that, from the very beginning in the Garden, the model has been one man and one woman becoming one flesh. This principle didn’t change between Malachi and Matthew. Thus, we can assume that polygamy and divorce have never been right, and have in fact been wrong, throughout human existence. So why didn’t God outlaw these wrongs in the Law?

Answering this question requires consideration of the purpose of the Law. The Old Testament Law was never intended to make man righteous. “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” The Law was a “tutor” that would “lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (Galations 3). Even in the Old Testament, salvation came through faith in Christ, prefigured in the sacrificial system.

The purpose of the Law was to point us toward the Savior, not to provide an exhaustive catalogue of sin. It did not condemn every possible wrong action, and did not try to. Jesus confirmed that when he said that whoever hates his brother or lusts after a woman in his heart is guilty of sin (Matthew 5:21-28), even though the law did not specifically mention those actions as being sinful.

One could ask why God didn’t condemn polygamy, divorce, hatred, or lust in the law, but it seems clear why He didn’t intend the Law to list all possible sins. Human beings couldn’t even keep the Law as written, so adding additional forbidden behavior wouldn’t have helped us become any holier. It wasn’t the Law’s job to make humans holy or save them, even in the Old Testament.

Those who sinned in Old Testament times could only be saved through faith, whether they sinned by knowingly violating the written law or not (even today, every Christian does things that are actually sinful without being aware of it). If polygamy was forbidden in the Law, those who practiced it could only be forgiven through faith. If polygamy was not forbidden in the Law, those who practiced it could only be forgiven through faith. Since God can forgive unrecognized sin, the omission of a particular sin from the Law would not affect the possibility of salvation for those who unknowingly engaged in such sin. The question, instead, is whether inclusion of that particular sin would serve the tutorial purpose of the Law. Given polygamy’s exclusion from the Law’s prohibitions, it seems that question can be answered in the negative in its case. Presumably a similar explanation could be offered for divorce, hatred, lust, and other unlisted sins.

This does not mean that engaging in such sins would have been without consequence. Polygamy, for instance, is recorded as contributing to Solomon’s downfall (I Kings 11:4). Similarly, David’s lust for Bathsheba set in action a tragic domino effect that ended with the deaths of two innocents and a sharp chastening from the Lord (II Samuel 11-12). Neither Solomon nor David could plead ignorance, however. Even though neither polygamy nor lust were explicitly forbidden in the Law, warnings and counsel abounded. Not only did Solomon have the guidance of the “one man and one woman becoming one flesh” principle that recurs throughout Scripture, he also ignored the command in Deuteronomy 17:17 that the king “shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away.” And in David’s case, as Jesus pointed out in the New Testament, one who was truly seeking to please God would realize that fantasizing about the sin of adultery was hardly a recipe for spiritual health. Even when certain sins were not prohibited in the Law, the warnings were clear enough that those who indulged in them and suffered the consequences had only themselves to blame.

For the New Testament Christian, the situation has changed in several ways. It may appear odd at first glance that New Covenant freedom from the law would mean that sins such as polygamy, divorce, hatred, and lust are now impermissible in a way that they were not in Old Testament times, but in fact it makes perfect sense. The tutor is no longer needed to remind us of our need for a savior, but that is only because the Savior Himself has come – and that changes everything.

There is no standing still in the spiritual world. One is either moving toward God or away, and moving toward God means casting aside anything that separates us from Him, that is contrary to His character; anything that is wrong. And since we now have Christ working in us to do what we cannot by ourselves, it is possible to be holy in a way that was impossible under the law. Thus, even wrongs which were not prohibited by the Law must nonetheless be avoided by Christians today, because our goal is different. We are no longer seeking to follow a set of rules; now we seek to become like a person, the God-Man, with His help.

We must not practice polygamy, or divorce, or hate our brother, or lust in our heart, because doing so makes us less like our Lord. We aren’t breaking the Law (for the Law no longer needs to point to the Savior), but we are breaking our relationship with the Savior the Law pointed us toward. Of course, moral lapses can and will be forgiven graciously and repeatedly, but the one who knowingly chooses to walk in polygamy, or divorce, or hatred, or lust, or any other sin, is thereby choosing to walk away from his only hope of life.

The Old Covenant polygamist would face the consequences of his wrong in this life, but if he sought God in faith he could be forgiven for this unrecognized sin along with all others. In contrast, for those of the New Covenant some things which were merely dangerous three thousand years ago have become deadly, but only because we see with greater clarity and walk with nearer help.

Human freedom and divine sovereignty

I was recently listening to R.C. Sproul in an audio series on divine sovereignty when he made an argument which is rather common in such discussions, that total freedom for man and absolute sovereignty of God are mutually incompatible. If man is absolutely free, then God cannot be fully sovereign; if God is absolutely sovereign, man cannot be completely free. Sproul took the position that God’s sovereignty is absolute, while man’s freedom, though real, is limited and bounded by that sovereignty. He pointed out that the existence of “one maverick molecule,” that is, a single molecule which is truly free from divine control and capable of acting contrary to God’s will, creates at least the possibility that any or all of God’s plans might be undermined. Since God’s plans cannot be frustrated, nothing in creation can be absolutely free.

While I agree with Sproul’s point as regards his maverick molecule, in making his overall argument he is unclear on the meaning of “freedom” and thereby reaches a conclusion which is misleading at best. In fact, man may be absolutely free and God absolutely sovereign without contradiction, depending upon what is meant by the word freedom.

When we speak of human freedom, we can mean one of three things: freedom of action, volitional freedom, and freedom from obligation. Working in reverse order, freedom from obligation refers to a state in which there is no “ought,” nothing which a man should do, regardless of whether he actually does it. This is the sort of freedom demanded by French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who declared that God cannot exist because “man is free, man is freedom,” and therefore there can be no “infinite and perfect consciousness,” for such a being would necessarily imply an objective Good that would have some claim upon man.

I introduce this sort of freedom first in order to dismiss it from the discussion, because Sproul, I, and any orthodox Christian would agree that man is not free from obligation; indeed, I would argue that such freedom is an ontological impossibility. It is the other two sorts of freedom which Sproul appears to conflate.

Freedom of action is the freedom to do whatever we please. Man does not have absolute freedom of action, and a moment’s reflection would suffice to convince even an atheist of this point. Sartre himself, apostle of freedom though he was, acknowledged that one’s circumstances are necessarily limiting. Even the freest man is not free to fly like a bird, breathe underwater, or exist in multiple locations at once. The world around us imposes multitudinous constrains upon our actions, most of which are so routine that we don’t even notice them.

As Christians, we would add God to the list of things which can constrain our freedom of action. The Red Sea blocked the Egyptian’s freedom of action and a sudden appetite for grass blocked Nebuchadnezzar’s, while a large hole in the ground effectively constrained that of Korah and his household. One could open practically any page of Scripture and find an example to support the point that our sovereign God, against whose will even Satan himself is powerless, can and does limit our freedom of action. If God could not constrain our freedom of action – or that of any would-be maverick molecules – he would indeed cease to be sovereign.

But there is a third and more morally significant kind of freedom: volitional freedom. This is the freedom to choose. When we speak of “free will,” we mean volitional freedom. It could be defined as the freedom to select from an array of options whichever one is most appealing to us at the moment of decision.

I said this freedom is more morally significant than the freedom to act, and that is because this freedom is the source of good and evil deeds. Our choices are the stuff of vice or virtue. Without choice a “bad” act is not sinful. This is why, for example, the church has always carefully distinguished between rape and adultery. On the other hand, a “good” act absent volition is not virtuous. If a man absentmindedly stumbles and knocks another out of the path of a falling brick his act was certainly convenient for the one who was saved, but it was hardly morally praiseworthy. Going all the way back in time to the Garden, Adam’s sin lay not in eating the fruit, but in choosing to eat it. Had Satan somehow compelled Adam to consume the forbidden fruit against his will, the Fall would not have occurred. The act of choosing matters. In fact, morally it is all that matters.

One may be volitionally free without possessing absolute freedom of action. Paul and Silas, imprisoned in Philippi, were severely constrained in their freedom of action, but they could still choose to respond to their situation in whatever manner they chose. In fact, man is always and absolutely volitionally free. The choice, whatever it is, is always ours to make. This, not due to any inherent power on our part, but merely because the sovereign God has decreed it so. If we were not free, then God could not justly hold us guilty for our sin, because, as noted earlier, free choice is a necessary ingredient of sin. To quote Augustine, “Evil deeds are punished by the justice of God. They would not be punished justly if they had not been performed voluntarily.”

How, then, does man’s volitional freedom coexist with divine sovereignty? Very easily. Remember that volitional freedom does not imply freedom of action. Our maverick molecule (or, perhaps, angel of light) may choose to rebel against God, but the actualization, circumstances, and fortunes of the actual rebellion are all controlled by God. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Man may choose whatever he will, but God determines the result. As the old proverb reminds us,

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The omnipotent, omniscient God who holds in his hands all horseshoe nails, horseshoes, horses, riders, battles, and kingdoms is as little threatened by the freedom he has granted to his human creation as a doctor is troubled by the freedom of an infant to kick while being delivered. As Mordecai reminded Esther when she quailed at the thought of risking her life to save her people, “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” Her choice rested in her hands alone, but the ultimate end was not in doubt.

Absolute human freedom of action is indeed incompatible with divine sovereignty. But a blanket statement that human freedom is incompatible with the absolute sovereignty of God ignores the more morally significant freedom of volition, because it is in fact possible for man to be completely free to choose without compromising the absolute sovereignty of God over all creation.