This online book (published chapter by chapter on-line through web site Bibleden.com) is a compilation of messages about Jesus Christ given by the author over a period of some years at a variety of different churches and chapels. In the chapters that follow this introduction, the original sermon notes have been adapted to create a readable script that is intended to allow you, the reader, to engage with the ideas presented without struggling through a morass of bullet points, complex arguments and baffling terminology.
Despite aiming for simplicity rather than bewilderment, the content is scripturally based and deliberately challenging, by which I mean that assumptions are carefully examined, difficulties acknowledged and alternatives transparently presented.
Readers who hope for academically grounded arguments and carefully designed theological structures will be disappointed; I leave such matters to those with far deeper knowledge and expertise. Rather, the following pages will appeal to anyone who is sincerely interested in the life, work and witness of this extraordinary man, Jesus of Nazareth (as he was commonly known) and wish to draw closer to the one who, among his various other titles, is referred to as ‘the man of Calvary’ where he offered his life as a ransom for the sins of the world.
What Has Jesus Christ Done For Me? (Part 1: The Sin Problem)
Main reading: Romans 5: 5-11 (New Living Translation; other quotations in this account are also taken from the NLT unless otherwise stated.)
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.
In the first chapter of this online book, titled: Who Is Jesus? I endeavoured to disclose and radiate the person of Jesus by reference to his work and ministry as described in various Gospel accounts but principally the one written by the Apostle John. I also quoted from correspondence (‘letters’) by other Apostles to fledgling churches and their leaders, confirming the truth about Jesus and the implications for Christian living. I explored some of the issues surrounding Jesus as ‘God and Man’ and his place in the Godhead (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and answered criticisms about his status. In particular, I emphasised that Jesus Christ gave his life to free the world from the consequences of rebellion against God and reconcile (‘bring together in an intimate, unspoiled relationship’) God and people on earth.
In the present chapter, I address a variety of key issues, primarily through the medium of a concept that sometimes seems in danger of becoming obsolete, namely, that of ‘sin’ and associated sinful behaviour (described loosely as ‘sin in action’). In doing so, I shall examine the various manifestations of sin with particular reference to ways in which God has provided each person with an internal mechanism to combat temptation and avoid the damage that sin causes in our lives and to those around us. Importantly, I shall present in detail, the truth about Jesus Christ as the one who saves from sin, stressing that the blood of Jesus shed on the Cross at Calvary is the only atoning measure to free us from the power of sin and that God the Holy Spirit is supremely placed to empower us in the process of resisting sinful behaviour. The Apostle Peter likens our freedom to a ransom being paid by ‘the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God’ (1st letter of Peter Chapter 1 verse 19).
In the next Chapter (3), What Has Jesus Christ Done For Me? (Part 2: God’s Answer to the Sin Problem), I shall focus on five ways in which Jesus has impacted the world through his time on earth, his death and resurrection, and ultimately the introduction of a new world order, which will find its fulfilment in a ‘new heaven and earth’, as described most clearly in the final chapters of the Bible (the Revelation given to the Apostle John). For now, in this present chapter (Chapter 2), the primary focus is on the meaning and implications of sin with which Christ came to deal.
SIN AND SINFULNESS
“What can I do you for?” was the catchphrase of one of the old-time comediennes; it was a clever device, reversing two of the words of the original expression: “What can I do for you?” to create a wholly different meaning. Sometimes, one hears the irritable question from disgruntled people: “What have you ever done for me?” though the phrase, ‘have you’ might be replaced by ‘has he, she or they’. Some churches have placed a poster on their notice boards with words posing the searching question: “What has God ever done for me?” as their centrepiece, with a picture of Christ upon the Cross of Calvary in the background. The intention is to emphasise that the greatest act of God on behalf of humankind was to send His Son in the form of Jesus to give his life for the sins of the world.
The human condition
It is sometimes alleged that far from being willing to give freely without expectation of reward (‘something for nothing’), as witnessed by Jesus’s life and death on the Cross of Calvary, many people in the world only accept ‘something for something’, as denoted by expressions such as: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours!” and “One good turn deserves another”. Whatever the validity of this assertion, it is undoubtedly the case that there lies within each person a desire for self-preservation and protection of those considered to be our ‘nearest and dearest’. One can point to numerous examples of courage in protecting loved ones when they are threatened, thereby confirming the maxim that ‘blood is thicker than water’. Occasionally, however, instances of bravery are reported when a complete stranger risks his life to save another; such events usually make headline news. The on-going tension between concern for ‘self’ (thus, selfishness) and acts of selflessness (concern for others that overrides one’s own welfare) characterises the human condition: on the one hand, people can prove to be sacrificially devoted to others; while on other occasions, the same people can be evasive and egotistical.
At its root, sin is about putting ‘self’ at the centre of our lives and thereby depriving God of His rightful place in our hearts. The Bible is unequivocal in its reference to the awfulness of our sinful condition, by which I mean our tendency, as even the Apostle Paul admitted in his letter to the church in Rome (Romans Chapter 7 verse 25), to do those things that we should not do and fail to do the things that we ought. Another definition of ‘sin’ is found in the notion of falling short of the target, such as witnessed in an archery or golf competition. Regardless of our good deeds and effort to live a good life, which are commended by Jesus, we all ‘fall short’ of God’s standards and therefore need someone to ‘hit the target’ of righteousness.
Jesus made it clear that evil resides first of all in our minds, such that our wrong thoughts and words—not merely our deeds—are also sinful, though being tempted is not sinful in itself, as even Jesus was tempted by Satan. Later in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul contrasts the stark difference between allowing the Spirit of God to control us by submitting our minds to God; and allowing sin to control us by submitting to Satan: ‘Letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death but letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace’ (Chapter 8 verse 6). Sadly, we don’t have to look far to see that the world is blighted by wicked, cruel and aggressive acts of violence that are the opposite of the ‘life and peace’ that Jesus Christ offers. In his letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul describes how we should respond to God’s wonderful offer of life and peace found uniquely in Christ: ‘Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians Chapter 4 verses 6 & 7).
Original sin and choosing to sin
‘Original sin’ has its inception (origin) in the decision made by Adam and Eve to disobey God in the Garden of Eden—a place designed by God to provide for every human need—which incurred His anger and introduced sin into the human condition. The process by which this entry of sin took place is not easily understood but it has been clearly apparent in people’s behaviour from that time onwards. As a result of the presence of sin in their lives, every person has the potential to neglect, rebel and disobey God (sometimes, all three elements are involved) but also, as I explain later in this chapter, the capacity to resist sin and turn to God for help and forgiveness.
The inclination to sin that is present in every person has given rise to the objection that it is unfair for God to blame subsequent generations for doing wrong owing to the fact that the ‘original sin’ was caused by Adam and Eve’s failure (their ‘Fall’) over which people who have lived since that time had no control. In other words, the question is asked as to why someone living today is being punished for the first humans’ failure shortly after the Creation. As a way of responding to the sense of injustice so expressed, I want to suggest that ‘original sin’ (accurately defined by hymn writer, Francis Rowley in his hymn I will sing the wondrous story’, as being ‘prone to wander, Lord, I feel it’), though not the fault of succeeding generations, may be judiciously separated from the decisions that we all make to sin or to resist sinning. The issue of making decisions about our behaviour is crucially important in grasping why God is not being unreasonable or unjust in making each person accountable for his or her own sin, as I explore below.
While it is true that we are all tainted with sin, it is also the case that some people sin more than others based on their predisposition or freewill choice or the influences exerted on them by others or a combination of these factors. The influence of intentionality is highly significant, as it is not the existence of ‘original sin’ itself that results in sinful behaviour but one that is borne of human desire, impulse and choice. While the absence of original sin would negate the possibility of sinning (because sin would not exist), it would also create a situation in which the decision whether or not to serve God wholeheartedly would be irrelevant; in effect, we would become ‘robotic’ without the ability to think and act independently. Adam and Eve were not compelled to rebel against God—they did so of their own free will—and each of us is faced with similar choices throughout our lives. In essence, we allow the Holy Spirit of God to guide and determine the direction of our behaviour and decisions or we disregard His influence and follow our sinful inclinations.
One of the most chilling examples of human failure is found in a decision made by Judas Iscariot. In his gospel account, Luke refers to the awful moment that Judas decided to betray Jesus: ‘Then Satan entered into Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve disciples’ (Chapter 22 verse 3). Although we are appalled at Judas’s actions, they remind us that down through the ages and at the present time, Jesus’s followers are capable of ‘betraying Jesus’ through their half-hearted commitment, casual approach to Kingdom work or failing to reflect his loving kindness in word and deed.
Wilful sin and immaturity
On the subject of wilful sin, it is necessary to address a question that is often posed as to the responsibility of those who do not possess the ability or intellectual capacity to repent of sin, become a disciple (follower) of Jesus and determine to live a godly life. The Apostle Paul urges in his letter to the church in Rome: ‘Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires’ (Romans Chapter 6 verse 12) which is sound advice to those with clear minds. It is, however, fair to ask where this command leaves stillborn or aborted babies, children who die in infancy and severely mentally disadvantaged people of all ages. To put the matter bluntly: Are some souls eternally lost, as they are prevented from or unable to make appropriate decisions because they died without exercising faith in God, committing their lives to Christ and trusting him for eternal salvation? There are a number of responses to the question, each of which has merit but also shortcomings. I shall attempt to address a number of the key issues openly, while recognising that there are some imponderables attached to this sensitive topic that we must leave in God’s hands.
First, we have established that it is a biblical precept (i.e. basic principle) that everyone from conception to the grave is a sinner, who needs the forgiveness that Christ offers. Second, Jesus died for the sins of each person in the world, not just for the sins of people who survive to adulthood and are blessed by a sound upbringing and clear mind. Third, it has been shown down the centuries that even young children can grasp the basic truth of the gospel, though it has to be admitted that the large majority appear to belong to Bible believing families who encourage personal commitment. Fourth, Jesus had a close affinity with children and insisted that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we must all become ‘as little children’; that is, we need to have a trusting attitude and uncomplicated faith in him.
We might also add that some Bible scholars (and well meaning others) suggest that as God knows all things, past and present, He therefore knows the names of those who would have put their trust in Jesus had they had opportunity or capacity to do so. A similar argument is proposed to cover the multi-millions who have never heard of Jesus Christ, let alone trusted him for their salvation. The justification for holding such a position is rooted in Bible texts that broadly express the fact that ‘God knows those who belong to Him’.
Setting aside the point about those who have never heard the Gospel (an issue too complex to be covered adequately in the present discourse) I want to offer an interpretation to help clarify the position about those who, owing to premature death or mental incapacity, have never had opportunity to place their trust in Jesus. The thrust of my proposition is as follows: As through the first Adam, sin and death entered the world, so life comes through the ‘second Adam’ (Jesus). As Paul explains in his letter to the Christians in Rome: ‘Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone’ (Romans Chapter 5 verse 18). Jesus died on the Cross of Calvary to counteract the ‘original sin’ of Adam, which is thereby dealt with (‘covered’) completely. However, those individuals who are capable of understanding right and wrong also need to repent of their on-going sinfulness, express faith and trust in God and be ‘born again/anew’ (as Jesus taught) by the Spirit of God, thereby qualifying them to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The position of the unborn, infants, young children and the mentally deficient is that although none of them are able to respond to Christ’s offer of salvation, they are free from the curse of ‘original sin’. Clearly, their undeveloped lives are incapable of wilful sinning and consequently not judged and condemned by God on that basis. To repeat: those who die before maturity or are mentally incapacitated are free from condemnation based on their intentional sin because they do not possess the capacity or have the maturity and understanding to sin intentionally or repent and exercise saving faith in Christ (bearing in mind the important truth that the ‘original sin’ element was dealt with by Christ at Calvary and therefore does not count against them). By contrast, while those who are sufficiently mature and of sound mind have their ‘original sin’ covered by Jesus’s death on the Cross of Calvary (Christ gave his life for the world) they must bear the consequences of their decision to sin or refrain from sinning during their lifetimes and their response to the offer of salvation in Jesus.
I leave the reader to humbly consider before God the scriptural validity for the explanation I have offered about these weighty issues, acutely aware that godly men and women are persuaded differently and proffer contrasting interpretations. Whatever our position on the matter, however, the eternal fate of countless millions who are unable to ‘speak for themselves’ is a question for which doubters and sceptics rightly demand an answer. Thankfully, we can be assured that Jesus Christ’s overwhelming desire is to seek and save those who are lost (i.e. living lives independent of God’s abiding influence) and not seeking to find the smallest fault as a justification to condemn us. Even so, dismissing or ignoring God and wilfully rejecting Jesus Christ has serious consequences for the vast majority of people who possess the capacity to think, exercise believing faith and make rational decisions. Only the narrow way leads to life and Jesus Christ is the doorway and doorkeeper.
The Bible is full of instances where key figures who were apparently devoted to God, committed serious offences that violated His moral law and fell well short of His expressed standards. Among their number were leaders such as Moses (who murdered a slave-driver, though it could be argued that in doing so, he saved a fellow Israelite’s life), King David (who stole another man’s wife after sending him on a suicide mission) and Simon Peter, whose denial of Jesus prior to the crucifixion was a painful reminder of human vulnerability during times of temptation, stress and opposition. The redeeming feature in the fore-mentioned examples is that they all repented of their sin (i.e. admitted their guilt) and sought to serve God faithfully henceforth, though not after painful consequences as a result of the original failure. Thus, Moses spent years in the wilderness; David’s reign and family life became chaotic; Peter had to live with the shame until Jesus personally forgave him. The offences committed by these and other senior figures were not only morally wrong but, more significantly, failed to give God first place in their lives. They trusted in either their own resources or took the advice of friends and advisers rather than turning to God for help and guidance.
Although human advice is often a channel that the Holy Spirit uses to communicate His will, the advice will be of limited value unless the adviser is a godly person who is ‘walking in step with the Spirit’, as the Apostle Paul urged the Christians living in Galatia (Galatians Chapter 5 verse 25). For example, King Rehoboam (a son of King Solomon) chose to take advice from his inexperienced and (one must presume) ungodly young friends and dismissed the wise counsel of the older and wiser men, which almost resulted in Civil War and cleaved Israel into two parts. The principle to draw from this tragic example is not that older people are necessarily wiser but that it is essential to take immense care when choosing whose advice to heed, making sure that we submit our plans to God before proceeding and not as an afterthought. Proverbs 12 verse 5 states that ‘the plans of the godly are just [but] the advice of the wicked is treacherous’ but by contrast: ‘Commit your actions to the Lord and your plans will succeed’ (Proverbs 16 verse 3). Finally, the psalmist provides an affirmation of God’s desire to ensure the best for us in making our life choices: ‘The Lord will work out his plans for my life; for your faithful love, O Lord, endures forever’ (Psalm 138 verse 8).
It is true, of course, that the above descriptions of blatant acts of wickedness are confined to a tiny percentage of the population; if it were not so, we would all be convicted criminals! Nevertheless, no one can afford the luxury of being smug or believing that ‘little sins’ are insignificant, as I explore below.
The Apostle John states in his first letter that ‘all wicked actions are sin, but not every sin leads to death’ (Chapter 5 verse 17); in other words, sins can be graded with respect to their seriousness—some ‘wicked actions’ are so dreadful that they result in death (John does not specify what sort of death he means but the implication is eternal death) and others are relatively mild ‘wicked actions’. For the vast majority of people, sinning against God is not through appalling behaviour that leads to death; rather, it takes a more subtle form, notably the use of unkind words, gossip, cynicism and selfish deceit. (Note: I employ the expression ‘selfish deceit’, which is for personal gain to distinguish it from ‘unselfish deceit’, which is a strategy used frequently to protect a person from emotional harm or distress, in which case it may be justified.) The advance of communication technology has been a blessing to most people in many and various ways but has also resulted in an expansion of opportunities for reprobates to insult, accuse and gratify sexual impulses at the expense of their victims’ wellbeing. The oft-quoted maxim that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’ must be counted among the most absurd and inaccurate statements ever made!
It is important to note that Jesus condemned these relatively minor transgressions almost as strongly as he did the blatantly wicked acts. His blanket condemnation of varying forms of sins has given rise to the assertion that there isn’t a hierarchy of sin but that all sin is equally abhorrent to a holy and righteous God. However attractive this assertion might sound—and while it is true that every sin offends God—it has to be weighed against a raft of Scriptures that warn about the fate of those who persistently indulge in blatant forms of sinning to such an extent that it becomes engrained in their lives without regard to the consequences. The Scriptures highlight specific sins that invite God’s wrath if indulged in as direct opposition to God’s stated will and purpose. In this regard, Matthew records Jesus’s powerful warning about the time when he (Jesus) returns to judge the world: ‘The angels will come and separate the wicked people from the righteous, throwing the wicked into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matthew Chapter 13 verses 49-50). Scripture as a whole does not support the concept of universal forgiveness from sin without repentance (a philosophy referred to as ‘Universalism’, see also below) and Jesus was crystal clear about the separation of good from evil at the end of the present world: ‘Those who have done good will rise to experience eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to experience judgment’ (Gospel of John Chapter 5 verse 29).
As noted earlier, Jesus’s death at Calvary was to atone for human failings of every kind, whether judged by us to be large or small. Nevertheless, it is valid to make a distinction between acts of utter wickedness (committed by the few) and minor transgressions (committed by all), though there are, of course, many sinful acts that fall between the two extremes. I have already made reference to the way in which we can gain better understanding of the difference between and consequences arising from blatant sins (for example, extortion) and those resulting from ‘original sin’, often committed out of ignorance or finding unchallenged acceptance within prevailing secular norms (for example, the inclination to meet force with force or take revenge or search for self-fulfilment through grievous forms of entertainment or failing to forgive others) and shall return to the subject later. I have also briefly addressed the difficult question of how God will deal with people who have never had the opportunity to respond to the gospel and repent of their sin.
Even allowing for some latitude in grasping the implications about these challenging issues, it is necessary to point out to those who argue that Jesus’s death has exonerated every person on earth, thereby freeing everyone from taking responsibilities for their actions that Jesus spoke of both Heaven and Hell as real places and locations of eternal destiny. Jesus underlined the fact that everyone has a choice in selecting which path to take in life, thus, the Apostle Matthew records Jesus’s warning in his gospel account: ‘You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way’. It is instructive to note that Jesus referred to the significance of choice—our eternal destiny is not pre-determined or, as some religions argue, a case of good deeds outweighing bad deeds but of deciding either to take the ‘narrow way’ found through His Son, Jesus, or to follow the crowd along the ‘wide road’ that leads to destruction (‘eternal death’).
Jesus used a number of parables to emphasise the allocation of different rewards for faithful service and wholehearted obedience. Indeed, throughout the Bible there are various references to degrees of reward for the righteous based on the way that they demonstrated integrity, godly wisdom, leadership, loving kindness and generosity towards others without expectation of recompense or remuneration. Jesus also emphasised the importance of showing love for enemies (an astonishing, counter-cultural proposition) and the need to pray in the power of the Spirit (that is, allowing Him to lead us and inspire us in our praying, such that we give praise and glory to God). Crucially, the ultimate test for the distribution of rewards is the degree of faith exercised and expression of trust in God displayed by an individual, even unto death, as many followers of Jesus have borne testimony down the centuries.
Sin and forgiveness
Sinning is not only directed against God; it is more often than not against a person or persons, too. In this regard, psychologists tell us that if someone fails to forgive another person for an offence, the injured party may well suffer more mental anguish than the perpetrator. Bitterness and resentment are capable of damaging a person’s health and general wellbeing; in rare cases, it can cause considerable emotional damage, which may result in terrible consequences. The prevalence of so-called ‘honour killings’ in certain sections of society and the horrifying increase in revenge attacks, often as a result of unrequited love or marriage partnership breakdown, are extreme outcomes that are directly related to a lack of forgiveness that leads to uncontrolled rage. As the psalmist warns: ‘Stop being angry! Turn from your rage! Do not lose your temper— it only leads to harm’ (Psalm 37 verse 8).
A particularly distressing though rare situation occurs when someone has the opportunity to intervene and save or safeguard the life of a person who has committed crimes against a family member or friend. In such cases, the perpetrator may or may not be genuinely remorseful and ask for forgiveness; sometimes, the offender appears emotionally detached from the event or gleeful about his crime or claim that the victim ‘got what he/she deserved!’ The increase in violent disputes and even the spike in gun and knife attacks throughout many parts of the world (including the UK) has been characterised by callous attitudes of this kind. Under such circumstances, the victim or member of the victim’s family is sometimes placed in a moral dilemma, namely, whether he or she should forgive the perpetrator when the individual shows no remorse or insist on the strictest available punishment to be inflicted. (It is, of course, possible to forgive a person yet ask that justice be fully meted out.) In recent years, judges have taken closer account of victims’ statements in determining the length of sentence for a serious crime.
Selfish and aggressive actions (including the use of threatening words) give credence to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah’s assertion when he stated that the human heart is ‘the most deceitful of all things and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?’ (Jeremiah Chapter 17 verse 9) No doubt, decent minded people, who do their best to lead lawful and upright lives will rail at being included in such a fierce description but experience shows that even the most honourable person is capable of deeply sinful behaviour, as countless occurrences have demonstrated down the centuries. We are again reminded of the Apostle Paul’s sobering reminder to the Christians in Rome (Romans Chapter 3 verse 23) that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (NIVUK) or using a more recent translation: ‘For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard’ (NLT).
Our own horrified reaction when we hear about terrible crimes is not only prompted by incredulity that such wickedness is possible but by a deeply rooted fear that we, too, might be capable of appalling behaviour, given the opportunity. More commonly, we experience a shadowy sense of guilt in the knowledge that we all fail badly at one time or another. The popular retort: “Well, no one’s perfect!” far from exonerating us, simply serves to confirm that in one way or another, we are not even capable of meeting our own standards, let alone those of Almighty God! Although minor criminal acts or disputes may not have the same grievous impact on people, they can be hugely upsetting (as anyone who has had a credit card stolen or long-running boundary dispute with a neighbour will readily testify). In Chapter 3, I shall explore the breadth and limitations of God’s forgiveness in greater depth; suffice it to say at this point that it is only through Jesus Christ that people find true and complete release from the burden and consequences of sin. The Apostle John quotes words of Jesus when he (Jesus) explains the role of the Holy Spirit: ‘And when he comes, he will convict the world of its sin and of God’s righteousness and of the coming judgement’ (Chapter 16 verse 8). Forgiveness is rarely easy and often takes a considerable length of time to become rooted in our thoughts and emotions but the result benefits both the perpetrator and victim.
The Apostle Luke records some vitally important words of Jesus that remind us that despite human failings, there are heavenly rewards awaiting those who try to show loving kindness to others: ‘Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked’ (Gospel of Luke Chapter 6 verse 35). The final phrase (‘for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked’) is immensely reassuring and reminds us that although God’s vengeance is severe towards those who wilfully sin, it is also tempered by His overwhelming love for the people He has created and for whom Jesus died.
Resisting and avoiding sin
It is not uncommon to hear someone who has transgressed in word or deed to insist that they were ‘unable to help themselves’ or claim that something or someone or sheer desperation drove them to do so (see also below under ‘personal responsibility’). While it is undoubtedly true that wrongdoing can be prompted by despair, depression, misplaced loyalty or threats from others, the argument that people cannot help themselves, even when they sin spontaneously (‘on the spur of the moment’) rather than via a pre-planned intention is countered by the fact that God has placed within the human heart three ‘warning systems’ to help each person resist sin or, if the sin has been committed, to show genuine repentance. Even people without a conscious awareness of God and His divine purposes have these internal instruments available though, as we shall note, it is sadly the case that they can be ‘over-ridden’ by human desires. In loose order—while acknowledging that it is not possible to separate out each element precisely—the three ‘inbuilt prompts’ may be classified as follows: (1) conscience (2) guilt (3) shame. Although the three safeguards are interlinked, a broad definition for each category will be helpful:
Conscience is triggered when a thought, word or action generates unease, sometimes tinged with fear and concern about its rightness and the possible consequences of discovery.
Guilt occurs when conscience is over-ridden during the time the sin is committed but re-activated after the event.
Shame is triggered when a combination of conscience, guilt and regret produces self-loathing. Further consideration of the three safeguards follows:
When temptation arises to think hateful or aggressive thoughts, to speak loathsome words or to commit an unlawful or immoral act, the conscience may be activated. The individual’s response to the ‘inner voice’ will determine whether to proceed or step back, to smother the voice or submit to its warning. Sometimes, the thought, word or action has already taken place, prompting feelings of guilt (see below) and the need to repent through an apology or making amends in other ways (e.g. returning long borrowed property or making financial recompense). If the sin is undiscovered, the offender hopes that the incident can be concealed, though the fear of subsequent discovery can be very unsettling. Conscience is a valuable aid in helping us to guard against sinful behaviour but with the important proviso that it is only fully functional if we are maintaining a close relationship with God. Even the Apostle Paul warns that our consciences are not always a reliable guide until we submit them to divine authority, as he admits in his first letter to the church in Corinth: ‘My conscience is clear but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide’ (1 Corinthians, Chapter 4 verse 4). As noted in the following section (concerning guilt), God the Holy Spirit activates our consciences, so separation from Him through choice or neglect will dull or neutralise the conscience mechanism, which in the worst excesses can lead to godless behaviour with little or no remorse. Paul warns his protégé Timothy that ‘the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times, some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons. These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead.’ Paul’s final phrase (‘their consciences are dead’) should sound the alarm for all those who are tempted to be casual about disobeying the rule of God.
We noted above, that the work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life is the key to retaining an active functioning conscience. If conscience is deliberately numbed by disobedience or selfish desires and the sin is committed or continuous sinful behaviour persists, feelings of guilt can invoke a period of intense anxiety in which the misdemeanour and its implications sear through the mind and create strong feelings of regret that affect every aspect of daily life, resulting in periods of considerable restlessness and interrupted sleep. There have been numerous examples of people confessing to a crime that was committed many years earlier in order to ease the mind, ‘get things off my chest’ and usher in a much needed sense of peace. Guilt over serious offences has the potential to cause deep anguish that results in acute mental health issues due to the shame that accompanies it (see below). Referring to the most serious crime that can be committed, the writer of Proverbs 28 warns that a murderer’s tormented conscience will drive him into the grave (verse 17).
Far less dramatic incidents can also result in tragedy once the conscience is re-activated and the person is mentally tortured by the realisation that he or she has done something shamefully wrong. It must be emphasised, however, that persistent sinning leads to a dulling of the senses and a carefree attitude to the action, such that it no longer becomes a cause for concern. The Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, rails against those who make light of persistent sinful behaviour: ‘Are they ashamed of their disgusting actions? Not at all—they don’t even know how to blush!’ (Chapter 6 verse 15) It is regrettably true that some people relish their improper behaviour and seem unmoved by the damage caused by their actions. Such is the pressing need for everyone to submit to the Lordship of Christ and be born anew (again) by the Spirit of God, so that each person receives forgiveness, freedom from the power of Satan and cleansing from the corroding stain of sin. In this regard, Jesus’s discussion with a senior religious leader called Nicodemus is instructive: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you are born again [born anew, born from above], you cannot see the Kingdom of God.’
‘What do you mean?’ exclaimed Nicodemus. ‘How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?’
Jesus replied, ‘I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit’.
It has been suggested by some liberal thinkers (broadly, people who rely on human solutions and largely disregard Biblical teaching, variously referred to as secularists, humanists and atheists) that no one should ever feel shame (‘be ashamed’) providing that the original behaviour (word or deed) has been committed out of genuine motives and no evil purpose were intended. Such a view implies that the offending person is merely responding to a ‘natural urge’, whose actions should be respected by others, even if they disapprove of them. This ‘live and let live’ philosophy infers that everyone should accommodate everybody else’s opinions and viewpoints, however bizarre, erratic or controversial they are because no belief or opinion is deemed to be superior to any other. After all, if there is no external monitoring of human behaviour by God and no prospect of divine judgement and wrath, why worry about the consequences? Why indeed! By contrast, those who seek to live lives that honour God have no need to fear the possibility of being ashamed. The psalmist summarises the position: ‘Those who look to Him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces’ (Psalm 34 verse 5).
A moment’s thought will acknowledge that as a ‘shame-free society’ emerges, the likelihood of moral disintegration will inevitably follow. The ‘no shame, no regret’ approach to life is bound to have a deleterious effect on people’s behaviour; for example, at a basic relational level, the absence of shame allows people to insist that their harsh words or angry responses simply reflected the way they felt at the time, so should be accepted as reasonable and proportionate. At a more serious level, a similar argument could be levelled that shoplifting is justified if the individual is hungry. In the worst scenarios, the use of blanket protest movements to force a particular viewpoint on government or local officials or a rival gang through ‘mob rule’ has been justified using expressions such as: “You will thank us in the end” or (more sinisterly) “It was us or them!” The application of moral superiority can cloak shameful acts in an attempt to make them appear righteous. God is not so easily hoodwinked and expresses His outrage when people treat sin casually, vowing to exercise judgement on those who deliberately flout his expressed will and purpose, as Paul makes clear in his letter to the church in Rome: ‘So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies’ (Romans Chapter 1 verse 24).
Liberal attitudes insist that externally imposed demands (such as those with an origin in religious conviction or traditional beliefs about sexuality and relationships) that require self-control and a disciplined mind are deemed to be unreasonable or even oppressive. We don’t have to look far to see the societal chaos that such woolly-minded thinking has created. It is ironic and notable that those who argue for liberalising behaviour and insist on the moral equivalence of every belief are often the same people who mock and parody the existence of God (‘Big Fairy in the sky’ and similar derogatory comments) and despise the commandments that are the foundation stones of Christian belief. Nevertheless, every disciple may be reassured by Jesus’s words: ‘God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven’ (Gospel of Matthew Chapter 5 verses 11 & 12a).
It must be admitted that there are times when illegal protest and actions are necessary to oppose unfairness or tyranny, though such rare occurrences should not be used as a justification for reprehensible acts that violate God’s laws and replace them with secular perspectives that corrupt decency and facilitate forms of behaviour that would have caused outrage less than a generation ago. In truth, expunging shame by focusing on the emotional and psychological damage that might occur as a result is akin to switching off a smoke alarm in case the noise of the siren shocks people and makes them jump and take evasive action. It’s meant to do so!
The role that Satan (the devil) and his angels play in human sinfulness has been a matter of fervent debate: some people hold that evil forces are responsible for every sad and tragic event; others argue that demons are only permitted a specified degree of latitude by God and must therefore conform to His will and purpose; yet others insist that each person must take responsibility for his or her actions and not attempt to absolve themselves from the responsibility by blaming external forces. An important passage in the Book of Jeremiah (Chapter 31) describes how God will bless Israel but adds the proviso that each person will be responsible for his or her own sin; thus, feigning ignorance or arguing against God’s stated will and purpose is not an option. The Bible is clear that Satan (the name means ‘deceiver’) is motivated by a single purpose, namely, to corrupt believers by distracting them from their principal responsibility and privilege of serving God and their neighbours, steering them into areas of life that tempt them to sin, damage their health and wellbeing, adversely affect family members and, in the case of Christians, undermine their witness.
We noted earlier in the chapter that we tend to categorise sinful behaviour according to the damage it causes to property, people, the impact upon public order and its destructive force (physical or emotional). Regardless of the nature of the sin, there are three broad areas in which everyone must take personal responsibility for his or her behaviour and cannot blame an external malevolent force, be it Satan, financial pressures, social demands or the prevalence of lax moral standards in society. The three areas are as follows:
(1) Wilful transgression
(2) Failure to heed warning signs
(3) Innocent transgression.
Wilful transgression takes many and varied forms, from apparently minor offences, such as deciding to ignore someone we don’t wish to acknowledge (at one extreme) through to placing an explosive device in order to kill and maim as many victims as possible (at the other extreme). The seriousness of a wilful sin such as theft is usually judged by the value of the item stolen (e.g. whether it was a loaf of bread or a diamond ring) and the circumstances under which the sinful behaviour was enacted; for example, was the offence committed while the person was under the most severe duress or was it calculatingly planned? The seriousness of personally targeted sin (against an individual) or socially damaging sin (against a group of people, organisation or community) is evaluated on the basis of the degree of threat involved and in recent years, whether a ‘hate crime’ has been committed, loosely construed as causing offence to another person or persons, the definition of which is so imprecise that it has spawned a plethora of accusations, some of which are highly questionable and controversial, as many street preachers have discovered to their cost. Although the majority of people will never be involved in such legal entanglement, Jesus warned that deliberately initiated idle talk, anti-social behaviour, hypocrisy and a cold lack of love for others were serious matters and should not be dismissed as trivial, even when weighed against major sins, such as murder. Jesus was particularly severe towards people deemed to be hypocrites, describing them in uncompromising terms: ‘You are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity’ (Gospel of Matthew Chapter 23 verse 27). It is significant that when Jesus was asked about the greatest commandments, he replied that loving God was the most important and loving others was second in priority order. The first commandment facilitates the second; in other words, love for God means that the indwelling Holy Spirit provides the impetus for loving others, even those who hate us or have harmed us (see earlier under ‘Sin and forgiveness’).
Warning signs alert us to the fact that we should avoid specific types of actions. They are evident when they observe the adverse impact and consequences that behaviour has on people who have chosen that path. In an ideal world, the detrimental effect of pursuing a particular action (e.g. petty theft leading to a lack of future employment opportunities and a scarred reputation; violent temper resulting in injury, misery for others or arrest for criminal damage) would act as a deterrent with the result that the intended behaviour rapidly loses its appeal. Unfortunately, despite the likelihood of negative consequences, the tempting prospect of (say, using the above two examples) undetected theft resulting in a higher standard of living and violent temper gaining grudging and fearful respect from peers may in fact encourage imitation rather than avoidance. The high incidence of reoffending after serving a period of detention is testimony to the fact that temptation often outweighs deterrent factors. It is right to emphasise that human warning signs are as nothing compared to the fearful prospect of God’s judgement for those who ignore His warnings.
In a very real sense, no one is entirely innocent, in as much as ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. Nevertheless, it could be argued that (for instance) revealing relevant confidential details to assist the resolution of a problem or withholding significant evidence out of a desire to help defuse a situation or giving a false alibi to the police out of loyalty to a close friend who is under investigation or forging a signature as a means of shortcutting an otherwise tiresome procedure are examples of innocent transgressions. In the aforementioned cases, the ‘innocence’ likely arises from ignorance or from kindly intention rather than wilfulness, though law enforcement officers might take a different view! Theologically, a further form of innocent transgression is sometimes referred to as sins of omission, that is, neglecting to do the things that ought to have been done, an issue with which even the Apostle Paul struggled. An example of a sin of omission is hesitating to speak up on behalf of someone who needs support or encouragement, reneging on a promise to carry out a task or simply failing to ‘keep a short account’ with God through confession, prayer and expressed faith in His sovereign power. Such errors may be due to slackness, lack of discipline, failing to hear the Spirit’s voice, fear of failure or busyness with other matters. While sin needs to be confessed, in the case of sins of omission, a ‘blanket’ prayer to cover them all is often necessary, owing to a lack of awareness of the specific instances that have occurred; after all, if we don’t know that we have sinned in a particular way, it is impossible to confess it specifically by name!
While walking closely with the Lord (‘in step with the Spirit’) reduces the likelihood of wilful transgression, failing to heed warning signs or sinning ‘by omission’, it is incumbent on each person to take responsibility for being vigilant about the wiles of the devil, Satan, as the Apostle Peter graphically describes, ‘Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour’ (1st letter of Peter Chapter 5 verse 8). Each person has to be self-disciplined, not only avoiding wrong behaviour but also positively espousing right behaviour. Unless forced by evil people to act against their will, behaviour is ultimately for each person to decide; only God has the power to sanctify (make us more like Jesus) but we have to take the initiative and determine to live upright lives, enabled (but not forced) by the Spirit. Despite the fact that each circumstance in which sin is manifested is different, it is undeniably true that rebellion against the law of God, as clearly defined in the Bible and reinforced by the words of Jesus and the Apostles, ultimately requires the individual’s consent and compliance. Every individual determines the way in which he or she will act, whether to do what is right or wrong, in conjunction with the decision to allow or suppress the conscience to guide and direct. It is important for every follower of Jesus to acknowledge that although the conscience is generally reliable, the Holy Spirit must be allowed to be the ultimate arbitrator and final word on every aspect of life and conduct. As the Apostle Paul wrote to Christians in the churches in Galatia: ’So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves’ (Galatians Chapter 5 verse 16). People who deny the existence of ‘right and wrong’ as the basis for living must construct their conduct and decisions on other beliefs or criteria; the idea that life can be free from constraints is an illusion.
In this chapter, I have grappled with the challenging question of sin and sinfulness: its origin, manifestation and implications for daily living and future prospects beyond this life. I have described the many different ways in which sin is revealed, from minor transgressions on the one hand to serious wickedness on the other. While explaining that each person has inbuilt ‘warning systems’ to guard against acting in a way that is contrary to the will of God, I have conceded that upbringing, societal pressure and the liberal philosophy that embraces every belief and behaviour (providing, as they would argue, no one is offended!) will have an impact on the way each person views right and wrong behaviour. In this regard, I have explored at some length the place of conscience, guilt and shame in resisting and repenting of sin. It has been especially noteworthy that neglect of God’s laws and statutes—falsely described by liberal apologists as ‘artificially constraining people’s behaviour’—has resulted in a deterioration of societal cohesion, an explosion of unnatural sexual practices and even a wholesale rejection of the concept of right and wrong. Throughout the whole account, I have referred repeatedly to the significance of Christ’s death on the Cross of Calvary as a sacrifice for sin and the essential role of God’s Spirit to guide and direct us.
In the next chapter (Chapter 3), I shall explore in detail the way in which Jesus’s death atones for sin and offers the hope of eternal life to each person who lays claim to it, making particular reference to Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. In doing so, I shall emphasis that salvation is only available because of God’s grace and mercy towards sinful humanity. Jesus Christ has not only given us forgiveness from sin but also a secure hope and the prospect of heaven.