The Saint Struggling With Sin

[This is a repost from October, 2009.]  Yesterday I was contemplating Galatians 5.17  – For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want  (NRSV) – which brought me to Thomas Watson’s The Godly Man’s Picture.   Watson, in section 19 of the booklet, describes the saint who struggles with sin.  Here are a few of my favorite quotes.

“Though sin lives in him [the godly person], yet he does not live in sin.”

“Though sin is in him, he is troubled at it and would gladly get rid of it. …Sin in a wicked man is delightful, being in its natural place, but sin in a child of God is burdensome and he uses all means to expel it.”

“If we would have peace in our souls, we must maintain a war against our favorite sin and never leave off till it is subdued.”

“Grace and sin may be together, but grace and the love of sin cannot.  Therefore parley [meet] with sin no longer, but with the spear of mortification, spill the heart-blood of every sin.”

“A godly man dare not travel for riches along the devil’s highway.”

So Luther said that the Christian life means a severe struggle which never abates until we leave this world.

shane lems

sunnyside wa


The Sweetness of Tears

 Sometimes Christians forget the sweetness that can exist along with the bitterness of tears.  Because we live in a culture that focuses on entertainment, instant amusement, glamor, fame, and popularity, it is easy for us to jump on the bandwagon by doing our best to avoid tears, pain, and sorrow.  Everyone is searching for happiness and trying to get rid of tears.  So we turn to pills, personal trainers, makeovers, religion, sex, drink, and drugs (the list goes on) to try to attain happiness.  Of course there is a longing in every human heart for happiness because sin (in us and “out there”) has left humans an unhappy bunch.  What about tears?  Should we avoid them at all costs?  Why did Jesus say, Blessed are those who mourn and Blessed are you who weep now?  Below are some points made by Thomas Watson in The Beatitudes, as he discussed Matthew 5.4.

“1) Sin must have tears.  While we carry the fire of sin about us, we must carry the water of tears to quench it (Ezek. 7.16).  We have in  our hearts the seed of the unpardonable sin.  And shall we not mourn?  He that does not mourn has surely lost the use of his reason.

2) Gospel-mourning [the weeping of repentance] is spontaneous and free (it is not forced).  It is spiritual, that is, we mourn for sin more than suffering. 

3) Gospel-mourning sends the soul to God.  Evangelical mourning is a spur to prayer.  Gospel tears must drop from the eye of faith.  Our disease must make us mourn, but when we look up to our Physician, who has made a plaister of his own blood, we must not mourn without hope.  Believing tears are precious.  When the clouds of sorrow have over-cast the soul, some sunshine of faith must break forth.  Though our tears drop to the earth, our faith must reach heaven.

4) Gospel-mourning is joined with self-loathing.  The sinner admires himself.  The penitent lathes himself (Ezek. 20:43).  Gospel-mourning must be purifying.  We must not only mourn but turn.  ‘Turn to Me with weeping’ (Joel 2.12).  We must not only abstain from sin and weep over it, we must also abhor it.

5) Tears cannot be put to a better use.  The brinish water of repenting tears will help to kil that worm of sin which should gnaw the conscience.  Gospel-mourning is an evidence of grace.  Weeping for sin is a sign of the new birth.

6) Repentant tears are precious.  Tears dropping from a mournful, penitent eye, are like water dropping from the roses, very sweet and precious to God.  That heart is most delightful to God which has a fountain of sorrow running in it.  ‘Mary stood at Christ’s feet weeping’ (Lk 7.38).  Her tears were more fragrant than her ointment.  God delights much in tears, else he would not keep a bottle and a book for them (Ps 56.8).  Tears, though they are silent, yet have a voice (Ps 6.8).  David who was the greatest mourner in Israel was the sweet swinger in Israel.  My tears were my food (Ps 42.3).  Ambrose gives this gloss: ‘No food so sweet as tears!’  Bernard says ‘The tears of the repentant are sweeter than all worldly joy.’

7) Tears line the road to the New Jerusalem.  Perhaps a man may think, ‘If I cannot mourn for sin, I will get to heaven some other way.  I will go to church, I will give alms, I will lead a civil life.’  No, but I tell you there is but one way to blessedness, and that is through the Valley of Tears.  ‘I tell you, except you repent, you shall all likewise perish’ (Lk 13.3).

8) Christian tears will eventually end.  It is only a while that we shall weep.  After a few showers fall from our eyes, we shall have perpetual sunshine.  God shall wipe away all tears (Rev. 7.17).  When sin shall cease, tears shall cease.  ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning’ (Ps. 30.5).”

There are other reasons why Christians weep, to be sure.  I appreciate Watson’s perspective here because he gives us a good biblical way to view tears of repentance.  They don’t save us nor do they wash away our sins, but they do have a place in our pilgrimage.  So Christian weeping truly is bittersweet: bitter because it has to do with sin and sweet because it has to do with faith in Jesus the Savior.

The above quotes are slightly edited and abbreviated.  You can find the full discussion in chapters 6-10 of Thomas Watson’s The Beatitudes.

shane lems

Sin’s Sinful Sinfulness

This is a tough book.  Reading 284 pages of a Puritan’s discussion about sin’s hideousness is neither fun nor enjoyable.  It was hard to read.  There were even times in this book where Ralph Venning (the author) basically said “This is tough for me, and I simply cannot write any more on this area of sin.”  Here’s one of his difficult summaries (from p. 172-173).

“That which sin is accused of and proved to be guilty of is high treason against God.  It attempts nothing less than the dethroning and un-godding of God himself.  It has unmanned man, made him a fool, a beast, a devil, and subjected him to the wrath of God and made him liable to eternal damnation.  It has made men deny that God is, or affirm that he is like themselves.  It has put the Lord of Life to death and shamefully crucified the Lord of Glory.  It is always resisting the Holy Spirit.  It is continually practicing the defiling, the dishonor, the deceiving, and the destruction of all men.  What a prodigious, devilish thing sin is!”

“It is impossible to speak worse of sin than it really is, or even as badly of it as it really deserves, for it is hyperbolically sinful.  There are not enough words; we need more, and stronger ones to speak of its vileness.  And if we were to say that it is worse than death and the devil, the very Hell of Hell, this would not be to rail at it, but tell it only the truth about itself.  Sin is the quintessence of evil; it has made all the evils that there are and is itself worse than all the evils it has made. …It is not only ugly but ugliness, not only filthy but filthiness, not only abominable but abomination.  There is not a worse thing in Hell itself….”

While this book isn’t a joy to read, it is necessary.  Probably many of us are accustomed to speaking of depravity, bondage, guilt, and corruption, but it is tough to explain those truths in a “deep” way that people haven’t heard a hundred times.  This book will help you explain and view sin in a deep way, a way that draws out its vileness in a biblical manner.  Of course, we shouldn’t do this because we have a perverse joy in telling people they are sinners or to show off (pride!) our orthodox doctrine of sin.  We uphold and teach the biblical emphasis of sin’s sinfulness because of Paul’s great statement: Where sin abounds, grace does all the more!  The Heidelberg Catechism captures this well by saying that we need to know sin/misery and deliverance from it so we can live in die in the comfort of belonging to Jesus in body and soul.

Read this book, be shocked by it, and then meditate on the truth that Jesus came to save sinners.

Quotes taken from Ralph Venning, The Sinfulness of Sin (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth).

shane lems

sunnyside wa

The Heart’s Sinful Chambers

 In my opinion, part of the reason the old Puritan gospel preachers were so good at displaying the grace of Jesus was because they understood sin so well.  We tend to simply scratch the surface by saying sin is lying to our wives, looking at porn, disobeying our parents, and so forth.  To be sure, those are sins, but (as the saying goes), ‘you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.’  Robert Murray M’Cheyne explains the depths of the sinful heart in a sermon on Jeremiah 17.9-10 (chapter 5 of his “Sermons“).  I recommend reading these quotes out loud – as Luther said, preach to yourself.

“…The most awakened sinner does not see the ten thousandth part of the wickedness of his own heart.  You are like a person looking down into a dark pit – you can only see a few yards down the sides of the pit; so you can only see a little way into your heart.  It is a pit of corruption which is bottomless: Who can know it?

“…You are like a traveller looking down into the crater of a volcano; but the smoke will not suffer (allow) you to look far.  You see only a few yards into the smoking volcano of your heart….  There are chambers in your heart that you have never yet seen into – there are caves in that ocean you have never fathomed – there are fountains of bitterness you have never tasted.  When you have felt the wickedness of your heart to the uttermost, then lie down under this awful truth, that you have only seen a few yards into a pit that is bottomless – that you carry about with you a slumbering volcano – a heart whose wickedness you do not and cannot know.”

God in his grace doesn’t show us all that sin at once, or we’d be undone and melt like wax.  Honestly, if we could see way down into the depths of our sinful heart, we would probably suffer biologically (stroke, mental breakdown, dark depression, suicide, etc.).  Thankfully M’Cheyne ended the sermon with the heights of grace.

“[Christ] was the only one that knew the wickedness of the beings for whom he died.  He that searches the hearts of sinners died for them.  He knew what was in men; yet he did not abhor (hate) them on that account – he died for them.  It was not for any goodness in man that he died for man.  He saw none.  It was not that he saw little sin in the heart of man.  He is the only being in the universe that saw all the sin that is in the unfathomable heart of man.  He saw to the bottom of the volcano – and yet he came and died for man.  Herein is love!”

“When publicans and sinners came to him on earth, he knew what was in their hearts.  His eye had rested on their bosoms all their life – he had seen all the lusts and poisons that ever rankled there; yet in no wise did he cast them out.  So with you.  His eye hath seen all your sins – the vilest, darkest, blackest hours you have lived, his pure eye was resting upon you; yet he died for such, and invites you to come to him; and will in no wise cast you out.”

My sin! O the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin – not in part but the whole
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord O my soul!

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Dare to Be a Sinner, Dare not to Stand Alone..

 This is exceedingly brilliant, amazing; it is sadly and joyfully true:

“The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus.  The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is.  Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of men.  And so it also does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness.”

“In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother [or sister] I can dare to be a sinner.  The psychiatrist must first search my heart and yet he never plumbs its ultimate depth.  The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness.  The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God.  The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the Cross of Jesus Christ.”

That’s it, really.  Bonhoeffer nailed it.  Only before the cross and in the presence of a fellow real, true, sinner can we call a thing what it is: sin.

Above quote taken from the excellent, Life Together, page 118-119.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

(Still) Sinning Like a Christian

Willimon speaks well on sin in this book, Sinning Like a Christian (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005).  The introduction is great – as is the rest of the book.  In the intro, he says that we Christian sinners understand sin: “it is to sit lightly on our meager moral triumphs, knowing that they are tinged with more than a touch of sin, and at the same time to be gentle with our neighbor’s failures, not expecting too much from people like us” (p. 12).  Later in the intro Willimon notes with Scott Peck that if you really want to see sin, genuine evil, you need to start by looking in the church: it is the nature of evil to “hide among the good” (p. 14).  What Willimon is saying here, I believe, is that we Christians have the standard for what is truly evil, and that standard tell us that it is not simply out there, but in here, in us.  It is easy to go on a moral crusade against abortion or homosexuality, but at the start and end of the day the chief place the Christian has to face sin is inside her/his heart.

When you hear the word “sin” or “evil” as a Christian, you don’t start by pointing to something in the world, but yourself.  That’s what Willimon means by “sinning like a Christian;” he also agrees with Luther – simil iustus et peccator.

Here’s one blurb on pride.

“As frail, mortal, vulnerable creatures, we react to our vulnerability in futile ways, one of them being our pride.  There is something incredibly pitiful about modern, twenty-first century North American people telling ourselves that our greatest need is for more self-esteem, more self-confidence, more self-assurance – pitifully revealing how little esteem, confidence, or assurance that we have in ourselves.  Of course, from a Christian point of view, that’s the problem – ourselves” (p. 46).

This is a fascinating book well worth reading, even if you’re not all the way on board with everything Willimon writes.  In reading it, you’ll learn something quite sinful about sin, your sin.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Christian Humility

The Christian's Reasonable Service, 4 Vols

The great Dutch Puritan, Wilhelmus a Brakel (d. 1711) has a most penetrating section on Christian humility in volume four of The Christian’s Reasonable Service ed. Joel Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1999).

Of course, Brakel starts with the gospel, how Christ humbled himself to save the ungodly.  He hammers home the truth of what it means that we are ungodly.

One object of humility is “man himself” (p. 68).  “Due to self-knowledge, he knows that there is neither excellence nor anything desirable to be found in him.  In his own eyes he is a great nothing, and he views himself as such.  He thus sinks away in his own nothingness as a stone cast into the water….”  True Christian humility “issues forth from a right judgment of one’s self.  The humble acknowledge that they are made of dust and reside in tabernacles of clay.  They know that they have sinned and come short of the glory of God; are blind, miserable, naked, and wretched, and that they are thus abominable, hateful, and intolerable before God…. (p. 70).  This is what Brakel calls “the book of sin” which is a means to learn humility.  “If you take note of your falling into sin, your goal being the humbling of yourself, you will learn experientially that you are polluted, impure, wicked, atheistic, and abominable in your heart, which time and again brings forth like deeds” (p. 77).  A humble person will say my soul “is a pool of all manner of impure monstrosities” (p. 74).  How can a person be arrogant if he truly reads the book he wrote called “Totally Depraved?”

The other object of humility is a Christian’s neighbor (friend or enemy).  Based on Romans 11.20, Rom 12.3, and Phil 2.3, Brakel notes that a truly humble Christian loves his neighbor – which is motivated by the will of God that he do so.  “In comparing himself to his neighbor, he appears in his own eyes as copper compared to gold, and as lead compared to silver” (p. 69).  When a Christian evaluates his own wicked heart, he looks at his neighbor and says, “There is no way that he/she is a worse sinner than me!”

Brakel also magnifies the grace of God.  He writes that the humble soul realizes he is not even worthy that the skies cover his head, much less the love of God almighty in the death of his Son.  The twin towers of surely I was sinful from birth and Jesus died to save sinners makes the Christian the most humble soul on earth.  In summary, a right view of our dreadful depravity leads to a high view of glorious grace which leads to humility of heart.

In Luther-like terms, I’m worthless, Christ is precious; I am nothing, he is everything.  In Calvin’s terms, “true and sound wisdom consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (Institutes, I.I.i).

shane lems

sunnyside wa