The Old Testament (Psalm 32:1, 2) and the New Testament (Romans 4:7, 8) agree: "Blessed (or fortunate) is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity." Therefore, both, by implication, agree that the person whose transgression God does not forgive, and whose sin is not covered but open in all its offensiveness before the face of a holy God, and to whom the Lord does impute iniquity—this person is not blessed but is very, very unfortunate. Even if the unrepentant and unforgiven sinner prospers in this age, we may be sure on the authority of God's Word, he will not escape judgment. For it says in Romans 2:4, 5, "Do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed."
The Deceitfulness of Sin
If this is true, and if our worst imaginations of what the outpouring of the wrath of an infinite creator might be like are but a shadow of its real horror, then there is nothing more important for any person in this building or in the world than to recognize his sinfulness and find a way of forgiveness before God. But one of the characteristics of sin is that it is deceptive. Hebrews 3:12, 13 says,
Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day as long as it is called 'today' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
At the heart of all sin is a lie. The lie says to all of us in our sin, "The act you are now doing, the desire or attitude you are now feeling is not very bad because there are much worse things, not very bad because everyone else experiences the same things, not very bad because you can't help it, not very bad because there is no God, or, if that won't work, God knows you are but frail and weak and he will tolerate and pity your sin." There are a thousand distortions of the truth which sin brings with it into the human heart, so that Jeremiah cries out, "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?" (17:9).
Sometimes I despair at the subtlety of the sin in my life; how it manages to distort reality and blind to truth and spark foolish and evil inclinations. And when I look at the world, the small world of my neighborhood with its thievery and drunkenness and sexual promiscuity, or the larger world of horrible torture stories from Garcia Meza's Bolivia or the Gary Hastings slaying their wives and then trying to blow their own brains out with a shotgun but instead leaving themselves alive with no face—as it were, a symbol of the horror of sin in the world—when I look at the subtlety of sin in my own life and its iron clad grip of deception on the world at large, I sometimes ask what hope there is of opening anybody's eyes to the ugliness of sin and to the awful peril of condemnation if we fail to repent and be forgiven.
But then I remember the promise concerning the power of God's Word in Hebrews 4:12, 13.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.
Nothing exposes our sinfulness like the Word of God. It blows away the thick fog of deception and lets us see sin for what it really is. Not that we might wallow in it, but that we might flee from it.
Therefore, my goal today is to let the Word show us what sin is, and why it is sin. There is seldom a cure to any disease without a diagnosis. That is what I want to offer today: God's diagnosis of our human disease called sin. If we don't know what it is, it will have a great deal more power over us. If we do know, then we will be able to avail ourselves of the Best Physician, who is a sin specialist, and of his medicines which are needed to keep the disease in check.
What Is Sin?
The most penetrating and devastating definition of sin that I am aware of in Scripture is the last part of Romans 14:23: "Whatever is not from faith is sin." The reason it is penetrating is that it goes to the root of all sinful actions and attitudes, namely, the failure to trust God. And the reason it is devastating is that it sweeps away all our lists of dos and don'ts and makes anything, from preaching to house-painting, a candidate for sin. In the original language, this is stressed even more than in our versions: it says, "Everything which is not from faith is sin." Anything, absolutely any act or attitude which is owing to a lack of trust in God is sin, no matter how moral it may appear to men. God looks on the heart.
In Romans 14, Paul addresses a situation in which some believers thought it was wrong to eat meat (they were vegetarians) while others thought that all foods are pure (they ate everything). Some were teetotalers; others drank wine. Paul agreed with those who saw all things as pure in themselves but something was more important to Paul than making all the Roman believers into meat-eaters or wine-drinkers. He wanted both groups to walk in love and not do anything to injure the other's faith. Notice verses 2 and 3:
One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables; let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him.
Then verses 14 and 15:
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.
Then verse 21:
It is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble.
Therefore what Paul is doing in this chapter is redefining sin for these people. Sin cannot properly be defined in terms of mere acts like eating and drinking, it must be defined by its root. An act of eating meat may or may not be sinful according to whether it springs from love (verse 15). But there is yet a deeper root than love or lack of love and that comes out in verses 22, 23: "Do you have faith? Keep it to yourself before God." I think Paul means here that if your faith frees you from feeling guilty about eating meat, for example, don't think you have to flaunt your freedom at the expense of injuring others.
Then he goes on, "Blessed is the person who does not judge himself for what he approves.'' In other words, it is a joy to have a clear conscience, not to feel guilty for what we choose to do or not do. Then he concludes, "The person who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not act from faith; everything which is not from faith is sin."
What Paul is saying here is that if you are not sure whether eating meat is wrong and you think it might be, but you go ahead and eat it anyway instead of denying yourself to avoid what you think might be sin, then you are condemned, that is, guilty of sin. The reason he gives is that such eating is not from faith and whatever is not from faith is sin. Now the assumption here is that to go ahead and eat meat when you think it may be wrong is an eating which does not come from faith. Why? Why can't such eating be from faith?
The Nature of Saving Faith
If we can answer this question we can know more precisely what Paul means by faith in verse 23 and in turn what the nature of sin is. Why is it that we are not acting from faith when we go ahead and do something we think may be wrong? The answer jumps out at us, I think, when we ask another question, namely, "Why do we go ahead and do something we think may be wrong or harmful to others?" Isn't the answer that we feel that if we don't do it we won't be as happy? We are willing to risk hurting someone or doing what we feel may be wrong, because that course of action seems to hold out the most happiness to us. We do what we do because we think doing it will make life more pleasant or at least bearable. But if that is so, it is easy to see how our behavior is not from faith. Faith would see the possible wrong or injury which our action may cause and would feel no need to risk it in order to make our future happier, because faith trusts God to construct a future for us which is vastly to be preferred to the one we could make for ourselves. Therefore, it is obvious that when we try to make our own future happy at the risk of wrong or harm, we are certainly not acting from faith, for faith rests in God to shape the best future for us.
Here we get a glimpse into what Paul means by saving faith and why it is that genuine faith always changes lives. What comes out of verse 23 is that faith is confidence in God to work in the affairs of our lives so that only what is best for us happens to us. What a power would be unleashed in your life and mind if we really believed that the almighty God, whose counsel cannot be frustrated, is this very minute, as I preach, busily at work making sure that what happens to us this afternoon and tomorrow at home and at work is only what is best for us!
There is a grave error in the church today which says that saving faith focuses mainly on what God will not do to us, namely, hold our sins against us. This is a grave error because in the Old and New Testaments an essential (not optional, but an essential) element of faith focuses on what God will do for us now and in the age to come. Saving faith is confident not only that God has forgiven our sins through the death of Christ, but also that God is now at work in the everyday affairs of our lives to do us good. According to Romans 8:32: "He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?" Yes, he will, and saving faith is confident of this. Of course, "all things" means all things that are best for us, including all sorts of tribulation. Which is why Paul said in Romans 5:3–4, "Let us rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance approvedness, and being approved produces hope." Saving faith is primarily future oriented. And I don't mean merely heaven-oriented. I mean it is oriented to tomorrow morning and is confident that God is going to work that worrisome situation out.
Abraham was justified by his faith. He stood clean before God. But what was his faith? Romans 4:20 says, "He did not doubt the promise of God in unbelief but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised." Saving faith means resting in the promises of God. What promises? All the promises, including, God works everything together for good for those who love him (Romans 8:28); he will follow you with goodness and mercy all your days (Psalm 23:6); he will not leave you or forsake you (Hebrews 13:5). Saving faith is confident in the promises and power of God. Therefore, it is not anxious about tomorrow but has joy and peace, taking God at his word. So Paul says in Romans 15:13, "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope." Trusting the God of hope gives joy and peace. And the reason it does is because our confident hope is that God is at work right now and tomorrow in the everyday affairs of our lives so that only what is best for us happens to us.
This, I believe, is what lies behind Romans 14:23. Sin is anything, any act or any emotion or attitude, that does not sprout from the soil of such confidence in the God of hope. "Whatever is not from faith is sin."
Unbelief: The Root of Sin
There are three implications of this definition of sin which I want to try to drive home. First, the all-pervasive fault in every sin is its character of unbelief. Let there be no confusion here. By unbelief I do not mean a refusal to accept the truths of the Bible. We are not saved by giving mental assent to the promises of God. We are saved by whether we hope with our hearts in those promises. The failure of the heart to be confident in the promises of God and to rejoice and find pleasure in his provision for the future is the root and essence of all sin. Unbelief is what mainly displeases God in every sinful act. As Hebrews 11:6 says, "Without faith it is impossible to please God."
And rightly so, because unbelief is a terrible insult. If a friend offers to do you a favor and promises by his honor to see it through, but you decline the offer and say, "No, friend, I've decided I just can't trust you any more,"—if that is your response to his promise, the friendship is over. You have insulted his integrity and robbed him of his honor. And there is just cause for animosity against you to rise in his heart. Moreover, the offensiveness of your insult would increase in direct proportion to the dignity of your friend. In other words, the greater his wisdom and honor and dependability, the uglier and more inexcusable would be the insult of your failure to take him at his word.
This helps me feel a little bit of how horrid sin is, because God is infinitely wise and infinitely honorable and infinitely dependable, and has paid an infinite price to put all this at our disposal for our good. What an intolerable offense it is then for a puny little human, absolutely dependent on this God's grace for every breath he takes, to say with his behavior to God, "I don't really think you can be counted on to make a better future for me than I can make in following my own way." If such unbelief persists there will be judgment (which is what I want to talk about next week). A failure to delight and trust in the promises of God is the greatest insult you can pay to God and therefore the primary offense in all sin.
Sin Is Not a List
The second implication of Romans 14:23 is that we cannot view sin any more merely as breaking the ten commandments or transgressing a list of dos and don'ts. "Everything that is not from faith is sin." Coming to church may be sin, staying home may be sin. Eating steak may be sin and not eating steak may be sin. Sexual intercourse with your own wife may be sin and the refusal of sexual relations may be sin. One of Satan's most successful lies is that sin can be limited to a manageable list of dos and don'ts. The reason this is so satanic is that it causes thousands of churchgoers to think that things are OK between them and God because they avoid one list of don'ts and practice another (much shorter) list of dos; but in fact may be sinning all day long, incurring the wrath of God, because their attitudes and actions do not come from faith in the promises of God.
Please don't think that this cannot happen to people in the church, in our church. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, "When I could bear it no longer, I sent that I might know your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor would be in vain." Among churchgoers, Satan is primarily in the business of replacing vital faith with mere morality. He loves to take a life flowing from happy confidence in God and turn it into a perfunctory religious regimen. Don't let him do it! For "whatever is not from faith is sin," including religion.
The real battle of life is not fought at a low-lying delta where the river of our inclinations flows into action, but at the high, less accessible spring of faith. If the stream doesn't start in the spring of faith, it does not matter where it flows, it will issue in sin. Therefore, as Proverbs says, "Keep your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life" (4:23).
All Things Are Sin for the Unbeliever
The third and final implication of Romans 14:23 is a warning to those who have not sought Christ for forgiveness or placed their hope in him. If there are any among you like this, do not say to yourself, "'My sins are slight, or my sins are few." For according to Romans 14:23, everything you do is sin. If you are not trusting Christ for forgiveness and are not resting in his daily work on your behalf, then none of your actions comes from faith, but every one of them (even the most noble) is sinful and an insult to the infinitely trustworthy God. And I hope, if you have not received Christ with all his forgiveness and all his hope, that this week you will not be able to shake loose the thought that everything you do is sinful in God's eyes, for whatever does not come from faith is sin.
I have a better suggestion for you who have not entrusted yourself to Christ or received him as your Savior and the Lord of your life. Do it right now, and you can enter the week with no condemnation.
I am going to pray a prayer which I hope every person in this room will pray with me. If you are Christ's already, the prayer will confirm it. If you are not and now want to be, this can be the moment of your conversion. Pray with me silently if you mean it.
Almighty God, I cannot escape from your pursuit. You have found me and inclined my heart to believe in you.
I confess my great sin and I know I deserve to be condemned for insulting you by my lack of faith.
But I believe now in Jesus, that as your Son he died to bear my sin and punishment, so I could live forever and walk in newness of life. I take him as my only hope and acknowledge him as my Lord.
Thank you, Father, for your forgiveness and your promise to be with me. Guard me now from the evil one.