In my efforts to share Christ with others, I find one of the most consistent and most frustrating hurdles for people is their acknowledgement of their own sin. Why is it so difficult to persuade people of the reality of sin, even the reality of their own sin, especially in this world that is increasingly evil? In my Bible reading, I am currently in 1 Corinthians and as I was reading chapter 4, I found this verse:
FOR I AM CONSCIOUS OF NOTHING AGAINST MYSELF, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. – 1 Corinthians 4:4
As I mused on this verse in this context, I found several insights into why people may be unaware of their own sin.
First, however, we should ask the question, “Was Paul unaware of his sin?” To answer this question, we need to explain what he means here when he says, “he is conscious of nothing against himself.” Paul was certainly aware that he was a sinner and he was definitely conscious of his own sin, both in specific sins and in his indwelling sin. The Apostle understood that his sin deserved God’s judgment and wrath and that he needed a Savior to rescue him from his sin’s penalty. But now Paul was in Christ and he understood that, by His death on the cross and by Paul’s faith in Him, Christ had purchased Paul’s pardon. So, Paul is not here talking about an ignorance of sin that continues in his unbelief. When Paul says that he is conscious of nothing against himself, he means that, even in his role as an apostle and even as aware of sin as he has become from years of walking with Christ, he does not trust his own judgment about his cleanness before the Lord. All men and women are fallen creatures, ruined by the Fall, who see the world through a cracked lens. Our perception of sin is always flawed and imperfect, and we will never be aware of or rid of our sin, because it is intertwined with our “flesh” at the very core of our being. Thus, even when Paul feels that he is walking in holiness, he is humble to admit that the Lord is the Judge and the Lord sees sins that we may never perceive.
APPLICATION: Because in this life we are always going to experience sin, even when we are thinking we are most holy, we need to continue to press toward the goal for the prize (Philippians 3:12-14). We need to continue to strive against sin (Hebrews 12:4). We need to consider ourselves to be always in a battle and to realize that we are continually laying aside every weight (Hebrews 12:1) as we strive toward sanctification.
Now that we have established that even the most godly of humans is not fully aware of their sin, we need to come back to the original question: “Why are most people generally unaware of their own sin?” Why is it that when we are talking to people about the gospel, we often get blank stares when we turn the conversation to sin?
- The most fundamental reason for people to be unaware of their own sin is that they are ignorant of God’s Law and of God’s righteousness and are thus unaware of sin at all. Most people have never read or understood the Bible, so they have never encountered the holy God of the Bible nor have they seen God’s wrath against all sin. What is the solution to this dilemma? Paul says, “Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20).” He also says, “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law (Romans 7:7).” Clearly it is the preaching of the Law that brings the knowledge and the awareness of sin. The one, then, who would share Christ must be skillful and patient in “preaching the Law,” for it is in so doing that the listener may become aware of their sin and seek a remedy.
- Other people may be aware of God’s Law to some degree, but they may apply it incorrectly. What do I mean by this?
- They may grade their moral performance on a relative scale (man’s scale), not on an absolute scale (God’s scale). “I am relatively righteous. In fact, I am a pretty decent fellow. I keep all the rules almost all the time. I may not be perfect (and we all know that no one is perfect!), but I am a lot better than most. I am sure I am okay with God.” These trust that God grades on a curve and will accept them based on a sincere effort and a better-than average score. The “rich young ruler” (Luke 18:18, Mark 10:17) belongs here, as does the Pharisee of Luke 18:9-14. Romans 10:1-4 talks about this group of people who rely upon “a righteousness of their own.” I believe that this group is also best addressed by pointing out the absolute nature of the Law, that the Law of the LORD demands perfect obedience at all times, and there is nothing relative about the LORD’s standards; and the irreversible nature of ANY sin. Once committed, no sin can be reversed or erased, and the wages of all sin is death (Romans 6:23). The only hope for any sinner is not performance but is atonement.
- A person may have some knowledge of God’s Law, but he may not take it very seriously. This is the person who believes that God does not really judge sin, or at least He does not judge their “Oh sure, if I did something really bad, like kill somebody or something, God would probably be upset. But these pictures of God throwing people into hell for minor offenses are just meant to scare people into going to church.” In other words, God does not mean what He says in the Scriptures. Again, the Scriptures is the place to turn to speak to this person, and again, patience and skill are required. This person must see the overwhelming number of passages that talk about God’s coming judgment and about His wrath toward sin – ALL SIN. All sin is serious; so serious, in fact, that God had to send the Lord Jesus Christ from heaven to earth to be nailed to a Roman cross to satisfy the wrath of God against sin. God is serious about sin, but the glory of the gospel says that, because of our Substitute, God can be “just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).”
- A final category is those who are very aware of the Law and apply the Law very strictly to others, but who do not apply the Law very strictly to themselves. The Pharisees and “the Jews” are the classic examples of this in the New Testament. It is likely that Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees in Matthew 7:1-5, when He tells them not to judge others. In Romans 2, Paul addresses the Pharisees when he accuses them of judging others in the hopes of escaping judgment themselves (Romans 2:1-4, 17-24). In Romans 7:7, when Paul is reflecting on the days of his conversion from Pharisee to follower of Jesus, he describes how the Tenth Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” which he had known since his childhood, suddenly exploded into his life and produced “coveting of every kind.” As Paul reeled from this moral collapse, he was struck by the awareness that he, too, was a sinner before a holy God. The commandment that had been there all along suddenly hit Paul between the eyes. No longer was the Law “out there” so that he could judge others for their “failures,” but the Law was “in here” and he was a violator. For those who judge others, but do not judge or examine themselves, Scripture must be brought to bear on their judgmentalism and on the universal existence of sin in everyone. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23),” and I must find a Savior instead of trying to be a judge.
These thoughts have been trying to answer the question, “How is it that someone would be ‘aware of nothing against myself?’” and have been mostly focusing on the unbeliever. Our aim has been to help speak to unbelievers about sin so that they might repent and believe in Jesus and be saved. But what about the believer? For it is certainly possible for a believer to have some of these same ideas. Speaking generally, my experience is that there are two general causes of these views toward sin in those who claim to follow Christ and there is one general outcome.
- The first cause of a professing believer being unaware of their own sin is a shallow and narrow understanding of the word of God. Their knowledge of the Bible is shallow in that they have not wrestled deeply with the Scriptures such that more profound meanings emerge from their reading. The Scriptures bring the human, finite mind into contact with the infinite, divine mind of God, and in that encounter, there will be many times that the human mind is overwhelmed and confused. If the believer avoids difficult texts and is satisfied with easy answers, then the transforming power of the Scriptures will be largely smothered. A narrow reading of Scripture is one that only addresses familiar and favorite passages. Only the easy passages are encountered, only the books that we read in Sunday school as a kid. While it is true that all Scripture is God-breathed, it is also true that ALL Scripture is God-breathed. There should be no part of the Bible that is unfamiliar to you. When you meet Nahum in heaven, will you have anything to say to him?
- The second cause for a professing believer being unaware of their own sin is a weak church that never talks about repentance and holiness and sanctification as necessary evidence of salvation. There are, unfortunately, a huge percentage of churches that do very little to spur their members (or their attenders, for those who value church membership lightly) on to greater holiness. If the believer is not a member of a healthy church, they will be unaware of their own sin, and they may be unaware to a degree that is very similar to that of an unbeliever.
- Finally, the result of these two causes will be a believer that is spiritually flabby and fleshly. There will be little-to-no progress in sanctification, so that the person that you saw ten years ago is spiritually in about the same place today. In fact, they have probably regressed or have abandoned the effort altogether. The professing believer who is weak in the Word and who is a member of a weak church will bear very little spiritual fruit. Their lives will not demand an explanation.
In my opinion, then, the goal of our journey is to be able to say with the apostle Paul, “I am conscious of nothing against myself,” while at the same time continuing to strive for greater and greater holiness and obedience, and to do this until we receive the crown of righteousness on THAT DAY (2 Timothy 4:8).
SDG rmb 4/5/2020