Sin, more than anything else, stands in the way of Christian growth. If we would grow as Christians, we must take it seriously and deal with it as God intends.
(This post was written by Jerry Bridges, originally published in issue 26 of the Discipleship Journal).
When Irwin Moody, founder of the Moody Institute of Science, was leaving home to start his own career, his godly father gave him a Scripture verse as his parting counsel. “Remember, Irwin,” he said,
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn. 1:9)
That father’s parting counsel to his son probably strikes most of us as a bit strange. We’d try to think of some great promise from the Bible to give our son or daughter. But is there any greater promise in all the Bible than 1 Jn. 1:9? What Christian doesn’t need every day both the reminder of the need for confession and the assurance that, upon confession, God does forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness?
Yet 1 Jn. 1:9, as needful and precious as it is, is probably one of the most abused verses in all the Bible. We abuse it in two ways: first, by an almost flippant use of it when we regard our sin too lightly, and second, by a sense of despair that we have sinned so often or so grievously that we have exhausted God’s forgiveness. These two abuses are at opposite extremes, but both result from a failure to view our sin as God views it.
On the one hand, we fail to see the seriousness of our sin, and on the other hand, we fail to see the completeness of God’s forgiveness.
To help us get the most value from the great promise of 1 Jn. 1:9, let us consider God’s view of sin.
THE SERIOUSNESS OF SIN
To see sin as God sees it, we must first consider the seriousness of all sin. For too long we have tended to categorize sin into that which is unacceptable and that which may be tolerated. We have reached a state of peaceful coexistence with sins of the thought life, sins where “nobody gets hurt,” and little habits or personality traits that are dismissed as “that’s just the way I am.”
But God takes a serious view of sin. Three passages of Scripture in the Old Testament will help us to see how seriously God views our sin.
The first passage is Lev. 16:21. In describing the ritual of the scapegoat, the goat that would bear all the sins of the children of Israel away into the desert, the Lord, speaking through Moses, said:
He [the priest] is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head.
In this verse God calls the sins of the Israelites wickedness and rebellion. Perhaps you’ve never thought of your own sins—gossip, resentment, covetousness, and perhaps lustful thoughts—as rebellion, but that is how God views them.
In most English versions of the Bible the word transgression is used to translate the Hebrew word which the NIV translates as rebellion. It literally means a rejection of God’s authority. That is why it is considered rebellion. Sin in any form, be it ever so small or insignificant in our sight, is rebellion against the authority of a sovereign God.
As the supreme Lawgiver, God has the authority to tell us how to live, and He has done this in His Word. As the Psalmist said, “You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed” (Ps. 119:4). God has not only given us precepts; He expects us to obey them diligently and completely.
Let’s consider just one example: Over and over again the Bible tells us to guard our tongues, to speak only words that are both truthful and helpful to our hearers. Are we diligent about obeying these instructions? If not, we are rebelling against the authority of a sovereign God. We may feel we are just being careless; that we are perhaps not quite as diligent as we should be—but God says it is rebellion. Our hasty, unkind and critical words are not just carelessness; they are acts of rebellion.
Our pastor sometimes uses the expression, “shaking our fists in God’s face.” At first I was a little startled by that expression. I never felt that I was shaking my fist in God’s face. But that is what our sins are: acts of rebellion typified by shaking our fists in God’s face.
The second passage that will help us see how God views sin is 2 Sam. 12:9–10. After David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had had her husband Uriah killed, God sent the prophet Nathan to rebuke David. In the midst of his stinging rebuke to David, God said through Nathan,
Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.
David in his sinful acts despised both the word of God and the Person of God. You may think, “Well, that’s right. David’s adultery and conspiracy to murder were totally reprehensible. He did despise God.” But what did Jesus say? In the Sermon on the Mount He said hateful thoughts are murder and a lustful look is adultery (Mt. 5:21–22, Mt. 27–28). Most of us who are familiar at all with the teachings of Scripture know very well what Jesus taught about hate and lust; yet we sometimes indulge such thoughts anyway. We are not committed to total obedience; and to the extent we are not committed to total obedience, we despise God and His Word.
The third passage that shows us God’s view of sin is 1 Kings 13:21. The context of the verse is God’s sending a prophet to testify against the idolatrous altar that King Jeroboam had built in Samaria. In sending this prophet God had commanded him, “You must not eat bread or drink water [in Samaria] or return by the way, you came” (v. 9). In the process of returning to Judah the man of God was deceived by an old prophet and did stop to eat and drink in Samaria. As they were eating, the word of God came to the old prophet and he said,
This is what the LORD says: ‘You have defied the word of the LORD and have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you.
God accused the prophet of defying His Word. Now admittedly this is a difficult passage. It appears the man of God intended to fully obey God (in fact, he turned down an invitation to dine at the king’s table), but was deceived by the older prophet. Yet God calls his action a defiance of His Word, and because of that defiance, the man of God lost his life.
God’s judgment seems rather severe to us. After all, as the saying goes, “Nobody got hurt.” Yet that is just the point. Sin is not to be judged on the basis of whether anybody gets hurt, but on the basis that it is disobedience—a defiance according to God—to God’s sovereign law. As W.S. Plummer said, “We never see sin aright until we see it as against God . . .. All sin is against God in this sense: that it is His law that is broken, His authority that is despised, His government that is set at naught . . ..”William S. Plummer, Psalms (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975, reprint of 1867 original), p. 557.
If we want to avoid the first abuse of 1 Jn. 1:9 wherein we regard our sin too lightly and claim God’s forgiveness too casually and perhaps even presumptuously, we must begin to view sin as God views it—as rebellion against His authority, as despising His Person, and as defiance of His law.
If you have been guilty of treating 1 Jn. 1:9 too casually (and who of us hasn’t?), try substituting rebellion or defiance or despising God’s Word for the word “sin” as you plead that verse before God. “Lord, I confess my rebellion and despising of Your Word and I plead your promise of forgiveness and cleansing.” As we do this, we will begin to view our sin as God views it and will be less likely to abuse the gracious promise of God by treating it too casually.
THE FORGIVENESS OF GOD
Oftentimes, however, we err in the other direction by limiting the forgiveness promised by God. Perhaps we have committed some grievous sin—at least to our own minds. Or, more likely, we have fallen for the thousandth time before some temptation that easily entangles us. At such times we are prone to think that we have exhausted the limits of God’s forgiveness. We feel God’s gracious promise of forgiveness in 1 Jn. 1:9 just doesn’t apply anymore. The sin is too big or the occurrences too frequent, so instead of experiencing the gracious forgiveness and cleansing of God, we are weighed down by our own sense of guilt.
To avoid this error, we need to see God’s view of our sin as it is forgiven in Christ. Several Old Testament passages use different figures of speech to point out the extent of God’s forgiveness of our sins. The first is Ps. 103:12:
. . . as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
One Sunday our pastor pointed out to us that you can start north at any place on the earth, and if you continued in that direction, you would eventually be going south. But that is not true when you go east or west. If you start west and continue in that direction, you will always be going west. North and South meet at the North Pole, but East and West never meet.
So how far is the east from the west? Well, they never meet or even come close to meeting. They are an infinite distance apart. And God has said He removes our transgressions (our rebellious acts) an infinite distance from us.
God uses another figurative expression in Is. 38:17. There the prophet says,
In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back.
When something is behind our back, we can’t see it. God, through the prophet Isaiah, says that He has done that with our sins. He has put them behind His back so that He cannot see them anymore. Our sins are not just behind God’s back. He has put them there and He has done this deliberately. He does not want to see our sins anymore.
The third picturesque expression God uses to show the completeness of His forgiveness occurs in Mic. 7:19. There the prophet Micah says of God,
. . . you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
Years ago as a naval officer, I had some personal experience with the depths of the sea. In a boating accident our ship lost some valuable equipment. Because we were operating in fairly shallow water (100 feet or so depth), we spent all of the following day “fishing” for that equipment with grappling hooks. We never recovered any of it. It was buried in the depths of the sea.
That is the way God views our sins. They didn’t just “fall overboard” into the sea; God Himself hurled them into the depths where they could never be recovered, never be seen again, or brought to His mind.
A fourth passage that emphasizes the completeness of God’s forgiveness is Is. 43:25:
I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.
Here God uses two expressions—He blots out our transgressions—that is, He removes them from the record—and He remembers them no more. God’s “forgetter” is much better than ours. Long after we have forgiven someone, we can call back to mind his or her offense and, if we are not careful, begin to hold it against him once more. But God’s forgiveness is complete and permanent. He not only blots our acts of rebellion and defiance off the official record; He also blots them out of His memory.
THE TENSION RESOLVED
At this point in our study of God’s view of sin, we seem to have two incompatible truths. On the one hand, we see that God views our sin far more seriously than we do. We talk about weakness of character or immaturity; God talks about rebellion. We speak of falling before some temptation; God says we have despised His Word and His Person. We feel we have made a mistake; God says we have defied His command.
At the same time, we have seen that God removes our sin an infinite distance from us; as far as the east is from the west. He has put our sins behind His back and hurled them into the sea. He has blotted them out and will remember them no more.
How can we reconcile the seriousness of sin in God’s sight with the absoluteness of His forgiveness as expressed in these wonderful Old Testament passages?
The solution, of course, is to be found in still another glorious Old Testament chapter, Is. 53. The message of that beautiful chapter is best summed up in verse 6, where we find the solution to the tension between the seriousness of our sin and the completeness of God’s forgiveness.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Here we see both the seriousness of our sin and the completeness of God’s forgiveness. Each of us has turned to his own way. That is the essence of rebellion and defiance. And though we’d like to think that phrase describes only our pre-Christian days, the truth is we often still go our own way. We do what we want to do, think what we want to think, and say what we want to say. And to the extent we do that, we rebel against God’s law, despise His authority, and defy His Word. And our so-called “little sins” are just as much rebellion and defiance as the “big” ones because in either case we have disobeyed the Word of a sovereign God. It is not the size of the sin but the majesty of God that makes our sins so grievous in His sight.
But even though our sins are so serious, God has provided a way of forgiveness. He has laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all. Here is the solution to our dilemma, the resolution of the tension between these two seemingly incompatible truths. This is why God can have such a serious view of our sin and at the same time be so absolute in His forgiveness. He has laid all our rebellion, all our defiance, all our despising of Him on His own dear Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
That is why we can never exhaust the forgiveness promised to us in 1 Jn. 1:9. The sacrifice of Jesus was infinite, sufficient to pay for the sins of the world and certainly sufficient to pay for all of your sins and mine.
If the promise of forgiveness and cleansing were in any way dependent on us, we would long ago have exhausted our credit. But Jesus’ sacrifice was infinite and because of that, God’s forgiveness can be infinite. We can never exhaust the promise that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
So let’s not abuse the promise of 1 Jn. 1:9. Let’s not be too casual about the sins we confess. Let’s acknowledge that we have rebelled against God and despised His Word. But let us also not despair of being forgiven. We cannot exhaust the limits of God’s forgiveness. Let us accept the infinite value of Christ’s atonement and believe that God has, in fact, blotted out our transgressions, hurling them into the depths of the sea and remembering them no more.
This article was originally published in issue 26 of the Discipleship Journal.
Jerry Bridges was a well-known Christian writer and conference speaker. His best-known book, The Pursuit of Holiness, has sold over 1.5 million copies. He joined the staff of The Navigators in 1955, serving 60 years as a staff member in various capacities before transitioning to associate staff and serving within the collegiate ministry. Jerry passed away in the spring of 2016. Check out all of Jerry’s modern classics at navpress.com.