What Is Sin? (Phil Johnson)

1 John 3:4   |   Sunday, August 4, 2013   |   Code: 2013-08-04-PJ

     Karl Menninger was one of the most influential psychiatrists of the 20th century. He was the founder of the famous Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. Near the beginning of his career in 1931, he gave a long interview that was published a book titled From Sin to Psychiatry, in which he touted Psychiatry as a more scientific way to deal with all kinds of human dysfunctions that previous generations had seen as the consequences of sin. More than 35 years later, in 1968, he wrote a book titled The Crime of Punishment, in which he argued that crime was both treatable and preventable through psychiatric therapy. He regarded punishment as inappropriate, ineffective, and inhuman--a relic of unenlightened thinking. He said all criminals should be regarded as mentally ill.

     But then, just five years later, in 1973, Menninger wrote another book titled Whatever Became of Sin?--in which he said he had come to view sin and guilt differently. He deplored the fact that even the word sin had more or less disappeared from the vocabulary of public discourse, and he even seemed to grasp the truth that sin is a universal human problem--and that those who deny their guilt are just as depraved as those whose sense of guilt drives them to mental illness. The cover copy on that book included this: "The prisoners punished in our jails are a small minority of all the offenders; 'all we like sheep have gone astray.' While a few deplore their guilt, many remain blandly indifferent or vaguely depressed or bitterly accusatory of others. Are these states of illness?" Menninger said after many years of psychiatric practice he had come to consider moral values an essential aspect of psychiatry. In fact, he concluded, mental health and moral health are identical.

     I happen to agree with that, but not in the sense Karl Menninger meant it.

     Dr. Menninger died in 1990, frustrated over questions that had seemed so simple at the beginning of his career were still unanswered at the end of it. He lamented that psychiatry specialized in observing and naming this or that condition, but they had no cure for the problems they treated. And yet, he noted, some people did seem to improve without psychiatric treatment. In a letter to a rival psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas Szasz, Menninger wrote, "Some of our very sick patients surprised us by getting well even without much of our 'treatment.' We were very glad, of course, but frequently some of them did something else even more surprising. They kept improving, got 'weller than well' as I put it, better behaved and more comfortable or reasonable than they were before they got into that 'sick' condition. We didn't know why. But it seemed to some of us that [what] we had seen was a kind of conversion experience."

     As I said, I agree that moral and mental health are identical, and that the key to spiritual wholeness lies in what we do about our guilt. Menninger's problem was that he thought the main problem with guilt was the way it made the offender feel. He never quite seemed to grasp that sin is first and foremost an offense against God and the real problem with guilt is that there is no real remedy for it in psychiatry, self-help, or self-improvement schemes. Much less can guilt be cured by simply "forgiving oneself," which seems to be the standard remedy most secular counselors (and even some so-called Christian counselors) suggest.

     Guilt is an unpayable debt we owe to the justice of God, and the only remedy for it is full atonement--and only Christ can provide that. That's not a conclusion secular psychiatrists will ever reach using the so-called scientific method.

     Still Karl Menninger was right about one thing: our culture's refusal to acknowledge sin and its guilt is very much the root of countless mental, moral, and social problems.

     And that is a trend that has not improved--in fact, it is now exponentially worse than it was in the 1970s when Menninger wrote is book Whatever Became of Sin? Atheists are becoming more outspoken and more aggressive--almost militant. All kinds of sins and perversions are lobbying for special status in society. Abortion (the murder of children in the womb) is commonplace and strongly protected by corrupt politics and an unjust judicial system. The ideas of sin and guilt have more or less been purged from public discourse, and the current generation seems to have no consciousness of guilt whatsoever. In the words of Romans 1:29-32, our culture is "filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. [People] are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them."

     One of my favorite Christian radio talk-show hosts is Todd Friel, who is the voice of Wretched Radio. And what I especially like about Todd is that he has the heart of an evangelist, and he does personal evangelism live, on the air. Frequently--at least once or twice a week Todd will have the microphone out on the street or in a shopping mall or college campus or public arena somewhere, and they do live evangelism.

     Todd stands in opposition to the easy-believism that is so popular today by teaching people how to use the law in a way that reveals sin for what it is.

     I remember listening a few years ago to a series of broadcasts he made in Florida during Spring break. He was broadcasting live in a beachfront community that was overrun by college students who had traveled to Florida for with an evil agenda: the students were all there to spend the week getting drunk and partying.

     So here was Todd Friel and the Wretched Radio crew in the middle of that mess witnessing to students, and what amazed me was how many of these licentious young people professed to know the Lord. Student after student, in the midst of a week-long campaign devoted to outright debauchery, kept claiming to be Christians despite the fact that they were deliberately pursuing a lifestyle of sin. They'd say, "Oh I know I'm going to heaven because I've accepted Jesus as my personal savior."

     And Todd Friel, who always asks the right question, kept asking them, "Savior from what? If Jesus is your Savior, what is he saving you from?"

     And student after student failed to give any cogent answer to that question. Not one person mentioned the issue of sin. And when the subject was suggested to them, they all blew it off, saying sin doesn't really matter.

     Incidentally, that's why it's important to make sure people understand the demands of God's law before you can really talk to them about the good news of the gospel. How can anyone understand what it means to have a Savior if he doesn't have any concept of sin and guilt?

     What is sin? Why is it always an offense against God, even if I sin against someone else? Why is guilt inherent in every sin, and why is guilt such a serious matter?

     Those are the questions I want to explore with you this morning, and we'll do it by considering the issue of sin in light of 1 John 3:4. This simple verse of Scripture is one of the shortest, clearest statements in the whole Bible about sin and what it is. 1 John 3:4:1 "Everyone who commits sin also breaks the law; sin is the breaking of law." That's the Holman Christian Standard Bible, and I read that translation first because it makes such a helpful, straightforward definition of what sin is: "Sin is the breaking of the law."

     Now, I normally use the English Standard Version, and it translates the text this way: "Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness." That's actually a more precise translation because it gets the verb tenses right--and it makes better sense when you get down to verse 8: "Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil"; and verse 10: "By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God." He's talking about the dominant pattern and practice of your life. The King James Version translates verse 8 this way: "He that committeth sin is of the devil"--which makes it sound like every time you sin you should question your salvation, because real Christians are sinless. But that would contradict what he wrote in chapter 1: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." We all sin--but if you are always sinning and have no love for righteousness whatsoever, you belong to the devil, even if you once asked Jesus to come into your heart.

     John is challenging the false assurance of people who practice sin--people whose lives and personal characters are dominated by sin; people who live in unbroken sin with no righteous desires and no genuine obedience to Christ. He calls them "lawless"--anomia in the Greek. It describes those who are without law; hostile to the intent of the law; rebels; spiritual anarchists--lawless ones. The typical picture you might have in your mind of out-of-control students on spring break makes a pretty good symbol for what John is talking about in this verse.

     And he contrasts such people with true believers, whom he has just described in verse 3, those who hope for the appearing of Jesus Christ. "And," he says (v. 3), "everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure."

     So this is the context: he is contrasting believers and unbelievers. And notice the stark contrast. True believers purify themselves (v. 3); while unbelievers live lawless lives (v. 4). Those who abide in Christ do not live a lifestyle dominated and characterized by the wanton pursuit of sin (v. 6); but those who don't abide in Him practice sin as a way of life (v. 6b). Verse 7: True believers reflect the righteousness of their Lord. Verse 8: those who practice sin as a lifestyle are of the devil.

     And he is drawing this hard-line contrast between true believers and unbelievers. The main difference, he says, is something that is visible in a person's character and behavior. It's really very simple and straightforward: Unbelievers practice sin as a way of life; believers are purifying themselves, becoming more like Christ. Look at verse 2: "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is." And if that is your hope, you ought to be moving toward that goal of perfect Christlikeness even now. If you are not moving toward that goal, its because you are living a life of sin and lawlessness. There's no safe middle ground between the two.

     This difficult tension runs throughout this epistle of first John. He's emphasizing two different truths, and at times he almost seems to be contradicting himself. On the one hand, he says you cannot be a true Christian unless you come to grips with the fact of your sin. This is the whole point of chapter 1 (verse 8 again): "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." And verse 10 says, "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." And John's whole point in that first chapter is to get us to come to grips with the reality of our own sin. Because (v. 9) "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins." And so he refutes anyone who would claim to be sinless in any sense, and in effect, he says there is no one who is sinless.

     But there's a whole other set of statements in this epistle that emphasize a completely different fact about the believer and his relationship to sin. Chapter 3, verse 6: "Everyone who remains in Him does not sin." And throughout the epistle, John makes statements like that. "No one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him." Verse 8: "The one who commits sin is of the Devil." Verse 9: "Everyone who has been born of God does not sin." I went back to the Holman Christian Standard Bible for those last three verses, because that translation uses a form of the present tense that makes it sound like the apostle John is saying there is no such thing as sin in a Christian's life and experience. But again, that would contradict what he said in chapter 1. You have to understand that Greek verb tenses often have more specific meanings than their English counterparts. In the Greek text, the present tense of a verb signifies continuous action. The true sense of verse 8 is better expressed in the ESV: "Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil." "Whoever lives in continual, unbroken, unrepentant sin . . . " And the same thing is true of verse 6. "No one who abides in him keeps on sinning." In other words, sin is not the dominant, driving theme and controlling pattern of a believer's lifestyle. Real believers love righteousness, pursue the will of God, and seek to follow Christ. We do this imperfectly, because we are fallen creatures. We do sin, and we sin egregiously at times. But he's talking here about the dominant pattern and direction of our lives.

     And the Greek verb tense makes that clear. People who keep sinning--who sin continuously, and revel in their sin as a way of life--such people have no basis for thinking they are truly regenerate. Their very lifestyle declares that they are children of the devil. John is making a clear contrast between the true Christian, whose life is a progression in holiness, because we keep purifying ourselves as Christ is pure. And he is contrasting that with the direction of an unregenerate person, whose life and direction is characterized by an unbroken continuance in the practice of sin. That's why I prefer the ESV translation throughout chapter 2. It captures the essence of what the apostle John is saying: "Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil. 8).

     Now we'll come back to this point, but I wanted to establish the context and make it clear to you from the start that he is not saying Christians will never sin. He's talking about the direction of your life and the inclination of your character. And everyone fits in one or the other of those two categories: either you are purifying yourself and moving toward Christlikeness, or sin is the rule and the defining characteristic of your life.

     So if you want a barometer by which you can measure whether your faith in Christ is genuine faith or merely a pretense, you can tell instantly by asking which of the two categories you fall into.

     And the apostle John is in the midst of making this very point when he writes the words of our verse: "Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness."

     That is a profound statement--one of the most important statements about sin in all the Bible. And I want to look at it this morning in three points. First, we'll consider what it means with regard to the nature of sin; then we'll consider what it means with regard to the wickedness of sin; and finally, we'll return to the actual point the apostle John is making here, and consider what this verse means with regard to the significance of sin. And be forewarned: This is easy, elementary stuff from a biblical and theological point of view. But it is hard truth to hear and receive from a moral point of view.

     First, let's see what this verse has to say about-- The Nature of Sin

     This is in my opinion the best and most comprehensive definition of sin found anywhere in Scripture. There are other verses that describe the nature of sin for us. Romans 14:23, for example, says, "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." Sin is at its very heart faithlessness. If you doubt and do something, what you are doing is sin, because it is a faithless act. Paul says, "whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats."

     If you're not convinced you can do something to the glory of God, it is a sin to do that thing, because whatever isn't done in faith is sin. And all sin has this element of unbelief in it.

     There's another biblical definition of sin in James 4:17: "whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin." Not only is everything we do in unbelief sinful, but so is everything we don't do when we know we should. This brings sins of omission into the biblical definition of sin. You cannot avoid sin by inactivity, because God lays certain duties on all of us, and shirking those duties is sinful. Whenever you know of something good to do, and you neglect to do that good, you have sinned. And if you read the context of James's statement, he is specifically talking about people who are procrastinating. They are planning to do good at some time in the future, but they are putting it of for the pursuit of a selfish agenda. James says even if you mean to do good, if you put it off instead, that is sin.

     Here's another definition of sin in 1 John 5:17: "All wrongdoing is sin"--or in the more familiar language of the King James Version, "All unrighteousness is sin." The Greek word signifies a moral wrong--anything that falls short of the perfect standard of divine righteousness--that's sin.

     How do we know the standard of divine righteousness? It is revealed to us in the commandments God has given us. Disobey the standard of righteousness revealed in the commandments, and you have sinned.

     Someone says, "Well, that sounds a bit legalistic!"

     If you think that's legalistic, look at the definition of sin in our verse again: "sin is lawlessness." Or as other translations have it, "Sin is the breaking of law."

     Have you ever thought about all that statement implies? No matter which way you translate the verse, it very clearly teaches that there is a legal standard God holds us to. Contrary to those who think all legal standards are abolished in the New Testament, the apostle John, who is writing this epistle near the end of the apostolic era, says there is a legal standard that is binding on you, and if you transgress that standard, it is sin.

     In fact, the most literal translation of this text gives us perhaps the best, most comprehensive, and most precise definition of sin we find anywhere in Scripture: "Sin is lawlessness."

     You think you're not under any law because you are under grace? You think the moral commandments of God are abrogated for you because of the grace that you have received through the gospel? You think you can live your life without regard for the moral law of God? That is lawlessness, and that is exactly what John says is the very epitome of sin.

     Listen, when the apostle Paul said we are not under the law but under grace, he was by no means suggesting that we are free from the moral demands of God's law. In fact, he anticipated that very misunderstanding, and for that very reason, when he wrote in Romans 6:14, "you are not under law but under grace" he immediately in verse 15 followed that statement up with a rhetorical question, "What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!"

     What then? shall we live lawless lives because we are not under the law? God forbid. May it never, ever be. When Paul said we are not under the law, he did not mean we have no obligation to the moral demands of the law. He was teaching that we are not under the law for our justification. We do not have to try to earn saving merit by the works of the law--which would be impossible for us anyway, because the law condemns those who fail even in one point. So we're not under the law as a means of justification. As believers we are out from under the threat of eternal condemnation of the law. We are relieved of the law's ceremonial requirements--the dietary laws, the priestly and sacrificial system, and all the types and shadows that were built into the law of Moses.

     But we are not placed in a realm of moral lawlessness. The law's moral demands, because they reflect the very character of God, define the moral state of perfection we are progressing toward as we are being conformed to the image of Christ, and therefore we will never be free from the moral requirements of the law. As Paul says in Romans 3:31: "Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold [and establish] the law."

     Modern evangelicalism has been crippled by the notion that the law of God is in no sense binding on the Christian. There's a name for that kind of theology. It's antinomianism. Multitudes of Christians today imagine that the moral content of the Old Testament law and the Ten Commandments are merely relics of an outmoded dis­pen­sa­tion, which can be safely ignored. There have even been people in and around Grace Church trying to spread that doctrine. But that is the very kind of lawlessness the apostle John says characterizes the unredeemed person.

     True Christianity establishes the law--not as a means of justification, but as a rule of life and conduct, as an ethical code, as a set of guidelines that define what it means to be Christlike. The law is not irrelevant for the Christian. In fact, only the Christian can truly appreciate the law's true relevance.

     The law points us to Christ, right? Galatians 3:24: "the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith." The law served as a legal guardian to protect us and direct us "until Christ came." Before we were in Christ, there was a kind of bondage and servitude in our relationship to the law. It was like a nanny or a schoolmaster. It condemned us, and held us captive, and held over our heads the threat of condemnation.

     "But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian" (Galatians 3:25). We're released from the bondage. We're free from the threats. But that doesn't mean the law is now irrelevant. We have a new, friendly relationship to the law. It's something we love. It's something we can rejoice in. It's something we can delight in--because its moral content is in perfect harmony with the character of Christ. It defines the perfection we are striving toward. Moreover, if you are truly redeemed, it is written by God himself in your heart. Listen to Hebrews 10:15-17:

the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,

16 "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,"

17 then he adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more."

So are we under the law or not? We are not under the law's threats of judgment; and we are not beholden to a list of legal works we need to perform for ourselves as a means of gaining our personal justification before God; but we are under the law's moral principles as a rule of life and behavior.

     Let me show you very clearly what Paul meant when he said we are not under the law. You can see it by comparing two parallel verses in Galatians. Remember that Paul wrote the book of Galatians to answer the error of the Judaizers who were teaching that obedience to the law is a prerequisite for justification. And in Galatians 4:21, He addresses the people who had fallen for that error, and he says, "Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?" And he goes on to point out that the law is full of condemnation for people who sin. In other words, if you heard what the law really says, you would know that you can never be justified by obeying it. It can offer a sinner nothing but condemnation.

     Then in Galatians 5:4, he addresses those same people again. And he writes, "You are severed from Christ, you who [are attempting to] be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace." Now, notice the parallelism in those two verses. In Galatians 4:21, he addresses these people as "you who desire to be under the law." A chapter later, he addresses the same people as "you who are seeking to be justified by the law."

     So it's a simple principle, really: To be "under the law" in the wrong sense is to think you can be justified by following the law. But to seek to obey the law's moral demands in the course of your sanctification is to be under the law in the right sense. And Paul himself says so in Galatians 5. He lists the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19):

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,

20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,

21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. --and what are those? They are all violations of the moral demands of the law. "Sin is the transgression of the law."

     I like the definition of sin in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It sort of gathers up all the biblical statements about sin and incorporates them in one succinct statement: "Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God." That covers sins of omission and sins of commission. And it says exactly the same thing as our verse. "Sin is the breaking of law."

     This is a good reminder. Although we are not under the law as a means of justification, we cannot avoid sin or progress toward ultimate Christlikeness unless we obey the moral precepts of the law. Antinomianism is not true Christianity. Lawlessness is sin.

     There's a second important principle implied in our verse this morning. It is-- The Wickedness of Sin

     Some of you might think this is a rather obvious point: sin is wicked. It is an affront to the holy standards of a righteous God, and therein lies its extreme wickedness.

     But that is not necessarily an obvious truth these days. Modern discussions about sin seem to focus mostly on the detrimental effects sin has on the sinner. We tend to think sin is evil because its consequences are hurtful to us. As if the evil in sin consisted in the harm it does to me.

     In other words, to borrow something Spurgeon once said, we tend to think of sin as if it were the same thing as crime--an offense against the good of society or the welfare of our fellow-man. We think something is bad only because it is bad for us. We have redefined the concept of sin in a very self-centered way. We tend to think of it mostly in terms of how it affects us. As if the evil of sin consisted in the pain it causes us, or the earthly harm that it does. We easily recognize sin in others when its effects are personally hurtful to us, or when its consequences are measurable in terms of human pain--especially when we are the victims of that pain.

     But those are all side effects of sin. Those are the consequences of sin. That is not where the extreme wickedness of sin lies. That is not what makes sin so exceedingly wicked. Sin is wicked because it is rebellion against the righteous standards of a holy God. And the affront to God is where the extreme wickedness of sin lies.

     People often try to justify their sin by saying things like, "Well, it doesn't really hurt anyone." "It's not like there's a victim of my misdeed." "So what if I my private thoughts are filled with lust and greed and lasciviousness? Who is going to be hurt by it?" Or we imagine that a sin is excusable if there's some apparent benefit to it. "The end justifies the means." "All's well that ends well." "Hey, after all, something good came out of it." As if we could measure the wickedness of a deed by its practical effects.

     Listen, those are all different ways of saying, "why not do evil that good may come?" And in Romans 3:8, the apostle Paul says of those who advocate such a philosophy, "[Their] damnation is just." As Spurgeon said, "If you are doing wrong, even though you should feed a nation by your wrongdoing, I say that you would still be committing sin. If you get rich by an unholy trick, it is none the less trickery and deception, and there is a curse upon your wealth."

     The real wickedness of sin consists in the fact that it is an offense against a sovereign God. There is really no such thing as a petty sin. It's true that Scripture teaches some sins are worse than others. But there is enough wickedness in the smallest sin to fuel the flames of hell for eternity.

     In fact, consider the nature of the original sin. By most standards, Adam's sin would be considered a petty sin. He ate a piece of fruit God had told him not to eat. Who was hurt by that? By modern standards it would be deemed a victimless crime, worthy of a slap on the wrist. And yet that one little breach of God's law was enough to plunge the entire human race into a state of hopeless fallenness. It alienated all of humanity from God. It so offended the righteousness of God that He expelled Adam from the garden, cursed the earth, and required the death of His own Son as an atonement.

     Why was that such a great wrong? Because it represented rebellion against the sovereign ruler of the universe. It made Adam a traitor to His own maker. It impugned God's right to reign. In effect, a puny creature spat on the throne of God, challenged His right to rule, and attempted to set himself up as sovereign instead. Is that, in your mind, a small infraction?

     Every sin has the same spirit of rebellion and defiance at its heart. To sin is to pretend that we know better than God what we ought to do. Sin is a rebellion against the right of God to govern His own creatures. In fact, this is precisely the point of our verse: Sin is lawlessness. Lawlessness says, "I reject God's right to command me. I don't want what God has promised me. I do not recognize His authority as my God. I want to be God in His place." "I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High." (Isaiah 14:13-14). Lawlessness replaces God's law with my own self-will. I become a law to myself. In that sense, there is no such thing as a petty sin.

     Jeremiah Burroughs, the puritan writer, wrote a book on the sinfulness of sin, titled The Evil of Evils. And he said there is more evil in the tiniest sin than there is in all the suffering and affliction the world has ever known. The things we normally think of in connection with evil--suffering, and sickness, and calamity--are not inherently evil. They are consequences of evil, but they are not evil in and of themselves.

     And here's the proof. Christ suffered. He bore pain, and sorrow, and affliction so grievous that he nearly died from sheer anguish of heart. Remember in the garden, the night before He was crucified, when His sweat was like great drops of blood? Yet in all that anguish and affliction, there was no evil. He suffered it all without compromising His perfect sinlessness in any degree.

     And the next day, as He hung on the cross, He bore an enormous reproach. He suffered mocking, and cruel, indescribable torments, and pains unimaginable to us. And although those who heaped such disgrace on His sinless head committed an unspeakable evil, He himself bore all that agony without being tainted by any evil.

     On top of all that, He bore an infinite measure of the righteous wrath of God, as the punishment for our sins was laid on Him. And there was no evil in that, either. In fact, the fruit of it for us was an infinite good.

     And here's the point: There is more evil in the most petty, insignificant sin than there is in all the affliction the world has ever known. Therefore, Jeremiah Burroughs wrote, it is better to choose affliction than sin. When you are faced with a choice between sinning and suffering--even if you could escape your affliction by committing a petty sin, telling a white lie, or compromising some principle of righteousness--don't do it. Remember the lesson of Moses, who chose "to suffer affliction with the people of God, [rather] than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season" because "the reproach of Christ [is far] greater riches than [all] the treasures in Egypt" (Hebrews 11:25-26).

     If we really understood the extreme wickedness of sin, I am convinced it would change the way we live.

     Look at this definition of sin again: "Sin is the transgression of the law." Think about what is involved in that. Remember the definition I quoted from the Shorter Catechism: "Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God."

     What is the first principle of the Law of God? What did Jesus say is the First and Great Commandment? (Matthew 22:37) "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." Every sin begins at that point. It is a failure to love God the way we ought to love Him. And that is why sin is so extremely wicked. It an insult to the honor of God, but more than that, it shows contempt for the One who is most worthy of our love. Sin is an expression of hatred toward God. That's why Scripture says "[the carnal mind] is hostile to God" (Romans 8:7).

     To indulge in sin is to refuse God the love He deserves. It is the same as deliberately treating Him with contempt. That's why every sin is full of extreme wickedness.

     To minimize sin, or to treat it as a petty or trifling thing, is to ignore the extreme wickedness of hating God instead of loving Him. To think of any sin as petty is to imagine that it is an insignificant thing whether we love God or hate Him. If we really understood the extreme wickedness of even the smallest sin, we would realize that there is nothing more wicked under the sun.

     Let's move on to our final point. I want you to see what this verse has to say about--


The Significance of Sin

     This brings us full circle to where we began. Remember that the apostle John's purpose in writing this passage is to make a clear distinction between believers and unbelievers. True believers purify themselves; unbelievers live lawless lives. It is as simple as that.

     Indulging in sin deliberately and as a pattern of life is a sign of unbelief. Look at the opening phrase of our verse: "Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness." Now just to make clear the implications of that, John uses a parallel expression in verse 8: "Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil." To live in a lawless way is to live like the devil, and if that is the main characteristic of your life--if you practice an unbroken pattern of sin and lawlessness--you are not a true Christian. You are "of the devil."

     Look at verse 9: "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God." Now, again, that is talking about the practice of sin--sin as a lifestyle. He is describing someone who sins and doesn't repent, someone who is totally abandoned to sin, someone whose life is totally devoid of any righteousness. Such a person is not a Christian, no matter what kind of profession he has made, no matter what kind of prayer he might have recited.

     And John says so explicitly in verse 10: "By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God."

     He says the same thing in verses 6-7: "No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous."

     And again, he is talking about the practice of sin, sinning as a lifestyle. And he draws this very clear dichotomy and says no true Christian can practice lifestyle sinning.

     Now this is exactly contrary to the spirit of the current post-modern evangelical community. Most people think all that really matters is that you have made a profession of faith, or that you have been baptized, or that you attend church regularly, or that you have an interest in theology or Scripture.

     I have in my library a book that deals with the subject of Christians and sin. And I have to say it is one of the worst treatments of the subject I have ever read. It opens with a true story about a man who was an evangelical pastor by day and a bank-robber by night. And this guy, who by most appearances was a typical, mild-mannered Bible teacher, would occasionally don a ski mask and rob banks. And he did it to get cash to finance a sinful habit. It turns out he had a habit of visiting expensive prostitutes, and he couldn't fund it on a pastor's salary, so he turned to armed robbery.

     And the fellow who wrote the book said he knew this guy in Bible college, and he had heard his testimony, and he had heard what a good Bible teacher the fellow was, and he knew the guy had asked Jesus into his heart. So, he concluded, this man must be a true Christian despite his lifestyle.

     But that is the exact opposite of what John says here, isn't it? John says if he practices lawlessness as a lifestyle, he is of the devil. He is not a true believer.

     Now, I need to be clear: Does this mean that no Christian can fall into gross sins or even prolonged sins? No, it doesn't. David sinned with Bath-sheba, and righteous people have often fallen into serious sins. Christians do fall into grievous sins and may even continue sinning for a time. And when they do that, they incur God's displeasure and grieve his Holy Spirit and forfeit the assurance of their salvation.

     So that if you are living a pattern of sin, you frankly cannot know for certain whether you really have a saving interest in Christ. But Scripture says such a lifestyle is characteristic of unbelievers, not believers. And so the only way you can regain your assurance is to repent and forsake the sin, and begin to purify yourself, even as He is pure.

     The practice of sin is lawlessness. It is a devilish life, devoid of assurance or hope. It is not the kind of life that characterizes a true believer. And if you examine your life and see such a pattern, I pray that the spirit of God will prompt you to deal with it immediately. There is nothing more deadly than the delusion that you are safe, while you are practicing a life of wickedness. May God deliver us from that and fix our hopes on the coming of Christ, because (v. 3), "everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure."