If our goal is to enjoy our salvation, to delight in time spent with our Heavenly Father, then why do we focus so much on sin? Why not just focus on the happy part of serving Christ? As pastor and physician Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains, truly grasping our own sinfulness is a first and basic step before we can escape the sorrows of this life. — Mark Lindsey
There are certain simple principles about which we must be quite clear before we can ever hope to enjoy this Christian salvation. The first is conviction of sin. We must be absolutely clear about our sinfulness. Here I follow the method of the Apostle Paul and raise an imaginary objection. I imagine someone saying at once: ‘Are you going to preach to us about sin, are you going to preach about conviction of sin? You say your object is to make us happy but if you are going to preach to us about conviction of sin, surely that is going to make us still more unhappy. Are you deliberately trying to make us miserable and wretched?’ To which the simple reply is, Yes! That is the teaching of the great Apostle in these chapters. It may sound paradoxical—the term does not matter—but beyond any question that is the rule, and there are no exceptions. You must be made miserable before you can know true Christian joy. Indeed the real trouble with the miserable Christian is that he has never been truly made miserable because of conviction of sin. He has by-passed the essential preliminary to joy, he has been assuming something that he has no right to assume.
Let me put it again in a Scriptural statement. You remember the aged Simeon standing with the infant Lord Jesus Christ in his arms? He said a very profound thing when he said: ‘This Child is set for the fall and for the rising again of many in Israel’. There is no rising again until there has been a preliminary fall. This is an absolute rule, and yet this is the thing that is being so sadly forgotten by so many today, and assumed by as many more. But the Scripture has its order, and its order must be observed if we are to derive the benefits of the Christian salvation. Ultimately, the only thing which is going to drive a man to Christ and make him rely upon Christ alone, is a true conviction of sin. We go astray because we are not truly convicted of our sin. That is why I say that this is in particular the problem of all those who have been brought up in a religious or Christian manner. Their chief trouble often is their wrong idea of sin.
I remember such a person putting this very dramatically to me on one occasion. She was a woman who had been brought up in a very religious home, who had always attended a place of worship and been busily and actively engaged in the life of the Church. She was then a member in a church where a number of people had been converted suddenly from the world and from various kinds of evil living—drunkenness and such like things. I remember well her saying to me: ‘You know, I almost wish that I had not been brought up in the way I have been brought up. I could wish that I had been living their kind of life in order that I might have their marvelous experience’. What did she mean? What she was really saying was that she had never seen herself as a sinner. Why not? There are many reasons. That kind of person thinks of sin only in terms of action, in terms of sins. Not only that, but in terms of certain particular actions only. So their tendency is to think that because they have not been guilty of these particular things, that they are not really sinners at all. Indeed, sometimes they put it quite plainly and say: ‘I have never really thought of myself as a sinner: but of course that is not surprising as my life has been sheltered from the beginning. I have never been tempted to do these things, and it is not surprising therefore that I have never felt myself to be a sinner’. Now there we see the very essence of this fallacy. Their thinking is in terms of actions, particular actions, and of comparisons with other people and their experiences, and so on. For this reason they have never had a real conviction of sin, and because of that they have never plainly seen their utter absolute need of the Lord Jesus Christ. They have heard it preached that Christ has died for our sins and they say that they believe that; but they have never really known its absolute necessity for themselves.
How then can such people be convicted of sin? That is Paul’s subject in this third chapter of his Epistle to the Romans. He has really been dealing with it throughout the second chapter also. This is his way of doing it, this is his great thesis: ‘There is none righteous, no not one, all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’. Who are these ‘all’? He keeps on telling us, Jews as well as Gentiles. The Jews would of course agree that the Gentiles were certainly sinners, outside the pale, sinners against God. ‘But wait a minute,’ says Paul in effect, ‘you are equally sinners’. The reason why the Jews hated Christ and crucified Him, the whole explanation of ‘the offence of the Cross’, the reason why Paul was treated as he was by his fellow countrymen who hated the Christian faith, was that the Christian faith said that the Jew was as much a sinner as the Gentile. It asserts that the Jew—the person who thought he had always lived a righteous and religious life—is as much a sinner as the most flagrant sinner amongst the Gentiles, ‘All have sinned’, Jews and Gentiles are equally condemned before God.
The same is true today, and if we are concerned about a conviction of sin, the first thing we have to do is stop thinking about particular sins. How difficult we all find this. We have all got these prejudices. We confine sin to certain things only, and because we are not guilty of these we think that we are not sinners. But that is not the way to know conviction of sin. It was not in that way that John Wesley came to see himself as a sinner. You remember what brought him to a conviction of sin? It began when he saw the way in which some Moravian Brethren behaved during a storm in mid-Atlantic. John Wesley was terrified by the storm and afraid to die; the Moravians were not. They seemed to be as happy in the hurricane and in the midst of the storm as they were when the sun was shining. John Wesley realized that he was afraid of death, he somehow did not seem to know God as these people knew Him. In other words he began to feel his need, and that is always the beginning of a conviction of sin.
The essential point is, that the way to know yourself a sinner is not to compare yourself with other people; it is to come face to face with the Law of God. Well, what is God’s Law? Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal? ‘I have never done that, therefore I am not a sinner.’ But, my friend, that is not the Law of God in its entirety. Would you like to know what the Law of God is? Here it is—‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Mark 12. 30, 31). Forget all about drunkards and their like, forget all the people you read about in the press at the present time. Here is the test for you and me: Are you loving God with all your being? If you are not, you are a sinner. That is the test. ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.’ God has made us and He has made us for Himself. He made man for His own glory and He intended man to live entirely for Him. Man was to be His representative, and was to dwell in communion with Him. He was to be the lord of the universe, he was to glorify God. As it is put in the Shorter Catechism: ‘The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever’, and if you are not doing so you are a sinner of the deepest dye, whether you know it and feel it or not.
The second thing the true Christian realizes is God’s way of salvation in Christ. This is the great good news…. Before man can be reconciled to God, before man can know God, this sin of his must be removed. God has said that He will punish sin, and that the punishment of sin is death and banishment from the face of God. This has to be dealt with. And what has happened? Well, says Paul, God has set Him forth as a propitiation. That is the means which God has employed. His being the propitiation for our sins means that God has made Him responsible for our sins. They have been placed upon Him and God has dealt with them and punished them there, and therefore because He has punished our sins in Christ, in His body upon the Cross, He can justly forgive us.
To make it quite practical let me say that there is a very simple way of testing yourself to know whether you believe that. We betray ourselves by what we say. The Lord Himself said we should be justified by our words, and how true it is. I have often had to deal with this point with people, and I have explained the way of justification by faith and told them how it is all in Christ, and that God puts His righteousness upon us. I have explained it all to them, and then I have said: ‘Well, now are you quite happy about it, do you believe that?’ And they say, ‘Yes’. Then I say: ‘Well, then, you are now ready to say that you are a Christian’. And they hesitate. And I know they have not understood. Then I say: ‘What is the matter, why are you hesitating?’ And they say: ‘I do not feel that I am good enough’. At once I know that in a sense I have been wasting my breath. They are still thinking in terms of themselves; their idea still is that they have to make themselves good enough to be a Christian, good enough to be accepted with Christ. They have to do it! ‘I am not good enough.’ It sounds very modest, but it is the lie of the devil, it is a denial of the faith. You think that you are being humble. But you will never be good enough; nobody has ever been good enough. The essence of the Christian salvation is to say that He is good enough and that I am in Him!
Text excerpted from Martyn-Lloyd Jones, “Spiritual Depression”, 1965