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Sin: Whatever Happened to the “S Word”?

What we lose when we mislabel the underlying problems of our hearts is the search for a biblical solution to those problems. Instead of feeding our “self-esteem” in a self-referential way, we must go to Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins and find in him our true identity by grace. David Powlison captures this so well, as he reminds believers of the following truths,

“You are God’s—among the saints, chosen ones, adopted sons, beloved children, citizens, slaves, soldiers; part of the workmanship, wife and dwelling place—every one of these in Christ. No aspect of your identity is self-referential, feeding your ‘self-esteem.’ Your opinion of yourself is far less important than God’s opinion of you, and accurate self-assessment is derivative of God’s assessment. True identity is God-referential. True awareness of yourself connects to high esteem for Christ. Great confidence in Christ correlates to a vote of fundamental no confidence in and about yourself. God nowhere replaces diffidence and people-pleasing by self-assertiveness. In fact, to assert your opinions and desires, as is, marks you as a fool. Only as you are freed from the tyranny of your opinions and desires are you free to assess them accurately, and then to express them appropriately.”1

To be fair, there are significant dangers to be avoided here as well. For instance, in seeking to biblically diagnose sinful habits and tendencies in ourselves and others, we can fall off into the ditch of fixating on sin to such an extent that we fail to hold out the hope of Christ and the work of redemption. Many are far better at diagnosing sin than leading sinners to the Savior. Additionally, we can fail to come alongside those who are ensnared in some particular sin with humility and compassion (Gal. 6:1). Finally, we can inadvertantly harm another who is in need of both spiritual and medical care. We may hastily misdiagnose someone without knowing all about what is going in in the hearts and in the bodies. All of these are real dangers to which we must be tuned in, especially as we seek to help others see what is happening inside their hearts and minds. These errors can cause irreparable harm to someone who is in need of the restorative grace of God in Christ for their spirit and in need of common grace aid for their body. However, we must never allow possible deficiencies or dangers in one approach to land us in an opposite error of misdiagnosing what is actually happening in someone’s lives.

The more well-versed we are in God’s word, the more ready we will be to properly discern what is happening in our own lives—as well as in the lives of others (Heb. 5:14). The law of God (i.e. the 10 commandments) is the summary of all that may properly be considered sin. Therefore, the better we understand God’s law, the more readily we will recognize sin in our lives. There have been numerous expositions of the 10 commandments written throughout church history to help us better understand what is actually being forbidden and expected of us in each one. The Westminster Larger Catechism contains one of the greatest of these expositions. Of course, the Psalms are foremost among the many places in Scripture in which we will equip ourselves to rightly diagnose sin. John Calvin notably called the Psalms “The Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul.” In the Psalms, we find the Psalmist constantly crying out to God for mercy and pardon on account of his sin, transgressions and iniquities. In the Psalms David teaches us to cry out to God in prayer, “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faultsKeep back Your servant also from presumptuous sinslet them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and I shall be innocent of great transgression” (Ps. 19:12-13).2

Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners from their sin and from the wrath of God that our sin deserves. It should, therefore, be of the utmost importance for us to seek to know in what areas of our life sin still remains. We all have so much sin remaining in us that we need God’s word and Spirit to search us to reveal indwelling sin. As the Heidelberg Catechism 114 states, “In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience.” When we downplay the reality of sin in our lives, we inevitably downplay the greatness of the sacrifice of Jesus for the forgiveness of sin.

More than anything in this cultural moment, we need Christians who are skilled at identifying and categorizing the maladies of the human heart, the courage to identify their sin for what it is before God, and the desire to lovingly help others see their need for Jesus Christ for the curing of their souls. A reclamation of the word sin in our cultural and ecclesiastical climate would inevitably bring with it a greater sense of the need that we have for a Savior. This, it seems to me, is what we need now more than ever.

1. David Powlison “The Therapeutic Gospel,” 9Marks Journal Feb. 25, 2010.

2. See Obediah Sedwick’s The Anatomy of Secret Sins, Presumptuous Sin, Sins of Dominion and Uprightness for a rich treatment of the substance of that for which David is praying in Psalm 19.

This article originally appeared here.