I think it’s funny how we as humans don’t learn, not very well, that is. Sure, there are geniuses and prodigies who fly through the higher education systems and “learn” faster than others. But, overall, mankind hasn’t progressed too much from where we started. We harbor the same fears, desires, and lusts that those in ancient times did, just in differing manifestations. The greedy thirst for wealth still lingers; the insatiable want for pleasure hovers like an unbreakable cloud; what afflicted men of an ancient age still afflicts us in now.
Sin, likewise, doesn’t change, it just manifests itself in varying forms. The sin which lies underneath all the others, from the Adam’s Fall to right now, is the sin of disbelieving God. The case has been made by many theologians and commentators long before me that this is the root of all wickedness: disbelieving God and his goodness and satisfaction for you and seeking to conjure up your own goodness and satisfaction for yourself. This really is mankind’s first fall.
Delusions of Grandeur
But along with doubting that God’s fullness is meet for you, we’re also entrapped in distrusting God’s picture of us, a picture which isn’t all that pretty. We’re prone to think much more and much higher of ourselves than we ought. We like to think that we’re good and we’re making it — that’s God’s perfect law is being met by our efforts. But these are false thoughts, delusions of grandeur that ascribe to a holiness they can’t even approach. If you want an accurate picture of who you are, look no further than the apostle Paul’s treatment in Romans 3:9 and following:
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.: Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Rom. 3:9–23)
That’s not what we like but that’s the perfect picture of sinful, fallen mankind. This is an affront to our personal inclinations of piety and religiosity that we’ve deemed worthy to balance the scales of God’s favor. This indictment is damning, declaring that none are righteous, “not even one.” You see, as much as we might not want to we have to readily admit that we aren’t good or blameless; we aren’t worthy of anything that is proffered to us by the Son of God. And yet, we often think that we’re deserving or owed his mercy. Such aberrations of holiness are the biggest threats to Christianity.
The Obstacle of Pride
Yes, the biggest threat to our Christian walk and humble pursuit of God is a lack of daily personal worship of God — the very thing that gives us accurate views of ourselves. Worship forces you see all that God’s done for you, which makes anything you’ve done for him pale in comparison. It’s not the hypocritical Christian that causes the unbelieving to shy away from Christianity, it’s the pompous, pharisaical believer who has bought into his own delusions of strength and righteousness.
Pride hinders worship more than sin does. If sin was the greatest hindrance to worship then a lot more church buildings would lie empty come Sunday morning. No, sinners are the very ones to whom the call for worship comes. Sinners are the ones that need to worship God the most — reveling in the wondrous love and grace that’s made it possible for them to be in his house at all, cognizant of their need and rejoicing in a Savior who meets and exceeds that need.
Pride is the evil which causes men to disbelieve God and think more of themselves in the first place. When you think more of yourself than you really are, you stop living, breathing, and worshiping Jesus’s gospel of grace. This is the very thing that hindered the worship of the Pharisee in Luke 18. He was so bent on what he’s done and must do for God that he’d forgotten where he came from: a place of deceit and ruin and misery. The cry of every worshiper ought to be the cry of the publican: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13) It’s a prayer of humility and honesty in the realization that we are lifeless, hopeless, and worthless apart from God’s life-giving grace. As Thomas Adam has said, “I shall never be better till I know how bad I am.” (50) Indeed, we will never know how good God is until we first know how bad we are. “We can only come to Christ,” Adam continues, “with a catalogue of our sins in our hands.” (Adam, 62)
Empty, Broken, & Desperate
As you come to the throne room of grace, you mustn’t come white-knuckling your religious resume, rather, simply come as you are, empty and broken, in desperate need of the Spirit’s filling, the Savior’s rescuing, and the Father’s loving. What we need to pray for isn’t that we get better but that we believe stronger! Our failures lie not in our doing but in our believing. We already do a lot, sometimes too much. But we’re often guilty of disbelieving and distrusting that Jesus’s grace is sufficient for us. “You don’t just need the grace of the Redeemer,” as Paul Tripp says, “you need grace to recognize your need of the Redeemer.” We need to be told the truth that we’ve all turned away from God; we’ve all sinned and fallen short of his glory. We need the harsh reality that we’re “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), because, as Robert Capon says, “only when you are finally able, with the publican, to admit that you are dead will you be able to stop balking at grace.” (184)
Until we see ourselves as we really are by the Spirit’s direction we’ll never be who we’re called to be. Pending our acceptance the fact that we’re not righteous, that we’re not pulling this off, we’ll never be able to rejoice in Christ’s gospel. Unless we know that we’re honestly nothing, we’ll never know that we are “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom. 3:24–25)
Thomas Adam, Private Thoughts on Religion and Other Subjects Connected With It (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1843).
Robert Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996).