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The Sinfulness of Man

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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January 26, 2022 12:01 am

The Sinfulness of Man

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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January 26, 2022 12:01 am

Are we basically good people who occasionally make bad choices, or does the problem of sin go much deeper? Today, Michael Reeves presents the biblical view of sin recovered in the Reformation that drives us to rely on Christ alone for salvation.

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Sixteenth-century scholar Erasmus wrote that sin is something we choose to do, but it's not something that enslaves us. Martin Luther saw it differently. What Luther had seen then is that the problem of our sin goes as deep in us as it possibly could all the way down into our hearts, shaping what we want and love. And as a result, we never naturally want God. But that's not a popular view. Both in Martin Luther's day and in our own, the tendency is to deny the depth and severity of our sin.

The culture, and unfortunately even some in the Church, would have us believe that man is basically good. While a more optimistic view of human nature may seem less condemning and more respectful, in the long run it leads to greater spiritual enslavement. Today on Renewing Your Mind, Dr. Michael Reeves helps us see that only the biblical definition of sin leads to true freedom.

Welcome back. We're going to look now at the question of sin and see how differently sin can be understood and how different views of sin have profound practical consequences. Now, Martin Luther grew up with a little view of sin. It wasn't that he refused to take sin seriously, quite the opposite. Sin, he knew, is the weight that will drag us to hell.

It is the cause of all misery, it's wages or death. Yet while he knew that sin is a severe problem, he didn't think it was a very deep problem. It was a view that chimes well with today's cheery optimism about ourselves in our culture. For today, in our culture we know we do wrong things, but the suggestion that we might be rotten deep down strikes our society today as utterly repellent nonsense. Most believe today we are good people muddling through.

And, of course, we slip up every now and again. Sin is seen as a small problem easy to fix. And what Luther came to see surprisingly is that such sunny stories of how basically good we are, so attractive in their cheeriness, are actually terrible, enslaving lies. Now, in Luther's day, it was the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle who summed it up and whose message was so widespread. Aristotle said, we become righteous by doing righteous deeds. We become righteous by doing righteous deeds. Or we become just by doing just acts.

It was a self-help, fake it till you make it message. So if you work at outward righteous acts and keep doing them, it claimed you will actually become a righteous person. And for years, Luther lived by the maxim, we become righteous by doing righteous deeds. As a monk, he desperately did all the righteous deeds he could imagine, fasting, praying, pilgriming, monkery. And what he slowly came to realize was the dream of becoming truly righteous by some simple change of behavior was just that, an elusive dream. Holding its reward ever just out of reach, it consistently promised righteousness without delivering it.

All the time exacting a heavier and heavier behavioral demand. In other words, by dangling the hope of becoming righteous before him while repeatedly giving more deeds to do, that idea gradually enslaved him. Worse, while doing all those outward acts of righteousness, he found it wasn't making him upright in heart, full of love for the Lord. Quite the opposite, as he's doing all these apparently, he thinks, righteous acts, he found resentment snowballing inside him for the God who demands so many deeds. Trying to sort himself out and become righteous by his own efforts was driving him deep into slavery, despair, and hatred of God. Sin, he began to see, was not so easy a problem to whisk away.

It went deep down in him, deeper down than he could reach himself. And so it was, in 1517, that Luther decided to challenge Aristotle. And so a few weeks before posting his more famous 95 Theses, Luther posted his 97 Theses. And in them he wrote this.

Hear how he's directly taking on Aristotle? Luther wrote, we do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds. Rather, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds. That is, our sin is not, he saw, something we can sort out by ourselves by adjusting our performance. If we are to be righteous, we have to be made righteous.

So how does that work? Well, Luther continues. He said, the grace of God makes righteousness abound through Jesus Christ because it causes one to be pleased with the law. In other words, what we cannot do, the grace of God does. God in his kindness is able to reach down where we can't reach into our hearts and change not just the superficial layer of our behavior, but our very hearts, causing us to actually desire to be pleased with what is righteous.

And that uprightness of heart is the only true uprightness. Now this is just where many would part ways with the Reformation. God saving people out of his sheer loving kindness sounds wonderful. But people needing to be saved because they are otherwise helpless in their sin sounds less pleasing.

And we don't like hearing bad news. And it was the same in Luther's day. In the early days of the Reformation, there were many who were vaguely sympathetic to the Reformation. They saw the need for some sort of change, some sort of reformation in the church.

They wanted the corruption, the mismanagement cleaned up. And they saw someone like Luther and thought, he's the new broom who can come in, step up to the task and clean things up a bit. And one such admirer was Erasmus. At the time, the most celebrated scholar in the world, the man who's published the Greek New Testament that had converted Luther. And yet Erasmus' idea of Reformation was like his view of Christianity. He believed that what the Roman Catholic Church needed in his day was a few improvements.

It was dirty and needed a wash, but nothing more radical or essential needed changing. And likewise with us all, Erasmus felt. He thought we could do better, we should do better, but that doesn't mean we're enslaved to sin.

We just ought to try a bit more. And so in 1524, Erasmus wrote on the freedom of the will, arguing that sin is not something that affects us so deeply or powerfully that it actually enslaves us. Luther saw this as an assault on the very vitals of the Reformation, and he responded with a blistering argument on the bondage of the will.

Now the title that Luther gave his work, written the next year on the bondage of the will, commonly throws people. But people think, I make free choices, don't I? Is Luther saying I can't do what I want, this idea of the bondage of the will? But that's a complete nonsense, they say, for I do what I want every day. My will seems very free.

And actually, Luther would agree. We do always do what we want. But you do not choose what to want. For underneath our wills, directing and governing our choices, lie our hearts with their inclinations and desires.

Proverbs 16 verse 9, in his heart a man plans his course. And that is why we choose to sin. We do not go through life neutrally weighing the odds of each decision. Should I go with the righteous option now or the sinful option, and then just sensibly choose between them neutrally?

No, no. We choose sin because that's what we want. We are carrying out, Ephesians 2, the desires of the flesh. We naturally, John 3, love darkness. And so James 1, each person is tempted when he's lured and enticed by his own desire. And then desire, James writes, when it's conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it's fully grown brings forth death, James 1, 14 and 15. What Luther had seen then is that the problem of our sin goes as deep in us as it possibly could, all the way down into our hearts, shaping what we want and love. And as a result, we never naturally want God. So we freely choose to do the things that we want, and that includes we have the ability to live a life of outward morality and respectability.

We can do that. But left to ourselves, we will never choose God because we do not naturally want him. Now Erasmus had taken it that our problem as sinners is basically sloth. We are spiritually sluggish and sleepy. That's our problem. And what we need if we're to be righteous is pull ourselves together and put in the proper effort.

Then you can do it. Luther's own experience had given the lie to all that. He left him saying after years of monkery, I did not love, I hated the righteous God.

I was angry with God. And with that in his heart, Luther had found he could strive as hard as he wanted and yet only find himself further than ever from actually fulfilling the law by loving the Lord his God. Luther knew an outward appearance of righteousness he could achieve, but it would be nothing more than a hollow sham made of self-dependence, self-worship, self-righteousness.

He saw he was like a rotten tree producing rotten fruit. And sin was in his roots, in the very grain of his deepest self. And what Luther needed, what he saw all sinners need was a radical renewal, a new heart that would freely love and be pleased with God. And that he saw would only come about through the love of God being spread abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. He put it like this, the heart must be made glad.

It must grow warm and melt in the love of God. And then praise and thanksgiving will flow from a pure heart. He's saying that it is when someone tastes the love, the grace, the glory of God through the gospel, then their eyes are opened and their hearts are turned.

And only then will they love God from a pure heart. Now, the difference between Luther and Erasmus meant they ended up with two very different visions of Christianity. A superficial view of sin and a deep view of sin ended in very different places. For Erasmus, the church is most like an army. And one of his best known works was entitled The Manual of the Christian Soldier. And the important thing he emphasized in that book for a Christian was keep the rules, do your duty, like a good Christian soldier. For Luther, on the other hand, the church is first and foremost like a family.

Knowing God, the Father, is what matters above all. And so sin is not just substandard behavior, dereliction of duty, it's worse. Sin is despising God. The act of sin has its roots in the heart and reveals that something other than God has become the true object of the heart's desire and adoration.

And when played out in real life, the difference between those two visions becomes very obvious. See, if right behavior is the goal, and if that's a goal that everyone can achieve, if they simply exert themselves properly, well then the church can run just like an army. Pastors can serve as the sergeant majors, drilling their troops into line. Because after all, as Erasmus believed, everyone is capable of getting into line. Why aren't the people more holy?

Because they're not trying hard enough. But if, as Luther saw, we're made for a deeper purpose, to love, to glorify, to enjoy God, and if we cannot naturally love him because we're enslaved to sin, then merely to order people to do what they can't is cruel. In other words, anyone who holds to Luther's deep view of sin must find their compassion swell and build.

Because people are not just naturally lazy, they are helpless. They need their very hearts to be dealt with, not simply their performance. Above all, they need the one thing with the power to turn and liberate their hearts, the gospel. Luther asked, how shall a work please God if it comes from a reluctant resisting heart? If hearts are enslaved to the charming lies of sin, if they're to be won to God, then the glory of God in the face of Christ must be made known to them. Christ must be shown to be better, more desirable than sin. And that was how Luther would minister to people.

And so, compare Erasmus' stern counsel of try harder with this from Luther. Luther wrote, I could not have faith in God if I did not think he wanted to be favorable and kind to me. This, in turn, makes me feel kindly disposed towards God. And I'm moved to trust him with all my heart and look to him for all good things.

He goes on, look here. This is how you must cultivate Christ in yourself. Faith must spring up and flow from the blood and wounds and death of Christ. If you see in these, God is so kindly disposed towards you, he even gives his son for you, then your heart in turn will grow sweet and disposed towards God. He saw because sin is a slavery, an addiction, Luther saw he couldn't simply hector or order people out of it. That might bring about, such a bullying pastor could bring about behavioral change.

You can enforce that somehow, but that will only reinforce a deeper self-dependence. No, ears need to be opened to the message of Christ and him crucified. Eyes need to be opened to the unfathomable kindness and glory of the living God. And only in that gospel light can true humility, goodness, and charity grow. You see the Reformation's deep view of sin goes all the way down into the hearts enslaving us.

It looks initially unattractive, but if sin is not much of a problem, Christ is not much of a savior and we don't need much grace. Only if I see my plight is so bad, I cannot fix it myself. Only then will I turn to Christ and depend on him instead of myself.

Only then will I despair of my efforts and look outside myself for hope. And that's what we see in the gospels, isn't it? In the gospels, it's the one with the great debt canceled who loves most in Luke 7. It's the forgiven prostitutes and tax collectors who weep with joy, give away their wealth, and love Jesus. It's the Pharisees, those who think they are something in themselves, think they have something in themselves on which they can depend.

It's them. They are the ones who never find that liberation, that transformation. And historically too, times of church reformation and revival have consistently been marked by a radical view of sin. It was on the lips of the preachers of the great awakening, men like George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, as much as it was in the mouths of the reformers. For such men knew that calls for social improvement and better morality, while good things, do not touch the heart of the human condition.

Corrupted all the way down. We cannot fix ourselves. Our hearts must be renewed. And that can only happen through the gospel being preached and the glory of God being revealed. The Reformation's radical view of sin is why we sinners would throw ourselves on God's grace alone. We are corrupted all the way down.

We cannot fix ourselves. Our hearts must be renewed. That's Dr. Michael Reeves teaching from his series Reformation Truths. You're listening to Renewing Your Mind on this Wednesday. I'm Lee Webb.

Thank you for being with us. Dr. Reeves is president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in the UK, and he's been a popular speaker at our Ligonier conferences over the years. We're featuring three of his messages from this series this week, but you can request all eight messages on a single DVD for your donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries. There are a couple of ways you can reach us.

One is by phone at 800-435-4343, or if you prefer to make a request and give your gift online, our web address is Many people today are confused about their identity and their purpose in life. Who am I, and what is my life all about? To bring clarity and a time of confusion, our founder, Dr. R.C. Sproul, taught that the big idea of the Christian life is the Latin phrase corundeo.

It means we are to live our whole lives in the presence of God, under the authority of God, and to the glory of God. And that continues to be the focus of our ministry, and that's why we're grateful for your financial support. Well, you may wonder, why are we focusing on an event that happened 500 years ago? What does it have to do with the Church today? Does the Reformation still matter? Look at your teaching fellow, Dr. Stephen Nichols. We'll address those questions tomorrow, and we hope you'll join us for the Thursday edition of Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-17 18:01:48 / 2023-06-17 18:09:18 / 8

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