Rediscovering the Exceeding Sinfulness of Sin

Bernie Lawrence, Speaker

1 Timothy 1:15-17 | April 15 - Sunday Morning,

Sunday Morning,
April 15
Rediscovering the Exceeding Sinfulness of Sin | 1 Timothy 1:15-17
Bernie Lawrence, Speaker

It’s a great privilege me this morning to bring you God’s Word. I want to speak with you this morning about a doctrine that was understood and embraced and explained thoroughly by our forefathers in the faith. It’s a doctrine which, in my opinion, is essential for a vital and robust life with God and deep appreciation of what Christ has done for us in His life, His perfect life, His death, His resurrection and ascension. It’s also an essential doctrine if we are to live victoriously in a fallen world, as fallen men and women. It’s a doctrine that has fallen on hard times, in our post-modern age, in which I regret to say even in our evangelical circles is too rarely taught or discussed. And if it’s mentioned, it’s understated or misstated or watered down, that we tend to dismiss it, or to consider it irrelevant. And as a result, the world is languishing and God’s people are at the risk of what the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 4 of remaining children tossed to and for by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, craftiness, and deceitful schemes. That’s how important this doctrine is for us in my mind.

So I don’t want to hold you in suspense any longer. I hope, frankly, that you’re asking “what could this doctrine be?”

It is this. It’s what theologians have called the doctrine of original sin, or man’s depravity.

The Apostle Paul says in Romans 7:13 that he was awakened to the exceeding sinfulness of his sin, and so I’ve titled the sermon “Rediscovering the Exceeding Sinfulness of Sin.”

In 2016 a survey was taken by Ligonier Ministries in order to assess the state of theology in the United States. In an interview with Stephen Nichols and Chris Larson, some of the important takeaways from that survey were discussed. It wasn’t encouraging. The response of one survey statement about sin led to this conclusion by Stephen Nichols. He said “74% of Americans do not grasp the true nature and consequences of sin. We cannot have a clear understanding of Christ in the gospel,” he says, “if we do not grasp our true need as sinners and the heinous of our sin before a holy God.”

So I think there’s a need and an opportunity to recover this important doctrine so that we have a better understanding of the depth of our sin and sinfulness before a holy God and so that we cherish, we cherish God’s remedy for our sad predicament that He has given to us in His gospel. To help us with this, I’ll ask you to turn in your primary text for this morning. It’s 1 Timothy chapter 1. We’ll be looking at verses 15 through 17. We’ll be looking at other Scriptures as well, but would you follow along with me please as I read these remarkable and most relevant words of the Apostle Paul. Please remember this is the Word of God.

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display His perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in Him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

Would you pray with me once more? O Father, we ask you for greater understanding of the sinfulness of sin, Your utter holiness, and through them a greater appreciation for the gospel of grace. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

While there are many things that we could learn from our text this morning, I want to make just three observations. I do this with the hope of providing clarity on how we’re to think about sin, about ourselves as sinners, and how we are to wage war as believers against indwelling sin.

So here’s my first observation from our text, and it’s this: Sin is every man’s greatest problem. How can I say this? I can say this because of what we read in verse 15. Let me read it again: “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Paul says this is a trustworthy statement. It deserves full acceptance. Paul uses this language only five times in the pastoral epistles, that’s 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, and when he does, he is saying that this is settled doctrine.

Simon Kistemaker, commenting on these words, says that “this is a considered judgment, embedded already in the heart of the Christian community, deserving the immediate, spontaneous, and enthusiastic assent and endorsement of all believers and that it is now the utterance of the Holy Spirit.” It is to be accepted with no strings attached, he says.

You might rightly ask, “Why is this every man’s greatest problem?” And I say that because of the radical remedy that Paul stipulates, a costly remedy that no one would every invent or contemplate. A remedy from outside of man, not of his own doing. That remedy for man’s sin was and is God Himself in Christ, humbling Himself and being humiliated, living a perfect life, dying a sinner’s death, rising from the dead and returning to heaven to continue His labors as an advocate for sinners.

This remedy for man’s greatest problem is captured profoundly well in 2 Corinthians 5:21, perhaps you know it: “He made Him, who knew no sin, to become sin on our behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

My friends, great problems require great solutions. Just how grave is man’s sin problem? Well, I want you to turn with me please to Romans chapter 3, beginning in verse 9, where we see the Apostle Paul summing up his argument that man’s problem with sin is both universal and very thorough and very grave, meriting God’s severe judgment. Listen to what he has to say.

Romans 3, beginning in verse 9: “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 of no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does get good; not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they 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; in 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.”

How do these words affect you? I’ll tell you how they affect me. I’m inclined to think that they describe some people I know, but not me. But the Apostle Paul says this is every man’s predicament apart from Christ before a perfectly holy God. It is grave, and it is obscene, and to add insult to injury, we can do nothing about it.

Of course, the world takes great exception to this indictment, don’t they? You and I were a little put off by these strong words of the Apostle Paul. Imagine the reaction of unbelievers. They spend their lives explaining away the obvious reality about our world, that everything in it is very broken.

Look around. Sin’s consequences are everywhere. Character assassination and contempt dominate politics. Medicine that is supposed to protect life is increasingly committed to ending it in the most horrid ways, especially the lives of those in the womb or in old age. Law, education, business, the environment, and yes, even the church, are reeling from the consequences of man’s sin. I read an article a while ago about an evangelical mega-church in Oklahoma where five staff members were arrested for rape and other sexual violations of minors.

No institution, no person, is exempt from sin.

I deal with sin’s effects every single week in families, the families of professing believers whose marriages and children are languishing because of their sins. Not to mention my own.

How does the world explain all this chaos? They’re left to assign it to psychological disorders, or to the less than optimal environments that people grew up in, I get that. They dumb down sin by refusing to acknowledge it. They call evil good and good evil. How else can we explain the rapid and successful efforts to mainstream so many evils in our day?

This is the world’s explanation, because to call men sinners is an affront. It’s an insult. Why? Because the Bible says all men are sinners. The world says all men are basically good.

I’d recommend a book to you that I finished not too long ago. It’s titled “Courage to be Protestant.” It’s by David Wells, and Mr. Wells does a thorough job of cultural diagnosis and makes a compelling explanation of why our world and Christianity is in crisis. I’d like to read one of his many conclusions. He writes: “First the self movement assumes in a way biblical faith cannot, that human beings are essentially innocent. That, in fact, is what a great majority of Americans believe. In 2002 a national survey by Barna discovered that despite all the moral chaos evident in our post-modern world, 74% did not believe in original sin and 52% of the born again concurred. These high percentages responded positively to the statement that “when people are born they’re neither good nor evil, they make a choice between the two as they mature.” This goes to the heart of American individualism,” he says, “which believes that one’s self definition is a matter of private choice and it turns out this choice is unencumbered by the gravitational pull and misdirection of sin. It is all a matter of choice and not of nature. This is the heart of the self movement, and it is anathema to biblical faith.”

And so we have this impasse. The world interprets it’s problems as not too severe, the source not of sin but of environment, and the solution to be found within themselves. The Bible will hear none of that, and claims the world’s problems are grave and self-inflicted by depraved sinners, and that the only remedy for them lies outside mankind in the life, death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And for our sakes, the Bible also anticipates and explains this impasse.
Listen to how Paul captures this in 1 Corinthians. He says there “for the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block for the Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those are being called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Just a few verses later he says “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

But there’s another dimension to the exceeding sinfulness of sin that we find in our text, and it’s this: Sin is not just a universal problem for mankind, it’s a personal problem.

Here’s how the Apostle puts it in verses 15 and 16 of our text: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display His perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in Him for eternal life.”

Paul considers himself the foremost of sinners. He says it twice in our text. King James substitutes the word “chief” for foremost, the NIV uses “worst” for foremost. Whether we choose foremost, chief, or worst, it’s very clear that Apostle Paul believed this about himself.

Ephesians 3:8. Paul uses similar self-effacing language. We read there “to me, though I’m the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.”

And still a third time. Paul says of himself in 1 Corinthians 15, “for I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle.”

That’s not how you expect a great man like the Apostle Paul to speak of himself, is it?

John MacArthur says about this text that many in our world would hasten to correct Paul’s self-image and restore his self-esteem, but that was a healthy self-view for Paul because it was accurate.

Again we see the counter-intuitive nature Scriptures play here. To see oneself as a great sinner saved by the mercy and grace of God is a good theme. In fact, it’s a healthy self-image.

John Stott writes “Paul, with the Holy Spirit’s help, was so vividly aware of his own sins that he could not conceive that anyone could be worse. It is the language of every sinner whose conscience has been awakened and disturbed by the Holy Spirit.”

Paul’s self-assessment of himself of himself as the chief of sinners is both past tense and present tense. Paul’s humility as a great sinner is tied to his past. Look at verses 12 to 14 in 1 Timothy 1: “I thank Him,” Paul says, “who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because He judged me faithful, appointing me to His service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me in the faith and love that are in Christ.”

Paul never go over the fact that he had been a blasphemer, a persecutor of Christ’s church, and what he says or calls an insolent opponent of the Gospel. It merited a death sentence. Instead he found Christ’s profound mercy, and patience, with sinners, and so Paul’s gratitude could not be contained.

But Paul’s notion of being the worst of sinners also has a present tense. In fact, the verb tense here and other occurrences where Paul cites his status as the chief of sinners, the least of the saints, the least of the apostles, are all present tense. How are we to think about that?

Well, in another place, Paul addresses the problem of the believers’ indwelling sin. If you will, the sins of the flesh that still caused him and all believers, to this very day, great trouble. While Christ’s costly life, death, and resurrection secured our justification and spares us eternal death, we continues as believers, don’t we, to wage war with the remaining effects of indwelling sin.

Look with me for a moment at Romans chapter 7. We’ll begin reading in verse 14. This is a little lengthy, but I want to read it to impress upon you Paul’s description of his internal 24/7, present tense conflict with indwelling sin. Paul reasons: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Our forefathers in the faith believed that Paul was describing his life as a believer, not as unconverted man. Notice that Paul uses the present tense to describe his predicament. I tell folks I’m a Romans 7 guy. This rendering of life as Paul experienced it is mine as well. I often say that the Bible describes life as I experience it, and offers the only remedy for life as I experience it. I’m very grateful that the Holy Spirit chose to include Romans 7 in the canon.

Galatians 5:16-17 is a concise version of that lengthy explanation that we just read in Romans 7. Here what Paul says: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”

Again, notice that the conflict between the flesh and the spirit is present tense. It’s safe to say it’s a real and present danger.

Author Kris Lundgaard has done us a very great favor. He took the profoundly complicated works of puritan John Owen on sin and did his best to practically explain them for us mortals, in his little book titled “The Enemy Within.” If I were king for a day and could make you read one book, that might be the one. In his book, Lundgaard uses a lot of imagery to impress upon the reader the great danger and power of indwelling sin to the believer. He notes that the flesh never takes a sabbatical. It’s always seeking to bring us harm. Lundgaard describs the flesh as a haunted house within our hearts, and like a trick birthday candles that you blow out while making a wish only to have them burst back into flames. He also calls the flesh a fisher of men. He uses the analogy of the flesh as a fisherman, putting its attractive lure on a hook and dropping it in the water to seduce the unsuspecting fish, that’s us, through defection and temptation.

I want to add a sidebar to the personal nature of sin that I think is really important. If we are to understand how the flesh works so that we might experience more frequent and sustained victories in our battle with it. You see, the Bible teaches that the heart is the engine that drives everything that we think and say and do.

Kris Lundgaard suggests that the best way to think of the heart is that it comprises four elements: Your mind, which consists of your thoughts and plans and judgment and discernment; it consists of your will, your choices and your actions; it consists of your affections, your longings, desires, imagination, and feelings; and it consists of your conscience, your sense of right and wrong which approves or condemns your mind, will, and affections.

According to Ezekiel 36:26, one of the benefits of salvation is that God gives us a new heart, that includes a new mind, and new desires. But God’s sanctifying work in our renewed hearts is unfinished, and so Jeremiah is able to say in Jeremiah 17:9 that the “heart is deceitful and desperately wicked above all else.” He asks “who can know it?”

Jesus said this about the hearts of men in Mark 7. He said there “what comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, proceed evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these things proceed from within, and defile the man,” Jesus said.

I always remember a saying from Dr. Henry Krabbendam, a professor from Covenant College long since retired, I think, but many years ago as he taught us in a parenting conference here at Christ Covenant. Dr. K, as he was lovingly called, was this massive Dutchman with the thickest Dutch accent that I’d love to imitate for you but I would mess it up. At one point he was demonstrating that our very young children are sinners by nature and he said this: “The heart of the problem is the problem is the problem of the heart.” The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. I’ve never forgotten that. And it’s so true.

John Calvin was called a theologian of the heart, and he wrote that the heart of man is an idol factory. We are so competent at manufacturing idols that compete for our love and loyalty for the Lord Jesus Christ, in direct violation of the first and second commandments. And these idols can be anything: Our money, our pleasure and leisure, our children, dare I go there? Our jobs, our desire to be liked by others. Many things, anything that becomes so important for us that we will sin to acquire it can be called an idol, and believers are very exposed to the dangers that idols present to the soul.

You may wonder what the Puritan forefathers had to say about the corrupting power of the flesh and the sins of the heart. Here’s what a few of them had to say.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne said “the seeds of all sins are in my heart.” He made it first person.

John Owen wrote “that the law of sin is so powerful, even in the best of saints,” and he says, “though its rule be broken, its strength weakened and impaired, its root mortified, yet it is a law still of great force and efficacy.”

And Anthony Burgess said that “original sin in believers is like a furnace, always sending forth sparks.”

Puritans wrote prolifically on the nature and the power of sin as it affects both those who do not know Christ as well as those who do, and their theology of sin stands the test of time and experience.

It’s safe to say that you and I will never outgrow our need of the Gospel. You know there’s a temptation to think of the Gospel as primarily relevant at the moment in time when we awaken to our estrangement from God due to our sin and misery and received Him as Lord and Savior, thus securing eternal life with Him, somehow we delude ourselves into thinking that it’s now our responsibility to make our way, to earn our keep, if you will. The Gospel in the present tense is less relevant. We would never say that, but it creeps into our thinking.

But to think and live that way is not only a terrible bondage, it’s also a lie that brings great harm to God’s glory and His Gospel. For the truth is that the same Gospel that anticipated your sin and misery as an unbeliever and was the remedy for it then, is the same Gospel that anticipates your ongoing battle with the world, and the flesh, and the devil, that routinely results in your continued sin.

That’s the only way to understand 1 John chapter 1 verse 8. Let me read that for you. There the Apostle John insists “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His Word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. But if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation [or the satisfaction] for our sins, and not only for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

That is the only way to understand the present ministry of Jesus Christ now as He serves you and me in heaven, beside the Father.

Hebrews 7:25 reads: “Consequently, He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”

Jesus continues His ministry of intercession for you and me as I speak. No, we will never outgrow our need for the Gospel.

So we’ve established that sin is universally mankind’s greatest problem, and that sin is a very personal problem, but our text makes one more point that is essential if we are to leave encouraged this morning, and it’s this: A proper regard for the exceeding sinfulness of sin results in as reinforced by awe and worship of our great God.
Look with me at verse 17: “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

Paul’s epistles, when he has nothing left to say, he often erupts into doxology, and that’s what he does as he concludes this magnificent treatise on the great doctrines of sin and God’s solution to it, to the free gift of salvation through faith in Christ in the first 11 chapter of Romans. These things are so glorious that Paul comes to an end of himself and worships.

Look with me at Romans 11:33. There Paul erupts into doxology: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and inscrutable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor? Of who has given a gift to Him that He might be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.”

And that’s what Paul is doing in our text. There’s nothing left to day to the magnificent truth that men are great sinners, but that the grace of God is greater still.

Again, let’s hear from Simon Kistemaker about verse 17: “Paul surely was unable to comprehend the grace of God which had been shown him. Here all reasoning stops. There’s only room for doxologies. This is a veritable outburst coming from a heart that’s experienced what it means to have such a great God as one’s own God.”

My friends, for Paul this was very personal. He saw himself as a trophy of God’s grace, who served as an example of God’s great mercy and perfect patience to all who would inherit eternal life. He intended to boast about that, and he did. But in the end, he worships.

Worship is both a result and a remedy for us. Have you thought about that? It’s a result of awakening to the biblical truth that though our sin was and is great and grave, God’s provision in Christ is far greater. That should move us to worship.

But worship is also a remedy for us. True worship privately and each Lord’s day with God’s people should so affect our souls that we are in a very real way less likely to sin and more likely to be holy. Paul is simply, in this doxology, saying what the psalmist acknowledges in Psalm 145: “I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and forever. Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable. The Lord is gracious and merciful. Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and His mercy is over all that He has made. All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your saints shall bless you. Amen.”

I leave a lot unsaid this morning. I urge you to read what the Reformers had to say about the exceeding sinfulness of sin, to help you to think correctly, and to live differently in these difficult days.

I want to whet your appetite for this through a prayer taken from the book of anonymous Puritan prayers titled “The Valley of Vision.” I’m not normally drawn to written prayers of others, but I’ve been greatly blessed by these. I find in them a kindred spirit. I often make these prayers my own. Look on the back of your sermon notes, if you have them, and you’ll see a prayer titled “Paradoxes.” I want to read this prayer so you can appreciate the seriousness with which our forefathers in the faith took sin. Maybe as I read you will be moved to make this prayer this morning.

“O changeless God,
Under the conviction of thy Spirit I learn that
the more I do, the worse I am,
the more I know, the less I know,
the more holiness I have, the more sinful I am,
the more I love, the more there is to love.
O wretched man that I am!
O Lord,
I have a wild heart,
and cannot stand before Thee;
I am like a bird before a man.
How little I love Thy truth and ways!
I neglect prayer,
by thinking I have prayed enough and earnestly,
by knowing Thou hast saved my soul.
Of all hypocrites, grant that I may not be
an evangelical hypocrite,
who sins more safely because grace abounds,
who tells his lusts that Christ’s blood
cleanseth them,
who reasons that God cannot cast him into hell,
for he is saved,
who loves evangelical preaching, churches,
Christians, but lives unholily.
My mind is a bucket without a bottom,
with no spiritual understanding,
no desire for the Lord’s Day,
ever learning but never reaching the truth,
always at the gospel-well but never holding water.
My conscience is without conviction or contrition,
and nothing to repent of.
My will is without power of decision or resolution.
My heart is without affection, and full of leaks.
My memory has no retention,
so I forget easily the lessons learned,
and Thy truths seep away.
Give me a broken heart that yet carries home
the water of grace.” Amen.

I love to visit old cemeteries. You can learn a lot from reading the epitaphs of those who’ve gone before us. If you were to visit the grave of William Carey, that great 18th and 19th century missionary to India, known as the father of modern missions, what would you expect to find on his gravestone? I would expect to see some commendation of, some tribute to his great sacrifices and successes to bring the Gospel to India. But that’s not what is etched on William Carey’s gravestone. No, it simply reads “a wretched, poor, and helpless worm, on Thine kind arms I fall.”

I memorized that the first time I heard it because that’s an appropriate response of a great sinner to a great and merciful God. May what was said of William Carey be said of us as well.

Pray with me. Our Father, grant us, please, a right view of ourselves, a biblical view of ourselves, as great sinners, ever in need of the great remedy offered by a great God and Savior. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.