Sin is a corrupting, spoiling, God-dishonouring disease. It manifests itself in a defiance of God's Law, a rejection of God's Son, and a dismissal of God's church. Sin is multi-faceted. It betrays itself essentially by its self-oriented, earth-bound perspective on life. Its horizon is the stars, not the Creator of the stars. Its desire is the advancement of self, not the glory of God. Sin is congenitally incurvatus in se, that which turns us in upon ourselves.
This last statement is what I would like to reflect on here. The fundamental bias of our fallen nature is to make self and not God the ultimate referent in life. This seismic aberration lies at the heart of the troubles that afflict our world (indeed our cosmos!) and lies at the heart of many of the troubles that afflict many Christians. Let me explain.
We live in a deeply subjective world. Our culture has been seduced by the lie that we are masters of our own destiny. This rampant subjectivism has infected the evangelical church in its preoccupation to meet 'felt needs', rather than proclaim the objective gospel of God's grace in the Lord Jesus Christ. I do not mean for one moment that the gospel does not have subjective implications. It has momentous subjective implications: 'If any man is in Christ — new creation!' Nor do I mean that preachers should never address felt needs (Jesus did that in John 4 in his encounter with the woman at the well). What I mean is that the good news, which is the gospel, lies outside of ourselves and is wholly located in Christ. Paul can even tell the church in Colossae, 'Christ is your life.' The righteousness we lack before God is found in Christ, who is 'the Lord our righteousness.' Because of this, Paul exhorts the Christians in Colossae, 'Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.' The problem is that we often continue to set our minds inwardly and not outwardly. We look for encouragement within and not without.
This was a pastoral problem John Owen the great English Puritan divine recognised. He had preached on the text, 'This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as the propitiation for our sins' (1 John 4:10). Because he never ceased to think and feel as a pastor, Owen anticipated a query arising from his preaching: 'I cannot find my heart making returns of love unto God. Could I find my soul set upon him, I could then believe that his soul delighted in me.' To this Owen responds:
This is the most preposterous course that possibly thy thoughts can pitch upon...'Herein is love', saith the Holy £host, 'not that we loved God, but that he loved us' first, 1 John iv.10,11. Now thou wouldst invert this order, and say, 'herein is love, not that God loved me, but that I loved him first'... This is a course of flesh's finding out that will never bring glory to God, nor peace to thy own soul. Lay down then, thy reasonings; take up the love of the Father upon a pure act of believing, and that will open thy soul to let it out unto the Lord in the communion of love.
Too easily and often we look within ourselves for crumbs of spiritual comfort. There is a place for healthy, gospel self-examination, but only when it is done in the light of the foundational truth that he loved us first and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
The great need for preachers today is not first to address felt needs, though I believe there is a place for that. First and imperatively we need to preach the great objective truths of the gospel. Nothing less will give God's people the anchor they need to keep their souls sure and steadfast in the world of swirling currents and controversies. 'Looking away to Jesus' is the principal movement of a spiritually healthy soul. Sin turns us in upon ourselves; the gospel turns us out to Christ. Look to Christ. He is all you need, clothed as he is with the blessings and benefits of the gospel.
Ian Hamilton is Pastor of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church.