When our sorrow may be sinful
By Paul Witter, 12 Sep 2016
It seems an odd thing to say, but I have been struck by this more and more. There is a kind of grieving for sin that grieves God. There is a kind of sorrow over our sin that is itself sinful. And the flip side of this truth, I believe, is the good news of forgiveness.
And I guess the place to start is with the finished work of Christ. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, became human for us. Fully and completely human (whilst remaining fully and completely God). And he did so to accomplish our salvation. He did this by obeying the law of God fully and without hesitation. This active obedience of Christ was the reverse of our original parents who failed to obey and cast the whole human race under the domination of sin. When we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, we become one with him through the Holy Spirit of God, and this perfect obedience becomes ours. It is his obedience credited to us. This is what theologians call “imputed righteousness”; we gain a right standing with God that is not our own. Paul puts it like this; “Go made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”1 But that still leaves a problem of what to do with our sin; our rebellion against God and his ways. And this is where the perfect death of Jesus comes in. He did not die by accident, but by design. God sent him to this world for that purpose. He came willingly. And he came “to give his life as a ransom for many.”2 That is to say that Jesus took the record of wrongs of all those who will believe in him and bore it in himself. And on the cross, as the skies darkened supernaturally and in the middle of the day, God expended his just anger against our sin and did so in Jesus. And just before Jesus died, he cried out “It is finished!”3 That is to say, Jesus fully and completely secured the salvation of all who would believe in him. There was nothing left to be finished off later. It was a full and complete salvation. Jesus saves us to the uttermost those who come to him.4
And here is where this issue of sorrow for sin comes in. It is a good thing to have godly sorrow for our sin. But there is a form of a sorrow that is sinful itself. It is the kind of sorrow that becomes disconsolate. It is sad over sin but that sadness keeps the person from feeling able to approach God. And it feels so defeated that it begins to doubt that things will ever be different. Or it feels that before right relationship with God can resume, there needs to be a period of deep and sufficient grief, or sadness. It is a kind of self punishment for sin. And this is the kind of sorrow that is sinful.
Here is how the Puritan author, Richard Sibbes puts it, “It is against the pleasure of God that we should be disconsolate. Therefore we wrong our own souls, and sin against our own comfort, when we let reins loose by inordinate and extreme sorrow...The sin against the holy gospel is a kind of rebellion against God, though we think it not so, when we will not be comforted, nor embrace grounds of comfort when we have them. The comforts of God ought not to be of small esteem to us.”5
What Sibbes means when he talks of a “sin against the holy gospel” is that we sin when we fail to embrace the total and complete forgiveness of sin that is ours because of the sin bearing death of Jesus. The apostle John tells us that when we confess our sin, God “is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”6 He is faithful because he has promised. He is just because our sin has already been punished in Jesus and it would not be just to punish it again in us. And notice that not only is there forgiveness but God makes us pure (purifies us). That means we have no grounds to wallow in self-pity crying out how messed up, dirty, broken, and failed we are. God declares us pure and what God says is so is so.
Of course it is possible to take forgiveness for granted. That happens when we sin freely, and without concern, because we believe that we will always be forgiven. When that sort of approach is suggested to the apostle Paul, he exclaims, “By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” That is to say, Jesus died for us and we died with him. We are not under sin's dominion any longer so why should we make a lifestyle out of sinning? So, yes, we can take forgiveness for granted. And that is a danger of the gospel message. But there is an opposite danger. And that is that we don't take our forgiveness seriously enough. We don't see that Christ has secured our forgiveness and there is nothing we can or should do to add to it. It is not the death of Christ plus a sufficient dose of sorrow and contrition on our part. It is the death of Christ alone, to be received by faith alone, by grace alone, and as a gift.
So the next time we sin, we need to take it to God our Father and confess it plainly, telling him that we know we have sinned against him and that what we did was wrong. We ask for his transforming grace to enable us to turn from it. And we accept his forgiveness without reservation and rejoice in it. To continue to be morose after having received forgiveness is to act as though we have not been forgiven. It is a sin against the gospel. The right response as we turn from our sin and towards God is a renewed joy and gratitude that all our failures are covered by the death of Jesus and all the righteousness requirements of God have been satisfied for us in his perfect life as we rest in his righteousness credited to us.
12 Corinthians 5:21
5Richard Sibbes, A Heavenly Conference between Christ and Mary (1654. rep. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2015), 75-76.
61 John 1:9