March 16, 2015

Do you grieve over sin?

by Clint Archer

storm trooper grievingIf you were to line up all 15 billion or so people who have ever lived in order of most godly to most vile, whereabouts would you place Jonathan Edwards? I’m not asking for exactitude, just a rough estimate, rounded off to the nearest billion.

Factors you might want to consider include: Edwards (1703-58) repented and embraced the grace of Christ as a young man, worked as a faithful and exemplary pastor for decades, preached arguably the most influential English sermon ever (one credited with starting the Great Awakening), raised a dozen godly children, was a devoted husband, wrote countless helpful theological works, volunteered to be a frontier missionary to a tribe of Native Americans, and all the while recognized his utter dependence on God and modeled humility and purity.

My guess as to where Edwards features in the godliness line-up would be somewhere in the top—I don’t know— two billion, to be safe? I’m certain we would all agree that he should be at least in the upper half of the virtue queue. (The list includes all the Amalakites, Nazis, serial killers, bohemian hippies, and all the lukewarm Christians in history).

The reason I ask is because I was quite taken aback when I read where Edwards ranked himself…

Jonathan Edwards ranked himself dead last.

He wrote in 1725: “I have had a vastly greater sense of my own wickedness, and the badness of my heart, than ever before my conversion. It has often appeared to me that if God should mark iniquity against me I should appear the very worst of all mankind—of all that have been, since the beginning of the world to this time, and that I should have by far the lowest place in hell.

When I first read this the thought occurred to me that surely he was given to hyperbole, or at worst this was false humility. I mean the list at that stage, though it didn’t include Hitler and Ted Bundy, it did cover the people before the flood who “only did evil continually” (Gen 6:6), oh, and Judas Iscariot. But then I remembered someone else whom I consider to be a paragon of godliness, and in the heady upper climbs of the top most echelons of sanctification: the Apostle Paul. But Paul also ranked himself least of all people, dubbing himself as “the chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15).statue

Is it possible that the godlier you become, the more repulsive your sin is to you, the more sensitive you are to your sin, and the more you grieve over your sin? There are a handful of top tier folks who think so.

Jeremiah Burroughs:

They think repentance or mourning of sin is but one act. … It is a dangerous mistake, for we need to know that a true sorrow for sin, true repentance , is a continual act that must abide all our lives.”

Jonathan Edwards:

The more a true saint loves God, the more he mourns for sin.”


J. C. Ryle:

I am convinced that the first step towards attaining a higher standard of holiness is to realize more fully the amazing sinfulness of sin.”

A. W. Pink:

It is not the absence of sin but the grieving over it which distinguishes the child of God from empty professors [of faith]”


St Paul:

As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.” (2 Cor 7:9)


Jesus Christ:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4)


Donald Whitney’s excellent little book, Ten Questions to Diagnose your Spiritual Health, has a chapter in it titled “Do you still grieve over your sin?” In it Whitney makes a compelling argument that the more spiritually mature you become, the more in tune you are with your sin, and the more you mourn over it. But he anticipates this objection: is it healthy to focus on sin rather than grace? His answer is simple: you need to do both. The more you mourn your sin, the more enraptured you are with the grace of Jesus to die for you and forgive you, and in turn the more sanctified you grow. When you grieve over sin, you fight temptation more vehemently, and thus experience quicker growth in godliness.

Whitney does warn against overly introspective meditation that leads to unproductive spiritual depression; as did Paul: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor 7:10)

But he also believes the church today is not in any danger of overemphasizing a sensitivity to sin, but if anything needs a reminder of sin’s seriousness to balance out the emphasis on grace.

I know this post might induce a seizure in Tullian Tchividjian. He is famous for his commendable crusade to re-introduce a focus on what Christ has done for us, vis-à-vis the perceived preoccupation in church with what we need to do in sanctification. I’m not sure what circles he moves in, but the evangelical province I inhabit may benefit from a tad more: “Hey, Christlikeness doesn’t happen by osmosis, it helps if you set your alarm clock, read your Bible, pray, and maybe serve in the church once in a while…” and less “Meditate on what Jesus has done for you, and the rest will fall into place.”

I’m curious to know if you agree with me that grieving over sin is a healthy diagnostic of your spiritual health. Just bear in mind if you disagree all I can say is I’m sorry, but I don’t feel that badly about it.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Thoughtful and convicting, Clint.

  • Cameron Walton

    You could also add John MacArthur to that list. I don’t rember his exact words, but he definately agreed that growing as a christian is growing in understanding how sinful you are. I agree with this, but surely edwards was still incorrect putting himself at the bottom of that list?

    • Alex

      “The mark of a mature life is not sinlessness, which is reserved for heaven, but a growing awareness of sinfulness.” – J-Mac via Twitter 8/23/14

      • Cameron Walton

        Great thanks. Thats the exact quote I was thinking of.

      • Thanks! Great addition.

  • Brian Morgan

    Good article brother. Yes, part of our sanctification involves being grieved over present sin. While paid for in full, it, the sin, is what Jesus bore in His body. For us to willfully continue in it should grieve us to the place of the cross. Where we confess it and receive the faithful and just cleansing of it for daily living. The current pendulum swing from perceived legalism has taken us to another dangerous position of no human involvement in the sanctification process. Can mere man work up the effort to do “good?” Never. It is a fruit of God. But yet He tells us to do it….and we get rewarded for it in Heaven! How is that for undeserved mercy??? Ahh. the mystery of means. (That is a book swirling in my head…haven’t checked to see if the title is already out there somewhere….)
    I am reminded of Watson who said something like, “every time the Christian willfully sins, he is kicking the Breast of mercy…..”

  • Matt

    People like Hitler and Dahmer etc, are not anomalies. I believe all are capable of the same atrocities apart from the Holy Spirit’s restraint.

    • That is very true.

  • Johnny

    A good and thoughtful article. Thanks for this

  • Agree. Like Michael said, convicting. Thank you. And also comforting for those Christians who may experience increasing awareness of personal sins but be confused by it.

    • Good point, it is helpful to know that feeling badly about your sin is not something to cause lack of assurance; quite the opposite, as long as the grief leads to repentance not fatalism.

  • Jeff Schlottmann

    This is great. Ever since I was saved out of the Pentecostal Church, I have become more aware of my sins. Before that I really didn’t think about it much until I committed them. I remember I frequently ‘asking Jesus into my heart’, cause I was afraid I lost my salvation.

    But now I find I’m often thinking about my sins. I learned through people like paul washer and john macarthur to always be evaluating my heart and life. I also find that when I grieve over sin now, it’s in a healthy way.

    And I know this isn’t Pentecostal specific, but in my case it was associated. thanks Clint.

    • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

      Jeff, do you mind if I ask whether you were born again while in the Pentecostal movement or after you came out? I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way, I have just heard stories of others that feel they weren’t saved until they came out. I struggle sometimes with the disconnect between the lives and profession of faith that many Pentecostals have and wonder if they are truly born again.

      • Jeff Schlottmann

        Not disrespectful at all, Jane.

        Yes, I was saved while in there. Saved at 14, but didn’t leave till I was 28. That was four years ago. The problem was I didn’t know any other way. Being a Baptist was a horrible thought. They were often the butt of jokes. As soon as I hit high school they started pushing all the pentacostal stuff. Spent the next 14 years hoping and praying for all the ‘gifts’.

        In all those 28 years, I heard Martin Luther’s name one time briefly. And I didn’t even know about the Reformation until my wife and I left the Pentecostal Church.

        Being a pentecostal for me was like living on thin ice. I feel like I was constantly questioning my salvation.

        It took about 9 months of struggling with John Macarthur’s charismatic chaos series and his different sermons on election before I finally had confidence in God’s forgiveness and my salvation. It was like being released from a cage. So freeing.

        I truly thank the Lord for Grace to You and Cripplegate.

        • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

          What a wonderful testimony! Interestingly, I have met many Pentecostals that also question their salvation. I’m grateful you now have that assurance and freedom. Thank you for sharing, Jeff.

        • Anthony King

          Hi Jeff, I likewise did not want to be in a Baptist Church but then I got hooked into the Hillcrest Baptist Church where Clint eventually joined. One thing I have learned is not all Baptist Church;s are bad, and not all are good. You have to do leg work with prayer and patience to find one where God is glorified every Sunday. May God bless and guide you as you look for the area in which He wants you to serve Him.

  • Robert Sakovich

    Grieving over our sin drives us to look more closely upon Jesus and depend upon Him for our everyday life. When we read in Romans 8:28 that God uses all things for good (or causes all things to work for good), that includes our sin. And I think that is really part of this whole thing. God uses our sin to drive us closer to Jesus and help us to focus upon Him.

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  • Kendall Nutt

    Spot on, Dude. Convicting and encouraging at the same time. Stay Strong!

  • Dan Sudfeld

    I agree. Thank you for the article and for that helpful catalog of quotes.

  • 4Commencefiring4

    I suspect most of us measure our sinfulness relatively. That is, we may claim we compare our behavior to what the Scriptures say a child of God’s should look like, when in truth we’re applying those passages pretty much as others do…which may or may not be how God would–or will. Perhaps we’ve become so jaded in our modern ways that finding out what God really had in mind would be too much to take.

    I often imagine meeting the Lord on that day when He’s removed me from here and having that conversation with Him where He says, “Didn’t I leave specific instructions with you to ‘take up your cross daily and follow Me’? What, you thought maybe challenging Richard Dawkins at that evolution seminar is what I meant by that? Really?”

    Or perhaps deciding to quit watching “Modern Family” because there are gays on it–even if they were funny–is taking a stand for righteousness. I just think back into history when people of faith led an entirely different life than we do today. Even in my parents’ generation, a few decades ago, having stores open on Sunday was unthinkable. Hardly any were. But now? Christians for the most part have no compunction at all hitting Home Depot after church to pick up a paint brush. (And yes, I’m one). My late mother-in-law had a lifelong rule that if you had something else that needed doing on Sunday besides church, you’d better wait until past noon. It just wasn’t done.

    Are we fooling ourselves? Perhaps the more our costumes look like everyone else’s, the more comfortable we are.

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  • Jason SImmons

    seems we need both the Facts of the Gospel, and Commands in light of the Facts in how we should walk worthy of this Gospel. Walking would mean we have truly understood these facts and God’s Grace towards us. God give us that understanding in Holy Spirit to remind us of these truths. Enjoyed the reminder to deal with remaining sin.

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