September 26, 2011

The Sinfulness of Sin

by Jesse Johnson

Rick Holland has often said that books don’t change lives, paragraphs do. I remember where I was the first time I read Ralph Venning’s The Sinfullness of Sin. Sitting on my couch in my apartment, I was in the second chapter when I came across these two paragraphs that really did change my Christian life (Section II, p. 31): 

God is holy, without spot or blemish, or any such thing, without any wrinkle, or anything like it, as they also that are in Christ shall one day be (Ephesians 5.27). He is so holy, that he cannot sin himself, nor be the cause or author of sin in another. He does not command sin to be committed, for to do so would be to cross his nature and will. Nor does he approve of any man’s sin, when it is committed, but hates it with a perfect hatred. He is without iniquity, and of purer eyes than to behold (i.e. approve) iniquity (Habakkuk 1:13).

On the contrary, as God is holy, all holy, only holy, altogether holy, and always holy, so sin is sinful, all sinful, only sinful, altogether sinful, and always sinful (Genesis 6.5). In my flesh, there dwelleth no good thing (Romans 7.18). As in God there is no evil, so in sin there is no good. God is the chiefest of goods and sin is the chiefest of evils. As no good can be compared with God for goodness, so no evil can be compared with sin for evil.

When I read that, I had been a beleiver for only a few years and had  only recently discovered the writings of John Piper. I was new to the doctrines of grace, I was wrestling with some basic theological and philosophical questions about sin and sovereignty.  I had over-corrected from my man-centered thinking, and in an attempt to establish God’s sovreignty in my thinking, I had lost sight of the sinfulness of sin.

Those paragraphs above served as an anchor. They stopped my drifting toward hyper-Calvinism, and nailed my conscience down on the solid fact that God hates sin.

Look at the adverbs Venning strings together: all, only, altogether, always. Just as there is everything good in God, there is nothing good within sin. The Lord used these paragraphs from a 17th-century pastor to open my eyes to the gravity of sin, and the holiness of God.

And, in case you were wondering, Venning did teach at The Cripplegate.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Karl Heitman

    Thanks for sharing, Jesse. Question: what does losing “sight of the sinfulness of sin” have to do with Calvinism? Wouldn’t a right understanding of Total Depravity be a constant reminder of the truth of the sinfulness of sin? I don’t see how true Calvinism can begin to lead one into forgetting that God hates sin?

    • Anonymous

      Noah kind of hits on the answer in his comment below. For me, in an attempt to protect God’s sovereignty, I was conceiving of him actively ordaining, orchestrating and conducting the sinful acts of people. I did not have the balance that the Scripture gives, and was beginning to veer towards a more hyper-Calvinism. That is why that first paragraph above was so startling to me.

      • Would you see a difference between ordaining and orchestrating on the one hand, and conducting on the other hand? Do you think there’s value in the distinction between the ultimate and efficient cause of evil?

        • Anonymous

          I think it is helpful to distinguish between active and passive verbs in relation to this. God permits evil, and causes good. He allows sin, and plans to make his glory known. I think the Westminster Catechism is very helpful at this point, but I don’t have it in front of me right now.

  • Noah

    Jesse, Thanks for this post. It’s providential that it comes up now. Yesterday I was reading a blog by Roger Olson concerning his soon-to-be released book “Against Calvinism” which is being published along with Horton’s “For Calvinism.” He briefly talks about what his book is about and seems to readdress what he has written in the past that Calvinism as a system lends itself to making God into a moral monster, at worst, because this God would have to be, among other things, the author of sin. If and when a Calvinist objects, then said Calvinist is being inconsistent.

    I have a couple questions about this: in your estimation, are arguments like this based mostly on philosophical grounds rather than textual grounds? If you have encountered this in the past, how have you done it?

    Thanks again

  • bmh

    “As no good can be compared with God for goodness, so no evil can be compared with sin for evil.”

    Wow, that’s outstanding. A very simple statement that is extremely profound.


  • Mary Elizabeth Tyler

    I like the way Edwards explained the existence of sin. This, btw, is taken from John Piper’s article ” Is God Less Glorious Because He Ordained That Evil Be?”

    Is God the Author of Sin?
    Edwards answers, “If by ‘the author of sin,’ be meant the sinner, the agent, or the actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing . . . . it would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the author of sin. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the author of sin.” But, he argues, willing that sin exist in the world is not the same as sinning. God does not commit sin in willing that there be sin. God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God’s permission, but not by his “positive agency.”

    God is, Edwards says, “the permitter . . . of sin; and at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted . . . will most certainly and infallibly follow.”

    He uses the analogy of the way the sun brings about light and warmth by its essential nature, but brings about dark and cold by dropping below the horizon. “If the sun were the proper cause of cold and darkness,” he says, “it would be the fountain of these things, as it is the fountain of light and heat: and then something might be argued from the nature of cold and darkness, to a likeness of nature in the sun.” In other words, “sin is not the fruit of any positive agency or influence of the most High, but on the contrary, arises from the withholding of his action and energy, and under certain circumstances, necessarily follows on the want of his influence.”

    I hope people read the whole article, it is full of information, and extremely helpful. I’m sure most everyone here is familiar with this quote by Edwards.

    Also, thanks to Phil for the links.

    Also, think about this because I have. From ALL eternity God has had the attribute of wrath (from all eternity!!) So for God to create a world without sin, would not have been possible. His wrath called for the creation/existence of people so that attribute could be exercised. Both His wrath and His holiness serve a necessary purpose, and that is to magnify His glory.

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