Cancer! It’s a dreaded word, a word that often invokes a sense of despair and sometimes even hopelessness.
Another term for cancer is malignancy. Medically, the word malignant describes a tumor of potentially unlimited growth that expands locally into adjoining tissue by invasion and systemically by metastasizing into other areas of the body. Left alone, a malignancy tends to infiltrate and metastasize throughout the entire body and will eventually cause death. No wonder cancer and malignant are such dreaded words.
Sin is a spiritual and moral malignancy. Left unchecked, it can spread throughout our entire inner being and contaminate every area of our lives. Even worse, it often will “metastasize” from us into the lives of other believers around us. None of us lives on a spiritual or social island. Our attitudes, words, and actions, and oftentimes even our private unspoken thoughts, tend to have an effect on those around us.
Paul must have had this concept in mind when he wrote, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4: 29). Our speech, whether it is about others or to others, tends to tear down or build up. It either corrupts the minds of our hearers, or it gives grace to them. Such is the power of our words. If I gossip, I both tear down another person and corrupt the mind of my listener. If I complain about the difficult circumstances of my life, I impugn the sovereignty and goodness of God and tempt my listener to do the same. In this way, my sin “metastasizes” into the heart of another person.
Sin, however, is much more than wrong actions, unkind words, or even those evil thoughts that we never express. Sin is a principle or moral force in our heart, our inner being. Our sinful actions, words, and thoughts are simply expressions of the principle of sin residing within us, even in those of us whose hearts have been renewed. The apostle Paul calls this principle the flesh (or sinful nature in some Bible translations). This principle, called the flesh, is such a reality that Paul sometimes personifies it (see, for example, Romans 7: 8-11; Galatians 5: 17).
Now, here is the unvarnished truth that we need to lay to heart. Even though our hearts have been renewed, even though we have been freed from the absolute dominion of sin, even though God’s Holy Spirit dwells within our bodies, this principle of sin still lurks within us and wages war against our souls. It is the failure to recognize the awful reality of this truth that provides the fertile soil in which our “respectable” or “acceptable” sins grow and flourish.
We who are believers tend to evaluate our character and conduct relative to the moral culture in which we live. Since we usually live at a higher moral standard than society at large, it is easy for us to feel good about ourselves and to assume that God feels that way also. We fail to reckon with the reality of sin still dwelling within us. One of the common truths about cancer is that it can often grow undetected until it reaches a crisis stage or even a stage that is terminal. When my wife visited her doctor on June 19, 1987, she had no idea there was a malignant tumor growing in her abdominal area. And even her capable physicians who successfully treated the tumor failed to detect that it had already metastasized into her lymph system. In fact, the word deceitful, which is a moral term, can be used to describe the way cancer often seems to operate. It seems to have been successfully treated; but unexpectedly, it reappears somewhere else in the body.
The way cancer operates is a good analogy of the way sin, especially so-called acceptable or refined sin, operates in our lives. As I mentioned in the preface, another good descriptive term is subtle sins. The word subtle has a wide variety of meanings, some positive, as in “the subtle shades of blue in a painting.” But often it has a strong negative connotation to mean wily, crafty, insidious, or treacherous. That is the sense of the word in the expression subtle sins. The acceptable sins are subtle in the sense that they deceive us into thinking they are not so bad, or not thinking of them as sins, or even worse, not even thinking about them at all! Yes, some of our refined sins are so subtle that we commit them without even thinking about them, either at the time or afterward. We often live in unconscious denial of our “acceptable” sins.
We present-day believers have, to some extent, been influenced by the “feel good about myself” philosophy of our times. By contrast, believers in the Puritan era of the seventeenth century had a different view of themselves. They feared the reality of sin still dwelling in them. I have in my library four books on sin by pastors of that era. Here are their titles:
The Sinfulness of Sin
The Mischief of Sin
The Anatomy of Secret Sins
The Evil of Evils or The Exceeding Sinfulness of Sin
These pastors all saw sin for what it actually is: a diabolical force within us. Ralph Venning, the author of The Sinfulness of Sin, uses especially colorful (in the negative sense) words to describe sin. Over the space of only a few pages, he says that sin is vile, ugly, odious, malignant, pestilent, pernicious, hideous, spiteful, poisonous, virulent, villainous, abominable, and deadly.
Take a few moments to ponder those words so as to get the full impact of them. Those words describe not just the scandalous sins of society but also the respectable sins we tolerate in our own lives. Think of such tolerated sins as impatience, pride, resentment, frustration, and self-pity. Do they seem odious and pernicious to you? They really are. To tolerate those sins in our spiritual lives is as dangerous as to tolerate cancer in our bodies. Seemingly small sins can lead to more serious ones. Lustful looks often lead to pornography addiction and perhaps even adultery. Murder often has its genesis in anger, which grows into bitterness, then to hatred, and finally the murder.
So far we’ve looked at our sin as it affects us. We’ve seen its malignant tendency in both our lives and the lives of others around us. The more important issue, however, is how our sin affects God. Someone has described sin as cosmic treason. If that seems like an overstatement, consider that the word transgression in the Bible, as seen for example in Leviticus 16: 21, actually means rebellion against authority — in this case, God’s authority. So when I gossip, I am rebelling against God. When I harbor resentful thoughts toward someone instead of forgiving him or her in my heart, I am rebelling against God.
In Isaiah 6: 1-8, the prophet Isaiah sees a vision of God in His absolute majesty. He hears angelic beings calling out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (verse 3). Any Jew would have understood that the threefold repetition of the word holy is intended to convey the highest possible degree of holiness. In other words, God is said to be infinitely holy. But what does it mean to say that God is infinitely holy? Certainly it speaks of His absolute moral purity, but it means much more than that. Primarily, the word holy, when used of God, speaks of His infinite, transcendent majesty. It speaks of His sovereign reign over all His creation. Therefore, when we sin, when we violate the law of God in any way, be it ever so small in our eyes, we rebel against the sovereign authority and transcendent majesty of God. To put it bluntly, our sin is an assault on the majesty and sovereign rule of God. It is indeed cosmic treason.
(Let’s take David’s sin with Bathsheba and his subsequent murder of her husband Uriah for example…)
When God sent Nathan the prophet to confront David about his sin. Here are Nathan’s words:
Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. (2 Samuel 12: 9-10, emphasis added)
Note the use of the word despised in both verses 9 and 10. In the first instance David despises the word (the law) of the Lord. In the second instance, God, speaking through Nathan, says, “You have despised me.” We see from this that sin is a despising of the law of God. But we also see that to despise God’s law is to despise Him. Now, it is easy for us to think that David’s sin truly was grievous and fail to grasp the application of Nathan’s words to ourselves. But as we have already seen, all sin, whether large or small in our eyes, is against God. Therefore, when I indulge in any of the so-called acceptable sins, I am not only despising God’s law but, at the same time, I am despising God Himself. Think about that the next time you are tempted to speak critical or unkind words about someone.
We’re not through yet. There’s still more bad news. In the context of exposing sin in our relationships with one another (see Ephesians 4: 25-32), Paul says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (verse 30). When we think of our sin as rebellion against God’s sovereign authority and a despising of both His law and His person, we are viewing God in His rightful role as our ruler and judge. But when we see our sin as grieving the Holy Spirit — that is, as grieving God — we are viewing God as our redeemer and Father. Our sin grieves our heavenly Father. Whether we are unkind to someone else or unforgiving when someone is unkind to us, we grieve our Father’s heart.
Not only do we grieve our heavenly Father with our sin, we also presume on His grace. Paul wrote that God has forgiven us our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace (see Ephesians 1: 7). Now, that is a blessed truth, but sin, in its subtle deceitfulness, will suggest to us that our unkind words and resentful thoughts don’t matter because God has forgiven them. Forgiveness, however, does not mean overlooking or tolerating our sin. God never does that. Instead, God always judges sin. But in our case (that is, the case of all who trust in Jesus as their Savior), God has judged our sin in the person of His Son. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53: 6). Shall we presume on God’s grace by tolerating in ourselves the very sin that nailed Christ to the cross?
Next consider that every sinful thought and word and deed we do is done in the presence of God. David wrote,
O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. (Psalm 139: 1-4)
God knows our every thought; He hears our words before we even speak them and sees our every deed. He even searches our motives, for Paul wrote that when the Lord comes, He “will disclose the purposes [motives] of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4: 5).
This means that all of our rebellion, all of our despising of God and His law, all of our grieving His Holy Spirit, all of our presuming on His grace, all of our sin, is done openly in the very presence of God. It’s as if we are acting out all of our sin before Him as He sits on His royal throne.
It does not matter whether our sin is scandalous or respectable, all our sin is sinful, only sinful, and altogether sinful. Whether it is large or small in our eyes, it is heinous in the sight of God. God forgives our sin because of the shed blood of Christ, but He does not tolerate it. Instead, every sin that we commit, even the subtle sin that we don’t even think about, was laid upon Christ as He bore the curse of God in our place.
And herein lies chiefly the malignancy of sin. Christ suffered because of our sins. That, then, is the bad news about our sin, and, as you can see, it is really, really bad. How do you respond? Will you deflect it onto other people whom you see to be sinners? Do you find yourself wishing that a certain other person would read this? Or does this view of our sin cause you to want to fall on your knees before God in repentance and contrition over the sins you have tolerated in your life?
~Jerry Bridges, Respectable Sins