When we sin, if we find our natural reaction to busy ourselves with other tasks—to take a shower and get out of the house and listen to music, that might be an indicator that we are refusing to think of God. But if when we sin, we think of our kind Father, and feel the weight of our guilt, and bow before him, confessing our sin and deciding no longer to hold it dear, then the Father welcomes us into his arms and prepares a banquet for us, clothing us in the finest of robes—the righteousness of Christ.
The biblical authors had weighty things to say about sin. For instance, Paul tells Titus that sinful works can silence and negate professed faith (Titus 1:16). Paul also writes, through tears, that those who set their thoughts on earthly things will eventually be destroyed (Phil 3:19). And the preacher of Hebrews pleads with believers not to be “hardened” by sin (Heb 3:13).
Have you ever stopped to consider what it means that sin “hardens”? If you’ve seen concrete poured, you get the idea. If wet concrete sits for long enough, you can drive a dump truck over it. That’s what happens to sin if it sits on a soul for long enough, baked in by the day-in-day-out little compromises we make. The preacher of Hebrews says one more thing about sin in that verse. He calls it “deceitful.” Sin whispers to us that we have more time before the concrete settles, that our ways are still malleable. But it’s lying.
One of the scariest verses in the New Testament is found a few chapters later in Hebrews. Speaking of Esau, the preacher tells us that after he had given up his birthright, “he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears” (Heb 12:17). This verse tells us a tough reality: Esau tried to repent and couldn’t. The concrete had hardened. And how did this all happen? It must have been an enormous sin that Esau did that would lead him there, right? No. He “sold his birthright for a single meal.” A bowl of stew. It was a moment of immediate gratification. Then another. Then another. Though he eventually realized how far his heart had withered, it was too late. He had become sin’s slave.
And yet, the NT also offers hope to the weary sinner. The letter of 1 John clearly says that believers still wrestle with sin (1:8) and that Christ will “forgive” and “cleanse” those who confess those sins and run to him (1:9).
In his book Spiritual-Mindedness, John Owen asks the question that we, as sin-stained travelers, probably ask after reading what the NT says about sin: “How, then, can one tell the difference between the occasional breaking out of any lust or corruption in the face of temptation, and a person in whom sin still reigns and has dominion?” (90) In other words, how do I know if sin owns me? To put it more bluntly, how hard is the concrete of my heart?
Owen, in a careful and fruitful way, asks questions that probe our hearts.
What are we truly troubled by?
As we look into our heart and ask the honest question: How do I know if the sin in my life is the “occasional breaking out of lust in the face of temptation or sin still sitting on the throne of my heart?” Owen provides a response: “Quite frankly, it does not matter whether we are able to tell the difference” (90). In other words, we’re asking the wrong question.
The better question is: What are we troubled by? Yes, we may hate the corruption of our hearts. Yes, we may long to be rid of sin. But we would be no different than Esau. The real question is: Do we hate our sin and long to be rid of it because it is sinful, or because of what will happen if our sin is found out (90–91)? Are we humbled by the filth that still lingers in our soul or scared of its consequences? Are our tears and pangs of conscience no more than first cries over the things we’re about to lose as a consequence of our actions?
As depraved humans grimacing through the consequences of our sinful hearts, the sad reality is that we can be selfish even in our sorrow. Here’s the critical test: Are we willing to accept all the consequences for our sin as kindnesses from the Lord? If we are, that’s a good sign that what troubles us is missing sweet communion with our Father, not the things he might pull from our hand.
Owen presses further. He asks his readers what they think of death. Has sin become such a thorn in our lives that the thought of death is pleasant because it means waving goodbye to sin once and for all (92)?