Coming Short of God’s Glory
‘You’re going to sin. If you didn’t yesterday, you will today or tomorrow.’ Thus one of America’s best-known Evangelical magazines promoted an article. But is it justifiable to suggest that there is anyone, no matter how godly, who did not sin yesterday? Rather the quotation points to the lack of a sense of sin so common among Evangelicals today.
But what is sin? Let the Shorter Catechism answer: ‘Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God’. We are God’s creatures, and He has every right to direct us how we should live. He is holy, and therefore the standard which He has set for us is absolutely righteous; indeed it is a perfect reflection of His holy nature. And it is the standard against which God constantly monitors our behaviour. Jeremiah understood the solemn significance of this: ‘Thine eyes are open upon all the ways of the sons of men: to give every one according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings’ (32:19).
But our sins are not limited to our outward deeds, which other human beings could see if they were present. And one of the flaws in the quotation at the start of this article is that it seems to limit the idea of sin to what is outward. Yet, for instance, not only is a blatant lie sinful, the decision to tell a lie is also sinful ““ even if, in the event, the lie is never told. God sees the sinful thought hidden deep in the mind just as clearly as He discerns the spoken falsehood. But, in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, ‘they who, in their obedience, attain to the greatest height which is possible in this life… fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do’ (16:4). Accordingly David Dickson points out that ‘the regenerate are not able to fulfil the first command, namely, to love God with all their heart, with all their soul (Matt. 22:3-38). For we know here in part, and therefore we love but in part (1 Cor. 13:9). Neither are the saints free of all those inordinate motions of concupiscence, forbidden in the Tenth Command, as is evident from Galatians 5:17 and from the experience of Paul, and of all the other saints’.
Indeed if someone had to pick out the most eminent of all God’s saints, it is likely that he would choose Paul. There is scarcely a hint of outward sin against him, and this is particularly significant when we consider the fact that the shortcomings of believers are not passed over in Scripture. Yet Paul could not restrain himself from expressing his anguish because of his inward sin: ‘O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ (Rom. 7:24). Why the wretchedness? It arose from his sense of the high standard of God’s law and his inability to meet it. ‘The good that I would I do not:’ he confessed, ‘but the evil which I would not, that I do.’
Our sense of sin will reflect our sense of the glory of God. If we have low views of God and His glory, we will have low views of the seriousness of sin; and we will fail to notice much that should be recognised as coming short of the glory of God ““ and which therefore is sin. ‘Give unto the Lord’, we are instructed, ‘the glory due unto His name’ (Psa. 96:8). No doubt these words specifically point to the duty of praising God, but He is also glorified in the obedience which His creatures render to Him. He is glorified in the perfect obedience of the unfallen angels; He is glorified in the perfect obedience of His children who have been brought to heaven. Each of them, to the fullest possible extent, gives to God the glory which is due to Him.
But what of Paul, that remarkably holy man? He was incapable, while still in this world, of fulfilling his duty to glorify God perfectly; he was incapable of fully treating Him as the absolutely glorious One. And to whatever degree Paul came short of perfection in thought, word or deed, he sinned. It is, of course, otherwise now; in heaven he has the glory of God consistently in view in all his activities. In him now there is no sin, no imperfection, and God is thus glorified in him.
It is not to belittle Paul and his godliness that his imperfection is referred to here; it is rather because of his remarkable piety. So, for instance, while his humility was indeed of a high order, it was imperfect. And if others did not notice the defects, God’s penetrating eye did. Yet God was glorified in Paul’s obedience to His law. But it was because of the new life imparted by the Holy Spirit that Paul was in any degree able, from the heart, to do the will of God, who was well pleased with every evidence of the Spirit’s work in the Apostle.
All sin is serious; it is committed against an infinite Being. Even what we might call the most trivial of shortcomings is sinful; it is a failure to give to God the glory which is due to Him. And therefore it deserves ‘God’s wrath and curse, both in this life and that which is to come' ““ even in such a holy man as the Apostle Paul. But where did Paul’s sense of sin drive him? To Christ, his one hope for salvation. He could go with David’s petition: ‘Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin’ (Psa. 51:2). Never a day would pass but Paul would feel his need of forgiveness; indeed he would be conscious of a continuous need of cleansing, for his sin was continuous. Never for one moment was he keeping God’s law perfectly; never for one moment was he giving to God the full measure of the glory that was due to Him. But well did Paul know that the blood of Jesus Christ goes on cleansing from all sin. It was this man, who was so concerned about the corruption of his heart ““ about how far short of the glory of God he came ““ who exclaimed with such vehemence in praise of his Saviour: ‘Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift’ (2 Cor. 9:15).
Yet a consciousness of sin would bring Paul to plead that the Holy Spirit would continue His sanctifying work in him. And that consciousness would increase in his mind a feeling of insufficiency, which in turn would make him all the more dependent on his Saviour. Having a deep knowledge of the corruption of his heart, and a continual sense of his need to look to King Jesus to keep him from sin, he would be much less in danger of going through life in the careless spirit of most professing Christians today. Many of them would despise as legalism the extent to which many Christians of previous generations went to keep themselves unspotted from the world. Yet, if only they had a keener sense of sin, professing Christians today would shun many leisure activities that are now widely accepted ““ though the reason for carelessness about such things must often be a complete absence of that new nature which loves holiness. The standard which applies to today’s believers is no different from that which applied to those in Cappadocia and other districts now part of Turkey, to whom Peter repeated the claim of the Most High: ‘Be ye holy; for I am holy’ (1 Pet. 1:16).
It was an exceptionally godly man ““ John Love, then a minister in Greenock and still only in his twenties ““ who wrote to his parents: ‘There is none on earth who comprehends the full extent of that divine testimony, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked”, for there is none who comprehends that infinite fullness of excellency in the blessed Godhead, which is misrepresented by the mysterious deceitfulness of the heart. This is the substance of all the sin in the world: to look upon the infinite holy beauty of God as hateful and unworthy of a superlative love, and therefore we know not the plague of our heart till the glory of God is revealed to us. When we consider our manifold opposition to it in heart and actions, we will cry out with David: “Who can understand his errors?” And then we are in the way “to comprehend with all saints what is the length and breadth and depth and height” of the love of Christ.'
Rev Kenneth D Macleod is Editor of the Free Presbyterian Magazine, from whose September edition the above editorial is reprinted with kind permission.
NotesTruth’s Victory Over Error, Banner of Truth reprint, p 59. The Shorter Catechism, answer 84. Letters of the Late John Love, 1838, p 43.
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