All Have Sinned and Come Short of the Glory of God
An edited edition of the closing sermon at the Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference, Leicester, 2015.
The citizens of the United Kingdom are being bombarded with messages from its political parties in the light of the coming General Election. Seven of the party leaders recently debated on television for two hours. ‘We want to save you from making the wrong choice,’ they all said, warning us, and pleading with us to be aware of the fate that would be ours if we supported any other party but theirs. They wanted to save us from making a monumental mistake.
Every Christian is also very interested in saving people from making a bad decision. You will remember that when Mary discovered that she was going to have a baby boy, a messenger from God told her betrothed husband Joseph what the boy’s name must be. ‘Thou shalt call his name “Jesus” for he shall save his people from their sin.’ The very name of the one we follow means ‘the Lord saves.’ His name describes his vocation. Or again when the Lord Jesus told us what was his purpose in coming into the world he said, ‘The Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost.’ That is why he left heaven, and was born in Bethlehem’s stable, and lived for thirty years in Nazareth, and was baptized, and preached the Sermon on the Mount, and healed the sick, and taught twelve apostles, and died an atoning death on the cross, and rose on the third day. It was to save lost sinners. He once told his disciples, ‘These things I said unto you that you might be saved.’ When he hung dying on the cross even his enemies had to acknowledge that he had saved the lives of many people – ‘he saved others.’ That’s why he came to this world. The most famous verse in the Bible says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’
Peter told the people of Jerusalem that there was just one name under heaven given amongst men whereby they must be saved. When the Apostle Paul told Gentile believers what had changed them so totally he said to them, ‘By grace are you saved, and that not of yourselves it is the gift of God.’ And when the man in charge of the jail in Philippi cried out what had he to do to be saved, the apostle told him, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.’ So Jesus Christ has this lovely title, ‘Saviour.’ At his birth a messenger told the shepherds that that day ‘a Saviour who was Christ the Lord’ had been born in the city of David. We Christians are today looking forward for the appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The Apostle John tells us that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. Jude commends his readers to the ‘only wise God our Saviour.’ You can see how fascinated we are as Christians with this theme of salvation.
1. WHAT ARE WE SAVED FROM?
The whole country is interested in being saved. For some simply being left alone is their way of being saved from politics or from religion. ‘Leave us to ourselves and we will be all right,’ some say. They believe in being saved by being ignored. Others are interested in the subject of human behaviour, and there is a very specialized vocabulary which is used to express men’s assessment of the kinds of lifestyles which promise salvation. We are familiar with the concept of salvation from immorality, and inappropriate behaviour and crime. The Marxist promises to save men from ‘alienation,’ and the existentialist will save people from ‘inauthentic existence,’ and the Greens will save the world from ‘ecological neglect.’ These, and other words and phrases men use to express their own evaluations of the salvation on offer from their fellow men.
We read how Peter, preaching to the crowds of Jerusalem men, was very concerned about them. We have but the briefest summary of his sermon in Acts chapter 2; we are told that with many other words he preached to them. He warned them that to go on unforgiven and alienated from God for what they’d done in crucifying his Son was ruinous, and he pleaded with them to change. Then the words of verse 40 are a summary and the very climax of his message to them – words that were inspired by God the Spirit at that moment which were given a rare power and impact – ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’
Peter’s concern was not about Roman colonization, or the problem of poverty, or the abuse of women, or false religions, or statism, or psychological self-abuse. He spoke in terms of one great phrase, of their being saved from their corrupt generation. Don’t go with the crowd, he was saying. ‘There is a broad road that leads to destruction and many are walking on it. Be saved from that!’ He looked at them and told them that in the sight of God they were corrupt; they weren’t straight. They were ‘untoward’ in the language of the Authorized Version; they were crooked. Paul later wrote to the Philippian Christians and he urged them to become ‘blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation’ (Phil. 2:15). It is the exact term that Peter uses here. Peter is not in the business of stroking their affections and telling them that God loved them and had a wonderful plan for their lives. They had to face up to what they were in the sight of God and acknowledge that God was right in how he judged them. They had to see themselves as they really were, by God’s assessment, that they were crooks!
2. HOW ARE WE A CROOKED AND DEPRAVED GENERATION?
i] We are crooked inwardly.
Now of course our generation of 20th- and 21st-century men and women have been guilty of terrible act of murder and torture and cruelty and violence. We are inundated with such examples of man’s depravity towards his fellow men, but this is always so external. People are concerned only as to outward actions, only regarding observable human behaviour, and of course that is immensely important, but God is far more rigorous. He looks not simply on what is outward and observable. He goes in and in to the depths of human life and he says that sin is there, not only in our actions and words but in our thoughts and in our ambitions and in our desires and in our emotions and our aspirations. The Lord Jesus said that it was not simply the substances that men took into their bodies that defiled them but what came out of their hearts and minds, and that the real problem was the heart of man. It is not that human actions have missed their target, or that human speech has missed its target, but that the human heart isn’t straight. It is a crooked, deceitful above all things; desperately wicked.
You can parallel numbers of the ten commandments in ancient moral codes. You can go to the world’s religions and find many of the great emphases of the moral law in them, but there is one thing that is almost peculiar to Scripture, and it is this: ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ In other words, God is looking within mankind at the aching longings and yearnings and frustrations that come from not having what belongs to another. The itch, the frustration for what someone else you know possesses and you don’t have. The Bible isn’t simply looking at what we say, or at what we do. It is going right down into the well-springs of human behaviour and it is saying, ‘covetousness is a sin.’ It might never lead to sinful speech. It might never result in a change in human behaviour, but the sinful desire for what God has forbidden you, the envy we feel towards the possessions of others, the illegitimate lustful ache that may never speak, and never act, and never in human history injure a human soul, that desire is itself crooked.
Now I think we are so inclined to think that as long as we can keep the lid on sin, and so long as it doesn’t show, and it doesn’t speak or act, then it is not sin, but the New Testament says that the very desire to sin is sin. That illicit lust, that inordinate desire, that is itself sin, because sin itself is something inward.
We come again to another emphasis the Lord makes in explaining the sixth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Now Jesus says that doesn’t merely forbid assaulting another person physically and violently. It does not refer simply to muggings, and domestic violence, and manslaughter and assassinations but it refers also to hatred, and it refers to anger and contempt. The covetous thought, the malicious and malevolent thought, and the hate-filled thought – these things may never speak. We may keep the lid on all that well of iniquity, but inside we can be burning with all sorts of fury and bitterness, but the restraints of respectability, and our standing in the church, and our awareness of criminal law restricts our response to wicked men. Yet Christ says that to be angry is a sin, and to hate someone is a sin. It may never lead to actual violence or assault. It may not even lead to the slightest manifestation of what our hearts feel, not a flicker on our faces, and yet the anger and the hatred – these are in themselves sin.
Our Lord does the same thing with adultery. It isn’t a question of the actual act, it is a matter again of the unlawful desire, of the lust, of the longing for what God forbids. It may never express itself in actions or in words, and yet the existence of these things in our hearts, these, says the Lord Christ, are sinful in and of themselves.
So we’ve got to say to ourselves that being crooked is not simply a matter of words; it is not simply a matter of actions – it is also a matter of what lies in the depths of our hearts. This generation is a youth-oriented generation; it is a child-centred generation, and the great mistake clergymen make is to think that it is only the actual deed and the spoken word that is crooked. Now it is not so! It is a sin to covet. It is a sin to be dissatisfied with all we’ve got; the heart that says constantly, ‘More, more, more, more!’, that always pleads for more, that is sin. The heart that is angry; the heart that is hateful; the heart that is malicious is a crooked heart, and we have to learn to go to God and confess it to God – not simply that we have done crooked things, and said crooked things, but to confess, ‘Lord, I’ve had crooked thoughts, and crooked ambitions and crooked longings.’
ii] We are crooked emotionally.
And how much is there in our emotional lives – that area of human life which psychiatrists claim has its own problems – how much is there in our affections that is deranged, and deranged sinfully? How much sinful worry is there? How much sinful depression is there? How much sinful fear is there? How much sinful paranoia is there, the feeling that everyone is against us, that we can’t say a word or do an action which does not bring disapproval from someone or other, the feeling that men don’t think of us as highly as men ought to think of us? How much schizoid withdrawal from reality are we ourselves often guilty of? How often do we react excessively emotionally to certain situations? Or how much do we react insufficiently emotionally to certain situations? We are Mr Cool . . . we are lukewarm . . . we see violence, we hear of tragedy and we lack empathy with those who are hurting deeply. We refuse to be moved as we ought, and that is as sinful as the unbounded sorrow and depression with which we sometimes meet personal difficulties.
We are often guilty of an extreme which is the opposite of an excess, that our hearts don’t break when they ought to break. And that is as sinful as the heart that wails when it should be restrained. ‘Weep not for me,’ said the Lord Christ, ‘but for yourself and your children.’ So we find this tremendous emphasis upon crookedness as something inward, sin, not merely of our words and actions, but of a whole generation characterized by sinful hearts, and sinful intentions, and sinful desires, and sinful emotions and sinful aspirations.
iii] We are crooked through sin’s lordship over us
We boast of our liberty from believing in God, our freedom from his Book, his day, his worship, his law, his people – and yet we’re not liberated to discover peace and joy on our own terms. The Bible says that this generation, as every generation, is enslaved to sin. We are under its dominion; we are under its headship; we are in its gang. You remember the slave? He had no time of his own. He did not have Saturdays and Sundays just to do as he chose. He had no time of his own, no property of his own, no talents of his own, no wealth of his own, not a single moment in which he could say, ‘This is mine to do with as I wish.’ There was never such a moment. As a slave he was always under his master; his every moment, his every talent, his every possession was his. He was always and entirely his master’s possession. Men are all owned by Lord Sin! Sin controls them 24/7. Sin is an absolute despot and yet so subtly exercising its lordship, giving each man the impression that he’s free, and that he’s in charge, as master of his fate and captain of his soul.
There was once a snake charmer in a circus, and the highlight of his act consisted of his giving a command to a boa constrictor in a basket. The huge serpent would slither out and come to him and begin to wrap itself around the man until from his feet to his head he was in the embrace of this fearful creature. Then, in the hearing of the spellbound audience, he would give a word and the snake would uncoil itself from the man and return to the ground and slither back to its basket. Then came a day when the snake charmer gave the command but the snake merely tightened its grip. He addressed the snake again with more urgency, but it tightened and tightened its hold of the man in spite of all his cries and it crushed the man to death. And that is sin. We think we are in control of our lives and our tastes, and then one day we discover the truth that we are enslaved to them and then they kill us.
Sin says to us, ‘Ignore God. Ignore his Son. Ignore his Word. Ignore his people. Never pray. Never trust. Never think of death. Never go to church on Sundays,’ and we say, ‘Yes, Sir. Please, Sir. As you will, Sir.’ And we look at those poor suckers who trust in God and worship him and we think what slaves they are. But the reality is that we have yielded to sin all our decisions, and all our silences, and all our talents, and all our indifference, and all our actions, ‘For the Scripture declares the whole world is a prisoner of sin’ (Gal. 3:22).
iv] Every part of us is crooked.
We are not all as bad as the men who behead other men and video the process. We are not all animals. We are not all devils. We are not all as depraved as many will be, but sin has affected every part of us in the sense that when God scrutinizes and searches us he can see no affection, and no organ, and no faculty of heart or soul or mind that has escaped the influence of sin and its destruction. We are crooked through and through. We are depraved in the sense that our whole nature is corrupt, that from a moral and spiritual point of view my heart and my soul in all their operations and powers are putrid. Not a single point of me is wholly freed from sin.
I am completely lacking in original righteousness and so is my entire generation. And I would ask, ‘Isn’t that immensely offensive? In my pride, can I accept that, that every part of my soul is depraved, that I am corrupt in my whole nature, that my righteousnesses are as filthy rags? Yet that is the diagnosis of God concerning this entire generation. ‘The whole head is sick and the whole heart is faint.’ There is no area of life which has escaped its control.
Let me remind you of the human intellect. ‘Well,’ our generation protests, ‘Surely that’s not crooked. That’s escaped depravity.’ But surely there, perhaps above all, there is crookedness. Consider the history of science, and the history of man, imposing their own theories and world views upon generation after generation. Consider our generation in Europe in the 21st century, how anti-God is the spirit of our age. Let’s remember that even our powers of observation and even our powers of logical deduction and analysis, that these too have suffered from depravity. You have heard the phrase that the camera cannot lie and yet so often photographs are deceitful about pleasures and satisfactions. Let’s remember that there is no such thing as an unbiased mind. There is no such thing as neutral observation because sin has destroyed and impaired our generation’s logical powers. It has impaired our generation’s powers of observation. It has removed the possibility of impartiality, so that every single generation is prejudiced, an every single generation is anti-God, and every single generation is unrighteous and unholy. Every single generation everywhere will look at the existence of God in creation and it will hold down the truth in unrighteousness; it will suppress the truth; it will distort the truth; it will wrest the truth to its own destruction.
We’ve got to lay the axe to the root of our own pride of intellect and our own pride in our contemporary culture, and our pride in scientific achievements, and remind ourselves that there at the very heart of human logic and at the very basis of human experimentation and verification, in man’s very acts of observation, there too he serves sin.
You say, ‘But hasn’t the human conscience escaped?’ No, says the New Testament. These Jews listening to Peter had taken Jesus of Nazareth and their top religious court led by their chief priests said he was worthy of being tortured to death. They had crucified him in conscience. They had killed him on theological grounds. They murdered him, and thought they were doing God service. They persecuted his servants and harassed and abused the members of God’s church, as they do today, incarcerating them, beheading them, raping them, committing every kind of abomination on their persons, and claiming they are doing God a favour, because the light that is in them, that light is darkness. Conscience is no safe guide. Conscience is also crooked. The conscience of the cannibal – he does it in all conscience. The conscience of the Inquisition. Again they did it in all conscience. The tremendous abominations of Islam and Hinduism – all done in conscience. They believe that those who do such things are doing God service. Our intellects are crooked. Our consciences are crooked.
Perhaps, most of all our wills are crooked. You will remember what Paul tells us, that the good he would do he did not do. There was a certain desire and appreciation of what was good, but there was no strength of will – no ‘will-power’ we say – no resoluteness, in terms of which the projected enterprise could be carried to its fulfillment and completion. The will is enslaved. Our generation’s greatest problem is the bondage of the will. You have our Lord’s tremendous word again, ‘I would have gathered you. I pleaded with you. I offered you protection, but you would not. You said, “We will not come to you; we will not be gathered”‘.
You remember why our generation is not a predominantly a Christian generation? Why have people stopped going to church? There are those in our congregations and they know verses and catechism answers, but why aren’t they Christians? We have the audacity sometimes to think that it is God’s fault, that we have been really seeking but he has not given us a certain experience. We are simply ‘unconverted,’ and we are waiting to be ‘converted.’ The Bible never describes our generation as ‘unconverted.’ Rather it is a disobedient and defiant generation. God addresses it and says that whosoever will may come, but the whole generation was unwilling to come. It is not ignorance that keeps people from Christ. It is not a lack of authority to come. They lack no warrant to trust in the Saviour. There is the universal command and the invitation to all to come, but quite simply the generation will not come – just as they are – to Jesus, just as he is. Their refusal is entirely a matter of the will because that is the citadel of the soul and that is where sin reigns and where men are willing for it to remain in charge of their lives.
v] A crooked generation is a lost generation.
We are told that Peter warned them. We are told that he pleaded with them to save themselves. In other words they were in terrible danger and they couldn’t see it, and so he had to warn them and beseech them to see their plight. ‘Don’t ignore what I have said to you. The wages of sin is death!’ In other words you defy God and there are fearful consequences. You serve sin and the wages you get are destruction. We live in a moral universe over-ruled by the law of God. Your conscience bears witness to your life. You sow the seed of sin and you reap the harvest of judgment. You sow a wind of defiance and you reap the whirlwind of destruction. You sin, and you answer, because there’s always the harvest. There’s never just the sowing. There is always the problem of what you are going to reap, the moment when God sends in the bill. There’s going to be the account to be rendered for your life. The wages of sin is death for the whole generation who hate Christ and defy the offer of salvation through him. There is the solemnity and unavoidability of physical death, of breathing one’s last, and then there’s the judgment, what Revelation calls ‘the second death’ or the lake that burns with fire, the bonfire of the vanities, the cesspit of the universe, the cosmic incinerator into which, one day, God almighty will gather all the refuse of this world. Jesus spoke about it. He spoke tenderly of it. Jesus warned and wept over the place where the false prophet is, and where the dragon and the beast are, and where everyone will be unless they deal with their sin in the divinely provided way.
I am not going to analyze it, but those symbols surely are eloquent and moving enough. This is a place where the smoke of their torment ascends day and night for ever and ever. And that is the logic of sin. That is the divine response to persistent impenitence and final disobedience. God delivers to us our final account. We are weighed in the balances and found wanting. These things, I would suggest to you, are the abiding characteristics and distinctive emphases of a crooked and perverse generation of the sons of men.
And you check that divine diagnosis as you read the papers this week and will see what four men did to a college in Kenya, how they murdered 150 Christian students whom they had never met before that day when they shot them dead, boys and girls, without shedding a tear, or what is presented to us from the Isis murderers in Syria and Iraq – their abominable deeds – or there is the mutilation of millions of young girls, or closer to home, the fact that we have lived when gas chambers wiped out millions of Jews, and the perpetrators were those men who sang Christmas carols and listened to Bach and Beethoven, or there is the domestic violence of too many homes in the UK, or there are the murders of the unborn children, thousands of them every month in England and Wales, and not one word to be spoken in its defence, because if there is then we stand where Paul says the depraved and the abandoned ultimately stand – we are worse than those who do such things, if we take pleasure in them or if we admire them.
But there is not only the defiled history of my generation, there is my own history, my life, the file that God has kept of each person. There is my biography. What do I mean? Am I saying to God, ‘Yes . . . but . . .’ Would I dare hear God speaking and reply to him ‘. . . yes, but . . .’ That every mouth is stopped and the whole world be guilty before God. My life is inexcusable, my thought life, my fantasies and imaginations, my emotions, my resentment, my self-pity to those who love me the most. My words, hard words, silly words, hateful words – by our own mouths we are condemned. What a barometer of the state of our hearts is our words! And my actions, what I have done, done to my nearest and dearest, to those I depend on for a contented home life. And I did those shameful things and I said them, in this body. I don’t need to look at my generation, and at Isis, and Boko Haram, and Auschwitz to discover what sin is and why I must be saved from it. It is all on my record.
My only plea, ‘Lord, my life is indefensible. Lord, cover it. Lord, save me!’ The dilemma so great that just one way of deliverance was possible to reconcile God to a sick and rebel race, that he would come, the Son of the highest, come on that long journey from glory to be pitching his tent in our vale of sorrows where the groaning is and the evil abounds. He came and took our frail flesh and blood; into our low condition he came and he gave his life as a ransom. The Lamb of God came to take away the sin of the world. That is why he came; that is the very nature of who God is, that without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins. He took our shame and blame and bore it to the bottomless pit and the lake of fire, in our place and as our substitute. He stood in the naked flame of the majestic rectitude of the Holy One in his burning destruction of all that defiles us and opposes God. Christ suffered the wrath of God against us. He entered the very holy revulsion of God as he considers the spectacle of cosmic sin, and Christ paid its wages, not me, but in my place, wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, he purged my sins all by himself. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. He was delivering up and sparing not his beloved Son that we might be spared, and at last go to heaven saved by his precious blood.
So what is my plea as I hear the words of warning and entreaty to be saved? ‘Guilty! Lord cover my life! Save me through Jesus Christ.’ That is all. And when God gives me permission to speak all I can say is, ‘I wish it wasn’t me.’ And can we get away for ever from our excusing our sins, and our attempts to rationalize them, and plead some excuse, telling God that if he only knew all the circumstances that he’d know that this or that demeanour was justified and that we couldn’t help it? Can we get back to what is the sinner’s only plea? – every mouth stopped, every single one and I hang my head and I say, ‘I abhor myself. I abhor those who betrayed and lashed and crucified and mocked my Saviour. I abhor those who kidnapped 150 teenage girls in Nigeria. I abhor the pilot who deliberately flew his plane into the Alps and killed 150 people, but most of all I abhor myself.’ Have we ever got to that point, when we say to God in the glory of his being, ‘Guilty, Lord. Wash me, and make me whiter than snow’?
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