Man’s Need for Salvation:
The Nature of Sin
By William Webster
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)
Scripture teaches that we were created by God, for God (Col. 1:16). We were created for a purpose—his glory. The law of God is God’s revelation of his purpose in creating man. It teaches us that God is meant to have first place in our hearts and his will is meant to be the controlling principle of our lives. The law of God reveals two categories of relationship for which men are accountable: 1) To God as a person: we are commanded to love him with all our hearts and to have no other gods before him (Ex. 20:2–3; Mt. 22:37) and 2) To God’s will: we are commanded to obey him in our thoughts, words, motives, attitudes and actions. Man’s relationship with God is meant to be characterized by submission of heart, dependence, love, devotion, worship, obedience and service—all directed to his glory. As John Murray states: ‘It is the law that expresses the nature and will of the supreme personality who has authority over us and propriety in us, to whom we owe complete submission and absolute devotion’ (John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner, 1977), Volume 2, p. 78). We have been created to love him supremely and to live a life of submission to him and obedience to his will for his glory. This purpose is not only revealed in the law of God but also in the person of Christ.
The Lord Jesus Christ was a perfect man. In his life we find the perfect prototype of what man was created to be. In Jesus we find what it means to have a true heart towards God. Philippians 2:6–7 helps us to understand the human nature of Jesus. It says: Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men.’ The word form means the innate nature or character of a thing. The word bondservant is the Greek word doulos. At the incarnation, in taking upon himself the nature of man, Jesus took upon himself the form of a bondservant. This is the innate character of his nature as a man. God predestines those he chooses ‘to become conformed to the image of His Son’ (Rom. 8:29) and his Son became a bondslave. This truth has direct bearing on the preaching of the gospel and our understanding of salvation for salvation ultimately means being conformed to the image of Christ. As we investigate in more detail the application and appropriation of salvation we will be referring back to this truth.
The Law of God and the Nature of Sin
The law of God is the expression of his will for man. All men are ‘under the law’ in their natural state (Rom. 3:19) and accountable to the law as responsible moral agents. And what the law of God requires of us is perfect obedience in all our behavior—in our attitudes, thoughts, motives, speech and actions. If we transgress God’s law in any respect we are condemned, placed under the judgment and wrath of God and face the destiny of an eternal hell when we die: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law to perform them…The wages of sin is death…The soul who sins will die’ (Gal. 3:10; Rom. 6:23; Ezek. 18:4). Scripture sums up our true condition before God when it says: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23).
Scripture teaches that we are all sinners, born in a state of sin—of rebellion against God—in which we live unto ourselves as our own authority, independent of God (Is. 53:6). We are born separated from God and at enmity with him in our nature (Eph. 2:12; Col. 1:21; Rom. 8:7–8). We are idolators. We worship, love and serve other gods in God’s place. Self–love, self–will, and self–rule are the governing principles of our hearts. God has been displaced by self. Our sinful nature then manifests itself in behavioral sins which are contrary to the law and word of God. We are not rightly related to God in our nature or behavior. We are therefore creatures whose lives are not only characterized by sin, but are in bondage to its guilt and power. Scripture describes us as unrighteous, ungodly, enemies of God, slaves of sin, evil in heart and life and the children of Satan (Jn. 8:34; Rom. 6:19; Lk. 11:13; 1 Jn. 3:4–10). As Isaiah 53:6 puts it: ‘All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.’ Or as Romans 3:10–12 states: ‘There is none righteous no not one, there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God, all have turned aside, together they have become useless, there is none who does good, there is not even one.’ And because we are sinners we have incurred guilt before God and are under the curse of the law which is eternal death.
Scripture is emphatic—all men are sinners. However, it is important to emphasize a crucial point with respect to sin: The first and foremost issue in defining sin is not with particular acts of behavior but with the disposition of the heart in relation to the person of God himself. If we define sin in terms of behavior only we will miss the fundamental purpose behind the salvation Christ came to accomplish. Sin first of all has to do with the heart and only secondarily with acts of behavior. Sin in its essence is not being submitted to God, not loving him supremely, not living exclusively for his glory, not having him as the center of one’s life. It is to love self, to live for self and to have self at the center of the life. J.I. Packer defines sin in these terms:
What in positive terms is the essence of sin? Playing God; and as a means to this, refusing to allow the Creator to be God so far as you are concerned. Living, not for Him, but for yourself; loving and serving and pleasing yourself without reference to the Creator, trying to be as far as possible independent of Him, taking yourself out of His hands, holding Him at arm’s length, keeping the reins of life in your own hands; acting as if you, and your pleasure, were the end to which all things else, God included, must be made to function as a means. That is the attitude in which sin essentially consists…Sin is exalting oneself against the Creator, withholding the homage due to Him, and putting oneself in His place, as the ultimate standard of reference in all life’s decisions…Where Christ does not rule sin does (J.I. Packer, God’s Words (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity), pp. 72-74).
Again, we cannot understand the true nature of salvation apart from a correct understanding of sin. As J.C. Ryle has stated: ‘A right knowledge of sin lies at the root of all saving Christianity’ (J.C. Ryle, Holiness (Cambridge: Clarke). p. 1).Jonathan Edwards comments on the primary meaning of sin as a state of being which then produces sinful acts:
The apostasy of man summarily consists in departing from the true God, to idols; forsaking his Creator, and setting up other things in his room. When God at first created man, he was united to his Creator; the God that made him was his God. The true God was the object of his highest respect, and had the possession of his heart. Love to God was the principle in his heart, that ruled over all other principles; and everything in the soul was wholly in subjection to it. But when man fell, he departed from the true God, and the union that was between his heart and his Creator was broken: he wholly lost his principle of love to God. And henceforth man clave to other gods. He gave that respect to the creature, which is due to the Creator. When God ceased to be the object of his supreme love and respect, other things of course became the objects of it.
The gods which a natural man worships, instead of the God that made him, are himself and the world. He has withdrawn his esteem and honour from God, and proudly exalts himself. As Satan was not willing to be in subjection; and therefore rebelled, and set up himself; so a natural man, in the proud and high thoughts he has of himself, sets up himself upon God’s throne. He gives his heart to the world, worldly riches, worldly pleasures, and worldly honours: they have the possession of that regard which is due to God (Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner, 1974), Volume 2, Men Naturally Are God’s Enemies, Sect. III, pp. 132-133).
According to the world we are all brothers and sisters, children of God. But scripture teaches that men in their unregenerate state are actually children of Satan, citizens of the kingdom of this world and as such are under Satan’s power and authority (Jn. 8:41–44; Eph. 2:1–2). The heart of Satan is pride, self–rule self–will. It is this fundamental disposition which is the root and essence of sin. Man is in bondage to the guilt and power of sin and is therefore subject to death—physical, spiritual and eternal (Gal. 3:10; Ezek. 18:4; Rom. 6:23). Man is under a curse, the ultimate judgment of which is eternal separation from God in hell.