Sinners and Sin
Are you a sinner because you sin? The traditional Christian answer is "yes." We are taught that because we sin we are sinners, and, because we are sinners, God's wrath is against us. It is not what scripture says.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, (Rom. 1:18)
"Ungodliness" is the Greek word asebeia (asebeia) which literally means "impiety." It is the idea that we do not respect and worship God, but turn away from Him. It is this lack of reverence for God that causes His wrath. Paul makes this clear in the succeeding verses:
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, ... Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, (Rom 1:21-22,25)
God's response is to turn man over to man's own desires:
And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful; (Rom. 28-31)
That's quite a list of sins isn't it? Oh, how the preachers love to rant and rave about these sins, going on and on and on about how evil we are. (As if we didn't know!) But, do you see what Paul is saying here? All these sins are the end result of a reprobate mind. The short-falling (sin) is caused by the short-fallen state (sinfulness), not the other way around. God's wrath is when He turns His back on us, leaving us to ourselves; the punishment and vengeance is a result of our choice and action when separated from God's spirit. If we had not separated ourselves from God's spirit by our irreverence, we would not have the reprobate mind that leads to sin. We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners.
If this backwards idea of sin were the only problem, it would be bad enough. Yet, man doesn't stop there in his heresy but compounds the error with his own solution. Yes, we become convinced of our sin and need of redemption. It's the classic case of "foxhole faith" where we find we have made a total mess of our life and have no way out. We are going to die and there is nothing we can do about it. So, we eventually cry out to God, "Lord save me!" And He does. He removes our filthy rags and washes away the stench of our sin with the blood of Jesus. What happens next is the difference between truth and lie and life and death.
It's not enough to have the punishment for sin removed. We still have that old carnal nature that constantly drags us down through temptation into sin. Our mind works at three angles: I want, I will, I Ought. We have within our mind a set of desires. Some of these desires are good while some are evil. What we are taught is that we should compare our desire (I want) against a moral code (I ought) and the apply our will power (I will) to suppress the immoral desire and act upon the moral desire.
This is true of all moral and ethical systems and also true of all other systems of thought that come from the mind of man. For example, we are taught that to be healthy there are certain things we should do and certain things we should not do. We are to learn what is healthy and then by our willpower suppress the desire to do things that are harmful. The same is true in the area of finance. We are told that we should suppress our desire for immediate gratification and act upon our desire for security by saving. I have found the same thing in every religion, philosophy and political system I have ever studied with only one exception. Other than that one exception, every system relies on man gaining the proper knowledge and then using his will power to act properly. All of them depend on me doing the right thing. This is just as true of mysticism as it is of rationalism. And, none of them work because they do nothing to change the reprobate mind that is the ultimate source of the problem.
Traditional Christianity is absolutely no different. Once they have you signed up as a dues-paying member of their little social club, they start cutting, and molding and conforming you to some outward appearance of sinlessness. Oh, you are saved by the blood of Jesus, but you then must do this and don't do that in your own will power. They will give you the correct moral code so you will know what to do and what not to do. Usually that code of conduct is made up out of some limited or perverse interpretation of scripture. It truly is the same business on the other side of the street. No different at all from the world.
My attitude as a young man became, if that's what Christianity really is, then I'm in big trouble! I'm at least honest enough to know that I won't make it. I get even more disgusted at the attitude of, well, just try real hard and when you fail, Jesus will forgive you of your sins again. Ok. That's true, BUT I WANT THE SIN GONE! It's like when my mother would tell me I needed to clean up my room. My attitude was always, why, it's just gonna' get dirty again! If all Jesus can do for me is keep cleaning me up so that I can go out and get dirty from sin again, then what's the point?
For I know that in me (that is, my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing; for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do...O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? (Rom 7:18-24)
Man, that says it all! I know that feeling, I know that sense of desperation, and I want to be rid of it. But, how? This is why it's important to understand that sin comes from sinfulness not the other way around. I can never be rid of the sin until the sinful nature is dead. It's that self apart from God that has to go.
From this we can understand the total failure of all forms of legalism and self-righteousness. Not only can we not do it by our will power, it is the exact opposite of what we need to do. To say that I will learn what is right and then do it is to set myself up on the same level as God. It is the ultimate in apostasy for it is exactly the problem in the first place. It is a desire to worship ourselves, the created thing, and not the Creator. We want to gain pride in how good we are and how we have overcome sin so that God's wrath and judgement won't apply to us. The problem, we forget, is not the outward sign of sin, it is the sinful heart that is separated from God. Until that inner heart is changed, it is impossible to overcome sin. To put aside self means to totally trust God rather than self. This is the essence of faith and is why the just shall live by faith.
I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain. (Gal. 3:21)
If we could by our own actions become righteous, then what was the point of Jesus' suffering and death?
We are saved by grace, through faith. When we find ourselves in that state of temptation to sin, it is not because we don't know enough about God's law. It is not because we lack sufficient will power to overcome, although that is certainly true. It is not an indication that we need to fight harder against the flesh. What that temptation tells us is that we simply need more faith so that we may draw closer to God. We must stop resisting Him and stop trying to do it all ourselves.
We understand that the removal of the punishment for sin is an act of grace, unmerited favor, that God gives to us. There is more to grace than this. God doesn't just strip away our filthy rags, wash us clean with the blood of Jesus and then leave us standing there naked. He clothes us in a new, pure garment. This is the other part of His grace. He implants a new spirit in our heart that slowly displaces the old man of sin. It is by this new heart, of God's spirit, that we ultimately can overcome sin. That new heart has only the desire of God and none of the self-serving, self-worshipping, self-preserving nature that gives rise to sin in the first place. When we try to make ourselves righteous we seek to take away from God the glory that belongs to Him. We are glad of our salvation, and God wants to provide it for us. But, even more than that, by our salvation, God demonstrates to His creation His mercy and His ability to save. Thus, I do not seek to frustrate the grace of God. I want all the glory to go to Him and only Him. As Paul said in Romans, that reverence, worship and presence in our heart, is exactly what He wants, too.