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Nearly fifty years ago, Karl Menninger published a book titled Whatever Became of Sin? He astutely pointed out that the biblical categories of man’s fatal moral disease were disappearing from our cultural consciousness. If that was true then, how much more so is it true in our postmodern, post-Christian present? Radical relativism has eviscerated any idea of universal moral truth. Today the essential moral maxim is to be true to oneself. Whatever moral failures do exist are ascribed to purely external causes (social oppression, lack of education, economic disparity, etc.) and can be overcome by human (increasingly political) activism.

It is critical that Christians grasp the biblical truth. Next to a correct understanding of God Himself, the most necessary doctrine of the Christian faith is a correct comprehension of sin. Without it, the gospel cannot be understood. The “good news” will not be seen as inestimably glorious and desperately necessary. Even if the doctrines of grace are professed, without a grasp of the truth of sin those doctrines will not inspire joy inexpressible. The miracle of Spirit-wrought regeneration will not seem essential. Jesus will be wrongly portrayed as a health-and-wealth teacher, a life-coach therapist, or a social-justice activist rather than the glorious, bloody Redeemer of unrighteous rebels. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said of the doctrine of sin, “Most of our failures and troubles in the Church, as well as in the world, are due to the fact that we have not really understood this doctrine.”

There are two key concepts in Jesus’ doctrine of sin: its comprehensive nature and its corrupted source.

sin’s comprehensive nature

Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:27–28 clearly caught His Jewish audience by surprise. The Pharisees obviously believed in the concept of sin but equated it (and righteousness) with external acts. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explodes their shallow conception of sin with a stunning remark: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

That’s a live grenade dropped into the lap of any sense of self-righteousness. With one brief insight, Jesus destroys any confident assurance of innocence regarding the seventh commandment. The crime that deserves death by stoning. Hell-deserving violations of the sixth and seventh commandments happen far before murderous (Matt. 5:21–22) or adulterous actions. Angry words and lustful looks are also “liable to judgment.” And it gets worse.

sin’s corrupted source

Notice how Jesus phrases it: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” We often interpret this verse as though Jesus were saying that lustful looks cause a person to commit adultery in his mind. But that’s not what He says. The look doesn’t cause the adultery; the adultery causes the look. In other words, by the time the lustful look happens, the adultery has “already [been] committed” in the heart. The lustful looking is the wicked fruit of a heart that is already immoral and adulterous.

Acts of sin spring from internal rot.

The central, devastating truth is this: acts of sin spring not from external causes but from internal rot. As Jesus says in Matthew 15:19, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”

Our problem is much, much worse than we imagine. Sin isn’t simply what we do; it’s what we are at the core of our natural being. Every wicked thought, word, and deed flows from a foul fountain of evil within us. We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners. It is our nature. Jesus’ indictment is dreadfully simple: the sin we commit oozes and erupts from an already sinful heart.

In biblical terms, the “heart” includes not only our emotions and desires but our thinking and choosing as well. The heart stands for everything that makes up the internal motor that drives what we do and say. I recently heard someone describe the workings of the inner man like this: “What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” That’s true—but biblically speaking, these are all actions of the heart. The affections of the heart direct the choices of the heart, and the mind of the heart fabricates “reasons.” And all of it is bent and warped by sin.

Dr. A. Craig Troxel helpfully talks about the brain as hardware and the heart as software. The hardware is clearly engaged in our speaking and doing (though it doesn’t always appear to be). But it’s all driven by the software, by the heart. And that is where the problem lies. Every naturally conceived man and woman in human history is infected with this guilt-inducing, death-bearing heart virus (Rom. 3:9–20). We can neither fully understand it (Jer. 17:9) nor fix it (Jer. 13:23). Both the sin within and every single vile word and act it spawns are “liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22).

The severity of the human sin problem is impossible to overstate. “If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matt. 6:23). If the source of every external transgression is an inner irreparable evil condition, then how can we be saved? How shall we escape the wrath that is to come?

The beauty of a correct understanding of sin is that it destroys every hope of self-salvation. I simply can’t fix or atone for the sin that dwells in me. My one and only hope is the atoning blood, imputed merit, and transforming power of Jesus.

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