Calvin begins his Institutes of the Christian Religion with the comment that ‘Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.’ If we start with Socrates’ ‘Know thyself’, we soon run into three obvious problems with all of us.
First, we all have a guilty record before God. If God should mark our iniquities, who could stand before Him? (Ps.130:3) We all fall short of the glory of God (Rom.3:23), and in the judgment every mouth will be stopped (Rom.3:19). No one will mount a defence. Small wonder that David could pray: ‘For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great’ (Ps.25:11). The Judge of all the earth does justly, but that is only to restate the problem so far as sinners are concerned.
Secondly, we all have sinful hearts. As Jeremiah put it: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?’ (Jer.17:9) Out of the human heart comes all the evils that defile us (Matt.15:19). The more we experience of life, and of our own selves, the more we realise that there is madness in our hearts (Eccles.9:3). Augustine of Hippo has been much criticised for over-reacting to his Huckleberry Finn-Tom Sawyer type misdemeanour in joining with some friends in order to steal some pears. They were not hungry, so they ended up throwing the pears at some pigs. So why did they steal the pears in the first place? Many years later a reflective Augustine recalled: ‘our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden.’ He did what had no reason behind it – rather like the old vandalising of phone booths – and he did what he would not have done alone. He says of his friends: ‘the greater the sin the more they gloried in it, so that I took pleasure in the same vices not only for the enjoyment of what I did, but also for the applause I won.’ I do what is wrong, but also what is irrational.
Thirdly, we have dying bodies. A footballer will think little of bashing his body each weekend for the love of sport and of winning. But all too quickly time passes, and the sobering words of Moses strike home: ‘The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away’ (Ps.90:10). It is no different for the Christian. Paul could write of ‘our outer self … wasting away’ (2 Cor.4:16). All we have known here on earth will come to an end, at least in the form that we know it.
How fast has brother followed brother,
From sunshine to the sunless land!
Yet I, whose lids from infant slumber
Were earlier raised, remain to hear
A timid voice, that asks in whispers,
“Who next will drop and disappear?”
So wrote William Wordsworth.
These three problems are universal – we are all immersed in guilt, sin, and death. Who wants to disturb the peace of complacency by raising them? Yet they are precisely what the Son of God came from heaven to deal with. We are guilty, but He came that sinners might be forgiven and redeemed. As He told the woman who was a sinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee: ‘Your sins are forgiven … Your faith has saved you’ (Luke 7:48, 50). ‘His blood can make the foulest clean,’ wrote Charles Wesley. Not only does He acquit the sinner who repents and has faith, He transforms and cleanses. We are not left the same after He has dealt with us. He is the true vine, and He nourishes the branches that are truly joined to Him (John 15:1-6). Even death cannot be allowed – the last enemy though it be – to have the last say. Christ has promised His people: ‘Because I live, you also will live’ (John 14:19).
How is it with you? Guilt, sin, and death – and we are helpless before them, although responsible, for them. Christ is our only hope as the One who knew no sin but became sin for sinners (2 Cor.5:21). Either we are cursed, or we gratefully trust that He became a curse for us (Gal.3:10, 13). Rejoice not in chocolates and days off and shows, but in the sinless person of Christ, and His death, and resurrection.
With warm regards in Christ,
Rev. Dr Peter Barnes,
Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Australia