I have been listening to a series of sermons on John whenever I drive somewhere in our van. Early church fathers, I am informed, asked a cautiously worded question to see where rival claimants to biblical truth stood. They wanted to know how complete is man’s tumble into sin, and thus how great Christ’s rescue from the results of Adam’s first transgression.
The elders’ question takes a moment to grasp. It repeats a variation of a word to give the impression of a bad piece of writing, a thought too abstruse to have merit, too tight to breathe in, as among hair-splitters.
Take it slowly.
“Did you sin because you are a sinner, or are you a sinner because you sinned?”
These 16 words go to the heart of my situation as a sinner. My answer exposes my conception of the fall, its extent, and the greatness of my rescuer and author of my salvation. My answer will suggest whether I am a “big godder” or a “little godder,” to borrow a phrase. ‡
AM I PRONE TO SIN because I was a sinner from conception? Or am I a sinner because, at some proper age of accountability, I committed a sin, either wittingly or unwittingly?
If we assent to the first question — that we sin because we are sinners — we are taking the position of Scripture that says we have been in a fallen state from the beginning of our lives — and the beginning of our race.
If you say yes to the second question, you stake a claim upon God that ennobles and esteems us. You are saying that the fall of Adam is not total in its effect, that Adam’s sin did — or does — not pollute every part of your being. By implication, you hold you were not conceived in sin, and that you are not an alien from God’s favor. You hold that at some point in your life you were not a sinner, that you were pleasing to God, that you had not violated any commandment.
The standing of man before God has been debated from the beginnings of Christianity. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians assures these converts that by God’s grace “you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). Prior to Christ, salvation had been limited to a single people, a paltry collection of 12 tribes from the sons of Jacob who had a national heyday in the reign of King Solomon. Prior to the expansion of God’s salvation promise to the world via Christ’s new testament, the peoples of the world were condemned to having nothing but religion — man-made conceptions of God that the scriptures repeatedly describe as idolatry.
NOW NOT EVERY SOUL among the gentiles was condemned before God. The scriptures tell of exceptions among those aliens beyond the pale of God’s mercy to Israel.
Among them is the prostitute Rahab in Jericho who fears God and is spared with her family the destruction of that city; she is an ancestor of the Lord Jesus. The tricky Gibeonites are spared God’s wrath because they obtain a treaty with Joshua and his subalterns; they save their lives as hewers of wood and drawers of water. King David obtains faithful service from a Hittite, Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba whom he lawlessly slays in his adultery. When the prophet Elijah flees the wrath of Ahab, he goes to a widow of Zerephath in alien Sidon and exchanges grace with her. Jonah brings warning of God’s law and wrath to Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, whose people repent. Nebuchadnezzar, the potentate who may not have had a personal relationship with Christ, still testifies to the power of God over kingdoms in his decree in Daniel 4. God shows favor to Naaman, the Syrian general who came to be cured of leprosy. The Roman centurion is a convert when he meets Christ. The Ethiopian in the carriage is reading the scriptures and wants someone to explain them — and God sends along Phillip. At the time of the coming of the Holy Ghost in power, Jerusalem is filled with many strangers, who are given grace to believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord God, the son of the Father. The Canaanite mother of a demon-possessed girl admits the violent distinction between the saved and unsaved world of her day: “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:27).
The exceptions give stark evidence of the rule. Before Christ, with one exception, all the nations are in rebellion and a state of sin. They have no hope in the world. Israel aside, God left mankind to itself, to its own devices and theories. Just as there is no universal salvation with the coming of Christ, no feel-good universal salvation was declared before His time.
I trace the inclusion of early gentiles in God’s gracious mercy to suggest at least partly the answer to the tricky question. The effect of the fall is total, except for the lives of these few to whom God extends favor. Mankind is lost, awaiting deliverance yet afar. Aliens and strangers are enemies of God not because they sin, but because they are sinners.
THE CONCEPT OF REPRESENTATION here proves helpful. Representation explains why you and I are born in sin and lost from the moment of conception. We are sinners because of somebody else’s fault.
The scriptures teach the concept of representation in Adam’s federal headship of the human race in sin and Christ’s federal headship of the church in salvation. In Adam all men fall. In Christ all men whom He intends to save are rescued by His atoning sacrifice on the cross.
Our forefather Adam received a judgment for sin, and that judgment has passed through generations to reach me, sitting at my desk in a house in Soddy-Daisy. It affects my four children. It will corrupt every branch of the family tree until the end.
My federal head sinned, and I am guilty. God, in his magnificent plan of salvation, reverses the process. “For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive, but each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterwards those who are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Cor. 15:21-23). Paul later in that chapter says of our first father, “The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly man” (vv. 47-49).
THE CONCEPT of federal headship should not seem too strange to us citizens of a federal republic. We are careful about how we speak of our representatives in the church. We are admonished to honor them and esteem our elders before others, even if we may disagree with them on a point of doctrine or practice. The idea emerges in my earlier post about Mr. Nevels’ abandoning the church over the doctrine of sexual purity (homosexuality). Politically, President Obama is our federal head, and so we do not scoff at him, sneer over his doings and ridicule him or his office as do the talk show hosts. God has appointed President Obama to that office by agency of the people’s will through an election. Mr. Obama represents us to the world as a federal head, even though our friends strain to assure us he is destroying the country.
Representation, as the minister explains in it the taped series, can make what is a murder one day a lawful killing two days after. Remember how the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941? Had I killed a Japanese soldier on Saturday, Dec. 6, on a Pacific island beach, it would be murder. But my slaying him Dec. 8, after the Congress had voted to declare war on Tokyo, would have been lawful, an act of war. By representation, I become a combatant on the sands of a Pacific Ocean isle. I am covered by representation.
“DID YOU SIN BECAUSE you are a sinner, or are you a sinner because you sinned?” Simply reading the Bible and soaking in the extent of the condemnation against us makes the answer clear. The scope of judgment against mankind is total. No part of man’s person or work is free from sin’s taint. “But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe,” Paul says (Gal. 3:22). We sin because we are congenitally, by representation through the first Adam, sinners.
An acknowledgement of the fall lets Christians rightly magnify the work of Christ, the riches of the glory of His inheritance and the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe (Gal. 1:18, 19). The gospel’s claims upon everyone in our city, everyone in the world, declare God’s people deeply fallen. And also richly and blessedly saved.
As Christ said to the pharisee over the weeping woman who washed His feet with her tears, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Luke 7:47).
Jeff Black, The Apostle John’s Gospel, taped sermons from West Tennessee Reformed Mission RPCUS
‡ This expression comes from Prof. Dick Wilson of Princeton University, who defended Christian orthodoxy during the rise of liberalism. According to a story in Leben, a journal of Reformation life: “Once, Wilson stopped in to listen to one of his former ‘boys’ deliver a sermon at the Princeton chapel some twelve years after he’d left Wilson’s class. *** After the sermon, the then aged Wilson came up to the young man and said, ‘If you come back again, I will not come to hear you preach. I only come once. I am glad you are a big-godder. When my boys come back, I come to see if they are big-godders or little-godders, and then I know what their ministry will be.’ The preacher was puzzled. Wilson explained, ‘Well, some men have a little God and they are always in trouble with him. He can’t do any miracles. He can’t take care of the inspiration and transmission of the Scripture to us. He doesn’t intervene on behalf of his people. They have a little God and I call them little-godders. Then there are those who have a great God. He speaks and it is done. He commands and it stands fast. He knows how to show Himself strong on behalf of them that fear him. You…have a great God.’”