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When thinking about others, the best place to always begin is with a “gospel exam.” You can do this by answering a few self-assessment questions? Carefully think through these questions to see if any apply. It may benefit you to discuss them with a friend or a small group of like-minded disciplers.
I’m asking if there are sinners in your sphere of influence with whom you struggle in your heart? Perhaps I did not ask the right question. What if you supplied one that is more accurate? If you answered yes to any of these heart queries, you not only need a gospel checkup, but you need a gospel fix.
The next stage of your gospel exam is to reflect upon a few foundational thoughts about Hamartiology—the Doctrine of Sin. Understanding the pandemic reality of sin, its noetic effect (impact on our minds), and the truths of total depravity are vital when thinking about how you relate to others. How would you answer these two questions?
Theologically speaking, you sin because you are a sinner. Some evangelistic methods seek to get people to admit their sinfulness by showing them how they have sinned. The thought goes that if they can get the unregenerate person to admit any sin, they will see the need for a Savior. In a sense, this approach is not wrong.
Most certainly, if you or I have sinned, we need a Savior, but a more foundational truth presupposes whether we have sinned or not. We are sinners (Romans 3:10-12; Isaiah 64:6) regardless of whether we can recollect past transgressions. Though it is not possible for a human not to sin, owning up to our sin is not necessary to be guilty before the Lord.
Sin comes with the Adamic package. Of course, there are differences in the kind and consequences of our sins, but there are no differences from one human to the next as far as being a sinner. Adolf Hitler, Ted Bundy, Rick Thomas, Donald Trump, and any other person you want to name, other than Christ, are guilty before God.
The number, kind, or consequences of our sins is another story (James 2:10). God does not see big sinners and little sinners, but considers all of us as sinners, in need of the redemptive work of His Son. The only difference in the list of folks I named is whether they have asked the Savior to regenerate them.
The question is not what sins have you committed, but have you been born again (John 3:7)? We are sinners in need of salvation (Romans 3:23). Though there are a time and context to distinguish the type and consequences of our transgressions, it’s not where you should begin. The starting place for discussions about sin should be on a level footing, somewhere near the cross.
I have heard many testimonies about the drug addict, prostitute, or former inmate who shared their stories about God’s saving grace. In each case, it has been something to celebrate. As fantastic as their testimonies were, I’ve never considered them more profound than the five-year-old girl who attended Sunday school and was regenerated by Christ’s grace.
This girl grows into a God-loving teenager, marries a Christian man, and never knows the stinging anguish of brokenness like the addict, prostitute, or inmate. Nevertheless, she and the convict were the same in God’s sight before their regeneration. I’m not saying we should downplay the salvation of the convict. I am saying that the convict and the Sunday school attender were no different before their conversions.
Although some may argue that the former inmate has a better testimony, I suggest that the little girl’s “God’s story” might be better. Hers is about the power of the gospel that saves a young child and keeps her living in the good of that gospel throughout her life. The persevering strength of the gospel is incredible and other-worldly. To sin is weakness and not other-worldly.
It is easy for sinners to get angry, be impatient, gossip, overeat, or end up in prison if they followed their natural desires. We are all weak when it comes to sinning, and temptations are mighty, which is why we quickly yield to them. The empowering grace of God is much more durable and profound (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
It is God’s strength that saves and continually helps us become holier (1 Corinthians 1:18; Romans 1:16-17). The testimony of the inmate and five-year-old equally speaks volumes to the goodness and power of the gospel. Let me ask you a few more questions.
Some Christians who were saved early in life struggle to apply the gospel in practical ways—particularly after they become adults. They specifically struggle with a lack of daily passion for what God did for them at the cross. Some of them are not as amazed by the gospel’s truths, like others who may have had a more difficult path to the cross.
I am not talking about emotionalism, though a lack of emotion could be part of their issue. Whether your hands are down by your side or up in the air, when you reflect upon the glories of the cross is not as important as the condition of your heart when you think about that cross.
There can be a deception for those regenerated at a young age. These believers could think they have not committed as many sins or the darker acts that they see in the culture. This deception could trick them into believing they are better than those with the more scandalous or flagrant sins.
Though they would quickly tell you that every person has sinned, no one is righteous, and grace rather than our works saves us, some of these believers have not fully transitioned from what they know to be accurate, to how they live these truths out on a day-to-day basis (Romans 3:10-12, Romans 3:23; Ephesians 2:8-10). While they may ace the “Christian 101 Exam,” they do not do as well when it comes to living the gospel out in their daily sanctification. There are two areas where you will find evidence of this truth.
When a person can juxtapose these two equal and corresponding truths—I was the world’s worst sinner and God showed me mercy, they reduce the temptations toward a lack of gratitude or judgmentalism in proportion to their daily understanding and practice of these truths in their lives (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
From your perspective, who is the worst sinner you have ever known? If you could ask the great apostle Paul this question, he would answer it definitively. He would say it was him! From his perspective, he was the foremost sinner. Paul was more aware of what he had done to Christ than what anyone else had done to Him (1 Timothy 1:15).
From a quantity, type, or consequential perspective, other sinners in Paul’s world were worse than he was, but it didn’t affect his thinking as far as how he saw himself before salvation. Paul knew himself to be the worst sinner. Paul had the right attitude on how we should view ourselves before we begin to think about others. Jesus said it this way,
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5).
To miss the Savior’s point is to lose a fundamental, practical outworking of the gospel. It goes like this: “Rick was the chief of sinners before Christ regenerated him.” The Christian who does not see himself as the worst sinner ever saved will succumb to the temptation to compare himself to others, based on what they have or have not done.
Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding (2 Corinthians 10:12).
Comparison thinking creates degrees and levels for categorizing believers and unbelievers. In reality, there are only two kinds of sinners, with no degrees or levels.
This issue is ontological—your state of being—rather than what you have done, good or bad. In this context, it will not matter what sins you have committed when you stand before God. What you have done is not my point here. The issue on that day will be your relationship, or lack thereof, with the Son of God.
If you categorize people as good or bad, based on your list of acceptable or unacceptable behaviors, you’re self-righteous, the fundamental sin that feeds racism, legalism, and other judgmental or uncharitable attitudes. We all do this. To see if you have strayed from the practical outworking of the gospel in this matter, assess yourself against these self-righteous sins.
Paul knew a few Christians who had many of these issues. I am sure some of them were worse than he was, from a quantity, type, or consequential perspective. But when he looked at himself, he realized he was the chief of all the sinners in the group, a sinner whom God showed mercy (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
If you believe you are the worst sinner ever saved, you have a fundamental yet profound understanding of the gospel. Do you have a better than attitude when you think of others? One of the ways you can think about this question is by asking yourself a few more.
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you have yielded to the sin of self-righteousness, a better than attitude, that affirms that you don’t need Christ because He came for the unrighteous, not the righteous. The solution to your dilemma is only a prayer away. If you look down on others or struggle with others, may I appeal to you to wrestle through these thoughts and find a friend to help you?