The greatness of the weight of Sin

In our last three articles that dealt with the sin-related petitions in the Lord’s Prayer we noted in passing how striking it is that such a large proportion of this prayer is focused on our fallenness and failure. This surely says a great deal about why, in light of Calvin’s famous dictum about truly knowing ourselves as well as God, that genuine self-knowledge plays a huge part in entering more fully into a true knowledge of God.

Sinclair Ferguson brings this out in what he says about the 11th Century theologian, Anselm of Canterbury, in relation to one of his best-known works, Cur Deus Homo? – ‘Why did God become Man?’ He homes in on the scholar’s response to his conversation partner, Boso, over his struggle to grasp why the death of Christ lies at the heart of the reason for his incarnation. Anselm tells him, ‘You have not yet considered the greatness of the weight of sin’.[1]

The Mediaeval bishop’s comment goes far deeper than we can ever appreciate when it comes to understanding the heart of the human problem – perhaps especially for us as Christians. The fact Jesus saw fit to load the prayer he taught his followers with this dark reminder should not go unnoticed. Not only does it press home to those who truly pray this prayer how much the cross of Jesus really matters, it actually leads us into the breath-taking panoramic knowledge of the God to whom we pray. The title of C.S. Lewis famous essay provides a helpful corollary to this: ‘The weight of Glory’.[2] Only when we weigh ourselves against the weight of the glory of God do we begin to realise our need is infinitely greater than we could ever imagine.

Ferguson says, ‘Of all Anselm’s statements, this may be the one most worthy of committing to memory. It goes to the heart of many theological misunderstandings – of ourselves and of our sin, of divine election, of the wonder of the love of God and of holiness. It is especially important when it comes to understanding the work of Christ for us. For only when we grasp the many-sided character and depth of our sinfulness can we come to understand and appreciate the wonder of the multidimensional work of Jesus Christ for us.’

Just as, for Noah and his family, the brightness and beauty of the rainbow in the aftermath of the flood stood out all the more because of the dark backdrop of the sky against which it appeared, so too for the beauty of God and his grace against the dark backdrop of our sin and depravity. (The symbolism of the rainbow would not have been lost on Noah, given the dark night of human wickedness and its terrible consequences of divine judgment out of which he and his family had been rescued.)

Paul’s testimony with regard to his own Christian experience in Romans 7 illustrates this in a very telling way. As he dares to bare his soul before his congregation of readers, it is astonishing to see not only his honesty in confessing his sin; but, even more so, the anguish it caused him. This man, who in his pre-Christian experience was relatively untroubled by his sin, now as a Christ-redeemed, Spirit-enlivened child of God feels its weight in a way that drives him to his knees before God and Jesus his Saviour.

Does this mean that his Christian experience was somehow deficient? Not at all! It was actually proof of its reality. The very sin to which he had been desensitised by the devil in his time as a Pharisaical zealot (which allowed him to watch the execution of Stephen with apparent dispassion) he now felt acutely as a man reborn. Indeed, as he had already made clear at the beginning of the previous chapter in Romans, responding to a misunderstanding of the nature of grace in such a way to think sin no longer really matters for a Christian, he vigorously refutes this. ‘What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!’ (Ro 6.1-2). New life in Christ imparts spiritual sensitivities we never had before our conversion, especially in the realm of sin.

If it is true at a purely human level that being married to a spouse, or developing a deep and trusting friendship with someone, raises our self-awareness in a way we never know before; how much more will this be true in the deepest and truest relationship of all. As the psalmist says, ‘In your [God’s] light we see light’ (Ps 36.7). His light not only opens up vistas on a whole new realm of light; it also exposes the depth of darkness in which we once felt so much at home. And when the latter happens – causing us to feel the weight of our sin – it drives us to God through Christ not only to seek pardon and deliverance; but with the earnest prayer that he would lead us onward into his perfect light.

[1] Ferguson, S.B., In the Year of our Lord (Reformation Trust Publishing) 2018, p. 122

[2] Preached originally as a sermon in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on June 8, 1942:

   published in Theology, November, 1941, and by the S.P.C.K, 1942


Mark Johnston