The gospel devours the very motivation you have for sin. It completely saps your very need and reason to live any way you want. Anyone who insists that the gospel encourages us to sin has simply not understood it yet, nor begun to feel its power.
Repentance out of mere fear is really sorrow for the consequences of sin, sorrow over the danger of sin — it bends the will away from sin, but the heart still clings. But repentance out of conviction over mercy is really sorrow over sin, sorrow over the grievousness of sin — it melts the heart away from sin. It makes the sin itself disgusting to us, so it loses its attractive power over us. We say, ‘This disgusting thing is an affront to the one who died for me. I’m continuing to stab him with it!’
A continued look at Genesis 3 shows that as soon as Adam and Eve sinned against God, they experienced internal shame, guilt, and brokenness. They suffered the natural consequences of working against their design. ‘They realized they were naked’ (verse 7). This is the opposite of verse 25 in chapter 2, where we read that Adam and Eve had been, as we often put it today, ‘naked and unashamed.’ Old Testament scholar David Atkinson writes: ‘Shame… is that sense of unease with yourself at the heart of your being.’ We know there is something wrong with us, but we can’t admit it or identify it. There is a deep restlessness, which can take various forms – guilt and striving to prove ourselves, rebellion and the need to assert our independence, compliance and the need to please others. Something is wrong, and we may know the effects, but we fall short of understanding the true causes.
Contemporary Western culture tries to account for this restlessness without recourse to the biblical doctrine of sin. Psychologists help us understand the part our early childhoods have played in creating unnecessary shame or a sense of being unloved. Entertainment distracts us from our discomfort. And doing good helps bolster our identity as a good person. But the Bible locates the root issue as our separation from God.
Luther says that if we obey God’s law without a belief that we are already accepted and loved in Christ, then in all our good deeds we are really looking to something more than Jesus to be the real source of our meaning and happiness. We may be trusting in our good parenting or moral uprightness or spiritual performance or acts of service to be our real and functional “saviors.” If we aren’t already sure God loves us in Christ, we will be looking to something else for our foundational significance and self-worth. This is why Luther says we are committing idolatry if we don’t trust in Christ alone for our approval.
The first commandment is foundational to all the other commandments. We will not break commandments two through ten unless we are in some way breaking the first one by serving something or someone other than God. Every sin is rooted in the inordinate lust for something which comes because we are trusting in that thing rather than in Christ for our righteousness or salvation. We sin because we are looking to something else to give us what only Jesus can give us. Beneath any particular sin is the general sin of rejecting Christ’s salvation and attempting our own self-salvation.
The best way of casting out an impure affection is to admit a pure one . . . It is only when, as in the gospel, acceptance is bestowed as a present, without money and without price, that the security which man feels in God is placed beyond the reach of disturbance. Only then can he repose in him as one friend reposes in another . . . The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.
Thus every person, religious or not, is worshipping something – idols, pseudo-saviors – to get their worth. But these things enslave us with guilt (if we fail to attain them), or anger (if someone blocks them from us), or fear (if they are threatened), or drivenness (since we must have them). Guilt, anger, fear, and drivenness are like fire that destroys us. Sin in worshipping anything but Jesus – and the wages of sin is slavery.
The gospel is good news announcing that we have been rescued or saved. And what are we rescued from? What peril are we saved from? A look at the gospel words in the New Testament shows that we are rescued from the ‘coming wrath’ at the end of history (1Thess 1:10). But this wrath is not an impersonal force – it is God’s wrath. We are out of fellowship with God; our relationship with him is broken.
In perhaps the most thoroughgoing exposition of the gospel in the Bible, Paul identifies God’s wrath as the great problem of the human condition (Rom 1:18–32). Here we see that the wrath of God has many ramifications. The background text is Genesis 3:17-19, in which God’s curse lies on the entire created order because of human sin. Because we are alienated from God, we are psychologically alienated within ourselves – we experience shame and fear (Gen 3:10). Because we are alienated from God, we are also socially alienated from one another (v. 7 describes how Adam and Eve must put on clothing, and v. 16 speaks of alienation between the genders; also notice the blame shifting in their dialogue with God in vv. 11-13). Because we are alienated from God, we are also physically alienated from nature itself. We now experience sorrow, painful toil, physical degeneration, and death (vv. 16-19). In fact, the ground itself is ‘cursed’ (v. 17; see Rom 8:18–25).
Since the garden, we live in a world filled with suffering, disease, poverty, racism, natural disasters, war, aging, and death – and it all stems from the wrath and curse of God on the world. The world is out of joint, and we need to be rescued. But the root of our problem is not these ‘horizontal’ relationships, though they are often the most obvious; it is our ‘vertical’ relationship with God. All human problems are ultimately symptoms, and our separation from God is the cause. The reason for all the misery – all the effects of the curse – is that we are not reconciled to God. We see this in such texts as Romans 5:8 and 2 Corinthians 5:20. Therefore, the first and primary focus of any real rescue of the human race – the main thing that will save us – is to have our relationship with God put right again.