More Mercy in Christ than Sin in Us
December 2, 2016
In his book The Bruised Reed, Richard Sibbes famously wrote, "We have this for a foundation truth, that there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us." Here is one of those oft repeated statements of Gospel assurance with which believers love to comfort one another. The context, however, is one that has been almost entirely overlooked. Sibbes actually wrote, "If we have this for a foundation truth, that there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us, there can be no danger in thorough dealing." In context, Sibbes was seeking to encourage believers to make a concerted effort to mortification of sin (i.e. thorough dealing). He wrote, "A set measure of bruising [i.e. spiritual humiliation] of ourselves cannot be prescribed, but it must be so far as (1) that we may prize Christ above all, and see that a Savour must be had; and (2) that we reform that which is amiss, though it be to the cutting off of our right hand, or pulling out of our right eye."
Many believers struggle with the assurance of salvation on account of their sin. The Westminster Confession of Faith, in the final paragraph of the chapter on "Assurance of Grace and Salvation"" (Ch. 18), states this so well:
"True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which wounds the conscience and grieves the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God's withdrawing the light of His countenance, and suffering even such as fear Him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never so utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the mean time, they are supported from utter despair."
John Owen, in his magnificent work on Psalm 130, set King David forth as the example of one who understood this soul-wrestling with God over his sin and longing for the assurance of God's love and favor. David understood, better than any, the multifaceted way in which God's grace worked in his life with regard to his ongoing battle with sin and his experience of a guilt-laden conscience. Owen wrote:
"Under the Old Testament none loved God more than he; none was loved of God more than he. The paths of faith and love wherein he walked are unto the most of us like the way of an eagle in the air,--too high and hard for us. Yet to this very day do the cries of this man after God's own heart sound in our ears. Sometimes he complains of broken bones, sometimes of drowning depths, sometimes of waves and water spouts, sometimes of wounds and diseases, sometimes of wrath and the sorrows of hell; everywhere of his sins, the burden and trouble of them. Some of the occasions of his depths, darkness, entanglements, and distresses, we all know. As no man had more grace than he, so none is a greater instance of the power of sin, and the effects of its guilt upon the conscience, than he."
Owen went on to set out seven soul-experiences from David's prayers in the Psalms. These serve as typical experiences of one who is already the object of the love and grace of God and yet who feels himself or herself "in the depths."
1. The loss of the wanted sense of the love of God, which the soul did formerly enjoy. Owen explained: "A sense of God's presence in love is sufficient to rebuke all anxiety and fears in the worst and most dreadful condition; and not only so, but to give in the midst of them solid consolation and joy...This is that sense of love which the choicest believers may lose on the account of sin. This is one step into their depths. They shall not retain any such gospel apprehension of it as that it should give them rest, peace, or consolation."
2. Perplexed thoughtfulness about their great and wretched unkindness towards God is another part of the depths of sin-entangled souls. "So David complains: Ps. 77:3, "I remembered God," saith he, "and was troubled."
3. A revived sense of justly deserved wrath belongs also to these depths. "This is as the opening of old wounds. When men have passed through a sense of wrath, and have obtained deliverance and rest through the blood of Christ, to come to their old thoughts again, to be trading afresh with hell, curse, law, and wrath, it is a depth indeed. And this often befalls gracious souls on the account of sin: Ps. 88:7, 'Your wrath lies hard upon me.'"
4. Oppressing apprehensions of temporal judgments concur herein also; for God will judge his people. And judgment often begins at the house of God. 'Though God,' says such a one, 'should not cast me off for ever,--though He should pardon my iniquities; yet He may so take vengeance of my inventions as to make me feed on gall and wormwood all my days.' Ps. 119:120, says David, 'My flesh trembles for fear of You, and I am afraid of Your judgments.' He knows not what the great God may bring upon him; and being full of a sense of the guilt of sin, which is the bottom of this whole condition, every judgment of God is full of terror unto him."
5. Prevailing fears for a season of being utterly rejected by God, of being found a reprobate at the last day. "Jonah seems to conclude so, chap. 2:4, 'Then I said, I am cast out of Your sight;'--'I am lost for ever, God will own me no more'...This may befall a gracious soul on the account of sin. But yet because this fights directly against the life of faith, God doth not, unless it be in extraordinary cases, suffer any of his to lie long in this horrible pit, where there is no water, no refreshment."
6. God secretly sends His arrows into the soul, that wound and gall it, adding pain, trouble, and disquietness to its disconsolation: "Ps, 138:2, 'Your arrows stick fast in me, and Your hand presses me sore.' Ever and anon in his walking, God shot a sharp piercing arrow, fixing it on his soul, that galled, wounded, and perplexed him, filling him with pain and grievous vexation. These arrows are God's rebukes: Ps. 139:11, 'When You, with rebukes, do correct man for iniquity.'"
7. Unspiritedness and disability unto duty, in doing or suffering, attend such a condition : "Ps. 40:12, 'My iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up.' His spiritual strength was worn away by sin, so, that he was not able to address himself unto any communion with God. The soul now cannot pray with life and power, cannot hear with joy and profit, cannot do good and communicate with cheerfulness and freedom, cannot meditate with delight and heavenly-mindedness, cannot act for God with zeal and liberty, cannot think of suffering with boldness and resolution; but is sick, weak, feeble, and bowed down.
Owen concluded the section on the soul-experience of believers in the depths of sin with this summary:
"Now, I say, a gracious soul, after much communion with God, may, on the account of sin, by a sense of the guilt of it, be brought into a state and condition wherein some, more, or all of these, with other the like perplexities, may be its portion ; and these make up the depths whereof the psalmist here complains."
While these are "the depths" that believers often find themselves in on account of their sin, they turn to the One to whom David said, "If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared." Concerning this appeal to God's mercy and forgiveness, Owen explained that believers must keep these things in view:
"1. The gracious, tender, merciful heart and will of God, who is the God of pardons and forgivenesses; or ready to forgive, to give out mercy, to add to pardon.
2. A respect unto Jesus Christ, the only ἱλασμός, or propitiation for sin, as he is expressly called, Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2. And this is that which interposes between the gracious heart of God and the actual pardon of sinners. All forgiveness is founded on propitiation.
3. Actual forgiveness itself, as we are made partakers of it; comprising it both actively, as it is an act of grace in God, and passively, as terminated in our souls, with the deliverance that attends it. In this sense, as it looks downwards and in its effects respects us, it is of mere grace; as it looks upwards to its causes and respects the Lord Christ, it is from propitiation or atonement. And this is that pardon which is administered in the covenant of grace."
Believers, as we struggle in our souls for nearness to God, a restored sense of His favor and delight and new manifestations of His presence and power, we must learn to cry out to God from the depths--acknowledging God's holiness, our sin and rebellion, what our iniquities deserve and the great mercy of God in Christ that he continually shows us as we turn back to him from the depths. It is, in this way, that we will repeatedly experience in our souls the truth that there is "more mercy in Christ than sin in us"--as the Apostle boldly declared when he said, "Where sin abounded, grace did abound much more" (Rom. 5:20).