Sin and Grace
By Fred G. Zaspel
Augustine once reminisced on an earlier act of theft he had committed. While walking home one day he sneaked into a neighbor’s yard and stole a pear. Now looking back on the event he began to wonder why he did it. Why would he steal his neighbor’s pear? It was not because he was all that hungry. It was not because he did not have pears of his own. Nor was it because his neighbor’s pears were any better than the pears grown in his own yard. His own pears were every bit as good, and they were plentiful. Nor did he feel any need to “get even” with his neighbor — there had been no offense. So then why did he steal the pear from his neighbor?
As he reflected on it, the only explanation that really seemed to fit was that there was something about him that was very wrong. At his very heart, he concluded, he must be evil. There was no reason why he should have stolen the pear but that his sinful heart led him to do it.
The Lord Jesus said it first. “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matt. 15:19). That is, our sinful behavior does not rise out of nowhere. They are simply the inevitable expression of what lies in the heart. In our very heart of hearts, he says, we are evil, and the evil that we do is proof of it.
Or, to change the figure, when we see a tree full of rotten fruit, we very naturally and rightly conclude that it is the tree itself that is rotten. The fruit merely demonstrates the ill-health of the tree itself (Matt. 12:33-35).
So also when we sin it is merely a revelation of the sinfulness of what we are at the root level, so to speak. At heart we are not good people who occasionally happen to mistake into sin. No, at heart we are sinners, and it is this that explains why sin is attractive to us. We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners.
This does not fit well with our contemporary pursuit of high self-esteem and “feel good about yourself” theology. But it is what Jesus taught, and it is very insightful. Here alone we find adequate explanation for the evil that we do — we do what is wrong because we ourselves are wrong. We find sin attractive and prefer it. In the words of Jesus, “We love darkness rather than light” (John 3:19).
You see, our problem goes deep. And if from our condition in sin we learn anything at all about salvation it is this: salvation must be by grace. Given our sinful condition, there is nothing we could ever do to contribute to our salvation. What we need is rescue. If we are to be saved, God must change us. All on his own he must re-make us, renew our hearts, and make us clean. In short, he must raise us from our spiritual death and give us life.
This is why the Bible emphasizes that salvation is by sheer grace. “By grace you are saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is a gift of God. Not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). We owe to God all the praise. We have done nothing to make our way to him; mercifully, he came to us, and he gave us life.
To all those who attempt to make themselves acceptable to God the gospel of Christ says plainly, “Give it up!” Salvation is a free gift of God’s grace received by faith alone, and to have it we must acknowledge our sin and ill-desert and rely wholly on Jesus Christ, our only savior.
Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Continuing Relevance of Divine Law (1991); The Theology of Fulfillment (1994); Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History (1996); New Covenant Theology with Tom Wells (New Covenant Media); The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two grown children, Gina and Jim.