1. When we see the problem as partial rather than total. How often have we heard, or said, that if God’s pass mark is 50, then even a 49 is still falling short of the glory of God? Therefore even the most “perfect” performer of self-righteousness can be caught out because they must have at least stolen a biscuit when they were small or a paperclip from work in recent years. Perhaps we say imagine a perfect white sheet of paper, then put a dot of ink on it . . . no longer perfect. Heaven is perfect, etc. This is all true, but dangerously untrue at the same time. Hypothetically a person could be a 49/50 performer, but in reality, nobody is. To put it another way, we are all zero out of 50 because self-righteousness is not the goal. Sin is not about independent performance according to a standard. The standard reveals our independent performance and abject failure. The independence is a huge part of the issue, so our paper is not mostly white, it is completely covered in blotched ink. And that ink comes in two colours:
2. When we see the problem as naughtiness. Naughtiness is like blue ink. It is the colour of the younger son’s track record as he crawls back wearing swine deodorant from the far country. But naughtiness is not the extent of sin. It is one manifestation, but it is not the whole deal. The Bible does not say we have all been naughty and fallen short of the performance levels of God. Independent self-righteousness is red ink. You may prefer red, but it still covers the white of the page when splashed liberally onto it. Our righteousness is like filthy rags before a God who longs for hearts to not be far from Him. Some human sheets are mostly blue. Some are mostly red. None have any white showing. I am trying different ways to say the same thing: our sin is far worse than we realise!
3. When we see the problem as a hindrance rather than death. Broken will? Clouded uninformed mind? Slightly marred record? Sin goes deeper than all of this. The heart of the human sin problem is the human heart. That is where we are dead toward God, dead in our self-love, dead because life is found in relationship with God. And we cannot fix our own hearts. Fully dead in sin, and fully unable to do a thing about it.
If we present sin as petty naughtiness, then we will preach the good news that a petty God is willing to put up with our paperclip theft. Hardly the gospel. And if we preach a shallow or superficial portrait of sin, then we can very easily offer a gospel of heavenly benefits to people whose hearts remain far from Him. Is this not an anti-gospel?