The Good that God makes of Our Sense of Personal Sinfulness
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28 is the classic text that assures me of the powerful grace of God. There is no doubt in my mind that God is able to bring about good out of every situation in my life. However, I do not know how he does that with my sin. The day-to-day struggle with pride, fear, anxiety, lust and discontentment (just to mention a few) has brought regrets and shame. But what is the good that God is accomplishing?
In his book, All Things for Good (first published in 1663 as, A Divine Cordial), Thomas Watson has given me deeper insight into “knowing” some of the good that God brings out of a sense of my own sinfulness. He is careful to warn: “This must be understood warily, when I say the sins of the godly work for good – not that there is the least good in sin. . . . Sin is worse than hell, but yet God, by his mighty overruling power, makes sin in the issue turn to the good of his people.” Augustine said, “God will never permit evil, if he could not bring good out of evil.” Watson lists several ways in which our feeling of sinfulness works for good.
First, sin makes us weary of this life. “That sin is in the godly is sad, but that it is a burden is good.” The Apostle Paul exclaimed, “What a wretched man that I am! Who shall rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). “A believer carries his sin as a prisoner carries his shackles; oh, how does he long for the day of release!”
Second, sin makes the saint treasure Christ more. “He that feels his sin, as a sick man feels his sickness, how welcome is Christ the physicians to him! He that feels himself stung with sin, how precious is the brazen serpent to him? (see Numbers 21:4-9). When Paul had cried out of a body of death, how thankful was he for Christ!” “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25).
Third, the sense of sin works for good because it gives opportunity for six special duties.
1. This sense of sin demands that we search our souls. “The child of God desires to know the worst of himself; as a man who is diseased in body desires to know the worst of his disease. Though our joy lies in the knowledge of our graces, yet there is some benefit in the knowledge of our corruptions. It is good to know our sins, that we may not flatter ourselves, or take our condition to be better than it is.”
2. This sense of sin demands that we humble ourselves. Sin is left in our lives to keep us from being proud. “Gravel and dirt are good to ballast a ship, and keep it from overturning; the sense of sin helps to ballast the soul, that it be not overturned with vain glory. . . . Better is that sin which humbles me, than that duty which makes me proud.”
3. This sense of sin demands that we judge ourselves. “If we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment.” (1 Corinthians 11:31). “It is time for judgment to begin with the family of God.” (1 Peter 4:17). “It is dangerous to judge others, but it is good to judge ourselves. . . . When a man has judged himself, Satan is put out of office.”
4. This sense of sin demands that we battle our old sin nature. There is a duel fought every day between the two natures: the Spirit-filled self and the carnal self. A child of God will not allow sin to reside peacefully in his life. “If he cannot keep sin out, he will keep sin under; though he cannot quite overcome, yet he is overcoming.”
5. This sense of sin demands that we be vigilant in watching ourselves. “The heart is like a castle that is in danger every hour to be assaulted; this makes a child of God to be always a sentinel, and keep a guard about his heart.” “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (Proverbs 4:23).
6. This sense of sin demands that we seek the renewal of God. “A child of God not only finds out sin, but drives out sin. One foot he sets upon the neck of his sins, and the other foot he turns to follow God’s Word (Psalm 119:59).”
Watson is careful to warn that these truths be not abused. “I do not say that sin works for good to an impenitent person. No, it works for his damnation, but it works for good to them that love God; and for you that are godly, I know that you will not draw a wrong conclusion from this, either to make light of sin or to make bold with sin. If you should do so, God will make it cost you dear. . . . He may put [you] into such bitter agonies and soul-convulsions, as may fill [you] full of horror, and make [you] draw nigh to despair. Let this be a flaming sword to keep [you] from coming near the forbidden tree.”