There is None Righteous, No, Not One
Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins. Ecclesiastes 7:20NAS
Question 149 of the Larger Catechism asks, “Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?” It gives the answer, “No man is able, either of himself, or by any grace received in this life, perfectly to keep the commandments of God; but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed.” Last time we looked at how the tenth commandment directly forbids sinful thoughts. Today we consider the impossibility of perfectly keeping any of the commandments.
Two thoughts immediately come to the unbelieving mind upon reading this question from the Catechism. First, he does not believe it. He does not really believe that he is a sinner in terms of the full Biblical import of that word: that he loves evil in his heart; but, in fact, he judges himself to be good. If there is one thing that our generation is pretty confident about concerning humanity, it is that most people are basically good. Even when I or someone like me does something bad, wicked, or hurtful, we chalk it up to processes and circumstances beyond our control, right? “I know I should not have said that, I should not have done that, but I’ve been under a lot of stress lately: the woman in the drive-thru was terribly rude to me; plus my wife was pushing all of my buttons this morning; then I had to discipline the kids twice before breakfast; they barely made the bus, etc. etc.” In other words, “It’s not my fault. It’s not that I love evil in my heart. There were just too many obstacles for my innate goodness to overcome. I’m basically good but I’m too weak in the face of such fierce opposition. In fact, I’m the real victim here!”
Second, if once he is made to see that he is not able to perfectly keep God’s commandments, the unbeliever demurs, “Well, that only proves how unfair God is to require them.” So either I am not responsible for my sins, or if I am, it is due to God’s overbearing strictness in requiring a standard too difficult for anyone to meet. Thus, unbelievers do not come to God for grace through Christ because they do not think they need it. They do not see how much they sin, how terribly evil those sins are, nor how incapable they are to do anything to make up for them. They view God’s commandments superficially or with contempt.
But what does the believer think, the person who has come to Christ for grace and salvation? Throughout history there have been various groups that have held out and taught the possibility for Christians to be without sin one way or another. Roman Catholic sainthood and Wesleyan Holiness are two of the more well-known ways whereby an adherent, through the use of much grace, is said to be able to achieve a kind of sinless state in this life. However, even apart from some formal doctrine of perfection, most forms of Christianity do not adequately stress the pervasiveness of human sin. Shortly after my own conversion, I remember walking up to the garage to get my car one afternoon thinking, “Today would be a good day to die, because I have not sinned for weeks!” Coming to faith and fellowshipping in circles where repentance was viewed as more or less what the unbeliever did in his conversion experience, something that you did once and then it was done; I had no idea how pervasive my sinfulness was.
Reformed Theology begins with an acknowledgement of our total depravity. In the first of his ninety-five theses, Martin Luther declared that repentance was the way of life for the believer. We never get done repenting because we are never without sin in this life, and by definition, only the Christian seeks to be. Similarly, the Catechism states that we all daily break the commandments in thought, word, and deed. Even for the most ardent believer in Christ, everything he does is still tainted by his sinfulness. Consider. Our Lord Jesus Christ taught that the greatest commandment is to love God with all of the heart, soul, mind, and strength. If I am truly honest with myself, even during the best five minutes of my most sincere works for Christ, I have not done that. I could have loved God a little more; I could have resisted that little bit of pride and selfishness that snuck in at this or that moment. May God grant us greater awareness and honesty when it comes to our own personal sins, so that we might more humbly seek His grace in the Christian life, which is repentance.