The Apostle John writes, “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” And the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sin as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” Early in my comprehension as a Reformed believer, this criteria for determining whether or not an action was sinful was mistakenly understood as a definition of the essence of sin. Sin was wrong, in this view, because it simply violated what God commanded. And nothing else really mattered.
This was right, to a degree, of course. We must obey God and all disobedience is, by definition, sinful.
But this way of looking at God so exclusively tended to submerged all His holy character under the aspect of power. All ethics boiled down to the fact that God gave orders and He can unimaginably punish anyone who disobeys.
When the Apostle Paul spells out the apostasy of the human race, he points out that it is fundamentally ungrateful. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” And this new awareness in my life was helped a great deal by the Heidelberg Catechism and its dynamic of grace and gratitude. This same content is also in the Westminster Standards, but Heidelberg was used in God’s providence to help me notice it.
This, again, was right, to a degree. God is the giving God (James 1.5). He never asks anyone to obey him whom he has not already loaded down with good gifts. He makes us first, before we can obey, and establishes us as Lords of Creation before making any demands of us. Even when Moses put “life and death” before the Israelites (Deuteronomy 30), the fact is that God has already given the Israelites life both natural and supernatural by rescuing them from slavery by miracles.
But this way of looking at God so exclusively, tended to leave creatures with a “suck it up” commission. No matter what God puts us through or assigns to us, we must “suck it up” because we are getting better than we deserve. How dare we be unsatisfied with what God demands? Are we not grateful enough? John Piper talks about this as a “debtor’s ethic,” and points out some problems that it can lead to.
The Fall of the Human race occurred when our parents stopped trusting that God meant well for them. We see this over and over in the Bible. In Genesis we see the patriarch’s had to trust amazingly grand and glorious promises that they never saw come to fruition in their life times. Indeed, in many cases, unless one trusted that God’s promises were good, one would have relatively little to be thankful for. And Israel’s failure in the wilderness was, time and again, a failure to trust that God would keep his promises to them.
Paul sometimes does use grattitude to motivate Christian behavior, but in explaining why Christians must obediently endure in the face of suffering, he never tells anyone to “suck it up” because they actually deserve worse and they need to be grateful that the didn’t get what they deserve. On the contrary, he motivates believers by assuring them that God is being faithful to them even in the midst of suffering–”for those who love God all things work together for good.”
When people disobey God, it is because they don’t trust Him. Like Satan told Eve, they think God is all about power and all about making unreasonable demands rather than about loving his children and caring for them. But God assures us that he knows what is good and right for us. He cares about us. He is faithful/trustworthy. Any response to him but faith and trust is an outrageous attack on his character.
These three are one
These different ways of looking at the nature of sin, are not in competition to one another. I did not leave “law” behind to accept “gratitude” and then abandon it for “faith.” The law reveals the commands of a generous God who has done much for us and who promises us much more. Law, gratitude, and faith go together. But in terms of motivation and understanding God’s character, I do believe that faith should be given prominence among the three.