Do you remember the first time you sinned?

Posted by Jeffrey West on November 29, 2016

Do you remember the first time you sinned?

I wonder if I have turned you off by the very first sentence of this article. Shouldn’t I ease into this and talk about something a little less provocative than…sin?

Or maybe you don’t view sin as provocative. You have a lot of problems in life and frankly, sin isn’t one of them. “We’re all human” as the expression goes — everyone understands mistakes and you’ve made it this far in life without making too many. If everyone is a sinner, does it even matter?

Sin is where this story starts. Looking backwards, I’m dumbfounded that I didn’t realize it sooner.

Who I was

Do I remember when I first became aware of my sin? If you were raised in the Lutheran church like me, you probably had a keen awareness of sin from an early age. Each and every Sunday the pastor leads the congregation in a common liturgy of call and response:

We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

I honestly looked forward to this part of the service because of what came next — the blessed declaration of forgiveness: “As a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Amen and amen! Even as an elementary school kid I needed those words. The confession was far too condemning to me. While I felt powerless to please God by doing good, the public confession required me to have perfect thoughts, too? Impossible. Every week I tried to go as long as I could without an impure thought against God after that pronunciation of forgiveness by our pastor, but that never lasted very long.

Awareness comes before forgiveness

That confession is a beautiful reminder of God’s forgiveness. From the Scriptures, we do know that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) But I have talked to so many people who don’t even feel the need for that forgiveness.

How can we hope to be forgiven if we aren’t even aware of our sin? A man must have an awareness of his sin before he can desire to be forgiven of his sin. Even though I looked forward to that point of absolution each Sunday morning, I still tended to compare myself to others. I didn’t skip church as much as some of the guys in my youth group and I didn’t get mixed up with girls, alcohol, or drugs. As long as I stayed the course, I could relieve some of my guilt by comparing myself to others, who in my estimation were doing worse.

This is an all-too-common theme of mankind. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who would admit to being more sinful than the people around him. Even the world’s master criminals think highly of themselves.

The mind of a criminal

What is the mind of a criminal like? The warden of New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison, Lewis Lawes has been quoted saying “few of the criminals in Sing Sing regard themselves as bad men. They are just as human as you and I. So they rationalize, they explain. They can tell you why the had to crack a safe or be quick on the trigger finger. Most of them attempt by a form of reasoning, fallacious or logical, to justify their antisocial acts even to themselves, consequently stoutly maintaining that they should never have been imprisoned at all.”

Al Capone, the American gangster during the Prohibition responsible for so much violence and lawlessness, said of his life, “I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of hunted man.”

“Two Gun” Crowley, the heinous criminal master-mind and cop-killer of the 1930’s, also had a disarming view of himself. “Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one – one that would do nobody harm.”

Everyone lives by a moral code, even those in prison. An article in Psychology Today [1] tried to get the bottom of this surprisingly common phenomenon. One of the murderers interviewed said “If I thought of myself as evil, I couldn’t live,” and another stated, “just because I killed someone doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.” They cite various reasons for their view of themselves. Sometimes they view their acts as just, against people who deserve it. Or they point to external causes for their “goodness,” like their religious practices: attending church, reading the Bible, wearing a religious symbol. Sometimes others will commend them for a special talent or creativity in their life.

Most of us genuinely believe we are good, decent people. Sure, we have our flaws, but we could be much worse. And hey, we try really hard to do good by others. Criminals are no different. They have the same mentality, truly believing that they aren’t “that bad.”

If no one considers themselves to be bad, how can anyone be good?

We are so quick to justify ourselves. We claim to be rule followers while finding a thousand excuses when we bend the rules or cut corners. We say, “No one saw me do it.” Or “No one got hurt.” Or “I didn’t mean to do it.” Or “I only did it once.” The excuses are at-the-ready. I subconsciously do this everyday, too.

CH Spurgeon says, “Yet, strange infatuation! Like the fascination which attracts the gnat to the candle, though it burns its wings, men by nature fly to the law for salvation, and cannot be kept from seeking life by it.”

The elephant in the room

Once we are aware of wrongdoing, it’s like an elephant in the room. You can’t get it out of your mind. You’re forced to suppress it or deal with it. How does God snap us out of our own self-absorption and unwind us from our spiral into self-justification?

He uses the law. The very means we used to buoy our own egos is used by God to condemn.

Let’s return to the familiar story of the first sin. When Adam and Eve came onto the scene, what were the laws? In fact, there was only one: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Gen. 2:16-17)

One rule isn’t that hard to follow, right?


After sinning, their awareness of sin brings them shame and nakedness before God. This is the elephant in the room. Before we realize our sinfulness we are quick to claim ourselves as rule-followers. Once we realize our sin we flee and hide from the law. It’s all too much to bear. We search for anything to cover our mistakes: fig leaves for Adam and Eve; lies, deception, and hasty promises of ‘next time’ for us.

Who I am

We have a straightforward narrative of the incarnation in Luke 19:10: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” In the purposes of God, Jesus become flesh for two reasons: to seek and to save.

Imagine a group of hikers traveling up a mountain when one member of the group decides the going is all too much and turns around homeward. On his return he takes a shortcut, jumping from ledge to ledge. Eventually he arrives at a precipice too high up for the next jump but also doesn’t have the strength to retreat back to the higher ledge and try a new path.

He’s stuck on the ledge.

Worse, though, no one knows.

This man needs both saving and seeking. Someone must become aware of his predicament in order to save him. This scenario is useful to describe the nature of man’s relationship to sin, but falls short in one important detail. Before God makes us aware of our sin, we don’t even realize that we are living on a dangerous ledge on the side of the mountain with the clock ticking before darkness comes, our limited food supply runs out, and we march toward slow death. Sin makes this ledge appear as a four-star ski resort on that mountain with no worries and endless pleasures and joy.

As suddenly as a room is lit with the flip of a switch, I became aware of my sinfulness when I truly grasped the holiness of God. I don’t measure up to the standard of perfection. Brothers & sisters, we needn’t justify ourselves by own actions, because it’s a hopeless pursuit. In the slippery slope of comparing our good (or bad) deeds to one another, none of us measure up to Jesus Christ’s example. Luckily for us, we don’t have to. That’s the gospel. After seeking you by bringing an awareness of sin, Jesus continues by saving you, to the uttermost.

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”

Let us be free from our self-justifications and just cling to Christ’s life of righteousness that God counts as our own. This will be the life-blood that fuels our repentance to live a life that is pleasing to God!

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