In recent years evangelical Christians have become hip, smart, intellectual, and artsy. We have courted the culture and won the right to participate in everything from discussing the ethics of SUV driving to touting a presidential candidate. We have become culturally savvy.

Having a voice and being competent in the world is not necessarily unspiritual. A calling to understand this present world and being given opportunities to do important human things in it are graces from God. But we must be careful. Participating skillfully in the world can obscure foundational truths about our relationship to God. Worldly opportunities can so tempt us to believe a false picture of ourselves that we become self-satisfied and spiritually dull.

But “spiritual” opportunities can do the same thing. This is the twisted irony of sin. What appear to be spiritual or religious motives can dull us to the truth about ourselves. We can delude ourselves with supposedly spiritual customs and vocabulary that are really grounded in self-righteous religiosity. A religious worldview can disguise a commitment to the world.

Problem: self-satisfied and deluded

Our vulnerability to the temptation of wanting this world to fulfill us is not surprising. We are creatures made to live in this world. The first humans felt at home working in this world because they were a part of it. This connection between us creatures and the created world makes it possible for us to draw a measure of fulfillment from this present life.

But being self-satisfied in this present existence can be a spiritual mistake with eternal implications. Because we are rebellious creatures, satisfaction with ourselves or with our accomplishments can indicate that we do not understand the real tragedy of our spiritual condition. In effect, our tangible effectiveness in this world infatuates us, and we lose sight of what the Scriptures say about us: although we were created for glory and fulfillment, we are horribly corrupt at the core of our beings.

Solution: becoming sinners

The antidote for blindly grabbing the allurements this world and the flesh offer us is to become sinners. But we already know we are all sinners, right? The Scriptures make the doctrine of human sin very clear. But have we come to terms with what it means to be a sinner? And do we keep coming to terms with it? Immersed as we are in this earthly life and enticed by the subtly seductive powers at work in world, have we come to terms with the truth that we are radically different from the moral and spiritual creatures we ought to be?

These questions have become very personal recently, as I have studied the Gospel of John and have seen how much time Jesus spent teaching men and women to “become sinners.” This theme emerges repeatedly in Jesus’ interactions and debates with His audiences. Jesus addressed many people—His disciples, the Jewish crowds, the religious establishment, and pagan gentiles. They had different agendas and expectations, but they all had two things in common: they did not understand Him, and they did not understand the true depth of their sin.

Jesus’ view of human existence was profoundly different from that of the people He taught, as their responses to Him showed. At the least, Jesus’ person and teachings puzzled them. At the worst, what Jesus said outraged them. Nicodemus, the great teacher of Israel, was drawn to Jesus and his words, but Jesus’ teaching deeply perplexed him. The woman at the well in Samaria didn’t understand at first what Jesus said to her, but finally what He offered drew her to Him. The religious elite in Jerusalem could not get over Jesus’ disregard for their traditions in favor of what He constantly referred to as “the truth He conveyed from the Father.”

Religion: can reveal or obscure sin

Although the religious leaders (Pharisees, priests, Sadducees, and so forth) who confronted Jesus were deceived about many things, they were most profoundly blind to their own sin. The way they used their religion to obscure and excuse their sin revealed this devastating blindness. Even though they possessed all the special revelation they needed in order to know how truly alien from the ways of God their lives and religious practices were, the posture of their hearts toward God warped their perceptions and lead them to conclude that playing the game of Israel’s religion was all that God asked of them.

John, chapter eight, shows Jesus confronting their religiosity head on. Jesus had been saying that His teaching came directly from the Father, and then he said, “If you abide [continue] in my word [teachings], then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth [of what I am teaching] will make you free” (8:31). The Pharisees responded, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone…” (8:33). Their arrogance was monumental. At that very moment, they were “slaves” of Rome! But Jesus was not referring to the slavery of one man over another; He was pointing to the more profound and tragic slavery endemic to fallen human beings. Jesus replied, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” (8:34).

Immersed as they were in the powerful religious and cultural atmosphere created by hundreds of years of accumulated Judaic religious tradition, Jesus’ opponents could not see the truth to which He was pointing. Through the darkened “eyes of their hearts,” what Jesus taught seemed both implausible and dangerous. And the innate self-deception of their rebellious human souls allowed them to use this seeming implausibility to excuse their opposition to Jesus in their own eyes. By their reasoning, the fact that Jesus (and John the Baptist before Him) would accuse the pious Jewish leaders of being sinners who needed to repent seemed ludicrous.

What was true of the Pharisees can also be true of Christians. Our pious daily and weekly practices can express our true understanding of our profound need before God, or, like those of Jesus’ opponents, they can manifest self-deceit. Sin—the corruption and evil within us—lies deep, hiding by its power to blind us from ourselves. We can “cruise” with our daily Christian habits without realizing we have slipped into a mode of existence wherein our religiosity thrives but our true moral and spiritual condition is dull and, in fact, hostile toward God. We, like the religious Pharisees, must see through our religious habits and culture to the condition of our own hearts. Before we can drink the mercy of God, the deep realization of our abiding unrighteousness must make us spiritually thirsty.

We so easily deceive ourselves. We might ask, “How could I be like a Pharisee? I am doing everything my religion tells me to do. I practice the orthodox Christian life sincerely. I am committed to the truths of the church and Christianity, and I have conformed my lifestyle to them. I believe fervently in the moral universe God has made.” But I believe Jesus would respond to the mentality behind such a question by saying, “Do you understand your evil and that I could not care less about your religious practices? Don’t you understand that you have used those practices to turn your relationship to me into something you can accomplish? You need to become a sinner. I came to help those who understand they are spiritually sick and who embrace the fact that they desperately need what only I can offer.”

Paul’s testimony to us

Perhaps the most succinct and powerful testimonial to what I am calling the necessity of “becoming sinners” is found Romans, chapter seven. Here the Apostle Paul clearly writes that he had become despairingly aware of sin’s radical darkness imbedded at the core of his being. From birth, Paul had been raised feeling secure in Israel’s religion and the dictates of the Law, whose requirements he followed diligently, basing his life and hope in them. But, he writes, his successful religious life and scrupulous Law-keeping had obscured the fact that he was deeply unrighteous.

Paul’s religious experience had oriented him correctly toward his Creator, but he had not let his theologically correct Judaism teach him the necessary beginning point for a true relationship to God: he had to become a sinner in his own eyes. Although Paul understood the concept of sin that his religious culture had given him, he needed to let the Law penetrate his superficial understanding and make him into a real sinner. Paul had been blind to the nature and power of the sin within him, and this same vulnerability besets all people in their religious efforts. By hiding its reality and power from us, sin operates to steal our souls.

God’s loving work

God must “make us sinners” in our own eyes. He does this most often by lovingly—albeit disturbingly—showing us how sin operates in everyday living. God has used a very mundane experience to show me how powerful and deep the reality of sin is in my own life.

Most of my driving destinations in Eugene require me to use a particular freeway. So, almost daily, I turn left at a local traffic light to enter a two-lane on-ramp where I must compete with other drivers for position as the two lanes merge into one that enters the freeway. Inevitably, one or more of those other drivers accelerates his car aggressively and maneuvers unnecessarily to get ahead of me and others. And without exception, I become outraged to the point of spewing anger and verbal insults, the likes of which I am genuinely ashamed. Even when I am able to control my muttering speech, I have been literally astounded by the degree of competitiveness, anger, and vitriol I find clattering out of me. This mundane occurrence has turned into an amazingly poignant lesson about the nature and reality of my sin. Almost every day, God uses it to remind me that I am a sinner.

This is my point: The Scriptures do not lie when they portray humanity as deceitful, rebellious, lost sinners. And Jesus aptly described our true character when he said (regarding the pious Pharisees), “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts and fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries…. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mark 7:20-23).

Jesus’ words help us see how our sinful hearts, profoundly alienated from God’s enlightening truth, delude us. Seeing our spiritual failure often helps us to also see the true, radical nature of the Gospel. Our moral and spiritual failure, our being sinners, puts us just where God wants us—in desperate need and aware that if He (and He alone) does not fix what is wrong, we are lost.