A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Ryan Speck
I began reading Knowing Sin with a sense of trepidation. Those praising this work described it as “agonizingly comprehensive,” “unrelenting,” and “difficult” to read because it “brought with it conviction.” Who, then, would want to read such a book? Will it not expose sin in the reader’s heart? Will it not deepen the reader’s understanding of his own pernicious and heinous evil? Will it not drive the reader to agonizing conviction? Better not to read it, perhaps, right?
Should we also not read the Scriptures, then? Imagine a man fighting a deadly illness refusing to go to the doctor, lest he be properly diagnosed and cured. As Rosaria Butterfield points out in the Foreword, “Knowing Christ (which is also the title of a previous outstanding book by Mark Jones) requires that we know sin” (p. 9). If a doctor cures us of the sniffles, what do we really care? Yet, Christ provides the cure for the most insidious, hateful, and deadly evil. To appreciate this Gospel cure—to praise and glorify Christ rightly—we must know the evil in us that He has forgiven and cured. Sin is worse than you thought, and Christ is better. Read this book to rejoice more deeply in the cure that was greater than you imagined!
Each chapter contains note-worthy Puritan quotes, demonstrating Jones’ depth of research, which, apparently, he commands at his fingertips. Yet he is contemporary, with each subtitle referring to a specific modern song. Further, he displays a true pastor’s heart in providing varied, searching, and insightful applications throughout, driving us to Christ repeatedly.
The chapters are of varying quality. Some are stunningly insightful and convicting. Others are more general and seem less developed. However, each one is useful. Although Jones does not divide the book into sections (other than chapters), if I read it correctly, we can divide the book into three basic sections: (1) the origin and nature of sin (chapters 1-9), specific and pernicious sins (chapters 10-14), inward and misunderstood sin (chapters 15-18). Clearly, throughout, he is intent on addressing contemporary errors. However, it does seem, at times, that Jones is simply taking stabs at various issues, without a clear, systematic presentation. As valuable and useful as the book is, at times it seems slightly under-baked, as if a few more minutes in the oven, and it would have been perfect! Nonetheless, as it stands, it is an extremely valuable work. Perhaps, even, it is the gooey butter cake of books—slightly underdone, but better that way? Let the reader decide.
The Origin and Nature of Sin (Chapters 1-9)
In his introduction, Jones quotes Thomas Watson: “‘The more bitterness we taste in sin, the more sweetness we shall taste in Christ’” (p. 13). To be horrified by sin so that you rejoice all the more in Christ does, in fact, seem to be the motivation behind this book, and I think he has accomplished his goal.
In Chapter 1, Jones sets forth a standard, orthodox origin of sin, referring both to Satan and to Adam and Eve, concluding: “Yet we still find ourselves groping in the dark concerning sin’s origin. There seems to exist no logical or rational explanation for the origin of sin. The high-handed rebellion of Adam and Eve makes no sense to us … [however] what we cannot comprehend in our finite minds can be resolved in the mind of God” (pp. 21-22). While God sovereignly ordained it for good, Adam and Satan are held responsible, which is a lesson for us, who still sin. Thus, a child may not simply blame bad parents for his sin.
In Chapter 2, Jones explains the image of God, original sin, imputed guilt, the universality of sin, and total depravity. Regarding the last, he wrote: “As poison mixed in water affects every drop, all parts of the soul are affected by sin” (p. 35). He argues that Christians cannot be called “totally depraved” (p. 36), and drives the reader, born a sinner, to Christ.
In Chapter 3, Jones acknowledges that we know what sin does and that it is a breach of God’s law, but he asks the intriguing question: What exactly is sin itself? What is it intrinsically? What is it made of? In part, he answers: “Some have wrongly thought of sin as an alien substance that enters our being and defiles us. Sin indeed inhabits every one of us. But sin is not of the essence of human nature and is not a substance…. For sin to be a material or spiritual substance, one of two things must be true: God would have to be its cause, or He would have to be the creator of all things except sin. Both of these are impossible. Sin’s nature is, therefore, understood as an ethical problem, not a physical problem. Resulting from a disordered will that moves away from God, sin is privation but not negation. That a fish does not speak is a negation; that a human does not speak is a privation, since, ordinarily, a human is made to speak…. Think of a man with a broken leg trying to make his way to the hospital after a terrible accident. His walking is ‘walking’ (in action), but it is a malfunctioning, defective walk. Relating this concrete image to sin, the man actually walks in a deformed manner toward his executioner rather than toward his healer at the hospital since sin draws us away from good…. [citing Charnock] ‘The arm is not palsy, nor is the palsy the arm; but the palsy is a disease that cleaves to the arm. So sinfulness is a deformity that cleaves to an action” (pp. 39, 41-42, 48). Describing sin as a “parasite,” Jones explains: “Sin needed the good for its expression, for it only exists by and in connection and contrast with the good” (p. 43). Jones continues in this chapter to differentiate voluntary and involuntary sin (which has a direct bearing on the modern question of homosexual orientation). This is one of the most thought-provoking and profound chapters in the book, in my estimation, and is worthy of considerable contemplation.
In Chapter 4, Jones rejects the simplistic definition that sin is “missing the mark” and provides a “wide-ranging assortment of biblical descriptions,” both terms in the OT and NT. However, he does not develop the meaning of each term to any significant depth.
In Chapter 5, Jones deals with indwelling sin, citing Thomas Watson: “‘While we carry the fire of sin about us, we must carry the waters of tears to quench it’” (p. 61). Jones cites John Owen also: “There it dwells, and it is no wanderer. Wherever you are, whatever you are about, this law of sin is always in you; in the best that you do, and in the worst. Men little consider what a dangerous companion is always at home with them. When they are in company, when alone, by night or by day, all is one, sin is with them….” (p. 66). While distinguishing between outward and inward temptation, Jones concludes “that we have never done a sinless action all our life” so that we should acknowledge our desperate need of Christ at all times (p. 72).
Dealing in Chapter 6 with repentance, Jones declares: “Out of His grace, God preserves us from seeing ourselves in a manner that might cause an instant heart attack. But God also, according to His saving grace, allows His children to see themselves as sinners truly, albeit partially, that they may flee to Christ for cleansing and salvation” (p. 73). For, “Whatever actual sin we can conceive, the power to do so lies in each heart apart from the grace of God. There is no sin we could not theoretically commit…. Did you refrain from murdering someone today? Such restraint came from God whose grace alone kept you from prison and your upcoming murder trial…. It should humble us to the core to know that, given the right time and circumstances, we could have been a Hitler or a Stalin” (pp. 75-76, 80). Therefore, we must truly hate our sins and repent of them, which, as Watson puts it, “gives the soul a vomit” (p. 78). Jones provides five criteria for determining true repentance: (1) lamenting sin as sin, (2) grieving the offense to God, (3) being humbled by our sin, (4) finding comfort in Christ, and (5) sorrowing over all sins, big or little (pp. 78-79). Thus, Jones concludes by reminding the reader of John Newton’s confession: “‘I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior,” and by cautioning us that one sin “we cannot afford to commit” is refusing to repent and seek mercy in Christ (p. 81).
In Chapter 7, Jones explores the question Jeremiah Burroughs asks, namely: “Faced between choosing the smallest sin versus the greatest affliction, which should the Christian choose?” (p. 83). In fact, Burroughs adds another question, namely, if a Christian could save the whole world by committing one sin, should he? The answer to both questions is a resounding “No!” Why? Jones summarizes: “Choosing suffering over sin is better because all sin involves suffering anyway…. Part of the folly of sin concerns the assumption that it can be experienced without consequences…. Choosing suffering over sin is choosing to live like our Savior” (p. 89). Jones applies this teaching to abortion, theft, and lying.
In Chapter 8, Jones speaks of the need to deal with secret sins, which refers to sinning “without a formal awareness,” or “outside the public eye of the world,” or away “from any mortal’s eyes” (p. 93). Yet, as Thomas Watson warned, “‘You can never sin so privately, but that there are always two witnesses by: God and conscience’” (p. 94). Secret sins are deceitful in that we may congratulate ourselves for not actually sinning, while we are only kept from sin by fear of man and are strengthening lusts within. “In one sense, this is the problem for us: we cannot escape God’s eye. But in another sense, this is the solution: the God who sees immediately can cleanse and restore us” (p. 95). We must be appalled by and fight inward sins. For, in fact, this is the fiercest and most common battleground for every Christian. Yet, sadly, such sins are easier to ignore, since other people do not see them. Here is the test Jones presents, “Suppose all men in the world were in a dead sleep” (p. 98), what would you feel freed to do? Jones concludes: “Our secret sins are, in a certain sense, worse than those of non-Christians. That is because we have the power to resist sin and the knowledge that we commit our evil thoughts and actions while in union with Christ” (p. 99). Once again, Jones concludes by driving us to seek mercy and grace from Christ!
In Chapter 9, Jones deals with presumptuous sin, “a willing provocation against God [that] expects a free return of mercy in exchange” (p. 102). This is a sin that, as Sedgwick puts it, “‘tramples down the light of the word’” (p. 103). While the unbeliever has some natural knowledge and so sins presumptuously against that knowledge, the believer sins against the light of God’s Word and should always have a sense of “trepidation and reticence” to sin, even if “extremely weak” (p. 104). Presumptuous sin, for the believer, is the path to apostasy. Presuming upon God’s grace to grant repentance in the future is a deadly game. For, as Manton puts it, “‘Every day they sin away their tenderness’” (p. 107). Yet, according to the insidious nature of man’s heart, we tend to offset a presumptuous sin by doing good in another area. Jones applies presumptuous sin poignantly to driving after drinking, when sleepy, and while using a smartphone (p. 109).
Specific and Deadly Sins (Chapters 10-14)
While, no doubt, Jones has spoken of specific and deadly sins already, now, these five chapters each focus upon one, specific such sin. These are the most valuable chapters in the book for the preacher or anyone fighting these specific sins. I plan to return to these chapters when I preach or teach on any of these particular sins. For, Jones shows profound insight and provides painfully searching applications in each of these chapters.
In Chapter 10, Jones deals with the sin of pride, explaining: “Pride is a monstrous evil, containing all evils in it…. ‘The proud man is simply one who bends the knee and worships a more hateful idol than can ever be found in the whole catalogue of heathendom, and its name is “Self!”’” (pp. 111-12). This reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ portrayal of the demons tempting men, noting that the “Self” button on the tempting machine was front and center and well-worn. Further, “Self and sin are practically synonymous for the natural man. All of the violations of God’s commandments are expressions, in one way or another, of pride” (p. 112). As Richard Newton put it, “‘The beginning of pride was in heaven. The continuance of pride is on earth. The end of pride is in hell” (pp. 112-13). “Pride possesses a universal and omnivorous appetite, feasting on anything and everything. The drunkard looks for alcohol; the glutton looks for food; but pride is not limited to anything. Many sins require a context and matter (e.g., food, alcohol, sex), but pride requires little to no help from the material world” (pp. 116-17). God hates pride but “loves humility so much that He is more than willing to bless when the first sparks of a humble and contrite spirit fly upward toward heaven” (p. 119).
In Chapter 11, Jones handles the topic of self-love, distinguishing three types: natural, sinful, and gracious (p. 122). For the sinner, natural self-love has become sinful self-love. Since, “Sin and self are the same for the natural man” (p. 124), so that, as Sibbes remarks, “‘he is the idol and the idolater’” (p. 124). Sinful self-love actually manifests self-hatred, however, so that, “When tempted to sin, we should say to ourselves, ‘Why would you hate yourself so much as to do that?’” (p. 128).
In Chapter 12, Jones discusses envy, noting: “Indeed, this sin brings no enjoyment or satisfaction at all, but that does not keep us from committing it. Such is the madness of sin” (p. 132). Only the Christian can be satisfied and content, knowing God is in control. Why envy others, when the good things that happen to others might even be intended by God to be a curse for them, and if we received them, we might be cursed by them too? Yet, as Christians, even our trials are intended for our blessing! Jones concludes: “It is a disposition which can never be satisfied, so long as there is a superior being in the universe. It is aimed ultimately at the throne of God, and the envious person can never be happy while God reigns” (p. 137).
Chapter 13 deals with the first and worst sin of all sins, unbelief. It is “the sum and substance of our problem as humans” (p. 139). Can simple unbelief be so very wicked? Jones responds: “God gave His best in providing His Son for our sins, so rejecting Him is the worst thing we, the worst people, can do. Unbelief against Christ and God spits on God’s best (see Matt. 26:67)…. Unbelief, Charnock observed, ‘fling[s] dust in the face of all those attributes which were illustrious in the work of redemption: of his wisdom which contrived it, of his righteousness which executed it, of his mercy which is infinitely commended by it, of his truth which is engaged to make good the intent and purchase of it to every one that believes…. Not only is unbelief a devilish sin, but it is worse than that of the devils. The fallen angels never received an offer of mercy like those who hear and refuse the good news to sinners. As Charnock notes, the devils can say, ‘We did indeed refuse the cover of the wings of the Son of God. But we never refused a Christ bearing our sins in our nature, for none was offered to us, after the experience of the misery of our first contempt. Can any such plea be made by an unbeliever under the sound of the gospel?’” (p. 147).
Interestingly, in Chapter 14, Jones singles out the sin of manipulation. “But what is manipulation? It is a form of control. Arising out of our sin nature emerges the desire to be in control, which often involves wielding power over others whether physically, mentally, or emotionally” (p. 149). After reading this insightful chapter, I was forced to re-examine my life to discover how I was sinning in this way! This sin is insidious. In fact, one method of manipulation is to play the victim—even when you have been a victim! Rather, if we want to convince others: “Die to yourself by living for Christ and others” (p. 155). For, “The gospel is anti-manipulation” (p. 156).
Inward and Misunderstood Sin (Chapters 15-18)
How many Christians recognize that their involuntary thoughts are still sin? Or that inward temptations differ from outward? Or that there are lesser and greater sins? Or that sins of omission are damnable? Jones makes clear and helpful distinctions regarding sin in these final chapters.
In Chapter 15, Jones addresses the sin-life of the mind, which includes involuntary thoughts: “As Charnock argues, ‘Voluntariness is not necessary to the essence of sin, though it be to the aggravation of it.’ We must set certain boundaries for our thoughts, and our failure to guard them is our responsibility before God and His Word. Even when a thought springs up, as it were, without our formal consent, we cannot excuse ourselves if that thought is in violation of God’s will. The Christian is to ‘take every thought captive to obey Christ’ (2 Cor. 10:5)” (p. 160). Yet, relishing sinful thoughts is far worse than rejecting spontaneous, sinful thoughts. “Now, it is ordinarily impossible to have an inclination to something without some pleasure, even if it is a small degree…. Even when we hate sin, we still hate sin imperfectly” (p. 161). If an outward act of sin is characterized as whoredom in Scripture, then the inward delight of sin is incest (p. 162)—which goes a long way towards explaining James 1:13-15. We may also sin by reliving sinful acts with renewed delight in them, or by thinking “unseasonably” of good things. “Charnock argues that sinful thinking brings us into ‘the nearest communion with the devil’” (p. 164). Jones applies this teaching by noting how ashamed we would be if our sinful thoughts were played out for all to see on YouTube, comforting us in the knowledge that “God has more thoughts toward us of mercy, love, and goodness than we have of rebellion toward Him,” and urging us to “think of God often so that good replaces evil” (pp. 165-66).
In Chapter 16, Jones deals with the issue of temptation, defined by Owen as “‘any thing, state, or condition that, upon any account whatever, has a force or efficacy to seduce, to draw the mind and heart of man away from its obedience, which God requires of him, into any sin, in any degree of it whatever’” (pp. 168-169). “If Peter could fall into temptation, even in the presence of Jesus Himself, are we safe?” (p. 168). Acknowledging our weakness goes a long way towards fortifying us against temptation. For, “temptations take us away from Christ but also take our eyes off of Christ once we fall into them” (p. 169). As Owen remarked, “‘A man knows not the pride, fury, madness of a corruption, until it meet with a suitable temptation’” (p. 169). Jones distinguishes outward and inward temptation and reveals five devices used by Satan to tempt us. To defend against temptation, we must make use of the means of grace and always look to Jesus for help in time of need.
In Chapter 17, Jones proves from Scripture that there are lesser and greater sins, but he argues we all understand this instinctively. In this chapter, Jones notes eight ways in which we can aggravate our sin.
In his final chapter, Jones focuses our attention on sins of omission. As the joke made by lazy people goes, “Why are people upset with us? We haven’t done anything!” Yet, “People will enter everlasting torment not only because of what they have done, but also because of what they have not done” (p. 186). Failing to honor and worship God, failing to read His Word, failing to pray to Him, etc.—these are all sins of omission, which are truly damnable. This is an argument I have used in evangelism, whenever men seek to vindicate themselves as “good people.” Thus, “We need to drink in God’s Word and flush out the sinful toxins of fleshly thoughts and temptations” (p. 190). Concluding this chapter, Jones summarizes the force of his entire book: “That anyone could think they can stand before God and enter eternal life on the basis of their own obedience, even in the slightest way, testifies to the marvel of human madness. Our sins are as numerous as the sands of the sea, but Christ’s perfect, complete righteousness answers to this predicament. No one else can or will offer you what Christ alone can. Whether you are a Christian or a non-Christian, your greatest need is the One who came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15)” (p. 192).
This book is insightful, thought-provoking, and profoundly convicting, driving the reader time and time again to the mercy of Christ. We need not fear discerning the depths and heinousness of our sins if we trust in the abundant mercy of Christ.
Yet, at times, it is difficult to understand why Jones makes one application and not another. It is difficult to discern the flow of the book or its systematic organization. In that sense, it feels like a shotgun blast, scattering bullets everywhere. Yet, as a shotgun blast is most effective for its purpose, so too is this book overall most effective in exposing our sin and driving us to Christ. Therefore, I highly recommend this work as a valuable, and much-needed, expose on sin, which so many seem to be more than happy simply to sweep under the rug and ignore, which is tantamount to ignoring the profound mercy we have in Christ!
Buy the books
KNOWING SIN: SEEING A NEGLECTED DOCTRINE THROUGH THE EYES OF THE PURITANS, by Mark Jones