One of the rejoinders we’ve already begun to hear in the face of egregious sin is downplaying one’s culpability. There are many ways the accused seek to lessen the impact of their sin. If we’re self-reflective, we all must admit we make the same arguments all the time. We try to focus on aspects surrounding our sin instead of the sin itself. We speak of our motives or our intentions, and we attempt to discard the effect our actions have on others.
There are many ways the accused seek to lessen the impact of their sin. If we’re self-reflective, we all must admit we make the same arguments all the time.
Scripture doesn’t allow us to be so dismissive. Sin is sin. Its heinousness is only made more severe by our underlying motivations or intentions—not less so because “we meant well” or other such reasons we offer.
No, biblically speaking, we may analyze our response to abuse—and evaluate every action we take—on the basis of at least five ethical considerations.
We always do what we want. We have a motivation behind all we do. It can be a sinful motive or a selfless and holy motive. A sinful action is made more sinful by sinful motives.
Take for instance this internal motive: “I lied to protect my own neck; I don’t care about the harm I’ll cause.” Seldom do we admit something so baldly, and yet, we can easily see how the sinful motive of self-preservation makes the sin itself (lying) more odious.
Motivation is only ever an aggravator of sin, never a mitigator, but we often attempt to use it as the latter: “My motives were pure, therefore my actions must be pure too.” Sadly, this is not so. Pure motives cannot rehabilitate violations of God’s law.
We can intend a good outcome though we’re motivated by sin. I can bring my wife flowers (a good act) aimed at genuinely blessing her (a good intention toward her) but with the self-serving purpose of getting her off my back for something I refuse to repent of (wicked motive). Other combinations are possible as well. I can have a good motive for a sinful act because I believe the ends justify the means. For example, I may tell a “little white lie” to prevent harm when asked, “Does this outfit look good?” But we can never use sinful means to accomplish good ends; good intentions don’t baptize bad behavior.
As with motives, intentions are aggravators, not mitigators. Bad intentions only make disobeying God’s law more sinful. And a disobedient act is not made less sinful because harm wasn’t intended. Consider Job’s terrible friends. The Bible tells us they wanted to comfort and bless Job in his suffering (Job 2:11), but their words of intended sympathy receive the sharpest of rebukes from the Lord (Job 42:7–9). How often do we try to minimize harm done to someone by appealing to our intentions? “I didn’t mean to sin against you in that way”—as though this somehow makes the sin acceptable. Again, it does not.
Actions themselves are either moral, immoral, or amoral. Our actions in word and deed must be assessed by the explicit commands of Scripture alone. Does God say the behavior is sinful or not? Even amoral matters may be sinful in one circumstance and acceptable in another (e.g., eating food sacrificed to idols, 1 Cor. 8:7–13). We’re well served when we’re willing to look at what we’ve said or done full in the face. Then, on the merits of the action alone, we should say, “I sinned. Will you please forgive me?” More often than not, we skirt the issue by pointing to motive and intention instead.
The outcome of our sin must also be recognized. Sinful actions can produce sinful results. For example, I may have pure motives and holy intentions but still harm a brother or sister. In such a scenario, we must recognize the harm done. This happens in arguments between spouses all the time: “I wasn’t angry at you (motive), and while I didn’t mean to raise my voice (intent), I did speak harshly (action) and I hurt you with my words (effect). Would you please forgive me?”
Regardless of the other person’s perception, our action has a measurable result. The effect on the other person should be sufficient to warrant our grief, sorrow, and repentance.
Regardless of the four factors above, Scripture calls us to take care with others’ perceptions (e.g., the discussions about weaker brothers in 1 Cor. 8 and Rom. 14; “abstain from all appearance of evil” in 1 Thess. 5:22, KJV). We can take this category too far and make ourselves slaves to others’ consciences, but there’s still a place to honor another’s understanding of a situation. If I don’t believe I’ve sinned against my wife, I still need to hear her, listen to her, search myself, and ask, “Is there anything in what she’s saying I can repent of? Lord, search me, know me, and find any impure way in me.” A truly repentant person will want to know how the wronged party perceives the situation to hear if he or she perceives additional sin beyond what the sinner perceives. A truly repentant person will say, “Let a righteous man strike me. . . . Let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it” (Ps. 141:5).
A truly repentant person will want to know how the wronged party perceives the situation to hear if he or she perceives additional sin beyond what the sinner perceives.
At a time when it can be easy to downplay and dismiss sin, may the Lord call each of us to a more robust appreciation of our sin’s offensiveness. May he keep us from making excuses for our actions based on good motives or pure intentions. Instead, may we examine our actions, or lack thereof, and learn to sincerely care about the effect our behaviors have on others. May we never discount another’s perceptions because we’re right in our own eyes. Instead, let us humble ourselves before God’s holy law, and let us never say, “There is no sin in us” (1 John 1:8,10).
Keith A. Evans is professor of Biblical Counseling and director of the Biblical Counseling Institute at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Prior to becoming a full-time professor, he ministered in Lafayette, Indiana, as pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Lafayette. He and his wife Melissa have four daughters and attend Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania. He is currently a PhD candidate in Biblical Counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a ThM in Christian Ethics.