Sin, the Teacher

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Recently, a discussion arose in a particular Facebook Group over the history and validity of slavery in the United States. Some were arguing for its utter perversity. Others were claiming that it was not as bad as it is made out to be. In the midst of this debate, one individual dropped a startling comment: “Calvinists will defend [slavery]. They have to.”

As a Calvinist, I have never felt the desire or the compulsion to defend slavery. When I sought clarity on the statement, the commenter told me that Calvinists have to defend slavery because Jonathan Edwards, “their idol,” owned slaves. His reasoning was simple, if deeply flawed. Premise A: Calvinists hold Jonathan Edwards in high regard. Premise B: Jonathan Edwards owned slaves. Conclusion: Calvinists must approve of Jonathan Edwards’s attitude toward slavery and “have to” therefore defend it.

In this commenter’s mind, holding a religious forebear in high regard is to idolise that person, and since we surely only worship those who do not struggle with sin, we cannot speak disapprovingly of the sins of those we respect. We must defend them. The writer of Psalm 78 would have something to say about that.

Psalm 78 is the longest in the Psalter next to Psalm 119. It recounts the history of God’s people and exhorts its readers to “give ear … to my teaching” (v. 1). It was important to hear and heed the historical events of this psalm so that readers “will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” (v. 4). We might expect the writer to begin telling of the grand victories that Israel won as a means to encourage his readers that they can, likewise, go forth and conquer. But that is not what he does. He highlights, instead, the way in which and the frequency with which God’s people disobeyed and mistrusted him. He wants his readers to learn from Israel’s past sins.

Unlike the Facebook commenter, the writer of Psalm 78 did not assume that faithful Israelites would somehow idolise leaders from the past and gloss over or defend their sin. He assumed that his readers would recognise Israel’s failings and use those failures as a teaching opportunity for coming generations. It would be foolish to hide, ignore, or defend the sins of previous generations.  He wanted his readers to remember that they had as much to learn from the failings of previous generations as from their successes.Sin was to be their teacher.

As Christians, we have a tendency to paper over our failings. We think that our churches should be sanitised settings in which not a hint of moral failure can be detected. Out in the world—and deep in our hearts—we know our failures, but we are somehow afraid to admit those failures in the context of the church. Interestingly, this psalm was designed, it seems, as all the other psalms, to be used in the context of corporate worship. “Give ear” and “incline your ears” (v. 1) suggests that this psalm was read in the context of corporate worship. Confession was a crucial aspect of corporate worship and remembering the sins of the past was a helpful element in instructing coming generations.

Hiding or ignoring our sins, and the sins of God’s people at large (whether contemporary or historical) is no aid to growth in godliness. If we do not learn from our own failures, and from the failures of those who went before us, we are doomed to repeat the cycle. If we do not teach our children what they should learn from our sins, and the sins of others, we may well teach them to emulate rather than avoid those sins.

As you reflect on this psalm, allow it to remind you that sin can be an effective teacher. As God expects us to follow the godly example of those who follow him, so he wants us to learn from the failures of those who fall. Allow sin to be your teacher today.