Whatever Became of Sin?

Romans 7:7-13

May 30, 1993 | Ray Pritchard

In 1990, Life Magazine published an article naming the 100 most significant individuals of the 20th century. Many of the names are familiar, but one may be new to you—Karl Menninger. You may not recognize his name unless you are a student of modern psychiatry. Dr. Menninger wrote a number of very influential books, probably none more influential to the modern consciousness than a book he wrote some 20 years ago entitled Whatever Became of Sin? In that book, Dr. Menninger says these words:

“The very word ’sin,’ which seems to have disappeared, was a proud word. It was once a strong word, an ominous and serious word. It described a central point in every civilized human being’s life plan and lifestyle. But the word went away. It has almost disappeared—the word, along with the notion. Why? Doesn’t anyone sin any more? Doesn’t anyone believe in sin? (p. 14)”

The whole burden of his book is to document the disappearance of sin from American society. He basically argues that in place of the historic concept of sin, we now speak of crime and symptoms. This is his analysis:

Whenever you look at sin as either crime or symptoms, you are missing the essence of human right and wrong behavior. Whenever you take sin and turn it into crime, what you’ve done is taken God out of the picture because sin is committed between a person and God. Crime is malfeasance between two human beings. So if you call it crime, you’ve really defined it downward. Or if you take sin and turn it into symptoms, you’ve gone even lower because there you’re talking about things like outward indications, you’re talking about heredity, you’re talking about environment, you’re talking about early life choices and factors that infringe upon the outside.

As Dr. Menninger points out, when you discard the concept of “sin” and replace it with the concept of “symptoms” you’ve defined it as something that’s completely exterior, or outside of us. Dr. Menninger’s book offers page after page of proof that the concept of sin is lost in American society, but his chief proof or at least the first proof he offers is to point out the change that’s been made by American presidents in the proclamation associated with the annual Day of Prayer.

The Word No President Will Use

By the way, do you know which president was the first one to call Americans to a National Day of Prayer? It was Abraham Lincoln in the year 1863. If you go back and read that proclamation, it is so couched in Biblical language that it is virtually a Christian document issued from the White House. In that first document by Abraham Lincoln, he uses the word sin and calls the nation to repent of its sin and turn back to God.

100 years passed. In the early 1950s, Congress passed a law that the president should henceforth and every year after that should designate a certain day in May as a National Day of Prayer and he should issue a proclamation so designating that day. President Eisenhower, in the first year, went back to Abraham Lincoln’s declaration, borrowed much of the language and used the word “sin” in that first declaration in the early 1950s. Dr. Menninger points out that in all the succeeding years, President Eisenhower left the word “sin” out. He points out that as of the early 1970s, in the 20 years that had passed, no American president, in issuing his call to prayer, used the word “sin” again. Eisenhower didn’t, Kennedy didn’t, Johnson didn’t, Nixon didn’t. Now 20 years have passed again from the publication of that book and, so far as I know, no president since then has used the word “sin” in his proclamation. Not President Carter, not President Ford, not President Reagan, not President Bush, and not President Clinton.

Think about that. President Lincoln used the word “sin” in 1863. President Eisenhower did the same in the early 1950s. No president since then has used that word in connection with the National Day of Prayer. Dr. Menninger adds the interesting insight that Republican presidents talk about pride and self-righteousness, while Democratic presidents talk about shortcomings and mistakes. But no president actually has the courage to call Americans to repent of their sins.

Tracking on the Info-Trac

That’s what he’s talking about when he says, “Sin has been lost as a part of American society.” I wondered about that, so, this week I visited the Oak Park Public Library and decided I would do some bibliographic research to see how many different articles have been written in the last five years by the secular press seriously discussing the subject of sin in America. I went inside their information area and sat down at one of the Info-Trac computers (which, by the way, is a wonderful, amazing piece of hardware). You can just enter any word you want and the computer will search a database of over a thousand magazines published in English. I suppose the entire database contains tens of thousands of articles. You can find articles on any conceivable subject you want, any conceivable subject you’ve ever dreamed of, and a lot you’ve never heard of and can’t even understand when you see them show up on the screen.

So I sat down at the Info-Trac computer and typed in the word “sin.” After a few seconds the screen listed some corollary categories—”See also God, Guilt, Theodicy, Fall of man.” So I called up “Fall of man.” It said “see Sin, see Temptation, see also Theodicy.” It had all these different “see other categories.” Finally you come to the place where there is supposed to be references to articles. There’s nothing there. There are references to all these categories. But in the last five years, out of the hundreds of thousands of articles written in the secular press, there’s not one which seriously discusses sin in our society. That’s why Dr. Menninger wrote the book “Whatever Became of Sin?” His thesis is correct. We are living today in a society that has lost the concept of sin but not the practice of sin. In America we have forgotten the concept of sin but the practice of sin continues unabated.

I ask a question: What happens in a society, culture or nation when sin is practiced but is not admitted? What happens when you sin but do not admit that that is what you are doing? I’ll tell you what happens. That nation, that society, that culture begins to deteriorate. Why? Because there is dishonesty at the core. That’s what’s happening in America today.

The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators

William Bennett, the recent Secretary of Education, is one of the most astute observers of the American scene. He recently came out with something called “The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators.” Now all of you have probably heard of the Index of Leading Economic Indicators. That’s a set of scales that the Department of Labor issues every month that either go up or go down, and they’re supposed to predict the direction of American economy in the coming months. William Bennett had been very concerned about the cultural decline of America. So he took 19 different categories and measured them over the last 30 years. The list includes such things as the number of crimes committed, median prison sentence for serious crimes, children in poverty, infant mortality, teenage pregnancy, adoption rates, births to unmarried women, child abuse, teen suicide, marriage and divorce, children affected by divorce, SAT scores, high school drop out rates, drug use and daily television viewing. The result is a group of charts that track 19 different cultural, moral or ethical categories over a 30 year period.

The result may be stated very simply: While the American standard of living has risen dramatically in the last 30 years, on every measurable social, moral and ethical scale, American cultural values are going down. That’s the paradox of America today. We’re doing better and better and better economically, better than we’ve ever done before, but morally we’re doing worse and worse and worse.

During the last 30 years,

there has been a 560% increase in violent crime, more than a 400% increase in illegitimate births, a quadrupling in divorce rates, a tripling of the percentage of children living in single parent homes, more than a 200% increase in teenage suicide, and a drop of almost 80 points in the SAT scores. Modern day social pathologies, at least great parts of them, have gotten worse. (p. i)

Whatever became of sin? We just stopped talking about it. We haven’t stopped doing it.

The Root of the Problem

Why have we turned away from the concept of sin in America? There’s only one answer to that question. We have turned from the concept of sin because we have turned away from the concept of God’s moral law. In order to talk about sin, you have to have two things. One, you have to have an objective standard against which all human behavior can be measured, that is, you have to have an absolute standard of right and wrong. Two, you’ve got to have a person against whom a sin can be committed.

Take away God’s law and you lose both things. You no longer have the absolute standard and you no longer have the person against whom the sin is committed. Take away God’s law and you have no reason to maintain the concept of sin. That is why American society is going down today. We have turned away from the concept of sin because we have turned away from the concept of God’s law, which is the only thing which reveals our true spiritual and moral condition.

To say that brings us face to face with Romans 7:7-13. These verses were written to address those people who say they can be good without God. They were written for those people who say they don’t need God’s law to tell them what to do. These verses explain the crucial connection between the law of God and human sin. So what is it that we discover when we turn once again to look at the law of God? Our text tells us that when we turn to the law of God, we discover four great realities about sin.

I. The law of God reveals the fact of sin. 7

“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ’Do not covet.’”

The purpose of the law can be stated this way. It is to tell us what is right and what is wrong. If you don’t like the expression “law”, just think of the Ten Commandments. God gave them to Moses so that we would know what is right and what is wrong. Paul uses the specific example of the Tenth Commandment to illustrate his point. I think he is referring to an experience from his youth when he was training to be a Pharisee, sitting at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel. Like most of us, Paul in the beginning thought that he was very good. He came to the First Commandment—No other gods. “No problem. I’ve got that one.” No idols. “I don’t have any idols.” Don’t take God’s name in vain. “I don’t ever do that.” Keep the Sabbath. “The Jews love to keep the Sabbath!” Double check that one. Honor your father and mother. “I always do that.” Don’t murder. “Wouldn’t think of it.” Don’t commit adultery. “No way.” Don’t steal. “I’m okay there.” Don’t bear false witness. Check. He always tells the truth.

He comes to number ten—Thou shalt not covet. BOOM! Direct Hit! Right on the heart! No check for that one. Because by its very nature the Tenth Commandment is different. The other nine you can brush off and say that they just refer to outward behavior. You can say, “Well, I haven’t shot anybody, so I haven’t committed murder and I haven’t actually jumped into bed with anyone, so I haven’t committed adultery,” so you can rationalize those away. But you can’t rationalize the Tenth Commandment. It’s talking about what goes on in the heart. When Paul read “Thou Shalt Not Covet” suddenly he realized, “I covet all the time. I want stuff I know I shouldn’t have. I’m greedy for things. I see what other people have and I wish I could have it.” That’s the way coveting works. Coveting simply means uncontrolled desire. Either wanting something you shouldn’t have or wanting more than you have or wanting what rightfully belongs to someone else. What Paul is saying is this: That the law catches us all. It forces us to look not simply on the outside where we may look pretty good but at the inside at the ravenous monster within.

What about the rest of the Ten Commandments? Do you remember what Jesus said? He reminded people that the Bible says, Don’t commit adultery. Then he explained what that meant. “If you look at a woman to lust after her, you’ve committed adultery already in your heart.” Adultery is not confined to the physical act of unlawful intercourse. It also includes what goes on in the heart. Then he said, “If you hate your brother without a cause, you’re a murderer.” You don’t have to shoot somebody. You can just hate them. You can kill them with your thoughts, you can kill them with your lips, you become a murderer with your mouth.

Prone to Wander

The law of God reveals the fact that you are a sinner. If you understand the law of God, you understand that you can’t sing “How great I am” because you’re not so great. The law reveals the fact and reality of sin in your own heart.

One of our favorite hymns contains this telling line: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love.” Another hymn contains the line: “Take away our bent to sinning.” Something within us is bent towards sin. Something within us makes us prone to leave the God we love. If you don’t believe that, it is only because you haven’t come close enough to the law yet. When the law of God is rightly understood it forces you to face the fact and the reality of your sinful condition. That’s number one, the law reveals the fact of sin.

II. The law reveals the power of sin. 8-10

“But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every type of covetous desire. For apart from the law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.”

Notice two key phrases. Verse 8 says “sin seizing the opportunity” and at the end of verse 9 “sin sprang to life.” Those are military terms. They’re terms for waiting in ambush. The Delta Force waits in ambush, finding the moment, springs into life and without warning captures the enemy. Paul says, “When I saw the law and when I realized what it said, suddenly sin, which was already within me, sprang to life and ambushed me. Suddenly the law says ’Don’t covet’ and that’s all I wanted to do! The law said ’Don’t’ and that’s all I wanted to do! The law said don’t and I did.”

Let’s see if I can illustrate this. Human beings are so perverse that the easiest way to get us to do something is to tell us not to do it. What do they call that? Negative psychology. Parents use it all the time. Works 80-90% of the time. We all use it! If you don’t want your children to do something, order them to do it. If you want them to do something, tell them not to do it. The law works this way. God says Don’t, and he says it for our good. Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t. When we hear the word don’t, something in us begins to say “Do, do, do.” When we hear somebody say “Do, do, do,” there’s something in us that says, “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.” There is something within us that makes us fight against anybody who tells us to do something or not to do something. That is the bent to sin that is inside us all.

Wet Paint

Here’s another illustration. We see the sign on the fence that says Wet paint. Do not touch. All normal people do the following. This is what I do, whether normal or not. Wet paint. Do not touch. I look around, place my hand right on the fence. Yes, it’s wet. Then I don’t know where to wipe my hands. Because it’s wet! But you’re not sure until you touch it. But it says Do not touch. So you touch! The sign says Keep off the grass. So what do you do? You have a picnic right by the sign. The sign says 55 mph. What a joke! You can’t find anybody going 55. To be safe on the road you’ve got to keep up with the flow of traffic. The slowest person is going 58 miles per hour! But the sign said …

We all know you shouldn’t throw rocks through windows at stores. Why is it that they don’t have signs that say Do not throw rocks through windows? Because there wouldn’t be a single window left in 24 hours if they put up that sign. Because there’s something in us that makes us want to “do” when the sign says “don’t.”

But this is nothing new. Augustine wrote about this tendency to disobey 1500 years ago.

There was a pear tree near our vineyard, laden with fruit. One stormy night we rascally youths set out to rob it and carry our spoils away. We took off a huge load of pears … not to feast on ourselves, but to throw them to the pigs, though we ate just enough to have the pleasure of forbidden fruit. They were nice pears, but it was not the pears that my wretched soul coveted, for I had plenty better at home. I picked them simply in order to become a thief… . The desire to steal was awakened simply by the prohibition of stealing. (Quoted in Kent Hughes, Romans, p. 140)

Things haven’t changed much in 1500 years, have they? You pick the pears not to eat but to throw away. Not because you need pears but because you just want to show that you don’t have to follow that dumb rule! That’s the power of sin. The more it says don’t, the more you want to do.

III. The law reveals the deceitfulness of sin. 11

“For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.” Sin deceives. If I could say anything that will be helpful in this message, let it be this one sentence. Sin always deceives. When I read this, my mind goes back to the Garden of Eden. You can see the deception of sin in the Garden of Eden from the very beginning.

There are three ways in which sin deceives. First, sin deceives us by promising what it can never deliver. Sin says “go ahead, it will be fun.” Sin says “Go ahead, you’ll enjoy it!” Sin says “You’ll feel better, you’ll be more fulfilled. Life will be better for you. Go ahead and take it. Go ahead and tell the lie. Go ahead and say that dirty word. Go ahead and jump in bed with that person. Go ahead and read that magazine. Go ahead, you need this. It will bring you happiness.” What was it the serpent said to Eve? “Eat this fruit and you shall be like God.” Sin deceives us by promising what it can never deliver.

Second, sin deceives us by convincing us that what happens to others will never happen to us. Let’s say that we know that ten times out of ten, people get caught when they sin. Ten times out of ten, and yet sin convinces us that we are going to be the exception. We know that for 2000 years people who have done this sin have suffered for it. But sin says “Wait a minute. Are you kidding me? You’re going to be different. You’re going to get away with this!” And the serpent said to Eve, “You shall not die.”

Third, sin deceives us by creating in us a desire for that which we know can only hurt us. A little voice says, “Go ahead.” And we stupidly go ahead even though we know we’re going to suffer for it. When Eve looked at the fruit she saw that it was good to look at, good to touch and good to taste. So she took it and she ate it and we’ve been taking and eating ever since. We’re no different even though we know that every time we take and eat it will hurt us. That’s the deceitfulness of sin.


Do you know what huffing is? It’s one of the latest rages among teenagers and younger adults, even some older adults of America. The news magazine Primetime carried a report on huffing about a week ago. It used to be you sniffed glue. Now they sniff lighter fluid. Now they spray paint into a bag and inhale the paint fumes. They showed pictures of these terrible-looking people with paint streaks all around their mouths. Then they showed the brain scans of people who do this, and in the end there’s nothing. There’s nothing left! They’ve destroyed their own brain. You know what happens when you inhale that furniture polish? It coats your lungs and you end up asphyxiating yourself, because your lungs harden and they won’t work any more. The amazing thing is, when they interviewed these people, they said “Don’t you know that this is dangerous? Don’t you know this will kill you?” All the while they’re reaching for the bag for one more huff. That is the deceitfulness of sin. It tricks us into wanting that which we know will destroy us.

IV. The law reveals the sinfulness of sin. 12-13

“So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.” The law reveals the complete sinfulness of sin. Let’s be clear on this point. The law is not bad. The Ten Commandments are good. They still remain a reliable guide for living. I recommend that you memorize them, and I recommend that you follow the Ten Commandments in your daily living.

So the law is holy and righteous and good. But the law is like a mirror. When you stand before the mirror, you see yourself. Have you heard the expression “the mirror doesn’t lie?” It’s like the person who doesn’t like what he sees in the mirror so he takes his shoe and throws it at the mirror. The problem isn’t in the mirror. The problem is in you. Or it’s like the person who’s sick and goes to the doctor for an x-ray. The x-ray shows cancer. So he begins to curse the x-ray machine. It’s not the fault of the x-ray machine. The machine didn’t cause the cancer. It just revealed what was already there. The law of God is a mirror to the soul. The law of God is the x-ray of the soul. It shows the deceit and sinfulness of sin.

Back now to Dr. Karl Menninger who asked the question, Whatever became of sin? Sin has disappeared as a meaningful concept in American society. It’s gone. Sin as a concept is gone and yet we continue to sin more and more and more. That’s the Leading Index of Cultural Indicators continuing to go down and down and down. Why? Because we’ve turned away from the concept of the law of God. You can’t have the concept of sin without having the concept of God’s law. The two always go together. Give up one and you’re going to lose the other. And your society is going to deteriorate.

Oprah Winfrey and Sally Jesse Raphael and Phil Donahue and Rush Limbaugh are all asking the same questions: “What is wrong with America?” The answer is simple. What is wrong with America is us. We’ve gone wrong. That’s why our nation is going wrong. There’s something wrong with us. We won’t face the truth about our own spiritual condition.

Three Crucial Conclusions

I. The law can never save anyone.

No one is ever saved by keeping the Ten Commandments. The law reveals sin. It does not redeem from sin. The law shows the problem but cannot give you the solution. The law condemns but it cannot save. If you’re thinking, “I’m going to go to heaven because I’m basically a good person and I keep seven, eight, maybe nine of the Ten Commandments, God’s going to grade on a curve and is going to let me in,” you don’t understand what the law of God is all about. You’ve never come face to face with the truth, because no one gets to heaven by doing good or keeping the Ten Commandments. The law can save no one.

II. We should preach law to the proud and grace to the humble.

Often we get this backwards. We preach law to the humble and grace to the proud and wonder why nobody ever gets saved. This is Martin Luther’s formulation. He said when you’re dealing with someone who’s proud, don’t talk to them about the love of God or the death of Christ. Preach the law to them so that they will see themselves in the sight of God’s law. Then when they are humbled, preach the gospel to them. I’ve never forgotten what Dr. Francis Schaeffer said in one of his books. It had a great impact on my thinking about evangelism. He said, “Suppose you were taking a one-hour train ride and sitting next to you was a modern post-Christian secular man. He has never been to church or really exposed to the things of the Lord. If you had only one hour to share Christ with him, how would you use your time? Here’s what I would do. I would spend 45 minutes showing him his sin in light of the high standards of God’s law. I would speak to him of sin, of righteousness, of judgment. I would show him that there is a holy God against whom he has sinned and how his life falls short of God’s holy demands. Once I had convinced him of that, then and only then would I spend the last 15 minutes sharing the grace and love and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Why? The law of God is given to humble the proud.

III. The law reveals our sinful condition which drives us to the cross of Jesus Christ, the only place where we can find complete forgiveness and deep inner cleansing.

Friday night I heard Pastor Chuck Svoboda say it this way: “Being saved is like taking a shower on the inside.” Isn’t that good? Coming to Christ is like taking a shower on the inside. I had never heard it put that way before.

Your greatest problem is not on the outside. Your greatest problem is on the inside. You need to get cleaned up on the inside. You need a shower that will clean you up from the inside to the outside. God has provided a way to do that through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Since the first of the year in these services, we have over 65 recorded decisions for Jesus Christ in our Sunday services. This week I heard about a woman who prayed to receive Christ on Easter Sunday. She’s been attending Calvary for about a year. “Why did you wait until Easter? Why did you wait so long to accept Christ?” The woman said, “Nobody showed me how.”

Well, I’m going to show you how. I’d like to lead you in a very simple prayer of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. If you never said “yes” to Jesus Christ, this is your chance.

Do you remember the book by Dr. Karl Menninger—Whatever Became of Sin? The question I want to ask you is, Whatever became of your sin? What did you ever do about it? There are only three things you can do about your sin. You can deny it, you can try to deal with it yourself (which doesn’t work), or you can admit your sin and turn to Jesus Christ.

Here’s a simple prayer that will help you. If you’re unsure about your relationship to Jesus Christ or if you’d like to be sure your sins are forgiven, this prayer can help you express the desires of your heart.

Heavenly Father, I am ready to tell the truth today. I am a sinner, Lord. For too long I’ve lived my life without you. For too long I’ve gone my own way. I haven’t loved you as I ought. I haven’t loved your Son, Jesus Christ. All my sins are against you and you alone. Here and now, I repent of my evil attitudes. Here and now I turn from my sin and I trust Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I trust Jesus and his blood to forgive my sins. Lord Jesus, thank you for dying on the cross for me. Thank you for rising from the dead. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and save me. Make me the kind of person you want me to be for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?