(This is an excerpt from my forthcomin book, The Power of a Humbling Gospel). No one can be used by God to help others grow in humility until they have come face to face with the biblical doctrine of sin. I recently overheard a Christian say, “No matter how badly you think of yourself, no matter how guilty you feel, no matter how deep your sense of moral bankruptcy and failure, you have not yet seen the depth of your sin. It is always worse than you think.” That was Dr. Plumer’s point in the nineteenth century. “The truth is, no man ever thought himself a greater sinner before God than he really was. Nor was any man ever more distressed at his sins than he had just cause to be.”

Generally, this is not how the church sees sin at the beginning of the twenty first century. D. A. Carson, Professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has been conducting missions on college campuses since the 1970s. “The hardest truth to get across to [university students],” he writes, “is not the existence of God, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, Jesus’ substitutionary atonement, or Jesus’ resurrection…No, the hardest truth to get across to this generation is what the Bible says about sin.” Students are resistant to this teaching because it humbles them, and they have been taught since infancy that they are inherently good and wonderful. The therapeutic self-esteem movement has evangelized us more successfully than we have evangelized them. We speak a humbling message to a proud culture, but God can open the heart to its potency.

After all is said and done, all defective views of sin can be traced to unbelief or ignorance. We just don’t believe the Bible, or we don’t know what it says. “In all unbelief there are these two things,” noted Horatius Bonar (1808-89), “a good opinion of one’s self, and a bad opinion of God.”

Bonar’s words sound foreign to the modern ear for several reasons. Either we have never been taught about sin (common today), or we have been taught about it, but do not want to believe it. Pride resists the doctrine of sin. It is a humbling subject. It is an unpleasant subject. Like death, one wants to hear about it or discuss it. The obituaries don’t use the word “death, dying, or died.” They talk about “passing away.” Sin is the same way, but until we come face to face with the doctrine of indwelling sin there will be little growth in humility, few conversions, and little Christ-likeness in our character. We will experience little joy, insecurity about God’s love, and little desire to love others.