This sermon was originally delivered to The Rock in January 2010. You can listen to the audio of the sermon on The Rock’s Web site.
Sin: to miss the mark, to rebel, to err. It’s actually a rather unimpressive word. It is one of, if not the most pervasive topics in the entire Bible. Passages that aren’t actively defining it are busy showing it in someone’s life or are dealing with the fallout from it. For many of us, it is an all-too-familiar part of our life; mundane even. So, what’s the big deal? The bible says we’re sinners, blah, blah, blah. Heard it all before. So what?
Sin is not only the most pervasive concept in the Bible, but is also largely misunderstood! An accurate understanding of sin is terrifying and humbling, and for those who have been born again by the holy spirit, a powerful motivator to follow Christ, and ultimately a great comfort. This is why Paul starts with sin, and spends a great deal of time on it in his letter to the Romans which is the most precise articulation of the Gospel in the Bible.
Romans 1:16-18 I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
God’s righteousness is revealed in the Gospel, and this revelation starts with his wrath against sin, which Paul defines as ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. What does Paul mean by ungodliness and unrighteousness? Several things. The most common and obvious is what I’d call simple rule-breaking.
The Sin of Rule Breaking
I could easily show you your rule-breaking by stacking up the ten commandments and asking you to check off which ones you’ve broken. Here they are in order of “severity”.
- You shall not lie. (Deut 5:20)
- Honor your father and mother. (Deut. 5:16)
- You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain. (Deut. 5:11)
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s stuff. (Deut 5:21)
- Observe the sabbath. (Deut. 5:12)
- You shall not steal. (Deut 5:19)
- You shall not commit adultery. (Deut 5:18)
- You shall not murder. (Deut 5:17)
- You shall not worship an idol. (Deut 5:8)
- You shall have no other gods before God. (Deut 5:7)
If I walked you through each one of these, I guarantee I could show each one of you that you have broken every single commandment including (maybe especially) murder. I could go one better by citing one of the many times Paul writes out “the lists” of vices that shouldn’t even be named among Christians. They’re a little more difficult and less obvious than the ten commandments.
One thing to keep in mind about those lists, by the way: none of them are comprehensive. Those lists were aimed at a specific group of people whose sin worked itself out in certain types of ungodly behavior. They are culturally contextual. Everything listed in them is sin-driven behavior and still is today, but if one of those lists were written to us today, they would look a little differently (though probably largely the same), so if you don’t find your specific vice in there, don’t get excited. This is why it’s helpful to have someone bring the meaning of a text from the first century into the twentieth. And at any rate, you will see in a moment that lists aren’t the important thing.
There are several problems with leaving the definition at simply this rule breaking. It gives us a wrong impression that if we haven’t broken many rules or if we stop breaking the rules, we can become righteous. That somehow we will deserve more of God’s love. This is called legalism and it also comes from sin.
The Sin in Rule Keeping
A legalist has in their mind an abstract concept that I lovingly call heaven points and hell points. Breaking a rule listed in one of many lists in scripture, plus a few extras that we made up like drinking alcohol (drunkenness and breaking the law by drinking underage are in the lists…), or listening to secular music, all earn you hell points while things like quiet times, prayer, church attendance, serving, and giving money earn you heaven points.
This is all very subtle, and we don’t actually think in those terms, and we may hijack biblical concepts like “Jewels in the crown” or “treasures in heaven” when thinking about the good things we are storing up for ourselves, not realizing that in scripture those terms are used as rewards for suffering, and doing really hard things like selling all your possessions.
A legalist insists that in order to get oneself “right with God” (we call that Justification), one must conform to a standard of practices and behaviors. A culture, if you will. They must dress a certain way, talk a certain way, do certain things, and avoid other things like the plague.
Now, it’s easy to lob pot shots from the stage at this sort of behavior, and the caricature I have just painted is easy to write yourself out of. That’s why I find Web sites like stuffchristianslike.com, music by Derek Webb and others, and books along that line, that make fun of and decry the Christian ghetto so helpful. They help expose the legalism which ALL OF US HAVE IN US. If you find sites and songs and books like that offensive, it might be because they bug the Pharisee in you.
The Danger of Legalism
The main problem with legalism though, is that it gives you a sense of entitlement from God. A feeling of a right to demand things, especially prosperity, from God. And this is not just a sin-filled perspective, it is dangerous.
If you hold this view, that God owes you a good life because you obeyed him, your faith will be crushed like a paper cup when suffering comes! Financial hardship, sickness, death in the family, failure in the workplace, and you will shake your fist at the sky: “Why can’t I find a man to love me!? Why can’t I find a job?! Why can’t I shake this bad habit!? Haven’t I done my part?! Haven’t I kept your rules!? Are you even real!? Are you even there!?” You are trying to use God as a means to another end! God is the means and the end! We misuse scripture to try and bend God to our will.
We misunderstand that the legitimate and actual PROMISE of the Old Testament is prosperity in return for obedience, but, the POINT of the Old Testament is that none of us obey!
No One is Righteous!
Romans 3:10-20 as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside;
together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.
Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.
The venom of asps is under their lips.
Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
The law, the “rules” are not there to earn you favor with God. They are there to reveal to you the reality and nature of your sin. They are there to show you how far short you fall of God’s standard. The chasm between God and us is unimaginably vast! It is so wide, that no bridge can be built across it!
1 Timothy 6:15-16 he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
Unapproachable light. Even if a bridge were built, we could not walk across it.
We fall so short that even “our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment”, says Isaiah (64:6). I have potty-trained a toddler, changed countless poopy diapers, I know something about polluted garments! They are disgusting! Because of our alloyed motives in our religious activity, our striving to earn God’s favor, to be better than everyone else, even our RIGHTEOUS deeds are like poopy pants to God.
These alloyed motives, and this separation are what Paul is talking about in Romans 7.
Romans 7:7-8; 13-14, 18-25 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead.
Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
What is Sin?
What is this that lives in us that causes us to want to break God’s law? We need to go back to the Garden of Eden for a moment because that is where Paul is coming from. Remember what John described for us last week? All powerful, all righteous, God created Adam to live with Him in the garden to love God and be with God. God gave Adam and Eve everything they could need and want. And He gave them one rule to live by: don’t eat the fruit from the Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil. And what did they do? Decided to see for themselves what would happen. And thus sin began, and man was separated from God.
One commentator interpreted the situation like this:
“Because man seeks to be wise irrespective of God’s authority, because he seeks to penetrate behind the thoughts of God and to anticipate them, because he not only wills to do this but is also able to do so within certain limits, a sphere of mistrust is opened up in which it is both possible and tempting for man to renounce the attitude appropriate to him as a creature, to regard the Creator with criticism and to think and act as himself God, unhampered, and in responsibility only to himself.”
And this is the “Ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” How this spreads to all men, we aren’t told.
We notice this sin in ourselves when we ask the question of how it could be fair that God would banish Adam from the Garden for eating a piece of fruit. Do you ever wonder that? This is the exact doubt Satan urged Eve to have. We ask “why couldn’t they eat it? Why did God set this up? And in our hearts add “that doesn’t seem fair,” and this is the essence of our sin.
We notice this sin in ourselves when we are told in Ecclesiastes that the entire purpose of man is to “fear God and keep his commandments.” and we ask “well what about what I want? That seems a little extreme.”
We notice it in our struggle to be good enough that we don’t need God’s grace. There is a hint of “Grace is for the weak, I’m better than that” in our hearts.
By these attitudes we try and be self sufficient and commit the same egregious error that Adam and Eve did and we take the advice of a snake over the advice of God who loves us! We declare war on God. We choose to be independent from God. Separate from God. SELF-sufficient. And Paul tells us in Romans 7 that we are unable to do otherwise. We are unable to make ourselves righteous, we are unable to submit to God’s law out of completely pure motives. If we did achieve it once we instantly become proud about it.
“Wretch that I am who can save me from this Body of Death!?”
Paul gives us an answer to the question.
Romans 7:25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Paul goes on to unpack how Jesus Christ saves us:
Romans 8:1-2 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
No condemnation. The sin is still there, but you are not condemned for it. He goes on to explain how that works. I think he repeats something he’s just told the Corinthians. Here’s how he put it to them:
2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The Great Exchange
God places the sin of the sinful on the sinless, so that he can place the righteousness of the righteous on the unrighteous.
Whose sin is placed on Christ? (ours.) Was he a sinner? (no.)
Whose righteousness was placed on us? (God’s) Are we righteous? (no.)
Back to Romans 3:20-28
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
And Romans 4:5
And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.
What does one need to do to become right with God? NOTHING! There is nothing you CAN do! You don’t deserve it, you cannot earn it! It is a gift! The gift comes through faith! God justifies the UNGODLY! Christ came to save SINNERS!
Stop trying to get right with God, and believe that he has made things right with you.
This is incredible news and why Paul gives an ultimate definition of sin in Romans 14.
Romans 14:23b “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
Anything you do, that flow from a firm confidence, and a trust that you are who God says you are, a rebellious sinner, and that Jesus is who he says he is: the Almighty Creator God, and did what he said he did: paid the debt you owe God for your rebellion and made it possible for you to be together with Him now and for eternity (that’s what his name means: Immanuel, God with us).
Anything that doesn’t flow out of a realization of that is sin.
This is GREAT NEWS! Don’t despise it by trying to keep all the rules perfectly and earn God’s favor. Don’t stomp on it and desecrate it by continuing on in your rebellion toward God. Give up your religious legalism and rebellious selfishness, and worship The One True God who loves you!