"Sin's Damning Effect Undone"
February 10, 2008 Lent 1 Romans 5:12-21
"Wright" vs.Wrong: Our Resistance to Sin
Sin is rarely a popular topic. It makes people squirm; they put up their defences, lest you be talking about them. Yet we can't avoid talking about sin if we would truly help people with their deepest problems.
Researching whether an email was factual brought me to this true story on snopes.com. "Back in January of 1996, the Rev. Joe Wright, senior pastor of the 2,500-member Central Christian Church in Wichita, was invited to offer the opening prayer at a session of the Kansas House of Representatives, and the prayer he offered was this one: 'Heavenly Father, we come before you to ask your forgiveness. We seek your direction and your guidance. We know your word says, "Woe to those who call evil good." But that's what we've done. We've lost our spiritual equilibrium. We have inverted our values. We have ridiculed the absolute truth of your word in the name of moral pluralism. We have worshiped other gods and called it multiculturalism. We have endorsed perversion and called it an alternative lifestyle. We've exploited the poor and called it a lottery. We've neglected the needy and called it self-preservation. We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare. In the name of choice, we have killed our unborn. In the name of right to life, we have killed abortionists. We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building self-esteem. We have abused power and called it political savvy. We have coveted our neighbor's possessions and called it taxes. We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression. We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment.
"'Search us, oh, God, and know our hearts today. Try us. Show us any wickedness within us. Cleanse us from every sin and set us free. Guide and bless these men and women who have been sent here by the people of the State of Kansas, and that they have been ordained by you to govern this great state. Grant them your wisdom to rule. May their decisions direct us to the center of your will. And, as we continue our prayer and as we come in out of the fog, give us clear minds to accomplish our goals as we begin this Legislature. For we pray in Jesus' name, Amen.'
"The prayer Rev. Wright used wasn't of his own crafting; it was a version of one written in 1995 by Bob Russell who offered it at the Kentucky Governor's Prayer Breakfast in Frankfort, Kentucky. ...Rev. Wright read the prayer at the opening of the legislature...and departed, unaware of the ruckus he had created until his church secretary called him on his car phone to ask him what he had done. Reportedly, one Democrat walked out in protest, three others gave speeches critical of Wright's prayer, and another blasted Wright's "message of intolerance." Rep. Jim Long, a Democrat from Kansas City, said that Wright "made everyone mad."
"Rev. Wright said afterwards: 'I certainly did not mean to be offensive to individuals, but I don't apologize for the truth.' His staff stopped counting the telephone calls that came from every state and many foreign countries after the first 6,500. Wright appeared on dozens of radio shows and was the subject of numerous TV and print news reports, and his prayer stirred up controversy all over again when it was read by the chaplain coordinator in the Nebraska legislature the following month. Wright later explained, "I thought I might get a call from an angry congressman or two, but I was talking to God, not them. The whole point was to say that we all have sins that we need to repent -- all of us . . . The problem, I guess, is that you're not supposed to get too specific when you're talking about sin."
[the website concludes] "What to make of all the fuss? Syndicated religion columnist Terry Mattingly probably explained it best when he wrote: 'The easy answer is that he read a prayer about sin. The complicated answer is that Wright jumped into America's tense debate about whether some things are always right and some things are always wrong.'" [http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/outrage/wright.asp]
Pastor Wright stirred up quite a tempest with just one prayer, didn't he? Yet if Christians are to be 'salt' and 'light' in society, we need to be ready to talk according to God's standards (while, like Daniel's prayer in chapter 9, identifying that we too have participated in society's sins).
Talk of sin draws a backlash because our human nature resists being shamed on account of our actions. Typical is the response of the townspeople of Sodom in Genesis 19 after Lot rebukes their evil intentions to sexually assault the visiting angels disguised as people, saying, "Don't do this wicked thing." Listen to the tone of their reply: "'Get out of our way...This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We'll treat you worse than them.' They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door." (Ge 19:9) Do you sense the driving force, almost from an animal level, bullying, threatening: 'I want to do what I want to do!' Mocking the person who advocates morality as "playing the judge"? What would they say today? "Stop being so judgmental? What gives you the right to tell others what they should do?"
But it wasn't long until Lot was fleeing for his life, while burning sulfur rained down and destroyed Sodom. It's catastrophic to try to ignore sin or pretend we're exempt from God's expectations. Until we acknowledge how much we deserve judgment, there's no hope of being able to stand at the last before a Holy God.
When asked what he would do if he had just one hour to share the gospel with a stranger, the noted Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer once said he would spend 45-50 minutes on the negative aspects of the gospel message, to really show that person his or her dilemma--that he or she is sinful and morally dead. Then, and only then, Schaeffer said, he would take ten to fifteen min to tell of Christ's solution for sin at the cross. He concluded, "I believe that much of our evangelistic work today is not clear simply because we are too anxious to get to the answer without having a man realize the real cause of his sickness, which is true moral guilt (and not just psychological guilty feelings) in the presence of God."
In our passage today from Romans 5, the apostle Paul takes pains to contrast our sinful sentence and its damning effect with the grace and eternal life that sinners can receive because of Jesus' work at the cross.
Turning the Tables: Sin's Fallout, Grace's Gift
Romans 5:12ff is a difficult passage: the terminology is dense, and the structure seems convoluted. Part of the problem is that Paul wasn't using a word processing program and couldn't insert a simple table into the manuscript. The parallels become much clearer if you list the main points in a chart like this.
|Vs.||Adam's legacy||Christ's estate|
|12||Sin entered world & death through sin|
|15||Many died by Adam's trespass||God's grace & gift that came by Jesus' grace overflowed to the many|
|16||A's sin --> judgment --> condemnation||[many trespasses] --> gift --> justification|
|17||By A's trespass death reigned||Through J those who receive God's abundant provision……reign in life|
|18||A's trespass --> condemnation for all||J' 1 act of righteousness --> justification --> life for all|
|19||Through A's disobedience --> the many made sinners||Through J' obedience --> the many will be made righteous|
|20||[old regime] sin increased under law||[new regime] grace increased all the more|
|21||Sin reigned in death||Through J -- grace reigns through righteousness to bring eternal life|
As you look over this chart, by various ways of expressing it, Paul seems to be pairing up these terms to describe the results of what Adam and Christ have accomplished.
|Shown to be SINNERS||Constituted RIGHTEOUS|
How can we describe this narratively? First let's consider Adam's legacy. God forbade the first couple from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were tempted by the lie that when they ate it, they would be like God; also Genesis 3(6) says the fruit appeared "good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom". In some ways this is a representative temptation: 1Jn 2:16 describes the world's attractions as "the cravings of sinful man [flesh], the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does". The first sin involved an inclination and an action.
Next their eyes were opened and the realized they were naked, so they tried to cover themselves using fig leaves. Their lack or insufficiency was exposed; they were shown to be sinners. God rebuked them, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree I commanded you not to eat from?" That's judgment being pronounced. There followed condemnation - cursing of the snake, pain for the woman in childbirth, cursing of man's toil to be frustrated with thorns and hardship, and his return to the dust in death. Finally they were banished from the Garden of Eden: cherubim and a flaming sword ensured they would not return. This represents the reign of death, an ongoing state of being excluded from God's presence.
But these damning effects of sin are undone by the work of Christ for those who believe. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is that, though He was rich in heavenly glory, He became poor, humbling Himself to servanthood for our sakes. For those who trust in Him as Lord and Saviour, they receive not judgment but His gift - rebirth through the Holy Spirit, eternal life starting now! How are they regarded? Not as naked, shown to be sinners, but God regards them as clothed with Christ's own righteousness: in God's books they are re-constituted as righteous. What about their relationship? Whereas Adam's legacy left them condemned, cut off from God, Christ's estate or inheritance means they are sons and daughters of God through faith; their sins are washed away by Jesus' blood, they are justified, enjoying right relationship or standing toward God. Adam and Eve were left disconnected, cut off from a holy God; in Christ we are connected again - He's the vine, we're the branches. And what's reigning in believers is not death but life, eternal life: not just forever as in 'everlasting' but beyond time, starting here and now. As Paul puts it in the NLT, "even greater is God's wonderful grace and His gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ." (17)
To review, what is our legacy from Adam, whose disobedience has stamped us from our conception? Sin - Judgment - Shown to be SINNERS - Condemnation - Death/reign. But what estate can we inherit by faith if we choose Jesus? Grace - Gift - Constituted RIGHTEOUS - Justification - Life/reign. Which package sounds better to you?
How Could Anyone Do That?!
Recently Canadians were appalled by the abandonment of a baby girl in a freezing stairwell at a North York plaza. Who would be so cruel as to desert an 8-month-old child in a thin white snowsuit in -8C temperatures? The thought makes you cringe. Children's Aid Society workers have received a flood of offers from people wanting to adopt little Angelica-Leslie, because they feel sorry for her plight. Something about it echoes of the depths of human depravity and desperation. Yet - our least sin is that objectionable to a totally holy and pure God. And any sin is devastating, as we've seen, causing any hope of connection to the Lord's goodness to be lost if it's not dealt with.
Sin is more than particular actions: sin also involves the inner disposition. A commentary notes, "Sin is [a] intrinsically vile and polluting; [b] justly deserves punishment, calls down the wrath of God. The disposition to sin - the habit of the soul that leads to the sinful act - is itself also sin."
Are we inclined toward God, or away from Him? The essence of sin is rebellion; 1Jn 3(4) says bluntly "sin is lawlessness". Sin basically refuses to consider love for God or neighbour.
A Plain Trespass Forgiven: Pleading the Wounded One
I too have sinned and had to ask forgiveness - often. One particularly obvious time involved picking a family member up from the Toronto airport. The signs at the curbside of the Arrivals area clearly say 'No Standing' - you're not to leave your vehicle unattended. I popped into the terminal to find my daughter, leaving Yvonne in the van. When I came back (after a longer delay than I planned) the van was ticketed - $80! What a sinking feeling. I looked around and spotted the parking officer not far away. I went and asked, but of course I had no case, as the transgression was obvious - the rules were clearly posted. I'm not proud to say what I did next. I resorted to making an excuse, trying to justify myself - which is our fallen tendency to blame something or somebody else, from Adam on down. I pulled out what might be called a 'trump card' - explaining that my wife had a brain tumour and could no longer drive, otherwise of course we could have moved the vehicle. It was pitiful and whining - but the officer was merciful. They let me off the hook. What a relief! Humbled, I hopped in the van and drove off with gratitude. Forgiveness is sweeter than revenge.
At the last judgment however, there will be no "outs", no hidden trump cards, no excuses - all our trespasses and sins will be clearly seen for what they are, our rebellious choices against God's best for our lives. It will be clear that we've fallen short of God's standard - more clear than being parked beside a 'no parking' sign. No blaming it on one's spouse, whatever their condition.
However Jesus can help. The Bible makes us understand that we can plead His wounds on our behalf. That starts by receiving Him now. As we look to Him dying on the cross, the Righteous One pouring out His blood for our unrighteousness - as the Holy Spirit moves us to repent, there is hope for the worst sinner. God Himself by the Spirit makes us alive anew and begins to reign in us over wrong desires. Romans 6:23 says: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Praise His name! Let's pray.