More Good Conversation

More Good Conversation

Our Presbytery has become a lot kinder and gentler in examining candidates for ordination. Now we toss them softballs, like “share your journey of faith” or “What’s your favorite book of the Bible and why?” When I started going to Presbytery meetings 25 years ago, the pastors and elders peppered them with tough theological questions.
The most memorable was during a meeting at the Colerain church. The candidate was fresh out of seminary and had presented a solid statement of faith. But one old pastor – who loved to make the candidates sweat – stood up, pulled off his glasses dramatically, and demanded to know, “Why do you say our sins are forgiven, rather than our sin is forgiven?”
The poor guy stammered and stuttered his way through an answer which seemed to satisfy the crowd, since he was approved unanimously. But I was left thinking, “What difference does it make – sins or sin?” You may be asking the same question.
It does make a difference – and it explains a seeming contradiction in the 300-year-old sermon most of you heard last Lord’s Day. Francis Makemie’s “A Good Conversation” argued that the path to salvation is holy living – yet we cannot earn salvation by our good behavior.
So today, we will have “More Good Conversation” – as we look at how the solution to our conundrum is in the difference between sins and sin.
This past week I started reading The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee. Nee was a Chinese Christian who helped to establish local churches in China that were independent of foreign missionary organizations. He started his work in the 1930s – but was arrested during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and spent the last 20 years of his life in prison. In this book, Nee tackles the subject of sins and sin – and much of his book is based on today’s reading from Romans 6.
Sins (plural) are the individual violations of God’s law. One lie – one theft – one moment of lust – one flash of hatred. Those are sins. Transgressions. Trespasses. But the problem is so much deeper than our individual offenses. We commit them because there is something inherently wrong with us – something broken in us. That is sin (singular). Sin is normal behavior for us. It comes to us naturally, so you could call it the sin nature or the sin principle.
Just watch two young siblings as they play together. One decides she wants the other’s toy and just takes it. The other one responds by hitting the first. Those are natural, normal, sinful responses. Adults have to teach children NOT to swipe toys or hit each other. The problem of sin goes back to our first parents and their first act of disobedience. Ever since then, sin has been the natural order. Every human being carries sin in their DNA. [That statement is metaphorical – not medical.] We are all born sinners.
As Nee put it so well, we are not sinners because we sin – rather, we sin because we are sinners. That means we need forgiveness for our sins, and we need deliverance from our sin. So Jesus’ redeeming work for us is two-fold: He takes care of our sins AND our sin.
In the Law given to Moses, the Hebrew system of sacrifices atoned for the sins of the people. As we heard in our reading today from Leviticus, “the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”
Only a sinless sacrifice could satisfy God’s righteous judgment – and the blood Jesus shed was the only sacrifice that could do the job once and for all. So all of our sins – past, present, and future – are forgiven because of the blood of Jesus.
Most of us know that and are quick to acknowledge that – yet there is this nagging feeling that something is still wrong with us. We may have peace with God, but there is no peace within ourselves.
That is because of our sin nature – with which we struggle constantly. We fail over and over again. We get frustrated and we fear that we may cross some invisible limit of God’s patience and lose everything. But our passage today from Romans 6 tells us that cannot happen because we have been united with Jesus Christ – both in His death and in His resurrection to new life. We begin with verse 3:
Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
That’s a lot of words to process – but what Paul is saying here is basically that we and our sin nature have been crucified with Jesus – so we are no longer slaves to sin. We have also been raised with Him – so we have a new life in which we have His righteousness. If we are united with Jesus, then His cross was where our sin was crucified – and His perfection took its place. So we have both forgiveness of sins and the victory over sin. That’s vital for us to know – because even though we lose battles with sin daily, we have already won the war!
Once the Allies secured the beachheads at Normandy – they knew they had won the war with Nazi Germany. They still faced a long, hard fight – and many of them would die along the way – but they knew it was only a matter of time until the Third Reich fell. So in the midst of terrible fighting and crushing setbacks – just knowing they had the victory was enough to keep the Allied forces going.
And so it is with us. We will face temptation every day of our earthly lives – but if we believe we have the victory, then we will live victoriously. If we live in fear of losing the battle, then we are already defeated.
Knowing that Jesus has already won the victory with sin for us should energize us for the fight. Sin may still be powerful, but it is not irresistible. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians: “God will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear …”
Which is what he meant in verse 11 from Romans 6: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” The power of the sin nature has been defeated – and we need to believe that so we can live fully and freely for God. We are no longer doomed to failure because we cannot go backward.
So when Francis Makemie reminded us to order our lives rightly so that God will show us His salvation – he knew full well that that is something we cannot do, but Jesus can and already did. Our victory over sin is Jesus’ victory that He shares with us, so we are not saving ourselves in any way. It is all Jesus’ work on our behalf.
God’s covenantal love for us doesn’t just excuse our sins – like trimming back the poison ivy that’s growing in my hedges. Instead, it deals with the core of the problem: our sin nature – like pulling the poison ivy out by the roots.
We declare our faith in God’s covenantal love every time we baptize someone – as we did four Sundays ago for Ethan and Kade. And as the Kirkwood Church will do in about an hour as we baptize my grandson, Joshua.
We are declaring our belief that God has chosen to unite them with Jesus. So their sins were punished by the shedding of Jesus’ blood, and their sin nature was nailed to the cross with Jesus – making them “a new creation,” as Paul put it in II Corinthians.
But Baptism is a sign and seal of what we believe God has done for us. It does not wash away of our sin or transform us from sinners into righteous people. The work was finished almost two-thousand years ago. And it was finished for all of God’s covenant family. For you. For your children. And for generations to come.
So trust in the Savior who did that work for you – and start living victoriously as someone whose sins are forgiven and whose sin has been defeated.
Amen.