“I came not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them!” Matthew 5:17
Barney Fife was leaving the church after a Sunday morning service. Both Aunt Bee and Andy complimented the preacher on the message about the need to slow down and not rush through life. “It was wonderful!” “It hit the nail on the head!” Barney, who had been snoozing through it offered, “Yes, that’s one subject you just can’t talk enough about…SIN.”
So in the spirit of Barney Fife, let’s talk about sin this week. But I don’t want this to be a long complaint about all the evils of the world. I don’t want to drone on, albeit in type, about the moral decay of our society or take on the latest grotesque example of some sin that reels vulgarly down the middle of the street.
Instead I want to talk about the goodness of sin.
Don’t get me wrong, sin is an awful thing. The word seems obsolete and so very out of step with our lax standards today. The only sin the general society seems willing to acknowledge is when someone suggests that something is a sin.
I risk droning here, but, honestly, it appears that our squeamish culture loves to point out the failings of anyone on the other side of any divide. Especially when the apparent failure comes from a minister or one who claims to be a Christian then the calls of “Hypocrite!!!” ring out. A sinner is met with mocking and ridicule from the very people who object to the word in the first place.
What’s especially troubling for me, however, is the implication that because someone has failed to meet the standard then the standard is useless and should be discarded. It’s the equivalent taking down the net in tennis because it obstructs the flight of a low-flying ball.
I believe that the failure to meet the standard God establishes points out the need for the standard. Instead of getting rid of the notion of sin, why not embrace it? It’s really no help at all to redefine, ignore, or rationalize it. Sure it’s uncomfortable and risks making us feel badly. My sin makes me feel badly! But how much more badly do I feel if I continue down a path that leads to destruction?
So the first “goodness” of sin, is that it reminds us of the need for godly standards, the Ten Commandments, all the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Every grace-focused Christian needs to regularly recall that Jesus pointedly said, “I came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them.” And fulfilling them certainly does not mean getting rid of them.
I believe it was Chesterton who wrote, “Good art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.” I’m going to trust that God knows where to draw the lines, and my task is learning to live within those boundaries.
And that leads us to the second “goodness of sin.” It does point out where I need to change. When I’m confronted with clear evidence that I’m living “outside the lines” I have a choice. I can argue with the line by either redrawing it or erasing it altogether. Or I can shape my behavior to be in conformity with the line.
In our hyper-individualistic age the word “conformity” is anathema. We’re so in love with the notion of unbridled self. It is Invictus on steroids. “I am the captain of my own soul!” even if I’m steering the ship over a waterfall.
What I’ve just described is the very “self” that Jesus told us to deny. The chief paradox of the gospel is that by clinging to self we lose ourselves, and that by denying self and conforming to our Creator we actually find freedom.
A common feature of “quest” stories is that the protagonist, Frodo or Dorothy for example, must not leave the path. Bad things await, and you’ll never reach your destination if you stray. When I stray from the path, I inevitably get a sting of pain, a foreshadowing of the further destruction that awaits me if I continue off the path. The sting should guide me back to the way that leads to life and peace.
The Bible is clear and unified in the fact that sin is always in us. In Genesis God warned Cain that it “crouches at the door.” Paul wrote extensively about the flesh, which is a very unfortunate translation, but means the sinful nature, or the “bent” to sin that we struggle with.
We all tend to regard our sin as less serious and smaller than it actually is, but in a moment of clarity and honesty we must recognize that much of the soul-pain in our lives is simply the result of sin. And pain can be a great teacher that shows us where we can change to escape the pain.
So I suppose this GraceWave is a call to honesty. Simple, brutal honesty. Sin is a real, daily struggle that wise people have been warning us about for thousands of years. Human nature in the 21st century has not changed.
But I must end on a note of grace. The awareness of sin might awaken a renewed commitment to eradicate it. That’s a good thing IF the response is cloaked in grace and joy. Too often a Christian responds to sin by trying even harder to be a good Christian, and I mean “good” in the very worst sense of the word.
The response might be to read the Bible more, go to church more, pray more, etc. These are all good things, but if that defines being a better Christian, notice where the focus is. Self. My Self is trying harder. It all comes down to me. And that is not a good thing.
The awareness of sin brings grace and joy when we allow it to refocus us on the presence of Christ in us. I am to be conformed to Christ not by outward actions, but by the inner relationship. Becoming a good Christian is never a matter of the outward working inward. It’s the inward working outward.
You are in Christ, and Christ is in you. That is the immutable fact of being a Christian. Yes, sin is real, but it can be used for our good if it drives us back to the inner Christ. Before Him we find no condemnation.
Dr. Terry Ellis
January 28, 2018