The Forgotten Sense of Sin
Romans 8 : 1 – 11
When Christianity was the leading light in Scotland's nation and society, the words 'sin' and 'sinner' were part of everyday life. 'Living in sin' was the common description given to couples who lived together without being married. Couples themselves who did so also used this description. Another phrase which was commonly heard but no longer is 'More sinned against than sinner' describes a rebalancing of judgement on someone's alleged wrong-doing.
Sin is a term that describes human thought and conduct in relation to God. Our knowledge of God comes from the Bible, both the Old and New Testament. If you take God out of society, out of personal life and mind, then you lose the sense of sin. Sin is not about human weakness and mistakeness. It is about the rebellious streak in human nature; it is about wilfulness and the choices that lead to active wrongdoing. In the story of Adam and Eve, the sins are disobedience and denial of responsibility. Later sin came to defined in relation to The Ten Commandments. By the tenth century BC, the Book of Proverbs 6:16-19, among the verses traditionally associated with King Solomon, it states that the Lord specifically regards 'six things the Lord hateth, and seven that are an abomination unto Him', namely: 'A proud look, A lying tongue, Hands that shed innocent blood, A heart that devises wicked plots, Feet that are swift to run into mischief, A deceitful witness that utters lies, Him that sows discord among brethren'. The mediaeval Christian Church codified the Seven Deadly Sins as lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.
Mahatma Gandhi the father of modern India made up his own list of seven deadly sins and they are very interesting; 'Wealth without work, Pleasure without conscience, Science without humanity, Knowledge without character, Politics without principle, Commerce without morality, Worship without sacrifice'. He also summed up Jesus' teaching in the words, 'Hate the sin, love the sinner'. Nelson Mandela said of himself, 'I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying'. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian martyr in Nazi Germany said, 'When all is said and done, the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh'. The idea of life as a struggle to be good is basic to the sense of sin. Is it fair to say that this idea is no longer prevalent in our society today? We Ministers don't preach about sin much any more.
But of course, human nature has always rebelled against that constraint. Entertainers make light of sin through humour. Billy Joel said 'I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints'. Mae West said 'To err is human - but it feels divine'. There are lots of jokes about alcohol. 'When we drink, we get drunk. When we get drunk, we fall asleep. When we fall asleep, we commit no sin. When we commit no sin, we go to heaven. Sooooo, let's all get drunk and go to heaven!' Today Christians also have a sense of humour about sin. Here's one from America, of course. 'Three pastors went to the pastor convention and were all sharing one room. The first pastor said, 'Let's confess our secret sins one to another. I'll start - My secret sin is I don’t take time to pray for my church members but my members think I am a prayer warrior'. The second pastor said, 'My secret sin is that I just hate working and preparing the sermons. I copy all my sermons from those given by other pastors'. The third pastor said, 'My secret sin is gossiping and, oh boy, I just can't wait to get out of this room!'
Jesus transformed the understanding of sin in the Jewish society of His time. There was a very clear distinction between sinners and non-sinners because it was about keeping rules and regulations. If you kept them, you were not a sinner. If you broke them, you were. The archetypal example of this is found in Luke 18:9-14 in The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector.
Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: 'Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’ 'But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted'. Jesus also as is well known welcomed sinners and shared their company, touched, healed and blessed them and saved and redeemed them. Luke 15:7 records Him saying, 'I say to you that likewise more joy shall be in Heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance'.
And so to St Paul. Paul spent the first half of his life as an ultra Orthodox Jew. He kept all the rules and regulations. When the Christian Church burst into existence, Paul became a fanatical persecutor of Christians. Then he met the Risen Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. He was filled with the forgiving grace and love and peace of Jesus and devoted himself to Jesus for the rest of his life. So Paul knew personally what it means to be a forgiven sinner. In fact, all his life he never ceased to wonder at the miracle of his salvation, that it was undeserved and unearned – just a gift and calling from God.
So among his many wonderful words are those we heard read earlier. 'There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus'. There's a lot of condemnation in our world. Gas boilers are condemned. Motor cars are condemned. Houses and buildings are condemned. It means that they are seriously faulty and dangerous. Some types of human behaviour are condemned, notably crimes against children. Politicians are invited to condemn this person or that for some action or other. People have condemned Israel for its killing of Palestinians in Gaza. People are condemning Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his army for the genocidal murder of minority peoples including Christians in Iraq. Condemnation is a severe word, far greater in meaning than mere disagreement or criticism. In the middle of the world is are the letters d-e-m-n. For centuries Christianity preached and taught an either-or Gospel of salvation and condemnation, or damnation in terms of eternal life. You don't hear any of that nowadays. Although flourishing independent evangelical Churches still give out that message. The Christian Brethren still hold to it but they live quiet and unobtrusive lives. The Roman Catholic Church technically still maintains exclusive salvation for it members but has moved in the 20th century to begin to recognise other Christians as also heirs of grace and salvation. We condemn one another in our gossip and judgementalism. We even condemn ourselves in reproach and sense of low self-esteem.
But the Christian Good News is that in Jesus Christ there is no condemnation. We are forgiven. We are loved. We are saved into eternity. We can live in peace and we can die in peace. In order to be sustained in this saving grace however, we must live as God wants us to live. Paul says 'those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires'. He adds, 'Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God'. Christians, says Paul, are controlled by the Spirit. Are they? Are we? Are you? The Holy Spirit is not a set of reigns or a brace and bit or a chain around your legs. The Holy Spirit is a higher presence in your life that raises you up into a level of understanding and conduct that otherwise you would not know or practise. Freedom to be good and pleasing to God is what the Holy Spirit does and how the practical effect of non-condemnation works out. Paul says that you have to know this is happening in your life or else you are not benefiting from Christ's salvation. You live by different standards. You treat people in a different way. You are a better person. You are enabled to be a better person by the power of the Risen Jesus living in you. It changes you. It makes a difference. This is a great power – it is the power of resurrection from the dead after all. None greater.
The forgotten sense of sin in our society means equal ignorance of forgiving grace, love, peace and salvation. Does anyone care? Do you? Is life any the worse for having no Christianity in it? Can we do very well without God? Can you? Christianity is not a wishy washy take it or leave it faith. It matters. It is true. Christianity offers something unique and great. Its Gospel is transforming. It may convict of sin but it leads to deliverance and liberation from sin. Christianity is stronger than heroin or crack cocaine. It is stronger than human hatred and bitterness. It offer diagnosis and cure. Is it for you?