by Robert J. Young

Today's sermon is effort to solve problems. Not small problems, but often ignored problems for we do not know what to do, how to think, and frankly, many of our efforts seem a bit meager.

This is going to take our best thinking, best reasoning, careful attention, hope you will like our study, experience worship as we strive to explore plan and mind of God who is bigger than we are, find a challenge in the spiritual exercise of this lesson.

We are accustomed to thinking of sin as individual acts of disobedience to God. True, but incomplete. Scripture goes further. Sin is a complex concept. Eight Hebrew words for sin are found in Bible. Paul in Romans sees sin as condition that plagues the human race, Rom. 3:9-23. We know these verses, all have sinned. We might do well to consider the characteristics of that condition--how if at all is it passed on, how do I come to participate in the condition, do I do something to get the disease, etc.--but time does not permit such a detour this morning.

Sin as a condition also works its way out through our bodily members, Rom. 6-7. That is, the activities of the body are the outlet for sin. Sin is defined first in actions. Paul (7:5ff) seems to be referring to the ingrained habits of the body. And there is no slavery that can compare to the slavery of ingrained habits, Rom. 6:16ff.

This may be understood perhaps by 1 John 3:9, he that is in the habit of sinning, he that makes a practice of sin. "No one who has been born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him, he cannot go on sinning because he has been born of God." We often stop right there, somewhat comforting as we see sin in our lives, for our relationship to God does not depend upon perfection. We know we are sinful, we see sin in our lives, we read 1 John 1:6ff and note that even when one is walking in the light, that sin is possible but that the sin is covered continually by the blood of Jesus Christ.

We are not as anxious to continue in the 1 John 3 reading: "Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God, nor is anyone who does not love his brother." These are also present tenses--we must not be in the habit of sinning, we must be in the habit of doing right.
One more phrase is of concern, "because God's seed remains in him." This is also key to our understanding.

Genesis 1 describes humans as dual beings. This is essential to understanding our nature. We are both biological and spiritual. We are image of God and living being (living soul). We studied this not long ago. As we think about sin, the most obvious connection between sin and our nature is to the physical, biological side. This is the slavery Paul is discussing when he speaks of sin working through our bodily members. The sins into which we may fall on the spiritual side--self righteousness, pride, unjustified anger--are distinct from, yet related, to our physical nature.

More OT, Isa. 57:20 says, "The wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot rest, and its waters toss up mire and dirt." The sea does not need to do anything special to produce mire and dirt; that is the result of its natural motion. This is also true of human beings under the condition of sin. The natural motions of our lives produce mire and dirt. Sin is a part of the internal structure of our lives. We do not have to go out of our way to sin. We need only to do what comes naturally. No special effort is needed to produce sin in our lives. No wonder the biblical writers speak of how sin entraps us.

Now consider. In our duality, much a part of Hebrew view of the human experience, we are both spirit and physical, body and soul. When sin overwhelms us, as it did David, to what shall we attribute that sin--to the spirit or to the body? Of course, to the body. Sin is working in our members. David has sinned. Why? Because God's seed is in him (God's nature, God's character) or because of his human nature? Because he is human. Because of the nature of sin in working through the physical side. How did he come to have this nature--as a result of his human parents. And, even his conception was through a process that was bodily. It is not necessary to say that David was illegitimate to understand this phrase as referring to physical desires, living being nature, and David's own inheritance of that physical nature from his parents. Perhaps this explanation is not as detailed as you might wish, but this study is designed to encourage you to explore further.

Now, our ordinary method of dealing with such natural sin is to launch a frontal attack. We rely on our own willpower and determination. Whatever the issue--anger, fear, bitterness, gluttony, pride, lust, substance abuse, pornography, sinful actions, immorality--we determine never to do it again. We pray against it, we fight against it, we set our will against it. But the struggle is all in vain and we find ourselves once again morally bankrupt, or worse yet, so proud of our external facade (which only means that no one else really sees inside us) that we are worse than Jesus' description of "whitened sepulchres."

In Colossians, Paul lists some of the outward forms that people use to control sin--touch not, taste not, handle not. He is not commending these but condemning them. He adds, these have a show of wisdom in will worship (Col. 2:20-23). Will worship--what a telling phrase, how descriptive our lives. We are here to worship-- will we will ourselves to worship? Can worship flow naturally from our hearts and our lips? When we decide we can succeed and attain victory over sin by the strength of our will alone, we are worshiping the will. Paul looks at the most strenuous efforts in the spiritual walk and calls them idolatry, will worship.

Willpower will never succeed in dealing with the deeply ingrained habits of sin. "As soon as you resist mentally any undesirable or unwanted circumstance, you thereby endow it with more power--power which it will use against you and you have depleted your own resources to that exact extent." As long as we think we can save ourselves by our own willpower, we will only make the evil in us stronger than ever.

When we despair of gaining inner transformation and victory over sin through human powers of will and determination, we are open to a wonderful new realization: inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The change we need is God's work, not ours. We need an inside job, but only can work that work. We cannot attain or earn this righteousness of the kingdom of God; it is a given grace.
This Paul demonstrates again and again in Romans. Our objective righteousness is a gift from God--this is most obvious to most of us. But our subjective righteousness is also a gift from God. In fact, the bible makes no clear distinction between the objective and subjective righteousness which we theological are accustomed to, because to have one without the other is ludicrous. To look righteous without being righteous is not biblical. To be saved (objective) without a holy lifestyle (sanctification--subjective) is hypocrisy at its worst. But both are God's gifts. One of the clearest statements is in Rom. 5:17: those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness shall reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ." This is grace. This is God at work in our lives. Let us accept it, let us rejoice in it, let us relish it, let it motivate us to worship and song, to praise and adoration, to grateful obedience and undying love, loyalty and allegiance.

But, the moment we grasp this breathtaking insight we are tempted to an error in the opposite direction. We are tempted to believe there is nothing we can do. If human efforts end in moral bankruptcy and if righteousness is a gracious gift from God, then must we not wait for God to come and transform us? Strangely enough, the answer is no. The analysis is correct--human striving is insufficient and righteousness is God's gift--but the conclusion is faulty. We are not hung on the horns of the dilemma of either human works or idleness. We, through the spiritual life, can place ourselves before God so that he can transform us, much as a person can go to the doctor to receive treatment.

Another illustration is found in Gal. 6:8. A farmer is helpless to grow grain, all he does is provide right conditions for the growing of grain. Cultivate, plant, water, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and the grain grows. This is the way it is with the spiritual journey. Our spiritual walk is a way of sowing to the Spirit. Spiritual disciplines get us into the ground, put us where he can work with us in us through us and transform us, John 12:24. By themselves, prayer, Bible reading, singing, worship do nothing. They only place us where something can be done. They are part of God's means of grace. They put us where God can bless us.

Thus, we might properly speak of the path of disciplined grace. Grace because it is free--disciplined because there is something for us to do, even though that doing is not meritorious. As Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship, "We must pay the price of a consciously chosen course of action which involves both individual and group life."

Let us picture what we have discussed. Picture a long, narrow ridge, perhaps like the Camelback Drive outside Canon City, CO. There is a steep dropoff on either side. To the right is way of moral bankruptcy through physical sin and human strivings from righteousness. This is the heresy of moralism. To the left is the way of moral bankruptcy through a spiritual dependence so strong that human striving is totally absent. This is the heresy of antinomianism, lawlessness. On the ridge is a path, the discipline of the spiritual life. This path leads to inner transformation and healing. This path leads to unquestioning obedience. It is not easy, but it brings incredible joys. As we travel this path, the blessing of God comes on us and we are reconstructed into the image of Jesus Christ. But we must remember that the path does not produce the change, it is only the place where the change can occur.

How can one find that path? It is the path that Jesus himself walked. To join him on that path begins by sharing in his life--his death, burial, and resurrection. Paul also notes that this is mirrored perfectly in our baptism, Romans 6. We begin the same path. But it is not our response that produces the change, it is not the action itself that produces the change, it is our placement where God can change us, save us, cleanse us, sanctify us.

This then is the response today--we will place ourselves where God can work in our lives. We will not quibble over baptism which issues from faith and evidences repentance, for it places us where God can work his work. We will renew our efforts--not for human merit, but to be living where God can work his work in our lives. We will balance our dual nature, veering neither to spiritual self-satisfaction, self- righteousness and pride, nor to physical license, immorality, and sin. We will follow Jesus who showed us life under God's control and power.

Some material from early chapters in Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline.

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Last updated February 26, 2001.