I’m preaching this weekend in my home church, and so, I thought I’d share my sermon, both because I feel bad that I haven’t been working as much on getting podcast episodes out because of it, and because I thought it might be a good way to practice it, do some final editing and figure out how long it would be.
So, the audio is a recording of me reading through it, and here’s the text for those who prefer to read.
A few weeks ago, my pastor approached myself and two others and asked if we’d be willing to preach this month. He wanted us to preach something encouraging, because 2020 has been a strange and uncertain sort of year, and this last month is likely to be no less strange and uncertain. At a time of year when many of us are nearly overwhelmed with family, friends and social gatherings, this year, we’re all largely confined to our homes.
It’s a good time for some encouragement. So, today, I want to tell you that all It’s Worth It.
Everything you’re going through – it’s okay, or at least, it will be okay. That’s what I’m going to try and get across today.
However, those of you who know me know that I don’t follow instructions very well. I can be a bit of a rebel.
So, today, I am going to do my best to encourage you. But, I’m going to take a roundabout way to get there, if you don’t mind. So bear with me, and we’ll get there together.
There is an old Jewish story of a poor man who lived with his wife and six children in a very small one-room house. They were always getting in each other’s way and there was so little space they could hardly breathe!
Finally the man could stand it no more. He talked to his wife and asked her what to do. “Go see the rabbi,” she told him, and after arguing a while, he went.
The rabbi greeted him and said, “I see something is troubling you. Whatever it is, you can tell me.”
And so the poor man told the rabbi how miserable things were at home with him, his wife, and the six children all eating and living and sleeping in one room. The poor man told the rabbi, “We’re even starting to yell and fight with each other. Life couldn’t be worse.”
The rabbi thought very deeply about the poor man’s problem. Then he said, “Do exactly as I tell you and things will get better. Do you promise?”
“I promise,” the poor man said.
The rabbi then asked the poor man a strange question. “Do you own any animals?”
“Yes,” he said. “I have one cow, one goat, and some chickens.”
“Good,” the rabbi said. “When you get home, take all the animals into your house to live with you.”
The poor man was astonished to hear this advice from the rabbi, but he had promised to do exactly what the rabbi said. So he went home and took all the farm animals into the tiny one-room house.
The next day the poor man ran back to see the rabbi. “What have you done to me, Rabbi?” he cried. “It’s awful. I did what you told me and the animals are all over the house! Rabbi, help me!”
The rabbi listened and said calmly, “Now go home and take the chickens back outside.”
The poor man did as the rabbi said, but hurried back again the next day. “The chickens are gone, but Rabbi, the goat!” he moaned. “The goat is smashing up all the furniture and eating everything in sight!”
The good rabbi said, “Go home and remove the goat and may God bless you.”
So the poor man went home and took the goat outside. But he ran back again to see the rabbi, crying and wailing. “What a nightmare you have brought to my house, Rabbi! With the cow it’s like living in a stable! Can human beings live with an animal like this?”
The rabbi said sweetly, “My friend, you are right. May God bless you. Go home now and take the cow out of your house.” And the poor man went quickly home and took the cow out of the house.
The next day he came running back to the rabbi again. “O Rabbi,” he said with a big smile on his face, “we have such a good life now. The animals are all out of the house. The house is so quiet and we’ve got room to spare! What a joy!”
Today I’m going to make you aware of a lot of undesirable things in your life, I’m going throw some animals into your small house, if you will, in order that you might see what you have and, I hope, appreciate it more. This means that if you don’t like the sermon half way through it – you might want to wait until the end. Otherwise you might be stuck with some animals in your house.
This sermon really started because about a month ago when I was talking to my 14-year-old daughter, a few weeks before she got baptized. It was just a conversation that sort of sprung up while cleaning up the kitchen, doing dishes, putting leftovers away, etc… Those are the best conversations, I think. This one lasted nearly three hours about all sorts of topics. We talked about theology and church doctrine, how they integrate with life, about personal integrity and more. It all started with her being curious as to why people don’t think about what they think. Now, that’s a whole topic in and of itself that I’m not going to get into today.
But during the conversation, one of the topics we tripped across was the dichotomy, that is, the two opposing ideas, that we are both wretched sinners worthy of nothing but death, while yet also being so loved and valued that it was worth Christ dying for us, and more. I thought that discussion might be of interest to some, in particular, why that dichotomy needs to exist.
Because I think it’s crucial, not only to our walk with God, but also to our psyche, as Christians.
I started writing about that idea, and I kept tripping over another dichotomy – grace and the law, which I think are predecessors to the concept of the balance of sin and grace. In fact, the more I tried to avoid discussing grace and the law, the more I kept running into it. So, I stopped trying to avoid it.
So, we’re going to tackle it all at once. To try to explain the balance of grace and the law, God’s love for us, and our wretchedness, but for a specific reason – to show the implications of what happens if you don’t understand that balance. Because I think that happens a lot, and I think it hurts a lot of people.
I grew up in a denomination that taught a lot about grace, but almost nothing about the law.
When I was a teenager, I was taught that you were saved, not quite by grace, because grace implies some directed goodwill, but more like some arbitrary lottery that you never entered, and there was nothing that could be done to change your status. The metaphor that was used was that it was as if all the souls were a waterfall and God reached out to save a random handful of them from falling over the edge into eternal damnation.
If you were chosen, you could not even reject God if you tried. As such, to be honest, I’m not sure I really appreciated salvation as I was growing up. I mean, why would you? You had absolutely nothing to do with it. The church I grew up in taught that I hadn’t chosen God, in fact, that I had no free will of my own, and so, nothing I did made any difference. Arguably, the sins I committed weren’t my own, but that of the God that programmed me.
Many of my friends in the denomination I’m in now though had quite the opposite upbringing – some being taught the law so strongly, they very much understood why we needed grace – but many struggled to believe they were in fact saved. For them, salvation was so tightly bound to what they did, that they were never quite sure if it was enough.
And these are the problems that rise when we weigh too heavily on the side of grace, or of the law. When we either teach one side of the equation more than the other, or visa versa.
I think the answer is that the two need to be balanced, perfectly. Too much on one side, and a Saviour isn’t necessarily appreciated. Too much on the other side, and a Saviour isn’t enough. So, today, I want to take a look at this dichotomy – these two opposing ideas – to try and understand how they can both come from the same God – A God who both condemns and saves you, why that’s important to recognize this, and through that, explain why it’s all going to be okay.
Why we need the law
So, why do we need the law? Well, in short, I don’t think the law is for us, or at least, not only for us. I think it pre-exists us. I think the things that we commonly call the law, like the 10 Commandments, are not actually the law. Now, that might sound sacrilegious to say, but I think they are actually just an application of the law.
I think the law, in its essence, is simple:
“Do good”. You could also say “Love”. I think those are synonymous – they mean the same thing.
I think it starts with God being loving, being good. And being good, He created beings with free will because control is not loving – in other words, it’s not good. However, this creates a problem.
As soon as He did that, as soon as He created a being with free will, the concept of evil entered the universe.
That’s not the same thing as saying God created evil. I don’t think evil is a thing. I think it’s the opposite of a thing. I think the word “evil” is basically shorthand for “not good” or “not loving”.
To illustrate this idea, imagine that no one had ever created a mug. If there was never any such thing as a mug, then there would be no concept of something not being a mug. Noone would ever look at a cup and say “that’s not a mug”, because a mug wouldn’t be a thing yet. But as soon as someone creates a mug, now there is such a thing as “not a mug”.
In the same way, evil is not something that was created, but rather it was a byproduct of there being good, and choice.
The same thing happened when God created light. Suddenly, there was darkness. God didn’t create the darkness. Darkness isn’t a thing. It’s merely the absence of light. You cannot make something more dark, only less light. You cannot measure darkness, only how little light there is. In the same way, a vacuum, like the vacuum of space, doesn’t really exist, it’s merely the absence of matter.
So, evil doesn’t exist except as it’s a shorthand for something “not good”. So, then, we have good, and we have evil, the absence of good.
Now, how do you know if something is good? How do you know if it’s not good?
Some might say that you just know it.
To that, I immediately think “no, we don’t”, because clearly we can’t tell by ourselves. That’s like asking someone who is drunk if they’re okay to drive. They might guess correctly, but there’s a good chance they won’t.
Human history is full of acts of evil committed by people who thought they were doing good.
Being a Christian isn’t a solution either. Believing that the Holy Spirit will guide you isn’t even a solution, as much as we’d like it to be. Our history has Christians killing non-Christians and Christians alike all in the name of good and God.
The Crusaders even shouted out the phrase “Deus Vult” – God wills it – while killing their enemies.
And of course, every Christian who hears that immediately thinks as a defense “well, they weren’t really Christians”. After all, how can you claim to be a Christian and brutally murder people, right? But then, how do you know they weren’t “really” Christians? Well, we know many of the fighters in the Crusades were actually criminals that were conscripted rather than face their punishment. So, yes, many of them likely weren’t “real” Christians. But what about the rest?
Well, ultimately, we mean when we say that they weren’t real Christians is that they weren’t following the law they claimed to follow. Even Christians who don’t believe in the law will still use it as a standard for what is good and evil because that is how we know if something is good or evil! By whether or not it follows God’s laws. How do we know this?
Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. – Romans 7:12
Good is in keeping with the law. Evil is not in keeping with the law.
Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. – 1 John 3:4
So, the law is a guide, to show us when we’re out of bounds. To tell us when something is not good. In short, the law tells us what is evil. It tells us when we sin, because sinning is simply doing what is not good.
What the law teaches you
So, then, what does this law tell us about ourselves?
Well, it shows us just how evil we are. Because, try as we might, we cannot follow the law. All Christians, everywhere, claim to do their best to love each other.
But we don’t. Not really.
Watch almost any two Christians debate theology and tell me who they love based on the exchange. Usually it’s not very clear that we love our opponent. Many times it’s not even clear we love God. What we typically love is our own ideas.
So, this law shows us how sinful we are. It shows us how evil we are.
Some time ago, my pastor acted out a great illustration of this. On this stage, he went behind the curtain and claimed that he was sinning in some vague way. When he came out, his face was covered in dirt. It was symbolic of the sin he’d accrued.
And he happily walked around, supposedly ignorant of the dirt all over his face. He was blissful in his ignorance of his sin, until he happened across a mirror. Then he realized how dirty he was, in other words, how sinful he was.
And that’s what the law also does – by showing us what sin is, it shows us just how sinful we are.
Many Christians will claim that the law is done away with, that it was nailed to the cross, that we no longer need it anymore because Christ came. However, if you take a few minutes to think this through, you know that’s not true. All the atrocities Christians have committed, they committed not only in God’s name, but in Christ’s, since His death and resurrection. They still did evil things.
Paul certainly didn’t think the law was useless or done away with when he wrote:
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.” – Romans 7:7
Now, that is Paul writing some twenty to thirty years after Christ died and rose again. After Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. He still felt the law was there to show us what sin is, to show us how wretched we are. In fact, the more we read the Bible, the more we are taught about that law, the more we realize just how bad we are, because God’s law is Holy and good, and by comparison, we realize how unholy and not good we are.
The more we think about the law, the more wretched we become. It’s like getting a better mirror. We can see more of the dirt. And we see Paul experience this in his writings. The more he studies and learns, the more wretched he becomes. Eventually, he reaches this point:
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. – 1 Timothy 1:15
Paul considered himself the worst sinner of all sinners. That is what the law does for you. It shows you where you are not in line with God. It shows you where you are not good. And that’s important to know, because sin is very serious.
For the wages of sin is death – Romans 6:23a
A single offense is punishable by death, and we stack them up each and every day.
What does the law tell us about who we are
What then does the law tell us about who we are?
We believe there is a God who created our universe and everything that is in it. A God who is all knowing, all powerful, all loving. We claim to want to live with that God for eternity, to follow His every command, because they are good, both for mankind and for ourselves. That is what we claim to believe.
So, do you believe? We like to think we do. We sit here, in this church, or at home, saying we do. But the law shows us that we are all liars and hypocrites. We don’t really believe God is who He says he is. If we did, we would actually do what we claim, wouldn’t we?
We put other things ahead of God in the hierarchies of our lives. We don’t take Him seriously. We don’t follow His commandments, His Laws. We are not kind to our neighbours. We aren’t even kind to ourselves much of the time.
Let me ask you, if someone were privy to all the things you do in your life, would they conclude that you are a Christian? Or would they conclude that you occasionally visit a church, or watch a sermon online, and maybe give them money for some obscure, perhaps even ironic reason?
And this is why the world laughs at us when we claim to believe in God – because we certainly don’t act like it. That’s just based on our actions.
What about our thoughts? What sorts of things go on in that terrible thing you call a mind? What atrocities have you committed in your fantasies? Which of us hasn’t had a time when we thought “Oh, I could just kill that guy” for stupid things like cutting us off in traffic, accidentally stepping on our toes, bumping into us and making us spill our drink. All, clearly crimes worthy of immediate execution.
We are, frankly, horrible, terrible beings, bent on the destruction of ourselves and others. In fact, the more we think we are good, the worse we tend to get! The Crusades, the World Wars, and slavery in general proved that well enough, I think. Every time we think we’re the best, we seem to think that means everyone else isn’t worth having around.
Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18
The point is, we are all capable of atrocities as humans, and claiming to be Christian doesn’t mean that capability suddenly goes away. In fact, I think it means we have to be even more vigilant, because you can do almost anything if you believe God is telling you to do it, or even if you think He’s on your side, rather than you being worried about being on His side.
And that is the largest argument atheists have against religion, to point at all the horrible things Christians have done and continue to do.
That is the idea — that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked. You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with all its tortures; there were millions of unfortunate women burned as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty practiced upon all sorts of people in the name of religion. – Betrand Russell (British Philosopher)
During the 10th Century, the church taught that if you were a knight, you could achieve forgiveness from sins through battle. They created the concept of a Holy War – one that conveyed spiritual merit on those who fought in it. In short, killing people was how you attained salvation.
As such, Christians led the Spanish, Portuguese, Mexican, Roman and Goa Inquisitions during which thousands were killed, and even more imprisoned.
The witch trials resulted in the executions of some 40 to 60 thousand people, again, by Christians.
On top of this, the vast majority of Christians prior to the late 15th century believed that enslaving other races was consistent with Christian theology.
The evil that has infected us from almost the beginning is far darker than most of us want to admit. The first sin recorded is basically the choice to eat a piece of fruit, albeit against God’s personally expressed command. The second sin recorded was a man being murdered by his own brother. That’s quite the escalation, particularly for a man whose parents literally walked and talked with God. His mother and father literally had been closer to God than any of us hope to be in this life.
If you aren’t careful about knowing that law that tells you right from wrong, then there’s real danger there that you won’t recognize the difference between what you think is right, and what God thinks is right.
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17
We don’t like to think about what sort of evil we’re capable of, because if we take too much time to think about it, it might break us.
In fact, the only way the Bible says that we can do good is to not act like ourselves. We have to be Christ-like. Any impulse that we have, that we think we should do, we shouldn’t do at all. Instead, we would ask “What would Jesus do”, and then do that. Even with that, we still manage to get it wrong a lot of the time.
Now, that leaves us with a problem. How do we deal with that? How do you deal with the soul-crushing realization that you have the potential in you to be a monster, and that even if you don’t commit atrocities, we commit evil against other people, and against God, every single day, each one worthy of death?
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned – Romans 5:12
That because we claim to believe in that all loving God, that we claim to follow Him no less, the fact that we do not act lovingly condemns us all as the worst sort of hypocrites. Not only do we not obey Him, on a day to day basis, we actively work against Him because any sin, any breaking of His law is by definition an act in direct opposition to God.
Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. – Matthew 15:7-8
The Bible even seems to suggest that we start sinning even before we are born.
And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” – Romans 9:10-12
And so, from our earliest moments, we find that we commit treason against the creator of the universe, whom we claim as our God..
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ – Matthew 7:21-23
How do you deal with that?
Now, if you remember the story at the beginning, about the man with all the children in a small house. These are the chickens, the goat and the cow I’ve just thrown into your house. If you feel a little miserable, you’re exactly where you should be. Now, let’s start taking them out, so you can experience freedom again.
Why we need grace
Hopefully by this point, why we need grace is obvious. We need grace because we will never measure up on our own.
As it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes. “
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. – Romans 3:11-20
If eternal paradise is for perfect people – you’re not going to get there on your own ticket. There is nothing you can do in order to earn it. In fact, the more you try, the more you do, the more you sin, invalidating your entry. The harder you try to be good, the less good you are.
So, what is the answer Christianity has to this problem of ours? Well, the answer is grace.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9
In short, that while entrance to paradise requires perfection – it doesn’t require your perfection. You don’t get there on your own works, because your works aren’t good enough to undo all the sin you have done. Quite the opposite in fact, your own works only add to the sin. It’s like trying to get out of debt by paying a loan with a credit card, you’re not getting rid of your debt, you’re just digging a deeper financial hole.
But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. – Isaiah 64:6
Trying to pay off the sin in our life, is like trying to clean up a mess with rags that are already filthy – you’re just going to make the mess worse.
For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. – Romans 6:18
Many people have accused me of being a “why” person. I never really outgrew that toddler phase of asking “why”. Not just once, but continuously until I get to the base reason. I want to know the reason for everything.
And all this has recently left me with an uncomfortable feeling. Why is it that all we can do is sin more? Why can’t we work off our debt? Why is grace the only way?
The canned answer of course is – we have a sinful nature.
Why do we have a sinful nature?
Another canned answer – “because Adam and Eve sinned”.
And most of Christianity agrees, Adam and Eve sinned, and because of that, we have a sinful nature.
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned – Romans 5:12
But that doesn’t explain it. It only describes what happened. It’s a bit like asking why a car works and being told “If you hit the gas pedal, it accelerates”. That’s how it works, not why it works.
So, what is the why? For what purpose do we have a sinful nature?
I get a lot of people telling me that it’s a natural consequence of sin, that there is no “purpose”, but if that’s the case, by what mechanism? There doesn’t seem to be anything in Adam and Eve’s choice to eat a piece of fruit that somehow innately and naturally broke humanity somehow so that we have an arguably impossible to resist handicap when it comes to sin.
I asked a lot of people this question in the last couple of weeks.
Some argue there is no sinful nature, but rather just a series of bad decisions that cascade into life as we know it now. That it’s not that we have a sinful nature, it’s just that we have thousands of years of bad decisions weighing on us. However, if that was the case, then we would expect sin to slowly grow, rather than explode immediately after the fall, which is what we see in the Bible. The following generations are so full of sin that God decides to destroy the earth and start over.
The point is, sin didn’t slowly creep in, steadily growing. It hit us full force. So, the argument that our sinful nature is simply a natural consequence of sins stacked on top of each other doesn’t seem to make sense to me.
No, I think our sinful nature was given to us, by design, and that’s not a popular opinion, because it means God set us up to fail. In fact, I had one person tell me that if that was the case, there was no way he could continue to worship a God who did that. But I think God did this because there was no other way to ensure that when all is said and done, when Judgement Day comes and goes, when sin is destroyed, that it would stay gone. I think this is the only way for it to work.
And it’s not unprecedented for God to allow evil things to happen in order that good might finally be triumphant. The Bible is full of examples of God either letting bad things happen to His people, or sometimes even flat out saying He will cause them in order that they might learn something important.
Sometimes it’s not even the person who gets hurt who has to learn the lesson. A prime example is Lazarus. If you don’t know the story, Lazarus was a friend of Jesus’ who got sick. When Jesus got the news, rather than hurry to cure Lazarus, the Bible says he tarried. He took his time. He stayed where he was for another couple of days, until, in the course of events, Lazarus finally died. It takes Jesus another 2 days to get there.
Now, Jesus does finally go to visit him, calls Lazarus out from the grave, and Lazarus is resurrected. So, why did He wait? Why make Lazarus suffer? Why make his family mourn?
Just to recap – Jesus found out about Lazarus being sick, seemingly knew he was going to die. He could have left immediately upon hearing it and still gotten there just as he died and still resurrected him. But no, it was decided He would wait to make sure Lazarus was good and dead a couple of days before showing up.
“for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” – John 11:4b
He also says:
I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. – John 15
And it’s not that Jesus is uncompassionate. The death of his friend moves Him greatly. This is one of only three times the Bible explicitly tells us Jesus cried. So, do not think it was a cold, calculated move. It cut Him deeply. Yet, He was willing to do it in order to further the goal of saving people.
This is merely one example of many in the Bible where God is willing to do something we might find distasteful in order that the ultimate good might be achieved.
For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience, even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! – Romans 11:30-33
When Adam and Eve sinned, God’s response seems to be to agree and escalate. As if He said “Oh, you think that’s a better way? Alright, I’ll show you how this plays out.”
And I think that’s uncomfortable for many, because “the ends justify the means” has always been considered an immoral position. That’s the position of the bad guys in movies. How can it be what God appears to do?
Now, the standard answer to this is “God is God and can do whatever He wishes, and that makes it moral”. Sort of an “how dare you question God” retaliation. Frankly, I think it’s a terrible answer, because if God is loving, and God sets the standard for love, then God has to live up to that same standard.
So then, why is it that the ends justify the means for God, and not for us?
I think it’s two things:
- God knows everything. We, as humans, may strive for an outcome, but He can actually orchestrate one. One of those benefits of existing outside of time.
- God has experienced what it is to be the means that is justified. He chose to be born a human, to experience life, to suffer the pain of our sin and to die in a horrific death. In short, he’s suffering alongside all of us. He’s not asking others to suffer for His desired end.
No sinful human can claim those two things.
And so, we have a God who can justly allow us all, including Himself, to suffer in order that ultimately good may prevail. Not in a cold and calculating way, but being with us, every step of the way, feeling what we feel, agonizing with us. Wishing there was a better way to remove even the possibility of sin from the universe, but ultimately knowing there isn’t. He hates sin and loves us so much that He is willing to subject us to this.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.
Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. […]
And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them. – Romans 1:18-32
I think God did this to us, purposefully, and if He did it, it must ultimately be for our own good, because I believe that He is all knowing, all powerful and loving. Therefore, this must be the best way to do it, right?
But this still only describes the what – So, again why?
I think the answer is that the only way to ensure that there is no sin in paradise while still letting people have free will is that we need to have experienced sin on a personal level, so that we will have a strong desire not to let sin happen again.
Even if that means giving up everything else with it. Because we don’t know anything except a sinful world. Everything we hold dear is tainted by it. In order to be happy for eternity, we need to be willing to take nothing of this life with us. To leave it all behind.
“People couldn’t become truly holy, he said, unless they also had the opportunity to be definitively wicked.”
― Terry Pratchett, Good Omens
I believe that we have to have seen just how miserably destructive sin is and then be able to say “I don’t want that!” and you can only get to that point if you have personally experienced it as the sinner. We don’t learn from other people well enough because we have a tendency to believe we would have done better if we were in their situation. But you won’t.
While writing this sermon, I thought of the story of the prodigal son again as well. If you don’t know the story, it’s of a man with two sons who live at home with him and help manage what seems to be a fairly wealthy estate. The first son decides he wants to go out, and see what the world has to offer. So, he asks for his share of the inheritance, strikes out and basically spends all the money quickly ending up poor and hungry. After taking some menial job and not even making enough money to eat properly, he decides to go home, and beg his father to hire him back as a servant. Coming home, his father accepts him gladly, but the second son is livid that this selfish, wretched brother would dare return.
What if this story is an explanation? What if this son was a man who had seen sin and decided he wanted no part in it, but wanted to come home, with humility, understanding he needed salvation. Who wanted to live in paradise, never having to wonder if there was anything better out there again, because he’d seen there wasn’t.
However, the second son, who stayed at home, having everything he could ever want, never experiencing life outside of paradise, he became angry that the first son was accepted. Despite having everything, he is prideful, discontented, even envious. This seems to be the fate of some of those who never experience a sinful existence. They manifest sin on their own.
We only have to look to Lucifer’s rebellion as evidence of that. Here is an archangel, created blameless, without a sinful nature, perfect in every way, existing in the presence of God Himself, given a position of power and He thought “I could be God”.
Ezekiel wrote of Satan “You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, Till iniquity was found in you.” – Ezekiel 28:15
And Adam and Eve didn’t fare much better as humans, and I don’t think we would have either in the same position.
I think we needed a way to both experience sin personally, as a sinful person, and to still somehow manage to gain entry to eternal sinless paradise. But those two things are mutually exclusive. You cannot both be sinful and manage to exist in a sinless eternal paradise.
And so, Jesus came. He died for us, paying for our sins. He paid that debt that we incur. He took that punishment, so that we can be free from the cost of our learning.
We got a PhD in sin, and had our student debt paid for by Christ.
What grace teaches you
So, what do we learn from that extraordinary display of grace?
Well, it means something. I think it teaches us something about us. It tells us that we have some intrinsic value. That there is something about us, not tied to our works, that gives us worth.
After all, our works are worthless, arguably less than worthless. So, there has to be something about us, something that we didn’t do, that makes this all worthwhile. That’s fairly monumental, and I think it’s more than most Christians realize.
Today, Christianity largely worships God for Jesus dying on the cross. That’s the focus of most of our songs, sermons, evangelism, etc.. But I think it goes way beyond that. I think sometimes we limit what God did by focusing only on the cross.
Because it’s not just that Jesus woke up one day and said, “Oh, the humans have made a mess, but they’re worth dying for, so, I think I’ll go do that”. Rather, God took the effort to create us in the first place, knowing ahead of time that this would be the situation. He created angels, humans, Earth, everything, knowing that we would destroy ourselves and the rest of creation and need to be saved.
He created all of this with the fore-knowledge that it would all need to be burned away. God bothered to create an entire planet knowing it would be destroyed by the people He was creating it for because an infinitesimally small portion of them, a remnant of a remnant, would understand the very simple, but infinitely weighty point …
That sin is not good.
All so that He could be with us in a sinless creation, one day.
And so, it seems to me, that God decided, before there was even space and time, that all of it, all the misery of our world, the war in heaven, the pre-flood chaos, the crusades, the world wars, and even COVID-19, and whatever else is still coming, that it was all worth experiencing in order to be able to spend eternity with you, personally.
And that’s something to think about. Really, just take a moment and meditate on that. Do you realize how much you are worth to God? He didn’t just die for you. He created for you. He suffered for you, even before the cross. He let everyone, including Himself, including you, suffer for you, not in a “this is all your fault” sort of way, but in an authentic “you are worth all of this” expression of love.
That is more pain and suffering than we each could experience in billions, possibly trillians, of lifetimes – and God, perfect, omnipotent and loving being that He is – decided it was worth it.
He decided you were worth it.
And it’s not because you’re a good person, because you’re not! It’s not because of anything you have done or will do. Because, frankly, that’s all worthless. But, rather, it’s because of who you are, whatever that means. I’m honestly not entirely sure. But it’s something.
Why they need to be in balance
So, we have two radically opposing calculations here:
On the one hand, we’re terrible, horrible, worthless beings who can’t do anything right on our own, in fact, everything we do just adds to the debt against us.
And on the other hand, you have so much worth as a person, just because of who you are, that God believes spending eternity with you is worth all the pain and suffering of the entire world, it’s history, present, and future.
These are radically opposing calculations for your worth as an individual and you have to hold them perfectly in balance.
Because if your belief about these things is not in balance, your theology will cause you trouble in your daily life.
If you believe the first truth – that you are a worthless creature, wretched in every way. That everything you do on your own leads to destruction. That even when you do good, it will be tainted by sin.
If all you have is that, then you are stuck with the incredible guilt that comes with being a sinful person and realizing that you are one. It’s unbearable. For many, they can’t accept salvation, because they don’t believe they should. Why would God want someone so terrible anyways? If you don’t believe there is something worthwhile in you, then you can never believe that God would love you enough to accept your surrender.
Even if you believe it to be more true than the 2nd truth, then you will struggle to accept that Christ’s death is enough for you to be loved and you might find that you spend your time trying to make up the difference. Trying to be just that little bit better to sweeten the deal. Becoming a perfectionist, hoping that one day you might actually do something good, something to offset the terrible debt.
In short, you may never really accept what Jesus did, because you don’t believe it’s enough.
So, that’s bad.
What if you go the other way? What if you believe that you have inestimable worth, that God felt you are worth all the pain and suffering in the world, just to be able to spend eternity with you – if you don’t balance that by accepting the consequences of your sinful nature, well, then you don’t need a savior.
Why would you? There’s nothing wrong with you – you’re just incredibly valuable and God wants you, so clearly you don’t have any problems, or at least, your problems are easily offset by how valuable you are. I mean, yeah, Jesus died, but it’s because He wanted to, not because you really needed Him to.
Even if you believe this to be more true than your sinful state, then you have problems, because you will never really appreciate what Christ has done for you. You will never be that beggar, never have the humility that we need to be in order to accept salvation.
So, we have to hold these two thoughts, equally.
That we are horrible, wretched creatures who cannot do anything right on our own
that despite all that, God loves us so much, that it was worth creating a world that would be corrupted and need to be redeemed by sending His son to die and pay the cost.
So, what does that mean for us?
Well, I find this incredibly encouraging myself. Because it means that no matter what I do, it will never be good enough – and it doesn’t matter. That leaves me free to strive to be the best that I can be without having to worry about the risk of failure. There is a massive safety net of knowing that no matter how badly I fail at it, God still loves me. So, I can focus on being more Christ-like out of love, out of thankfulness for what He did, not out of any sense of obligation, working off my debt, or anything else.
Secondly, whatever comes my way, be it covid or cancer, trials or tribulations, ill-treatment or imprisonment, persecution or just pestering, I believe that God thought it was worth it all to spend eternity with me, and with you. How can I not think all this is worth it to spend eternity with Him?