This sermon is part of the sermon series "Thorns in the Flesh". See series.
Here is today's question in the complete words of the person who submitted it: "I struggle with a certain sin often. Will God forgive me? Will I still be saved? I find it difficult to fathom such mercy …."
It's hard to reflect on this person's words and not be filled with compassion. For one thing, many of us can identify with the underlying sense of can I ever overcome this sin or bad habit in my life? We've been there. And, if we're ruthlessly honest, many of us are still there.
Another reason we are filled with compassion in response to this question is that we have experienced the mercy of God; we know that God's forgiveness is real, no matter what we've done. It's a spiritual principle that those of us most aware of our own sin can most deeply appreciate the mercy of God. As Jesus himself said about the sinful woman who washed his feet with her tears while the stiff Pharisees looked on, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
God promises forgiveness to all who ask.
I cannot think of a better story about forgiveness than one I've told before from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the books in C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. It's about a boy named Eustace who has no idea what a pain he is because he's so wrapped up in himself. He and his friends are shipwrecked on an island, and while everyone else scurries to repair the damaged ship, Eustace slips off to avoid the work and take a nap. He approaches a cave, which seems a likely spot, only to discover upon closer examination that there is a dragon in the cave—one that has recently died and collapsed on a heap of treasure. There are golden coins, rings, bracelets, diamonds, emeralds, rubies—a king's ransom. Eustace exults in his new wealth, begins stuffing diamonds in his pockets, but then grows tired and finds a comfortable spot amidst the dragon's booty to take a nap.
When he awakes, Eustace has an even greater fright than when he first saw the dragon. Two wispy columns of smoke rise before his eyes, just as they had from the dead dragon's nostrils. "Oh no!" he fears, "the old dragon had a mate, and now it's right here beside me!" Eustace begins to cry … and is surprised to see his tears sizzle and give little puffs of steam as they hit the metal beneath him. Eustace scrambles out of the cave as fast as he can … but oddly realizes that he is running on all fours. And when he gets to a little pool outside the cave and looks into the water, he sees another dragon staring up at him. Finally, the truth breaks in: Eustace is seeing his own reflection. With greedy dragonish thoughts in his heart, he has become a dragon himself.
Sometime later, as Eustace is wondering what will become of him, he looks up to find a huge lion walking slowly towards him. Aslan, the lion, is the ruler of Narnia and Lewis' figure for Jesus Christ. Aslan asks Eustace to follow him and leads him to a beautiful garden with a well of crystal clear water. Eustace looks longingly at the water, hoping it might heal some of his hurts and pains, but as he approaches the pool, Aslan says, "You must undress first."
At first, Eustace is perplexed, but then he realizes the lion means he must shed his scaly, snakelike dragon skin. Eustace scratches away, and soon has shed his skin like one might peel a banana. He starts to step into the water, but notices his leg is still scaly—with a second dragon skin underneath the first. This skin he scratches off as well, only to find yet a third dragon skin underneath it. After this third try, Eustace realizes that he can never scrape away his dragon skin by himself no matter how hard he tries. Here's what happened next:
Then the lion said—but I don't know if it spoke—"You will have to let me undress you." I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking that the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been.
Then he caught hold of me—I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything, but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I'd turned into a boy again.
Lewis gives us a perfect picture of what the Bible says God does in forgiving us: "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" (Isaiah 1:18). "As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:12). "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:8-9).
The clear witness is that, if we confess our sins, God WILL cleanse us from unrighteousness—and that this cleansing is something only God can do. We can't peel off on own dragon skin—we must ask Jesus to do it for us. And with that forgiveness comes the healing waters where the hurt and pain are washed away, just as Eustace experienced.
We have a choice to make.
But for the person who asked this question, the deeper issue seems to be this: "How can I trust the promise of God's forgiveness when I feel like I'm not making any progress on my end? Will God keep forgiving me time after time if I'm not doing anything to change my ways? And because I see myself making the same mistake over and over again, I'm fearful that I can't change—that I'll never change. Where does that leave me?"
The apostle Paul speaks directly to this point in his letter to the Ephesians:
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.
You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:17-24).
I read an intriguing comment in the media quoting an Afghan woman explaining the reason some Afghan women continue to wear burqas—the full-body coverings mandated by the Taliban—even though they don't like them and are no longer forced to wear them: "We have lived in darkness for so long that now we are afraid of the light." I wonder if this isn't a parable for what happens to us—old habits are hard to shake, even though as forgiven people we now live in the light.
Paul says the spiritual life is not instantaneous perfection. It is a constant process of "putting off" and "putting on." Ending the old habits is not enough. Unless we replace them with new habits, we'll not make lasting progress. It's not enough to "put off" looking at pornography unless we also "put on" a weekly covenant group where we're praying and reading Scripture. If we don't, before long we'll be back with the same magazines or websites. It's not enough to "put off" selfishness unless we also "put on" serving others—like picking up some of our Washington neighborhood friends and driving them to church.
Spiritual transformation is a long-term project, like crossing an ocean. Some people try to be spiritually mature on their own, and that's like trying to cross the ocean in a rowboat—a sure prescription for exhaustion. Others say they are totally relying on God's grace—but they're really like drifters on a raft who have given up and are just hanging on, hoping that somehow God will magically make them spiritually mature.
A better image is a sailboat, one that takes its power from the wind. Sailors don't create the wind, but do learn how to harness it to carry them forward. So it is with us—we have to create new habits that tap into the power of God's Spirit.
We have the power to say NO.
And the first step in this journey, the very first step, is realizing that, if the Spirit of Christ is living within us, then the old self no longer controls us. We have the power to say NO.
In the second installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, called The Two Towers, many of you know the story of how a hobbit named Smeagol became corrupted by the power of the ring until he turned into a foul being called Gollum. Yet Frodo shows Gollum kindness when no one else does, and Gollum slowly begins to change. One of the great scenes in the movie is the confrontation between the two natures of Gollum and Smeagol living within the same body. Smeagol fights against Gollum's negative influence, ultimately commanding him to "Go away and never come back!"
This is a visual demonstration of what Paul writes in Romans 6. I'll read from the Message:
From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That's what Jesus did.
That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don't give it the time of day. Don't even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time—remember, you've been raised from the dead!—into God's way of doing things. Sin can't tell you how to live. After all, you're not living under that old tyranny any longer. You're living in the freedom of God.
I'm using this freedom language because it's easy to picture. You can readily recall, can't you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing—not caring about others, not caring about God—the worse your life became and the less freedom you had? And how much different is it now as you live in God's freedom, your lives healed and expansive in holiness?
As long as you did what you felt like doing, ignoring God, you didn't have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right anything for that matter. But do you call that a free life? What did you get out of it? Nothing you're proud of now. Where did it get you? A dead end.
But now that you've found you don't have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way! Work hard for sin your whole life and your pension is death. But God's gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.
Just like Sméagol did to Gollum, we can say NO to old sinful habits that accuse us and steal away the joy of our salvation. We have a new nature, created by Jesus Christ himself when he peeled away the dragon skin and gave us a brand new life. And when we slip up, we can rest in the promise of 1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Rich Hansen is the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Visalia, California.