One of the more important things you can do for your listeners—both believers and nonbelievers alike—is to find an appropriate way to help them define and identify sin. As Andy Stanley says in his sermon: If we settle for merely calling ourselves "mistakers," then we'll never admit we're sinners. If we never admit we're sinners, then we'll never admit our need for a Savior. Andy is one of the best when it comes to effective communication. Watch how he puts his giftedness to the test with an awfully touchy topic. He never strays far from the promise of grace, even while he allows a great deal of room for the Spirit to stir conviction in the hearts of those who are listening.
Sin. It's such a pesky word; we don't use it anymore. Sin makes me think of God. Sin makes me think of judgment. Sin would mean there's a giant moral absolute out there and I'm accountable. I might have to beg for forgiveness. I'm probably going to be punished.
Here's what the dictionary says the definition for sin is: "Sin is a transgression of divine law." It's a transgression of divine law, which means there's a divine Person or God or something that has a law. "Any act regarded as such a transgression, especially a willful or deliberate violation of some religious or moral principle." Sin means I did it on purpose. Sin means it was willful. Sin means I knew it was wrong when I did it, and that doesn't make me feel very good about myself. In fact, if I commit a sin, after a while I think I'm a bad person. So we don't use that word.
We like this word: mistake. I made a mistake. Let me read you the definition of mistake: "A mistake is an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning." "Oh, I just wasn't thinking straight." Carelessness: "Oh, I didn't see that." Insufficient knowledge: "Well, I didn't know any better." This is a much better word, because when you catch me, I can say, "Aw, my bad; my mistake." If you're having an argument and your husband or your wife or your parents get a little forceful, you can say stuff like, "Okay—so I made a mistake. Is that the end of the world?" Try that one out. Or try this: "Okay, look: I made a mistake. Nobody's perfect." The assumption is, you can't be too mad at me because it was just a mistake. I didn't know any better.
There is a big difference between sinners and mistakers.
There's a big difference between a sin and a mistake. A mistake: I don't really have to ask you to forgive me. I can just say, "I'm sorry. Can we just move on?" A sin? That's a different thing altogether.
Here's the biggest difference between a sin and mistake: if everything I do wrong can be dumbed down to where it's just a mistake, that makes me a mistaker, which means I don't have sin. If I don't have sin, I'm not a sinner. If I'm not a sinner, I don't have any need for a Savior. If you're just a mistaker, then all you have to do is do better. Mistakers just have to try harder. Mistakers just have to break a nasty habit. Mistakers just have to be more consistent. Mistakers just have to try harder next time. But if I'm a sinner, that seems to be more fundamental to who I am. If I'm a sinner, then simply trying harder isn't going to get it done, because I probably owe somebody something. I probably deserve something I don't even really want to know that much about. If I'm a sinner, trying harder isn't going to help me. If I'm a sinner, I need a Savior.
You might be able to convince me you made a mistake. You might be able to convince me that you're just a mistaker. But the truth is, when the lights, the music, and the television are off—when you're looking at yourself in the mirror—you know better. You know that what you did was intentional. You did it on purpose; you just didn't think you'd get caught. Not only did you do it on purpose, you've done it before. Not only did you do it before, you're hoping you can do it again. When somebody brought it to your attention, you were able to pass it off. But you know in your heart that what you did was more than a mistake. It was not unintentional. It wasn't because of poor reasoning. It wasn't carelessness. It wasn't because of insufficient knowledge. You knew exactly what you were doing. It wasn't a mistake. It was way deeper than that, wasn't it?
And what about guilt? No one needs to feel guilty about a mistake, do they? A mistake is a mistake. You didn't mean to. You didn't have enough information. You weren't old enough. You weren't mature enough. You weren't paying close attention. You don't feel guilty for a mistake; you feel guilty for sin. But if there was no sin, and you're not a sinner, and there's no need for a Savior, where is all that guilt coming from?
If that wasn't enough, Jesus comes along and whacks the hornet's nest on the whole matter. In his ministry, he taught two opposing ideas that seemed like they shouldn't come out of the same person's mouth. He came along and made everybody feel worse about themselves. He raised the bar. He came into an environment where they dumbed down God's law to say: It's not as hard to be godly, it's not as hard to be righteous; God wasn't as serious as maybe you thought he was. Jesus pushed the bar way up high and said: Oh, no, no, no. It's worse than you thought. You thought you were kind of bad; you're really bad. You thought you were good; you're not good. You thought you were righteous; you are not a righteous person. Nobody's good enough to be in God's good favor.
But then he also came along and said: Oh by the way: God loves you just the way you are.
The people were confused: Wait a minute, which is it? Either I'm terrible, or God loves me.
Jesus responded: It's both—you're terrible, and God loves you. You're worse than you thought, and God loves you more than you imagine.
This was so strange to people. The people who wanted to be mistakers did not like Jesus, because he made them feel so bad. But the people who knew in their gut they were sinners loved him, because they were honest enough to look in the mirror and say: He's right. It's worse than I thought. If there is any hope in the world for me, it's not because I'm going to do better, promise harder, commit more, or discipline myself. If there's hope for me, a sinner, it's not going to be through my efforts. I need a Savior.
Matthew 5:17: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets." He says: If you think I'm here to start something new and to do away with all those laws, forget it.
"I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." In other words: If you thought I came to get rid of those extreme laws, or maybe to dumb them down, to lower the bar so you can get over a little bit easier … No, no, no, no. I've not come to dumb anything down. I've come here to fulfill all that was taught in the Old Testament.
Jump down to verse 19. "Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments"—he's talking about the Old Testament—"Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven." In other words: What I'm about to say in no way annuls what you've been taught in the past. I'm not lowering the standard; I'm about to raise it.
Verse 20: "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."
While they're letting that settle over them, he gives them some specific examples. Verse 21: "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder.'" The people probably replied: Yeah, I remember that—"Thou shalt not murder," the Ten Commandments. I've never murdered anybody!
Jesus says this, "But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment." Imagine what the people thought then: Okay, wait a minute; time out. Jesus compared murdering someone with simply thinking about murdering them. My anger toward somebody makes me as guilty as an actual murderer.
Jesus says: See, the bar is higher than you thought.
While they're thinking about that, he really levels the playing field. Verse 27: "You've heard it said, 'Do not commit adultery.'" They're like: Right, that's wrong. We have not committed adultery. We're good people.
Verse 28: "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." The people would have said: Okay—that's it. We're leaving. You've just called us all—well, not me personally—but you have just called all my friends adulterers. You've just called every man that's looked on a woman lustfully an adulterer. Come on, Jesus. I get, "Thou shalt not commit adultery"—that's a "do" thing. But you're saying if we even think about it, imagine it, look lustfully at a woman, then we are guilty of adultery? Do you realize, Jesus, that you just condemned all men? Can we take you seriously? Who can be that good? Who could be that righteous? Who could live their whole life as a man and never look at a woman lustfully? If that's the standard, if that's what it takes to get into heaven, none of us are going to be there. God will be in heaven all by himself, because nobody is that good.
Jesus says: I'm not done.
Verse 43: "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." More reflections from the people: Jesus, I don't even pray for my neighbors. I don't really pray for anybody. You're telling me God expects me to pray for my enemies, to pray for the people who persecute me? That's the standard? That's righteousness? That's what God gets excited about? You're telling me I'm a murderer because I've been angry? You're telling me I'm an adulterer because I have lustful thoughts? And then you say that I'll never please you because I don't love my enemies? That's what it takes to be righteous? Good grief! There's nobody righteous but God!
Jesus smiles and says: I know. That's my point. You came to this sermon thinking you were just mistakers who needed to do better. I'm here to convince you you're a sinner, and there's no hope for you if it depends on your effort and your righteousness.
Here's the amazing thing. Throughout the Gospels, the people who were the most convinced that they fell into this category flocked to hear Jesus. They loved him. They were nothing like him, and they liked him. The tax gatherers, the prostitutes, the men and women who were condemned by society as being outright sinners—they loved to be with Jesus, because he had these two messages. Message number one: You're a sinner; you're in trouble. Message number two: God loves sinners and has sent a savior on their behalf. Message number one: You're hopelessly lost. Message number two: God sent me to find you.
Only sinners are candidates to meet their Savior.
Here's what his message was: Until you embrace the fact that you're a sinner, you're not open to embracing the fact that God sent you a Savior. As long as you're a mistaker, you're going to try harder, but you have to finally come to grips with the fact that, no, you don't accidentally do things—there's something fundamentally wrong with you and with me. Until you embrace the fact that you're a sinner, you will never embrace your Savior.
One time, Jesus told three stories that we're familiar with, and the most famous one is called "The Prodigal Son." In the story of the prodigal son, Jesus makes it really clear that the father in the story represents God, and the son represents all of us, who strayed from God. The story was told to help people understand God's attitude toward sin.
You remember the story. The son comes to the father and says: Dad, I wish you were dead, because then I'd get my inheritance. But now I have to wait till you die. Would you just pretend like you're dead and go ahead and give me half your inheritance?
He insulted his father, took half his estate, went to the city and blew it on wild women and partying, and just had the time of his life for several weeks or months. Finally, he had spent all his money, and there was a famine in the land. He had to go get a job. One day he realized: I should go work for my dad. I'm not going to go back and try to be a son again. That's over. After all, there's no way he's going to take me back as a son. But the guys who work for my dad get treated better than they're treating me here in the city. I'll just go back and ask my dad for a job.
So he comes up with this speech, and he rehearses it, and here's what he says when he gets to his father (this is in Luke 15:21): "Father, I have sinned." He didn't say: Dad, I'm back. How's it going? You know, things didn't go too good. I made a few mistakes; I'm young and stupid. I should have known better. I should have listened. Can we just get a move on, though? I'm embarrassed, but can we just move on?
He says, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." In other words: Dad, I'm not here to commit to you. I'm here with my hands raised in the air to say you don't owe me anything. I'm pleading for mercy, because I'm a sinner.
And do you remember what his dad said to him? "But the Father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him.'" Whoa, whoa, why so quick? Shouldn't we let him grovel here a little bit?
No. Quick! I want this restored as quick as possible. Now that he's recognized he's a sinner, let's get on with this thing. He said to his servants, "Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger."
Ring on his finger? That's like you're reestablishing him to sonship.
Absolutely I am.
But look at what he's done.
Yeah. But he's back.
But doesn't he owe you?
No. And put sandals on his feet, because he's not a servant. Verse 24: "For this son of mine was dead and is alive again."
How is he alive? All he did was come back and say, "I'm a sinner" and beg for mercy.
I know. He's alive. "He was lost and is found."
So they began to celebrate. The moral of the story: The sooner you and I embrace our sinfulness, the sooner you and I are candidates for God's grace. The sooner you and I embrace our sinfulness, the sooner we have an opportunity to meet our Savior. The sooner we see our misdeeds as sin, the closer we are to knowing what it feels like to be forgiven.
Years later, the apostle Paul said it this way in Romans 3:23: "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." We all fall short of the standard of God. We all fall short of the righteousness of God. You would expect the next verse to say: And, boy, is God mad. God is going to make you pay; he is going to come after you. There are lightning bolts in your future.
But here's what Paul says: "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely … ." This is huge. As long as I'm making mistakes, I can make up for them. When it becomes sin, I know there's a debt I owe. I know there's restoration that needs to be made. I know that there's some sacrifice I need to make. I know there's something I have got to do. And Paul says: Here's the great news—all have sinned, and all are made right with God. All are made right with God freely.
But don't I owe you?
Yeah, but that debt's been paid.
But what can I do to make it up to you?
You don't have to do anything.
But God, I finally reconciled with the fact that I'm a sinner. It's not just mistakes. It's a sin. What do I need to do? I owe you so much.
God's going: You owed me so much you couldn't pay it, so I had somebody else pay it.
Listen to the rest of this verse: "Freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." God presented him, not you. "God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood." That's just a fancy theological way of saying this: We were mistakers; we were going to figure it out on our own; we were going to do better; we were going to convince God that the good outweighed the bad; we were going to pay back our debt to society; we were going to do better next summer; we weren't going to work as hard; we were going to break that habit. … Mistakers are all about trusting in self to get it right. Sinners realize: I can't. I don't need to do better. I don't need a motivational speaker or a cheerleader. I need a Savior.
You become a Christian in the moment you recognize: I sin; I'm a sinner; I need a Savior, and Jesus came to be my Savior. You transfer your confidence and trust from yourself—I'm going to figure this out and get it right—to Jesus Christ as your Savior. You say, "I am now placing all my weight, all my trust, in what you did on my behalf. As a sinner, I realize there's nothing I can do to pay for my sin. Even if I got it right from this point forward, there's no way to go back and make up for what I've done wrong, and what I did wrong was not simply make mistakes. I've sinned, and now I'm placing all my faith, all my trust, in what Christ did on my behalf. I believe when he died on the cross, he was not the sacrifice for my mistakes—he was the sacrifice for my sin.
That's why the sooner you embrace the fact that you're a sinner, the sooner you are enabled to engage in God's grace toward you. The sooner you're able to experience his forgiveness, the sooner you're able to engage in a personal relationship with a Savior.
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?