This sermon is part of the sermon series "Living Deep". See series.
Whatever became of sin?
Some years ago a Harvard psychiatrist wrote a provocative book entitled Whatever Became of Sin? In it he expressed his fear that "sin" was disappearing from our moral vocabulary—not just the word, but the very concept of a universal standard of wrongdoing. He bemoaned the declining sense of morality in our culture and people's reluctance to take responsibility for their behavior. He was concerned for the impact it might have on our society and on people's physical and emotional well-being. He wrote that book in 1973, and I think we'd all agree that his fears have become a reality.
You don't hear the word "sin" much these days. We're more comfortable with words like "dysfunction," "disease," "mistakes," even "failures." In fact, a few years ago, the Oxford Junior Dictionary actually removed the word "sin" from its contents. They explained that it had fallen into disuse and was no longer relevant to younger generations.
Our discomfort has even found its way into the church. A few years ago, a popular TV preacher was being interviewed by Larry King. King asked him about the word "sinner." The preacher replied, "I don't use it. I never thought about it, I guess. Most people know when they're doing wrong. When I get them to church, I want to tell them they can change."
To be fair, I can appreciate that preacher's desire to get beyond the legalism and judgmentalism that's often associated with Christianity. I, too, have chosen at times to use words that don't carry as much baggage as the word "sin." But I think we'd all agree that when the church abandons the notion of "sin," something has gone wrong with our message. It may not be comfortable or fashionable, but today we're going to learn that we can never live deeply until we deal with our sin.
This fall we're turning to the letter of 1 John to learn what it means to live deeply. We've learned that living deeply means experiencing Christ and sharing that experience with others. We've also learned that living deeply requires that your belief and behavior are taking you closer to Christ. And we want that. We want to move closer. And many of us left the service last week with new resolve to make holy choices.
But before too much time had passed, something happened, didn't it? Someone pushed our buttons, and we reacted in anger. Something distracted us, and before we knew it, our thoughts were taking us to dark places. In a weak moment we made a bad decision; a familiar temptation came along, and we gave in. We slipped backward. We fell downward. We sinned. Not just once, probably, but several times since last Sunday.
What does that say about us as Christians? What do we do about it? How do we get into the upper right quadrant we talked about, where our belief in Christ is growing and our behavior is getting better? That's the question we want to wrestle with today as we continue our study of John's letter.
Remember we said that John's letter is organized around three tests of real Christianity—the Doctrinal test (What do we believe?), the Ethical test (How do we live?), and the Relational test (Who do we love?). This week and next we'll still focus on the ethical test, and then we'll move on to the other two.
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 us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
In these verses, John confronts two mistaken ideas people tend to have about sin—in his own day as well as in ours. The first mistaken idea is that sin is not a problem. Look again at 1:8: "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." A more literal translation would be, "If we say we have no sin …." That expression, to "have sin," is an unusual one, which is probably why the translators tried to improve it a bit. John is the only biblical writer to use that exact expression. He's describing sin as a condition rather than an act. To say that we "have sin" is to say that we have a moral problem, an underlying principle at work in our beings, a disposition toward disobedience. It's not just that we do wrong things; it's that there's something wrong with us, in us.
The second mistaken idea people have about sin is this: sin is not a problem for me. In other words, other human beings may have a problem with sin, but I don't. I've gotten beyond it. Look at 1:10: "If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives." Here John is not talking about sin as a condition, but sin as an action, a behavior. Apparently there were some teachers and believers in the church who claimed they had achieved a level of spirituality in which they no longer succumbed to sin.
John refutes both lines of thinking. If we think human beings don't have a sin problem, we're deluding ourselves. And if we claim that we haven't sinned, we're making God out to be a liar. That's pretty strong language. But John knows we can never live deeply until we face the reality of sin, and of our own personal sin.
The reality is we are sinners by nature and by choice. That's how theologians put it. In other words, we have a disposition toward sin, and we commit sins. John is not the only biblical writer to make the point.
After committing adultery and murder, David prays, says, "For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me …. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:3-5). He confesses both his sinful actions and his sinful sin nature.
In Romans 3:22-23, Paul writes, "There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." No one is exempt, Paul says. We've all missed the mark. We've stepped off the path. We've broken the law—sometimes in ignorance, sometimes in weakness, sometimes in flat out rebellion. But the testimony of Scripture is clear: we are sinners by nature and by choice.
When we make this declaration, we're not saying that human beings are evil through and through or that they never get it right. The Bible is clear that human beings are created in the image of God; our very nature is designed to reflect his goodness and love and justice and beauty. And sometimes, often times, we do get it right. It's just that ever since the fall of the first man and woman, human beings have this skew in our nature away from God and his goodness—this disposition to do the wrong thing, to hurt people that we love, and to trash what God meant to be beautiful. Our very nature is shot through with these tendencies.
It's not just Scripture that testifies to this, it's human experience. Is anyone really prepared to say that they haven't done foolish, hurtful, and rebellious things? Is there anyone who doesn't have to fight back tendencies that get them into trouble again and again?
When Karen and I were in Israel this summer with the interfaith clergy group, we spent a morning at Yad Vase, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. It's a brilliantly conceived experience that walks you through ten exhibition halls, chronicling the horror of the Holocaust in photographs, artifacts, and personal stories. It's all there: the ghettos, the concentration camps, the gas chambers, the mass graves, the atrocities inflicted on men, women, and children. Visitors make their way through the exhibits in stunned and somber silence, hardly conceiving that human beings could do such things to one another.
One of the lessons learned through the experience is that the people who committed these atrocities were ordinary men and women. For instance, there was a regiment of German police in charge of the Warsaw ghetto. These were not hardened soldiers or political fanatics. They were hard-working, church-going people from Hamburg. And yet they dragged fellow-citizens from their homes, tore children from the arms of their parents, abused women, shot people at point blank range, and herded thousands of others off to their deaths. The records show that these police were given the option not to participate. Of 500, only 15 chose not to.
I don't know how anyone can walk through that memorial and not believe that there's something wrong with us deep down inside—that in spite of our God-given capacity for beauty and goodness and truth, we have a disposition toward evil that affects every part of us and that we give in to far too often and easily.
What do we do with our sin?
So what do we do with our sin? Most of us, God-willing, will never commit those kinds of crimes, but every one of us will routinely do things, say things, and think things that are hurtful to ourselves and others and God—like Victor, our imaginary letter-writer, who lost his temper with his wife again and again, hurting her and disappointing himself. When we sin it drives a wedge between ourselves and God, between ourselves and others, and between our sinful selves and the Christ-like selves we were meant to be. So what do we do with our sin?
We've got a few options. We could ignore it. We could try not to think about it and make excuses for it. Victor does a little bit of that: "She started it," he says. (That one's been around for a while, right?) "It's the way men are wired," he rationalizes. "It could have been a lot worse." None of us would claim to deny sin, but practically speaking, we choose to ignore it—we minimize it, rationalize it, and learn to live with it. It's really just a cover-up, like John says. We don't want to admit to ourselves and God that we have a problem.
Another option is to obsess over it—to punish ourselves for it, to beat ourselves up over it, to wallow in guilt and shame and regret. Victor begins to do some of that, too: "What do you want from me? To go over it again and again and again?" The problem with obsessing is that it only serves to drive us deeper into our sin and further from God and others and our true selves.
Chances are you tend toward one of these two responses to sin in your life. You either ignore it (making excuses and living with it), or you obsess over it (punishing yourself with guilt and shame). The problem, of course, is that neither one works! Neither one removes the guilt, and neither one restores us to relationship with God and others.
Thankfully, there is a third option for dealing with our sin, according to John. We can confess it. First John 1:9 is one of the most wonderful verses in the entire Bible: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." To confess your sin is to name it, to own up to it, to admit to yourself and to God that you've done it and it's wrong and you're sorry. Confession isn't easy. It means openly acknowledging your failure and weakness and guilt and shame.
I came across an interesting sidebar in this week's Sports Illustrated. It analyzes the "confessions" of some high profile athletes who have come forward publicly and admitted to some wrongdoing. It rates each athlete's confession based on the level of sincerity and difficulty. The interesting thing about this little grid is that the athlete who seems to have been able to move beyond his sin and get back in the good graces of fans and critics is Andy Petitte, who most quickly, openly, and humbly confessed his actions.
What God does with our sin
As important and helpful as it is to confess to other human beings, ultimately each of us has to confess our sins to God. He is the primary one we have offended, and he is the only one who can do something about it. In fact, John says that if we confess our sins, God will do two things.
First, he will forgive us: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins …." To forgive someone is to release them from their debt and obligation. When someone forgives a loan, it means you no longer need to make payments on that loan. When God forgives you for your sin, it means you no longer need to pay for that sin. You don't need to punish yourself. You don't need to do penance. You're off the hook.
The second thing God will do when we confess our sin is cleanse us: "...and to purify us from all unrighteousness." That word "purify" could just as easily be translated, "cleanse." To purify something is to remove what doesn't belong there. To cleanse something is to get rid of the dirt.
I saw a commercial the other night for a laundry detergent. A middle-aged mother had secretly borrowed her daughter's stylish new blouse to go out with her friends. But while she was out on the town, she spilled something on it that left an awful stain right in the center. Fortunately, she had this new detergent with "Acti-lift" technology. With one wash the stain was gone, the blouse was returned, and mother and daughter went on with their relationship as if nothing had ever happened!
Of course, there are no secrets from God. He knows it all. He sees it all. He feels it all. But He's willing and able not only to forgive us for what we've done, but to cleanse us from it. "Sin had left a crimson stain," the old hymn says, "he washed it white as snow." Forgiveness releases us from guilt. Cleansing removes our shame. Forgiveness takes care of our past. Cleansing makes possible our future.
And all of this is possible not because God is a softie who's willing to look the other way when we mess up, but because he is faithful and just. John explains it in 2:1-2: "My dear children, I write this to you so that you do not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world."
God can forgive our sin because Jesus paid for it by his death on the cross. God can cleanse our sin, because the blood of Jesus washes it away—no matter how deep the stain.
When I emerged from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial, I was a wreck. The faces, the stories, the crimes were just too much for me. I went off to a quiet spot and sobbed. What was wrong with us, as human beings, that we could do such things to each other? What was wrong with the Christians who perpetrated these crimes or who stood silently by while all this went on? What was wrong with me—that I could easily have been one of those guards who did awful things, one of those pastors who said nothing? I was ashamed for myself and for the whole lot of us. And I wasn't the only one. Our group was milling about in stunned silence.
Being a bunch of clergy, we had already planned a little service, which was a good thing because I needed to do something with what I was feeling. But as I looked it over the bulletin, I saw there was no place for confession and forgiveness. And I needed that. I needed some sort of cleansing before we left that place.
As we gathered under some trees for the service, I grabbed one of the Catholic priests. I quickly shared how I was feeling and asked if he would help me with that portion of the service. So when it came my turn to speak, I shared how I was feeling. On behalf of all the Christians there, I apologized to our Jewish friends for what was done to their people; and on behalf of all of us clergy, I confessed our failure to speak up more often and more clearly against injustice and atrocities in our world today. Then Father John led us in a Eucharistic prayer, reminding us of Christ's death on the cross, and pronouncing forgiveness in Jesus' name. It helped. It helped to be able to say it out loud, in front of one another and God. And it helped to be reminded that Jesus took our guilt and shame to the cross with him, so that we could be forgiven for it, and set free from it.
I don't know what people do who have nowhere to go with their sin and guilt and shame. Do they cover it up? Do they carry it around with them? Do they kid themselves into believing that it doesn't matter? How much better to confess it! Because then and only then are we free—free to live from the very deepest part of our beings, knowing that the deepest part of our being has been cleansed from sin. And that's John's lesson for today: You know you're living deep when your sins are forgiven, and your soul is free.
"My dear children," says John, "I write this to you so that you will not sin." John wants us to understand the deep damage that sin does to our souls and to our relationships. But he also wants us to know that if and when we do sin, we have a Father to turn to who can forgive us and set us free. Praise God for being faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, when we confess our sins to him.
For Your Reflection
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? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.