This sermon is part of the sermon series "Discovering God (part two)". See series.
Introduction: Our struggle with sin
We've been trying to renew together our vision of who God really is. Everything good in life flows from the person of God and everything that ails us comes from getting separated from him or from holding wrong ideas about his nature. We've reflected together on the awesome holiness and amazing self-sacrificing spirit of God. To try and get at this, I've likened the distance between his nature and ours to the gap between the most gigantic and beautiful being imaginable and the life of bugs crawling along the ground. Without this awareness of the category-defying transcendence of God's nature, we're very prone to think too pridefully of ourselves and too little of him.
There is, however, a danger in all this that I want to correct. If all we see is how majestic God is, without also seeing how marvelous his work in us is, we run the risk of becoming pretty discouraged. It's a little bit like playing the game of golf. When I first went out on the golf course many years ago, I was terrible, but it didn't particularly bother me. I went out mostly to be with my friends and had no expectation of being any good. Then, as I got more involved, the fact that I was routinely sending dirt clods farther down the fairway than that little white ball really began to discourage me. I began to hate being so bad.
Every year I'd get together with this group of guys from seminary and embarrass myself. One of those guys is so great at golf; he can drive the ball farther with a putter than I can with a driver. I found out he had to have shoulder surgery last week. Is it wrong that I was a wee bit happy about that? Am I going to spend the rest of my life being one of those worm-burner golfers—one of those guys who is a far greater threat to the worms and insect-life along the ground than to my enemy—I mean my friend—from seminary? The answer is probably yes. Without some serious help and investment, I'm going to remain a worm and not a winner.
The false narrative: We are essentially sinners.
A lot of us are like this when it comes to the spiritual life. Our performance didn't bother us so much when we didn't care at all about being a Christian. But when we finally got a vision of God, when we finally saw how Jesus played life's course, when we finally crossed over the line into conscious discipleship, things began to change. At first, we became a little bit better. We were more thoughtful about the way we lived. We saw some improvement in the way we were handling ourselves out there. But things didn't change enough.
We find that we continue to struggle with sin—maybe not in as obvious ways as we did before we became followers of Jesus, but in serious ways just the same. We still find ourselves exaggerating or telling white lies to make ourselves look better. We boil up with self-righteous judgment over the flaws and failures in others and excuse our own. We envy people who have what we don't and somehow can't find contentment with what we do have. We look lustfully upon some guy or girl, reducing them in our imagination from their proper status as children of God into tools for our fantasies or pleasure. We live anxiously and obsessively, as if there really were no God.
After a while, we come to believe that not much is really going to change about our game. We define ourselves as fundamentally medium or poor players or take comfort in the fact that there are even worse duffers than us. We see pros like Mama Maggie, Billy Graham, or some other hero and reckon we'll never be like that. In fact, the bigger our vision of the character of a truly godly person—much less the character of God himself—the more discouraged we become. He's up there in the angelic stratosphere, and I'm down here with the worm-burners. I'm glad there's grace for sinners. That's what I am at the core and probably always will be.
That's the narrative, the internal storyline, that goes through our minds when we think of ourselves in relation to God. I know that it often goes through mine. I think of myself as an inveterate shanker, a screw-up, a sinner, and I tend to play to this image I have of myself. I think of Christ as resurrected somewhere up there and, thankfully, not zapping me because he is remarkably forgiving. I take some comfort in the idea that one day he's going to come back down here and finally fix me. But in the meantime, I tend to settle into this idea that I might as well get used to moving along the moral scale like an inchworm, or like a lousy golfer, maybe seeing a little improvement now and then but essentially stuck in this ground-level condition.
The true narrative: We are essentially saints.
A lot of Christians believe that this narrative is what the Bible says about us. But it is not. Here is what the New Testament actually teaches: If you have received the grace God offered to you on the Cross, then from that moment on, you've left the sinful worm club and entered the beautiful saint state. To switch to the other metaphor: The moment you got into Christ's golf cart, you became in the eyes of God not a doffing sinner but a superb winner, welcome forever to play alongside him.
I know this sounds implausible. It is not the way the world works. But really listen to what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5: "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view …. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Corinthians 5:16-17). As difficult as this truth is to take in, it hangs on two absolutely glorious and dependable attributes of God's nature: his immanence and his omnipotence. Immanence means "immense presence." Omnipotence means "all power." At the moment that anyone receives Christ into his or her heart, God comes into that person's life with his immense presence and with all power. If you have placed your trust in Christ, then God is present and powerful in you, even if you do not feel the fullness of it yet.
This is not wishful thinking or the affirmation of one isolated Scripture text. This idea that Christ's followers are, regardless of appearance, people with a radically new presence and power at work within them is a gigantic theme of the New Testament. Paul writes elsewhere: "For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin" (Romans 6:6). "God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27). "You were dead in your sins … [but] God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins" (Colossians 2:13). If any person has ever been realistic about his struggles with sin and even prone to legalistic guilt about it, it is this former Pharisee, Paul. Yet listen to the triumphant confidence in these words: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).
Are you getting this? What Paul is saying to all believers is that when Christ died on the cross, our sin—its guilt and power—died with him. When Christ was resurrected to new life, we were filled with his life—his immense presence and absolute power. James Bryan Smith likens this death and resurrection process to the transformation that happens inside a butterfly chrysalis. The word chrysalis actually derives from the word Christ. What emerges from the chrysalis is not simply a slightly improved, externally more attractive worm, but an altogether new kind of creature. To keep saying, "I'm just a sinner. Thank goodness for grace," sounds humble and realistic, and in one sense, it is true, but it doesn't begin to do justice to what our awesome God has done in you through Jesus Christ. You are not just a sinner anymore. You are not even a worm slowly growing wings. By the grace of God and at a level you will not fully see or enjoy until you burst forth from the grave one day into the dazzling skies of heaven, you are already "a new creation."
Who you are in Christ
If this is true, then why do we still so often feel mainly like sinners? Why do we keep doing things that aren't in keeping with being these new creations in whom the presence and power of God dwells? The Bible says it is because our eternal spirits are still bound to these unredeemed bodies, to what the Scriptures call "the flesh." The apostle Paul writes: "For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh" (Galatians 5:17). James Bryan Smith reminds us that "Our bodies are mortal. Not just the bones and muscles, the glands and senses, but the mind and emotions as well. That vast, unbelievably intricate, electronic, chemical complex which is culturally, genetically, diabolically (at times), geographically, and pathologically-influenced mortality."
In other words, our bodies still carry the remnant of the sin that used to define us. We still have these old tapes that run in our heads, these old habits and orientations that clog our hearts, these old urges that rise in our loins and limbs. We still inhabit old societies that live in opposition to the ways of God's kingdom, and so we tend to think that this is who we are. The great Protestant Reformer John Calvin thought and wrote a lot about this: "As long as we remain cooped up in this prison of our body, traces of sin will dwell in us; but if we faithfully hold fast to the promise given us by God … they shall not dominate or rule [us]."
Our ancient Enemy, Satan, does not want you to know that. He does not want you to remember that you are not your flesh. He hopes that you'll believe that God's work in your soul was very limited and mainly cosmetic. He wants you to get discouraged in your spiritual battle and come to think that a high-handicap sinner is all you are, all that you'll ever be, and that you might as well give up the game. He loves it when you obsess over how badly you did on that last shot. He thrills when you start kicking the dirt or get distracted by the snack-cart girl. He wants you worrying over what others are saying and whether or not you'll get membership in that fine club.
But here is the truth God begs you to take in: "If [you] are in Christ, you are already a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" In Christ God has irrevocably changed life's game for you. From now on, you are riding in the Master's cart. You are no longer engaged in individual stroke play golf; you're playing best ball, and your partner's play is perfect. God is not weighing whether or not to accept you into the heavenly club on the basis of your merits; he has already fully accepted and admitted you on the basis of Christ's performance. When God looks at you, he does not see a sinner but a saint, not a slave to sin but a precious son or daughter, not a worm destined to be squashed under death's foot but a glorious being whose destiny is the sky.
Satan fears a lot more than suffering a shoulder injury. He is desperately afraid that you will actually recognize the immense presence, the all-surpassing power of the Lord, who is closer to you right now than your own heartbeat. Satan loathes the thought that, discovering who God is and how near he is to you, you might actually relax your white-knuckled grip on whatever club you've been using to try to prove yourself and hand it over to God. You might actually give up trying to play by your own smarts and turn to him for coaching. You might actually become so enraptured with watching the way he handles himself that you, almost unconsciously, begin to move more and more along life's course the way he does.
What makes your soul's Enemy quake in his snake shoes is the thought that one day you and I might actually wake up, defy our flesh, and break forth from our chrysalis, because we finally realized fully who and whose we truly are. Pray for me as I'll pray for you that this awakening starts afresh today.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.