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Who Is God When I Sin?

Because he is holy, God crucifies our sin on the cross of Christ.
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Wicked". See series.


If you follow sports, you are well aware of the news that broke this week. Major League Baseball's highest paid player, Alex Rodriguez, admitted he took performance enhancing drugs from 2001 to 2003. ESPN's Peter Gammons sat down with him for a fascinating discussion about God and sin (although they may not have known it). First, they addressed sin. A-Rod said he felt pressured to take the illegal drugs. He said the culture was loose, he was young, he was stupid. And he said he was sorry for doing it. What, exactly, was he guilty of? He said he was guilty of negligence, naivety, and asking the wrong questions. In other words, he was guilty of anything but intentional wrong.

When he was asked about whether he had, at least, lied in an earlier interview with Katie Couric when she asked him if he used steroids, human growth hormones, or other performance-enhancing substances—which he definitively denied—he said, "At the time I wasn't even being truthful with myself. How was I going to be truthful with Katie or CBS?"

Then they discussed God. When asked about the media frenzy that was swirling around him—the revelation that he took steroids, his recent divorce from his wife of thirteen years, and the tabloid reports of an affair with Madonna—he said, "I think God has a reason for everything." He believed that somehow God was tied up in him taking the drugs, getting divorced, and having an affair.

So who are we when we sin, according to Alex Rodriguez? Apparently, we are not sinners at all. We are mistakers, victims, people who need to do better. And who is God? Someone who is integrally involved in those mistakes. Someone who, for whatever reason, let us make them, or has us make them so that some great plan for our life can unfold. God helps us sin, or leads us into it, so that something special can happen.

I don't have any issues with Rodriguez. I'm not a closet Red Sox fan. He's certainly not the only one who thinks this way about God and sin. Philip Yancey writes of being contacted by a television producer after the death of Princess Diana to appear on a show and explain how God could have possibly allowed such a tragic accident. He said to the producer, "Could it have something to do with a drunk driver going 90 miles an hour in a narrow tunnel?" Then he added, "How, exactly, was God involved?" Good question. He notes that when boxer Ray "boom boom" Mancini killed a Korean opponent in a match, he said in a press conference, "Sometimes I wonder why God does the things he does." Then he mentions a letter to a Christian family therapist, in which a young woman told of dating a man and becoming pregnant. She wanted to know why God allowed that to happen to her. Finally, he writes about when South Carolina mother Susan Smith pushed her two sons into a lake to drown. In her official confession, she blamed an imaginary car-jacker for the deed. She said that she went running after the car as it sped down the ramp screaming, "Oh God, no! Why did you let this happen?"

Yancey then asks a pivotal question: what exactly was the role God played in a boxer pummeling his opponent, a teenager abandoning her virtue, and a mother drowning her children? None.

We've been in a series called "Wicked," attempting to wrestle with one of the defining realities of our life: we screw up. We fail. We intentionally do things we know we shouldn't do. For the last two weeks we've looked at this from the inside out, asking questions like, "Who am I when I sin?" and, "Who am I after I sin?" We've discovered some interesting things along the way about rebellion and deception and temptation; about hiding and blaming. Now we turn to God's role. Who is God when I sin? To answer that, we need to start with who God is. We're going to discuss two of his attributes: God is triune and holy. Then we'll bring them together in one of the most pivotal events of human history. After that I think we'll have a good answer to our question.

God is triune

One of the most amazing biblical lessons about God is his triune nature. Let me build this concept for you biblically. First, the Bible teaches the oneness of God—there are not many gods, but only one God. In Deuteronomy, we read the following declaration, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deut. 6:4). But then the Bible follows that up with another teaching. There are three Persons who are each referred to as God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Not three gods, but three Persons who are one God.

Jesus refers to God the Father, but refers to himself as God, too. Jesus even uses the name of God for himself: the great "I Am." When Jesus referring to God as his "Father" and to himself as the "Son," he wasn't talking about a physical connection. To be someone's son in the way Jesus meant was to be of the same order as that person, to have the same qualities as that person. The Holy Spirit is also referred to, time and again, as God.

Then you find something else: a "three-in-oneness." When we baptize people into the Christian faith, Jesus said to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19). In Genesis, we read that when God created, he said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness" (Gen. 1:26). And when Paul closed out his second letter to the Corinthian church, he signed off with, "May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Cor. 13:14).

God is made up of three persons. The nature of the one God is triune. God is a community. This is a mystery beyond human comprehension. It should be, or else God is not bigger than your comprehension. Authors Brent Curtis and John Eldredge talk about this in their book The Sacred Romance. The trinity is at the very center of the universe. It's the great first act in the drama of life itself. The perfect relationship between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is the heart of reality. They describe it in this way:

Think of your best moments of love or friendship or creative partnership, the best times with family or friends around the dinner table, your richest conversations, the acts of simple kindness that sometimes seem like the only things that make life worth living. Like the shimmer of sunlight on a lake, these are reflections of the love that flows among the Trinity. We long for intimacy because we are made in the image of perfect intimacy.

Not only is that longing in our hearts, but it's the very reason for our creation. The love between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit couldn't be contained. It had to be shared. Have you ever seen a picture, watched a sunrise, caught a glimpse of something wonderful and instantly wanted to grab someone and say, "You've got to come and see this!" It's why married lovers want to increase their joy by having children. They want to share what they have. One early Christian writer said, "We were created out of the laughter of the Trinity."

God is holy

God is also holy. For a glimpse of what that holiness entails, look at this scene from the Old Testament where the prophet Isaiah encounters God's holiness:

I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty," (Isa. 6:1-5).

Isaiah was considered the most spiritual man of his generation, but when he came into the presence of God, he was absolutely blown away. Because when Isaiah encountered God, he encountered him in his holiness.

What does holiness mean? Our first clue involves the angels. These particular angels were called seraphs. The word "seraph" means "burning ones" or "bright ones," yet the fire and brightness of God was beyond their ability to take in. They had to cover their faces with two of their wings. Then two more wings covered their feet. Our feet represent our earthiness, our "creatureliness," and the seraphim acknowledged this by covering their feet. They acknowledged that they were in the presence of the Creator.

Did you notice what the angels were saying? "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and when the Hebrew language repeated a word, it was not just for poetic style and impression. It was a device used for saying something significant. Repetition indicates importance. In English, we might use an exclamation point or underline or raise our voice. A sentence in Hebrew might read that some people came upon not just a pit in the road, but a "pit pit." This means it was a heck of a pit!

When something was repeated three times, the strongest statement possible was being made. This is the only time in the entire Bible that we find an attribute of God repeated three times. Those in his presence declared God to be holy, holy, holy.

Most of us know that holiness involves being without sin, without blame, pure, perfect. But there's more to it than that. The word literally means "set apart," "separate," "wholly different," "completely other." It's the opposite of our darkness, the opposite of our failure, the opposite of our sin. It's the ultimate standard, the ultimate benchmark, the one true litmus test of who we are, how we are living, and where we stand.

It is that part of God that made Isaiah cower before him. In fact, he fell apart: "'Woe to me!' [Isaiah] cried. 'I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.'" (Isa. 6:5). Isaiah became overwhelmed with a deep and profound sense of his own personal sin. This from Isaiah: a prophet's prophet, a leader among leaders, a man of nobility, an elder statesman, one who dialogued with kings and princes.

This was so profound for Isaiah that he uttered prophetic words of judgment. "Woe to me" is a phrase no longer in common usage, but in Isaiah's day it had special significance. When the prophets uttered a positive message from God, they used the word "blessed." In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus began each saying with "blessed": blessed is the one who mourns, who hungers, thirsts, and so on. When proclaiming judgment, they used the word "woe." In the New Testament, Jesus says, "Woe to you, hypocrites."

So when Isaiah encountered the living God, he uttered, "Woe is me!" He proclaimed judgment on himself. Then he said, "I am ruined!" The Hebrew word for "ruined" means "to become lost." Isaiah suddenly realized that he had no basis by which to exist. He stood precariously in his immorality before pure morality, knowing there was sufficient ground to be cut-off from life. One glimpse of God in his holiness, and he knew he had nothing to bring, nothing to offer, and no basis for justification. He became undone, torn apart at the seams.

If there was ever anyone who had it together, it was Isaiah. He was considered the most righteous man of his generation. But one glimpse of the holy God, and he disintegrated. He stood naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holiness. As long as you compare yourself to other people, you can sustain a fairly high view of your own character. But the instant Isaiah measured himself against the ultimate standard, he was destroyed: morally and spiritually blown away. Any thought of himself as a man of integrity was annihilated.

Isaiah's conviction was specific. In verse 5 he says he was "a man of unclean lips," and that he lived "among a people of unclean lips." He didn't say he was a man of "unclean habits" or of "unclean thoughts." No, at that moment he realized he had a dirty mouth. This moment of worship revealed the heart of his sinful nature. For Isaiah, and I would say for most of us, it had to do with his tongue. But not in the way you might think. This wasn't about Isaiah swearing too much. It was deeper. Jesus said that it is out of the overflow of our heart that our mouths speak. This wasn't about coarse language as much as the course of his life. Our mouths are dirty when we say we believe in God, yet live far apart from him. Our mouths are dirty when we look around at others or look in the mirror and say we're okay, when one look at God would tell us otherwise. That is the ultimate profanity.

Why have you forsaken me?

This explains one of the most pivotal events in all of cosmic history, which would be hard to understand without knowing that God is both triune and holy. But once we understand, it gives incredible insight into who God is when we sin. That moment is when Jesus died on the cross. Do you know the most terrible moment for Jesus during that gruesome experience? It wasn't the physical torture, horrific though it was. No, it was the fact that he who knew no sin would become sin.

We talk about Jesus dying for our sins, that he took our place, that he paid the price for our wrongdoing. That means the death of Jesus involved taking the sin of all of humanity upon himself. At the moment of his death, Jesus carried the weight of the sins of the world. Every rape, every murder, every lie, every betrayal, every adulterous relationship, every act of child abuse, the hunger pangs from every famine, every winter chill from homelessness, every addiction, the sordid world of pornography, the chains of slavery. When he died he carried the evil of terrorism and genocide, the Nazi Holocaust and the mass killings of Darfur. He shouldered the acts of Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden. In a single, blazing, soul-wrenching moment, the sins of the world were taken upon his shoulders. He carried their stain, their weight, their pain, their evil, their darkness. He became that sin.

As if there could be anything worse, at that moment, for the first and only time in all of eternity, the Father turned away. The community of the Trinity was shattered and the Son was utterly, terribly alone as the embodiment of sin itself. Then, in the midst of that separation from the Father, that tearing of the Trinity, that darkness of sin, he would surrender his life in sacrifice. Perhaps it is easier to understand the words he spoke while hanging on the cross, the words of the 22nd psalm: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The holiness of God the Father could not look upon him.


Who is God when you sin? Holy. He cannot bear sin, he cannot look upon it, and he cannot tolerate it. His only stance can be nausea and revulsion, condemnation and judgment. His only response is to crucify it. But because of his love for us, it wasn't our body on the cross. It was his.

This wrecks me. It reminds me that while I am forgiven and can be forgiven, my sin is dark and truly wicked. It is more serious than I could ever imagine. The fact that I am a follower of Christ means that I have entered into a relationship with him. That means Jesus is in me, every minute of every day. Whenever I sin, he is involved in it with me. I am exposing him to it. My sin is driving him to revulsion and nausea and the cross.

I'll never forget hearing Tony Campolo talk about this. For years he taught at the University of Pennsylvania. One of his students told him that while he knew he shouldn't be sleeping around, it wasn't that big of a deal because God was "all about" grace and forgiveness. He didn't grasp the fact that every time he hooked up with someone, he crucified Jesus again. He wished that every time that guy was in bed, he could hear the agonizing screams of Jesus. He wished he could hear Jesus crying and wailing. He wished the student could experience what Jesus was going through at that very moment. When you sin you are driving another nail into the hand of Jesus. You are once again lancing his side with a spear.

But that's not all this concept holds for my life. It also reminds me of how indebted I am, how great a gift forgiveness is. It did not, and does not, come cheap. I am so grateful. Who is God when you sin? Holy, present, and on the cross, taking your place.

James Emery White blogs at www.churchandculture.org.

James Emery White is founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is a consulting editor to Leadership Journal. He is author of Serious Times and A Search for the Spiritual, and blogs at churchandculture.org.

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Sermon Outline:


I. God is triune

II. God is holy

III. Why have you forsaken me?