THE WAVERLY PULPIT
Richard Secrest Hays, M.Div.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
Sunday, July 9, 2017
Forgiven, Not Flawless
A number of years ago the eclectic trivia website, Mental Floss, compiled a list of “25 most important questions in the history of the universe.” You know the kinds of questions that appeared on the list, the ones that you couldn’t answer when your children asked them.
• Why is the sky blue?
• Why do snooze buttons only give you nine more minutes of sleep?
• Why can’t you tickle yourself?
• Those big clocks in the parlor — why do we call them “grandfather clocks?” (That one makes you want to ask, ‘Are there grandchildren clocks?’)
These questions and more — like “Why does Hawaii have Interstate highways?” — are adult versions of the riddles we used to ask as kids. You remember the ones you laughed at as a kid and groaned at as an adult:
• What did the sock say to the foot? You’re putting me on.
• What did the tie say to the hat? You go on ahead, I’ll hang around.
• What do whales like to chew? Blubber gum.
The television game show, “To Tell the Truth” has come back. The premise is that three people pose as a person with a particular skill, story, or experience. The panel asks questions in an attempt to guess which if the three is really who they claim to be.
We all know people who are full of questions. Whether we voice them or not, we often have questions or at least wonderings about something that happens. They don’t have to be grade school questions. Sometimes adults ask really deep, gnawing questions which don’t have easy answers, questions that are conundrums and paradoxes.
That’s where Paul is. He seems to be having a stream of consciousness conversation as he talks out his faith in the letter addressed to the Roman believers. “I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate.” It really bothers him. He says it again. “The desire to do good is inside of me, but I can’t do it. I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do.”
Most of us are neither as verbose or as articulate as Paul is. Nevertheless, we have asked ourselves that same question, maybe even posed it to a trusted confidant or pastor.
So how do we get to the answer? We have to start with that theological four-letter word, “sin.” We avoid saying it like other naughty words.
For all of Paul’s Pharisee training to tick off the boxes of dos and don’ts, Paul knows that sin is something much larger. It’s a power, a principle, a propensity, a proclivity, a penchant that pervades his inner self and dwells deep within him. It’s as if he is programmed to be that way. Fifth century St. Augustine called it “original sin” and 16th century Reformer John Calvin and others called it “total depravity.”
Theological terms aside, sin is a problem that corrupts every relationship with God and neighbor, whether it’s in Paul or you or me. We can certainly relate to Paul’s inner struggle. I know we don’t want to think about it, but let’s look at the things that we sometimes do unthinkingly that are sin as well as the things we do know better about. Sin is what causes us to gossip with our friends when we know we shouldn’t. Sin is wasting time on the job when we don’t want to work. Sin is jumping to conclusions without sufficient evidence. Sin is deliberately ignoring facts. Sin is abusing drugs and alcohol or eating foods we know are harmful to us. Sin is snapping at friends and loved ones. Sin is coveting wealth and material possessions. Sin is turning a blind eye to the needs of others or the wrongs done by others. The vast majority of the time we know full well what course of action we should take — but don’t.
Paul shares three lessons that he learned in trying to deal with his old sinful desires. (1) Knowledge is not the answer; Paul felt fine as long as he did not understand what the law demanded. When he learned the truth, he knew he was doomed. (2) Self-determination, that is, struggling in one’s own strength, doesn’t succeed; Paul found himself sinning in ways that weren’t even attractive to him. (3) Becoming a Christian does not stamp out all sin and temptation from a person’s life.
Sin. It’s all over. That doesn’t mean that everything we do is completely sinful, but that every dimension of our life — personal, community, national, global — is tainted by Sin. Psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck put it this way in an interview with Christianity Today (February 2005):
“I think we’ve got things wrong. The predominant view in our culture is that this is a naturally good world that has somehow been contaminated by evil. It’s much more likely, I think, that this is a naturally evil world that has mysteriously been contaminated by goodness. And that the good bugs are growing and that indeed Satan is being defeated.”
We aren’t in a position to judge whether Satan is being defeated, but we are to take it on faith.
We are left with the question which probably didn’t make the Mental Floss list: “What — or who — will get us out of this mess?” Paul put it this way: “Who will deliver me from this dead corpse?” Then he supplies the answer: “Thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” The only antidote to total depravity is total grace, a grace that comes to us through our faith in Jesus Christ.
Being born again, born from above, born of the Spirit, starts in a moment of faith, but becoming like Christ takes a lifetime. In other of his letters Paul compared Christian growth to a strenuous race or fight. Paul emphasized since the beginning of his letter to the Roman believers that no one in the world is innocent. Further, no one deserves to be saved—neither the pagan who doesn’t know God’s laws nor the Christian or Jew who knows them and tries to keep them. All of us must depend totally on the work of Christ for our salvation. We cannot earn it by our good behavior.
In spite of Paul’s great knowledge of the Jewish faith traditions, and in spite of the often strained construction of his thoughts, Paul is very human. He is baring his soul before his Roman readers. He speaks from personal experience. We know a good bit about Paul, but there is a great deal more that we don’t know about him. Whatever that may be, we can only guess at.
What we do know from Paul is this: Those who are really under grace take sin seriously. Sin is no longer their master, but it is still a powerful adversary. If you and I don’t take sin seriously, we fall into it. And if we don’t take victory seriously, we fail to utilize the Holy Spirit’s help. The depth of Paul’s honesty highlights the magnificent message with which he follows up today’s reading at the beginning of his intensely powerful chapter 8: “So now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Jesus Christ rescues us, saves us. It was costly for him, because he died in the “rescue” process. That’s what our salvation is about, that’s what makes it grace. Salvation, rescue, is not in the future. It has already taken place through the work of Jesus Christ as he lived, died, and was raised.
Our business, our vocation, our calling is to live in the truth of our new life. There’s no point waiting to be rescued, thinking that someone will come and save us with only seconds to go before our lives blow up. We are not the fair damsel tied to a railroad track by the dastardly villain of some silent movie melodrama. We have already been saved. There’s no point clinging to old resentments of being slighted, overlooked, cheated. There’s no point refusing to forgive, no point in cheating, lusting, fighting, carping, harping, stealing, lying — any of these things. It’s not who we are!
Who are we? Are we perfect? No way. This is what we are: We are forgiven, not flawless. And Paul knows that there always will be a war going on between the flesh and the spirit.
When I remember who I am, when you remember who you are, then each of us will know what it means to be “saved” and to live the way God wants us to. We are forgiven, not flawless. Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Homiletics, July 3, 2005,
Life Application Bible, “Romans.”