By Dr. Philip W. McLarty The text before us contains one of the most important concepts of the Christian faith – that God began a new creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Paul cuts to the chase in his First Letter to the Corinthians, when he says:
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22)
I can’t think of anything more important than this. In fact, if I had to choose just one verse of scripture to hang my hat on, this would be that verse.
Years ago, I was watching the World Series on TV, and, like most World Series, I was one of about two billion people watching. It was a close matchup where the outcome of the game hung on each pitch and every swing of the batter. To capture the intensity, the camera angle would switch from the manager in the dugout nervously spitting tobacco juice, to a close-up of the pitcher’s face as he took his signals from the catcher, to a fan holding her breath. Then, as the pitcher took his windup, the center field camera would zoom in on the batter crouched in his stance anxiously awaiting the pitch. It was great drama. And yet, capitalizing on the moment, there was this fan sitting directly behind home plate holding up a large poster with bold black lettering that read: JOHN 3:16. As if to say to heck with the World Series – this is what’s important:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life..” (John 3:16)
About the four-hundredth time the camera zoomed in on the batter – and the fan behind him with his poster for all to see – I began to think of what I would say to the world if I had the chance. What statement would I make? What best sums up the message of the Gospel in a single verse? It was at that moment I thought of 1 Corinthians 15:22. I decided that would be my poster. It’s not as widely known as John 3:16, I admit, but it’s every bit as important:
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.”
This is the heart of the Gospel. And, though it’s not a terribly difficult verse to understand, it’s incredibly hard to believe. And so, this morning I’d for us to unpack it together and see if we can grasp its message of Good News for our lives.
Let’s take it in two parts. The first part is this: “For as in Adam all die…” The reference is the story of Adam and Eve. In a word, God created Adam out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life. Then he created Eve out of Adam’s rib to be his helpmate and companion. Then God placed them in a lovely garden teeming with beauty and abundant with every good food to eat. (Genesis 2)
There was only one catch: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17) Otherwise, enjoy yourselves and have fun.
Well, you know the story. Adam and Eve weren’t content to submit to a higher authority. They wanted to be their own gods. And so, one day, a talking snake came along. He told Eve that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would open your eyes and make you as wise as God. She couldn’t wait to tell Adam. Sure enough, they ate the forbidden fruit and took life into their own hands.
Once they did, they realized how vulnerable they were. Why, they were naked. That is to say they had no defenses. They could be hurt, even destroyed. It’s not easy being your own god, you know. So, they fortified themselves by making fig-leaf aprons.
When they heard the sound of God walking through the garden, they hid in the bushes because they were afraid. When God found them and they admitted what they’d done, he said they’d have to find another place to live. Well, what other choice did he have? There’s room in the garden for only one God.
So, they were on their own. They’d have to live off the land by the sweat of their brow. They would experience pain and toil their whole life long, and when their lives were over, they would return to the dust from which they came. Just remember: It was their choice.
We commonly call this story, The Fall of Adam, because it was here that Adam fell from grace. So did Eve, for that matter, but that goes without saying. It’s important not because of what happened to Adam and Eve thousands of years ago, but what it says about human nature from the beginning of time. In short, the story of Adam and Eve is our story:
• We are those beloved children of God who are created in God’s image and endowed with God’s Spirit and placed in the wonderland of God’s creation.
• We are those beloved children who refuse to submit to God’s authority over our lives.
• We are those beloved children who refuse to surrender our wills to God’s Will and so, make life difficult for ourselves.
Like Adam and Eve, we are those beloved children who continually rebel and do the very things God commands us not to do.
We call this original sin, and that’s a good term for it – not that our sinfulness is all that original, but that it stems from the origin: It’s in our genes. To put it this way: It’s not that we’re prone to making mistakes, it’s that our very nature is corrupt. We can be counted on to do and say hurtful things, to act selfishly, even to do good things for the wrong reasons. No offense, but we’re rotten to the core, and there’s nothing we can do to overcome it.
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One of our gurus in the faith, John Calvin, called this the depravity of man. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, he writes:
“Because of the bondage of sin by which (we) are held, we cannot move toward good … So depraved is (our) nature, that we can be moved or impelled only to evil …” (P.294-5)
The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:
“Our first parents … sinned in eating the forbidden fruit … by this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God … they, being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed (i.e., passed on to their offspring) … from this original corruption, we are utterly indisposed, disabled and made opposite to all good…” (Book of Confessions, 6.031-6.036)
I can remember, growing up, being taught that we were born into a state of innocence and were counted as sinful only when we reached the age of accountability, which, as you might expect, roughly corresponded to the onset of puberty.
We now know better. Studies show that children – even infants – are just as egocentric as the rest of us. From earliest childhood, we exhibit the same selfish tendencies as our parents and others adults. We may be innocent the first time we take a cookie out of the cookie jar after being told not to, but you’d better believe the next time we know exactly what we’re doing. If there is an age of innocence, it’s short-lived. Paul said it best when he told the Romans: “None is righteous; no, not one.” (Romans 3:10)
And so, the bad news is, “As in Adam all die…” The Good News is, “so also in Christ all will be made alive.”
What we have here is nothing less than a New Creation: Just as the Old Creation started with Adam, the New Creation started with Jesus Christ. As we heard in our scripture lesson today:
“So then as through one trespass, all men were condemned; even so through one act of righteousness, all men were justified to life.” (Romans 5:18)
In the history of civilization, this shift from the Old Creation to the New was so dramatic that it led to counting time all over again. To this day, we number our years from the birth of Jesus Christ. This is the two thousand and ninth “Anno Domini” – year of our Lord. Everything else is B. C. – before Christ. Even in today’s modern nomenclature, we make the same division – we live in the “Common Era” (CE); prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus is “Before the Common Era” (BCE).
What’s important for us to understand is this: Just as we had nothing to do with the fall of Adam, neither are we responsible for this New Creation God has established in Jesus Christ. What’s more, we’re just as sinful as ever. The Good News is that, now, God has chosen to count us as righteous, even though we’re not. This is the way Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans:
“For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23)
This has nothing to do with how deserving or undeserving we may be; it has everything to do with the miracle of God’s grace and the sovereignty of God’s love. As Paul said, “But God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
As incredible as it may seem, God has acted, once and for all, to reconcile the world to himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Overlooking our sinful nature, God has chosen to love us anyway, zits and all, and is hoping we’ll choose to love him, in return.
Now, I said earlier that this verse is not hard to understand, but it’s almost impossible to believe. It sounds too good to be true: Surely there’s some catch, some restrictions must apply; what’s the fine print?
Here’s an analogy. See if it makes sense for you. April 15th is just around the corner. Many of us are still in the process of filing our tax returns. It’s a dreaded ordeal, even if you use a CPA.
Well, just imagine if, by some amazing fete, the federal government announced that it no longer needed our money, that tomorrow’s headlines screamed: TAX SYSTEM ABOLISHED! ALL PAYMENTS SUSPENDED!
How would you respond? I venture to say, most of us wouldn’t believe it. We’d be skeptical. We’d figure there must be some mistake, or that it was a hoax, and, come April 15th, we’d file our 1040s just the same, to be on the safe side. Oh, some might wait and see, but they’d squirrel away the money, just in case. Few of us would feel free to take the money and spend it for something else until we were sure it was ours to keep.
Now, it’s only an analogy, so don’t throw away your paperwork. Just consider this: God has abolished the Old Covenant of legalism and works based on the Law. In its place, God has initiated a New Covenant of grace and forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Here’s the problem: In many ways, we continue to live in fear and anxiety, doubting the sovereignty of God’s love and the sufficiency of God’s grace. It’s just too good to be true.
For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I just don’t feel like I’ve done enough.” Deep down inside, we still hold on to the notion that there’s some minimum level of righteousness we must be able to prove in order to be worthy of God’s love.
And so, I invite you simply to accept the free gift of God’s grace. Believe the Gospel: As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Trust Jesus to be the Lord and Savior of your life. Walk in his footsteps and follow his example. Know that he died for the forgiveness of your sins. And, knowing this, live so that others might come to know him through you.
George Matheson was a minister in the Church of Scotland. Though not a poet, he penned this great hymn in a moment of divine inspiration. It captures the spirit of Paul’s great proclamation and the humble response of sinners like you and me.
O Love that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee; I give thee back the life I owe, That in thine ocean depths its flow May richer, fuller be.
O Cross that liftest up my head, I dare not ask to fly from thee; I lay in dust life’s glory dead, And from the ground there blossoms red Life that shall endless be.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.