By Dr. Mickey Anders Karl Menninger begins his book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin? with these words:
“On a sunny day in September, 1972, a stern-faced, plainly dressed man could be seen standing still on a street corner in the busy Chicago Loop. As pedestrians hurried by on their way to lunch or business, he would solemnly lift his right arm, and pointing to the person nearest him, intone loudly the single word ‘GUILTY!’
“Then without any change of expression, he would resume his stiff stance for a few moments before repeating the gesture. Then, again, the inexorable raising of his arm, the pointing, and the solemn pronouncing of the one word ‘GUILTY!’
“The effect of this strange j’accuse pantomime on the passing strangers was extraordinary, almost eerie. They would stare at him, hesitate, look away, look at each other, and then at him again; then hurriedly continue on their ways.
“One man, turning to another who was my informant, exclaimed: ‘But how did he know?'”
I suspect that is the response that many of us would have had. Or we might have said, “What does he know?” We would be afraid that he would know our deep secrets.
Our text for today is a classic passage on sin from the book of Romans. Paul traces the source of sin to Adam and the solution for sin in Jesus.
Today I want to tackle the difficult subject of sin using the old journalist’s technique of what, who, why, and how.
What is sin?
We are all very familiar with sin, but if I were to ask your definition of sin, we would get a great variety of definitions. It is not as easy to define as we first may think.
The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines sin this way:
“1. transgression of divine law.
2. any act regarded as such a transgression, esp. a willful or deliberate violation of some religious or moral principle.
3. any reprehensible or regrettable action, behavior, lapse, etc.; great fault or offense.”
This definition of sin is a common one — breaking some kind of rule. But I am not sure that it is the Biblical one. Is it just disobeying God’s commandments? That’s what most people think. People often ask the question, “Is this a sin?” People want to know what the rules are. It makes life easier to have a set of rules.
But the Bible defines sin much more broadly than that. The Bible talks about sins of omission as well as sins of commission. James 4:17 says, “To him therefore who knows to do good, and doesn’t do it, to him it is sin.”
Jesus had a way of tracking sin to its lair in our hearts. When pressed about the rules, Jesus defined them very broadly. In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
The Apostle Paul said in Romans 14:23, “Whatever is not of faith is sin.”
Georgia Harkness says this about sin:
“There is perhaps no word in our language which is used more ambiguously, in spite of its apparent simplicity… Sin, then, is a relationship to God focused in self-centeredness, which shows itself in unloving attitudes and acts toward our fellow men. It is when we seek our own wills instead of God’s will and regulate our lives by such self-seeking that sin corrupts our nature.” (Christian Believer Readings, p. 87)
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At its root, sin is alienation from God. Sin is not having right relationships with God and with humans. Sin is missing the mark of what God wants for our lives.
Menninger’s story answers that question of “Who?” His self-appointed accuser of all obviously hit a nerve with the people who passed him by. The answer is that we all are sinners.
Only Christ was sinless. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin.”
But for the rest of us, sin is just second nature. It seems to be natural for us to sin. Everybody we know sins. We are all guilty. Everybody. Guilty of lying, of arrogance, of stealing, of unfaithfulness, of evil thoughts or evil plans. Guilty of sins of commission or sins of omission. The Bible tells us plainly, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). 1 John 1:8-9 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
We may try to excuse ourselves by pointing out that we are pretty good or that we are better than someone else, but we can’t get around the fact that we are ALL sinners.
How many sins does it take to make us a sinner? Just one. Imagine a pen with sheep in it. How many breaks in the fence does it take for the sheep to get out? Just one. And then the sheep are either on the inside or the outside. That’s the way it is with sin. We are either sinners or we are not sinners, and even one sin makes all the difference.
Who sins? We all do. Who is a sinner? We all are.
What are the results of sin?
Some people picture God as a policeman in the sky ready to hit us with a club every time we sin. I don’t think God works that way. God has so ordered the world that sin brings it’s own judgment on us. You can see people who are addicted to drugs and it destroys their lives. In the same way, every sin destroys relationships. I believe God’s judgment is that God lets us go to our own devices. Romans 1:28 says, “Even as they refused to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not fitting.” God gives us up to make a mess or our own lives, and we seem to be experts at that. We bring the consequences upon ourselves.
Sin is tragic beyond measure because of what it does to our human relationships. Sin alienates person from person. Sin alienates us from God.
Ultimately, our sins are against God. Psalm 51:4 says, “Against you, and you only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight; that you may be proved right when you speak, and justified when you judge.” We remove ourselves from God. God is not removed from us.
Why do we sin?
We sin because of Adam and Eve. Adam’s story is our story. The story of Adam is the story of every person. What Adam did, everyone does. What he was, we all are. People simply repeat over and over again Adam’s original sin, with the same consequences. If I want to understand who I am and what I am like, I only have to look at Adam.
The doctrine of sin says that nothing we do is free from the corruption of sinful self-interest. Human beings are monotonously the same, repeating over and over again the little drama in the garden of Eden.
Now I don’t want to be guilty of the common tendency to exaggerate our sinful nature. We must not confirm the suspicion that many people have about Christians. They say that Christians are cynical, sour people who believe in sin more than in anything else, refuse to see any good anywhere, always look around suspiciously for the real evil under every apparent good, and especially denounce any good that non-Christians accomplish.
If sin is second nature to us, what is our first nature? To learn about our first nature, we have to turn a few pages earlier than our text for today. We have to go back to the first chapter where God follows each of the Divine creative acts with the pronouncement, “That is good.” And then “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…. God created man in his image, in God’s image he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).
We need always to remember that we are created by God and that God proclaimed we are basically good. But with the story of Adam and Eve that we read earlier, sin entered the picture and became our second nature. Sin distorts, twists, corrupts, and contradicts the image of God in us, but it does not change us into something other than what God created us to be. Our first nature is the image of God, but our second nature is sin.
Sin is an acquired taste.
The Bible affirms two apparently contradictory truths about humans and sin:
1) Sin is universal and inevitable. All people, everywhere, always, have lived in self-contradiction to their true being in the image of God. Romans 3:10-11 says, “As it is written, ‘There is no one righteous; no, not one. There is no one who understands. There is no one who seeks after God.”
2) Nevertheless, every person is responsible for his or her sinfulness. No one forces me not to love God and other people. It is I who sin and I know that I am guilty, even if I do not want to do it.
Sin comes from legitimate desires that are then drawn beyond legitimate bonds.
“No wonder sin gives us so much difficulty. It approaches us at our places of need and takes them to illegitimate territory so that hunger slips into gluttony, the need for affection becomes lust, the desire to improve oneself becomes theft, and the longing for exhilaration becomes drunkenness or drug abuse. Even the desire for spiritual fulfillment can lead to self-deification or to seeking to use God for quite ungodly purposes.” (Christian Believer, p. 92)
How do we handle our sins?
Five separate times our text for today says that the work of Jesus was a “free gift.” Jesus paid the price for all our sins. “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. For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
Jesus was the counterbalance to what Adam did. If Adam brought sin into the world, Jesus came to provide the remedy for that sin. And it is offer to all as a free gift. We can never be good enough, but God offers us the gift of salvation if we will only respond in faith to Him. Faith in Christ is the only thing that gets us right with God. Jesus is the only one who can forgive our sins.
Sometimes we are hesitant to accept a free gift. In Sunday school today, our lesson was about Naaman from 2 Kings. He was a famous Syrian general who came down with leprosy. A slave girl suggested that he could be healed if he could go to Elisha the prophet. Naaman wasted no time in finding Elisha. But he was frustrated that Elisha did not pay him enough attention. Elisha merely sent a servant out to tell Naaman to dip seven times in the river Jordan and he would be healed.
Because of his pride, Naaman turned toward home. He was offended that the answer to his problem was so simple. But then his driver encouraged him to do as the prophet said. He said, “If the prophet had asked you to do some great thing, you would have done it. Why don’t you do this simple thing?” Finally, Naaman was persuaded, he dipped in the river and was healed.
In the same way, we must accept the free gift of salvation and forgiveness through Jesus Christ. It is there for the taking, but we must respond. Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.