Sin & Salvation: A Study in Contrasts

Delivered during the 2013 Easter service at Oxford Valley Chapel.

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In 1135, King Henry I of England died with no clear heir to the throne. His only legitimate son William had died 15 years earlier in a shipwreck. He did, however, have a daughter named Matilda and he desired for her to inherit the throne. However, a woman as heir was unusual in those days, and Henry’s nephew Stephen of Blois was a well-respected count with a large army and eye for the throne. Matilda was out of the country when her father died, so Stephen capitalized on her absence by quickly seizing power across England, shoring up church support and racing to London for a coronation at Westminster Abbey.

This began a brutal war for succession and plunged England into what is now referred to as The Anarchy, an 18-year civil war in which there was a total breakdown in law and order. In the absence of any real king, injustice and tyranny were rampant—so much so that an early historian called it “nineteen long winters in which Christ and his saints were asleep.” While the would-be-rulers were busy fighting for the throne, their subordinates subjected the people to horrific oppression.

Many wicked men gained powers of position by their connections, and they forced commoners to build castles for them, rewarding them with nothing but extortion. People were imprisoned and tortured for money—tortured in ways that would make your blood run cold to hear them. After going into gruesome detail about the tortures carried out on people, one of the old Anglo-Saxon annals concludes:

“I have neither the ability nor the power to tell all the horrors nor all the torments they inflicted upon wretched people in this country… There had never been till then greater misery in the country, nor had heathens ever done worse than they did.”

It was an awful, miserable time of tyranny and oppression; but I will borrow a quote from Spurgeon:

“Oh! my brethren, I speak in sober earnestness when I declare that all the sufferings that have ever been exercised upon man have never been equal to the tyranny which man has brought upon himself—the tyranny of sin… Sin is the world’s great Despot. It is the serpent in whose subtle folds earth’s inhabitants are crushed. It is such a tyranny that none but those whom God delivers have been able to escape from it.” —Sin Slain, Spurgeon

Sin, Sickness and Terminology

I’m afraid we all hold sin in too little regard. We celebrate Easter, color our eggs and sing Christ The Lord Is Risen Today; but we give our daily struggle with sin and holiness less time, effort and consideration that our personal finances or our meals.

Isaiah 59 was written specifically for Israel, but it gives such a candid view of sin and the tyranny it brings that is serves as a stark reminder for all of us:

Isaiah 59:1 Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, / That it cannot save; / Nor His ear heavy, / That it cannot hear. / But your iniquities have separated you from your God; … 9 Therefore justice is far from us, / Nor does righteousness overtake us; / We look for light, but there is darkness! / For brightness, but we walk in blackness! / We grope for the wall like the blind, / And we grope as if we had no eyes; / We stumble at noonday as at twilight; / We are as dead men in desolate places.

We must all understand the darkness in which we abide. Our iniquities have separated us from our God. We cannot find justice. We cannot find righteousness. We look for brightness, but we walk in blackness. We have no direction and we live our lives as one who is dead.

A despicable trend in churches today is creating more appealing ways to describe sin. We search for kinder, gentler ways to describe man’s wickedness, dreaming up syndromes and disorders, as if all of this scheming and redefining would somehow reduce our guilt in the eyes of a holy God. 1 John 1:5 tells us that “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all”; yet we think that calling our sin a bad habit or a personality deficit or “just part of who I am” will somehow make light and darkness compatible?

John 3:18 ”He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 And this is the condemnation*, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”

In our natural state, you and I stand condemned before God because the light (Jesus Christ) came into the world, but we loved darkness. Our deeds are evil. We are sinners. We are not the victim, we are the perpetrator. If you do not talk about sin the way the Bible talks about sin, if you do not consider yourself the guilty party, you’ll never really understand your need for pardoning.

Sin, Salvation and Stark Contrasts

We all want personal justice. There’s nothing that stirs up outrage in the heart faster than being judged unfairly. When an injustice is committed against us, who is our loudest and most persistent advocate? We are!

But what about the justice demanded by a holy God? Unfortunately, though many of us profess to hate sin and love God’s holiness, I suspect there are few who could say with the songwriter that the things of earth have grown strangely dim in the light of His glory.

“It is one of the defining marks of Our Time that God is now weightless. I do not mean by this that he is ethereal but rather that he has become unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable. He has lost his saliency for human life. Those who assure the pollsters of their belief in God’s existence may nonetheless consider him less interesting than television, his commands less authoritative than their appetites for affluence and influence, his judgments no more awe-inspiring than the evening news, and his truth less compelling than the advertiser’s sweet fog of flattery and lies. That is weightlessness. It is a condition we have assigned him after having nudged him out to the periphery of our secularized life. His truth is no longer welcome in our public discourse. The engine of modernity rumbles on, and he is but a speck in its path.” — David Wells, God in the Wasteland

It is little wonder we whitewash sin and pursue “niceness” in our churches. We profess God’s holiness and our sin debt with fervor; but when God and His Word carries little weight in our lives, so do these statements. It’s like being very opinionated about which route you drive to work; it matters for a moment in time, then you forget about it for the rest of the day.

We will never fully appreciate the grace of God until we fully understand the depth of our own human depravity. And we can never fully understand the depth of our own human depravity until we grasp a better understanding of God’s holiness. And we’ll never grasp God’s holiness until we begin to consistently saturate ourselves with His Word. Colossians 2 tells us that we should:

Col 2:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

A proper understanding of sin will bring us low, and a proper understanding of the gospel will lift us up. Some of you are arrogant and indulgent and you need the Word of God to cut down your pride like a scythe, and some of you are miserable and despondent and you need the Word of God to bring you hope. But you’ll never understand just how beautiful this thing called grace is until you understand just how desperately you are in need of it.

Which brings us to the subject of grace.

Sin, Grace and Proportionality

Romans 5:18-21 — 18 Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. 19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. 20 Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, 21 so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
A brief reading of these verses might lead you to the same conclusion some Christians today have come to: the more I sin the more grace increases. They take this facet of truth and use it as a free ticket to live any way that pleases them. In an attempt to “experience more profound grace”, they disobey God. Chapter 6 seems to anticipate this skewed line of thinking and stops it cold with this unmistakable warning:
“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?”

We will always wrestle with sin. Or to say it another way, we will never lose our ability to sin. Romans 7:13-25 explains that struggle in terms that border on confusion, which seems somewhat appropriate. Anyone who has struggled with victory over sin can relate to how maddening it is. Running back to the same sins for which that Jesus Christ was crucified, knowing full well that the satisfaction you will find is short-lived and will bring nothing but regret. We can all relate to the struggle. But let us not forget Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 15:33-34, 

“Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits.’ 34 Awake to righteousness, and do not sin; for some do not have the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame.”

Do not sin. It couldn’t be any more clearly written.

A clear understanding of Romans 5:20 is this: “No matter how great my sin, God’s grace is always greater.” This statement is meant to give hope to the penitent, not to give license the indulgent.

Now, Later and Perseverance

1 Peter 2 addresses this and delivers a fatal blow to the idea that Christian liberty means living in wickedness:

1 Peter 2:15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men— 16 as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.

This verse is fixed squarely in a chapter about being submissive (servants to masters, citizens to rulers) and doing good with the intention of pointing people to God. In fact, just a few verses earlier, he explains,

1 Peter 2:11 Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, 12 having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.

Do you see what’s happening here? You conduct yourself honorably, yet unbelievers accuse you of doing evil. But even as they’re speaking falsely of you, they’ll be observing your good works which will stand as a testimony for them of God’s glory.

What about that phrase “in the day of visitation”? It’s an unusual phrase, but understanding what it means matters because Peter tells us this is when the “reckoning” happens. In other words, we’re doing good works, but being accused of evil. This is a state of imbalance, one that causes even the godliest among us to cry out with Jeremiah, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?” or with Job, “Why do the wicked live and become old, Yes, become mighty in power?” But Peter tells us that “in the day of visitation”, that imbalance will be righted, your good works will be understood for what they truly are and God will be glorified.

The phrase is literally translated: “the day of oversight”. The word translated here as “visitation” is ἐπισκοπῆς and it’s the same word used in 1 Timothy 3:1: “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop [or overseer], he desires a good work.” The best way to understand this is… there will come a day when an accounting is made for that imbalance, and in that day God will be glorified. Some say this phrase refers to the day of Christ’s return and others say it refers to the day of the unbeliever’s conversion. Whether that reconciliation is the day a sinner repents and finally understanding the truth or it’s the day “that every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”, God is the keeper of our accounts and will ultimately use our perseverance in good works to bring glory to Himself.

Death, Life and Victory

But we must not end there. To do so might leave you believing that your power over sin is somehow fixed upon the foundation of your own righteousness, but there could be nothing further from the truth. Ephesians 2 tells us that:

Ephesians 2:4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.

Did you see the gospel parallels? This is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ made evident in our lives. We who were dead in our sins are made alive with Christ! We are His workmanship (poeima, artwork) — saved through faith and not of ourselves — and we have been created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of doing good. Just as Lazarus could not brag on his resurrected state, neither can we brag on ours.

Romans 8:5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6 For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. 7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. 8 So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. 10 And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

We could feel guilty about sin for our entire life and work to try to relieve that burden; but were it not for God’s mercy and Christ’s atonement, our striving would be losing. Romans 5:8 says that while we were still sinning, Christ died for us. His death and resurrection means the death our flesh and the resurrection of a Spirit-filled life. His death and resurrection pays our sin debt, gives us victory over sin, and saves us from the future wrath of God that we justly deserve.

We call the act of believing and receiving this gift salvation, and we call the act of working out what God has worked in us sanctification. These are two things that everyone reading this should experience.