Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Little Theory: Sin

Here’s a question that I ponder from time to time. How much theory about the Gospel does the average Christian need to know? I ask that because I’m really into theory. But there are aspects of the theory of the Gospel that most of you really don’t need to know. Still, I think that it’s safe to say that we all need to know at least a little theory. And the Bible supports that thought. Think about what Paul wrote to those average Christians in Rome. There was quite a bit of theory in the first part of that letter. We all need to know at least a little theory.

And that, of course, provokes this question. Why? Why is knowing some theory important? And the answer to that boils down to this. It’s when you understand the theory of the Gospel better that you will understand the practice of the Gospel better. And that will result in living the Gospel better.

Today, we’re going to be looking at some of the theory of the Gospel. We’re going to limit that to just one aspect of that theory. We’re going to be looking at sin. What is sin? Why is it so bad? What does it actually do to us? And how does the Gospel deal with it? And while this may sound a little too theoretical at points, bear in mind that my goal in this is quite practical: living the Gospel better.

So, let’s start with that familiar starting point. Let’s define sin. I think that if you were to ask for that definition, most church people would come up with something like this. Sin is doing bad things that God doesn’t like. Well, what do you think? Is that a good definition? To figure that out we should ask whether it is true. Is it? Yes, it is. Sin really is doing bad things that God doesn’t like. But there’s a problem with this definition. It’s true, but it’s incomplete. It only deals with one aspect of sin. It deals with sin as things done, sin as behavior. And that leads to seeing sin only in terms of the guilt that results from doing those things. If you think about it, most of the Gospel presentations that we have heard over the years take this point of view. Sin is doing bad things which results in guilt. And the Gospel is presented in terms of that point of view. Jesus has come to deal with our guilt.

Now, all of that is true. And there are plenty of times when that is enough of the truth to change a person’s life. Many have become faithful Christians simply by knowing about sin in terms of behavior that leads to guilt.

However, there comes a time when the basics need to be filled out a bit more. Knowing your addition math facts works fine for the second grade, but you’ll need to know a bit more than that to be able to make it in life. Living well as a Christian will require more theory than this.

So, sin is about guilt. But what else is it about? What else do we need to know about sin? We need to know how sin pollutes. Sin poisons you. As a result, it changes who you are. It twists you up. So, sin isn’t just about what you do. It’s also about who you are.

Let’s explore this idea of the pollution of sin. We have been created as bodies and souls. You can view the body in terms of its parts. So, we have a head, feet, teeth and all the rest. Our bodies are made up of parts. Likewise, our souls are made of parts: the mind, the affections and the will. The mind is about how we think. The affections are about how we desire. And based on what the mind and the affections provide it, the will makes choices. These are the different aspects of the soul.

Now, back in the Garden, before things fell apart, Adam and Eve had perfect bodies. So, they woke up feeling great; no aches or pains. They also had perfect souls. They thought accurately about things. They desired what was good and right. And as a result, they could choose wisely. We see this in Adam when he first met his wife.
This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Genesis 2.23
If you take the time to look at that, you’ll see Adam’s mind (what he thought about the situation), his affections (what he was feeling about the situation) and his will (how he chose to respond to the situation) were all involved.

But it all changed at that tree.

Consider what happened during the conversation that Eve had with the serpent. First, her thinking was poisoned because she believed the serpent’s lie.
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3.4-5
Once her thinking about the situation changed, her desires became twisted.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise …
And the next step was inevitable. She chose poorly.
she took of its fruit and ate… Genesis 3.6
And Adam, instead of leading and protecting his wife, followed her lead and also ate.

You know what happened next. They faced God. And as He had threatened, He cursed them with death. Now, that curse certainly affected their bodies. Their perfect bodies were changed. The downward spiral was begun, starting with aches and pains and all the rest, and eventually resulting in the utter destruction of their bodies. Dust to dust.

But it’s important to bear in mind that the curse also affected their souls. Their souls also began to experience the curse of death. And that meant that their thinking, their desires and their choosing were now polluted, poisoned, by sin. And that same pollution has afflicted us all.

So, now, our thoughts are consistently wrong.
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. Genesis 6.5
Our desires chase after the wrong things.
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. James 1.14
And all of that results in our continually choosing poorly.
… they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord. Proverbs 1.29
And that’s why we read statements like these in the Bible.
The heart [that’s just another label for the soul] is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? Jeremiah 17.9
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. ​All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. Mark 7.21-23
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Romans 8.7
Sin has not only condemned us by its guilt. It has also polluted us. And this is how we all start out. That’s why David wrote,
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Psalms 51.5
That’s not a comment about his mother’s morality. It’s about his own nature. He is a sinner, guilty and polluted, from the moment of his conception.

So, you see, the fundamental problem isn’t about what we do and the resultant guilt. The root problem is about who we are, polluted sinners. That is our nature from the moment we begin to exist. The evil things that we do are simply an expression of the people that we are. Pollution leads to guilt.

Seeing this aspect of sin affects our understanding of how it needs to be dealt with. Sinners need to be changed. But what kind of change is needed? That change needs to be about more than new habits and new actions. Actually, changing what we do is not possible if who we are isn’t changed first.

Isn’t that the point of what Jesus said here?
So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. Matthew 7.17
From day one, we are diseased trees. The only thing to be expected from us is bad fruit, really bad fruit. If we want good fruit, the tree itself needs to be healed and changed.

So, if God Himself were to approach a person in this sinful state, and gently and graciously and clearly explain his sad situation and offer to change it all, to fix his life completely, would any person accept His offer? Absolutely not! Remember, our thinking is only evil continually, our desires lead us to long for what is wrong. And what is the result? Our wills always choose foolishly. So, left to ourselves, no one would become a Christian.

Seeing the problem clearly helps us to see the solution clearly. The Gospel isn’t just about, or even primarily about, changing our status before God from guilty to innocent. It’s more than merely changing our status. Beneath all of that, the Gospel changes who we are. It changes us from those whose souls are thoroughly polluted in mind, affections and will, and makes us into saints who have been rescued from that pollution. Who we are has been changed. And that is why what we do is also changed.

And now, I think that we can enjoy better Paul’s description of what has happened to us. Listen for words that point to the mind, the desires and the choices of our wills.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
This is who we were. Paul is talking about how our souls were under the curse of death. That is why we chose to follow that evil spirit, Satan. And this is because of what our corrupted minds and our twisted desires were doing. This is who we were by nature because of the pollution of sin.

But Paul isn’t finished. He goes on to teach this.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved…   Ephesians 2.1-5
Left to ourselves we would never have believed the Gospel. But God, being rich in His grace, changed who we were. Paul describes it as being made alive from the dead. At that point, we could think accurately about the Gospel. We could desire this good gift from God. And as a result, our wills could choose wisely. They could choose to believe. The curse of the pollution of sin was broken.

So, that’s the theory. Now what? What are we to do with this? If you remember, I mentioned that Paul included a lot of theory in the letter that he sent to the church in Rome. What did he want those saints to do with that theory?

First, notice how he ended his explanation of the theory.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. Romans 11.33-36
The first application of the theory is doxology. Understanding what He has done should result in heartfelt praise. The God of the Bible did what we could not do and that is the only reason we are Christians today. Praise, as well as gratitude, is a result of knowing a bit more theory.

But then, Paul goes on.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12.1-2
I won’t take that all apart. But I will point out a couple of key things for you to think about. First, Paul is making an appeal. And he is quite clear as to the basis of this appeal: the mercies of God. He has been merciful to us in rescuing us from the guilt and pollution of sin. God’s kind goodness to us provides a mighty motivation.

But then, what is it that Paul appeals for? Worship. Worship with the body. He is calling for a different kind of living, a kind of living that no longer has ourselves as the focus. This kind of living has God as the focus. He is to be of first importance to us. Our lives are to be expressions of worship to Him.

That’s the why (devotion) and the what (behavior) of Paul’s appeal. But that leaves the how. How are we going to be able to do such things? And Paul tells us that also.
Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.
The way we think needs to be changed, transformed from what it was.  Our thinking was changed enough so that we could come to Jesus in faith. But now, more needs to be done. This is a call to work to understand reality accurately - and it does take work. But as that happens, as we see more clearly what is real and true, and what is counterfeit and false, our desires are also changed. And out of that comes wise choices. A change in how we think affects how we live. The Spirit is appealing to us to do the work of renewing our minds. And at the heart of that work is getting to understand the Bible well.

There is plenty of theory in the Gospel that the average Christian really doesn’t need to know. But I think that what I’ve told you this morning is theory that you really do need to know. But theory left as theory isn’t all that helpful. It’s as the theory is pondered and understood, as life is viewed through the theory, that one learns how to live well. We live in a time when most people aren’t interested in Gospel theory, Gospel theology. But knowing some theory makes the difference between a life that is lived well and one that isn’t.

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