“The Two Note Symphony”
1 Timothy 1:15
June 8, 2008
Sin is the great disaster from which only Christ’s mercy can rescue us.
Introduction: Ephesians 2:1-10
I. It began with Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:26-27, Genesis 3:1-19)
II. It’s in all of us (Psalm 51:1-12, Romans 7:18-19, Titus 3:3)
III. Jesus is the only answer (Titus 3:4-7, 1 Timothy 1:12-17)
This week may mark the 20th anniversary of the first time I ever preached, at least before a congregation on Sunday morning. The fading data seems to show it happened at Clear Lake Bible Church, June 12th, 1988, a year before I left for seminary.
That first sermon, from Ephesians 2:1-10, was called ‘The Awfulness of Sin, the Greatness of Grace’. I was recently talking with Jim Dutton about preaching and I commented that my preaching sometimes seems to be a one note symphony. I told him about that message and that ever since I’ve been preaching sin and salvation.
Of course it’s really a two note symphony. So much Scripture is about sin and salvation, bad news and good news, judgment and mercy, being lost and found, the darkness of sin and the light of Christ. And Ephesians 2 is one of the great texts. So I not only preached it in 1988, but again in 1991 in Illinois, and again when we studied Ephesians in 1999, and again last year in the ‘Telling Yourself the Truth’ series.
Today is the third message on the new Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America. Point 3 is called ‘The Human Condition’ and it’s about sin and salvation: “We believe that God created Adam and Eve in His image, but they sinned when tempted by Satan. In union with Adam, human beings are sinners by nature and by choice, alienated from God, and under His wrath. Only through God’s saving work in Jesus Christ can we be rescued, reconciled and renewed.”
Sin is the great disaster from which only Christ can rescue us. I’m not going to preach Ephesians 2 today, but here’s what it says: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. That’s the awfulness of sin.
Verse 4, the greatness of salvation: 4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions– it is by grace you have been saved. 6And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,7in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- 9not by works, so that no one can boast.
I. It began with Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:26-27, Genesis 3:1-19)
Sin is the great disaster because God originally created mankind in his image.Genesis 1:26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." 27So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
Mankind, male and female, was created in the image of God. What dois that mean? First, like God, we have personality, the ability to communicate and the ability to form intimate relationships. We saw all those thing two weeks ago as characteristics of the Trinity, and these characteristics set us apart from all other creatures. Second, our self-awareness, intellectual capacity and creativity are finite imitations of what God possesses in the infinite. Our thoughts aren’t his thoughts, but they imitate his.
Further, we’ve been created with a moral and spiritual element which we don’t see in the rest of creation: we have a sense of right and wrong, and an immaterial part, our spirit, whose eternal destiny depends on the outcome of our moral choices. We were created, in God’s image, in moral purity. Adam and Eve were not sinful, had no sinful nature, at creation. They were like God in holiness and righteousness.
It’s in that part of God’s image we were most damaged at the fall. I appreciate the EFCA Statement’s affirmation of the creation of Adam and Eve and the events in Eden’s Garden as the historical basis for mankind’s predicament. Genesis 3 isn’t myth, but disastrous reality: Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" 2The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'"
4"You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. 5"For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." 6When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Satan comes to Eve in the form of a serpent, probably occupying the body of an animal, but with all the cunning of the proud fallen angel. He comes to deceive and cause doubt, distorting the command of God with a seemingly innocent questioning of God’s word. “Did God really say this?” He implies that God is not as good and loving as Eve thinks, that he is withholding good things.
And Eve is no longer clear about God’s word: ‘God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'" She adds the part about not touching the fruit. Satan tempts people to add to God’s commands, either from good motives, to protect from any hint of dis-obedience, or to deceive, making God appear judgmental, rather than good.
Finally, Satan flatly denies God’s truthfulness: “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.” Satan tempts them with the very sin that had caused him to fall, the addictive idea we can be like God, be our own God.
Satan planted these seeds, but it was Eve’s own desires that decided. Verse 6: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.” This temptation, like most since, appeals to our pleasures. The tree seemed ‘good for food’, appealing to bodily appetites; ‘pleasant to the eyes’, appealing to esthetic and emotional pleasures, and ‘desired to make one wise’, appealing to the mind and to pride.
Eve took the fruit and ate. Adam, seemingly without hesitation, joined her. It’s possible Adam was present the whole time, listening in silence, neglecting the leadership he should have taken. He choose freely to follow his wife into sin. As a result, Scripture places the blame on him. In Romans 5 Paul reflects on this event and says that through Adam ‘sin entered the world, and death through sin.’ All future human beings were in Adam; it was through his offense disaster came to so many.
When I preached Genesis a few years ago I called this the great disaster: death came not only to the man and woman, but to the whole world: a catastrophic transformation was worked on God’s perfect creation. Disease, blight and ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ were born out of that sin. And Adam and Eve and their descendants were transformed, so that human nature is now enslaved to sin. The Statement of Faith says: ‘in union with Adam, human beings are sinners by nature and by choice.’
The impact of a sinful people living in a fallen world is disastrous. All of the myriad forms of death, hatred, hurt, anger and despair that haunt our world came from Adam’s choice. All disease and natural disaster were born at that moment. Worse, all the bloody cruelties of all the world’s tyrants were contained in that act, as were the hidden abuses and angers of ordinary people in every century and culture.
Sin made our world a shattered dark shadow of the paradise God created. The background landscapes I’m using today show that people sense this disaster. The titles are a litany of lost hope: absence, affliction, ashes and dust, dying world, carpe noctem, chains of past decisions, decay into oblivion, dereliction, and so on.
II. It’s in all of us (Psalm 51:1-12, Romans 7:18-19, Titus 3:3)
We are thus sinful people living in despair in a fallen world. David personalizes this for us in Psalm 51: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. 3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. 5Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
These are key truths about ourselves and our sin. First, there is no cleansing apart from God’s mercy. If some mechanical thing, like sacrifice, could have washed him, David needn’t have prayed this prayer. Second, sin is not something mysterious that we do without awareness. David says “I know my transgression and my sin is always before me.” Even apart from God’s written law, mankind has been given an awareness of moral law; every culture and person has a sense of good and evil.
Third, sin is against God. That doesn’t mean it’s not against people: David sinned against Uriah and Bathsheba and all those to whom he had pledged faith. But it is above all against God, whose perfect nature, holiness and goodness, establishes the moral law we transgress. Fourth sin deserves judgment. David says God is right to speak as the judge of our sins. Because he’s sinless he has the moral right to abhor sin, and because he is creator, he has the right to punish sin in his creatures.
Finally sin is inborn. David says “I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” David recognizes a sinful nature that exists from conception. The consequences of Adam’s sin are passed on to all of us. Now it may be that God chooses to extend mercy to little ones who die before some age of reason or accountability: I think he does. But it’s not because they are pure in nature; it’s because he’s compassionate, gracious and merciful.
We all have this nature. Paul testifies to it in Romans 7:18-19 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.
Every person, believer or un-believer, has a is a sinful nature, often called the flesh, in contrast to the Spirit or the spiritual nature. In this sinful nature, Paul says, there’s nothing good. Even if a person has the desire to do what is right, they can’t do so by the force of their will. Instead they find that they do what they know to be evil.
No doubt some are so given over to the sinful nature that they delight in this evil. These are the notorious tyrants, torturers, lechers, Sadists or murderers of the ages. But most people are at war within; their sinful nature battles a God given awareness of right and wrong. You and I fight that war: from the smallest details of our lives to the greatest acts of desperation, our sinful natures try to keep control of our wills, and we do things we know are wrong, violating God’s laws and our consciences.
This is evident from infancy. No one has to teach a child to say “No” - all it takes is the preferring of their own desires; this is the first evidence of their rebellious nature. And all through our lives we are children in this respect. We are both blatantly and subtly selfish, obsessed with our own satisfaction in every area of life. Whether it is being too lazy to help someone with the dishes or subtly cutting down a co-worker to gain an advantage or to be thought well of, we look out for number one.
For many of us this shows up in the form of a characteristic sin. It may be anger; people who threaten my plans, my program, my pleasure, my peace, my security, become the objects of harsh words, bitterness, revenge or even violence. Worse, I express these things toward those weaker than I because I’m really angry at circumstances in my life or sins done against me by those who were at the time stronger than I. No matter how many times I tell myself ‘just don’t get mad’ I continue to do so.
It may be lust. No matter how many times I tell myself ‘don’t think those thoughts, don’t look at her like that, don’t type that web address’, I am still tempted. The evil I hate, that I do, even though I know it will cause uncountable pain and damage.
It may be materialism. The ‘I’ve got to have that’ lust is often so subtle we don’t even recognize it, but it dominates much of our culture. I’ve gotta have that house; I’ve gotta have that car, that vacation. I’ve got to have the latest toy, the latest tool for my self-indulgent hobbies. I’ve gotta have that savings account, that investment.
It may be addiction, psychological or physical. Even inside the church I’ve known people who habitually abuse drugs or alcohol. They would agree totally with Paul’s words: I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.
And if it’s none of those, it’s probably pride or arrogance. We don’t want to look down on others; don’t want to condescend, judge, belittle, and hurt. But we do. Our evil nature does want us to think we’re better than the blatant sinners. Another two note sermon I’ve preached several times is the Pharisee and the tax collector from Luke 18: we carry a sword to cut others down, and a trumpet to puff ourselves up.
Paul summarizes the sinful impact of our sinful natures in Titus 3:3 At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.
The great disaster is played out most painfully on the personal level; our foolishness causes pain to ourselves and others. Our disobedience to God’s good laws causes pain. Our slavery to lust and pleasure brings pain. Our malice and envy and even our indifference hurts people. It is any wonder that Ephesians 2 tells each of us that like the rest we are by nature objects of God’s wrath?
III. Jesus is the only answer (Titus 3:4-7, 1 Timothy 1:12-17)
Our only hope is Jesus. The doctrinal statement says “Only through God’s saving work in Jesus Christ can we be rescued, reconciled and renewed.” Paul goes on in Titus 3 to say: But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
The Statement of Faith correctly identifies “God’s saving work in Jesus” as what saves us, but Paul grounds that salvation in the character of God. It’s his kindness and love that motivates this salvation. Those are the New Testament words for the familiar, neon Old Testament phrase ‘Chesed va Emeth’, loving-kindness and truth. It is because of his love for us, undeserved, that Jesus came and died for our sins.
He didn’t save us because of righteous things we had done. We can’t do good works to repay our sin, to balance out our bad works or earn God’s favor. Sin separates us from God by an infinite distance; we can’t bridge that gap by simply doing some fraction of what we should have done in the first place. We can’t save ourselves.
Instead, God rescues us; the Son rescues us; the Spirit rescues us. These verses tell us that the washing and cleansing David prayed for in Psalm 51 comes through the Holy Spirit; the rebirth that Jesus promised in John 3 comes through the Holy Spirit.
But the Spirit himself is a gracious gift poured out because of what Christ did in his death and resurrection. By those acts Jesus saves us: we are justified, or made right with God by his grace, made heirs, given hope of eternal life. This isn’t the week to explore those things: other points in the Statement of Faith will do so. But I want to close with one more text, where Paul speaks of himself personally, for all of us.
1st Timothy 1:12-17 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. 13Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
15Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst. 16But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. 17Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Paul is gratefully amazed that Jesus would rescue and use a sinner like him. Paul’s sins may seem more extreme than yours or mine - he was an enemy of those who first believed in Christ, persecuting them and approving the death of their martyrs, like Stephen. But, he says, I was shown mercy; grace was poured out on me; my unbelief was changed to faith; my violence was changed to love.
Note the words mercy and grace: mercy is not getting what you deserve: judgment; grace is getting what you don’t deserve: rescue. And we need mercy and grace no less than Paul did. Our sinful nature is no more deserving of grace than Paul’s. Our sins are just as deserving of judgment.
But praise God, verse 15. This is officially today’s text:”Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst.” We’re all Paul; we’re all the chief of sinners. John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, called his spiritual autobiography ‘Grace abounding to the chief of sinners.’ Paul knew it; Bunyan knew it, and we must know it: that Christ Jesus came into the world not to approve of good people - there weren’t any - he came to save sinners, like you and me, those in whom the fallen nature ruled.
Paul says ‘if he can save me, he can save anyone’. We’re all Paul: “For that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” If God can save me, God can save anybody.
Is that truly the cry of your heart and mine? Do you somehow feel that when God saved you he got a pretty good deal; not much work needed to be done; you were more like a certified pre-owned than a junker. Not so. The great disaster of sin can only be dealt with by the extreme work of mercy that was Jesus’ death on the cross and by his resurrection. Only by his saving work, any merit of ours, can we be saved.
What have we said about the human condition? That sin, which originated in Adam but is ours by nature and by choice, is the great disaster. Only by the mercy of Jesus expressed in his saving work can we be saved. All this makes Paul burst forth in praise, and so should we: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”