Saturday, August 29, 2015

Let’s Not Make a Habit of It

What does “sin” mean to you? What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I use the word?

Is it something that you’ve done recently? Maybe it’s something that has been done to you. Or is it some remote, vile and peculiar thing that you’ve never engaged in personally but would like to see eradicated from society?

It seems to me that the Lord never dealt with sin as an abstraction. He never addressed the subject in a merely theoretical way. At the well in Sychar he told a Samaritan woman, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband”. 

That’s pretty specific.

Keeping It Real

When he taught his disciples about how to deal with sin, he was specific about that too: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone”. Where there is a particular violation, it needs to be specifically addressed. The issue needs to be worked through, forgiveness sought and obtained, rather than merely glossed over.

The sort of generalized whitewashing we do these days when we say things like “Nobody’s perfect” and “To err is human” is worse than useless. It is a shield we hide behind rather than being honest about our specific failures and the debts we owe others. That sort of evasive, dismissive language is nowhere to be found in the Lord’s personal dealings with men and women. He forgave sin. He did not excuse it.

Sin No More

A couple of times in the gospel of John, the Lord specifically instructs those whose lives he has just salvaged to stop sinning:
“Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”
This first command is directed to a paralytic the Lord had just healed, saving him from the physical consequences of Adam’s sin. The second command is directed to a woman he saved from the legal consequences of her own sin:
“And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” 
Or, as others have put it, the man was delivered from the power of sin, the woman from the penalty of sin. In each case, the Lord effectively gave them their lives back when there was no other hope to be found.

The Dead End of Legalism

Now we know the Lord Jesus taught that legalism is a spiritual dead end. Merely obeying laws cannot make men righteous. Those in his day who grasped the impossibility of keeping all the demands implicit in the Law of Moses “went away sorrowful”. He told legalists around him, “Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope”. The very laws in which they trusted turned out to be their accusers all along.

Therefore in uttering the words “Sin no more”, it seems impossible that the Lord was anticipating a flawless ongoing life experience from the invalid he had healed at Bethesda or that he expected impeccable and ongoing self-control from the woman he had just saved from public stoning. He is not thinking in either instance about slips, errors and bad judgment. Rather, I think he is telling them that ongoing, deliberate patterns of behavior contrary to the established will of God ought to form no part of their future.

Different Kinds of Sin

When he says “Sin no more”, the inescapable corollary is that they have sinned in the past. For each of them he surely has something particular in mind, and those things would have been very different in nature.

In the case of the woman, the Lord is likely thinking of a specific pattern of sexual sin that she must now reject out of appreciation for the man who deftly persuaded a crowd not to apply the remorseless consequences of the Law in her particular circumstances. Such sins are performed in the body and are therefore obvious to all.

In the case of the paralytic, the sin he was to reject must have been far less obvious to the world. It can hardly have been more than a sin of the tongue or of the thought life. Perhaps he had a foul mouth or was a chronic liar. Perhaps his sin was bitterness, envy or pride. Perhaps it was a combination; were not told. Still, I have no doubt whatsoever that the Lord’s words connected with the grateful man in a very specific and personal way.

Notice he doesn’t ask, “Which sin, Lord?”

The Christian and Sin

So when I use the word “sin”, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind? Sins of the body? Sins of the heart? Obvious things or secret things?

It seems to me that if the Lord could say “sin no more” to those to whom he had given new life in the gospels, then he has plenty of reasons to say the same to his followers today. In doing so, he is not holding the Christian to an unrealistic standard of perfection. He is not glossing over our errors or pretending that we don’t slip periodically. He is talking primarily about our patterns of life and the choices we make day after day while the Holy Spirit is in the process of transforming us into the likeness of Christ (as a consequence of which the “slips”, “errors” and “foibles” gradually become fewer and farther apart).

Paul says a lot about sin in the book of Romans, and much of it is along the same line.  He reminds us that believers in Jesus Christ are dead to sin. He tells us we are not enslaved to sin. He says we are freed from sin. He tells us sin shall not have dominion over us. All of this is accomplished not by obedience to laws rather than impulses, but by the grace of God made possible through the obedience of Christ.

Whichever metaphor you prefer — slavery metaphor, government metaphor or death metaphor — Paul’s conclusion is same: You and I do not HAVE to sin. We may be enticed by sin, and we can certainly choose to sin if we wish, but we are not compelled to do so.

Very probably you will sin tomorrow. Almost surely I will. But we don’t have to.

So let’s not make a habit of it.

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