“Sin and Sin Boldly!”

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In a letter to Phillip Melanchthon, Martin Luther wrote:

“God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be bolder, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”

This has to be one of my favorite sayings of all time but I happen to know from experience that this particular quote can be very tricky (the response typically ranges somewhere between confusing to off-putting), so to share my appreciation for Luther’s call to “sin boldly”, I will need to do a little explaining. Now, since I can’t address every possible reaction, I’ll start by focusing on one for now, namely the bug-a-boo that surrounds words like, sin or sinner.

The word sin and sinner has been gradually fading from the vernacular for some time and for good reasons. The biggest problem with, “sinner” is that people tend to use it as a swear word to demean others; like when certain “righteous ones” want to label the morally inferior people around them. In the same way that people use, “liberal” or “conservative” or “socialist” to malign their political opponents, the word sinner has for centuries been used to label, discredit and marginalize. Not surprisingly, other than for doctrinal reasons, few people are ready to admit that they are themselves inherently “sinful.” Now given that words are always changing, falling in and out of use, is there anything we can do to extend the shelf life of such outdated words like sin and sinner? To use another metaphor, is there a “baby” worth rescuing from the proverbial “dirty bath water?”

Okay, let’s do a little ancient-language-geeking. In the New Testament, the English word, sin, comes from the Greek word ἁμαρτία and originates in Classical Greek (think Homer, Iliad and Odyssey). “The terminology has a wide reference. It covers everything from crime to harmless faults. It includes moral actions but also intellectual and artistic failings. The same writers use it in many senses.” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 297. When “sin” (ἁμαρτία – ha-amartia) appears in the NT it is used to denote both failure as well as personal guilt, but thankfully it does not carry the degrading swear word connotation that we are so familiar with. In the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, sinners are neither despised nor rejected by God. In fact, it is the sinner who has become the object of God’s grace and mercy.

The first appearance of the word sin (ἁμαρτία) in the NT appears in the first chapter of Matthew in the prophetic foretelling of the birth of Christ, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mat. 1:21). According to Matthew, God is not interested in rejecting his people, but rather, he is committed to helping and saving them in spite of, or perhaps because of, their moral weakness. So where do we find the “damnation for sinners” message in the NT, perhaps in the letters of Paul (wasn’t he the one who was all uptight about sin?).

Now I’m not a professional scholar but for my grad thesis in seminary, I wrote an eighty page paper, which dealt with the basic conception of “salvation” i.e., how one experiences the favor and good graces of God. The thrust of that paper centered on one crucial passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In my research, I discovered that the entire passage hinges on and is interpreted in light of one mind-blowing statement by the author, a statement about sin, sinners and God. The statement is this, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift . . .” (Ro. 3:23).

So what is Paul saying here about sin, sinners and God? Paul is saying a good deal; for one, he tells us “all have sinned.” It turns out that the Greek word for “all” is the same as English – “all” means “all.” According to Paul, the term sin is what is known as a universal. In other words sin is so basic to being a human being that no one can claim that they are without it. It reminds me of the the children’s book I saw recently in the bookstore titled, Everyone Poops. Part of the “good news” is that because sin and sinner are universal, we are never at the mercy of those who would claim “sinless” superiority over us. In fact, those who presume to possess a certain moral superiority, are simply suffering from a kind of delusion, the delusion that their “poop doesn’t stink!”

Contrary to popular belief, in the New Testament “sinner” is not a code word for “the damned”, or “the despised” but as we’ve seen with Matthew and Paul, God is revealed as compassionate not condemning, one who comes to the aid of sinners. Now in my thesis I wrote an entire chapter on the meaning of this one term, “justified”, but here are the Cliff notes. According to the apostle Paul, God as the judge of the universe has issued his verdict on all of the sinners and astonishingly, instead of the anticipated verdict of condemnation, the heavenly judge ruled in favor of the accused! You can read the verdict for yourself, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified” (Ro. 3:23)!

If this is true that God has declared sinners justified as opposed to “condemned”, then why are so many people ignorant of this liberating truth? Why do so may people believe God has rejected them on account of their sinfulness (i.e., moral weakness, flaws, short-comings and failures)?  Why do we continue to miss the “good” part of this “good news”? The reason that we miss and continue to miss the liberating truth is because the truth is what we might call, “too good to be true.” In a word, the message of God siding with sinners is simply scandalous! To be sure, this message was scandalous from it’s very inception – in Paul’s day people literally threw rocks at him for saying this!

Now we all judge people around us and our judgments are often harsh, without mercy or compassion. We judge people for their weaknesses and for their failures and to make matters worse, people mercilessly judge one another in the name of god or “good”. But the God who Jesus seeks to introduce us to is not like us. It turns out that this God is not what we imagined. What we discover in Jesus of Nazareth, is that he is constantly correcting our broken image of God. According Jesus, the God of heaven and earth is not a stern judge who reluctantly saves, but rather, he is a loving savior who mercifully judges. The judgments of this merciful God are given to defend and liberate those who are need protection and freedom.

A powerful example of this new, liberating image of God is graphically portrayed in the following account taken from Mark’s gospel. Here Jesus is seen protecting and defending those who had been labeled by the religious elite as “sinners” (used as a swear word). These social misfits had found a safe place to gather, for Jesus was not only the center but the shelter of this little fellowship of sinners. These “sinners” had discovered that there is no need to hide from someone who is sincerely for you, someone who is genuinely committed to helping you in any way they can. Consider the following account of Jesus acting as the defender of his people, and the advocate of the accused.

When the scribes who were Pharisees saw him eating with sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard that, he said to them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor; those who are sick do. I’ve come to call sinners, not people who think they don’t have any flaws.” Mk 2:16–17.

God loves his people and in the face of their deepest flaws and our most epic failures, he longs to show them his mercy. When Luther, made this discovery, the fact that God is for and not against sinners, his life was turned upside down. Luther also rightly understood that the only way for a person to miss out on experiencing God’s favor is to reject the terms on which the gift is offered. Because God’s mercy and grace is for those who recognize their need for it, the only way to miss out on God’s grace and mercy is to pridefully insist that you don’t need grace for your life. The problem, of course, with those who are so confident in themselves that they don’t feel the need for grace or mercy in this life, is that they not only deny the gift for themselves but they are typically not very good at offering grace to the people around them – in other words, this affects us all!

We have looked at two reasons why we constantly miss the “good” part of the “good news.” When we lose sight of our own sinfulness we lose sight of God’s gracious pardon or “justification”, since his grace and forgiveness is for real people (people who sin) and not for some imaginary “perfect beings.” The other hang-up we have is with the word or concept called “judgment.” Everyone wants justice, but no one wants judgment. We fail to consider that God’s verdict is a judgment of forgiveness and liberation and not a judgment of rejection and condemnation. God’s judgment on sin and sinners has come and his judgment is this:

“Sin in all of its insidious and destructive forms continues to trip you up and pin you down, but I have intervened on your behalf so that tragedy and failure will not have the last word. I see your struggle, I know that you regularly ‘fall short’ but I have not rejected you. I see what haunts you, what torments your mind and I have sent my light to outshine your darkness. See, I have not rejected you, I am your advocate, your defender, your champion.” 

So when God refers to us as, sinners, it is only because he pities us and desires to rescue us from the tyranny of the sin virus (addiction, compulsion, phobias, malice, pride, etc.); but as Luther reminds us, “God does not save imaginary sinners.” So here is the question. Will you accept God’s judgment, the judgment of his mercy and his grace for sinners like you? Will you let God do for you what he delights in doing for all his beloved “sinners” and that is, defend them, pardon them, and rescue them? Will you stop trying to defend or accuse yourself with your own judgments and the wothless judgments of those around you; and will allow Jesus to come to your defense as your faithful advocate? Will you accept Luther’s admonition be the sinner that you are, “sinning boldly” but learning to “trust Christ more boldly still”?

Remember these posts are not intended as monologues but as catalysts for thought and conversation starters. Let us know what you think (even if it’s, “Chris, I love you but I think you are nuts!”  At the very least, just say “hey” to let us know you were in the OC today!

7 comments

  1. edwardalfred · October 26, 2015

    Hey Chris without my always sounding like a cheerleader for Christopher Erik, i have to agree. Often times it is the ‘righteous” who sin, by simply not admitting to their weakness but rather sin by reason of their judgmental attitude. I have heard that that the moment you think you have arrived in your faith your pride takes to back to square one. It is a cycle that we can never win. We can never in this life attain that state of spiritual righteousness in and of ourselves. Christ did indeed die for the sinner but i would venture to say that the sinner is the righteous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chris Laird · October 26, 2015

      “This is that mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s, and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied himself of his righteousness that he might clothe us with it and fill us with it; and he has taken our evils upon himself that he might deliver us from them.” Martin Luther

      Liked by 1 person

  2. edwardalfred · October 26, 2015

    ok that was redundant lol

    Like

  3. Bob Bae. · October 28, 2015

    Well said my friend. You summed it up well with the quote from Jesus when He said “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners…” Unfortunately those who think they are righteous on their own merit have no need of a savior, and they are destined for the judgement that they themselves condemn the “sinner” with. I’m deeply grateful for grace. And I’m so
    Indebted to the One who gave me HIS righteousness and took my sin to the cross for me. That is craziness!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Chris Laird · October 28, 2015

    Yeah, I knew a “sinner” like you would appreciate this! Jk – back in the day I believe John Wesley started this program about total sanctification in this life-time – I’m afraid his zeal may have gotten the best on him there – I’m going with Luther (and Paul – “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more”). I’ve been reading a lot more Luther these days. The following is excerpt is from the Lutheran website http://www.thelutheran.org/article/article.cfm?article_id=4210:

    “Martin Luther describes Christians as “simultaneously saint and sinner.” This both/and approach is a distinctly Lutheran understanding of who we are in God’s eyes.

    During my final year of college, I faced some difficult decisions. I sought advice from one of my professors, who was also a pastor. He said, ‘Remember that even if you make the right choice, you’re forgiven.’

    Wow! It’s easy to rely on ourselves, with forgiveness as an insurance policy in case we mess up. But this wise pastor reminded me that even on my best days, what matters most is not what I do or decide but that Jesus died for me.”

    And if there is any question as to whether or not Luther believed that the Christian life involved repentance, just consider the first of Luther’s 95 theses:

    1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Jordan Webb · November 6, 2015

    I find this to be all too intriguing, since as of recently I’ve been pondering these concepts of “sin” and the difference between my depiction (Fleshly judgement) and the truth (God’s judgement), which I am told “…will set me free…” Venturing into that truth I find one thing seemingly made all too certain by Christ and then Paul… That our focus wasn’t to just stop at that nasty “sin” and our “sin nature”, NOR are we to be foolish enough (or worse, arrogant enough) to say “sin is behind me!” Rather, that as Christ made clear by his metaphors and stories, be fully aware that there is NO exception to the rule, “all have sinned and all fall short,” and then we find the key IS beyond that! That the power of our sin is OVERWHELMINGLY defeated by the mercy and grace of our Lord.

    THAT victory is and should be that final focal point, a constant reminder of our redemption from, yes, our “sin.” So to be completely aware that we have fallen short (and will unfortunately continue to do so until Christ returns) is key to having the fullness of gratitude for our Victorious One, that while sin is great in our lives, HE is greater still.
    That has to be the final stop in my opinion…
    Because then we can hopefully arrive at a place where we no longer wrongly think (yes I said wrongly) how can I avoid sinning today?” Or “how can I be ‘better’ than the day before?”
    Instead we should understand that we can finally have some “r&r”… That is, we can “relax and rejoice” because it’s out of our power to attain that righteousness, and yet that same righteousness is already ours gifted by God, so we relax because we can stop striving for whatever concept we have of attaining a level of “goodness” (which truly is still sin to believe we could of our own volition), then we rejoice because as that all too familiar song says, “God will make (has made) a way, where there seems to be no way.”
    And to that I say, “Thank God!” …pun intended.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Chris Laird · November 6, 2015

    Jordan, great to see you in the OC! So many great points. I particularly like your statement – “That has to be the final stop in my opinion…” Yes, “final-stop” (or as we say, “full retard”!) not “yes grace . . . but” but “but grace, full-stop-get-off-the-train”! We need to regularly encourage each other to believe and live into this “too good to be true,” message of grace-alone, faith in Christ alone. We are beginning to take seriously the invitation to “enter into the rest and relaxation of your Lord”, the rest that we are commanded to enter (Heb. chapter 4). “It is finished!” As Luther says, “this grace is a sure foundation, not an uncertain goal!” One of the places that I continue for courage to believe this “too good to be true” message is a website called, http://www.mbird.com – they inspired me to start this site and it really is everything that I would dream that this website would be! Check it out and let me know what you think.

    Like

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