Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Meaning of the Cross, Part 2 (Rom. 5:12-19)

* The following is a sermon, the second in a series that I wrote as Lenten reflections. I don't usually post sermons here, because (at least in my practice) they work better as a spoken medium, and this blog is devoted to the written medium. But they do give a good look at the significance of Christ's death on the cross, so I offer them here as a fitting follow-up to our recent celebration of Holy Week.

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Our passage this morning starts in Romans chapter 5, so please feel free to turn there now, and we’ll dig into the text in a few minutes. Today we continue with our series looking at the meaning of the Cross. Last week, if you remember, we talked about how Scripture describes our sin as a crime against God—a crime that deserves punishment. And one of the things that Christ did on the Cross was to pay the penalty for those sins. But that’s not the only picture of the Cross that the Bible gives us. Jesus did win forgiveness for our sins on the Cross, but that’s not the only thing he accomplished. And to understand how far the effects of the atonement run, we need to take another look at the nature of sin.
And to lay the framework for that, let me tell you about how I came to put my faith in Jesus. I grew up in a Christian family, so I heard the story of the Gospel right from the get-go. And I was very young when I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior—about five years old. I was told that Jesus would forgive my sins. But I also had this expectation that something miraculous would happen inside me—that once I became a Christian, I would stop sinning. I was expecting a lightning-bolt from God to turn me holy. Well, it didn’t happen. I kept sinning (and yes, even five year olds can understand what sin is). And I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to do with that. I thought, “Well, maybe my salvation didn’t ‘take’ on the first try.” So I would pray for salvation, over and over again. But as time went on, I began to realize that the problem of sin wasn’t just the problem of my outward, sinful actions. There was something fundamentally wrong, deep inside of me—and that was where the sin was coming from. I knew that my sinful actions were forgiven, but I also knew that sin was still with me, living inside me.
And that’s where I want to focus our attention today. We tend to look at sin as individual events—discrete choices, each a crime against God. If I have a prideful thought, that’s a sin. If I steal something from a store, that’s a sin. If I gossip about my neighbors, that’s a sin. But sin actually runs much deeper than the actions themselves. Sin begins in the heart. Theologians have always talked not only about individual sins as crimes against God, but of the “sin nature”—something deep within us that is twisted away from God, driving us to do those sinful actions. So sin isn’t just reducible to the acts themselves; it’s like a disease that each of us carries around, and the sinful actions we do are really the symptoms of that disease.
While it’s true that our sins are crimes against God—making us criminals—it’s also true that we’re victims in a sense. We’re enslaved to this power of sin that we can’t get away from. Have you ever struggled with a sin that you just can’t seem to get away with? Maybe an addiction—or a habit that’s been formed over many years. And although you know you should stop, and something inside you desperately wants to stop…you can’t. You try and you try, and you can’t get free. It happens to Christians just the same as it does to nonbelievers, and it happens because we are all victims of the disease of sin.
Well, you may ask, what does that have to do with the Cross? If our crimes of sin are forgiven and paid for, why do we need to talk about anything else? Because the Bible tells us that not only did Jesus pay the penalty for our sins, he also set in motion a process of healing in our souls. He died not only to absolve us from guilt, but to set us free from the enslaving power of sin altogether. He’s not just interested in getting you out of hell; he’s interested in making you holy and bringing you into close fellowship with himself. And that can only happen if the sin nature, deep inside of us, is being carefully rooted out.

1.) The Disease of Sin (Original Sin) – Rom. 5:12

Let’s look at the text—Romans 5, verse 12 (on page 977 of your pew Bible). [Read text] Who is the “one man” that Paul refers to here? If you remember the story from the beginning of Genesis, you’ll recognize that he’s talking about Adam here. Adam—the first man, the representative of our whole race—he sinned in the Garden of Eden and was cast out. And that’s how sin entered the world. And then he goes on to say, “death came to all men, because all sinned.” He’s not saying that every human eventually commits a sin, even though that’s also true—he’s saying that somehow, we were involved in Adam’s sin, because we—the whole human race—were a part of Adam. We share in his sin, and now that sin nature—the fundamental disposition of our hearts that turns away from God—that gets passed down to each and every person, just as if it were written into our genetic code. You can imagine it as an inherited disease, and every human being in the world has it. If you ever hear theologians talking about “original sin,” that’s what they’re referring to.
So sin is actually a part of us now, hardwired into our nature. That’s where our sinful actions come from. And you can see it even in the youngest of children. Every human being has a fundamental selfish tendency, right from birth, and an instinct toward rebellion. What’s the favorite word of so many young kids? “No!” Now, there’s a lot of good that remains in human nature, but some of those aspects are the effects of the disease of sin that lives in each of us.
But it wasn’t meant to be this way. God didn’t originally create humans with a sin nature. Adam didn’t start off with a sin nature; he was free from sin. It was only after his freely-chosen act of sin that the human race caught the disease. And that’s what we need to remember about sin—all the brokenness we see around us, and all the brokenness in our own lives—this is not the way it’s supposed to be. And God is in the business, through what Jesus did on the Cross, of setting things back into their original intent.
Genesis 1 tells us that in the beginning, we were created in the image of God. We were created to reflect his character and his glory. We were created to be men and women who are on fire with virtue and honor and holiness and truth. But sin changed all that. We’re still made in the image of God, but now it’s a little harder to see God’s character and holiness reflected in us.
I read a news article this week about a church in Italy where they’ve been working on a new technique to uncover some frescos and murals that were painted by the great artist Giotto. A few hundred years ago, the owners of the church decided to paint over the Giotto murals, and so they whitewashed the whole thing and hid the old paintings under a layer of white paint. Eventually they decided to take the white paint off, so they attacked the walls with harsh chemicals and steel wool. And they got down to the old Giotto paintings again, but now they were faded and defaced. They were hard to make out, because the white paint and the harsh scrubbing had seriously hurt the paintings.
That’s what we’re like. The Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity talks about human beings as paintings, and we were originally painted to look like God himself. But sin came in and defaced the paintings. It tried to paint over the image of God, and it attacked the painting with chemicals and steel wool. And now the image is still there, but it’s defaced. It’s not quite how it was meant to be. But Jesus came and died in order to re-paint that original image in us. The message of the Cross isn’t merely that God forgives sins and leaves us morally neutral; it’s that he’s working in us to make us holy and righteous. He died on the Cross to open a way for us to become what we were meant to be. He’s working in us to heal the disease of sin that has plagued us for so long. He died to break the power of that disease, and he is the only thing in the world that offers healing from its effects.

2.) Jesus is the Antidote – Rom. 5:18-19

If sin is a disease, then Jesus is the antidote. Scroll down the passage a little bit to verse 18. [Read text] Here Paul is describing how this works. He describes Jesus as “the second Adam,” and if you’re interested in that comparison, you can also find it in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul brings it up again. Just as Adam was the representative of the whole human race, so Jesus is the representative of the whole human race as it was meant to be. He is our picture of what humanity without sin looks like. And in Jesus, God has begun the re-creation of the human race. He is now the head of a new humanity, the redeemed people of God, and in them he is doing his work of healing the sin nature. If we’re following Christ as our Lord, then we are “in him,” as Paul so often says—we’re “in him” spiritually, in the same sort of way that we were all “in Adam,” physically and spiritually. So while we inherit the disease of sin from Adam; if we’re Christians then we also inherit the antidote to sin from Jesus.
How did he do it? How did he break the curse and cure the disease of sin? These verses tell us how. It was disobedience on Adam’s part that turned us all into sinners. And it was obedience on Christ’s part that makes us righteous. Jesus undid the sin of Adam. And what was his act of obedience? It was the Cross. Do you remember the story of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before his death? He knew what he was called to do, but it was a hard, hard thing. Even so, he obeyed. He said to the Father, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Where Adam had gone against God’s will, Jesus laid aside his own will and followed God’s. Jesus undid Adam’s sin. Just as Adam disobeyed in the Garden of Eden, so Jesus obeyed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Just as Adam disobedience came at a tree, so Jesus’ act of obedience came on a tree—the Cross where he died. So it’s by his obedience, which turned the tables on sin, that Jesus was able to undo Adam’s act of disobedience. And now, if we’re following Jesus, we inherit his act of obedience. The antidote has begun its work in us, and the image of God is being restored.
It says here that those who are in Jesus “will be made righteous”—future tense. It’s already begun in our hearts, but it’s a slow process of beating this disease. Here in this earthly life, we’ll always still have some hint of sin in our hearts—but the healing has begun, and if we let him, Christ will be carrying out his purifying work in us.
[Illustration with prop] Look at this glass. It’s full to the brim of water that has some black coffee mixed in. The whole glass of water is dark. But now, if I start dripping in, drop by drop, clear water into the glass, what happens? It starts to dilute the coffee and overflow the cup. With every drop of pure water I put in, more of the coffee gets pushed out of the cup. Now imagine that I keep dropping water, drop by drop, into this cup. Will it ever be completely free of all the coffee particles? No. But if I do it long enough, the coffee will be so diluted that the glass will become almost all clear again. [Hold up a glass of clear water] That’s how Christ works against the disease of sin in our lives. It’s a long, slow process of letting him give us his holiness and his righteousness and his love. And if we let him do that, our sin will be pushed out of our lives, little by little. Until eventually, if we keep at it—people will be able to look at our lives and say, “He’s just like Jesus; she’s just like Jesus.”

3.) Be who you are! (Rom. 6:6-7)

So if we all have this disease of sin, and if Jesus’ death on the Cross provides the antidote that will work to heal us, then where does that leave us? Scroll down a little farther, into chapter 6, and find verse 6. [Read text] What is Paul saying? He’s saying that even though the process of healing the disease of sin is a long one, our fundamental identity has changed along the way. Because of what Jesus did on the Cross, we are different than we used to be, in the deepest parts of our being. Our old self was crucified with him. We shared in Jesus’ death. We shared in his act of obedience. Because of that, we are now free from sin.
I’ve been using the image of disease to talk about sin, but here Paul brings in another metaphor. He talks about it in terms of slavery. Previously we were slaves to sin—we couldn’t get away from it; we couldn’t not sin. But now, because of what Jesus did on the Cross, we are free. We are now in a radically different position than we were before. Without Jesus, sin enslaved us. It ruled our lives. But now we can actually say no to sin, just as Jesus did. We’re not locked into our old patterns of behavior. We might still struggle with sin, because the effects of the disease are still at work there, but it doesn’t need to be our master anymore.
So with that truth in mind, Paul says to us, “Be who you are!” You are free from sin, so don’t choose to go back to sin now! You’re not a slave, so don’t be a slave. Be who you are. When slaves are set free, they don’t choose to walk around with manacles and chains on their wrists anymore. They leave all of that behind, and they choose to live in the freedom of their new identity. And that’s true of us too. We can choose to live in the freedom of our identity. We can choose to leave our patterns of sin behind, because Jesus has set us free from sin and given us the antidote for its disease. It may take a long time, and a lot of work, but the glorious truth of the Gospel is that because of the Cross, you can be free of the addictions and sinful habits that have plagued you for so long.


I hope the point here was clear. This is a little different way of looking at the Gospel and at the problem of sin, but it’s here in the Bible. Forgiveness of sins is part of the story of the Cross, but it’s not the whole story. And we can come to a richer understanding of the Cross if we look at some of those other meanings, because they all go hand in hand. As we said last week, our sinful actions are crimes against God, and Jesus paid the penalty for those crimes and won our forgiveness. But that’s not all he did. We’re also the victims of a deeper-running disease of sin. And Jesus doesn’t just forgive our sinful actions, he offers us freedom from the power of sin altogether through his act of obedience on the Cross. Our salvation doesn’t end with the forgiveness of sins. It continues on, giving us more blessings along the way. And even after we have our sins forgiven, we still have the wonderful adventure of working side by side with the Spirit of God to let him do his healing work in our sinful hearts. Because of the Cross, we have the amazing adventure of letting Jesus make us holy and righteous. It’s a long road, but it’s worth it all. If we let him, he will make us what we were always meant to be. Think about it—what would your life look like if you were purified and triumphant? What would your life look like if you could regularly walk in victory over your sins? The author of 2 Peter tells us that we have been given everything we need for life and godliness, and that we can participate in the divine nature. It’s an amazing picture, an amazing adventure that Jesus calls us to take part in. He is re-creating humanity through the Cross, and if you let him, he can make you truly extraordinary. He can make you a reflection of himself.