Radical Sin, Radical Grace

Don’t Christians ever get tired of talking about sin? Why can’t they just get over it? No one believes in it anymore. On the other hand, maybe we need to understand it before we can get over it. Today’s text is Romans 7:4-12:

4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

It is a lot easier to to stop talking or thinking about sin these days. Not because there isn’t much of it, but becuase we have changed the categories so that things which were formerly known to be sinful have been reclassified under headings, such as inappropriate, maladjusted, unhelpful, addicitve, alternative, etc. We should not be surprised by this if we follow the logic of the text. We get to recognize sin where there is a law to bring it to our attention; if there is no recognized law of God, there is no awareness of sin. It would seem that we live under such conditions as a culture, where laws–all laws, both of man and those purported to be of divine origin–are held to be arbitrary, imposing the self-protective views of the ruling elite on the rest of society.

But wait a minute. If we hear the biblical passage cited above in the context of an entire argument, beginning in the first chapter, we do not necessarily need to establish the written law in order to recognize that there is something truly wrong with some of our behavior. Paul had already argued that the “Gentile” who does not have the law does have a conscience, which owes its existence to the same God who provided the Law of Moses. People who do what is sinful are guilty, not because of their violation of the law, but because they violate what they know in their own being to be wrong–even if they cannot locate the source of that sense of wrongness.

I find the same principle–that we internally know what we should not do and do it anyway–to be operative in believers at times. Even with access to the law, the greatest question is “what’s wrong with . . .,” about things we already sense are wrong, but intend to find loopholes in the law to exonerate ourselves. Sin does, indeed, look for opportunities, with or without the law. Perhaps it all underscores the futility of trying to justify ourselves and the radical nature of grace.

Today’s invitation to repentance is to confess any tendency to rely on anything but the grace of God. To do otherwise is–well, sinful.

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