April 3, 2011

The Mysterious Spirit

At the risk of alienating about 60% of my audience…one of the classic “guy” films of all time has to be the movie Braveheart.  I have watched it in its entirety three or four times and have seen bits and pieces of it numerous other times.  There’s just something about a bunch of guys with long hair standing around in skirts with enough makeup on to make Mimi from the Drew Carey Show blush getting ready to swing battle axes in a serious attempt to dismember their enemy that speaks to the heart of most guys.  Actually, that’s not it at all.  Okay maybe a little.  Seriously though, there is one scene in the movie that makes it for me.  The scene comes near the halfway point in the film.  An army composed of several Scottish clans is lined up ready to do battle with the much larger, much better equipped, much better trained English army.  Upon seeing the full extent of the forces arrayed against them they want to retreat to avoid the pain of death surely standing before them.  In response to this, the famous William Wallace, played by Mel Gibson, reveals his identity to the soldiers and calls them to fight.   “I am William Wallace!  And I see a whole army of my countrymen, here in defiance of tyranny.  You’ve come to fight as free men…and free men you are.  What will you do with that freedom?  Will you fight?”  In response to this one of the veteran soldiers on the line shouts back: “Fight?  Against that?  No!  We will run.   And we will live.”  With this cowardice splayed before him Wallace delivers the most famous line in the film: “Aye, fight and you may die.  Run, and you’ll live…at least a while.  And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take…OUR FREEDOM!”  I confess: if you have watched that scene and not been fired up to go and tear something up in the name of reclaiming freedom you might want to get you pulse checked.

Movies like this speak to our heart because they tap into the desire for freedom that beats within every human heart.  We were designed by God for freedom. We were designed to live in perfect harmony with Him and able to enjoy to their fullest every desire of our heart.  The problem here is that we are not in perfect harmony with God and our hearts are twisted such that we desire to obtain good things in ways which are not good.  The result of this is tyranny and slavery.  We are tyrannized and sold into slavery by other people who are achieving their heart’s desire in evil ways and in fact by our own similarly ill-pursued attempts at desire-fulfillment.  As I just said, however, this is not the life for which we were designed, we know it, and at various times and in various ways we have made fantastic gestures to win freedom back once again.  Unfortunately, most of these revolutionary movements have been limited in their aim to our physical circumstances.  The assumption they have made (which is echoed brilliantly in movies like Braveheart) is that if our physical circumstances change, our personal circumstances will naturally follow.  If we can grant ourselves the ability to be self-determining agents instead of having an outside party dictate our actions and behaviors things will be better.  The drawback here is that all this ultimately accomplishes is trading the monster on the outside we can see for the monster on the inside we can’t.  And unless the monster on the inside is dealt with it will eventually burst forth and the cycle of tyranny and slavery will begin all over again.  Ask the folks who lived through the French Revolution how changing only their physical circumstances without addressing the internal issues went.  As a matter of fact, ours was the only revolution in history that understood this principle and as a result here we are 237 years later teetering on the brink because we’ve loosened the restraints our Founding Fathers knew had to be placed on the internal monster for freedom to last.  Freedom demands virtue, and when virtue is lost, so will freedom be.  This is because there is only one true ruler of all people and He has established the laws of His kingdom.  We rebelled against His kingdom in the beginning and any revolutionary movement that does not spring forth from a desire to see His kingdom made manifest will merely find itself mired in the internal tyranny emanating from that original rebellion.  The initial rebellion, of course, is called sin among the theologically-minded and there is but one solution to this cosmic problem.  The only solution to sin is salvation.

This morning we find ourselves at the end of the theological journey we have been on for the last month.  We have come far and yet have barely scratched the surface of the depths of the great God we serve.  If anything, I hope this series has brushed away some of the cultural lies about the discipline of theology and in this housecleaning encouraged you that it’s not a bad thing to do theological thinking from time to time.  This is a thought exercise with the potential for great payoffs.  Our journey began with the Bible which is the beginning point of our theological thinking.  The Bible is God’s authoritative and inerrant word of revelation such that we might come to know Him for who He is.  And when we come to so know Him we will come to find life.  From there we spent the last three weeks learning more about what we should believe concerning each member of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit.  We serve the God who is the perfect, loving Father.  The Father sent His Son as Savior and Lord and together Father and Son gave us the Spirit who helps us become who God intended in the beginning.  This triune God is alone worthy of our worship and praise.  The hang-up here is that we cannot offer these in our current state.  Indeed, if we are going to take the Bible at face-value, it is clear on two things: we have sinned and we need to be saved.  But what do those mean and how do they work?  To be more technical: what does an orthodox understanding of hamartiology and soteriology look like?  As we wrap up our journey of uncovering what we believe in preparation for talking about why we believe it, we are going to wade through the waters of these two issues which are vested with great potential to lead us to the rich depths of the abundant life or else to get us lost in the waters of heresy.  Let us go forward this morning, then, to grasp in a fresh way how it is we are broken and how we can escape this prison to a glorious freedom that can truly never be taken away.

Well, because we must have a recognition of our brokenness before we can be in a position for God to go about making us whole again, let’s start with sin.  What is sin?  We live in a culture in which sin is defined in a number of different ways, few of them coherent with the Biblical picture.  There are two, though, that are most notable for our current purposes.  First, for many, sin is simply being untrue to self.  In this sense, sin is acting in a manner out of sync with what you believe and especially how you feel.  This kind of a definition puts us at the center of things.  Somewhat ironically, given the Biblical picture of sin, this definition of sin is itself sinful.  Second, for others, sin might be doing things which are wrong according to some ambiguous standard to which “most people” (whoever they are) adhere, but these “wrong” things are usually more fun than the things which are “right.”  Getting drunk and having wild parties is more fun than sitting at home on a Friday night reading your Bible.  Sleeping with whoever you want whenever you want is more fun than denying yourself pleasure all the time.  Joining in the crowd dehumanizing by taunting some other person or group of people is more fun than trying to ignore them and receiving such treatment yourself.  Spending money to indulge every whim of desire is more fun than living frugally in order to be more generous.  You get the point.  Here’s the thing.  Both of these cultural definitions of sin are not merely wrong.  They are dead wrong.  They are life-stealingly wrong.  They are shove-you-off-a-cliff-with-a-broken-parachute wrong.  Let me tell you what sin is.  Sin is a rebellion against God’s kingdom.  It is an attempt to shove God off His throne and to sit down in His place.  There is only one solution to this problem.

Sin entered the world in a finite moment when the first man and woman decided to ignore God’s expressed commands in order that they might be more like Him.  They decided in biting into the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil that they were better suited to dictate what they could and couldn’t, should and shouldn’t do than was God.  This pride was at the heart of the first sin and has been there ever since.  It has been there because it has been passed on from the first parents to their children on down the line to today.  What I’m talking about here is the concept of original sin.  This is the idea that people are sinful from birth onward.  There has never been a point in our lives at which we have not been impacted by sin.  Now, the way in which sin gets transmitted is hotly debated.  Some argue that since Adam was kind of a representative of all humanity, we all share in his corrupted, sinful nature.  Others argue that sin is somehow passed on from parents to children along the lines of our genes.  Scripture would seem to lend some support to both ideas, but the real point is that, however it happens, we are sinful from our moment of creation onward.  (It was, by the way, this belief in original sin combined with a particular theology of baptism that led to sprinkling infants.  This “baptism”—which they called it because of the theological intent of what they were doing, not because it was an immersion of a person in water—was intended to be a sort of seal of protection on kids until they were old enough to both sin and accept the Gospel with a full awareness of what they were doing.)  Anyone who has raised kids can attest to the truth of this doctrine.  You don’t have to teach kids to throw tantrums or be selfish or anything else.  They do all that on their own as their wills run up against the boundaries we set for them as parents which are hopefully in line with God’s.  There is only one solution to this problem.

We need a solution too, because with the lone exception of Jesus, sin is a universal malady.  Paul makes this explicitly clear in the first stop on the famous “Romans Road.”  In 3:23 Paul says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Well, “all” is a pretty all-encompassing word.  It pretty much includes…everyone.  A couple of chapters later, Paul gets to the really sad news: sin doesn’t go without consequence.  The wages, or consequence of sin is death.  Actually, the use of the word “wages” is important.  Wages are something deserved for work done.  Death is the payment for the work of sin.  And death here is exceptionally broad in its scope.  Physical death is certainly the result of sin entering the world, but spiritual death is included here as well.  When we are living according to the dictates of our sinful nature, we are clothed in death.  Death permeates and penetrates everything we do.  In this, we are completely broken by sin. There is not a single part of us which remains unaffected.  This idea is called total depravity.  This does not mean we are as bad as we could be, but we are thoroughly broken and affected by sin at every point.  I heard about a guy who went to college at a school in Minnesota.  In case you weren’t aware, Minnesota is known for getting a bit chilly in the winter.  Well, one winter day this guy stopped by the store to purchase a 24 pack of Pepsi to take home.  The problem was that when he got home, he forgot about the 24 pack of Pepsi…for three days.  Eventually he had to go somewhere and went back to his car.  He noticed right away that windows seemed fogged-up.  He didn’t think too much about this until he went to open the door and it made a sound like water being sucked down a drain too quickly.  Yeah.  His entire car was a sticky mess.  It was in the seats, in the floors, in the radio buttons, it was everywhere.  Now, it wasn’t as bad as it possibly could have been since the engine was okay, but it was pretty thoroughly covered.  This is total depravity.  We are totally impacted by sin in every part.  Our thoughts, our hearts, our actions, our desires, our ability to reason, are all affected by sin.  And there’s only one solution to this problem.

Well, when you put this up against the perfect holiness of God, you can see there is a problem.  Because of sin we are totally incapable of taking any strides towards God on our own.  Given the opportunity we will always choose sin.  We will without fail choose to place ourselves on the throne of life instead of God.  This may not always look so evil as far as we are concerned, but in terms of our ability to be perfectly related to God the extent of our sinfulness matters not a single iota.    Even the people about whom most of us would say, “Oh he’s a good person,” or “oh, she’s just as nice as she could be,” are broken by sin to such a degree that apart from a foolproof solution to this problem, they will never turn to God on their own.  Their “goodness” and “niceness” (which are but pale reflections of the Father’s goodness) will profit them exactly nothing in the long run.  This is a problem.  We need a solution.  We need a solution that goes beyond our merely physical circumstances.  Sending a William Wallace out to do battle with sin simple won’t cut it.  He can’t get at the root of the problem.  The problem is here in us.  Doing good things won’t get us there either.  That’s too subjective a standard and leaves us running in frantic circles trying to do enough, always realizing we’re just a bit short.  Besides, in order to satisfy God’s justice, nothing short of our lives given up to Him will do.  We need a solution, then, that can satisfy the demands of God’s justice without costing us our lives.  My friends, there is such a solution.  The solution to this problem is laid out in the Biblical doctrine of salvation.  Salvation is the only solution to this problem.  The only solution to sin is salvation.  But what is this and how does it work?

Well, in talking about the doctrine of salvation, it is somewhat helpful to speak in terms of the theological order of salvation.  This is the list of steps which theologians have identified as occurring on the journey from complete sinfulness to complete maturity in the image of Christ.  Indeed, this is what salvation is: it is both the point and the process of our being restored to wholeness in the image of Christ.  It is the work of the fully triune God in our lives to cleanse us completely from sin so that we are righteous and holy, able to stand with confidence before Him once again.  It is the miracle whereby all the brokenness places in our lives have the potential before them of being fixed.  Our broken self-image can be restored as we see ourselves properly in the light of God’s image.  Our broken relationships with people in our lives can be mended as we learn to consistently practice the love and grace of Christ in our behavior towards them.  Our broken desires can be righted as we gradually come to truly want the things God wants.  Salvation is about restoring the wholeness, the shalom, of God in our lives and in the world around us.  It is about making the kingdom of God manifest in this world.  It is the only thing which can truly undo sin’s terrible effects.  The only solution to sin is salvation.

But let us not think for an instant that salvation was somehow easy for God.  Let us not ever let the thought enter our minds that salvation wasn’t costly.  This thought is a great temptation and must be guarded against.  We at times run the risk of thinking about salvation in terms of praying the so-called Sinner’s Prayer.  If we have prayed this magical prayer then we are saved, everything is okay, and we can go on about our lives in…mostly…the same way we were before.   Such a mindset is dangerous and foolish to nearly and extreme.  Salvation cost God dearly.  It cost Him His only begotten Son.  Salvation only came through the cross.  There was no other road that would have truly paid the price of sin and bought us life.  The writer of Hebrews makes as much clear in chapters 8-10.  The violence and disturbing imagery of another Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ, may be too much for some of your stomachs to handle, but it is a good reminder of just how awful sin is and of what salvation cost.  Yet salvation is not costly only to God.  Salvation may be God’s free gift to us, but it is not cheap.  It may be simple, but it is not easy.  Jesus made this explicitly clear when He was talking to His disciples about the realities of following Him in Matthew 10.  From Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  What Jesus is saying here is not that He came with the goal in mind of breaking up families, but that following Him will bring rejection by every part of the world, including those parts of it which were formerly the closest to us.  We rarely understand this principle in this culture, but folks in Muslim majority countries where a daughter converting to Christ faces the reality of her father seeking to kill her understand it very well.  What Jesus is describing here is the cost of salvation.  In a world currently dominated by darkness, light is sought out to be put out ruthlessly.  Yet in terms of sin, there is no other solution.  The only solution to sin is salvation.

Salvation is the only solution even if it takes a whole lifetime to get.  I said a minute ago that salvation both is a point and a process.  Let me explain this.  When we confess Jesus’ lordship with our lips and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead we will be saved, our eternal destiny will be secured, right on that spot.  But, salvation is also realized over a lifetime of following in the footsteps of our new Lord.  And without the process demonstrating the reality of the point, the validity of our momentary experience is not to be trusted.  A guy named Brennan Manning once said that “the greatest single cause of atheism in the world is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and then walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle.”  When we claim the mantle of believer, we must fully embody the past, present, and future aspects of salvation.  We were saved when Jesus died and rose again.  We are being saved each day as the power of the Holy Spirit makes us more complete in Christ’s image.  And our salvation will be made complete in the future when we step into the full reality of God’s eternal kingdom.  The only solution to sin is salvation, and it is a solution which we can fully enjoy every day for the rest of our lives.

This coming back around to the point and process of salvation leads us back to the order of salvation I mentioned just a bit ago.  While theological categories can sometimes become unwieldy or else lock us into a rigid form of thinking that doesn’t fully appreciate the beautiful simplicity of God, speaking in terms of an order of salvation can help us understand in a more complete way where we are on our journeys with Him.  Salvation begins with the conviction of the Holy Spirit that we mentioned last week.  Until we are truly convinced of our need for being saved we will never come to the Savior.  People must be made to recognize their “lostness” before they can be saved.  Once this comes, however, the next step on the journey is repentance.  Repentance is at its core an acknowledgement of reality.  When we repent, we both acknowledge that we have not been doing right and commit ourselves to taking up such a lifestyle in the future.  Both sides of this are necessary.  Without commission, all we have done is apologize for our sinfulness.  God wants our apology, but He wants our commitment to faithful obedience even more.  For the next two steps, conversion and regeneration, the order is much less rigid.  Many people experience them as a simultaneous reality.  They are converted from an nature rooted in the trappings of this world to one rooted in the kingdom of God and regenerated as a new person in Christ’s image at much the same time.  As the Message puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new.  The old life is gone; a new life burgeons!”

Once this conversion and regeneration takes place, once we are covered in the grace of Christ, we are justified, or pronounced right, by God.  In this step all of our sins are forgiven.  Our heavenly account is canceled out.  Being justified makes it just as if I’d never sinned.  Being justified is an awesome thing, but once it has happened, we have to live up to our new status.   This part of the salvation journey is called sanctification which is truly the process part of it.  We are sanctified when we live out the commands of Christ every day with the guiding help and power of the Holy Spirit.  Paul captured this synergistic process well when he commanded the church in Philippi to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  Of the final two steps, one we experience every day in this life and the other we anticipate as the reward for working through all the rest.  We are preserved in the grace of God each day by the Holy Spirit.  Jesus promised that once we are in His and the Father’s hands, no one can take us out.  If we have truly given ourselves over to Him (a gift demonstrated by our daily faithful obedience to His commands), then we can have absolute assurance that we are set for the future, that we are going to receive the prize of glorification one day.  You see, one day the solution of salvation will come fully to bear and all sin will be permanently dispatched, never to be seen again.  One day we will be made fully complete in Christ’s image with glorious resurrection bodies to boot.  We will live—really live, not the imitation living so many in this world do—in the presence of our God for all eternity.  This is the proper ending of the journey of salvation.  There are no others solutions to sin that offer such a payoff.  The only solution to sin is salvation.

At the end of all this, then, you are left with a choice.  Will you take up the journey of salvation or not?  Will you buy into the only solution that actually solves anything, or will you continue looking for whatever the next best thing is that this world offers?   Let us be clear: to remain living in sin is to willingly take up the chains of tyranny.  You will have no choice but to sin.  Apart from the power of the Holy Spirit we can’t not sin.  People reject God all the time for reasons of freedom.  They don’t want to be controlled by some God they can’t see.  They want to be in charge of their own life. But this is the greatest and most dangerous folly!  We aren’t in charge of our own lives apart from God.  We are controlled by our desires and by the desires of those around us.  And those desires will unavoidably lead to death.  Not even Mel Gibson in a kilt with a really big sword can save us from such a fate.  The only solution to sin is salvation.  This is the solution that will lead to the freedom we desire.  When we are regenerated and our desires come in line with the things God desires then we are able to pursue our desires with faithful abandon.  We then have the freedom to always and without restraint have the things we want because they will be the same things God wants.  Now, there is a cost here as long as we are in this world, but nothing this world has to throw at us can impact what we have waiting for us in the kingdom.  And so this morning, at the end of our theological journey, I lay before you a challenge.  If you have spent a lifetime coming to church—as many of you have—but have never really taken time to truly and completely give yourself over to God because you have not been thinking about Him in the right ways, do it now.  Don’t wait another minute.  Or, if you have simply never given yourself into the arms of Christ and experienced the freedom and life waiting for you there for any other reason, take care of that now.  We are three weeks from the biggest celebration of this new life the church has: Easter.  Put yourself in the place of truly having something to celebrate this year.  The only solution to sin is salvation.  Will you take it?