June 26, 2011

Having Been Set Free From Sin

Passage: Romans 6:17-18

But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

A little boy knocks at the door and tells the owner that something of his has found its way into her garage, and he wanted it back.  The homeowner opened the garage door and noticed two additions; a baseball and broken window sporting a baseball-sized hole.
“How do you suppose this ball got in here?” she asked the child.  Taking one look at the ball, one look at the window, and one look at the homeowner, the little boy exclaimed, “Wow lady! I must have thrown it right through that hole!”

Do you ever find yourself “explaining” mess-ups in a manner akin to this boy? It seems to me that our post-modern era promotes such explanation. Postmodern understanding of truth is only ever thought of as small “t” truth; truth is said to be personal or individual, in essence, indistinguishable from the idea of preference.  Things once said to be “perversions” have become “orientations” or “lifestyle choices.”

During the recent rioting in Vancouver following the final Stanley Cup hockey game a young woman named Camille Cacnio participated in looting. Her picture appeared on the web and other media; she became the subject of social media pillorying.  She later posted an online apology for her actions; part of her motivation was because she thought the social media criticism undeserving.

One of the reasons she thought so was “because I am responsible for theft — a fairly minor action compared to vandalism and arson. Please remember and understand that I am not responsible for the riot.” “On any regular day I would not condone looting. However, at the time of the riot everything just seemed so right. ... in my immature, intoxicated perspective all I saw was that the riot was happening, and would continue happening with or without me, so I might as well get my adrenaline fix.”

Let us be careful not to be harsh with Camille; I cited her words because they typify a postmodern explanation of “how the baseball ended up in the neighbour’s garage”, so to speak.  What postmodernism has set us free from is any notion that there is a definitive category called “sin”; plainly this is not what the Apostle Paul meant as he described the believer’s life in Christ as “having been set free from sin”.

1.   The Greek philosopher Plato said: “The first and best victory is to conquer self”.  A lot of people shared Plato’s outlook.  The Stoic philosophers of the Apostle Paul’s day shared, in part, Plato’s perspective. Stoics were morally earnest; they were possessed of the highest sense of duty; they considered their stoicism a superior way of life.  Many today agree with Plato; one leadership development expert said, “Discipline is the refining fire by which talent becomes ability”.

Self-control is a key to healthy living according to modern psychological perspective of human life.   According to a mental health website Psych Central researchers from the University of Taiwan performed a study and discovered that mild electric stimulation to the skull can help an individual control impulsive behaviour; ...it greatly improved participant’s ability to process responses – effectively jump-starting the brain’s ability to control impulsivity. The intervention holds promise as a non-invasive treatment for individuals with conditions such as drug addictions or violent impulsivity.”

At Scienceandreligiontoday.com a few things were noted that have been shown to improve a person’s willpower. “First of all is rest or sleep. Rested, well-slept people have more willpower than tired people. Another mechanism that has been shown to replenish depleted willpower is eating. Exerting willpower takes energy, quite literally, and energy in the form of food that gets converted into blood glucose can improve willpower.

Let me ask you to consider a question.  Do highly disciplined people need to be set free from sin?  If you conquer yourself have you essentially set yourself free from sin?  According to the gospel the clear implication is that only Christ can set us free from sin; “having been set free from sin” implies that prior to this we are bound in sin.  The gospel’s answer, Paul declares, is that “all are under the power of sin.” (2:9) (In chapters 2 and 3 Paul gives a detailed discussion of this point).

2. Let us take a moment to remind ourselves of the Biblical understanding of sin.  It is important to distinguish between Sin (capital “S”) and sins (lower case “s”).  Sin (capital “S”) is a heart posture of defiance, ingratitude, rebellion, "unbelief" towards God, resulting in alienation from God.  Paul describe Sin as not honouring God as God nor giving thanks (1:21); Sin is rebellion against Gods’ legitimate and benevolent authority and ingratitude for God's good creation and his provision of all we need to live under his blessing.  Sin is the human’s ambition to put him or herself in the place of God and so to be his or her own Lord.  Sins (lower case‘s’) are the concrete behavioural manifestations or outcroppings of our underlying condition of Sin (capital ‘S’)

The point Paul makes is that according to the gospel no one can by self-will free themselves from this underlying condition.  The one who Plato extolled as conquering self—the moralist would fall in this category—might respond to Paul that they in fact practise what is good, unlike the knave who lives a dissolute life.

Paul (chapter 2) anticipates this response, both of the Jew who keeps the law and the morally earnest Stoic; Paul said they have no excuse “because in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you the judge are doing the very same things”.  The moralist—just like the knave—says to God, thanks but I can be my own Lord.  Even though they know that only God can be God—this is evident from what God has created (humans can’t create a rabbit, thus it is clear that God is greater than the human, i.e. the human is not God)—still they persist not to honour God as God instead going their own way trusting their self-control.

We sometimes balk on this point; the good person appears, well, good to us.  It is much more pleasant to live next door to a Stoic than a knave (I agree).  Do we have God’s perspective on this; is it possible that we are comparing relative moral achievements?  As I have opportunity to observe my grandchildren I am reminded of something that became obvious to me when I was raising my children; sometimes children rebel against parental authority in a very polite (even moral) fashion.  (Dad, I would have cut the grass but the teacher gave extra homework today.)  Moralism is rebellion, polite, rebellion nonetheless.

John Wesley astutely observed that efforts to establish humanity’s good on its own grounds is to create a religion with no reference to God.  “But call it 'humanity', 'virtue', 'morality', or what you please, it is neither better nor worse than atheism.  Men hereby wilfully and designedly put asunder what God has joined, the duties of the first and the second table. It is separating the love of our neighbour from the love of God. It is a plausible way of thrusting God out of the world he has made.” (Sermon; The Unity Of The Devine Being)

3. The institutions of the military and slavery were both woven deeply into the fabric of life in the Roman Empire.  When Paul observed that the implication of being freed from slavery to sin was to “now present your members as slaves to righteousness” he is using imagery from both institutions.  The word translated “members” is a word used militarily of weapons.  The picture is that since sin has no dominion over us we can offer our human faculties—weapons—to the reign of grace rather than the reign of law.

“Having been set free from sin, you (believer) have become slaves of righteousness”.  In other words, the options are two kinds of slavery; one leads to increasing iniquity and the end is death the other to sanctification and the end is eternal life.

Some balk at Paul’s imagery.  Whether military or slavery the options are a choice of who you serve: God or not God.  Many think that to serve your self is true freedom. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte objected to Christianity for this very reason; what Sarte came to dislike most about God was what he saw as the crippling notion that God created humans for God’s own selfish ends.  He thought that we should rejoice in the absence of the divine (Atheism) because we are free to define ourselves as we please.  SO, how is that working out for humanity?

We often think that there is some sort of neutral ground where the self can choose the good apart from God.  The gospel says this is a misunderstanding of our condition; we have already chosen and our choice was rebellion.

4. To present ourselves as a “salve of righteousness” is clearly a positive thing in Paul’s mind; it is the very restoration of the image of God; it is life in that it issues in eternal life.  To be a slave of righteousness is to be a slave of Jesus Christ—Jesus is the righteousness of God.  The believers' self-abandonment to the claim of the gospel upon them, is nothing other than their self-abandonment to the one who is their life, their comfort, and their eternal blessing, our Saviour Jesus Christ. The cross of Jesus shows me that he always has my good in his heart.

One of the blessings of allegiance to Jesus Christ is that all other allegiance is set it its place.  I find myself freed from the tyranny of pleasing everyone.  I also find that when it comes to pleasing myself I am prone to cutting myself lots of slack; in serving him I find I aspire to much more.

5.  Do you really believe that Christ has set us free from sin; from both its penalty and its power?  It is one thing to embrace God’s forgiveness and know that because Jesus is righteous our being bound to him in faith means our acquittal.  But can God do anything with sin beyond forgiving it?  We hear Paul’s statement that we have been set free from sin yet we are all too painfully aware of the corruption that remains in our hearts; that our actions do not always match our beliefs.

It is on this point that I find John Wesley very helpful.  The social problems of London, England in Wesley’s day were deplorable; the depth and scope of the degradation which accompanied the social problems are sufficiently attested in one advertisement for entertainment, "Champagne, Dice, Music, or your Neighbour's Spouse."  Wesley was aware of this and was convinced that the sanctification offered in the gospel could lift people out of these miseries.  He was convinced that what God calls us to do he empowers and works in us as we reach for what Wesley called holiness of life.  In Paul’s terms this is to present our members as slaves to righteousness.

For Wesley this was to love God whole-heartedly which is to abandon ourselves to God's will for us. Wesley was optimistic about what God could do in the life of the believer; he was convinced anyone could be helped. Indeed, Charles Wesley wrote of him, "My brother was, I think, born for the benefit of knaves."

I want to be clear about what I said of self-control earlier in the sermon; to say that self-control will not free us is not to say that self-control is of no use.  Indeed self-control is said to be a fruit of the Spirit of God’s work in our lives.  We must careful not to confuse a good—self-control—with the good—our love for God.

6.  On Friday we celebrate Canada day.  I want to share some excerpts of a speech by Father Raymond J. De Souza given at an interfaith prayer breakfast at the recent national convention of the Conservative Party of Canada.  The by-line stated: “If we deny that moral thought has a role in government, we are left with only the cold calculus of utilitarianism, or simple power politics, to guide our decisions.”  De Souza wrote:

Last Oct. 1, the Right Honourable David Johnston was installed as our governor-general, and in his installation address he quoted his most illustrious predecessor in the viceregal office: “I recall the closing lines of my predecessor, General The Right Honourable Georges P. Vanier’s inaugural address: ‘In our march forward in material happiness, let us not neglect the spiritual threads in the weaving of our lives. If Canada is to attain the greatness worthy of it, each of us must say, ‘I ask only to serve.’”

The spiritual threads of which General Vanier spoke are essential in the weaving of our common life together. Material prosperity is a good and noble pursuit, but it actually animates the lesser part of the lives of most Canadians. What we earn is the product of our own creativity and industriousness — our material goods are the product of our being made creative in the image of God and our virtues, both of which belong to the realm of the spirit. What we do with our goods is animated by our vision of the good life; that vision too belongs to the realm of the spirit. ... In short, without spiritual threads we might have the makings of a tapestry, but it would be without design, without beauty, without purpose.

General Vanier, a statesman learned in both philosophy as well as theology, would acknowledge that the realm of the spirit is not exhausted by the world of religious faith. But without the great religious traditions, both present in Canada and around the world, the realm of the spirit is greatly impoverished. Our common life together needs the threads of the spirit, which is to say that it needs the contribution of religious faith — not only religious faith, but essentially religious faith.

As I read that speech I was reminded that Canada needs people who give themselves to righteousness; to Jesus Christ. Proverbs 14:34 reads: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.

But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.