Acts of the Apostles (3:12-19); Psalm 4; First John (3:1-7); Luke (24:36b-48)
This morning I’m going to talk about something that appears in all 4 of our readings for today. It’s something that always has been a universally popular pastime: everyone does it. But it has become a decreasingly popular topic for polite conversation or preaching. It’s something we used to call by its Biblical name: “sin.” In the U.S. it was a common sermon topic from the time of Jonathan Edwards in the colonial period until Billy Graham in our day. I heard Billy Graham preach many times from my childhood on, and I recall only one time when he did not begin with sin, and that was when he was addressing an assembly of the faculty and students of Moody Bible Institute. Perhaps he missed an opportunity there. Typically he would begin his sermons with quotations from Romans, such as: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (3:23), or “There is none righteous, no not one” (3:10) or “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (6:23).
In today’s lectionary we find Peter preaching, “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away” (Acts 3:19). The psalmist writes, “Tremble and do not sin” (Psalm 4:4). The apostle John writes, “Everyone who practices sin practices lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness” (I John 3:4). And, after His Resurrection, Jesus tells His disciples that Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms all declare “that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in Messiah’s Name to all the nations” (Luke 24:47). Each Sunday before the Confession we hear John’s words, “If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). Sin is undeniably a universal condition.
So far we’re dealing only with the fact of sin, not the remedy. Nor have we considered the much more challenging words from John that seem to place all of us in a very precarious circumstance. He writes, “You know that (Jesus Christ) appeared in order to take away sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him” (I John 3:6). But our lectionary reading stops a bit too soon. In the very next verses, John adds that “the one who practices sin is of the devil” and that “no one who is born of God practices sin… because he is born of God” (I John 3:8, 9). Peter wrote, “(Jesus) Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (I Peter 2:24). That sounds categorical and, on the surface, suggests some of us are in a lot of trouble.
We’re reminded of what Paul wrote in Romans: “The death that Jesus died, He died to sin once for all. So consider yourselves dead to sin… for sin shall not be master over you… and you, having been freed from sin, became slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:10, 11, 14, 18). Does this sound like a description of us? “Dead to sin” and “slaves of righteousness?” How do we reconcile this absolute language with our own experiences?
If we dig a bit deeper, both John and Paul give us answers as to how we’re to deal with the whole sin issue. First and foremost there’s the work of Jesus on our behalf, what we call the atonement. He did what no other person could do: He lived a perfect life, then died as a perfect sacrifice for our sins, then rose triumphantly from the grave to put an end to sin, death and Satan’s power. Paul writes in Romans 5, “Just as through one man sin entered into the world, and so death spread to all men because all sinned… so through one act of righteousness, through the obedience of the One, the many will be made righteous” (5:12, 18, 19).
What does this require of us? We like to say, “Faith plus nothing.” But that’s not actually what the Scriptures teach. Both Jesus and Peter in our lectionary readings urge us first to repentance. That was the entire message of John the Baptist as he prepared the way for the Messiah, and it was the message of Peter at Pentecost in his first sermon after the Ascension of Jesus: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Repentance requires the acknowledgement of our sinful condition and our need for something to be done that’s beyond ourselves.
Repentance logically precedes our ability to accept the work of Christ by faith. It’s an indispensable if uncomfortable prerequisite. Repentance is nothing less than a statement of our inadequacy, of our insufficiency, of our need for God’s grace. Spiritually speaking, repentance is a falling on our faces before God, confessing that we have fallen short of His glory and pleading for His mercy on the basis of His grace and lovingkindness. When we do that, the righteousness of the One, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, is imputed to us so that the sin nature into which we’re born can be redeemed and remedied. Even more, we ourselves die to sin. Paul adds that “having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification and the outcome, eternal life” (Romans 6:22).
Those thoughts, while in a somewhat different theological construct from that of John, explain clearly what John means when he writes that “no one who abides in Him sins” and “no one who is born of God practices sin… because he is born of God” (I John 3:6, 8, 9). For both John and Paul, our self-identification with the finished work of Christ, the sinless, righteous, obedient One, renders us guiltless before a holy and righteous God. But that newfound freedom from sin transfers us from bondage to sin into slavery to God and righteousness. Even if our salvation depends on nothing more than repentance and faith, our sanctification requires that we eagerly pursue all that slavery to God implies. This is the proof of the pudding. There’s nothing half-hearted about this. Salvation is not achieved by our works, but it comes with the requirement that our lives be devoted to doing the work and will of God all the remaining days of our lives.
How can we do this? How can we ever be expected to do it? Paul gives us the answer in Philippians 2 when he writes, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God Who is at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (12, 13). Repentance and faith are the essential first steps, but they’re not the last ones. They’re only the beginning of what Paul calls a “new creation” for those who are “in Christ” (II Corinthians 5:17). We’ve stepped out of our old lives into a new life in the Light of Christ. And yes, as Jesus said, “of those to whom much is given, much is also required” (Luke 12:48). The ability to do the work of God is a gift that God continually offers to us. We need only to listen to His voice and be obedient to it.
So now we understand the requirement and the mechanism. They’re straightforward. But how well are we doing at it? Do we really consider ourselves to be God’s slaves? That’s precisely the question John is addressing in today’s epistle. Are we living as God’s slaves, or are we still slaves to ourselves and our inherent sin nature? What are we doing about it?
When John writes that “no one who abides in (Jesus) sins,” and, conversely, that “no one who sins has seen Him or known Him,” John is saying that any habitual sin that we do not address, acknowledge and conquer through the One Who has defeated the power of sin by His death and Resurrection, separates us from Christ. Habitual sin separates us from Christ. It calls into question the sincerity of our identification with Him. Further, John writes, “Make sure no one deceives you: the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.” That’s a tough measuring stick for us: not our own righteousness, but His!
There’s definitely a sense in which I have the right to claim that I’m an expert at practicing. I’ve spent an incredibly large percentage of my life practicing. I discovered at a very early age that no progress is made without practicing. Later I discovered that no achievement is maintained without continued practicing. Whenever practicing is neglected, there’s serious diminishment. All my successes have been the product of practicing.
Of course I’m talking about my life as a professional musician. But the principles are identical when applied to our spiritual lives. If we fail to practice our faith, to practice righteousness, we make no progress in sanctification. And that’s not all. Just as there is diminishment when the professional musician neglects practicing, so there is diminishment when the Christian neglects practicing righteousness. We cannot hope to be “righteous just as He is righteous” unless we practice it, intentionally and faithfully.
Over time we may find that our negligence in practicing righteousness results in our reverting to the practice of sin, something John defines as “lawlessness.” That may sound extreme to us on first hearing. But the more we learn the demands of a righteous life through our study of Scripture, the more we stand convicted for our spiritual shortcomings. Then we discover how easy it is to slip back into lawlessness.
A few days ago I listened to my grandson reading a children’s book about the 10 Commandments to my great-granddaughter. The language was intentionally modified to be at a level little children could access, so even I could understand what was being read. When he got to the last commandment, instead of its saying, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's,” it just said, “You must not want the things that other people have.” Since that was the end of the book, I asked my grandson if he was guilty of that; and he immediately responded, “Yes, and I’m a bad person.”
Now I definitely was not trying to lay a guilt trip on him, but I did find his absolute candor to be disarmingly genuine. Most of us would do well to do have a periodic reality check with equal candor. When we do that, whether or not we conclude that we are bad persons, we are likely to discover that we’re shamefully inconsistent at practicing righteousness. And whenever I’m asked how that reality check is done, I invariably start with asking whether a person is being faithful in daily reading of Scripture and in prayer. That’s where spiritual practicing begins. And when its done faithfully and consistently, your life is changed in ways you never imagined possible. In time you will begin to discover what “sanctification” means and how it’s possible.
In this exercise, you will find that while practice does not always make “perfect,” it certainly propels you forward towards that time of which John was speaking when he wrote, “We know that when (Jesus) appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (I John 3:2b, 3). Practice makes pure, but neglect negates progress. We need to aim higher in our daily practice of righteousness. We need to strive to be more like Jesus now. We need to purify ourselves as He is pure. We need to see this life as a time of preparation. And if we live every day in the recognition that He is coming again, then we’ll want to get started in that process of becoming like Him. Let’s covenant to do that together. The rewards are not only eternal, but they begin right now as we are re-shaped into the very image of Christ.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen