Most Sinners Are Very Nice People

The Contemplative Pastor
Eugene Peterson

The word sinner is a theological designation.  It is essential to insist on this.  It is not a moralistic judgment.  It is not a word that places humans somewhere along a continuum ranging from angel to ape, assessing them as relatively “good” or “bad.”  It designates humans in relation to God and sees them separated from God.  Sinner means something is awry between humans and God.  In that state people may be wicked, unhappy, anxious, and poor.  Or, they may be virtuous, happy, and affluent.  Those items are not part of the judgment.  The theological fact is that humans are not close to God and are not serving God.

To see a person as sinner, then, is not to see him or her as hypocritical, disgusting, or evil.  Most sinners are very nice people.  To call a man a sinner is not a blast at his manners or his morals.  It is a theological belief that the thing that matters most to him is forgiveness and grace…

An understanding of people as sinners enables a pastoral ministry to function without anger.  Accumulated resentment (a constant threat to pastors) is dissolved when unreal – that is, untheological – presuppositions are abandoned.  If people are sinners then pastors can concentrate on talking about God’s action in Jesus Christ instead of sitting around lamenting how bad the people are.  We already know they can’t make it.  We already have accepted their depravity.  We didn’t engage to be pastor to relax in their care or entrust ourselves to their saintly ways…

The happy result of a theological understanding of people as sinners is that the pastor is saved from continual surprise that they are in fact sinners….

Simply to be against sin is a poor basis for pastoral ministry.  But to see people as sinners – as rebels against God, missers of the mark, wanderers from the way – that establishes a basis for pastoral ministry that can proceed with great joy because it is announcing God’s great action in Jesus Christ “for sinners.”

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There Aren’t Very Many Happy People in the Bible

The Contemplative Pastor
Eugene Peterson

My job is not to solve people’s problems or make them happy, but to help them see the grace operating in their lives.  It’s hard to do, because our whole culture is going the other direction, saying that if you’re smart enough and get the right kind of help, you can solve all your problems.  The truth is, there aren’t very many happy people in the Bible.  But there are people who are experiencing joy, peace, and the meaning of Christ’s suffering in their lives.

He Plans the Future

All the Prophets Proclaimed These Days
John Piper

[17] “And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. [18] But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled.

– Acts 3:17–18

…in Peter’s view the fulfillment of prophecy was not due so much to God’s foreknowledge of history as to his action in history…What God foretold God fulfilled. God knows the future because he plans the future.

Praise God that He is Unfair

Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

– Psalm 32:2

Or in other words, blessed is the man who is counted perfectly righteous before God.

I’m not a very good gift giver.  I tend to give people what I like – books.  I have given my wife many books over the years and I think she forgives me.  But just because she forgives me doesn’t make me a good gift giver.  It means I have a second chance which I could very well use to buy another book.

Being forgiven is not the same as being righteous.  It means a clean slate and a second chance.  This sounds like good news but it is actually terrible news.  If you give me a second chance to buy something other than a book, it’s possible I’ll take it. But if you give me a second chance to flap my arms and fly out of a window, there is no hope.

We need more than a second chance with God because which of us can be perfectly righteous, without sin, even for one day?  Who can stand before a holy God?  Scripture is perfectly clear.

[10] as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
[11] no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
[12] All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”

– Romans 3:10-12

Thankfully God gives us more than a second chance.  He offers to count unrighteous people righteous.

[11] Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities. 

– Isaiah 53:11

Jesus not only takes our sin and gives us forgiveness; He also lives a perfect, sinless life and gives it to us that we might receive the reward He deserves.

Praise God that He is just but not fair!  It’s not fair for a teacher to take a test and give a student credit.  It’s not fair for a parent to raise a child and for a stranger to boast.  And it’s not fair that Jesus lives a perfect life and sinners can enter into the presence of God and hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into your master’s rest!”

It’s More Than That

Psalm 103:12

as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

1 Peter 2:24

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

The gift of God is forgiveness.  God can make us clean and he does so at great cost.  The sinless Son of God takes on the punishment for the sins of the world that we might be forgiven.

Sometimes people say that this is like a judge who sentences a criminal to jail time and then takes his place.  But it’s more than that.  It’s more like a victim of a drunk driver going to jail for the drunk driver.  Or an an assault victim willingly taking the punishment for their attacker.

Every sin is against God but He sends His Son for sinners.

You Are the Light of the World

You are the light of the world…

– Matthew 5:14a

Before talking about what we do, God talks about who we are.  Jesus makes the same distinction in the Sermon on the Mount as a whole.  He begins with the beatitudes (Matthew 5), describing the Christian’s hopes, loves, and character and only after this goes on to particular aspects of life and conduct. Jesus talks about being before He talks about doing.

People rarely talk about what type of person they want to be in the future and consciously pursue these traits (i.e. loyal, reliable, compassionate).  More often we focus on what tasks we want to do or the things we’d like to one day have.  Talk of our futures revolves more around our circumstances (marital status, occupation, living situation) than our hearts.

But Christ is deeply concerned with who we are much more than what we do.

Regret

John 11:45-53

[45] Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, [46] but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. [47] So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. [48] If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” [49] But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. [50] Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” [51] He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, [52] and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. [53] So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.

When I was a teenager, I would drive very fast.  When I was pulled over once for speeding, I immediately regretted breaking the law.  But why did I regret it?  I regretted getting caught.  I regretted the possibility of a fine and traffic school.  I regretted that I would be yelled at by my parents.  But to be honest, I didn’t really regret endangering other people.  I didn’t regret my “offense.”

The Pharisees were amazingly disciplined in their religion.  They fasted and prayed, they studied the Scriptures, and they established meticulous rules in order to obey the Law of Moses.   The Pharisees did this because they deeply regretted that Israel had been conquered by empire after empire.  They profoundly felt the shame of exile and the loss of the Promised Land.

But did they regret offending God?  Did they regret that their sin had separated them from their God?

In our passage, we find that the Pharisees love their status.  Jesus is threatening because He is drawing away many people to Himself.  The Pharisees also love the honor of men.  This is why they do not want to offend the people by openly rejecting John the Baptist or arresting Jesus in broad daylight.  The Pharisees also love their power.  They do not want to offend the Romans because they could take away their authority, their status, and their nation.

The Pharisees love many things other than God.  They do many religious things for reasons other than the love of God.  For clearly if they loved God, they would not violently reject His Son and shed innocent blood by killing their own Messiah.

According to verse 53, the Pharisees plan to put Jesus to death.  But their plan does not precede the plan of the Father.  We, like the Pharisees, rarely regret offending God.  We regret consequences of our sin like guilt, shame, and judgment.  We, too, love many things more than God.  We are willing to sin as a means to an end.  Yet, the Father sends His Son to die for sinners like us, that His people from every tribe and nation would not perish.

May our regrets and our hopes no longer center on our punishments or rewards, but may we regret all that separates us from God.  Let us put our hope in Him who restores us to the Father.  The Son of God has paid the price that we might become children of God and live now and forever with and for Him.

Glory Shines in the Darkness

John 11:38-44

[38] Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. [39] Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” [40] Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” [41] So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. [42] I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” [43] When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” [44] The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

In the city, the strongest sensations may not be the sights but the smells.  An interesting mixture of something rotting and urine constantly remind you of where you are.  Our preference is to avoid such unpleasant or ugly things but life is not found in an artificially sterile environment.  Neither is glory.

Jesus asks that the stone to Lazarus’s tomb be taken away.  Being courteous, Martha desires to shield Jesus from the awful smell that must be within.  But Jesus intends for all to see the glory of God.

Glory shines brightest in the darkest, ugliest places.  God’s glory is revealed most clearly in the cross of Christ – the most awful spectacle in history.  So when we avoid the dark places of our world or deny that the darkness in our hearts exists, we prevent ourselves from seeing the Lord of Glory conquer that darkness and make things new.

There is no resurrection without death.  Lazarus had to die in order to be raised again.  And when Lazarus is raised from the dead, he is not raised so he can flee from a world of darkness to one that is light and easy.

We must not forget that later the Pharisees plot to kill Lazarus.  He very likely experiences persecution as a member of a sect banned from the synagogues and Jewish communities.  Lazarus does not live forever and eventually experiences death again.

Lazarus is raised so that he and many others might see for themselves the weightiness and splendor of God.  And those who believe are then sent back into a world of darkness to honor this awesome God and shine His light for others.

“Yes, Lord, I believe”

John 11:17-27

[17] Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. [18] Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, [19] and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. [20] So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. [21] Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [22] But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” [23] Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” [24] Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” [25] Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, [26] and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” [27] She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

In the novel, the Kite Runner, two childhood friends are divided by one boy’s guilt.  His friend was brutally assaulted by other boys.  He actually could have done something and he knows that only his selfishness and fear kept him from helping his friend.

When Martha approaches her Lord after her brother has died, she knows that Jesus could have done something.  She had pleaded with him to come, but He did not.  Martha could have been overcome with bitterness.

In Over the Rhine, our church children experience many things that they do not understand.  Why do fathers or mothers leave?  Why do beloved uncles and cousins get shot?  Why do “good” people go to jail, while “bad” people do whatever they want?  We, too, have our questions.  We, too, are confused by what the Lord allows in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

Martha has questions, she is heartbroken, but she still believes in Jesus – that He is “the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (v. 27).  She does not know why Jesus delayed.  She does not know that Jesus will resurrect Lazarus in a few moments.  But she does know, that Jesus loved Lazarus deeply.  And she knows that He loves her (John 11:3, 5).

God may not answer many of our questions in this lifetime, but He does answer the most important question: does Jesus love you?  His answer is “Yes.”  He loves you enough to give His body and His blood for you.