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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“This is My World”

The God Who is There Leader’s Guide
D.A. Carson

[1] Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” [2] And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, [3] but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” [4] But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. [5] For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” [6] So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

– Genesis 3:1–6

A young schoolteacher in Northern Ireland once told me how she taught the substance of these early chapters of Genesis.  Fresh out of college, she found herself a job teaching “religious education” (still common in the United Kingdom) to young boys in a rather rough school.  She was making no headway at all.  She decided to try another approach.  Using plaster of Paris, she got them to create their own little creatures (one imagines that some of them were pretty grotesque) and then, over the next days, their own world, complete with a village, animals, a little lake, fences, and so forth.  She had the boys make up the “backstory” behind each little creature and begin to weave the accounts together.  Eventually she asked them to pool ideas for some rules or laws that they thought they should impose to preserve some order.  The boys came up with quite a number, including a prohibition against going to close to the edge of the “world” lest they fall off and break, and a prohibition against going into the lake, where of course they would dissolve.  These and other “laws” were grouped together to see if they could be boiled down for simplicity.  The boys decided that the one law “Do what I tell you” was the most comprehensive.

The next day, the teacher came into class and asked them to imagine that one of the little creatures the boys had created stood up and said to his maker, rather defiantly, “Leave me alone.  This is my world, not yours.  I’ll do what I want.  I certainly do not want you telling me what to do.  Get out of here and leave me alone!”  how, then, should the boys respond?

There was a moment of stunned silence, and then one of the boys volunteered, “I’d break his bloody legs!”

That is how the teacher introduced Genesis 3.  And of course, the degree of culpable betrayal and defiance that we human beings display against the perfectly good, wise, and sovereign Creator is infinitely greater.

No Reason to Change

Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave
Edward T. Welch

We are often very blind to our own sin.  For example, in marriage, some people say that it was years before they had any inkling of their blatant selfishness and pride.  During those years, the excuses were, “People just don’t understand me,” or “If she [he] would just show more love.”

When we are blind to our own problem, there is no reason to change.

We Have Run

The Cross and Christian Ministry
D.A. Carson

[14] The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

– 1 Corinthians 2:14

 

It is not that God makes us constitutionally unable to understand him, and then toys with us for his own amusement.  Rather, he has made us for himself, but we have run from him.  The heart of our lostness is our profound self-focus.  We do not want to know him, if knowing him is on his terms.  We are happy to have a god we can more or less manipulate; we do not want a god to whom we admit that we are rebels in heart and mind, that we do not deserve his favor, and that our only hope is in his pardoning and transforming grace.  We certainly cannot fathom a powerful Creator who takes the place of an odious criminal in order to save us from the judgment we deserve.

We Wish We Didn’t Know

Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law
J. Budziszewski

Most modern ethical thinking goes about matters backwards.  It assumes that the problem of human sin is mainly cognitive – that is has to do with the state of our knowledge.  In other words, it holds that we don’t know what’s right and wrong and are trying to find out.  But natural-law theory assumes that the problem is mainly volitional – that is has to do with the state of our will.  It holds that by and large we know what’s right and wrong but wish we didn’t, and that we try to keep ourselves in ignorance so that we can do as we please.

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.

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.