I often wonder just how those outside of the church view those of us that continue to find sanctuary within these walls. How does a person without faith look at the person who gathers with other believers to confess their faith, hear the Word, receive the gifts, and sing the praises of God? Do they think we are foolish or misguided or simply relics from a different time? One thing is for sure, they know that we are not perfect. In fact, they may see us as hypocrites, failing to practice what we preach. Are we those who can live our lives however we want and then just come in here, receive forgiveness, and pretend like nothing happened? In fact, is this part and parcel to being a Christian? Or to put it even more succinctly as St Paul does, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue to sin that grace may abound?”
Now, that question is crucial. If the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ has saved us and has made us righteous outside of any work on our part, could we not then increase our sin and so increase the flow of grace? That may sound either foolish or perhaps even a bit tempting to you, but it is a great question for it gets to the heart of our identity as God’s children. If we change our perspective, we might look at it this way; do our actions matter? Do they validate the gift we’ve been given? Can a Christian just live how they want without any fear of reprisals for their sin? Can they simply eat, drink and be merry for if we die tomorrow we have the blood of Christ to cover us?
Have you ever been to a funeral where you aren’t even sure the person was a Christian? He lived a life saturated in sin and shame with a wonton disregard for the law of God. Yet at the funeral you hear people get up to speak about how he is in a better place now. Do they say that to simply be nice, or do they really think he is in a better place? How do we know he is in a better place? Did his life give any evidence that he was headed to such a place? Did he, as John the Baptists would say, bear fruit in keeping with repentance? You see, this is a real problem: this understanding about our life and about our sin and what it means regarding our salvation. Are we to get to work fixing our lives and so validating the gifts we’ve received from Christ, or can we simply sin all the more so that grace may abound?
The way this works out in the life of the church, as we live among our brothers and sisters in Christ, is not always consistent. It’s not even very predictable. And most churches agree that sin cannot go unchecked. So, this life of super-abundant sin to free the Gospel of Christ doesn’t make much sense. This sort of thing is why there are scandals and divisions within the church. There should be remorse over divorce and fornication. We should feel shame when we engage in activities that mock the institution of holy matrimony. Likewise, we shouldn’t be proud when we gossip about a brother or sister in Christ. We shouldn’t amuse ourselves at the expense of someone else’s reputation. For sin tears at the body of Christ. It is the building block of hatred and distrust. So, the churches ought to preach and teach in such a way to curb blatant sin, to not leave it unchecked. But how? What can a church do? How can Christians better their reputations as lousy sinners in the eyes of the world?
One major way that the churches seek to curb sin is by giving good solid instruction in moral improvement. Just as we teach our children the value of sharing what they have or playing nice with others, so we often find such advice given in the church. Advice that seeks to shape our behavior and mold us so that our sin is kept in check. And so, Christians are encouraged to give to charity, to help out the local food bank, to give from what they have so that another might be blessed through them. Some congregations will talk about what movies you should watch, what TV shows are appropriate to build up a proper morality that is a faithful response to the blessings you’ve received. There becomes a clear code of conduct of the things that Christians do and don’t do.
Others have found that such measures aren’t really enough to keep sin in check. That training in morality alone will not cut it, so they need to take it a step further. There are accountability groups for you. After all, we know from any sort of discipline in our lives, whether it is to eat better, to go to the gym more often, or study a little more diligently, it is all easier when accompanied by a group of likeminded people that will hold you accountable. So, Christians go to groups that do Christian sort of things: small group Bible studies, prayer groups, service teams, evangelism programs, and on the list goes. Here, the church can become a powerful force for good in this world, helping its members to be accountable, to not just crumble into outward public sin but have a little pride and a little concern for their actions.
All of this is truly a blessing. It gives you some guidance, some structure to your lives so that you don’t think the best way to live is by simply engaging in sin so that grace may abound. And it works. Well, at least it works until that old evil foe comes lurking around. You know who I’m talking about. You know that ancient enemy of mankind, the ancient serpent who is always there ready to accuse you of your sin and failure. You see, Satan comes to bring you to despair, to pull you away from any hope in eternal life, and to stand with him in the great battle between heaven and hell. Without much time or energy at all he can ruin all your moral advancements, all your Christian activities, all your self-improvement for the sake of the Gospel. You see, he doesn’t have to pay any attention to the good things you do. He doesn’t care if it was your first offence or your fiftieth. He doesn’t pay any mind to how well you’ve been living as of late. All he needs is one sin, one little sin, one failure, one transgression of the perfect and pure law of God. Then it all comes undone as he declares loud and long, “You are guilty!”
Instead, hear what St. Paul says, “Are we to continue to sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” You see, Paul doesn’t direct you to yourselves, to your own efforts, to your own resolutions to keep your sin in check. No, he directs you to your baptism. Baptism isn’t a moral issue, it isn’t a means of accountability within the group. No, baptism is God’s work in this age to claim you as his own and shut the mouth of the accuser. Baptism isn’t an empowerment to overcome sin. It is a death to sin itself by dying and rising in Christ.
When the ancient serpent comes accusing you of your sin and when he points is bony finger at your chest, he declares these are your sins and these are your trespasses and guilt. We are tempted to believe that voice thinking that he is right. But that would make our Lord a liar. For remember, Jesus stood in the waters of the Jordan to receive a baptism for the repentance of sins. John didn’t want to do it; after all Jesus had no sins to repent. He was the Lamb of God that takes the sins of the world away. But Jesus does it anyway. He repents for sins that are not his own. He takes away the sins of the world which include your sins. And in your baptism, in your washing of the water and Word, all of these blessings are given to you. Outside of your ability, outside of your intentions, outside of your feelings and emotions, you have joined Christ at Calvary’s cross and so are given a new life in him.
This, you see, is who you are. You are the baptized, the saints of God. In the waters of Holy Baptism, you were drowned so that you might live. You died there to sin. You died to the accusations of the evil one. You died to your own desire to do it yourself to be in control. It all drowned and died. And one who has died has been set free from sin. Let those words sink in deep today: Paul says, “One who has died has been set free from sin.”
Paul declares that you cannot go on sinning for that is not who you are. Instead he says this, “You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” This new life in Christ is radical and daring. It is a life where you keep others accountable, do good works, gather for bible study, not out of fear but out of joy. For you have received the blessings of Christ himself. You are heirs of eternal life. You are the Baptized and as such you are no longer enslaved to sin.
So now, just what is it you want to do with your freedom?