Monday, June 26, 2023

Freed from Sin

The following is a more or less verbatim transcript of the sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity. I have lightly edited it for clarity, but it is not meant as a written version of the sermon.

The sermon itself can be listened to wherever you get your podcasts or at this link:

Freed from Sin

The Third Sunday after Trinity

Romans 6:1-14

Well, over the summer, when I'm preaching, I'm going to be looking at the readings from Romans. So far, we've seen that St Paul has told us that all of us, without exception, are equal in sin and subject to the wrath of God. All need saving and all need saving the same way, writes St Paul. The only way we can be saved, St Paul tells us, is through faith in Christ. We don't deserve to be forgiven and accepted by God, but God out of love for us, and because of what Christ has done for us by dying for us, forgives us freely and accepts us.

Well, there is an obvious question that emerges from all this, and St Paul asks it in verse one of our reading from Romans. If God forgives us no matter what we do and no matter what we have done, is there any need for us to do anything differently? Why can't we just go on living as we have always lived, knowing that God will go on loving us as he has always loved us? St Paul puts it this way, ‘should we continue in sin that grace may abound’ (Romans 6:1)? When we were sinners, grace abounded to us, so why not go on sinning, so that grace may go on abounding?

It's a logical question but it's not just a theoretical question. It seems that there were people who were accusing St Paul of saying just this and claiming that St Paul didn't care whether people sinned or not. There were others who argued that that was precisely what the Gospel meant. St Paul was writing Romans from Corinth, and he had had to deal with people in the church in Corinth who thought that now they were Christians, forgiven and accepted by God, it meant they could do whatever they liked. St Paul is horrified that people can think he thinks like this, and he is horrified that believers could think like this.

Nevertheless, St Paul doesn't respond to the idea that we can go on sinning as believers by simply telling people to stop sinning. He will say that, but first he explains, not only why we should stop sinning, but also why we can stop sinning. St Paul asks, ‘how can we who died to sin go on living in it (Romans 6:2)?’ ‘Do you not know’, he continues to ask, ‘that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death’ (Romans 6:3)? St Paul has previously written about Jesus' death and the forgiveness of sins it brings. Now, in Romans 6, he speaks about our death and the freedom from sin it brings.

We will only understand what St Paul is saying in Romans chapter 6 when we understand that Paul is not simply talking about sins, that is, sins in the sense of those wrong things that we do. Not loving God with our whole being, for example, not loving our neighbor as ourself, not keeping the Ten Commandments, and so on. ‘Sin’ for St Paul isn't just the things that we do that are wrong. Sin is both a power that controls us and a state in which we live.

In times past, when a couple were living together outside of marriage, the phrase that was used to describe it was ‘living in sin’. I don't know if you remember that phrase or have heard it. The idea wasn't just that what they were doing behind closed doors was wrong, but that the state of being together outside of marriage was itself a state of sin. Well, that's what St Paul is saying. Every one of us outside of Christ is living in a state of sin. A state in which Sin itself controls us. And the only hope for us, writes St Paul, is for our relationship with Sin to come to an end. And for it to come to an end, there must be death. It can only be ended by death, he writes, and it is us who must die.

And we did die, St Paul tells the Roman believers, when we came to Christ in faith. When we come to Christ, our relationship with Sin as a power ends. St Paul tells us that our old self was crucified (Romans 6:6). ‘Whoever has died is freed from sin’ (Romans 6:7), and it follows that if we have shared in the death of Christ, so too we will share in the resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:5, 8). We have died and been buried with Christ, St Paul writes (Romans 6:3-4). So, we can now share the resurrection life of Christ. We have died with him, so now we can live with him. We can walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4).

St Paul is describing something that has actually happened. Before the Roman believers came to Christ, it was impossible for them not to sin. St Paul describes this state in Romans 7. He calls it being under the ‘law of sin and death’ (Romans 8:1). We're all familiar with the physical laws of the universe, laws that govern us and govern our life in this world. St Paul says there are spiritual laws that govern our life in this world as well, and one of them is the law of sin and death. The law of sin and death tells us that when we want to do good, no matter how much we may want to do it, we can't, and that if we don't do good, we will die. Sin leads to death.

It’s a terrible situation to be in. If I sin, I will die. And yet I cannot help myself, I will sin. St Paul will write in Romans 7, ‘the good that I would I do not, the evil that I would not that I do’ (Romans 7:19). ‘O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death (Romans 7: 24)?’ But, writes St Paul, we have, as believers in Christ, died to sin, and we are freed from it, so that the law of sin and death no longer applies to us.

Now we do have a choice. St Paul urges his readers to make it. We are to understand that we are dead to sin and alive to God and that we need to act accordingly. We now can do the good we want to do, and we can not do the evil we don't want to do. St Paul tells his readers, not to let sin exercise control over them (Romans 6:12).

In other words, he is saying previously you had no choice, you had to do what Sin told you to do; now you don't. Previously you were dead to God and alive to sin; now you are dead to sin and alive to God. St Paul, as he goes on in Romans, will explain what this means in practical terms for how we live, but first he wants the Roman believers and us to understand how real and how radical the change is that Christ has brought about in our lives.

I want to highlight three points for us from all this.

1. Continuing in Sin?

Most of us would not put it so bluntly. We would not say, ‘let us continue in sin that grace may abound’. In any case, this is not the language we use anymore. But isn't this the reality?

To put it another way, how seriously do we take our faith? How much difference does it actually make to how we live? To what extent does our faith influence our choices and decisions? Isn't our attitude all too often, basically, that no matter what we do, there is nothing to worry about, God will forgive us anyway? Yes, we'll try to avoid serious sin, but as to significant lifestyle changes, that's a different matter altogether.

And why worry if God loves us and accepts us, whatever? Why indeed? Jesus in our Gospel reading says to his disciples that those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for his sake will find it (Matthew 10:39). What both our Lord and St Paul are saying is that faith in Christ is a life-changing experience. We can't just continue living as if nothing has happened. And if we can live as if nothing has happened, then we may need to ask ourselves whether maybe nothing has happened. If we really have come to Christ, it will result in real and radical change.

So real and so radical, in fact, that only the language of dying and rising again is sufficient to describe it. It may take time for us to appreciate it and to realize how significant it all is, but we must appreciate it. We must appreciate that Christ changes everything.

2. Changed by Christ

The reason why we don't always appreciate the difference coming to Christ makes is because we don't understand quite what life is like outside of Christ.

One of the most misunderstood and misleading ideas that has gained currency in our world and in the Church is the idea of ‘free will’. We in the church are partly to blame for championing it and promoting it. The idea of free will, as it is popularly understood, is that we are all free to make our own choices. Christians will say that God has given us free will so we can choose whether to worship him or not, and we believe it! It would be funny if it were not so tragic.

We have made this idea of human freedom central to how we think. St Paul is far more realistic. He describes our condition outside of Christ as ‘enslaved to sin’ (Romans 6:6). It's not that we have no choice, but that our choices are limited. We are controlled by forces external to us. That seems so obvious, but we so desperately want to believe in our autonomy and our freedom that we just ignore all evidence to the contrary.

St Paul writes that we are slaves to whom we obey, either sin that leads to death or the obedience that leads to righteousness (Romans 6:16). Now we miss what St Paul is actually saying here. He is not simply saying choose whether you serve sin or choose whether you serve righteousness. He wants us to see that we can only serve righteousness once we have been set free from sin, and we can only be set free from sin when we have been changed by Christ. We have to come to Christ first. It is only once we have come to Christ that we are given the freedom to choose to serve Christ.

Many do want their lives to be turned around. Many are conscious of the wrong they have done and of the unhappiness they have brought both to themselves and to others by the way they have lived and by their actions. It is by accepting that we have done wrong, accepting that we are powerless to change our lives, and accepting that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves, that we begin the journey of our lives being turned around. This is because it is when we realise just how powerless and hopeless we are that we can see how Christ is sufficient for our need. We need to trust in Christ and Christ alone, St Paul tells us, and, if we do, Christ will bring about real and lasting change.

3. Controlled by God

Coming to Christ changes everything, but we have to act on that change.

At the moment, it seems as if everybody is emigrating somewhere or other: Australia, Canada, UK, you choose it! They are leaving Hong Kong and life in Hong Kong and moving to another place. They will no longer be subject to the rules and laws governing us in Hong Kong; they will instead become subject to the rules and laws governing them in wherever it is they have moved to. They are changing citizenship, exchanging life in Hong Kong for life in the UK, or wherever.

St Paul tells us that we have changed citizenship. We no longer belong to the kingdom of Sin and are no longer governed by its rules. We belong to the kingdom of God. We have been given the right and power to live as children of God, but we need to start living that way. We are now given the opportunity to live lives free from Sin, no longer controlled by it. As I've said, St Paul will go on to explain what this means in practical terms, but he wants in Romans 6 for us to see how real that change is, and he wants us to live as changed people.

Many people, sadly and tragically, prefer life in the kingdom of Sin to that in the kingdom of God. And we need to be under no illusion here. The demands that Christ makes of us as citizens of the kingdom of God are very real. Jesus in our Gospel reading spells out just how demanding those demands are. But Jesus promises to all those who follow him, who lose their life in the kingdom of Sin and exchange it for life in his kingdom, that they will find life, life that lasts eternally. But more than that, we are promised that we will be given the power to live that life. We'll be given the resources we need to be able to live that life.

It's as if when somebody lands in London, they're welcomed right away as a citizen and told there's a million pound bank balance that has been set up for them. A million pound bank balance that’s there for them to draw on to finance their new lifestyle. Jesus not only transfers us from the kingdom of Sin to the kingdom of God, he gives us the resources we need to live in that kingdom, but we have to want to; we have to decide to do so.

The challenge before us is very real. We have experienced in Christ a real change. We now need to live out that change and walk, as St Paul puts it, in newness of life.

May we find that life and may we walk in it!


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