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THE NEGLECTED CHURCH WORD
A sermon on Romans 5:12-19
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
March 1, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
It was the famous stage actress and original “Hollywood bad girl” Mae West who was quoted as saying, “To sin is human—but it feels divine.”
SIN. It is a word that we used to hear a lot in church. But it seems to me that it is not a word that we hear very much nowadays. Very few people in church seem to want to talk about sin any more. But that has not always been the case…
When I was growing up, my family attended a Baptist church that had a decidedly fundamentalist bent to it. Consequently I recall hearing a lot of sermons that dealt with specific sins of the flesh. It seemed as if there was a never-ending list of sins that the preacher could rail against on any given Sunday. He would sometimes pound on the pulpit, shout periodically, and prominently wave the Bible around as he denounced whatever sinful behavior that was the topic of the day. To tell the truth, it unquestionably made for great theater. The sermons were entertaining. And I confess that the sermons usually held my attention. Sermons that hold the attention of teenagers is no small thing…. But with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I have come to wonder what the point of those sermons really was.
Over the course of the time when I faithfully attended this church, I heard passionate sermons denouncing the sins of “the rock and roll,” “the demon rum,” dancing, long hair on men—it was, after all, the early 1970’s—divorce, drug use, any sex outside of marriage, and a host of other activities characterized as “sin.” Probably other sins were condemned as well that I just don’t remember. Those sermons have long since passed out of my memory.
As I reflect back on that time, it appears to me that such preaching on sin was ultimately a waste of time. Didn’t really change much of anything as far as I can see. Here are a few examples to demonstrate what I mean…
For all of the negative talk about “the rock and roll” back in those days, and all the warnings about how it was going to drag our young people down to the pits of Hell, I find it amusing that such music now serves as a template for the “praise and worship music” featured in a lot churches today. Rock and pop music—once maligned and vilified by popular preachers—has since been baptized and approved for use in the church. The irony of that development is not lost on me…
Concerning the sermons on “the demon rum”—The city in which I grew up was a “dry” city that was located in the midst of a “wet” county. I can remember there were at least two city-wide
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referendums concerning the sale of alcohol in the city that took place when I was a teenager. And to no one’s surprise, my church led the campaign to defeat the proposed change both times. Ultimately such preaching—as fervent as it was—accomplished very little in the long run. The referendum was defeated the first time around—but it overwhelmingly passed when it was back on the ballot a couple of years later…So for me, it begs the question: What was the point of such preaching?
In one (of many) sermons that I heard about the evils of dancing, I distinctly remember the preacher declaring, “No woman can waltz well and waltz virtuously.” The ridiculousness of those words struck me then—and now. And I can only imagine what the preacher would have had to say about more current dance trends such as twerking or grinding…
Preaching that divorce is a sin was a common topic in a lot of conservative churches amid the rising divorce rate of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. But I noticed that such preaching began to significantly taper off once the children of some prominent Baptist preachers began to get divorced. (Interesting how that worked out, isn’t it?) And statistics show that, nowadays, the divorce rate among Christians is roughly the same as it is among non-Christians. So in the final analysis, the question is worth asking: how effective really was that preaching against the sin of divorce?
I confess that another thing still bothers me when I think back on the sermons that I heard preached against sin in my youth. The list of sins condemned seems to have been very selective. To my mind, there were some glaring omissions. The fact of the matter is that I do not recall hearing many sermons about sins that seem to me to be much more pervasive and, quite frankly, much more dangerous to the life of faith than rock music or dancing. For example, I do not remember hearing much about the sins of racial injustice and bigotry—even though outside the walls of the church in the early 1970’s, the struggle for civil rights was still far from over.
I do not recall hearing about the sin of gender bias either…or of the sin of treating people with less than the dignity that they deserve—regardless of who they are, where they come from or what they had done. Nor do I remember hearing sermons denouncing the sin of neglecting the poor and the marginalized. Those sins were not the subject of sermons from that pulpit. Those sins were either ignored…or if they were mentioned at all, they were summarily dismissed as being a part of “the social gospel.” And “the social gospel” was characterized as being contrary to the church’s mission of evangelism. It was that preacher’s opinion that the Jesus we serve was not about “the social gospel.”1
So….maybe we do not hear much about sin anymore in church because all of the bad sermons that have been preached against the sins of the flesh that did not have the desired results…maybe. Or perhaps there is another reason… Maybe it is because we no longer take sin seriously…
1 Lest anyone think that these sermons were the product of some obscure, jackleg crackpot, the preacher who delivered them went on to become the pastor of a large megachurch, published several books, was a sought-after conference speaker, and served two years as president of the Southern Baptist Convention during the 1980’s.
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When I was back in high school, there were a few kids in the church youth group that had a habit that I found annoying. Whenever they did something that they were not supposed to—or said a word or two that was not appropriate or something like that—they would just smile and flippantly say, “O well…1 John 1:9.” And when they did something else: “Oh well…1 John 1:9.”
You may remember that 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, then he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” What these folks apparently understood that verse to mean is that, when we sin, it is no big deal because God has already forgiven us of whatever sin we commit. All we have to do is confess it. That’s it. So…sin is no sweat…Sin is not much of a problem…
That attitude trivializes sin and the effect that sin has in our lives. And while I doubt that any of us here would be as glib as those teens I knew back then were, I wonder if that some of that attitude has seeped into our thinking as followers of Jesus. The thought that sin is really no big deal…because all we have to do is to go to God and he is obliged to forgive us of whatever sins that we have committed…
The Apostle Paul exposes that attitude as an affront to what the gospel really is. In Romans 6—the chapter that follows today’s text—the apostle asks (in the “Paul Dakin Authorized Version”), “If it is true that every time that we sin that God shows us even more grace by forgiving us, then why shouldn’t we continue to sin even more. That way, God can show us even more grace. Right?” The Apostle answers his question in the strongest of terms—“God forbid!” [Really—that’s the actual wording as it appears in the King James Version…] Paul goes on to explain that we are not called to be followers of Jesus so that we can freely sin even more than we used to. No. Instead, we are to live giving evidence of the transforming power of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives by doing good deeds that glorify God. That’s the reason for the forgiveness to be found in God’s grace…That’s what it means to be a citizen of the kingdom of God…
Now…Let’s get back to the question as to why we don’t hear much about sin anymore…Perhaps there is another explanation. Maybe it is because we now have developed alternate explanations for the many things that were called “sin” generations ago…Perhaps we have come to understand that sin isn’t really sin at all in the same way that our spiritual ancestors understood it…
Over the last century or so, there has been a tremendous amount of advances in the study of the human psyche. Psychologists, behavioral scientists, and sociologists have made great strides in helping us understand many types of human behavior. I want to go on record as stating that I am not disparaging any of that. This kind of research and study has been—and continues to be—a good thing. Such discoveries have been helpful in treating all sorts of mental, emotional and physical conditions. We have gained a much better understanding as to why people do the things they do…the things that motivate them…the things that affect their behavior. We can now give scientific explanations for much of the behavior that our ancestors used to call “sin.” And we have come to understand these behaviors as the product of genetics…or of nurture…or of environment…or of any other number of mitigating
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factors that explain the human condition and why we act the way that we do. As a result—in some ways—it seems to me that we have attempted to explain away the concept of sin by using science…
The Apostle Paul in the book of Romans will have none of it. Paul says that sin is not simply a matter of science. Sin is the ugly reality that affects us all. Sin is something that lies at the heart of the human condition. It is sin that is the reason why things go so wrong in the world—and so often in our own lives as well. The problem is not to be found anywhere else but from the presence of sin in the human heart.
I am not going to stand here and tell you that I understand all that Paul is saying in these verses from Romans 5. His teaching in this passage is dense. And in some places I find it practically inscrutable. But I want to share with you a little bit of what I understand from it in the time that we have left…
In the opening verses of today’s text, Paul explains the human condition as one plagued by sin. He says that death spread to all because of sin. He says that this was true even before God handed down the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Though we have a natural bent to sinning, Paul implies in verse 14 that sin is also an active choice that we all make—actions that we all are guilty of, full in the knowledge that they are wrong—actions that serve to separate us from God. Paul says that we are all sinners because we all sin.
The Greek word that Paul uses here translated for the word “sin” is hamartia. It is derived from a word whose literal meaning is “to miss the mark.” It is a word picture of an archer aiming for the bulls-eye in a competition—and missing the target altogether. Therefore, because the archer missed the target, he does not win the prize. Why is that? What has shooting arrows at a target got to do with sin?
When the arrow misses the target, then it is because of an error in aim by the one shooting the arrow. Perhaps the technique is all wrong. Or maybe the sight that the archer is using is faulty. Or maybe the archer has misjudged the distance to the target and that is what caused him to be inaccurate. In the same way that the wayward arrow flies and misses the target, we too sin when we have an error in our actions that causes us to make mistakes—that causes us to blunder—that causes us to mess things up. And because we have all “missed the mark” of being the person that God created us to be, then we are all sinners.
Because we do not talk about sin much, there are a lot of people who do not know what sin really is. But simply put, this is what sin is: God is love. God is goodness. And sin is anything which moves us away from those two things. I think that is an idea that is worth repeating: God is love. God is goodness. And sin is anything which moves us away from either of those two things…God…or love…2
The truth is that we do not often look to see what it is that is creating distance between ourselves and God. Or between ourselves and Jesus’ powerful love. We have a tendency to muddle
2 I am indebted to Rebekah Gordon for this insight.
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through our lives and to be guided by our own wisdom…led by our own thoughts. And consequently we do not stop very often to take a serious look inside to see who we are…to see how we are “missing the mark”…and to see where we are in our relationship to God. But this is a necessary part of following Jesus—a piece of the journey in the life of the Spirit…It is a corrective that we need from time to time in our spiritual walk…
And that is what the season of Lent is. It is a time built into the church calendar for us to reflect on the sin that moves us away from goodness…that moves us away from God…that moves us away from Love. Lent is a time to reflect on the brokenness that we experience in our lives. Because all of us are broken. Sometimes we are broken due to the results of our own sin—but sometimes we are broken due to nothing that we have done (or haven’t done). Sometimes we are broken simply because—let’s just admit it—life is hard. The truth is that all of us need healing. And we all need healing because we are all sinners…
Lent is a time to reconcile with the Savior who holds his arms out to you and calls you to walk alongside him. Because he is someone who can offer you what no one else can—goodness that is unblemished…love that is unconditional…and hope for you regardless of how broken you may be. Heed the words of the song that we are about to sing together. And live out its truths in this season of Lent:
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore,
Jesus ready stands to save you
Full of pity, love and power.
I will arise and go to Jesus
He will embrace me in his arms
In the arms of my dear Savior
O there are ten thousand charms…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
Hymn #334 Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy