The Sin We RationalizeErwin W. Lutzer | October 15, 2006
Selected highlights from this sermon
“Sin” is a word that has been dropped from modern vocabulary. Even some Christians prefer to think of “sins” as shortcomings and sicknesses, and that we can downplay and manage them.
But the Scriptures paint a harsher picture. Humanity is spiritually dead, being portrayed as deceived, Satan-following corpses. We are depraved rebels from birth.
Though it is clear that God hates sin, the Bible also makes it clear that He loves us—so much so, His Son gave His life to save us from sin.
Let’s pray together. “Lord, have mercy to us as sinners, we pray in Jesus name, amen.”
Perhaps you have noticed that the word “sin” has basically dropped from our vocabulary. I know, eating chocolate is still sin, but lying isn’t. Many years ago a psychiatrist wrote a book titled, What Ever Happened to Sin? I read it many years ago and today it is perhaps more relevant than when it was written.
Let me tell you today that if you have a wrong view of sin you will be wrong about everything in the world that really matters. Your understanding of sin determines who you are as a person and your understanding of God’s grace. So this sermon is about the doctrine of sin and the sin we rationalize.
Think of what happens if you have a naïve view of sin like Carl Marx for example, who believed in a utopia. He believed that if people were given a chance would live together, be happy to work for the state and be content with the equality of all people. What naiveté. He almost ruined the world proving how foolish that idea was.
If you have a wrong view of sin you’ll think to yourself, “You know my sins aren’t really that big of a deal. God is something like I am except a little bigger and a little higher. Maybe I can get him to accept me.” A woman said to a friend of mine on a plane one time, “If he doesn’t accept me then I am going to tell him to lighten up.” In other words, “My sins aren’t that great. Furthermore, I can manage them and I can live with the consequences. They are within my control.” If you don’t understand sin you might be rationalizing it that way.
In addition, if you don’t understand sin you might not get the help that God is able to give you. Today nobody has sins and addictions. Addictions have become sicknesses. The reason for that is because they want people to come for help. Nobody should be embarrassed because of a sickness. Yet we are embarrassed about our sins so we call sins sicknesses. The problem with this is that God has not promised to heal all of our sicknesses, but he has promised to deliver us from our sins if we meet the conditions. If you have a wrong diagnosis you might end up with the wrong cure for what is really needed.
There was a time when the word “sin” was a strong word. When somebody said “sin,” we knew what they meant. Not today because nobody sins. Everybody makes unwise choices. I was reminded of this and somewhat amused by something I saw recently. I was walking from the loop to the church along Clark Street three blocks from here for the purpose of exercise. I was met by a host of little school children all dressed in uniforms looking very beautiful. They were maybe seven or eight years old. One of the kids was walking with one foot on the sidewalk and the other in the street. The teacher said to him, “Now Matt, you’re making an unwise safety decision.” I’m not saying that Matt was sinning. I do know this: when I was that old in school our teachers would have spoken to us much more plainly.
There are people today who use language to tone down what they have done. Someone who has milked retirees from their money hasn’t really sinned or committed a crime. Instead, it was just a lapse in judgment. Jay Leno calls it “no fault syntax.” Nobody is guilty of anything anymore.
The Bible has a different picture of us as human beings and it is not a pretty picture. Some of you are going to sit through this message and say, “Wow, all of this on a Sunday morning? We came to be happy!” Well, the happiness is going to come. You cannot understand who you really are and what grace is unless you understand sin. Today we are going to look at it and it is not very beautiful.
Somebody asked, “What’s the difference between a psychiatrist and a coal miner?” The answer is that the psychiatrist goes down deeper, stays down longer, and comes up dirtier. That’s what it is like to look into the human heart. Today we are going to begin only a little of that picture. We can’t look at everything though, because the Bible says we can’t comprehend everything. But, we are going to take a look at it.
The text is Ephesians chapter two. Remember that the purpose of this series on Bible doctrine is so you might understand the doctrine and that you might know it and be able to defend it. That’s why this is one message in a series on what we believe and the difference it should make.
Ephesians chapter two is a very familiar passage to us. It begins by saying, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” I am going to stop there. The Bible is talking about us before we received Christ, before Jesus connected us to God. We were dead in our trespasses and sins but not physically dead.
Let’s look at Adam. After he and his wife sinned they woke up and the sky was blue and the grass was green. Later on they discovered that the weeds were powerful. He went along and lived and they had children and everything, yet they were spiritually dead. God made provision to connect them back in the Garden, knowing that Jesus would eventually come. Yet left to themselves they were dead in their trespasses and sins. That’s who you are without Jesus Christ.
Now let’s think about it. Obviously you are listening to this message. You enjoy opera, you’ve got friends, you may be attending a University and you’re going to school. But if you don’t know Christ and have never trusted him you are dead in trespasses and sins.
Now for a few moments let’s think of deadness and let’s think of a corpse. One of the things that we learn is that dead is dead. There are not degrees of deadness. There are only degrees of decay. We can go down to Skid Row and we meet a derelict there who is wandering around and hasn’t showered for two weeks and is asking people for money for another drink. We see him there and the decay is quite evident.
Then we see someone else who is involved in social work and raising funds for the poor but they don’t know Christ as Savior either. Both are spiritually dead yet both are not equal in the decay. That is the only difference. Both are dead in trespasses and sins and are cut off from God.
The dead person also has no spiritual appetite. They may be interested in God but they always want to come to God in their own way and in accordance with their own convictions and for their own benefit. They aren’t necessarily interested in a life of holiness. They do not hunger and thirst after righteousness. They want to use God and to try to find the god that is within them. I say to you with that smile on your face, look very carefully and see if you can find that god within. They will also not submit to the God without, to the holy God, because they have no spiritual appetite.
Another characteristic is that they can’t raise themselves. You can’t go to a funeral home and say to the corpse, “If you would just wiggle your finger then God would do the rest. Let’s at least show some interest in coming alive.” A corpse can’t do that.
I know that it seems as if I tell this story every year at Moody Church, and I suppose I’ll continue to tell it every year because it certainly fits here. When I teach preaching at Trinity International University I always take the students on a beautiful fall day to a cemetery and we gather around a tombstone and this is the passage that I read. “We are dead in trespasses and sins.” When you preach the gospel to the unsaved you are preaching to the dead.
So I say to the students, “This is a good place for you to practice preaching to the dead. Find a tombstone and preach and tell them that the day of resurrection is here.” The color drains from their faces and I say to them, “If you won’t, I will.” So I go over to a tombstone, let’s say it is Jonathan who died in 1912 and I shout, “Jonathan, stand up! It’s the day of resurrection.” Then I always wait for a resurrection. Fortunately, it has never happened.
I say to the students, “How do you think that made me feel?” They all say, “Pretty stupid.” Yes, it sure did. But then I say, “That’s how stupid you are every time you preach the gospel.” Except for verse four in this passage, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses and sins, raised us up.” Praise God! I tell the students that when you preach the gospel you are expecting the dead to rise, the blind to see and the deaf to hear. How many of those miracles can you do?
Then I go over to the book of Ezekiel, where Ezekiel was asked to preach to dry bones. With a smile on my face I say, “Every pastor can relate to preaching to dry bones.” What a silly thing to do, to preach to dry bones. But while he is preaching flesh comes on those bones and life is breathed into those bones. Those bones live by God’s sovereign power. That’s why we witness, that’s why we preach, and that’s why we proclaim, because God is able to raise the dead.
After fifteen minutes of this exposition we get on our knees in the cemetery and we dedicate ourselves to unrelenting, hopeless dependence upon God and the proclamation of the gospel. We are preaching to the dead, not The Grateful Dead, but the walking dead, and there is a difference. The whole world is a cemetery, spiritually speaking.
So Paul says we are dead in our trespasses and sins. In verse two he goes on to say that we are deceived. He says, “In which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” Let’s just go that far. I’ll leave the last phrase for a moment.
You’ll notice that Paul says that we are basically deceived. It says we are following the god of this world, or Satan. Now you and I very probably have never met Satan directly, just like in WWII where soldiers for the most part never had any direct contact with Hitler. Satan has all of his associates, his demons. Apparently there are tens of thousands of demons. So we are up against his army and we are deceived because we are following his way. What is his primary characteristic? It is lies, lies, and more lies! We believe them and we think we are doing ourselves a favor.
The first lie we believe is that we can manage our own affairs. We can be king of our own lives and we don’t need God to interfere with our morality and with our sin. We say, “We’ll handle it, thank you very much!” Well, that’s what the devil said and look what happened to him! He will be banished from God forever. We tend to believe those lies and say we can manage our sin on our own. We can live with the consequences. Like one man said to me, “I’ll get what I want today and I’ll deal with the devil tomorrow.” We believe the lies.
We also believe that we are rationally driven. You’ll notice that the Bible says we aren’t. We fulfill the desires of the flesh and of the mind. We as human beings, saved or unsaved, are basically desire driven. When we receive Christ as Savior he gives us different desires. We are not the rational creatures we pretend we are. Here’s what we do: we do what our heart wants to do. In the immortal words of Woody Allen, “The heart wants what it wants.” Then we recruit the mind to justify it so that we can live with ourselves. We have it all worked out and we tell ourselves these lies. We love the lies that we tell ourselves.
Then we begin to live our lives in two compartments. We discover that a lie works. Of course lies work! That little boy in Sunday school had a point when he said, “A lie is an abomination to the Lord but a very present help in times of trouble.” We discover that lies get us out of very difficult situations.
What happens to human nature as it progresses along is that a person may end up living in two worlds. In world "A" he is a Sunday school teacher, a deacon, and he’s well respected in the community. To him the opinion of others is absolutely essential. It’s not necessary for him to be good, but it’s very essential for him to appear good. In world “B” he may be beating his wife, mistreating his children, and he may be a child molester. World A and world B are never allowed to come together. In fact, there’s a wall between them that is sound proof so that he can live with himself. Like one man told me, “There was a part in my mind where no one, not even God, was allowed to enter.” Their whole life is built on deception and lies.
When sin is exposed we as humans have a tendency first of all to deny it, secondly, to minimize it, and thirdly, to compare it to someone else who is worse than we are. So we go on our way managing through life thinking we are doing the best that we can. In addition, there is no area where we are more gladly or willingly deceived than in the area of sexuality. It touches so deeply to who we are as people. It is there that so many deceptions happen.
Examples of this are legion at this point. I am thinking of two lesbians living together who were both brought up in Christian homes. They said, “There is nothing that we are surer of than that God approves of what we are doing because our relationship is so beautiful.”
Let’s think about that statement for a moment. No one can argue with them as to whether or not it is a beautiful relationship. If they say that it is beautiful we have to accept that. But that was Eve’s argument in the garden. She said, “The fruit of the tree is beautiful; it’s the fruit of the tree to make one wise.” She saw its beauty.
But when we look at the scriptures we discover that not everything that is beautiful is right and holy. For example, look at adulterous relationships. Someone says, “Now I have found love and who can object to love?” Not all loving relationships are holy and beautiful. It is in this area that we deceive ourselves most readily. We tell ourselves lies and we believe those lies and we convince ourselves of those lies. We are determined to live with those lies until the undertaker takes us to the cemetery. We are people who are gladly deceived and Satan has misled us.
First of all in the text we find that we are deceived. Then we find that we are depraved. What an awful word to use in a church in an era where everybody wants to hear happy, happy sermons. You’ll notice Paul says, “By nature we are the children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” It is not just the choices we make, but by nature. A baby is born as a child of wrath under condemnation. A baby is not born innocent.
You say, “I don’t like the idea that we are under Adam’s sin.” Well, there are instances where you could be born into a family that is in debt. I’m sorry, but you inherit that debt and you have to manage that debt. The Bible teaches that because of Adam we are all constituted sinners and we are all born under condemnation. That sweet little baby is not innocent.
A doctor in Eddenburrow said, “Every child that is born is a potential criminal.” The nature of Bin Laden and the nature of Hitler were no different than your nature when you were born. The only difference is God’s grace, environment, and situation. We all come into the world as rebels. Why do you think a doctor spanks a baby twice when it is born? Have you ever noticed that? The first time is so that the baby gets air in his lungs. The second time is to keep the kid from stealing his wristwatch. We are all born sinners. The Bible says by nature we are children of wrath.
You say, “Don’t all babies go to heaven when they die?” Yes, we believe they go to heaven when they die. The reason those babies go to heaven is because God credits them. It must be this way with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Even that sweet little baby is born in sin.
You say, “That can’t be!” Yet the Bible says very clearly that proof of that is the fact that babies die. One of the effects of sin is death. So the reason that babies die is because they aren’t as innocent and as cute as you think they are. They may be cute, but they all come into the world thinking that they are the center. I’ve known babies who are born complaining about the temperature of the delivery room. You don’t have to teach a child to steal or about the art of self-protection or lying. All of that comes very naturally. All you need is a situation to bring it out.
All of us have a dark side. Listen carefully to what Lewis Smeads wrote. He said, “Our inner lives are not partitioned like day and night, with pure light on one side of us and total darkness on the other. Mostly our souls are shadowed places. We live at the border where our dark sides block our light and throw a shadow over our interior places. We cannot always tell where our light ends and our shadow begins or where our shadow ends and our darkness begins.”
That is why the Bible says, “The heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?” Then it goes on to say, “But I the Lord search the heart.” Only God knows the potential of evil that resides in any one of us. It’s known only to God.
Some of you have been born to parents who abused you. Even though we are born under the condemnation of sin we ultimately become responsible for those choices. Some of the choices you made as a child you may not be responsible for because God is fair in this regard. But eventually their story ends and your story begins. You and I will all become responsible in the sight of God by nature and also by choice.
Augustine lived from 354 to 30 A.D. and he had a great impact on theology. Some of his impact has been good and some of it has not been so good. However, the point that he made about sin is right on. It is true in the scriptures and it is true by experience. Augustine, in his confessions, which are known as a classic, took the time to probe his own experience and show that his experience was totally consistent with what the Bible has to say. It is completely consistent if you were thoroughly and completely honest. You and I need that honesty.
For example, the Bible says, “He who lives in pleasure is dead while he lives.” Hugh Hefner is dead while he lives no matter how much he parties. There is deadness not only in this world, but imagine having that sin upon your conscience for all of eternity. For as long as God exists, unless Hugh Hefner repents he will be guilty.
Augustine looked within his own heart and he knew that he was guilty and polluted. He knew that he could not only steal, that was one thing he did as a boy, but what amazed him was that sometimes he stole things he didn’t even need. He just enjoyed stealing. He looked at his heart and not only saw the sin of covetousness but also the sin of envy. Envy is so much more powerful in many ways than covetousness. Covetousness says, “I want what you have.” Envy says, “I don’t want you to have what you have.”
Cain could have had the same blessing as Able. God said to him, “If you do good and bring the right sacrifice you can be accepted by me just like your brother Able.” But there was something in Cain that said, “I don’t want what my brother Able wants. I am not satisfied with that. There is a cauldron that is burning within me and the only thing that will extinguish it is the blood of my brother. I want to kill him because of the fact that you accepted him.”
Have you ever noticed how we delight in the fall of others? Some of you have a problem with gossip. I’m tempted to say, “Shame on you!” I won’t, but I guess I just did, didn’t I? You take delight and you pass gossip around like Hors D’oeuvres at happy hour, wanting to tell others the way others have failed. Where does that evil and sin come from? It arises within the human heart. So Augustine saw that he was guilty and polluted.
The next point needs a little bit of clarification and we need to think about it for a moment. Augustine also knew that though he sinned by one kind of necessity, because he was a sinner and would obviously therefore sin, he also knew that the sin was not absolutely necessary to be a human being. That is why he felt guilty about it. If we sinned like a bird grows feathers we wouldn’t feel guilty about the sin because that is physical necessity.
Augustine said, “We don’t sin by physical necessity, but we do sin voluntarily and that is why we feel this sense of guilt. Sin, strictly speaking, is not necessary to human nature as proved by the fall. Prior to the fall Adam and Eve were fully human though they did not have a sin nature nor had they sinned.” Augustine said that is why we have this sense of shame and guilt, which we all do if we are honest.
He also concluded that no one can change his or her own nature. He knew that he couldn’t change his and he looked around and knew that no one could change their desires at will. You can’t choose to get up and say, “I’m not going to do this anymore,” particularly if it is an addiction. You might be able to curb some things, but your fundamental nature can’t be changed by you. You are who you are. The Bible asks the question when Jeremiah says on behalf of God, “Can a leopard change its spots?” God answers and says, “Then you who love evil can also begin to love good.” The answer is no, you cannot. You need God’s intervention. Thank God that is where we experience grace in the midst of our predicament.
Let me now very briefly summarize what I am trying to say, as we think about bringing this together and making it transforming for all of us. First, Calvin was absolutely right when he said, “We can have no knowledge of who we are until we know who God is.” If you don’t know who God is then you don’t know who you are. You’ll rationalize who you are and you’ll excuse who you are. You’ll go along taking all the good things that you’ve done, because you’ve probably done a lot of good things, and you’ll try to balance them with the bad things and hope that it comes out.
But if you know who God is you know that doesn’t work. The sin that you have on your conscience today you will be guilty of ten years from now, a hundred years from now, a thousand years from now, and a million years from now. You’ll still be guilty of that same sin unless God takes it away. That’s the nature of sin. Once you begin to fall you have to continue to fall, and you can’t write your direction. A thousand years of suffering will not take away your guilt before God. That is why suffering, incidentally, has to be eternal unless God intervenes.
Secondly, salvation is God’s intervention. Praise God for verse four which says, “But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses and sins,” even when we were deceived and depraved, God who is rich in mercy comes to the graveyard and says, “Arise and be connected with me.” The barrier of sin has been taken away by faith in Jesus. We can be reunited with God and our eternal penalty has been born, praise be to God!
I was fourteen years old on the farm, really not into a lot of sins as people are today because there wasn’t a great opportunity to sin a whole lot, but still overwhelmed with such a sense of sin that I knew I needed a Savior. My parents recognized that and they prayed with me. This summer I had the privilege to go back to that very room where I received Christ fifty years ago and I knelt again to thank him for his marvelous mercy. Fifty years ago God came to that farmhouse. In effect, though I heard no voice and I didn’t recognize it at the time, God said, “Erwin Lutzer, be raised from the dead!” God spoke the word, overcame my blindness, granted me the ability to believe and to trust Jesus as my Savior, and I was converted.
Let me tell you another conversion story about Augustine himself, who we referred to earlier. Augustine was immoral, living with someone who was not his wife and involved in many sins in his youth. His father was a pagan so he was okay with that. If you are a pagan and the lines are blurred you are not too worried about a son who follows in your footsteps.
However, he had a very godly mother by the name of Monica. Monica prayed for her son. According to Augustine’s story, he was in a garden and he seemed to hear a child say, “Take up and read.” I don’t know what the child was saying. But Augustine had been given a New Testament, which he had avoided and ignored, and he decided to open it somewhat arbitrarily. That is usually a bad idea, but better than not opening it at all.
He opened the Bible and it fell on these words: “The night is far gone, the day is at hand, so then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” He read that and the light turned on and he knew that he needed a Savior. He trusted in Christ right then and Augustine was converted.
I have a question to ask you today before I end. You may be in this sanctuary at the Moody Church in Chicago, you may be listening by way of internet, radio, or some other method, but I have a question for you. Are you converted? Has the light come to your soul that you need Jesus to connect to God? The way that you are going is the wrong way and you need to trust Christ as Savior. In trusting him your sin is taken away, your penalty is canceled, and you have the prospect of living in the presence of Jesus forever. That is the gospel that I will explain in more detail next week, but you’ve heard enough right now to savingly believe.
Let us pray. “Father, who can speak to the dead and say, ‘Be alive!’ Who can say to the deaf, ‘Hear!’ and to the blind, ‘See!?’ That is your work. Even if the gospel has been imperfectly preached today, I pray that many right now may believe and trust God as Savior, whether they are in this sanctuary or others who are listening.”
I am speaking to you now wherever you are, if you’ve never believed on Jesus, would you do that right now? This is your moment to be brought out of the graveyard. If God has talked to you He wants to begin life in you. Talk to God now and trust in Christ. “Father, whatever work you are doing in the human heart, bring it to completion. With those who are struggling Father, overcome their resistance. To those who do not understand, bring them understanding. But right now may they trust your mercy and your grace as given to us in Jesus, we pray in his blessed name, amen.”