By Richard O’Ffill
A person who wants to understand what it means to have a relationship with God must begin by understanding what sin is. Otherwise, that person will not be able to relate to God correctly.
I will go so far as to say that a right understanding of sin lies at the root of all saving Christianity. By that I mean that a person who wants to be saved, or even a person who considers himself to be saved, must first come to Christ as a sinner. God is in the business of making new people out of sinners. He is, if you please, the original re-cycler.
One of the most difficult things a person living in these days has to confront is the fact that they are a sinner. We prefer to say we are a victim of something or the other, or we say we have certain symptoms that indicate of some type of dysfunction. Of course, we are not responsible for our dysfunctions, someone else is, usually our parents or spouse. I will refer to this again later.
It is said that the greatest need of people is their need for Jesus. Although this is true, the first need, even before the need of accepting Jesus, is the need to understand what sin is and that we are sinners. if this doesn’t happen, even though we may come to Jesus we will be doing so for the wrong reasons.
The words sin and sinner are not in vogue these days. We are more prone to focus on addressing the symptoms of sin or the results of sin than we are to get down to what is causing it all.
We often hear the expression that someone is ‘hurting’. There is no doubt there are a lot of hurting people out there. We have developed seminars, written books, and formed support groups for the hurting people among us. I suppose there is nothing wrong with that. The problem arises when we focus merely on the symptoms and not on the real causes. The cause of the pain we are suffering these days, the thing that makes us hurting people is sin. If we would put first things first and develop a clear understanding of what sin is and admit that we are first and foremost sinners, it would go a long way toward making the hurting go away--or better yet, we would be preventing it.
I don’t know if you have thought of it in this way or not, but sin is not the problem that may exist between you and me, nor is it a problem that I have with myself. Sin is a problem that we have with God.
Have you noticed the way some people dress when they go to church these days? I saw a picture once in a national news magazine of a man coming out of church in shorts and flip flops. It is not all that uncommon these days for people to come to church with shorts and blue jeans. To contextualize this illustration, may I emphasize I am talking about our culture here in this country, not in some far off place with strange sounding names.
For many people these days, church is increasingly a place where you dress down to attend. You may be thinking, “Pastor O’Ffill, what is wrong with this? What is wrong with a person coming to Jesus just as they are? Are you a Pharisee or someone who judges a person by their outward appearance?”
Wait a minute please. I haven’t come to the punch line yet. What I am pointing out is appropriateness and respect. People don’t go to a fine restaurant in shorts or cut offs. In Florida where I live there are signs on the doors of most stores and restaurants that say no bare-feet and swim suits are allowed.
A friend once took Betty and me to eat at the Cosmos Club in Washington DC. This is a prestigious club for diplomats and government-type people. I was wearing slacks and a sport shirt. The club host stopped me at the door and informed me I would not be allowed in without a jacket.
I explained that I was travelling and didn’t have one with me. So the Maitre’d went to a rack and found a jacket, which I put on.
The point of the story is, when we put a high value on something we will go to great effort to accommodate the rules. I wish it were that way with our relationship with God. We often hear these days that God accepts us just the way we are. For many people this means that they will come to Jesus provided He let them dress the way they want and play the music they like to listen to. And if anybody suggests they should dress up their lives, so to speak, they become angry and don’t come anymore.
Sin is not fundamentally a problem we have with our spouse or with our kids. Sin is not even fundamentally about smoking or drinking. The root of sin is that we are born with a bad attitude toward God. This means that if we are going to stop this vicious cycle of hurting, we have got to get right with God.
When the Psalmist David finally came around to confessing his sin of adultery and murder, he confessed it to God in Psalm 51. Notice what he said:
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy loving-kindness: according unto the multitude of Thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
“Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
“For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin [is] ever before me.
“Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done [this] evil in Thy sight: that Thou mightest be justified when Thou speakest, [and] be clear when Thou judgest.
“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.
“Behold, Thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden [part]. Thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
“Make me to hear joy and gladness; [that] the bones [which] Thou hast broken may rejoice.
“Hide Thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
“Cast me not away from Thy presence; and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
“Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation; and uphold me [with Thy] free spirit.
“[Then] will I teach transgressors Thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.
“Deliver me from blood guiltiness, O God, Thou God of my salvation: [and] my tongue shall sing aloud of Thy righteousness.
“O Lord, open Thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth Thy praise.”
Notice that he doesn’t say Bathsheba, or Uriah. Although surely he sinned against them both, he recognized that the reason he sinned against them was that his attitude toward God had gone bad. David’s confession in Psalm 51 was a confession of sin against God. All sin is against God. That is why when Joseph was tempted to commit adultery he said, ‘How can I do this great sin against God?’
What is the importance of all of this? For purposes of illustration, consider the sin of adultery. By the way, adultery is not a word people use very much any more. The word more often used is affair, or we even talk about having a relationship with someone. And while I am at it, there is another term being used more and more and that is “significant other”.
The Bible doesn’t use the term “significant other”. However, It does say that men should not have sexual relations with other men, or women with women, and of course it does prohibit adultery and fornication by name.
Isn’t it incredible what is happening these days. The same old sins are there; if fact, they are there now more than ever. But we have changed the vocabulary. Change it or not, sodomy by any other name is still sodomy in the eyes of God. Coveting someone else’s wife or living with a person before you are married is still adultery and fornication in the eyes of God.
There are people who are doing all of the above and who still profess to have a relationship with God. We must be perfectly clear in this. Sexual relations are not just something between one person and another. A person’s sexual relations have to do with their relationship with God. This is true because God is the One who in the first place made us male and female. If you wonder which you are, you may look in the mirror. Our anatomy tells us the way things were meant to be for us.
In the second place, it was God who invented marriage. For this reason, the Scriptures tell us that what God has joined together let no man put asunder. It is incredible what this generation is doing to the language. The devil is actually taking over our language and making it difficult to express the concepts of righteousness and holiness.
The words “family” and “marriage” are his latest hits. I think you know what I mean. All of this is making us very confused. Many people who consider themselves to be good Christians are confused by what the devil is doing to our society.
A while back when the congress was considering the Defense of Marriage Act, one of the senators attached an amendment which would have given civil rights to homosexuals. That means that homosexual behaviour would have been considered the same as the matter of race, or gender, or the like.
I sent a memo to the people in my office advising them of what was going on and suggested that if they had any convictions in the matter they should call our Florida senators. I believe we should let our legislators know how we feel. When you don’t vote you are actually voting for the winner.
So I sent out this memo to my office. The next day an anonymous memo was on my desk, and I would like to read it to you.
“To: R.W. O’Ffill
Re: Homosexual Civil Rights Amendment
“While this bill may ‘protect traditional marriage,’ this bill also denies a group of people their rights. If your son (or brother) were gay, would you feel the same way about this issue? [By the way, the answer to that question is Yes.] From the material studied, there is much evidence that homosexuals are born with certain genes or chemical components that cause them to be homosexuals. Can we take away their rights because of this?
“No doubt, you are saying the Bible says it is a sin— the Bible also says pride is a pretty bad sin. Would you take away the rights of people with pride? I have several friends who are gay. They are caring, sensitive people struggling in a society who, for the most part, is not caring and sensitive to them. I believe Christ would be caring and sensitive toward them. He was always caring and sensitive to ‘sinners’.
“There are always two sides to the thinnest sheet of paper, and I wonder if you have thought of the other side of this piece of paper. I have no desire to discuss this with you, but only to ask if you have thought that there might be another side to the issue?”
Brothers and sisters, there are two sides to every issue. But we will regret it forever unless we discover what God’s side is and, by the grace of Christ, line up with it.
The thing that makes the matter of homosexuality so threatening to our culture and our eternal life is not that it is the only sin and there is not another, or that a person who is a practicing homosexual is a sinner but a proud, selfish person isn’t. The incredible truth is that the homosexual movement in the planet is trying to exclude itself from being sinners along with the rest of us.
We are faced with a dilemma. The word bigot is tossed around a lot. We must be careful not to be intimidated by the word. Yes, I am homophobic; but I am also lying phobic, stealing phobic and adultery phobic, just to name a few. Let us not forget that Jesus came to save sinners who wanted to stop sinning. Any person, be they a liar, proud, selfish, homo-sexual, a dope addict, or what have you who doesn’t want to stop or who don’t consider what they are doing is wrong cannot be saved.
The argument that a person may be born a sinner is a good one, because the fact is the Scriptures teach us that we are born with a bent to sin. We don’t have to learn how to sin. Even a baby has a bent to sin. It is true that we learn different ways to express our sinfulness and even how to perfect our propensities to sin. But the fact is that we are sinners from day one. A rattlesnake is poisonous even before he has bit anyone.
Sin is first and foremost something we have against God. He is our Holy Creator, and anything outside the way that things were meant to be is sin.
This is why we must understand and continue to use the word sin. Back to the matter of adultery, we don’t use the word much any more. We do speak of rape and sexual abuse. Do you see what this is doing? This is in effect saying that you can commit adultery and sodomy as long as it is with consenting adults. The words rape and sexual abuse have to do with the other person not being willing to go along. Do you understand?
In our culture as long as the society condones it or the other person goes along with it, it is all right. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. What is right and what is wrong has nothing to do with the opinions of the society or the individuals that comprise it; but what is right and what is wrong have everything to do with what God says is right and what is wrong.
This is why we must see sin as something we do against God. It may seem ridiculous to say this, but the time could come in which we wouldn’t have to say “I am sorry” to anybody for anything as long as the person allowed us do it or society decided there was nothing wrong with it.
I suppose you have noticed that we don’t talk these days about something being moral or immoral. The term more often used these days is values.
We say that a person who is living with someone before they are married has a different set of values. These days it would be politically incorrect to say that the person is immoral. Come to think of it, they do use the word immoral these days. They will often say that a person who labels sin as sin is immoral and that those who believe that anything goes are accepting, compassionate, and understanding. Originally, to speak of values was to speak of things. To speak of morals was to speak of things having to do with the character. But we don’t hear much about character these days. We do hear a lot about personality types, learning types, right brain, and left brain, and all the rest.
Oh my brother, oh my sister, can’t we see what the devil is doing to us? He has done a taxidermy job on us. He is gutting the very fabric of our being. There will soon be nothing left but the shell. It is as the Bible explains, “. . . having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.”
Everywhere we go we hear people saying that they have a relationship with Jesus. Today everybody claims to be spiritual. A friend of mine said he saw a video about Madonna. It showed her having prayer before she went out to give one of her concerts. There it is again, “. . . having a form of godliness, but denying the power, thereof.”
All the while that we seem to be holding up Christ and calling people to have a relationship with Him, we are tearing down the very foundation upon which the plan of salvation is built, and that is that we are sinners. And when the Bible teaches that Jesus came to save sinners, it doesn’t mean so that they could continue to sin with impunity but so that they might be set free from sin.
The gospel of Jesus was not mean to institutionalize sin but to overthrow it, to destroy it. The Scriptures plainly teach that those who refuse to take the cure will be eternally lost. The issue is not that we were born this way or that; the issue is whether or not we will submit to being reborn.
By now you may be asking yourself who I think I am to be making these claims. The question is not who I think that I am but who we think God is. Who we think we are. We are not our own. We were made in the image of God, and the whole plan of salvation is to restore that image to make us well again.
We are a hurting generation. Most in this country are not hurting for food, but for gluttony. Most in this country are not hurting for living in substandard housing, but hurting because too many are shacking up with people they are not married to or with someone else’s wife or worse.
The fact is that it is not the rejection of society that will make those who practice homosexuality hurt. AIDS is not caused by the rejection of society but by a violation of the natural order of things.
Pain is the best thing God could do for sinners. In the physical realm, pain keeps us from killing or maiming ourselves. This is why we see pictures of lepers who are maimed or disfigured. It is because they have the ability to move but they have lost the sense of pain, so they will stick their hand in a fire and not take it out. Physical trauma and infection will take their toll whether one can feel it or not. Pain is God’s gift to those of us who must live in a sinful and dangerous world.
The crime of this generation is that it is the take-away-the-pain generation. People are being invited to come to Jesus so that He will take away the pain. But friends, the pain of our lives is caused by our sins, and Jesus will not be able to take away the pain unless we permit Him to forgive us and take away the sin.
This is where the plot thickens, however. We want Jesus to forgive us, but we are not sure that we want Him to take away what is really causing the pain.
There are people whose marriage is failing. They are in so much pain. They go to a counsellor who tells them that Jesus wants them to be happy; and besides, verbal abuse is a violation of the marriage vows, so Jesus won’t mind if they break it up and find someone else who will really fulfil their needs.
Several years ago, my wife took one of our granddaughters to a divorce recovery workshop. There was a class for children and a class for adults. She left the little girl in the class for children and went in to visit the class for the adults. She should have known better. It wasn’t fair to the rest, because Betty is not divorced nor is she from a divorced home. But she said it was interesting to visit once, because those who were there could do little more than spend the evening telling how happy they were to finally get rid of the other partner. She was surprised that no one there that evening, at least, said anything about how they themselves might have contributed to the break-up of the home.
But then why should they? Although this is the hurting generation, the conclusion is that everyone is to blame for my hurting but me. What I am going through is someone else’s fault, and if I do have some weaknesses, please don’t condemn me because I was born that way. But Jesus accepts me just the way I am, cut-offs and flip flops and all.
I am afraid that if Jesus were here with us He would once again pronounce the words found in Matthew 17:17: “Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you?”
You may remember the story. Jesus and several of His disciples had been up on the Mount of Transfiguration. When they came down they discovered that a man had brought his son to be healed . The disciples had tried every way they knew how to cure the boy who had an evil spirit, but it only got worse.
The story makes me think of where we are today. It seems as though even the best of us are afflicted with an evil spirit. The Scriptures tell us in Jeremiah 17:9 that the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. If that is true, then it is right that we sing, “Not my father, not my mother, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” If that is true, then the person who you were married to that was such an idiot wasn’t married to an angel themselves.
The disciples had tried healing “by the numbers,” but it hadn’t worked. If there had been time, they might have even had a seminar on healing, but it still wouldn’t have worked. If they had time, they might have even formed small groups, but even the small-group ministry, the support group, wouldn’t have been what the boy needed.
They might have tried to cast out the devils using some kind of drama, or even put the cast-out-the-devil words to music that the devils were used to listening to so that they would understand, but that wouldn’t have done any good either.
Let me say something here about support groups. I believe in small groups. After all, the church is a group. No one is saved as a lone ranger. I must say, however, that I am concerned at the direction we might be carried in the small groups if we are not careful.
Let me explain. You will remember that one of the important pillars on which the Reformation is based is the fact that we do not have to confess sins to any man. You will remember, too, that the Catholic Church has what is called the Confessional, in which a person goes to the priest and confesses their sins, and the priest on behalf (it is supposed) of God forgives them. This practice not only usurps a prerogative that belongs only to God, but it lends itself to all kinds of abuse and misuse.
The Reformation set us free, as Protestants, from all of that. We don’t need to find a priest somewhere to confess our sins to; we already have a Priest, and He doesn’t keep confession hours but is willing to receive us twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
However, here is where I see that we might actually be going backwards rather than forwards. Let me begin by saying that I believe in fellowship. I believe in sharing and in the wonderful inspiration that comes through testimonies. In fact, the Bible says that the saved ones overcame the Devil through the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony. But there is a dynamic that can occur in a small group that might lead to a step backward rather than a step forward.
The small group can sometimes become a return to the Confessional idea. The Scriptures give us clear advice as to how we are to relate to each other in the area of interpersonal relations. It tells us that we should confess our faults one to another. Of course, there are hundreds of texts that tell us we are to confess our sins to God.
What can happen is that we can begin to use the small group, or the matter of what is called being accountable to someone, as a vehicle to tell each other things that should only be told to God.
One of the buzz words these days is “being vulnerable”. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being vulnerable, per se; but I do believe that being vulnerable doesn’t mean we should let other people into areas of our lives that should be known only to ourselves and to God.
It may have all begun in our modern age with the thing about psychotherapy, a process in which another person takes us apart, as it were, and then puts us back together again. It’s true, we must be taken apart and we must be put back together again, but that should be done only by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.
We are running a risk, to say nothing of the humiliation that comes, from adopting the “be vulnerable, tell all” attitude that is in vogue these days. We are in some ways returning to the Confessional, albeit a type of group Confessional or paid Confessional.
It is true that we are hurting emotionally and in every way perhaps like never before. This is good that we are, because it is a pain that tells us not just that we are having problems with each other but that we have fallen away from God.
Why should we confess our sins to each other? Why should we confess our sins to people who are just as much sinners as we are? Surely, we must confess our faults to each other, but the deep sins of the heart are problems that we have with God and should be taken only to Him. One problem of taking our sins to each other is that we sometimes end up giving each other permission to sin.
I was sitting in the early teen tent at a camp meeting not long ago. The speaker, one of the youth ministers, was talking to the young people that night about pre-marital sex. I commend him for his courage to address real issues with the young people and not simply try to tell them what they would like to hear. Not only that, he was using the Scriptures. In other words, we could say that he was taking the hard line that declares sex before marriage is forbidden by the Word of God.
After he had made that point clear, he said, “Now in my case, I had sexual relations before I was married, but the Lord has forgiven me and has given me a beautiful wife.” I thought at the time, “O me, why did he do that? He was speaking to a tent full of young people at the threshold of being teenagers. These were not prostitutes or pimps. He did well to uphold the Word of God and speak the truth. But then he must have wanted to emphasise that we should all be vulnerable, let it all hang out, as they say. But in this case it was not the appropriate thing to do. In fact, it was counterproductive.
The message to the youth was that the Bible tells us we should not have sex outside of marriage; but if we do, the Lord will forgive us and give us a beautiful wife and we can become even better ministers. The other message is that if the minister couldn’t avoid it, I would not be able to for sure.
I urge you, let the Word of God psychoanalyze you. Let Jesus be your counselor. Go ahead, cast all your cares on Him. He cares for you. You may have been physically abused when you were a child. You don’t have to tell the world about it. That only humiliates you and is in effect confessing your father’s sin.
In this matter of physical abuse, one big problem is the resulting bitterness and resentment. Daddy had his problem, but now you have one, and that is bitterness and hatred toward daddy or mommy. We can tell the psychoanalyst or the support group, about how terrible our parents were, but in reality we should be talking to Jesus about how He can heal our hearts of the bitterness and hatred we now may have toward our parents. Remember, in the judgment the issue is not about what other people did to us but how we reacted.
There may have been a thousand reasons why we developed into the selfish, proud, bitter, resentful, lustful, and obsessive-compulsive people we are; but the fact that we refuse to let Jesus heal us is no one’s problem or fault but our own.
That is why Jesus said that day, “O faithless and perverse generation. How long will I suffer you?” And then Jesus said to the Father, “Bring the young man to Me.”
I find it interesting as a minister to hear many people requesting special prayer. Nine times out of ten the special requests have to do with needing healing from some illness, or help in resolving some financial problem, or help in getting out of trouble that a person may have gotten into.
Another time the request may be about praying for a son or a daughter, a husband or a wife. When we read about the ministry of Jesus, we tend to look at Him the same way that the people who were around Him tended to see Him, and that was dispensing free medical care and free food.
Jesus didn’t mind healing the sick and feeding the hungry. But what He was really trying to get across was that He is the one that can not only heal cancer but pride. He is the one that must not only heal us of blindness but of selfishness.
But here is where the plot thickens. A person will admit they are blind or that they have been diagnosed with cancer. But there are few who, when push comes to shove, will admit that they are selfish, proud, bitter and resentful, lustful, or out of control. If there is one here and there who will admit it, they are likely to say, “But what is wrong with that? We can’t be perfect. Jesus did it all. All we have to do is trust in Him.”
The question is, Trust in Him to do what? Take us to heaven anyway? Overlook our sins?
The true answer is He will give us victory over the sins that are causing us all the pain. And He will give us victory over those things in our lives that are making us hurt so many other people.
If it is true, and it is, that Jesus saves, what does He save us from?
What would you say if a person were drowning in the ocean and couldn’t swim. They scream for help, and the lifeguard sees them. “I will pull you out,” the lifeguard cries to the drowning man. But the lifeguard makes no move to leave his tall tower. When the drowning man has ceased to struggle and has succumb to the waves, the lifeguard climbs down from his tower and says, “I must go bring in his body; after all, I promised him I would pull him out.”
Something is wrong with that lifeguard, my friends. There are a lot hurting people out there, and we are going to continue to hurt and be hurt until we do as the blind man did who was sitting by the road there in Jericho. He made a fool of himself by crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
We will not be healed until we cry out with all our hearts, “Lord be merciful unto me, a sinner”. When we confess our sins to each other, we may feel better for the moment, because it takes one to know one. I begin to feel better because I realize that everyone is as bad as I am. But when we come to Jesus as sinners, we don’t have that luxury. He is our pure and holy God.
Our fellow men may affirm us and tell us we are all right. We might affirm ourselves and tell ourselves we are all right. But look out, the Scriptures tell us that the ones who exalt themselves will be put down.
When you come to Jesus as a sinner you will not feel good about yourself or feel affirmed. In fact, when Job saw the way he really was, he said, “ I am ruined.” When Isaiah saw the way he really was in the presence of a Holy God, he said, “Woe is me.” But not to worry. The person who comes to God in humility, God Himself will lift up. If fact, the best way to be lifted up according to Scripture is to put yourself down. That is not exactly what they are telling us these days.
The good news is that Jesus came to save sinners. The bad news is that there are not many people around who will admit they are sinners. Dysfunctional? Yes. Stressed out? Yes. Abused by others, yes. Sinners, no. That is because a person who admits they are a sinner is a person who has taken responsibility for his or her condition.
Whatever happened to sin? The fact is that is alive and well; it is just that too many of us have chosen to be blind to it. We have chosen to call it something else in the hope that sin by any other name will turn into something else.
I suspect it is a matter of faith. Jesus told the people He healed that it was their faith that saved them. I have come to the conclusion that we must have more faith. What do I mean by that?
Let me ask you a question: Do you believe that Jesus healed blind and deaf people? You say, “Of course, Pastor, I believe that. Then with a little more faith you can also believe that Jesus can heal you of your pride, selfishness, your bitterness and resentment and lust.
Do you believe Jesus raised the dead? Then with a little more faith you can also believe that Jesus will give you a new heart--not after the waves have washed your poor mortal body out to sea, but right now as you listen to me. Jesus is able to give us a new heart if you and I will only say,. “Lord, save me, save me now.” By the power of the crucified and risen Lord, he will give us the Fruit of the Spirit, true love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control.