About ten years into his ministry as a missionary, Saint Paul decided to go all the way to the other end of the Mediterranean—to Spain.
[Paul might have been heard to say, “I’ve never been to Spain, but I kinda like the music.”—if you recognize those words, you’re either a fan of Three Dog Night or Waylon Jennings!]
Anyhow, on his way to Spain, Paul planned to visit the capital city of the Empire, the city of Rome.
So, he wrote his longest epistle, the Letter to the Romans, and he sent it out ahead of his visit, to lay the groundwork and to answer in advance some of the questions that he anticipated he would be asked.
Chapter six of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which we heard this morning, begins with one of the questions Paul thought he might be asked:
“Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” [Romans 6:1 NRSV]
In other words, “Is it OK to keep on sinning, because doing so proves how forgiving God is?”
The answer to that question is clearly, “NO.”
For Paul, as he explained in today’s epistle lesson, sin is closely tied to death.
In talking about death, Paul made an analogy: we who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into his resurrection and eternal life. Therefore, we have also been baptized into Christ’s death, So, like Christ, we are dead to sin. [see Romans 6:3-11]
Like Christ, we are dead to sin. Does that mean we never sin? Of course not. It means that sin has lost its hold over us, its power to separate us from God for all eternity.
Without Christ, “the wages of sin is death.” [Romans 6:23] But for a believer, as Paul writes, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him… So [we] also must consider [ourselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” [Romans 6:9-11 adapted]
So, what does it mean to be dead to sin? We already know that it doesn’t mean we never sin again. Paul knew this. He said we are saved by the grace of God through faith. [Ephesians 2:8] Let’s never forget that.
We are Saved—from being cut off from a loving relationship with God by our sins.
We are saved by the grace of God—not because we deserved it or earned it, because we don’t, and we can’t.
We are saved by the grace of God through faith—which is the only requirement, and probably the most difficult thing we have to do in this life!
Saved by the grace of God through faith. And yet… And yet, we continue to be stuck in that vicious cycle.
We sin, we are sorry for our sins, we repent, we are forgiven… and we go out and sin—again and again, and again.
How do we explain this?
Well, one answer comes from the English university professor who wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the rest of The Chronicles of Narnia—C.S. Lewis.
For most of his life, Lewis was an atheist. But his close friend J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings, gradually convinced Lewis of the truth of Christianity, and Lewis became a famous lay theologian.
During the horror-filled nights of the London blitz in World War II, the BBC hired Lewis to deliver a live broadcast every night, quietly explaining his faith in God and Jesus, and offering hope to millions who faced death and destruction during the bombings.
C.S. Lewis explained our sinfulness like this: there is only one sin—it is making yourself your god.
All sin comes back to just one thing, one decision on our part—that we get to make our own rules, that we don’t need God to show us right from wrong, that we are in fact the only judge of our own actions and thoughts. I imagine all of us know someone who behaves just like that.
Sin is a reality in our lives. Paul knew that. Every Christian who has every lived, no matter how saintly, has struggled with the desire not to sin and the failure to live up to that desire.
But Paul gave those Romans some good advice, and we get to hear it today and hopefully take it to heart:
We are not free to sin, just because we know that we are forgiven and saved, nor are we free to sin because we know that we can’t stop sinning.
Our sins hurt us because they disappoint God, and all a Christian wants to do in life is to live as God desires.
So we never give up, because we know that sin has no hold over us.
God understands us—God gave us freedom to choose, knowing full well that many of our choices would be wrong. And God also forgives us for all those bad choices and continues to forgive them for the sake of Jesus.
As the hymn says, We once were lost, but now we’re found. We were drowning in our own sin. And we couldn’t do anything about it ourselves.
But God knew all that, and God chose to make things right, to restore us to a loving relationship with God and each other.
We don’t sin because we like to; we don’t sin in order to prove how forgiving God is; and we don’t sin because we know we’ll just keep sinning as long as we live.
We sin because we forget God from time to time and make ourselves, our own desires, our own will, into a false god that we worship.
And then, because God loves us and gives us grace, we turn back to God—our source of endless divine mercy, and we go forth forgiven, and keep on trying—for the rest of our lives.