John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, struggled to feel a real assurance of his faith. He marveled at the Moravian Christians; during a storm that threatened to sink their ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, their knees didn’t knock and their faith didn’t break. Wesley desperately wanted a faith like that.
Then, one fateful day, he went “very unwillingly” to a gathering on Aldersgate Street in London. There Wesley got what he was waiting for in the form of his “heart strangely warmed”: “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death” (Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 80).
And what amazing sermon was being preached that day? None. Someone was reading from Martin Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle of the Romans.” That’s what broke Wesley’s heart open to feel the realness of his faith.
A tempting preacher’s cop-out is to cut and paste Luther’s work here for our reflection – maybe our hearts would be warmed, too?
But no, I’ll resist… and instead let’s open the book of Romans for ourselves. Let’s look at this book that has had such great influence in the history of the church. Let’s see what influence it can have on us, today.
And let’s start right where Romans starts: Why do we need Jesus Christ?
In one word: sin.
Sin is our turning away from God in order to turn toward our own selfishness. Think back to Jesus’ temptation, and each of Satan’s proposals: “Turn these rocks into bread so YOU can eat”; “Jump off this high spot so angels fly to save YOU”; “Worship me, and I’ll give all the kingdoms of the world to YOU.” There’s a common theme, right? All of the temptations are things that would benefit Jesus in a self-serving way.
The same pattern repeats in our own lives. The things that tempt us are things that are too much about us. “Keep all your money for yourself so YOU can eat”; “Spread a lie about that girl so people side with YOU”; “Do whatever sleazy thing it takes to get a promotion for YOU.” Sin is our own will, distorted by selfishness.
And sin is a problem.
Paul says it bluntly: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Our own thoughts on sin may not connect the dots all the way to our mortality, but we know that sin is bad. Sin has consequences with other people: relationships get broken, people get hurt. Sin also has consequences with our relationship with God. Whether you believe in God or not, it’s likely that when you do something “bad” you physically feel its guilt in the form of an upset stomach or tight shoulders or disrupted sleep patterns.
Sin is a real and serious and universal problem. Whenever we become aware of it, we attempt to solve it. In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul touches on three possible solutions.
Sometimes we try to solve sin with ignorance. “I didn’t know better,” we say. “How could I be judged for something I didn’t know was wrong?” Paul sees this in the Gentiles, the non-Jews who didn’t know the law. If they had never read the Jewish Bible – our Old Testament – shouldn’t they get a pass? How could they break commands they didn’t know?
Paul says this solution doesn’t work, because everyone knows what sin is – even without the law. “God has shown it to them,” Paul says (1:19). Look around: don’t you see God? Look inside you: don’t you feel God? Can’t you tell when you do something wrong? Did you need to read, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) to know that murder was bad? When you do something grossly self-serving, don’t you get that slimy feeling that tells you, “this feels good but it isn’t good”?
Sin is a problem, and ignorance isn’t the solution.
Sometimes we try to solve sin with the law. Paul was once a Jewish Pharisee; he’s done his time trying to save himself with the letter of the law. Follow the Ten Commandments, obey the 613 laws in the Torah, and you’re good.
I’ve never been a Pharisaic Jew, but I have been a black-and-white Christian. This seemed like a logical solution to me as a teenager: sin makes me feel far from the good work God created me to be, so I’ll just obey everything in the Bible. Perfectly. And then I’ll rest easy and be good, right?
Not only is this virtually impossible – who can get all of it right all of the time? – Paul points out that it also makes us more fixated on sin. Kind of like being on a super strict diet, where you end up thinking more and more about food because you’re trying to avoid it… Trying to save ourselves by the law can actually draw us toward the sin we want to steer clear of.
Sin is a problem, and the law isn’t the solution.
When the law fails, sometimes we resort to comparison. I’m bad, but I’m not as bad as this other guy. So I can’t be that bad. In fact, let’s focus on the other guy a little… because the more I highlight his sin, the smaller my sins feel. Now I feel a lot better!
Although comparison helps our egos, it doesn’t change anything at all. Our sins remain the same no matter how much or how little our neighbors sin.
Sin is a problem, and comparison isn’t the solution. Just like the law isn’t the solution. Just like ignorance isn’t the solution.
To break it down a little further, let me use an analogy from my current life status as a parent of young children: housework.
The struggle is real, y’all, and the struggle is trying to keep Legos in their bins and laundry in its drawers and tinkle in the toilet. It’s legit exhausting.
One solution might be to claim ignorance. “Who ever said the house has to be clean?” Let those Barbie dolls roam free. Let the dishes pile up. Who cares! But after a while, it’s obvious that a messy house is a problem. You trip over toys and you run out of clean underwear. Ignorance doesn’t do it; housework must be addressed.
So you work for a completely clean house. You clean and clean and clean. The more you clean, the more you notice it needs to be cleaned. You finish with the floors only to notice the baseboards are dusty. You finish with the baseboards only to notice the ceiling fan blades. And under the bed. And behind the fridge. As you work toward 100% cleanliness, you find it never ends and you’re fixating on how dirty it is. This isn’t working, either.
So you turn to comparison. I mean, you’re no hoarder. You take out the trash (eventually). You clean the bathrooms (at least once a month). There’s people out there whose standards are way lower. You’re better than them – so your mess isn’t really a problem, right? But the truth is, it doesn’t matter how messy or clean the Joneses are next door. Your house is your house, and you’ve got to live in it.
This is the point Paul is making about sin. Neither ignorance nor the law nor comparison will solve our problem. Paul drives home his point definitively in the Scripture for today: “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (3:9). All.
Sin is our problem and we cannot solve it ourselves. It haunts us. It burdens us. It’s like Marley’s shackles and chains, rattling around after us everywhere we go. It lurks us until we fall asleep; it’s waiting for us when we wake up. No matter how hard we work, or how far we run, or how much we try to climb over someone else… there it is.
This is why we need Jesus. We need Jesus because sin is a serious problem that has to be solved, and our own methods fail to solve it.
Next week, as we move deeper into Romans, we’ll get into how Jesus solves the problem of sin. But for this week – this third week of Lent – let’s force ourselves to acknowledge that sin is real, and sin is not something we can handle alone.
Thank God we are not alone.