MESSAGE FOR JANUARY 24, 1999 FROM ROMANS 6:12
This week, we look again at Romans 6:12. Paul says, “Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” Last week, we looked at the process of how the evil desires in our body (in that part of us called the flesh) work to produce sin in us and control or reign in us. We discussed how we must battle against those individual areas by choosing to walk in the freedom we have over sin through Christ. This week, we need to back up and look at the broader picture of sin’s reign by asking the question, “How do we know sin is reigning in our bodies?” If you’re like me, most of us think sin is reigning in our bodies if we are deeply struggling with a particular “stronghold”—what Hebrews calls “besetting sins that entangle us”—sins we can’t get loose of—they keep dragging us down. That is certainly one way to know if A SIN or SINS are reigning in our heart. But Paul uses the singular form of “sin.” Last week, we saw that sin was “a spiritual power which seeks to control us through the evil desires in our bodies.” Sin is a spiritual power. It is the pervasive influence of this evil world on our flesh. Therefore, we need to be asking NOT only what particular habitual sins am I struggling with because, if all of those were to vanish in a moment, the power of sin might STILL very well be reigning in our lives. The power of sin—the pervasive, sinful influence of the world is far broader than just the selected stronghold areas in our lives. Let’s explain.
We imagine that if we could just stop doing this and that, and that…then our lives would be pretty much clear before God. We think, “If in the next two years, I could stop doing this and then this and do this more and then this, then I would really be in pretty good spiritual shape.” We imagine our spiritual lives to be like a living room with a few, or maybe even several clusters of sinful clutter. We think that if only those things could be removed, then our room would be in pretty good shape. Even though most believers think this way, we all know by experience that this is not the way it is. We know that because, if you have a particular sin in your life that you really do battle with and see God deliver you of that, you will notice that something else crops up that may be just as bad or worse than the last one. It may have been there all along and you didn’t see how bad it was. It may have appeared recently and you wonder, “Where did that come from?”
It seems like when one dragon of sin is slain in our life, another one (and sometimes two or three or five) rear their ugly heads. If a Christian ever comes to the place where their spiritual living room is “clean” enough where they can settle down and say, “There, I’ve cleaned it up and now I’m just fine” they are horribly deceived. Because the understanding of sin’s reign in us I have just described is NOT in agreement with Paul’s teaching on the reign of sin. When Paul commands, “…do not let sin reign…” he is not fundamentally saying, “Don’t let those troublesome sinS reign in your mortal bodies.” He doesn’t say that. Those troublesome sinS are merely SYMPTOMS of the larger problem which is the reign of SIN. He says, “Don’t let SIN—(singular--this spiritual power) reign in your mortal bodies. His focus is not on SINS—Paul is speaking more broadly than that. Paul commands us to stop letting the power of SIN reign in our mortal bodies.
So the question becomes, “If the reign of sin is not seen predominantly in those troubling, habitual sins, then how are we to know if sin is reigning in our bodies?” The answer is found when we look at the big picture. Remember the two opposing spiritual powers Paul has been speaking of since chapter five. We see them in the second half of verse 20 in chapter five. “But where sin increased. Grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Here, we see these two opposing spiritual powers, both of which seek to reign in our life—sin and grace. And the cross was the battle ground where the power of the grace of God totally demolished the power of the sin of Satan and this overwhelming victory of grace over sin is seen in the fact that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” One application of that is, a person will never be so totally dominated by the power of sin, that the power of grace cannot forgive them AND set them free from that sin so that they can live a life controlled by the power of grace and not sin.
That brings us to the answer of the question, “How do we know if the power of sin is reigning in our lives?” Because there are only two opposing powers and they seek to rule or control us, then we know that in every area of our lives either sin rules or grace rules. To put it another way, in every area of our lives the influence of this world rules or the influence of the kingdom of God rules because the predominant currency of this world is sin and the currency of the kingdom of God is grace. Therefore, if we want to know whether sin reigns in some area of us, all we have to do is ask the question—“is that an area where the grace of God reigns in us?”
THIS is the test. NOT, is this an area where we are struggling with a known sin. NO—that’s a no-brainer. If we are wrestling against a sin, most of the time its because we have allowed it to pin our shoulders to the floor and we are trying, by the grace of God to get out from under it. The question we need to ask is not predominantly “am I struggling against known sin?” NO!! The question we should be asking is “is this an area where the grace of God reigns in my life?” We should not be looking fundamentally for the sin, we should be looking for signs of grace. Because if you don’t see the reign of grace, then that area is ruled or controlled by sin because we know from Jesus that you cannot have two spiritual powers reigning at once. Jesus says, “No man can serve two masters” and that means by implication that two masters cannot rule simultaneously. Sin and grace will not establish a co-regency in us. Either sin reigns or grace reigns. There is no middle ground here. Sin reigns or grace reigns, period. If we don’t believe that, then we have rendered meaningless this strong word translated “reign” in verse 12.
We don’t like this kind of black and white thinking. Our flesh hates it because when we start thinking like this, the flesh has no way to hide its life- destroying sin. If we open the door of an area of our life and look into that area and test by asking the question—“Any sin in there?” the flesh will find a million ways to rationalize and blind and obscure and deceive us in to thinking that because we aren’t in some kind of blatant sin, therefore everything is ok—grace must be in control. That’s like peering into a dark room and looking for monsters. Will you see any? NO? Why not? Because the room is dark. But if we go into that area of our life and inspect it with this test, “Where is the evidence of the grace of God here?” That is like turning on the light of truth in that room and guess what you see? There are sins you didn’t even know about. And the fact that we haven’t even know about them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there, reigning in our soul and eating our heart out from the inside.
Its either the grace of God reigning in an area of your life or the power of sin. There are no other options. We don’t like this. Most Christians don’t ask this question even about the things they intentionally put into their lives. When we hear about a movie or a television program, we don’t ask the grace question. That is, “What about this movie will feed my soul—how will this infuse my life with grace?” No, we ask the sin question—“Is there anything really raunchy in it?” We don’t like this black and white, either/or thinking. It seems thoughtless, unsophisticated and simplistic. But God’s agenda toward his children when it comes to their sanctification is not to be nuanced or sophisticated, His agenda is SIMPLICITY because he knows that we are sheep. That means there are a whole lot of black and white issues when it comes to sin and grace. Not all, but many more than the most people in the church understand.
So if we want to find out if sin is reigning in an area of our lives we must ask, “Does the grace of God reign there?” “Does this area bear the marks of God’s grace?” If grace is not reigning there—if it does not bear the marks of the life of Christ, then sin reigns there. And the fact that we have not, up to that time seen the control sin has over us only means that we have wrongly equated what Paul calls “the reign of sin” with the presence of overt, personally troubling or embarrassing sins. That’s not true. We have been blinded to the reign of sin in our lives because we have been using an unbiblical gauge to measure it. If the church in North America could understand this in our hearts, we might be only moments from spiritual revival. The reason is because currently the vast majority of us are testing our spiritual health NOT by the measure of “how much do we look like Jesus Christ by the grace of God?” We are measuring ourselves by the yardstick—“how much overt, outward, manifest, socially unacceptable sin is there in our lives?” We are not asking the question, “does grace reign in these areas of my life?”
Let me illustrate how sin can reign in a person who is good, upright, deeply religious and lives what everyone around them would consider a godly, even impeccable spiritual life. Turn to Mark 10: 17. This is the story commonly known as “rich young ruler.” This morning, I want you to look at this story through this reign of grace and reign of sin lens. The word of God says, “As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. Good teacher,” He asked, `what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: `Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.” “Teacher, he declared, “all these things I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack, “ he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come follow me.”
This stellar example of Hebrew citizenry-(he had it all) comes up to Jesus and wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. So Jesus tests him. “How are you in these overt, external, horizontal areas of your life—murder, adultery, stealing, lying, cheating, honoring parents?” He says, “Done—I have a long and unblemished record in all these areas.” You see, Jesus knows this man’s heart from the outset, but he is using this man as a way to teach his disciples the kingdom. Jesus tests him first by using HIS OWN standard of righteousness which shamefully, is the one most of evangelicalism uses today—“How am I doing in these overt, horizontal areas of my life?” And our answer to that question may very well be, “I’m doing alright there, I feel pretty good about my walk with God.”
But then Jesus says to the man, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor and then you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come follow me.” Jesus is saying to him, “You say you want to inherit this eternal quality of life. OK, here is a truth—if you sell all you have and give it to the poor, your treasure in heaven will be great. You say you want to go to heaven—fine, show me that you value the treasures of heaven more than the treasures of earth—sell all you have and come follow me. You see, Jesus had heard all the overt, bad things this man WASN’T doing. But he tells him to do something which will reveal if God’s grace is in his life. Without the presence of God’s grace—there is no inheritance of eternal life. And the story tragically ends—he was very sad and walked away.
This good, upright, religious Jew [evangelical], who was doubtless revered by virtually everyone in his synagogue [church], was a man in whose life SIN REIGNED!!! He was good—elder material in most churches. But he had spent all of his life asking the wrong question. All his life he had been peering into the dark room of his heart and looking for sin and he couldn’t see any. But Jesus turned on the light of grace with one probing question and there was the sin of greed which he did not even know about and was certainly not troubled by. And that sin was REIGNING his life and controlling him ruthlessly. He was enslaved to greed and he didn’t even know it. But Jesus exposed it with one command—Go, sell all and give to the poor-- “go and show me the evidence of the reign of grace in your life.” And he came up empty. The sin of greed in this respectable, upright, outwardly righteous man reigned in his heart and was quietly taking him, unbeknownst to him down the path to hell. That’s where he belongs! Because when push comes to shove here, this good upright man reveals that he is more enamored with the things of this world than he is with God’s kingdom. This good, upright religious man BELONGS in hell—He has the value system of hell. And if we have the value system of hell, that’s where we belong. But if we have the value system of heaven, we will be looking for the evidence of God’s grace in our lives now. I have a profound fear that there are SO many rich, young rulers in the evangelical church today and our church is NOT excluded. Many are ruthlessly controlled by sin, but don’t even know it because they are asking the wrong question.
The comparison is often made between this man and Zaccheus, another rich Jew. After Zaccheus visits with Jesus he says, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor.” And what did he do with the other half? He says, “…if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Of this man Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too is a son of Abraham.” Somewhere in Jesus’ visit with Zaccheus, Jesus told him he needed to exchange the reign of sin for the reign of grace—allegiance to the values of God’s kingdom and its value system in place of allegiance to Satan’s kingdom. Zaccheus, unlike the rich young ruler said, “Yes, Lord.”…GRACE! What a contrast! In the good, outwardly religious man, sin reigned, but in this formerly evil man, grace reigned and the proof is in the pudding—in an outward manifestation of the grace of God, not simply the outward avoidance of something bad.
Jesus is looking for grace in our lives. He knows whether its there. Do we? Sincere people will ask, “How can we check to see if there is grace reigning in our lives?” How can I know whether there isn’t some area of sin in my life—that I may not even know about, that is reigning my life?” One answer can be found in the Beatitudes. Jesus gives nine attitudes or dispositions which he says “blessed.” If we see the way “blessed” is used in other places, we see find that to be blessed is to be in a state of grace or, under the reign of grace. In Matthew 16:17, the Lord says to Peter after Peter had just pronounced Jesus the Messiah, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my father in heaven.” Peter had been acted on by God—a recipient of grace, in this case the grace of a revelation from God.
So if we want to know when grace is reigning in our lives, go to the Beatitudes. We can’t do any detailed teaching on the beatitudes this morning, but the gist of the teaching could be paraphrased like this. As you hear this, ask yourself, “Does this describe me?” “Blessed are you—that is, grace is reigning in your life when you know in your head and your heart that you are not nearly the follower of Christ God has called you to be.” “You know that grace is reigning in your life when this lack of love and devotion for God troubles you so much, it profoundly grieves you.” “Grace is reigning in your life when you consider others better than yourselves and look first to their needs above your own.” “Grace is reigning in your life when you have a consistent, insatiable hunger and unquenchable thirst for God, his word, fellowship with other believers and to be more like Jesus Christ.” “You know that grace is reigning in your life when you refuse to look down your nose at other people who have messed up their lives and who are far less together than you are, but instead, with a heart filled with love, reach down to pick them up out of the dirt.” “Grace is reigning in your life when you serve the Lord and others not for self promoting motives, but purely out of your love for God.” “Grace is reigning in your life when you hate strife and discord between human beings and between God and man so much that you will intentionally leave your comfort zones and seek to bring reconciliation through the gospel.” “And grace reigns in your life when other people see the light of God’s grace in you and try to beat it out of you.”
That’s a rather folksy paraphrase, but it captures what a life looks like when the grace of God is reigning and not sin. How many of those things are in our life? To the degree that those attitudes aren’t manifest in our lives, make no mistake, we are under the reign of sin. We must stop this spiritually superficial practice of evangelicalism which pursues holiness only by looking for the noxious sins in our lives. That is not the way to see the reign of sin in us. That’s the wrong measure. Its like trying to take your temperature with a rain gauge. It won’t work and we will miss the sins which may be controlling us most ruthlessly. Oh, if we are using this measure to determine whether sin reigns in us then the story of the rich, young ruler ought to make us tremble in utter terror!! How do we know if WE are not being mercilessly mastered by a sin we don’t even know we have? If we think that is not possible, then we could hardly be more self-deceived. We are even more blind than the rich young ruler.
The terribly sobering thing today is this. In the case of the rich, young ruler, he met Jesus face to face and Jesus asked the one question which, in an instant, threw light on his self deception. He knew right then that his heart was not right to enter the kingdom of heaven—he was disqualified. But today, if Jesus confronts us about something—we sense he is calling us to sell our homes, give our money away, break off a relationship—quit a job, whatever--and we refuse just like the rich, young ruler did. We can go back to church next week and think every thing is just fine. God has just pointed out that the power of sin reigns in our lives, but because we aren’t lying, stealing, cheating or sleeping around, we assume grace must reign.
The test is simple. When we read the beatitudes, those evidences of a life reigned by grace, were you thinking, “Yes, that describes me.” If grace does not reign in our lives then there is only one other option. Sin reigns! Do we want to serve sin? Do we, who have supposedly been liberated from the power of sin, want to bow down in servitude to it? Paul’s command is “Do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies.” If we are concerned about this issue, we will spend some time pleading with Christ to come into our lives and tell us, like he did the rich young ruler, where sin reigns in our lives. May we, by God’s grace respond as Zaccheus did—may the grace of God be the controlling influence in our lives.
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