Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Problem of Sin or The Frustration of Trying to Reform The Flesh

Four preachers met for a friendly game of golf. As they teed up one preacher said, “You know our people come to us and pour out their hearts, confessing their sins and their needs. Confession is good for the soul. Let’s do the same.” They all agreed. So the first one admitted that he was prone to lose his temper from time to time. The second confessed that he liked to golf so much that he had faked being sick on occasion so he could play on weekends. The third, in a whisper, admitted that he had sneaked a peek at a pornographic magazine and liked it. When it was the fourth preacher’s turn, he wouldn’t confess – but the others pressed him. They said, “Come on now, we confessed – now it’s your turn – what’s your secret?” Finally he answered, “It’s gossiping and I can hardly wait to get back!”

I don’t like the word sin. It’s a difficult subject to talk about – especially in our community. There are some that think, especially in the gay community that all this talk about sin is just a scare tactic by right wing conservatives attempting to keep people in their place. But sin is a real issue and I want you to know that the real enemy wants us to focus our attention to those people who are waging their fingers and tongues so that we won’t look at the real problem of sin.

After attending church, President Calvin Coolidge (known as a man of few words) was asked by a friend what the minister spoke on – to which the president replied, “Sin!” The friend asked, “What’d he have to say about it?” President Coolidge told him, “He’s against it!”

It is said that the word “sin” comes from an archery term to describe an arrow shot towards a target, but falling short of the mark. This gives me a better understanding of Paul’s words in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” From that verse we not only have the clarity of the analogy of the arrow falling short of its target, but also the realization that all of us are guilty. This is easily forgotten, but very important to remember.

Paul goes on to say that we “are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:24-26)

All of this is to say that the eternal consequence of sin has been eradicated. Having been justified by faith, we need no longer be concerned about how it will all turn out in the end. Our worries are not about the sweet bye-and-bye ~ but about the toll that the activity of sin takes on the quality of our lives in the nasty now-and-now. It is to tackling this “problem” that much of the Old and New Testament is dedicated.

First, a couple of weeks back during the Wednesday night Bible study, the topic of the “unforgivable sin” came up. We spoke briefly about it, but I didn’t feel that we had covered it adequately. So I did some research in hopes that we might better understand this much misunderstood topic.

This issue comes up in a passage in Matthew chapter 12. Jesus heals a blind man who was also deaf. The people were amazed, but the Pharisees made the remark, “This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.” The text says that Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to them in verse 31-32, “I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”

What exactly is “blasphemy against the Spirit?” Is it possible to accidentally commit this sin? I have gotten this question several times from people through the years who think they may have somehow committed this sin – this unforgivable sin.

There was a man, who after attending a revival meeting and hearing sermon about this sin, was convinced that he had somehow committed it. He lived in agony for a number of years until he realized that his turmoil was the result of being convicted by the Holy Spirit and he was being drawn to Christ – which would not be possible had he in fact committed this blasphemy.

The people who commit this sin do not care about the things of God. Billy Graham says that, “All other sins against the Spirit are committed by believers, but not so with blaspheming the Spirit. This sin is committed by unbelievers.” So what is the sin of unbelievers ~ unbelief. God’s grace covers all sins but unbelief. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is to draw everyone to Christ. According to Jesus, this is His job. (John 15:26) His purpose is to bring conviction to the world – convincing them about their need for the Savior. Those who are convicted are those who have put their faith in God.

Those, however, who do not believe do not see God as relevant, are not depending on Him and are not receiving His grace for anything and therefore cannot be saved. This is the unforgivable sin and is really the only thing that can despoil the benevolence of God. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the power to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” (John 1:12) Conversely we could say, “as many as did not receive Him, He did not give them the power to be God’s children because they did not believe in His name.”

In Stephen’s dying breath he recounts the resistance to the Holy Spirit that the “uncircumcised hearts” always have. (Acts 7:51) Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit then becomes the conscious rejecting of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. But a person striving with the Spirit has not committed this unforgivable sin.

For Christians the problem is not the struggle to gain eternal life, but the struggle to live eternal life; what we often refer to as the spirit-filled life. The sins we need to focus on are not listed somewhere in the book of Leviticus, but they are sins against the Spirit of life that will impede your progress. In Ephesians 4:30, we’re told, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”

Could this be the same thing as “blasphemy?” No. The word “grieve” describes an emotion felt by people bound in a love relationship and refers to the Spirit’s love for us. Though we talk about the Father’s love and Jesus’ love for us – the Holy Spirit loves us too. We’re in a love relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. If our behavior is the source of hurt or pain for those that love us, it causes them to grieve. We may hurt or anger someone who has no affection for us, but we can only grieve someone who loves us. Anger and hate are feelings we could cause or get from anyone, but grief comes over people we love or who love us.

So how do you grieve the Spirit? Paul seems to be saying (Ephesians 4:29-32) that whatever we do that is unlike Christ in conduct or speech grieves the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. (John 14:17) If we latch on to a lie and stand it up as the Truth – surely that would grieve the Spirit.

He is called the Spirit of Faith. (2 Corinthians 4:13) If doubt dominates our responses and we are driven by distrust, anxiety and worry – we are grieving the Spirit.

He is the Spirit of Grace. (Hebrews 10:29) To the extent that we allow bitterness, callousness, unforgiveness and unloving acts to command our behavior, we are grieving the Spirit.

In Romans, Paul says the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of holiness. (Romans 1:4) Holiness is to be purposed toward doing the will of God. So anytime we knowingly deviate from God’s will, we are grieving the Spirit.

All of these are examples of how we hurt (grieve) the Spirit.

If we say to those around us, “Unless you are good, I won’t love you!” we are grieving the Spirit. Parents who suggest to their children that their love is dependent upon good behavior are certainly grieving the Spirit. Jesus told us that whatsoever you have freely received freely give. Parents certainly have a right to ask their children for good behavior, but to hold them hostage by threatening loss of love. Surely we can see how wrong this is. This is wrong thinking as we can plainly see, then why do we do it?

Some of you believe that this is the way God treats you. In doing this you reveal the lack of love you have in your heart. Let me explain. If you believe that God’s love for you is contingent upon your performance – if you believe that God withdraws His love based on your bad behavior, then you are accusing God of doing the very thing that you see so clearly as wrong thinking. Let me remind you that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) God’s love for you is unconditional. He will never leave you nor forsake you. (Hebrews 13:5)

We should desire to live a life that is pleasing to the Holy Spirit; striving not to bring Him grief. But therein lies the problem, “striving.” It seems the more I try, the more frustrating it all becomes. So there is also the issue of “quenching” the Spirit. (1 Thessalonians 5:19)

Could this be the same as blasphemy of the Spirit? No. It’s extinguishing a fire. To quench is to put out a fire – the fire of the Holy Spirit. Our intellect and reason can get in the way sometimes, of the enthusiasm generated by the indwelling Spirit. They can put a damper on the manifestation of His release. Yielding ourselves to be a conduit for the personality of the Holy Spirit, we begin to express the character and work of Jesus Christ – but sometimes we abandon the sweet abandoned expressions of the Holy Spirit in favor of more sensible behavior. In doing this, we quench the fire of the Spirit. This interferes with God's redemptive work. We should let God do what God wants.

There are two ways to put out a fire . . . . .

1: You remove the fuel source. The sources of fuel for the operation of the Spirit are prayer, an active witness, praise and worship, Bible study, and fellowship. If for any reason we begin to remove these fuel sources, we begin to quench the Spirit.

2: You cut off the oxygen supply by smothering it with water or dirt. We’re told that, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) But, if we let negatives take over our conduct: criticism, impatience, discontent and unkindness. We are destroying the very thing we are trying to establish.

I was teaching a Bible study in 1978 in Lubbock, Texas. The passage was Galatians chapter 5. Verse sixteen says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” Someone that night asked me, “How do you walk by the Spirit?” I had to admit that I did not know. But I saw for the first time a pragmatically clear direction on how to defeat sin in my life. So from that day until this, I have been on a quest to understand what it means to “walk by the Spirit.” It is vital. If you want to experience the Victory in Jesus that was promised, you've got to find out how to walk by the Spirit. Walking on your own power is futile. Jesus gave me power to become a true child of God and He’s given that same power to you and everyone who by faith receives Him. The Spirit is real. It is through Him you live and move and have your being.

You say you have tried to do all the things I have suggested. You’ve tried and failed. The reason you find yourselves so frustrated in your attempts to defeat sin is that you are trying to reform the flesh. You cannot reform the flesh – you must stop trying to reform the flesh and seat Christ upon the throne of your heart and walk in righteousness (right standing in God). You must get a personal relationship with Christ.

There was a man years ago who used to travel from town to town appearing in carnivals and side shows around the country. He challenged people to try and make him smile and win $100. By paying a dollar the people were given the chance to do it. As far as I know he never smiled. He made a living and got into the Guinness Book of Records for doing nothing.

Unfortunately perhaps many of you have mastered the art of doing nothing. When the Spirit urges you, “Let go!”, you say, “I can’t!” When the Spirit says, “Speak!” You say, “I’m afraid.” The Holy Spirit is urging you toward your freedom – but you are resisting Him and will never find your freedom until you let go of your dignity and your false pride and release Him to do as He wishes. In order to save your life, you must first lose it!

God has given us a tremendous opportunity to serve Him in these last days. We have the power to make an impact on our community – to set them free from the bondage of the cycle of sin and death. But in order to set them free, we’ve got to be free ourselves.

You are in control. Your will determines your behavior. The quality of life that you enjoy now – whether you are rich or poor – is in your hands. There is no need to blame anyone for your problems. It is not your parent’s fault, though you may trace bad attitudes, hang-ups and bad habits to them, you are now in charge. And only with the help of the power of the Holy Spirit, can you be victorious over the sins in your life.

The reason I say sin is a non-issue is because it is only an issue, if we make it the issue. With God – it is history. Is the glass half empty or half full? If you look at your life as victorious, you find yourself doing victorious things. If you look at your life as problematic and damaged, all you’ll notice are the hurts, heartaches and disappointments. But “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

There is a way to get to a place where we can “rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

Rev. Bob Ellis


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