by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

September, 2004

Several years ago, our family was on a Florida vacation. One evening in the motel, our then-three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Monica, decided to amuse herself by leaping from one bed to the other, and back again. My wife, Charlotte, and I were terrified that she would eventually fall and hurt herself. We weren’t thrilled with the prospect of having to find an emergency room in the small coastal town where we were staying. My wife, Charlotte, and I tried everything to get Monica to stop her insane bed-leaping. With each leap, our fear, frustration, and anger multiplied. We scolded her, spanked her, and practically sat on her to get her to stop. Eventually, she did stop–when she got tired of the game. But not before she gave her mother and me a good scare and a good deal of frustration.

Remembering young Monica’s antics, I’m reminded of the way God must feel about us sometimes. God has told us, through Moses and the prophets, and later the apostles, what we should and shouldn’t do. But we do the opposite of what we should. This problem is known as “sin.” Initially, the problem of sin was explained by the story of Adam and Eve (Gen. 2-3). Paul puts it even more succinctly: “. . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;” (Rom. 3:23a NRSV). We are willful, independent creatures, and sometimes we don’t choose things God would have us choose.

But God’s response to disobedience isn’t like Charlotte’s or mine. God doesn’t try to prevent us from doing things we shouldn’t; instead, God lets us go our own way and experience the consequences of our actions. In the case of sin, the consequence is especially severe: “For the wages of sin is death, . . .” (Rom. 6:23a NRSV).

The Psalmist wrote, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” (Psa. 51:5 NRSV). But by Jesus’ time, the focus was on the law, and on whether or not people obeyed the law. Jesus turned things back to their original intent by focusing on internal matters, thoughts and attitudes, rather than external actions or conditions: “‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder,” and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;’” (Matt. 56:21-22a NRSV). He let the righteous people know that hating someone–holding a grudge–was just as bad as murdering that person!

Like Jesus, Paul took things back to their original intent. He attributed sin to “the flesh” or what the NIV calls “the sinful nature” (Rom. 7:5). He wrote that “. . . with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.” (Rom. 7:25b NIV). We are not sinners because of what we do but rather because we are human and sin is part of our nature. Sin becomes almost existential. But, fortunately for us, Romans 6:23 doesn’t end with “. . . the wages of sin is death, . . .” Instead, it goes on to say “. . . but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 6:23b NRSV). God made a provision for us, so that we don’t have to bear the ultimate consequence of sin. Instead, God sent Jesus, God’s very child, to bear our punishment and die the death we deserve (Rom. 3:25-26).

We live in a world of people who are “slaves to sin” but they don’t know it. We live in a world that is in the grip of sin but most people either don’t realize it or don’t care. It’s up to us to let them know, to proclaim the “Good News.” We don’t have to live in sin. We don’t have to bear the consequences of our sinful nature. Our sins have been washed away by Jesus’ blood. We can proclaim with David and with Paul, “blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.” (Psa. 32:2, Rom. 4:8 NRSV).

“But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Rom. 3:21-25a NRSV.)


Copyright © 2004 by David Phelps