You have probably seen the bumper sticker that says this: "Christians aren't perfect, they're just forgiven." What do you think about that?
Or maybe you have heard say something like this. I found it on a blog this week, written by a friend:
I am no better than you. I am likely worse. Please keep that in mind as you read my blog. I am a mess. I am arrogant and stupid. I am selfish and pig-headed. I am confident, and yet a total chicken. I am opinionated and rude. I pretend to know stuff, and speak well "on my feet"... but I know very little, I just have the need to sound smart and together and right. I am lazy and forgetful. I am rarely the person I should be, or the person I really want to be, or the person Jesus created me to be. I am a miserable failure in many ways.
What do you think? The underlying message is that Christians aren't better than anybody else, but they have been forgiven.
Well, I can relate. What's more, I like the honesty. Is there anybody here who can't relate? Sure, we're all broken. We are all sinners. We are very aware that although many of us have come to faith in Christ, we continue to struggle and stumble. We're all there, right?
But today I want to suggest that our lack of change is a real problem. Many of the things my friend says are true of me as well. But I want to change. I'm not talking about perfection, but I do want to be transformed and to experience real change. The problem is that some of us are stuck and we're not really being changed.
A Christian shared her faith with someone at work, and used the phrase "being saved." Listen to what happened:
To which my guy replied that he knew lots of people who said that they were saved, and they seemed to keep right on cheating on their taxes, having trouble with their marriages, fighting with their kids, gossiping about other folks in the office, and so on. And he said they also seemed to get catastrophic illnesses and suffer hardship at about the same rate as everybody else. So life with Christ to him seems like just about every other life, and he doesn't see a compelling reason to make the switch.
She told her pastor about it, and her pastor said this:
"The Same." That's what a friend of mine said Christians should have printed on their T-shirts because we divorce, argue, backbite, become serial killers, and get incarcerated at about the same rate as the general population. Statistically, we're indistinguishable. (From Static by Ron Martoia)
I think that many of us would agree with this assessment. We are Christians, but we continue to struggle. We can relate to why somebody would say, "I am no better than you. I am likely worse." We are not surprised by Christians who sin, or for that matter, with our own struggles.
But I wonder if all of this is symptomatic of a deeper issue. We generally understand about forgiveness and the cross. We get that the cross sets us free from guilt. Maybe we're not as good at understanding the other thing that the cross does. It sets us free from sin's guilt, but it also sets us free from sin's power. The cross means that we don't have to stay captive to sin, just the same as we used to be. We don't have to be "The Same."
I think it's a real problem. That's why I want to look at the power of the cross today. What Jesus accomplished at the cross not only sets us free from the guilt of sin, it also sets us free from sin's power. How can we experience this transformation in our lives so that we experience deep, real, and lasting change? How do we get past this situation in which nothing seems to have changed, and we're still battling the same sins as we ever did?
How We Are Changed
To answer the question of how we can be changed by what Christ accomplished at the cross, I would like to look with you at a passage that lays out more clearly than anywhere else how we can be changed.
Let me give you a bit of background. The apostle Paul has been carefully unpacking what the gospel means. He's outlined how we all stand guilty because we have rebelled against God, and he's also described the consequences of our rebellion. Then Paul gives the amazing news: we have been made right before God, and he has given us a righteousness that is not our own. We have been forgiven and are no longer under judgment. "Therefore," he says, "since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1). The cross has taken away our guilt. That's the first part, and we're pretty good at.
But here's the problem. Have you ever deliberately done something wrong, knowing that you could pray for forgiveness? You do it, pray "Lord, please forgive me," then do it again tomorrow, and so on. If the cross only sets us free from the guilt of sin, this is exactly where we are. We're stuck. We can't do anything except to continue sinning, and then praying for forgiveness.
Somebody's said, "God likes to forgive, I like to sin: what a great relationship!" This is the cycle of sin and forgiveness that most of us are caught in. We sin, God forgives, we sin, God forgives, we sin, God forgives, and so on. Is that all that there is to the gospel, or is there more?
According to the apostle Paul, there is more. We are not just forgiven because of the cross, we are changed. The cross has a power to completely change us and set us free from sin's power. How does this work? To find out, look with me at Romans 6. It's one of the most important passages for understanding how we can be transformed.
Paul makes a surprising statement in verse 2. He's reacting to the way of thinking we just talked about: that because God forgives us, we can sin all that we want. He says in verses 1 and 2: "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?"
Here's the key phrase to understand: "We are those who have died to sin." What does Paul mean by this? He certainly doesn't mean that we aren't tempted by sin, or that we are incapable of sinning. That's not what he means at all. I once heard a preacher say that since he became a Christian, he hadn't struggled with a certain temptation even once. I don't know if he was telling the truth or not, but I know one thing: we do continue to experience temptation. We are still capable of sinning. I don't think that any of us would argue with this.
Here is what Paul means when he says, "We are those who have died to sin." When we became Christians, our relationship to sin changes. It's as dramatic a change as is a change from life to death. We have died - past tense - to sin. Our relationship with sin has changed.
Paul explains exactly how this happened - how our relationship to sin changed so that we're dead to sin - in verses 3-4:
Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
This is pretty deep stuff. It's easy to get sidetracked. Paul is saying that when we become Christians and are baptized, something happens. What exactly happens when we come to faith and are baptized, two events that are always tied together in Scripture? Baptism always takes place right when someone becomes a Christian, not years later.
Here's what Paul means. We are united with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. Through the cross, you are united to the past and the future of Jesus' life. In other words, when Jesus looks at you, he no longer sees your past. He sees Christ's past. He doesn't see your failures and your sins and your brokenness; he sees the righteousness of Jesus Christ. We're forgiven.
Paul also says that we were raised with Christ. Verse 5 says, "If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his." Verses 8-10 say:
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
So here's the power of the cross. When Jesus died, we died along with him. Our spiritual history began at the cross. We were there. In God's sight we were joined to him who actually suffered on it. When Jesus was raised from the dead, we were raised along with him. We are free from the power of sin. You can live a life of obedience now. The power of sin has been terminated once and for all because of what Christ did at the cross.
You may feel like this doesn't apply to you. Here's what you need to know: it doesn't depend on you. All of this, you see, is not about what you have done. It's about what Christ has done. Look at verse 5 again: "If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his." Read that word: certainly. This isn't something that is optional or that only happens sometimes. It doesn't depend on you. This is what God has done for you in Christ.
Tim Keller says, "When we come to Christ, we come with unbelievably small expectations." It's true, isn't it? We rarely grasp what God has done for us in Christ. C.S. Lewis puts it this way in Mere Christianity:
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of — throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.
What God is doing in you is no small thing. This is huge. You have died to sin. You are free from its power. Sin no longer has any claims on your life. It's what Augustus Toplady wrote in his famous hymn "Rock of Ages." "Be of sin the double cure: save me from sin's guilt and power."
Live Daily as a New Person
The question is, why don't we live this way? Why do we feel like sin has so much power? This is what is true, but it's not our daily experience. We don't feel like we're dead to sin. It looks like sin has mastery over us. Paul says it's true. How come it doesn't feel like it?
David Martyn Lloyd-Jones gives us a picture that I think might be helpful. Imagine a country in which one group has oppressed another group for centuries. Whenever a member of the enslaved group meets a member of the oppressing group, the member of the oppressing group can order that person around. If they didn't obey, the member of the oppressing group can have him beaten or even killed.
But then a good king comes to power. He decrees freedom for all the slaves. He sets up his soldiers and his police in every town. The oppressed group is free!
But, Lloyd-Jones, that's not all there is to the story. The oppressed group is free. But whenever a member of the enslaved group meets across a member of the oppressing group, having been enslaved for centuries, they tremble and quake. When the members of the oppressing group ordered members of the enslaved group around, they still did it.
The oppressing group didn't have the power to do that anymore. If the group that had been set free had stood up, the oppressing group couldn't have done a thing. But they kept acting like slaves. Although their status had changed, and they were truly free, they hadn't grasped it yet. They hadn't realized. They couldn't live according to it.
Lloyd-Jones concluded his illustration by saying that every Christian in this room is in that condition. We feel like we're still enslaved by sin because we've forgotten who we are. We've forgotten what Christ has done. We have a real status change, but we haven't grasped it. We don't live according to it.
That's why the first real command is this passage is given in verse 11. "In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus." The word count is an accounting term, and it's in present tense. You don't lack any resources. You have everything you need. You just need to count what God has given you and live in light of that reality.
Thelma and Victor Hayes struck it rich. In August of 2005, the Canadian couple won more than $7 million (Canadian) in the lottery.
There are a few additional facts that make the story interesting. According to the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission, Thelma and Victor are one of the oldest couples ever to win such a large jackpot. At the time they won, the Hayes' had been married 63 years, and both of them were 89-years-old.
During a televised interview, Thelma and Victor were asked the typical question, "What are you going to do with the money?" The couple responded that, at this stage in life, they were unlikely to become "giddy high spenders." In fact, they intended to remain in the retirement home where they lived.
While her husband planned on buying a Lincoln Town Car, Thelma's personal shopping list contained only one item. She told reporters, "I'm getting a new pair of nylons."
How could someone win a fortune and change nothing but her nylons? In the same way, how can we who have been set free from the guilt and power of sin not live out what Christ accomplished at the cross?
Look with me at verses 12-14:
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
Verse 14 says, "Sin shall no longer be your master." You can read this as a command, but you'd be reading it wrong. It's not a command; it's a promise. Sin shall no longer be your master. It's not allowed. You are free from the power of sin.
That, my friends, is the power of the cross. The next time you see a bumper sticker that says, "Christians aren't perfect, they're just forgiven," or the next time you feel like you'll always be the same, remember that you are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus, because you have been united with him in his death and resurrection. Count on it, and live in light of that reality.