PART 1: SIN
It has been called a constant companion in life. It’s with you when you are awake and sleeping. It’s with you when you are feeling well and when you aren’t. It’s with you when you are doing good things and when you aren’t. It’s with you at work, at home, out and about, on vacation, when you are alone and when you are with a bunch of people. It’s with you all the time. You and I just cannot get rid of sin. And just in case we need a little reminder of what sin is, Paul bluntly points out a couple things for us today.
First, I don’t get to decide what sin is. God created the world perfectly. God put the conscience in each person’s heart. And God made the laws that people need to follow, so he gets to tell me what sin is.
Number two, we must realize that sin is not just a discussion about actions, things that people can see or talk about. In other words, sin is not only something that describes doing things that God forbids or not doing things that God commands. Sin is also a condition. It is in us. It is a part of us. We were born with it. And that kind of original sin makes us impure every moment of life. Every breath is from a person that cannot be perfect.
Third, this sinful condition I have, it shows up in my life… a lot. If it is a condition, then the condition will have symptoms. Paul mentions quite a number of those symptoms of sin that pop up all over the place in our lives. Idolatry is one that he mentions. That is the sin where we put something else in the place only God can have. It can be money. It can be fame. It can be a career. It can be friends. It can be family. It can be a house. It can be possessions. It can be hobbies. It can be abilities. It can be sex, food, alcohol, drugs, technology, and any number of other things. Anything that we make more important than our God and the relationship we have with him is an idol. And you probably can recall a time when that has happened in your life.
Maybe you have one good hour on a Sunday morning, where your attention is fully placed on God. Well, in order to be the type of person that has never broken the First Commandment, you would have to do that constantly from the moment you were conceived to the moment you die. It’s impossible for a sinner. People with the sinful condition cannot properly give God full, undivided attention as the first and most important priority in life.
That’s just one example with one commandment. Through Paul’s letter to the Romans, God shows us many more. Sin shows up everywhere. We have old sins and new sins. We have accidental sins and purposeful sins. We have sins that take a long time and sins that pop up randomly. We have sins inside and on the outside.
And what is really sad about all of this is that we know better. Paul writes, “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” God tells us what sin is, not only the bad actions and attitudes, but also the condition that makes my entire life unacceptable. God tells us what sin deserves; that’s death. But we continue to do it anyways. Sure, sometimes it’s an accident, but sometimes it’s not. And we even find ways to approve of others who sin.
Let’s go back to that Sunday example. If you skip that hour of the week where God gathers his people to feed their faith, and you let your kids or parents or friends skip too, then you are approving of their sin. Do you see how tangled this web of evil is for us?
This was Martin Luther’s struggle as a monk, priest, and professor. Sin was constantly showing its ugliness in his life. God demanded better, but he was unable to do better. How could he ever have the righteousness of God with this kind of rap sheet? And how could you?
He tried, boy did he try. He wanted so much to earn God’s righteousness. That was his daily mission. But every day he failed. You can try, too. You can try as hard as you want to earn a right standing with God, but every day you fail. Sin is a constant companion and it is not friendly. There’s really only one thing we can say (like the hymn we just sang concludes): “O God, be merciful to me.”
PART 2: GRACE
With God, there is no try. With God, there is do. We can’t try to earn his righteousness. We can’t try to remove our sins or cover them from his sight. He sees all of them better than we do. There is no trying to fix the problems sin causes. There is no trying to cure the imperfect condition in which we were born and will die. Sin is the terrible and deadly companion with us our entire lives.
But there is another constant companion that defeats the evil of sin. There is another constant companion that is far greater and more powerful. God’s grace. And with God’s grace there is no trying. God doesn’t try to fix your problems. God doesn’t try to cure sin’s disease. God doesn’t try to save people. He just does it.
That’s grace. It’s not earned by beating your body into submission. It’s not deserved by being better than others. It’s not won by special works of service. Grace is this: when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. God’s grace gets to work saving sinners and ungodly people from their deadly companion of sin in life. God’s grace gets to work by doing all of the necessary work for us. God’s grace gets to work by doing the one thing that opens heaven to people like us.
Sin has to be dealt with. It has to be paid for. If sin brought death into the world, then God’s grace would bring life. There was no other way. He would have to make the payment. At just the right time, God did exactly that. Jesus came. He was born with the same obligation to follow the law perfectly…and he did. God’s Son did what we could not. He fought off the companionship of sin. And that perfect life, he gave up as the sacrifice for us. Jesus carried all the sins of the world to the cross and took the punishment we deserve. All the ungodly ugliness was unacceptable to God, so he got rid of it with the death of his Son. All of it is gone. In sin’s place God has given the gift of grace. We have forgiveness and life through Christ Jesus.
If you think that is not enough, if you think you have too many sins, then listen to this: “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.” When God takes care of something, he does it completely. His grace is perfect at getting rid of sin.
And his grace is always with you. Nothing changes the facts of Jesus life, death, and resurrection. Through Christ and his sacrifice, nothing removes God’s grace from you. He will always be the God who is there for you as your loving Father. He will always be the God who is there for you with forgiveness. He will always be the God who is there for you with peace that can only come through the gospel of Jesus.
That is what changed things for Luther. God did not give righteousness based on us, but he gave it based on his love. As Paul so beautifully puts it: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. God just decided that he would love us in a way that we could never have by our own. Luther was filled up with God’s righteousness because it was a free gift. He realized God was not an angry judge trying to punish him because of sin, but that he was a God of love who had saved him by grace alone. God worked through the simple truth of the gospel to free him from the guilt that wants to be our only and our constant companion.
Sin tried hard to ruin Luther, and it tries just as hard to ruin us. God did not try hard to save us. He just did it. Free of charge because he loved us and wanted us to be with him in heaven. It’s grace and it’s amazing.
Child of God, sin tries to weigh you down, but your gracious Lord has removed the burden forever. Where guilt tries to sap all your strength, your gracious Lord fills you up with forgiveness. Where natural human knowledge says you have to work for things in life, your loving Lord uses divine grace that can never fail at keeping you as his very own.
This legacy is the good news that is still heard in our Lutheran churches today. Do you know how that’s possible? It’s not because a man named Martin Luther was so amazing. It’s not because Germans are great at everything. It’s because of grace. And as a child of God, that is your constant companion. Amen.