After listing the great heroes of the faith in chapter 11, Hebrews 12 begins with this grand encouragement: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2 NIV1984).
The sin that so easily entangles
Ah, yes, “the sin that so easily entangles.” (All sin has that germinal propensity.) The worst part about repeated sins, or even addictions, is the gnawing sense of unworthiness and guilt over failure. We feel cast aside from God’s use and God’s love. With a self-loathing that comes from our inability to meet the expectations of ourselves and others, we get stuck in guilt. Wallowing in shame we shrink from the healing and forgiveness that God freely offers.
Philip Yancy wrote of a prostitute’s shameful confession that she had wanted to rape her own sons. She told of her rescue from that lifestyle and sexual addiction by those who loved her unconditionally and shared God’s love with her. She later recounted that God’s grace can heal, but after a moment’s reflection added, “It isn’t easy to be healed.”
Honesty would call for us to agree. All of us know the “sin wars” within us that fight against Christ’s healing and love. The Apostle Paul detailed his struggles with sin in the expressively chaotic chapter of Romans 7. It isn’t easy to be healed. However, there is one thing harder: staying ‘unhealed.’
King David, who after his greatest failure became the public emblem of fallibility, wrote Psalm 32 to express his pain in being ‘unhealed’. He also wrote these words after his repentance: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17 NIV1984). A thousand years later, the persecutor Saul – whom God rescued, reclaimed, and renamed Paul – says something similar to the church at Rome, summarizing our Christian hope in this simple, invitational truth: “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20 NIV1984).
Lent and Easter have powerful messages that herald that inspiring and invitational truth: “… where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”
Lent, the season of repentance, offers special opportunity for confession of our human depravity and fallibility. Followed by the victory of Easter–with its death-conquering message of forgiveness, new life, new beginnings, and eternal life in Christ–there is the louder proclamation of another, God-ordained, quality: redeemability. Dallas Willard writes, “Nothing irredeemable has happened or can happen to us on our way to our destiny in God’s full world.” The clear, beautiful, grace note of the Bible, because of Christ’s completed work of salvation through the cross and Easter’s empty tomb, sounds the promise that no matter who I am and what I have done, the door to forgiveness and transformational power swings wide open before me–before all–because of Jesus.
Propensity to Sin
All of us have the inherent quality of “fallibility”–the ability and propensity to sin, because of our fallen and corrupt nature. We don’t like to discuss or admit that. Many Christians today resist the fact that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NIV1984). Paul, himself, battled those who said they had attained a higher plane of enlightenment (Gnostics), Pharisaic Christians who required strict adherence to religious laws, and other “righteous” who scorned categories of notorious sinners like prostitutes and homosexuals. There are many corollaries today, and we surely still succumb to ranking sins.
Paul attacks these ranking tendencies beginning in the first chapters of Romans. He creates a kind of ‘vice catalog,’ a ‘sin collection,’ beginning in Romans 1:18. Flagrant sins are mentioned–perverts, murderers, god-haters–and mixed in are everyday sins of greed, envy, disobeying parents, gossip, arrogance, and more. Apparently sin is sin. Paul continues in Romans 2 by taking on those who, smug in their superiority, condemn such behavior, but have their own ‘secrets’: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Romans 2:1 NIV1984). Certainly, Paul is following Jesus’ logic in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 and following): murder and adultery are tantamount to hatred and lust.
Paul reserves his most scathing remarks, however, for those who are self-righteous: Jews, especially Pharisees, who meticulously observe the law. He should know; he was one: “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Philippians 3:4-6 NIV1984).
In Romans 3, Paul shifts to the first person. He has referred to the wicked as “they” and the “good” judgmental folk as “you.” But when self-righteousness is the topic, he uses the first person “we.” “What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (Romans 3:9 NIV1984). So that we don’t miss the clear confession of the Apostle here in Romans, he also writes the young pastor Timothy: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15 NIV1984). Please note: the great Apostle – brilliant, a master of the language, inspired – writes, “I am the worst” not “I was the worst.”
He understood sin, his fallibility, and his culpability. We should too; daily … in the present tense. You see, there are three people sitting where you are sitting right now: the person you hope you are; the person others think you are; and the person God knows you to be. If we compare who we are to who we claim to be, we are all hypocrites. The Church – proclaiming the crucified and risen Jesus – provides (at least it should) a place where we can openly and honestly confess our failures, fallibility, and false opinions of ourselves, receiving the cleansing power of grace. C. S. Lewis writes, “The gospel means we can stop lying to ourselves. The sweet sound of amazing grace saves us from the necessity of self-deception. It keeps us from denying that though Christ was victorious, the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages within us. As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful with those closest to me. When I go to church I can leave my white hat at home and admit I have failed. God not only loves me as I am, but also knows me as I am. Because of this I don’t need to apply spiritual cosmetics to make myself presentable to Him. I can accept ownership of my poverty and powerlessness and neediness.”
In John 8 the woman caught in adultery is thrown before Jesus in the temple. He then proceeds to dismantle and demolish the Pharisees’ artificial distinction between “good people” (like us religious leaders) and “bad people” (like that adulteress). In reality, they have little concern for the woman, rather great interest in trapping Jesus.
Jesus sees people differently – as should we. They are not to be used or manipulated, but respected and loved. They are either in need of God’s grace and deny it – like the teachers of the law and the Pharisees – or are people in need of God’s grace who receive it, crumpled at Jesus’ feet like this woman. Cowering, awaiting the first sharp pain of a stone that hits its mark, she hears instead the thud of rocks hitting the ground and receives cleansing, forgiveness, and the prospect of being judged by her future in Christ not by her past without Him.
Won by grace ourselves, we should daily thank the crucified and risen Lord for this everlasting truth.
In light of what Christ has done for you and for the world, how do you view the people around you? C. S. Lewis reminds us, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations.”
Friends, we are all trophies of God’s grace, some just more dramatically so than others. And there are others yet to be. Because of the Good Friday and Easter Sunday realities Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:4-7: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show (He might display) the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (NIV1984).
May we be blessed with the understanding that Jesus came for the sick and not the well, for the sinner and not the righteous. He came to redeem and transform, to make all things new.
Through God’s continuing mercy and strength may we indeed “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles …” Fixing our eyes on Jesus and trusting the power of this Gospel message may we also determinedly share the Lent and Easter invitations to honesty, transparency, and true healing with everyone remembering … grace still wins!