So, a man walks into his house and finds that his wife has bought a new dress. He says to her, “Another dress? You bought another dress? This is ridiculous. That’s the third dress this week.”
And his wife says, “The devil made me buy this dress. Said I didn’t want to buy no dress. The devil kept following me. I was going down the street, and the devil kept following me and he kept telling me how good I look.”
The husband said, “I’m not going for that. Every time you do something wrong you blame it on the devil. You blamed it on the devil when you ran the car into the side of the church….How’d the devil get you to buy that dress?”
His wife said, “I was going down the street and the devil sneaked up behind me.…The devil came up behind me and said, ‘Say, mama, look at the dress in the window. That’s your size, too. It’s on sale, too. It’s got a lot of those flowers on it like you like, too. Why don’t you treat yourself to that dress?’
And I told him, ‘You better cut that out, Devil. I already bought two dresses this week. I’m not gonna but no dress. I’m not even gonna look at it.’
The Devil says, ‘Why don’t you try it on? They’re not going to charge you to try it on. That’s free! You owe yourself a try-on.’ And I said, ‘Devil, you better leave me alone.’
He shoved me in the door. The devil just shoved me in that door. He pushed me in the door. I said, ‘Devil, stop it please.’ Then he shoved me over to where the dress was. I said, ‘Cut, it out Devil.’ Then he threatened me and made me try it on. He said to me, ‘You gonna buy that dress?’ And I said, ‘I’m not buyin’ no dress, Devil.’ And he pulled a gun. The Devil pulled a gun and he threatened me and made me sign your name to a check.”
That story was told by the great comedian Flip Wilson in the 70s, and the phrase, “The Devil made me do it” became part of the American lexicon. But you might say that it was Paul who originally coined the phrase, and Paul who first wrote down the explanation the wife used for how she came to do what she did not want to do, although he wasn’t nearly as funny as Flip Wilson was. Here’s Paul’s version: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
Sin is the elephant in the room when it comes to faith today, I think. We just don’t talk about it much anymore. There are lots of reasons for this. We’re afraid we’ll be seen as judgmental if we label something as sin. We rejoice in God’s grace and the assurance that our sins are forgiven, so we think we don’t need to talk about sin anymore. We define sin as the big stuff—murder, robbery, infidelity, and maybe some other things we personally consider worthy of the title—and they are all things we don’t do, so we don’t need to worry about it. Or we just take sin as a given—we’re all sinful, but Jesus forgives us all, so why do we need to talk about it?
But not talking about sin ignores the power it has to disrupt the world as God intended it to be. It ignores the power it has to disrupt our own lives. It ignores the ways in which it disrupts our relationship with God. It ignores the fact that sin is the great problem that Jesus came to address, and so if we don’t talk about sin, we really can’t talk about forgiveness and grace, either. We are all sinful, and our sin is what cost Jesus his death on the cross. Our sin is what occasioned the need for and Jesus’ offer of his costly grace, and that’s exactly why we need to talk about it.
Talking about sin requires that we define what it is. The definition that makes the most sense to me is one I learned in my very first Bible study class—a Bethel Bible Study group many years ago. Our teacher, Mr. Hanna, was a wise and faithful man, and he was good at making things easy to understand. I learned a lot, both from the Bethel series and from him. But he taught me three specific things that I remember to this day. One is the lesson from Genesis, that we are blessed to be a blessing. The second is that we are to “keep” the earth, like married couples vow to keep each other. The third was this definition of sin: that sin is anything that separates us from God, from others, or from our true selves as God intended for us to be.
That’s a pretty broad definition, and that’s why I like it. We all commit sin every day, and this definition doesn’t allow much wiggle room. It’s a kind of diagnostic tool that helps us identify the sin in our lives and what affect it’s having. When we do things that make us want to hide from God—things we wish God couldn’t see—that’s sin. When we do things that hurt others, either by commission or omission, that’s sin. And when we deny who we are—by not using the gifts God has given us, or by pretending to be something we aren’t, or by having either an inflated or a deflated view of ourselves, or by not taking care of our bodies—that’s sin.
I also like it because it focuses me on my own sin. It helps me to identify the log in my own eye rather than looking for the splinters in someone else’s. Of course, there is sin in the world that is bigger than you or me—political, economic, and social structures that are built on foundations of human sin. And we do have a duty to work to dismantle them. But I think a lot of us would rather focus on the sins of others instead of our own. Mr. Hanna’s definition doesn’t let us do that—it forces us to confront all the ways sin is active in our lives.
For every sin we find in ourselves, we pretty much know what God’s law and Jesus’ teachings say about it. We know what God desires from us. And because we do love Jesus, we want to do what will be pleasing to him. Our problem isn’t ignorance about what we should do, or a lack of desire to do what God asks of us. We just can’t seem to do it. There’s a tongue-in-cheek prayer that you might have heard. I’ve prayed it more than once: “Dear Lord, so far I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped. I haven’t lost my temper. I haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent. But in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed. And from then on, I’m going to need a lot of help.” “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
This was Israel’s problem, too. God had made a covenant with the Jewish people, and God had given them the Torah—the Law. But as much as they might have wanted to follow the law, they couldn’t. In fact, instead of making things better, it made things worse. Because, with the Law right in front of them, they could see just how badly they were failing to live as God’s covenant people. Of course, there were individuals who were better able to live in keeping with the Law—people who were looked at as examples of righteous living. But by and large, the Jewish people were no more able to keep the Torah than we are able to live according to what Jesus taught us about kingdom living.
This raised questions for the Roman Christians of Paul’s time—questions Paul addresses in his letter to them. The question was whether the Jews, including the Jewish Christians, had lost their place in the covenant because they had not followed the Law. In the years before Paul wrote his letter, the emperor Claudius had expelled a large number of Jews from Rome after riots broke out, possibly due to Christian preaching. There was plenty of anti-Jewish feeling in Rome at the time, and it may have made sense to many Gentile Christians that the Jews’ expulsion from Rome mirrored their expulsion from the covenant with God. Imagine the dilemma then, when the Jews were allowed to return to Rome after Claudius died, and both Jewish and Gentile Christians needed to figure out how to live together as one community.
In his letter, Paul seeks to explain how the law and the covenant figure into a picture that both recognizes the status of the Jewish people before God but also makes a place for Gentile believers. He clarifies that the Law was never the defining thing that made Israel God’s chosen nation. It was the covenant alone. And that covenant remained intact, even though the people, in their sinfulness, routinely broke the law. The Law wasn’t the cause of unrighteousness, any more than it was the basis for God’s covenant with the Jews.
When Paul gets to our passage, he is ready to explain where this unrighteous behavior comes from. If the Jewish people had the Law, why didn’t they keep it? If we know the right thing to do, why don’t we do it? If we know what is pleasing to God, why don’t we choose it?
Paul’s answer is simple: it’s the sin in us. Regardless of what we know, regardless of what we want, the sin that has been with us since human beings first decided that being created in the image of God wasn’t enough and sought to be God instead, sin has ruled in our hearts—an unwelcome tenant we can’t evict. And Paul hits the nail on the head when he describes how that makes us feel: wretched. The Greek word Paul uses describes someone who is miserable, someone who is enduring trials and tribulation, someone who is in a terrible state. When we truly appreciate just how sinful we are and just how unable we are to rid ourselves of this death-dealing sin, it makes us wretched, and we send up the same SOS flare Paul does: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
The answer, of course, is God—God who sent Jesus to be the means by which sin would be made powerless in our lives. Jesus, who brings life to all who believe in him. Jesus, who gives us his own Spirit to dwell in us. Jesus, who gives us the power to resist the sinfulness that is in us and to live in Christ-like ways. Jesus rescues us from the sin that leads to death.
And he doesn’t rescue us because we’re able to check off all the good things we’ve done. He doesn’t rescue us because we’re not as bad as the next guy. He doesn’t rescue us because, at least sometimes, we manage not to break the law of God or human beings. He rescues us precisely at the moment when we understand that we are sinful and that only through him can we chart a different course. He rescues us when we come to him and ask for his forgiveness. And, by his free and unearned gift of grace, he takes us to himself and gives us what we need to truly live.
So then, if Jesus forgives our sin, can’t we just stop talking about and thinking about sin? Can’t we accept sinfulness as a given, forgiveness as the antidote, and move on?
No, we can’t. Because even though we’ve been forgiven for the sins we have committed, that doesn’t mean that the sinfulness in us has been rooted out. Sinfulness—an inclination to sin—still remains in us until that day when we are, in Wesleyan terms, completely sanctified—made holy in every respect, perfected in love. And while we believe that complete sanctification is possible in our lifetimes, for most of us it will take our entire lifetimes.
John Wesley described it this way: “Although we are renewed, cleansed, purified, and sanctified, the moment we truly believe in Christ, yet we are not then renewed, cleansed, and purified altogether; but the flesh, the evil nature, still remains (though subdued) and wars against the Spirit. So much the more let us use all diligence in ‘fighting the good fight of faith.’ So much the more earnestly let us ‘watch and pray’ against the enemy within.” And I would add, “So much the more let us return to the cross to be reminded of the gift of grace we’ve been given, and to ask Jesus once again to reign in our lives.”
Wesley knew how important it was for us to be watchful lest the sinfulness in us have a chance to flourish. And so, he required those first Methodists to gather together in groups called classes and bands. They gathered to examine their lives together and to be held accountable for how they were living out their faith. At each meeting, they responded to these questions: “How is it with your soul? What known sins have you committed since our last meeting, and what temptations have you met with? How were you delivered? What have you thought, said, or done, which you are unsure of whether it be sin or not?”
When I was in seminary, I was required to be part of one of these band groups. Having to answer these questions in a group every week was difficult. At first, we had a hard time coming up with sins and temptations to report. But, as we continued to meet and ask those questions of ourselves, we became more aware of the many things in our lives that meet the definition of sin I shared earlier. We became aware of the things that separated us from other people—the times we withheld forgiveness and held a grudge instead. The times we rolled our eyes at a classmate’s question or claimed pressing business when someone stated to share their list of woes. We realized how often we denied who we truly are—hiding the gifts we have because we didn’t want to commit to any more responsibilities, boasting about our achievements as though they were our own doing, or treating our bodies carelessly.
And, we realized how often we separated ourselves from God—by skipping chapel because we were too busy, by finding time for Facebook and TV and video games but not for prayer, by relying on ourselves instead of on God, and by withholding pieces of our lives from God’s control. What would you find if you asked yourself every day: “How is it with my soul?”
As my group asked that question of ourselves, we discovered how rampant sin is in our lives. But we also saw what Paul proclaims: that Jesus rescues us from the body of sin and death. The good news is that where sin is, God’s grace abounds. God’s grace, extended to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is never outstripped by our sin. It’s the grace spoken of in the old hymn that Linda played for our prelude—“Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt, yonder on Calvary’s mount out-poured, there where the blood of the Lamb was spilt. Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that will pardon and cleanse within; grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that is greater than all our sin.”
Sinfulness is part of our human nature, waiting for an opportunity to subvert our best intentions and our highest desires. It is always close at hand, ready to give us opportunities to say, “The Devil made me do it.” But, Jesus is closer still, through the power of his Holy Spirit. He stands ready to free us from the power of sin. He stands ready to free us to grow in happiness and holiness. He stands ready to shower us with his grace, so that when we accept him as the Lord of our lives, we can join with Paul in saying, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young