A man once emailed me. He claimed to be a Christian. And the topic of his email was sin. He wrote about his sexual addictions and how he’s been attending counseling to deal with the addiction. He said, I am trying to get my life straightened out but am not sure how to do it and am scared to do it. There was genuine struggle in his words. It was the email of a Christian wrestling with sin. I’ll bet it’s the kind of email many of us could send. You may not be struggling with sexual addictions. But you probably are struggling with a behavior that could be called sin.
I like the way Carl Sandburg once put it: There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud. Don’t you feel like that? There is a part of us that wants to be heroic, and godly, and courageous. But there’s also a part of us that wants to be selfish, fearful, and greedy. Even for us Christians, part of us still wants to wallow in the mud. Even we Christians struggle with sin.
One of the many sins I struggle with is anger. It’s such a battle that my own kids recently confronted me. One night at home a few weeks ago, Jordan and Jacob ganged up on me. “Dad,” they said, “you yell too much.” “No I don’t!” I yelled. “Yes, you do,” they replied. “You raise your voice too much.” And after some debate, I realized they were right. I do yell too much. I do raise my voice in anger too much. So, we agreed on a plan. Every time I yelled in anger I would pay my kids fifty cents. Our conversation ended and I thought to myself, “I can do this. This is going to be no problem.” But you can guess what happened, can’t you? The next day Jordan said, “Dad, you just yelled.” And sure enough I had. Fifty cents. The next day, “Dad, you just yelled.” Fifty more cents. This wasn’t as easy I thought. When we are honest with ourselves, we all struggle with sin.
This struggle is reflected in Romans. Listen to Paul’s words in Rom. 6:1: What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? (Rom. 6:1 TNIV). In chapter 5 Paul’s been writing about God’s grace. Essentially, he has said that when Christians sin God’s grace covers the sin. But this now leads some of the readers to wonder: does this mean I can just keep on sinning? Does this mean I don’t have to keep up my fight against sin? The question comes in the context of Christians who are struggling with sin but now wonder if God’s grace means they can quit the struggle.
We find another struggle with sin in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In 1 Cor. 5:11 Paul writes about the following: fellow believers [who] are sexually immoral or greedy, idolaters or slanderers, drunkards or swindlers. (1 Cor. 5:11 TNIV). In other words, there are members of the church in Corinth who are still involved in sexual immorality, greed, idol worship, slandering, drunkenness, and swindling. Both in the Roman church and in the Corinthian church Christians were struggling with sin.
But when we are really honest with ourselves, we admit that not only do we struggle with sin. Many of us actually tolerate sin. It seems that the Christians mentioned in 1 Cor. 5 have intentionally turned back to these sins. It doesn’t sound like they are trying to be good, but failing. It sounds more like they’ve embraced these sins. And if we took the time to read the whole letter, we’d find the reason they are tolerating this sin is that this is what their culture does. They’ve gotten involved in the same kinds of sinful activities as the rest of culture. Sometimes we tolerate sin because our culture tolerates it.
I’ve been in communication with a Christian man recently who is living with a woman he’s not married to. He told me he knows it’s wrong. But he’s not willing to give it up. And it occurs to me that one reason this man tolerates this sexual sin is that this what our culture does. Sex outside of marriage is so common in the media and in practice that it’s no wonder this Christian man tolerates the same sin in his own life.
But there are other reasons we Christians tolerate sin. Sometimes we tolerate sin because we believe our God tolerates it. That’s basically the issue in Rom. 6:1. Paul writes, Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? That’s apparently what some readers believed. They just kept on sinning because they believe grace just keeps increasing—God tolerates sin.
But there is a more fundamental reason we Christians tolerate sin. In both letters, Paul will point to baptism and say this: we tolerate sin because we have forgotten who we’ve become through our baptism. In both letters, Paul points Christians back to their baptisms to remind them who they became. Because if we really remember who we became in our baptism, we won’t tolerate sin in our lives.
Here’s what Paul writes to the Corinthians: 9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:9-11 TNIV). Paul reminds these Christians of the sin they were involved in before they knew Jesus. As we’ve heard in 1 Cor. 5 some of the Christians continue to engage in these sins. But now to empower these Christians to stop sinning, Paul points to their baptism. Even though Paul never uses the word “baptism” in this text, most believe this is what Paul is describing. And Paul uses three words to describe who they’ve become through their baptism: washed, sanctified, and justified.
Who have they become through their baptism? They’ve become people once muddy, now clean. They were washed, implying they were stained. Before they knew Jesus, they were involved in behavior that was “dirty.” But that dirt, that stain has been washed from them. That’s what happened in their baptism. They are people once muddy, now clean. And the “so what?” is this: why would a clean person want to get muddy again? If your identity is wrapped up in the word “clean” why would you want to get involved in anything contrary to that identity?
One summer we visited Kendra’s parents at their lakeside home in Brownwood, TX. Kendra’s Dad had a pile of dirt near the house. Jacob and his cousin Conner, about five at the time, spent the whole week in that pile of dirt. They’d play for a while in the dirt, get filthy, and then jump in the lake. Not long afterwards, they’d be back in the dirt, getting filthy. That may be OK for little boys. But it doesn’t make sense for followers of Jesus. We’ve spent enough time playing in the dirt pile in. Through our baptism, Jesus and the Spirit have washed us. Why would we return to the dirt? We are people once muddy, now clean. That’s our identity.
Second, Paul reminds them they’ve become people once common now holy. Paul writes that they’ve not only been washed through their baptism, they’ve also been sanctified. The word “sanctified” literally means to be made holy. The word “holy” carries the idea of being set apart for sacred use. For example, in the temple there were vessels that were sanctified—they were set apart for use only in the temple. You wouldn’t find a priest taking tongs his family used to tend the fire in their home and then using those tongs to tend the fire at the temple. In the Old Testament there were “common” objects and “holy” objects. Common objects were used in everyday life. Holy objects were set apart for use in sacred activities.
Paul is saying that through your baptism you became a person once common now holy. Through your baptism God set you apart for sacred purposes. You’re no longer on this earth for common purposes. It is God’s intent to use you for the kinds of things that are truly divine. For example, in my house we have three kinds of plates. First, we have paper plates. Sometimes we use them for lunches. Or if I have to scoop up a dead bug, I might use one. Second, we have our regular plates. We use those most days for most meals. But third, we have our nice plates. We set those plates apart for times when we have guests or family over. Similarly, when you were baptized you went from paper plate to nice plate. God set you apart for very special purposes. And the “so what” is this: why would you return to common purposes? When we tolerate sin in our lives it’s like going back to paper-plate status, or, for that matter, toilet-paper status. Why would we do such a thing? We are a people once common now holy. That’s our identity.
Third, Paul reminds them that they’ve become people once guilty now innocent. Not only were they washed. Not only were they sanctified. But they were also justified through their baptism. This word “justified” refers to the verdict of a judge. Through our baptism Judge God declared us “innocent” even though our sin made us “guilty.” He could do this because Jesus took our guilty sentence upon himself. Our guilty status became his and his innocent status became ours. For this reason, at our baptism, God could declare us “innocent.”
Last Christmas, my mom and step-dad were in town and we took them to Shiloh, the Civil War battlefield. On the way back as we passed through one of the small towns where the speed-limit drops quickly, I failed to notice the change in the speed-limit. And sure enough, a cop caught me. I was guilty and ended up paying an expensive fine. But what if the police officer had walked up to me said, “Sir, you were speeding. But I tell you what…I’m going to pay this fine for you. I’ll mail my check but have it applied to your account.” I would have been shocked. Even more, I would not have sped again. After something like that, how could I speed again? Through your baptism God declared you to be a person once guilty but now innocent—because Jesus applied his death to your account. After something like that, why would we ever want to tolerate sin? It goes against all that we are.
Paul provides two more images in Rom. 6: 1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 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. 5 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. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin…22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 6:1-23 TNIV).
Paul uses at least two images in this text about baptism. First, Paul reveals how they’ve become people once alive to sin now dead to sin. Paul writes that we died to sin (2); we were baptized into Jesus’ death (3); we were buried with Jesus through baptism (4); we were united with Jesus in his death (5); we were crucified (6); and we died (7). Paul is saying that through baptism our break from sin was so radical it was as if we died to that sinful way of living. We died to that life and have been raised into a different life. And we simply cannot return to that other life.
I read about a woman in Nashville, TN who was accidentally declared dead. The problem started when someone else in Florida died. But rather than that dead woman’s Social Security number being typed into the records, a typo was made. And the Social Security number typed into the dead Florida woman’s records was the Social Security number of a very alive Laura Todd back in Nashville, TN. And this created all kind of trouble. Todd tried to refinance her house and SunTrust called and said, “Your credit report says you’re dead.” She sent in her tax return to the IRS, but the IRS wouldn’t process it—their records showed that she was dead. Her bank closed her credit card account and sent a note of sympathy: “Please accept our condolences on the death of Laura Todd.” Laura Todd was just trying to live the life she had always lived, but she couldn’t because everyone kept telling her she was dead. When we tolerate sin in our lives, we’re like Laura Todd trying to live life like we always have. But Paul is saying, “You can’t do that. You’re dead. When you were baptized you died to that life.” We are people once alive to sin now dead to sin.
Second, Paul reminds them that through their baptism they’ve become people once enslaved now free. Paul writes that we should no longer be slaves to sin (6); that sin once ruled us (6); we have been set free from sin (7); and that freedom leads to holiness (22). Paul is acknowledging that there is a power to sin. And once we give in to it, sin enslaves us. And it is a cruel master. It will not stop until it destroys us and anyone around us it can. All that mess going on right now around Mark Sanford the governor of South Carolina demonstrates this. Over the years Sanford gave in to sin and had inappropriate relationships outside of marriage. Then he gave in and started a long affair with a woman in South America. It led him to skip out of town and visit her and no one in South Carolina knew where he was. Suddenly his family is shattered. The national Republican Party is reeling because they thought Sanford might make a run for the presidency. And the South Carolina government and people are dealing with the consequences as well. Sin is a cruel master.
But through baptism God set us free from that enslavement. That doesn’t mean we don’t still struggle. But it does mean that through that water God liberated us from that master. And the “so what” is this: Having been set free, why would we return?
The movie “Blood Diamond” tells of the turmoil of Sierra Leone’s civil war in 1999. Ruthless gangs would kidnap children and enslave the children in their armies. At one point in the movie, Dia Vandy, a sweet young boy, is taken away by a merciless military leader. Dia is forced to kill and rape and murder. Toward the end of the movie, however, Dia comes face to face with his father. His father has been declared an enemy and Dia raises his gun to murder his father. Solomon, the father, say: “Dia, what are you doing? Look at me. You are Dia Vandy. Of the proud Mende tribe. You are a good boy who loves soccer and school. Your mother loves you so much. She waits by the fire making plantains and red palm oil stew with your sister N’Yanda and the new baby. The cows wait for you. And Babu, the wild dog who minds no one but you. I know they made you do bad things, but you are not a bad boy. I am your father, who loves you. And you will come home with me and be my son again.” Dia puts the gun down, and Solomon hugs him. Watch this clip: That’s what happened in your baptism. You were enslaved to a cruel master who led you to do bad things. But your Father freed you. Your father reminded you that you are his son. You are his daughter. And he wants you to come home and live with him. Why would you ever want to leave his loving hands and return to that merciless master of sin? You are a person once enslaved now free.
Each week in this series, I want us to make a confession and a pledge together. Here is it:
Say this out loud: I struggle with amnesia, but this week I will remember who I’ve become through my baptism. Remember this week that in your baptism you’ve become a person once muddy now clean; a person once common now holy; a person once guilty now innocent; a person once alive to sin now dead to sin; a person once enslaved, now free. So go live out that identity. And if you’ve not been baptized, come to the front and let us help you do that today. Let us help you experience cleansing, becoming holy, being declared innocent, dying to sin, and being freed from sin.
 Carl Sandburg quoted in Richard Hansen, “A Good Mystery,” Preaching Today Audio issue 253.
 Nancy Amons “Woman Says Being Declared Dead Ruins Life: Laura Todd Says She’s Been Dead On, Off Again For 8 Years,” POSTED: 5:10 pm CST February 15, 2008 (http://www.wsmv.com/news/15315424/detail.html).
 Blood Diamond (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006), directed by Edward Zwick, written by Charles Leavitt.