We Just Can't Help Ourselves
Why is it that you and I are sinners as we sit here this Sabbath morning? Why do all human beings sin—and usually fairly early in their experience on planet earth?
There’s a classic story which illustrates what we’re up against. Have you ever heard of the scorpion who wanted to get across a certain river? But there were no bridges and he didn't know how to swim. So he asked Mr. Frog to ferry him across.
You can understand that Mr. Frog was very nervous about this idea. "No way," he said. "What kind of a fool do you take me for? I know what you'll do. We'll get out there and then you'll sting me and I'll drown."
"I wouldn't do that," protested the scorpion. "I mean, think about it. If I were to sting you, I'd drown too."
Well, that made sense to Mr. Frog. So, still a bit reluctantly, he let the scorpion climb aboard and they started out on their little voyage across the river.
Halfway across, the unthinkable happened. Without warning, the scorpion screamed, kaaaaai!, plunged his stinger deep into the frog's flesh and he unloaded both barrels of triple-X poison.
As they both headed for the bottom of the river, the frog sadly asked: "Why'd you do that? Now we're both going to die."
The drowning scorpion, a little baffled himself, managed to confess with his last breath: "I'm sorry, but I couldn't help it. It's simply my nature."
And you know, it's simply a fact of Planet Earth that scorpions have to sting frogs. Even if it means their own demise. They have to do it.
How about you and me? It's our nature to sin, isn't it? Even when we know it's destructive, we do it. Even when we can see the shattered-ness of it all, the emptiness, the tears and the cemeteries, we keep on sinning. It's human nature to sin. We're born with sinful human natures.
I was reading about a man who had a serious addiction to going to horse races. Even though he lost every Sunday and came home with empty pockets, he continued to attend. It was a compulsion he couldn’t overcome. One weekend, so the joke goes, he took the bus clear out to the track only to find out that it was unexpectedly closed for some holiday. So he took out a $20 bill, tore it into little pieces, and took the same bus back into town! That, you see, is a bowing to the reality of our human nature. Many people all around us drink, smoke, gamble, have affairs, or take drugs . . . in full knowledge of the reality that they are hurting themselves. They know full well what hangovers feel like; they’ve had one every weekend for the past ten years. But they just can’t stop.
Now, whether you want to argue theology or simply look at the historical record, it's very clear that every single human being on this earth is born with an inclination to sin. In the book of Romans, chapter five, we find these blunt words: Sin entered the world through ONE MAN, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.
That one man, of course, was Adam. And when he sinned, the whole human race inherited the death sentence that comes with sin. Every toddler in our Cradle Roll department this morning is essentially here with a death sentence hanging over their heads. Except for the cross of Jesus, they’re heading to the graveyard just as we all are. Through the sin of Adam, we all came under sentence of death.
What does it mean when we say that you and I are born as sinners? We all know the story of how King David committed adultery, having a shameless affair with a woman named Bathsheba, wife of one of his trusted generals. She got pregnant, and it was a royal scandal. Presidential scandals here in the United States are nothing compared with “Bathshebagate.” David conspired to get Uriah the Hittite to leave the battlefield and go home, hoping that would cover up his crime. He got Uriah drunk in a vain attempt to complete the deception. When that didn’t work, he conspired to have this valiant warrior killed in the heat of battle. I’m telling you, this was a mess. Why did it happen? Because King David was a sinner. Later, as he writes about his dilemma in the book of Psalms, chapter 51, the famous "confession" chapter, he admits to his fallen roots. Here it is: "Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me."
That's the familiar King James rendition, which you very likely have heard before. In the New International Version, it reads this way: "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me."
Have you ever heard about busy people who "hit the ground running"? In the delivery room we hit the obstetrician's catcher's mitt sinning. We're born as sinners.
Now, please let me say again: this can involve theology deeper and more controversial than we can tackle in this one Sabbath sermon, or even in a month of them. Are we really born committing sins? Comedian Bill Cosby describes the birth of his first daughter, who emerged into this world smiling and cooing and promising to be good. Even her dirty diapers smelled like roses. Well, the birth of his second daughter was another experience entirely. After twenty hours of intensive labor, she came screeching into society with a howl that terrified everyone in the maternity ward. She showed up with a cigar in one hand and a cocktail in the other, screaming insults at everyone in the delivery room. Cosby claims that he named her Beelzebub!
Well, that's an exaggeration and we kind of smile. But are we sinners at birth?
Perhaps you've heard of the doctrine of "original sin," first suggested by Augustine. He taught that we are not only born sinners, but that we're responsible for sin from birth. Our friends in the Catholic faith hold to this pillar of faith.
I'd like to very humbly counter that with a verse found in the book of James. Here’s chapter four, verse 17: Anyone, then, who KNOWS the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins.
That would seem to indicate that knowledge and understanding are factors in committing sin. Jesus clearly states the same thing both in John chapter 9 and chapter 15 in dialogue with the Pharisees. “If you were blind,”He told them, “you would not be guilty, but because you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” If He hadn’t come to this earth and plainly revealed the will of the Father, well, maybe that would an excuse, He later added. But not now. For those who know better, disobedience is sin.
In our Adventist denomination, then, we don't baptize or christen our babies. They aren't responsible for sin until they have had the opportunity to understand the problem intelligently, see their condition, and grasp what kind of a remedy there is. Then their responsibility begins.
No matter how you slice this theological debate, though, there's no denying the end result. Whether we believe in original sin or not, all six billion of us are living demonstrations of de facto sin; that’s for sure. We're all born in sin; every one of us is on that highway pointing down. Our computer default mode is SIN. Without some kind of a turnaround, a U-turn, a 180-degree change in course, you will keep sinning and you will be eventually lost.
Our basic problem is that we're actually born separated from God. For years, Christians have been passing around little tracts on the beach entitled “The Four Spiritual Laws.” And no matter how they’re expressed, one of the stark realities of this world is that sin separates us from our heavenly Father. We're born with a built-in chasm between us and God . . . and so we're born self-centered. Every baby born in this world is self-centered.
I have to observe, tongue in cheek, that just fifteen minutes in our cradle roll department here or maybe even in kindergarten will illustrate that reality. This church has the most wonderful babies in the world, but for some reason they are all intent on getting their own way. When I’m preaching, and they begin to cry—well, you would think they might stop. I worked a long time on this sermon! It took hours to prepare. Couldn’t they do their sobbing and wailing some other time? But no. They are going to cry right now no matter what I say or do. Why? Because they have needs they want attended to, and they don’t want to wait for our closing hymn. They are self-centered. Now God doesn't hold them responsible yet for that selfish nature, but you can sure see it's there.
We've been quoting in this sermon series from Pastor Morris Venden's book, To Know God: A Five-Day Plan. Here's a definition he shares: “Sin, singular, is any life that is apart from God. And sins, plural, are the bad things that are done as a result of living apart from God."
Then he adds this extra insight: "Sin, singular, is living a life apart from God, and it makes no difference how good a life that might be. There are many people who live good, moral lives apart from God. But they are living in sin. Whether or not they ever do anything wrong, they are living in sin. Their good lives are sin."
And maybe you're saying, "What?!” That's what the Bible teaches. You can read in Romans 14:23 these seven words: "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin." I once read where Pastor H. M. S. Richards prayed in a group: “Lord, please forgive us for our good deeds.” And everyone there peeked out of one eye and went: What?
Let me ask you something. Have you ever done good deeds . . . for the wrong reason? Have you ever paid somebody a compliment hoping to get a favor in return or a raise? Have you ever mowed the lawn for an old lady—a very rich old lady who's about to die and leave her estate to someone on an eenie-meenie-miney-mo basis? Have you ever attended a function you really didn’t want to go to, and you made sure you walked past a certain someone who would award you some brownie points for having gone?
I remember a "Peanuts" cartoon that goes back quite a few years. Some of you know that cartoonist Charles Schultz was a devout Christian, and he often used his daily strip in order to convey gentle spiritual lessons. In this particular vignette, it's December, just a few days before Christmas, and Lucy and Linus—usually vicious brother-and-sister enemies—are holding hands with pious smiles on their faces. "We're brother and sister and we LOVE each other," they say cheerfully, holiday syrup oozing from their voices.
Charlie Brown throws up both hands in protest. "Are you crazy?" he yells. He knows them, you see. He’s seen their sinful natures many, many times—especially in Lucy, who is always pulling that football away before he can kick it. "You guys can't fool Santa Claus that way!"
"Why not?" Lucy wants to know. "We're a couple of sharp kids and he's just an old man."
In the final frame Charlie Brown is leaning in discouragement against a tree. "I weep for my generation," he laments.
You can see our dilemma, can't you? Our bad deeds are sin. And even our good deeds are sin, are tainted, painted hypocrisy, if they're done apart from a relationship with God. Again, I think of Pastor Richards’ prayer: "Lord, forgive us for our self-serving, sanctimonious good deeds."
Is our situation hopeless, then? If bad is bad, and if good is kind of bad too? The book of Isaiah, chapter 64, tells us that even our righteous deeds are like filthy rags. They count for zip, nothing, nada . . . because they are so spoiled by an underlying selfishness. So where do we find ourselves?
Well, the gospel of Jesus is always good news. For those of us filled with badness, and also for those of us who bring a lot of empty goodness to church—Jesus has some good news for us. We're helpless but not hopeless. Our good deeds are worth nothing, but we’re not worth nothing. God's plan of salvation makes it clear that we're worth everything to Him!
The scientists who know how to calculate these things tell us that our planet weighs something like six sextillion tons. That's six times ten to the twenty-first power for you mathematicians here today who have mastered “scientific notation”: a six with 21 zeros after it. But if you put the globe on one side and one of our little sinful, diaper-soiling, squalling, screaming, selfish babies in the other side, the scales would tip in favor of the baby . . . as far as God's value system is concerned.
Morris Venden once observed that a trade like Calvary provides, our sins for Christ's saving righteousness, is a trade like no other. Anyone making a trade like that is either stupid, or He loves us an awful lot. Well, which is it? You know the answer. Calvary shows how much you are worth to heaven. Calvary shows how much God wants to bridge that gulf. Norm Gulley writes that the cross of Jesus constitutes the greatest price tag ever placed on anything.
So what is to be our response? If everything we do outside of a relationship with God is sin—isn't it clear that the one thing we can do, the only thing we can do . . . is to get with God and stay with God? That's what we're saying all through this sermon series together. A relationship with God and with Jesus Christ isn't everything, it's the only thing. You and I need to get with God and stay with God. Every day, every hour, hang onto your dependence on Him, your friendship with Him.
It's bedrock Bible truth that we're not saved by our righteousness. Ephesians two, eight and nine—here we seem to keep going there just about every Sabbath morning now—says: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.
That's a hallmark verse, isn’t it, for every believer. Here's another one. Romans 3:20: No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.
So we’re faced here with something we can’t do ourselves. In our own natures, we are sinful people. Men and women. Boys and girls. Young and old. Seniors and babies. We’re sinful in our impulses, we’re sinful in our sins, and we’re even sinful in our attempted goodness. That’s a triple gap, isn’t it? If even our attempts at obedience are just a deeper pit and not a ladder, then how can we cross back over to be in God’s good graces?
Only a trust friendship with Jesus Christ can save us. Only a daily walk with Him can see us safely through. It truly is our greatest decision. Shall we pray?
Father, all of us are prone to think highly of ourselves, to consider ourselves worthy of love and praise. Help us to recognize our sinful state, and to gratefully accept Your singular offer of reconciliation and forgiveness. Forgive us, please, even of our good deeds . . . if we are trying to qualify for justification through such feeble efforts. And we give You all of the glory for the process of salvation. In Your Son Jesus’ saving name, Amen.
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