In Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, a fungus spreads through tree roots across 2,200 acres, making it the largest living organism ever found. Popularly known as the honey mushroom, the Armillaria Ostoyae started from a single microscopic spore. Yet it’s been weaving its black shoestring filaments through the forest for an estimated 2,400 years, killing trees as it grows.
One of the biologists working in the National Forest said, “When you’re on the ground, you don’t notice the pattern. You just see dead trees in clusters.” Digging into the roots of an affected tree, though, researchers find something that looks like white latex paint. These are mats of mycelium, which draw water and carbohydrates from the tree to feed the fungus and interfere with the tree’s absorption of nutrients. The shoestring filaments, called rhizomorphs, stretch as much as ten feet into the soil, invading tree roots through a combination of pressure and enzyme action.
From a single, microscopic spore that fell to the ground somewhere around 2,400 years ago to a massive fungus that covers 2,200 acres. That’s the picture St. Paul paints of the way sin entered the cosmos God created and into the human heart. From a single act of disobedience it has spread to the entire human race.[i] So much so that we cannot even imagine a human being who does not make mistakes and, at times, intentionally do wrong. To be human is to be flawed, to be broken, to make mistakes and to do wrong, along with doing right. “I’m only human, I make mistakes. I’m only human, That’s all it takes, To put the blame on me. Don’t put the blame on me.” Or as the 80s classic by The Human League says, “I’m only human. Of flesh and blood I’m made. Human. Born to make mistakes.” Every human heart has been tainted by sin. BUT … Let’s look together at Romans 5:15-21.
What is your fundamental identity? I mean who are you at the core of your being? When I ask people that question, their answers usually start with their occupation, or maybe their role in life. So they’ll say, “I’m an electrician” or “I’m an accountant.” And I’ll say, “No, that is what you do. Who are you?” So they’ll switch to a role they play. “I’m a husband. I’m a wife. I’m a mother. I’m a father. I’m a son. I’m a daughter.” No, those are roles you play. And those roles are an important part of you, but they aren’t you, at your core. Take those things away, and you’ll still be you in some sense. Is it your culture or your nationality or your race? Those things are deeper still, but they still aren’t fundamental. Basic. At the very center. At the very center of you is your identity as human. Take your arms and legs away, change your race or your gender or your role or your job, and you’ll still be a human being. In St. Paul’s terms, in Adam’s humanity. Or as C.S. Lewis calls us in the Chronicles of Narnia, “Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.” And that is the level at which God goes to work in our lives.
As human beings, we are, by default, born into Adam’s humanity. That means I have a sinful nature. It is natural for me to sin. Sometimes I make mistakes. Sometimes I do it on purpose with full knowledge that what I am doing is wrong. But my heart is sinful. That is the fundamental identity of every human being from birth. And that will stay my fundamental identity, unless …
Look at Vv. 17-19. Unless I am made righteous. Righteousness here doesn’t mean ethical, moral behavior. It means declared not guilty in a court of law. It is a legal declaration, not an ethical one. You see, at our core, we as human beings are either in Adam’s humanity or in Christ’s humanity. By default, we are in Adam. Unless, through faith, we are transferred by God into Christ’s humanity. As a therapist, I work with people in some of the deep places of their lives, but I cannot effect change at this core level. Only God can do this. Only God can go to our most basic, deepest level, the level of our identity as human beings, and transfer us from Adam to Christ.
And the law was given to make absolutely certain that I understand that, at my most basic level, I am desperately in need of a transformation that I cannot bring about myself. Look at vv. 20-21. “The law came in to increase the trespass.” What does that mean? It means that Jews had, since they first received the law from God, through Moses, on the mountain thousands of years before, tried their best to keep the law of God. And if there is one major point that the Old Testament hammers home, it is that no matter how hard we try, we as human beings can’t do it. We cannot keep the law of God. But the law helps us to see clearly defined right and wrong. So God is going to do something about it. And he does it in Christ.
And that transfer, from “in Adam” to “in Christ,” is a gift of grace I receive through faith. So a great cosmic battle is being waged within you, but it is not a battle between good and evil. If you are in Adam, evil has claimed your heart. If, through faith, you are in Christ, he has claimed your heart. The battle is not between good and evil. The battle is between guilt and grace. Guilt is our appropriate response when we have done something wrong, whether intentionally or accidentally. Guilt is the appropriate response to sin. When we do wrong, it is appropriate to feel guilty.
And as human beings, we deal with guilt in a number of unhealthy ways. Denial. We deny that we have done anything wrong, or that we feel guilty, or that right and wrong even exist. Minimization. “Well, compared to so-and-so, what I have done really isn’t all THAT bad.” “I’m only human. You can’t blame me for that. No one’s perfect.” Distraction. If I just stay busy enough, think about other stuff, I won’t have to deal with it. Blame-shifting. I am the way I am because of the way I was raised, or where I grew up. I am a product of my environment. Numbing and addiction. Even religion. If I go to church and am a good person, not perfect, but a good person, I’ll be okay.
I want you to imagine for a minute that you were married to Mr. Law. Or Mrs. Law. Not Gregg Law, or Ruth Law. That’s an unfortunate last name to have at the moment. Not talking about them. He was a good man, in his way, but he did not understand our weakness. He came home every evening and asked, “So, how was your day? Did you do what I told you to? Did you make the kids behave? Did you waste any time? Did you complete everything I put on your To Do list?” So many demands and expectations. And hard as we tried, we couldn’t be perfect. We could never satisfy him. We forgot things that were important to him. We let the children misbehave. We failed in other ways. It was a miserable marriage, because Mr. Law always pointed out our failings. And the worst of it was, he was always right! But his remedy was always the same: Do better tomorrow. We didn’t, because we couldn’t.
Then Mr. Law died. And we remarried, this time to Mr. Grace. Or Mrs. Grace. Our new husband, Jesus, comes home every evening and the house is a mess, the children are being naughty, dinner is burning on the stove, and we have even had other men in the house during the day. Still, he sweeps us into his arms and says, “I love you, I chose you, I died for you, I will never leave you nor forsake you.” And our hearts melt. We don’t understand such love. We expect him to despise us and reject us and humiliate us, but he treats us so well. We are so glad to belong to him now and forever, and we long to be fully pleasing to him! Being married to Mr. Law never changed us. But being married to Mr. Grace is changing us deep within, and it shows.[ii]
None of our coping mechanisms can cover our guilt, deal with our guilt, take it away. They only hide it. Grace deals with it. But before I can receive grace, I have to be willing to come out of hiding. That’s what the law of God does. It forces me to stop hiding, stop ignoring, stop coping, and face my core identity as a sinful member of Adam’s race. A son of Adam. A daughter of Eve. And it is then, when I stop hiding, that I am swept away in an overwhelming flood of grace. Look at V. 15. And V. 17. And V. 20. “Grace … abounded.” “Abundance of grace.” “Grace abounded all the more.” The deeper and more pervasive sin gets, the greater grace flows. The word translated as “abounded all the more” in English actually doesn’t have a great, direct translation. The best word might be super-abounded. Where sin abounded, grace super-abounded. Where death increased, grace super-increased. Sin and death grow and abound because they aren’t met by a force greater than them. Grace is a force greater than sin and death. At our lowest point, when sin abounded, grace abounded even more. When the crowds shouted “Let his blood be on us” to Pilate as he washed his hands of the whole Jesus issue, as the angry crowds saw Jesus nailed to a cross of wood, as sin abounded – Jesus whispered, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing” – grace abounded even more. When the condemned criminal hanging on a cross beside him jeered and mocked, when sin abounded – Jesus said to the other condemned criminal, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” – grace abounded all the more. Wherever sin and death rear their ugly head, bringing guilt and shame, the grace of God in Christ is there to push back with an overwhelming force that no darkness, no evil can withstand. “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”
St. Paul, writing to his young protégé Timothy, said, “… though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:13-14). Where sin flows, grace overflows. That is the nature of the God who loves us. He knew who and what he had been: a sinful member of Adam’s race condemned to death. And he chose grace. Guilt or grace. The work is God’s, done in Christ, but the choice is ours. Guilt or grace?
Now this doesn’t mean that sin can’t flow. Sin will flow unless a force greater than sin meets it, and there exists only one force greater than sin … the grace of God in Christ. The power of Christ is greater, more powerful, far superior to the power of sin and death. But this doesn’t mean that sin and death won’t win the day in the lives of some. Look again at V. 17. We MUST RECEIVE the abundance of grace. And we receive it by faith. By placing our trust in the work of Christ on the cross. By coming out of hiding, admitting our sin and our sinful natures, and allowing God to transfer us from Adam’s humanity to Christ’s humanity.
In May 2009 at Azuza Pacific University, at a pre-commencement gathering of about 50 people at – people from the graduating class of 50 years ago and a few faculty members, John Wallace, the president of APU, brought out three students who were graduating that year and told the group that for the next two years, they were going to serve the poorest of the poor in India.
These three students thought they were there just to be commissioned and sent out with a blessing—which they were. But then something happened that they did not know was coming. John turned to them and said, “I have a piece of news for you. There’s somebody you do not know – an anonymous donor – who is so moved by what you’re doing that he has given a gift to this university in your name, on your behalf.”
John turned to the first student and said, “You are forgiven your debt of $105,000.” The kid immediately starts to cry. John turns to the next student: “You’re forgiven your debt of $70,000.” He then turns to the third student: “You are forgiven your debt of $130,000.” All three students had no idea this was coming. They were just ambushed by grace – blown away that somebody they don’t even know would pay their debt. The whole room was in tears.[iii]
Such is the overwhelming power and nature of the grace of God. Where sin increases, grace abounds even more. Guilt or grace? The choice is yours.
[i] Gary Stewart, Newport News, Virginia; adapted from Associated Press story, The Daily Press (Newport News) (8-5-00)
[ii] Ray Ortlund, “Who are you married to?” The Gospel Coalition blog;Ray Ortlund (2-15-15)
[iii] John Ortberg, in the sermon “Patch ‘Em,” Menlo Park Presbyterian, Menlo Park, California (preached 5-17-09)