Charles “Chuck” Colson was once known as President Nixon’s “hatchet man.” He was one of the “Watergate Seven” and the first member of Nixon’s administration to be incarcerated for charges related to the Watergate Scandal. Just before he went to prison, he gave his life to Christ, and his was the kind of radical life change that we rarely see. After getting out of prison, he spent the remainder of his life as one of the most humble and influential Christian leaders in the world until his death in 2012. In his book Being the Body, Charles Colson writes about meeting a businessman whom he calls Mr. Abercrombie. Mr. Abercrombie had invited Colson to speak at a Bible study he hosted. Nineteen other movers and shakers of the business world were in attendance. Colson writes about what transpired:
Mr. Abercrombie had asked me to speak at the luncheon and then allow time for questions. Somewhere in my talk I referred to our sinful nature. Actually, “total depravity” was the phrase I used. I noticed at the time that a few individuals shifted uncomfortably in their leather chairs, and, sure enough, it must have hit the mark. Because after I finished, the first question was on sin. “You don’t really believe we are sinners, do you? I mean, you’re too sophisticated to be one of those hellfire-and-brimstone fellows,” one older gentleman said, eyeing my dark blue pinstripe suit just like his. “Intelligent people don’t go for that back-country preacher stuff,” he added.
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “I believe we are desperately sinful. What’s inside of each of us is really pretty ugly. In fact we deserve hell and would get it, but for the sacrifice of Christ for our sins.”
Mr. Abercrombie himself looked distressed by now. “Well, I don’t know about that,” he said. “I’m a good person and have been all my life. I go to church, and I get exhausted spending all my time doing good works.” The room seemed particularly quiet, and twenty pairs of eyes were trained on me.
“If you believe that, Mr. Abercrombie – and I hate to say this, for you certainly won’t invite me back – you are, for all of your good works, further away from the kingdom than the people I work with in prison who are aware of their own sins.” Someone at the other end of the table coughed. Another rattled his coffee cup. And a flush quickly worked its way up from beneath Mr. Abercrombie’s starched white collar.
“In fact, gentlemen,” I added, drawing on a favorite R. C. Sproul shocker, “If you think about it, we are all really more like Adolf Hitler than like Jesus Christ.” Now there was stony silence…until someone eased the pain and changed the subject.
When lunch ended and I was preparing to leave, Mr. Abercrombie took my arm. “Didn’t you say you wanted to make a phone call when we were finished?” I started to say it wasn’t necessary, then realized he wanted to get me alone. “Yes, thank you,” I said. He led me down the corridor to an empty office. As soon as we were inside, he said bluntly, “I don’t have what you have.” “I know,” I replied, “but you can. God is touching your heart right now.” “No, no,” he took a step back. “Maybe some time.” I pressed a bit more, however, and moments later we were both on our knees. Mr. Abercrombie asked forgiveness of his sins and turned his life over to Christ. Colson concludes: “Martin Luther was right. ‘The ultimate proof of the sinner is that he doesn’t know his own sin. Our job is to make him see it.’”[i]
Some of us are a lot more like that businessman than we’d like to think. Busy going to church, serving on boards and committees in our community, exhausting ourselves doing good works. But we don’t know our own sin, because we refuse to look in the mirror. We can’t, or won’t, take a good look inside. When the Holy Spirit tries to direct our attention to something in us that he wants to deal with, we ignore. We look away. We pretend there’s nothing there to see. Anything to avoid having to see things about ourselves that we don’t want to see and allow God to go to work on those things in our lives. The ability to self-reflect, to think about ourselves and how we are REALLY doing is higher in some than in others. Introverts tend to be much better at it than extroverts. But when it comes to looking at the dark places in our lives, none of us takes a close look. There are things there that we’d rather not see. But God wants to clean those dark places out. He points them out not so that we’ll feel bad about ourselves, although that can happen for a while, but so that he can go to work in our lives cleaning them up, something he never does without our knowledge. He doesn’t show us so that he can shame us or beat us up, but so that he can transform us. Jesus meets us right where we are in life, in all of our filth and mistakes and brokenness and sin. He meets us right where we are, always. But he refuses to leave us there.
In the early chapters of Romans, St. Paul kind of goes on a rant. He starts with grace. Like the first 17 verses are grace. But then he goes on this extended sin rant from 1:18 to 3:20, and he’s kind of summarizing everything up in the text we’re looking at today. Now I know, sin isn’t a word we like to use anymore. We talk about our brokenness, the things other people do to us that hurt us and damage us in some way. Yes, there are some things wrong with me, but it’s other people’s fault. And we talk about being flawed human beings. Yes I’m flawed. We’re all flawed and just doing the best that we can. But no one wants to talk about our sin anymore, because sin implies that I’m responsible, before God, for this mess that I’m in. Yes, other people have done some damage. And yes, we’re all flawed. That’s actually Paul’s point. But that flaw is called sin, and I am responsible for it. Turn to Romans 3:9-20. (Read V. 9.)
Now wait a minute. Six verses above, back in V. 2, Paul says that there is an advantage to being religious, in his case Jewish. Now, in V. 9, he says the opposite. Is there an advantage to growing up in Sunday school, attending church, knowing the Bible, or not? The answer Paul gives is yes. And no. It depends on what you mean by “advantage.” Am I automatically forgiven, saved, because I attend church, go to Bible study, serve on a committee, and know the Bible? No. I have no advantage there. There’s an old saying, “just going to church, doesn’t make you a Christian any more than walking into a McDonalds makes you a Big Mac.” I don’t care if you walk into McDonalds every day, you’ll never be a Big Mac. Not unless something really dramatic and in the case of this analogy, really weird happens to you. In the same way, walking into a church, even every day, won’t make you a Christ follower.
Now, don’t hear me wrong and stay home next week. We aren’t encouraged to gather together to worship, to encourage one another, to pray together, to study the Word of God – we’re COMMANDED to. And we do have an advantage on another level. We are free to worship God. We gather today free of fear of being arrested or worse. Authentic followers of Christ want to gather together to worship and encourage. And we have the Word of God to reveal the nature of God to us, the love and the grace, and the mercy of God. And Scripture bears witness to Jesus Christ, who is the living, breathing, revelation of God. But it’s possible to do all of those things and not actually have any faith in Christ, not actually follow Jesus, and THAT is what Paul is warning us about. He wants to make absolutely certain that we understand this truth: it doesn’t matter whether you were born in the jungles of Africa, the Arabian desert, under communist rule in China, or in a good, church-going family here in the United States, you have a sin problem, and you can’t solve it by yourself. Doesn’t mean you’re as bad as you possibly could be. Most of us aren’t. Most of us are pretty good people who are capable of doing some really good, self-sacrificial things. But every one of us is also capable of doing some really bad things.
Now look at Vv. 10-18. Paul has just strung together several quotes from the Old Testament in one long description of sin. Stringing them together like pearls, he quotes from Psalm 5, Psalm 10, Psalm 14, Psalm 36, Psalm 53, Psalm 140, Proverbs 1, Proverbs 3, and Isaiah 59. You can do that when, to graduate from what we today would call high school, you had to have memorized, without error, the entire Old Testament, as Paul did. But he makes one significant change. Psalm 14 says, “there is none who does good.” Paul changes the word good to “righteous.” “None is righteous.” He’s zeroing in on the truth that the standard of comparison for goodness isn’t some really good human being. It’s God. And like a piece of fruit that looks good on the outside and is rotten inside, sin begins with a rotten heart in every, single, human being. Look at Vv. 10-12. What word keeps coming up over and over and over again? None, right? None. Not one. No one. No one. All. Together. No one. Not even one. But we know that we’re all capable of doing some really good things, right? We do good things all the time. Only a fool would argue against that. We see good people doing good, selfless things every day.
Christian philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard was once asked if he believed in the theological concept of total depravity – that there is absolutely nothing at all good in the human heart. His answer was, “I believe in sufficient depravity … I believe that every human being is sufficiently depraved that when we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, ‘I merited this.’” You see, our standard for “good” isn’t one another. The standard is the goodness of God. No human being has ever lived a full life in such a way that it could be said of him, “She (because let’s be honest, no man would get close) is a good as God.” That can’t be said of anyone. This isn’t about who is worse. We all know some who do worse things than others. This is about no one being good enough, as good as God, even if we’re better than everyone else. And that’s why R.C. Sproul can say “If you think about it, we are all really more like Adolf Hitler than like Jesus Christ.” We are all enslaved by sin.
In Time Lev Grossman writes: Every year on the first Saturday in December, twenty-five hundred of the most brilliant college students in North America take what may be the hardest math test in the world—the Putnam Competition. How tough is it? Although there are only twelve questions, the test lasts six hours. And although these are the best and brainiest young minds our country has to offer, the median score on last year’s test was one point. Out of a possible 120. No matter how much good you do, next to the goodness of God, your goodness doesn’t look so great. And that is the standard.
Now, look at Vv. 13-14. There’s an obvious shift here. The focus shifts from the pervasiveness of sin to it’s primary expression, the way we speak. Rotten hearts lead to bitter tongues. One of our tendencies as followers of Christ, and this has been true through the ages, has been to try to avoid all of the bad stuff in the world. Not associate with bad people. Not associate at all with bad things. We don’t hang out with THOSE kind of people. We don’t go to THOSE kinds of places. And any of THOSE people who want to join us had better clean up their act first. The problem with that is twofold: first, to do that, we’d have to leave not just the planet, but the universe, because when humanity, the ones given dominion over all creation, fell, all of creation fell too.
And second, when we do that, we aren’t taking the light of Christ into the dark places of the world. Jesus, on the other hand, spent most of his time with THOSE kinds of people in THOSE kinds of places. That’s why the Pharisees hated him. In Matthew 15 Jesus said, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” It is what comes out of a person that defiles them, makes them unrighteous, not what goes into them. He goes on to say, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15: 11, 18).
Rotten hearts lead to bitter tongues. And bitter tongues lead to broken relationships. Look at Vv. 15-18. Shed blood. Paths of ruin and misery. No peace. Sin ultimately fractures human relationships. By nature sin has fractured our relationship with God. In practice, sin also fractures our relationships with one another. That’s why relationships – marriages, family and extended family relationships, even friendships, take so much effort. There is no such thing as a victim-less sin. When David, in Psalm 51, confesses his sin with Bathsheba to God (and by confesses I mean agrees with God that what he did was wrong. God already knew about it), he says “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight …” he ISN’T saying that sin is ONLY against God. He knows very well that he hurt Bathsheba, and her husband Uriah, whom he murdered, and that he hurt his own family. He’s using hyperbole to make the point that EVERY sin and EVERY evil is ultimately a sin against God. He isn’t saying that other people aren’t also hurt. They are.
And Scripture exposes it all. Look at Vv. 19-20. The entire Old Testament points to the life of Christ and the entire New Testament pictures and explains it. But Scripture not only shows us God’s nature and heart, who God is, what God is like, what God does, it is also a mirror that shows us our own nature, our own brokenness and sinfulness. And ultimately our value, and worth, and purpose. For it is in the pages of Scripture, not on the beach or in the woods, that we discover a God who loves us, who pursues us, and who offers us grace and forgiveness a restored relationship with him, a restored relationship with ourselves, and restored relationships with others, by taking upon himself our sin and our punishment and offering to us his life.
Author and pastor Max Lucado tells this story about his relationship with his daughter. “The bank sent me an overdraft notice on the checking account of one of my daughters. I encourage my college-age girls to monitor their accounts. Even so, they sometimes overspend.
What should I do? Send her an angry letter? Admonition might help her later, but it won’t satisfy the bank. Phone and tell her to make a deposit? Might as well tell a fish to fly. I know her liquidity. Zero. Transfer the money from my account to hers? Seemed to be the best option. After all, I had $25.37. I could replenish her account and pay the overdraft fee as well. Since she calls me Dad, I did what dads do. I covered my daughter’s mistake. When I told her she was overdrawn, she said she was sorry. Still, she offered no deposit. She was broke. She had one option, “Dad, could you…” “Honey,” I interrupted, “I already have.” I met her need before she knew she had one.
Long before you knew you needed grace, your Father did the same. He made an ample deposit. Before you knew you needed a Savior, you had one. Creation tells us that there is a powerful and wonderfully creative God. Scripture reveals the nature of that God and our own natures to us. And he is a God who, when we ask him for mercy, answers, “Dear child. I’ve already given it.”[ii] I’ve already done all that you need.
[i] Charles Colson and Ellen Vaughn, Being the Body (Nelson, 2003), pp. 190-191;
[ii] Max Lucado, Cure for the Common Life (Thomas Nelson, 2008), pp. 69-70