Romans 3:9-20

September 30, 2001


Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor, The Grantham Church

1992 was an extremely difficult year for the people of Zambia and their neighbors. Due in large measure to the worst drought to hit sub-Sahara Africa in at least 100 years, Zambians experienced debilitating hunger and, in many cases, even starvation. My family and I lived there for part of that year, and the images continue to flash across our minds. On one particular occasion, an elderly man came to the mission at Sikalongo and asked if we had a corn grinder that he could use. After being led to the grinder by one of our staff members, this man proceeded to grind corn husks and kernel-less cobs in the vain hope of finding just a morsel of food.
This hunger, once again, was primarily the result of the severe drought that hit the region. It was interesting, however, to observe the way some individuals responded to the shared problem, at least in the early months. In contrast to the elderly man seeking a corn grinder, some people used what little corn they had to produce liquor and sustain their drinking habits. Others failed to plan in any significant way, choosing instead to let their chips fall where they may. One Zambian, a member of the Tonga Tribe, even said to me: “We Tongas celebrate mediocrity.” And in their celebration of mediocrity, little effort was made to confront the worsening problem. Due to the lack of rain, then, but compounded in part by their own inability to address the situation, the people of Zambia had this one overwhelming thing in common in 1992–hunger.
So too, according to the Apostle Paul, with the entire human race. What all people throughout the world hold in common is not hunger, however, but sinfulness. Since the very beginning of time, Paul argues here in Romans 3 and elsewhere, men and women have thrown themselves against God’s boundaries and ignored his gracious instructions, choosing instead to be rulers over their own lives. Now, like an argument between a player and an umpire that escalates into a bench-clearing brawl, sin has taken on a life of its own–it infects every last one of us.
This is precisely the point that Paul seeks to emphasize here in Romans 3:9-20. Everyone, including both Jews and Gentiles, is under the power of sin. And in making his case, Paul dips into his Old Testament bucket and pulls out a series of images from both the Psalms and Isaiah. Sin has influenced human character–no one is righteous. Sin has infected human speech–the venom of vipers is under their lips. Sin has infiltrated every aspect of human conduct–their feet are swift to shed blood. In fact, sin has stained the very depths of humanity’s soul–there is no fear of God before their eyes. According to Scripture, every last person on earth has inherited this disease called sin.
“Oh,” someone might respond, “that’s not my fault. I can’t control what happened years ago any more that the Zambians could control the rain. I am not a sinner.” Who among us has never told a lie? Who among us has never taken something that did not belong to us, whether a dollar or an answer on a classmate’s exam paper? Who among us has never slandered a brother or sister? Who among us has never dishonored a parent? How many sins, after all, must someone commit before they can be rightly called “a sinner?” According to the Bible, just one.
“Or,” someone else might alertly reply, “I am a Christian now. I’m not a sinner anymore.” Where did you ever get that idea? As a result of God’s wonderful grace, we believers have been delivered from the power of sin–we are no longer its slaves–but we have certainly not been freed from the struggle itself. Paul said as much when he wrote to Christians living in Galatia: “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want (5:17). There is a struggle going on, and Christians are not exempt. Menno Simons knew it. John Wesley preached about it in a sermon entitled “Sin in the Believer.” And in the depths of our hearts, we know it as well.
Now, recognizing and affirming this central biblical theme that all of us are sinners can transform our lives in profound ways. First, acknowledging our sinfulness reinstitutes the importance of personal responsibility. In his book entitled Whatever Became of Sin, psychiatrist Karl Menninger laments the loss of the word “sin” in much of contemporary conversation. Many so-called sins, Menninger points out, are now called “sicknesses,” or at least symptoms of sicknesses, so the need for seeking forgiveness is replaced primarily by treatment. Other former sins now fall under the heading of “collective irresponsibilities”–the evil acts that we commit are the result of society’s blemishes, not our own. Still other sins are today called “crimes.” Instead of needing churches and pastors, people need only the government and police. “Where did sin go?” Menninger asks.
Now there is of course considerable tension here. To bemoan the shift from sin to sickness is not to easily dismiss the influences that people experience. We are, of course, affected, some deeply, by our upbringing and environment. We have varying personalities, differing genetic make-ups, and perhaps suffer from the lasting effects of injuries or chemical imbalances. In this sense, the playing field is not necessarily level. A wide variety of factors inevitably influence our lives and our decisions. Why, our own legal system recognizes this fact. For example, a person who flies down the street of a local town with no regard for its citizens will undoubtedly be treated differently from someone who exceeds the speed limit while rushing to the hospital to see a badly injured loved one in the emergency room. Likewise, when I myself received a speeding ticket just after leaving a church parking lot in Ontario, the officer showed partial mercy when informed that I forgot that the speed limit sign was posted in kilometers. In this sense, we can speak of lessened or decreased responsibility. The Bible itself allows for such a distinction–intentions and circumstances are taken into consideration.
Decreased responsibility, however, is a far cry from the dismissal of responsibility altogether. While the Bible pays attention to circumstances–the very image of God in us has been tarnished–it nevertheless insists that we play a significant role in the ongoing affairs of our lives. “Put to death things associated with the flesh. Run from evil. Make godly choices.” Take responsibility, if you will, for the life that God has given you. Nearly forty years ago, Paul Tournier commented that God does not hold a person responsible “for the physical and psychological facts of his life–his heredity, his complexes, and the deficiencies and illnesses engendered by circumstances–but for the use he makes of what he has got (p. 116).” “Sin,” Tournier continues, “is not being ill; it is disobeying God, whether one is ill or well.” When I acknowledge my sinfulness, I demonstrate my willingness to say “I did it. It’s my fault.”
Secondly, affirming our sinfulness restores God to his rightful position as Lord in our lives. In affirming our sinfulness, we at the same time acknowledge that God has in fact established the rules, if you will. God is the one who designed both the world and all of its inhabitants. God is the one who understands best how my life ought to be lived. God, not my parents, not my spouse, and not my friends, is ultimately the one against whom all of my thoughts and deeds are measured.
Think with me for a moment about David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba. After informing us of the events, including the process through which David eventually had Bathsheba’s husband killed, the writer adds a simple comment: “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord (2 Sam. 11:27).” Later, in a Psalm typically associated with this same event, David cries out “Against you, you alone, have I sinned (51:4).” That Psalm used to trouble me greatly. How could David dare suggest that he had sinned only against God? Hadn’t he sinned against Bathsheba? And what about her husband, Uriah, who was rotting out in the middle of the battlefield? Hadn’t David sinned against him?
Then it dawned on me. Whatever sins we commit against others are in reality sins against God. When I slander my brother or sister, I am in fact slandering God. When I take something that doesn’t belong to me, whether money from a neighbor or an answer from a classmate’s exam, I am ultimately stealing from God. David, much to his credit, had learned that the atrocities he had committed against both Bathsheba and Uriah were in fact sins against God. When we recognize that, God is once again ushered back into the very center of our lives.
Finally, affirming our sinfulness establishes common chords between people and creates an atmosphere in which genuine intimacy can develop. I’ve often been intrigued at how people with common connections congregate. They might be international students eating together in the college dining room. They might be people who discover shared hobbies or interests in the same type of music. People with similar concerns, who feel deeply about the same issues. When we encounter people with whom we share things in common, new windows open up before us.
So it is with us when we discover that we are all sinners. We begin to see people differently. When I acknowledge my own sin, I become less judgmental of yours. When you acknowledge that you are a sinner, I feel more willing to remove my mask and lend you a hand. When we acknowledge together that we are all sinners, we invest less energy in preserving our own collective self-righteousness and desire instead to reach out to other stinky, sinful people. When I admit my own sinfulness, my own struggles, my own wounds, I in essence affirm my need for both God and you.
Recently, my son and I watched Jack Nicholson’s new movie entitled “The Pledge.” Nicholson played an aging police officer who, on the night of his retirement, promised to a hurting mother that he would track down the culprit who had maliciously murdered her daughter. The crime was vicious, and any viewer could hardly help but feel angry at anyone who would do such a thing. But as Tim and I discussed the movie afterward, and as our common disgust for the murderer surfaced, I suddenly felt a tear form in my eye. How bad must my sin be for me to be called a sinner? In that moment, I felt an intensity of my own condition like I haven’t felt for years–I too am a sinner. I too have ignored God’s boundaries and insisted on having my own way. I too stand in need of the unfathomable grace of our Lord. St. Francis de Sales once commented: “There is no need to be surprised at finding self-love in ourselves, for it never leaves us. Sometimes, like a fox, it sleeps; and then all at once it pounces on the chickens.”
In a recent interview published in Leadership magazine, Eugene Peterson commented on this same subject. Although he was specifically addressing people in pastoral ministry, the significance of his thoughts stretch to the back rows of any sanctuary. “An understanding of people as sinners,” Peterson began, “enables a pastoral ministry to function without anger... If people are sinners then the pastors can concentrate on talking about God’s action in Jesus Christ instead of sitting around lamenting how bad the people are. We already know they can’t make it. We have already accepted their depravity.”
I want you to know this morning that, even though I am your pastor, I am a sinner. I’m one of the people Paul had in mind when he wrote the third chapter of Romans, one of those who has often disregarded God’s boundaries and failed to yield to his will and lordship. And I hope this doesn’t disappoint you, but I fully realize that all of you are too. I stand in need of God’s grace as much as the worst of criminals. And in acknowledging that, I want to invite your participation in my life.
1992 was a difficult year for the people of Zambia. The drought was severe, and everyone was so hungry. Some hadn’t planned well. Some continued making moonshine. But then, something happened. In the face of their worsening condition, people seemingly took a fresh and honest look at themselves and their situation. They needed help from other sources, to be sure, but they also needed to work side by side. They needed to assist one another. They were after all, in this mess together. Soon, help came from other places. Programs were developed through which the locals could work–building roads, refurbishing homes, preparing fields for future crops–in exchange for food. “We are all hungry,” the people cried, and they faced their journey arm in arm.
All of us today share a common sickness, a common struggle. We are all sinners. God provides unlimited resources. Now, we need to acknowledge our condition and work together. Like Lazarus, God has raised many of us to new life. But we still have some of those smelly burial clothes wrapped around us. I do, and I want to admit that in your presence this morning. Please help me to take them off. And if you are willing, I’ll help you too.