"What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?"
-- Romans 6:1
In his commentary on the sixth chapter of Romans, Dr. William Barclay imagined the following conversation between the Apostle Paul and a member of the Roman Church:
"You have just said that God's grace is great enough to grant forgiveness for every sin, have you not?" remarked the churchman.
"Yes," Paul replied, "that is true."
"Then that means we can go on sinning, because sin must not matter to God if he is going to forgive us anyway. In fact, we can go further than that and call sin a good thing, because it gives the grace of God more chance to work." (The Daily Study Bible: Letter to the Romans.)
Others offer similar comments on Paul's discussion of "sinners rights":
"If we are no longer under the law but under grace... then why not keep the cycle going: keep on sinning and let Christ keep on forgiving?" (Henry Halley)
William Eerdmans wonders if Paul is describing a Christian "insurance policy," while the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls such a suggestion "cheap grace."
Fast-forwarding a couple thousand years, I wonder if there's a similarity between the Roman churchman's view of sin and the American public's tolerance of misbehavior -- and intolerance for the word "sin" -- today.
"Times have changed... everybody does it... if he's doing a good job, who cares about his private life...."
Some of us are tired of clucking our tongues and stewing about corruption or immorality in high places -- so tired, in fact, we're tempted to tune the bad stuff out and join the tolerant crowd. Why not? Every time one of us speaks out on the moral downsizing in America today, someone else steps to the podium and preaches a sermon to us. Their text? "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone" (John 8:7).
Ah, yes, we momentarily agree. "Judge not... innocent until proven guilty... love is patient, kind... believes the best -- not the worst -- about people."
But let's turn back to Romans, go past the churchman's keep-on-sinning conclusion, and read the Apostle's two-word rebuttal: "God forbid." That's all. If we have accepted God's forgiveness for past sins, he seems to say, then our goal should be to accept his teachings in the rest of the Bible. Therefore, to continue willfully to live a sinful life is to betray the forgiver, and misrepresent the faith we claim to embrace.
Dr. Barclay divides the Apostle's brief but sharp reply into three permanent truths:
It is a terrible thing to make the mercy of God an excuse for sinning. In human terms, that would be like a son or daughter feeling free to break a parent's heart because they believe they'll be forgiven in the end.
The one who becomes a Christian is committed to a different kind of life. The old life of sin, and disregard for its consequences, is over.
There is more than mere ethical change in the person who accepts the Christian way of life: there is a desire to identify with Jesus, who didn't sin.
It's doubtful the tolerant, over-forgiving public cares what Christians think about a 2,000-year-old dialogue on the results of sin -- again, a word few people still have in their vocabularies. But those who still believe there is a consequence to sin, wrong behavior or whatever it's called can be encouraged by the dialogue between the Apostle Paul and the Roman churchman.
It's hard to swim hard strokes upstream when everyone else is floating past you going the other way. But like the determined salmon that travels upstream to spawn new life, maintaining a sense of right in the midst of a sea of wrong can't be accomplished any other way.
Shall we disregard evil and immorality in high or low places that tolerance may abound?
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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