“Clean Slate?” – Romans 5:12-21
Rev. Dale Harris
Ministers Conference, September 25, 2013
Sometimes I wonder if our world has ever been more ready to hear about Justification by Faith than it is today. Strong words, I realize, but hear me out.
Because in 2012, Anne Hathaway starred as Cat Woman in the third movie of the Batman trilogy. What has Cat Woman to do with Justification by Faith, you ask? Well, not too long into Cat Woman’s story we discover that what’s really motivating her, both as an international cat-burglar and as a morally ambiguous love-interest for Batman—what’s driving her in all her exploits, is the promise of a clean slate.
Maybe you’ve heard this story before. Cat Woman has a pretty sordid history as a comic book super villain, it seems, and in this day and age, every jot and tittle of her past is on record somewhere, and accessible to someone on the world-wide-inter-web. (I don’t know if Cat Woman ever had plans to run for public office, but with a digital foot print like hers, she wouldn’t even get hired on at Sobeys).
Enter: the Clean Slate. Word on the streets of Gotham is that some computer guru somewhere has developed a computer program called “The Clean Slate,” which will completely erase the user’s entire record from every database on the planet, with the simple click of a single button.
And for reasons that are perhaps obvious, Cat Woman would do anything to get her hands on it. She’d even betray Bruce Wayne, hand Batman over to the League of Shadows, and jeopardize the well-being of the entire city of Gotham.
Of course: maybe you’re not a Batman fan. But one of the reasons the Batman movies are so popular, critics say, is because they tend to expose the nerves of our deepest social anxieties—that is to say: these movies look our social issues right in the eye and then ask some pretty hard questions about what they see there.
And Cat Woman’s issue really is our issue, I think: How am I defined? In my own eyes, in the eyes of others, what defines me? And could all the digital “stuff” that turns up when you Google my name, could that stuff really be me? And if not, then what is?
I mean: I don’t want to over-state things, but I think this is actually the deep crisis of our time. As the traditional signposts that we once used to define each other—things like family and community and a life-long career with a cushy retirement at the end—as these things move out from the centre of our identities, no one really knows what to put there, anymore.
And our world is burning, I think, with this one question: what defines me?
Do you remember the Stanley Cup street riot in Vancouver back in 2011? One of the boys charged in that riot—son of a respected doctor, captain of his high school water polo team—I mean, a fine upstanding young man by all accounts—but in the aftermath of the riot, a video of him vandalizing a police car turned up on the web.
So: when the video went viral, he turned himself in, and at one point, the media asked him what made him come clean. And I’ll never forget it: he started sobbing and he said: “Before today,” he said, “if you Googled my name, the top five hits would have been about my accomplishments and awards. Today if you Google my name, all you’ll find is stuff about this riot.” (People don’t look at the mirror so much anymore, to find out who they are. More and more these days, they look at Facebook.)
I heard some Harvard Law Professor a while ago, who talked about all this stuff in terms of “reputation bankruptcy.” He said some ominous things about how “the web never forgets” and then he said: “what we need is some way to declare “reputation bankruptcy,” and start over. Like you know, he said, if the internet allowed you a one-time pulling of a lever that would delete your digital identity and you could just start fresh.”
And when I heard him say that, it got me wondering, all over again, if our world has ever been more ready, to hear about Justification by Faith: you know: the truth that we are all of us reputationally bankrupt, whether our names turn up in a Google search or not, because even if Google doesn’t know our past, God does; but in him- through faith in him—a Clean Slate really is possible.
And if you’re with me after all that, then I guess we need to ask ourselves today: Do we really get how radical this thing is that we call Justification by Faith? Because if anything Cat Woman has to say can be trusted, we are desperate for something with the power to redefine us. And that’s actually what we have in the doctrine of Justification by Faith. The question is just: do we get it?
That Justification by Faith is God’s radical reversal of sin?
At the very least, that’s what Paul seems to be saying today, with all his talk in there about sin, and how, just like death came into the world through the sin of one man, life came into the world through the righteousness of one man, and how his righteousness—Christ’s righteousness—brings eternal life to people everywhere. I mean, there’s a lot of heady stuff in there, but what I hear echoing at the bottom of it all, is just Paul saying, listen: try to get it. Try to wrap your head around it: God radically reverses sin through faith in Christ.
But I’m putting it like that in particular—“Justification is God’s radical reversal of sin”—I’m putting it like that because I’m hoping it will help us to broaden our horizons a little bit, when it comes to the place Justification has in our day-to-day experience of life with Jesus.
Because sometimes I think we short-change this doctrine. At least I, for one, have tended to reduce it to a simple matter of “getting my fire insurance for heaven”—you know, making sure my sins are forgiven in the abstract sense, right? so that I don’t have to worry about the eternal, after-death consequences of my actions?
And it is that, I guess. But when I read Paul closely in Romans 5, I get the strong impression that justification is actually about God’s reversal of sin in our day-to-day lives as much as it is about making sure we’re good to go for Heaven.
I mean, just a few verses earlier, Paul was saying that because we are justified, we should have peace with God (in the here and now). And then he said that our Justification should make it so that we start to rejoice in our sufferings and tribulations (presumably because, being justified, we know that our sufferings are not the last word)—and this in turn, this develops perseverance in us, he said, which refines our character and gives us life changing hope (all in the here and now).
Paul seems to think that Justification by Faith is, and should be, part of our growing, on-going experience as followers of Jesus Christ. At the risk of putting it way too simply: Justification isn’t “for heaven.” Glorification is for heaven; justification is for here and now. It’s about experiencing a radical reversal of sin in our lives in a present and on-going way, as we continue to grow in Christ.
Now: I don’t want to sound like I’m plugging a brand or anything, but the Manual of the FMCiC actually helps us grasp this idea of Justification as an on-going reversal of sin in a way that’s similar (I think) to the way Paul’s coming at it. Because it talks about Justification in terms of both entering into and continuing in the New Life with Jesus. (That’s Chapter 1, Page 5, subsection 116 for all you purists out there.)
Justification, it says, is a “legal term” that describes how God actually accounts people as righteous, freeing them from both the guilt and the penalty of their sins through a relationship with Jesus Christ. In the digital age we might put it in 140 characters or less: through faith in him they’re given a Clean Slate.
But imagine with me, for a second, that Cat Woman actually did get her hands on that Clean Slate (we’re back at the movies again). But let’s say she did have her digital life wiped clean. And then, let’s say, she kept on prowling the rooftops of Gotham in black spandex at night—she still wore her mask to parties so no one would know who she really was—and when Batman asked her why she didn’t start dating that mild-mannered billionaire Bruce Wayne who seems like such a catch and all, she says, well: he wouldn’t be interested in a girl with a record like mine.
I mean, could we still say that she was free from the guilt and penalty of her sins if she kept on living the way she always had? Could we really say that her slate had really been wiped clean if it didn’t radically reverse the way she was living her life, here and now?
The point is: Our lives ought to reflect our justified status before God. And in this radical way, when they don’t, the promise of Justification—I mean the assurance that things are right between us and God solely on the basis of our Faith in Christ—that truth picks us up and sets us free to try again.
Faithful follower of Jesus Christ: Have you grasped it? That a radical reversal of sin has begun for you—that it is happening in your life—and that the bedrock of this radical reversal is the fact that you are already justified before God—even now you are Justified through Faith in Jesus Christ?
We need to grasp it. At least: if we’re going to be inspired at all, to share it with the “Cat Womans” in our own lives—we need to grasp it, how radical this thing is that we call Justification by Faith
And to help us grasp it, I wonder if could break break it up into two questions today.
Because on the one hand, we have to ask ourselves: Do we actually believe that sin is actually something that really needs a radical reversal?
I mean: at the risk of pointing out the obvious, notice how serious a problem Paul seems to think sin actually is. In verse 12 he describes it as the origin of death in the world—something that has touched and will touch every person on the planet; in verse 17 he says that it has resulted in condemnation for all people; in verse 21 he talks about it as something that reigns in death.
When I read Romans 5:12-21, I don’t get the sense that Paul’s thinking primarily of my little petty vices and private spiritual failings, as much as he’s thinking about something very deep and very pervasive in the human condition itself—something broken and gone-wrong way down in the very heart of the Creator’s world. This isn’t something that “trying harder and doing better next time” will solve; it actually needs a radical reversal.
But then again, maybe he’s addressing my private spiritual failings more than I realize.
One of my favorite novels is a science fiction book by C. S. Lewis called That Hideous Strength.
Now: If you don’t know the story, let me give you the Coles Notes today. The main character is this very ordinary, morally weak but otherwise sort of likeable Sociology Professor named Mark Studdock, whose worst flaw is that he’ll do anything to advance his career. Mark gets hired on as a researcher in an organization called the N.I.C.E. which on the surface looks like it’s a scientific institute dedicated to the betterment of humanity.
Not long into the book, however, Mark learns that the N.I.C.E. is really a front for some interplanetary criminals with a diabolical (and I mean that word literally, as in “of the devil”) some diabolical plot to take over the world. Before he knows it he’s caught in the middle of a satanic power-struggle with the nothing less than the fate of the planet on the line.
But here’s the thing that fascinates me about That Hideous Strength. Because, like I say, Mark’s not really a bad guy. I mean, he has no moral compass, and he’d tell a lie or two if he thought it would help him get ahead. He gossips about his colleagues at work—but who doesn’t do that?—he curries favor with his superiors (that’s the British term for “sucking up”), but that’s just what you got to do to get by in his line of work. He’s sort pompous and self-absorbed and doesn’t treat his wife especially well—but no one would say he’s diabolical. I mean: he’s actually a pretty ordinary guy.
And what’s brilliant about this book is the way C. S. Lewis takes this very ordinary, very run-of-the-mill sinner and sets him down in the middle of this unimaginably evil plot to conquer the world. It’s almost as if he were saying: look they’re no different—Mark Studdock’s petty moral shortcomings spring from the very same root as the worst evils of the N.I.C.E. organization. And their interplanetary sins—the demonic crimes of the N.I.C.E (?)—sure, they’re grander in scale—but in reality, they’re no different than Mark Studdock’s ordinary, almost boring selfishness and pride.
In another one of his books, The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis puts it like this. It’s a passage where a demon named Screwtape is giving a younger demon named Wormwood some advice about, you know, what’s the “best way” to win a soul for hell; and he says: “It doesn’t really matter how small the sins are, provided their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed [listen to this] Indeed, the surest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
I’m preaching to the choir today, so I don’t need to tell you, I only need to remind you of the traditional four-point summary of the Wesleyan view of salvation: All need to be saved, All can be saved, All may know themselves saved, All can be saved to the utmost. (This is ringing a few bells for you I hope). Well: what we’re talking about here is the biblical truth—and the Wesleyan conviction—that all need to be saved.
But it’s not because sin is extraordinary that everyone needs to be saved. It’s actually because sin is so ordinary. Everyone is touched by it, everyone is complicit. How does Paul say it there? “death came to everyone, because everyone sinned.”
I mean, that’s Paul’s perspective on sin: it’s because it’s so ordinary and so pervasive, that it actually requires a radical reversal—the kind of reversal that can only begin in us when we turn to Christ in Faith and let his character start to transform our character.
So that’s the first question: do we share Paul’s perspective here—that all need this radical reversal of sin in their lives.
When I was asked to speak on Justification by Faith today, one of the things they asked me to stress is that we must hold this doctrine with evangelistic passion—you know: a heart to see people who don’t know Jesus come to know him—we must hold this doctrine with that kind of a passion or else it will become lifeless in our hands.
But as I’ve been mulling over Romans 5 these last few weeks, it just keeps hitting me, over and over again, that until we see sin the way Paul sees it—until we become convinced that sin is actually something that needs this radical reversal (both in our own lives, and in the lives of those people we love and live with and interact with)— I mean until we see sin with Paul’s eyes, I don’t think we’ll ever hold the doctrine of Justification with his kind of evangelistic passion.
We certainly won’t grasp how radical it is, the reversal that God actually offers us through faith in Christ.
Of course, brings us to the other “question” we need to ask this morning: the first was, “do we see sin the way Paul sees in sin.” The second question flows out of the first and is maybe even more important: do we see in the doctrine of “Justification” what Paul seems to see there?
I mean: do we cherish it and cling to it as God’s solution to sin, for everyone?
Re-read verses 15-17 with me and try to grasp just exactly how outrageous and inexpressibly good this thing is that God offers us through Faith in Jesus Christ. “The gift,” Paul says, “the gift is nothing like the trespass. Because where the trespass of one man brought death to many”—God has reversed the trespass—“God’s grace,” Paul says, “the grace that is ours in Jesus Christ, God’s grace is overflowing from the one to the many. … Judgement followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many sins and brought justification.”
Did you grasp that? Where sin had touched us all and condemned us all and implicated us all, God offers us all instead, his grace, his life, his “Clean Slate.”
Now, I could mention how we’ve come to the second point in the Welseyan view of salvation. You know: Not only do all need to be saved; but all can be saved. The gift of life that God offers us through Faith in Christ is extended to everyone; it’s actually that radical.
But then, this isn’t really about just “ticking off” some doctrinal items on a check-list of what makes Wesleyan Soteriology Wesleyan, is it? It’s about experiencing a reversal of sin in our own lives that’s so deep and so transformative, that it leaves us passionate about sharing it with others. It’s about grasping Justification by Faith so deeply in here, that we actually become part of God’s radical reversal of sin, because we’re inviting others to experience it, with us, through faith in Jesus Christ.
And like I say, I wonder—and maybe you’ll wonder with me, here at the end—I wonder if our world has ever been more ready to hear about Justification by Faith. I mean, sure, the terminology I’ve used today—sin and salvation and what not—I mean, talking like that ain’t gonna get me airtime on the CBC anytime soon.
But then again—if Cat Woman can be trusted at all on these matters, you and I live in a world where people are asking some very deep questions about who they are and what defines them and whether or not it’s really possible to clean the slate when it comes to what’s wrong in the world?
And if we can grasp it today, how radical this thing is that we have in the doctrine of Justification by Faith, if we can grasp it, I think: we’ll discover that we’re actually holding the answer to those very deep questions.