Facing sin: We all fall, but we need not remain fallen.
There he was. The President of the United States admitting in a four-minute televised address to the nation of his participation in an “inappropriate relationship” with a young intern and that his previous remarks regarding the affair had misled the people of the country. One question kept coming up in my mind. How is it that an individual like President Clinton—with such impressive academic credentials, unquestioned intelligence, passion for public service, knowledge of the law, and savvy media skills—could choose to risk so much by doing something so utterly foolish? How could someone act in a manner so inconsistent with what he knows to be right and wise?
The question is akin to ones I asked many years ago as a college student at La Sierra University and Loma Linda University. My questions had to do with the meaning and the consequences of sin. Why is it that Seventh-day Adventist Christians continue to sin, knowing what we know? Why is it that we fall short of God’s ideal so often when we have been privy to so much light?
Having been raised and educated in the Adventist Church and an Adventist academy, I had grown up thoroughly versed in biblical theology. While I was no legalist, I had, unfortunately, acquired the mistaken belief that correct theology, not the cross of Christ, was the key to salvation.
Fortunately, at La Sierra University, I came to understand that while appreciation of the Church’s 27 Fundamental Beliefs was necessary, it was certainly not sufficient to secure salvation. I gradually recognized that the experience of God’s grace I so desired came not from knowing about Christ but from knowing Him as a personal Savior. In short, right beliefs were not enough to guarantee right action. I had to have a right relationship.
The meaning of sin
Augustine is perhaps best remembered for his Confessions. Though autobiographical in form, the book is rich in theological content. In it he bares his soul to the reader, not out of a perverse hunger for fame, but out of genuine Christian concern and a prayerful desire to spare others what he suffered.
Augustine made serious personal mistakes along life’s way, and in the book he shares how only a relationship with God saved him from himself. He tells how lust had waged war with his conscience, how concupiscence utterly corrupted him, and how unchecked restlessness led him to be zealous in a manner wholly at odds with God’s ideal for his life.
One day, Augustine was out in the garden when he heard a little girl repeating over and over, “Tolle lege, tolle lege” (Latin for “Take up and read, take up and read”). Finding Paul’s Epistle to the Romans on a nearby table, he took it up and read. But he did more than focus his eyes on words. He encountered The Word. Confronted by the awesome power, majesty, and love of Him who is Love, Augustine’s life was forever changed. The information he had read was important, but even more so was the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In focusing on God’s Word, he experienced Him who is the Word.
Augustine lived long ago, but his experiences speak to us today. We are reminded that the human predicament is a moral one. It has little to do with how much information we have and has a lot to do with whether we are in harmony with God. Augustine spoke of “The Fall” as signaling the origin of sin in this world. It was not God’s plan for us to be at odds with Him. To the contrary, God created us in His image, pronounced humankind good, and wanted to enter into a relationship with our first parents and all who would follow.
Adam and Eve were given all they needed to grow in an ever-closer relationship with their Creator. Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God instructed them. But they chose to disobey. Adam and Eve fell not out of ignorance but out of disobedience. Christ had to die not so much to convey information to us but primarily to establish a right relationship with us.
The Bible tells us that alienation is one of the results of sin (Genesis 3:10-13). The very first thing Adam and Eve did after having disobeyed God was to flee from Him to avoid His presence. Later, when confronted by God, they failed to admit their misdeeds. Instead, they stonewalled. They pointed to each other as the culprit. As a result of their sin, they fell away from God and consequently drifted apart from each other. Sin leads to the total disruption of relationships. Our horizontal or earthly relationships depend on a strong vertical or heavenly relationship.
God is not only the Creator of all that is. God is like a tree that unites all branches. Apart from God there is no unity. Without God we are alone. This is what Christ experienced on the cross: the absence of the presence of God.
A second consequence of sin is condemnation (Romans 5:18). As those who knowingly disobey God, we have incurred the judgment of God. A legal status of guilty has been pronounced upon us. And we live with the attendant slavery to sin. Sin not only disrupts our relationship with God; it also leaves us inclined against God and with a propensity toward sin. Adam and Eve did more than set a bad precedent; they have set us on a course from which we on our own strength cannot depart. We stand condemned. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).*
The triumph of the cross
Fortunately, sin and death do not have the last word. Paul continues in the same verse with the good news: “But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We have a loving God who does not want to let us go. And so He sent his only Son to die for us. “Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5: 18, 19). Christ triumphed over sin while nailed to the cross, and His resurrection left no doubt about His victory. This is indeed good news.
We can rest assured that we are not alone. God is truly with us. For in dying on the cross, Christ exiled alienation. He has made it possible for us to be at one with Him and He is reconciling the world to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). Because of the cross, there is now no condemnation. God does not see a guilty verdict stamped on our hearts. Rather He sees Christ’s robe of righteousness. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1, 4).
We shall continue to struggle with our fallenness (see Romans 7) because we are powerless to do good on our own. But God can transform and empower us if we allow Him. Indeed, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).
Like Paul, like Augustine, like Clinton, and like all of us, we will find ourselves failing God. We will fall, but we need not remain fallen. God’s grace is sufficient to lift us up and help us walk again the walk of faith.
David A. Pendleton is an Adventist attorney and state legislator in Hawaii. His “Profile” was published in Dialogue 10:3 (1998). Mailing address: State Capitol; Honolulu, Hawaii 96813; U.S.A. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
* All Bible quotations are from the New International Version.