The Third Sunday after Trinity
“Separating Sin from Sinners”
June 12, 2005
I’m sure you’ve all heard
the saying, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.”
Well that’s rather difficult, isn’t it?
After all, the two go together.
It is sinners who are doing the sinning.
Furthermore, when the Bible teaches us that God punishes sin it
means that God punishes sinners. As
the Catechism explains the meaning of the Ten Commandments, “God
threatens to punish all that transgress these Commandments.
Therefore we should fear his wrath and not act contrary to
them.” God punishes
sinners. It is not easy to
separate sins from sinners. The Psalmist says, “Do not I hate them, O
Lord, who hate you? And do
I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”
Separating sins from sinners is
not just difficult. It is
impossible for us to do. Really,
all we can do is to destroy the sinner along with his sin.
They call prisons “penitentiaries” as if a prison will turn a
criminal into a penitent who will crave redemption.
The sad fact is that prisons don’t separate sins from sinners. They serve as breeding grounds for new and inventive ways of
sinning. The only way we
can separate sins from sinners is by getting rid of the sinners.
We can put them away from us.
We can put them to death. But
we cannot go inside of them and tear out the sin and replace it with
But people try to do just that. They come up with religious schemes that will supposedly make
sinners into saints. The
Pharisees were masters at that. They
knew what God demanded in the Law of Moses.
They had read everything Moses wrote about what we should and
should not do. They came up
with 613 commandments. 248
of them were positive requirements and 365 were negative prohibitions.
But that wasn’t all. They
went beyond these commandments to, as they would say, “make a hedge”
around them. They put
together a system that would keep anyone who followed it from every
breaking a single one of those 613 commandments.
This “hedge” around the Law included, for example, 39
different categories of things you could not do on the Sabbath.
It was, in their opinion, a reasonably foolproof way of avoiding
any kind of sin. The
Pharisees sincerely believed that they were avoiding sin by following
the hundreds of rules and regulations that governed their lives.
The Scribes were men who studied
the Scriptures. They spent
hours copying the Bible. In
those days, hundreds of years before the invention of the printing
press, every single copy of the Bible was painstakingly done by hand.
These men knew the text of the Bible.
They knew that God cannot tolerate sin.
God punishes sin. That
means that God cannot tolerate sinners.
Then Jesus comes.
He receives sinners. He
joins them. He eats with
them. He makes himself at home with them. And that is intolerable.
The Pharisees and the Scribes cannot tolerate Jesus because in
their mind, if Jesus were truly a holy man, He would separate himself
from sin. How can He be
separating Himself from sin when He expresses fellowship with sinners?
How can this be? They
said it couldn’t be done. So
they complained about Jesus. “This
man receives sinners and eats with them.”
Well they were right about that. Jesus did receive sinners and eat with them.
But they were dead wrong in their criticism of Him.
Jesus was doing what their religion could not do.
He was separating sins from sinners.
He could do that. They
could not do that. That’s
why they hated Him. He
could do what they couldn’t do. That’s
why they would seek his death. That’s
why they plotted against him with the religious community.
They hated the One who could do what they couldn’t do, namely
separate sins from sinners.
You cannot separate sins from
sinners by teaching sinners how to avoid sin.
There’s an old pop song that was popular when I was in high
school about somebody who looked for kicks by getting high on drugs.
There’s a rather insightful line in the song that goes, “No
matter what you do, you’ll never get away from you.”
That’s a fact that even the heathen can recognize.
And they do, believe me. No
matter what you do, you’ll never get away from you.
Have you ever talked to somebody
who had a so-called “born again” experience and became so pious he
was impossible to deal with? You
may know the type. He used
to do all sorts of disgusting things but now he is different.
Now he is “born again” and he doesn’t sin anymore.
But when you look carefully at this fellow you notice that he’s
the same man he used to be. He
hasn’t gotten away from himself.
It’s the same old sinner dressed up in pious new clothes.
This is the popular image of
what repentance is all about. It
is the idea that somebody has a change of life experience that is rather
dramatic and compelling and obvious to the world.
But that’s not what repentance is.
And that’s not what these parables of Jesus describe.
Repentance is not about a dramatic outward change that the world
can see. Repentance is
about an inner change. It
is a change that only God can see.
It is true that the Bible calls
for the fruits of repentance. St.
John the Baptist preached against the hypocrites who came to him with a
sham display of repentance. Listen
to these words recorded by St. Matthew, chapter three.
But when [John] saw many
of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them,
“Brood of vipers! Who
warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to
say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you
that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.
Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down
and thrown into the fire.
God condemns most severely a
sham, hypocritical repentance. But
true repentance is not produced by the fruit it bears.
The fruit is produced by true repentance.
If we are to be concerned about the new life that the lost sheep
will live, we must first be concerned about the lost sheep being found.
When it is lost it can do nothing but stay lost.
It is not able to find its way home.
The parables of the lost coin and lost sheep drive this point
home quite clearly. What
can a coin do? It is an
inanimate object. It cannot
do a thing. It can only lay
there hidden under the rag in the corner.
It does nothing but remain lost.
The lost sheep is lost because
of his own fault. The
Shepherd goes out and finds it. And
here is the wonder of it all. By
bearing the sheep home on his shoulders the sheep is no longer lost.
Think of that. By
bearing it home on his shoulders, the lost sheep is found.
By bearing the sin of the sinner, the lost sinner is found.
The lost sinner is not separated
from his sin by obeying a list of rules.
The sinner is separated from his sin only by the Shepherd bearing
that sin. There is no other way. When
Jesus ate with them and drank with them and joined their company, he was
going in among them in order to take off of them the burden of their
sin. And there was only one
way that Jesus could take that burden off of them.
He had to take it upon himself.
And that is what he did.
The words of comfort that Jesus
speaks to us are very specific words.
He doesn’t talk to us in general terms about how God is loving
or how God is forgiving or how there is a new life somewhere, somehow,
some day. No, Jesus gives
us God’s love by taking on himself the hatred that God feels against
all sins and sinners. Jesus,
according to St. Paul, was made to “be sin for us.”
Jesus takes it off of us by becoming that sin and being rejected
on the cross. Jesus gives
forgiveness to us. But it
is in a very specific way. He
sheds his blood for us. Then
he gives his body and blood to us in the Lord’s Supper.
We join him at table. We
eat and drink with him. In
this way he lets us know in no uncertain terms that we aren’t lost any
more. We are found.
To separate sins from a sinner
is a task that only God can do. Yet
it is a task that must be done. If
not, the sinner dies. The
sheep must be found. If he
isn’t, he dies. There is
no question about that. A
sheep lost in the desert hasn’t got a prayer.
Or maybe that’s all he has.
He bleats in a pathetic fashion.
The Shepherd hears and come and rescues him.
But the rules that are
constructed to provide that hedge around the law to keep folks from
sinning are a trap worse than anything out in the desert.
The trap of works righteousness is the deadliest trap of all.
You think you are separating yourself from sin but you are
instead embracing the sin, taking it deep within you and you are dying
and you don’t know it. You
are looking to the religious rules as your lifeline and they are sheer
death and hell. Your rules
that you think are keeping you on the straight and narrow are instead
sending you straight to hell.
And do you know why?
Because when you are trusting in the rules to save you the rules
teach you not only to hate the sinner they also teach you to hate the
One who takes the sin away. That’s
a fact. When you are
trusting in what you do in obedience to the rules you are not trusting
in Jesus. You are despising him. You
are hating him. And you are
hating those whom he seeks and saves.
We have been found.
Not because we’re so smart.
If we were smart we wouldn’t have been lost.
We’ve been rescued by the One who bore our sin.
He bore our load. He carried us out of the trouble we created.
We were trapped and couldn’t get out.
He picked us up and put us on his shoulders.
The angels rejoiced to see it.
And they rejoice every time they see it.
And so do the children of God.
Jesus separates sin from sinners
by bearing the sin. Then he
comes to the sinners and gives what he won when he bore their sin:
forgiveness. Jesus keeps on
giving this forgiveness to us in our need.
We rejoice to receive it even as we rejoice when others receive
it with us and so we rejoice with the angels in heaven.
And we remain in fellowship with God, with the angels and
archangels, and with the dear Christian saints who are with them in
heaven. This is a
fellowship that will never end but will continue into eternity where
pure love and pure peace will replace every evil desire and every unkind
judgment and every memory of sin. This
is what our Lord Jesus has given to us and this is why we love him and
why we rejoice whenever anyone who is lost is found by him.
Rev. Rolf D. Preus