Third Sunday after Trinity July 8, 2017 and June 12, 2005
“Separating Sin from Sinners” Luke 15:1-10
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.” (Psalm 139:21-22)
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 goodness.
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.
Pastor Rolf Preus