Sin and grace (and the supreme sin of rejecting life)

Capital-MIMG_1646y Saturday morning men’s study group is in the process of reading through The Gospel of Matthew. Bible study is amazing; The Word is new and fresh every day, and it speaks into my life and the lives of my friends with authority and with love.

One way God teaches me is through the lives, the stories, and the honest struggles my friends bring to the table. We pray; we read the scripture; we read notes and commentary; we share our own gut-level response to what we’re reading; we talk about how God’s word is impacting our lives; then the Holy Spirit mixes it all together, and fresh insight always emerges, along with fresh challenge and transformed lives.

MATTHEW: Today’s focus was chapters 16-18. That’s a lot to chew on at one time! Some of the most interesting thinking, for me, has come out of the provocative stuff Jesus has to say in chapter 18.

Essentially, the passage has to do with our response to sin… both in ourselves and in other people. A lot of Christians use this as a justification for “cleaning house,” and they see themselves and their peremptory judgments as protecting the church from sin.

SIN: This morning’s study caused me to think hard. When Jesus is talking about our own sin, as individuals, he uses harsh language, like “gouge your own eye out,” or “cut your own foot off,” and , “It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire.”

But when Jesus talks about our response to other people’s sin, he does three things. 1) He limits accounting to when another member of the church “sins against you.”  2) He recommends, absent reconciliation, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” 3) He advocates unlimited forgiveness. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

FOCUS: So our main sin focus – according to Jesus – should be our own sin. And, if I single anyone out, it’s not for their sin in general terms, just their sin against me as an individual.

  • “But wait,” you may say, “Jesus said that if they don’t repent then the church body gets to treat them like a Gentile, or a tax collector.”
  • “But wait,” I say, “let’s think for a moment about how Jesus responded to Gentiles and tax collectors. He loved them, he went out of his way to hang out with them (and all kinds of sinners), and he gave everything for them.

Finally, and this is part of the same conversation, Peter tried to tie Jesus down to a reasonable limit when it came to the extension of grace. “Can we cap my obligation at, say, around seven?” he asks.

“Not seven times,” Jesus shot back, “But, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

MY BIG THOUGHT ABOUT SIN: And here’s my last word on sin – at least for this morning. Sin, Jesus said, is going to keep us out of the kingdom. “It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.”

Enter LIFE, Jesus said. I love that word, “life,” because it reminds me that in the teachings of Jesus, kingdom life was real and present and accessible. Sin is the antithesis of life. Sin is anything that separates us from God. Sin, therefore, cannot be identified via a carefully articulated and annotated list, but sin lives in the hearts of individuals as it literally drives a wedge between them and the living God, between them and LIFE.

What I have concluded – for now – is that an individual could live a life of perfect “behavior,” keeping every rule and commandment, and never deviating from the prescriptions and proscriptions catalogued in scripture, and yet they could – in and through their very legalism – drive a wedge of separation between themselves and God, between themselves and “life.”

And I know people like that, particularly those who love to itemize the sins of other Christians, denominations, and orientations.

On the other hand, I know flawed and sinful people, believers who live messy lives and who live lifestyles unacceptable to many religious people, men and women who overflow with genuine love for God and who worship with authentic devotion, who receive grace and who have been welcomed into God with open arms because they have accepted Jesus and his invitation to LIFE.

…I must stop writing now, because I’m more than 750 words into this post. But the point is that I have once again engaged God’s Holy Word this morning, in the context of my faith community, and God is continuing to teach me about love, and grace, and sin, and separation, and all I can do – all I must do – is to celebrate his LIFE in me.



  1. Derek,

    I read every column you post and I am renewed and uplifted each time that I do. Thanks for your dedication to writing. Our best to you and Rebekah. Hope to meet you soon.

    Krista Fuller’s Dad,

    Richard Ikenberry


  2. The post reminds me of a definition for sin I learned a while back: “obstacles to grace.” (I learned this concept from the Emmaus community but it is not unique to them.) So when we try to deal with sin we are trying to remove obstacles to grace. That is difficult on many levels. But the more we can remove obstacles to grace, the more grace and love can reach us and our neighbors … thinking of it like that helps me see why the struggle is worth it…


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