RomANS 3:21-26; 5:8; 6:23; PsALM 103:12; Micah 7:19;
I JOHn 1:7; 2:2
One of the basic tenets of any fair system of law and justice is that the punishment must fit the crime. Fairness requires that if someone has committed a crime, their punishment must be neither too severe nor too lenient. It would not be right to give someone a life sentence for shoplifting a few apples. Nor would it be appropriate to sentence someone to mere probation if they committed murder. If there is to be true justice, the punishment must fit the crime.
Today we will wrap up our series on the basics of the Christian faith by looking at the last three phrases of the Apostles’ Creed, which says: “(I believe in) the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Since these three are obviously closely related, we will consider them together. Not only are the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting all related, they are also indescribable gifts from God. They reveal the depth of God’s love for us and the greatness of His commitment to us.
But before we can fully appreciate the wonder of these gifts and all they mean for us, we must first understand and accept why we don’t deserve them. In other words, we must hear the bad news before we hear the good news if the good news is to be to us as awesome and fantastic as it truly is.
So what is the bad news? The bad news is that we have absolutely no right to these great gifts of God, and in fact, we deserve just the opposite. Instead of forgiveness, resurrection, and life everlasting, we deserve judgment, death, and eternal separation from God.
For the truth is, we are all sinners. Rom. 3:23 says it plainly – we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. While we may not like to admit that, at the same time it is obvious to all. We don’t even need Scripture to tell us that, for any honest evaluation of human character – our own or that of others – makes it abundantly clear. We are all sinners. There are no perfect people.
Just what is sin? Well, there are several definitions. Sin includes any way we fail to conform to the will of God. It is to miss the mark of God’s purpose for our lives. It involves doing what we shouldn’t do (lying, stealing, revenge, greed, lust, materialism) and not doing what should (loving God with all our heart, loving our neighbor as we love our self, forgiving those who have wronged us, considering the needs of others and not just our own, showing hospitality to strangers). Sin is any act of rebellion against God and His will for our lives in any area of our lives.
But sin has to do with more than what we do; at a deeper level it’s about who we are. There is something at the core of who we are that wants to reject God and live for self, that wants to turn from God and His ways in order to live life the way we choose. In other words, we have a sinful nature. So, it’s not that we are sinners because we commit acts of sin but we commit acts of sin because we are sinners. Our inward nature is set against God for we desire to go our own way, and that results in committing particular acts of sin.
Scripture then tells us that the punishment for our sin is very severe. According to Rom. 6:23, the wages of sin death. Wages are what we earn, what we deserve. If we put in a full day’s work, we have earned a full day’s pay. That is what we deserve for what we have done. And so our wages, what we have earned through our sinful nature and acts of sin, is death. That is what we deserve for rebelling against God. We have rejected God, and so we deserve to be rejected by God. God made this clear from the very beginning. He told Adam that he could eat from any tree in the garden except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for if he ate from that tree, he would die.
The question we might ask, though, is: Why is the penalty so severe? Does the punishment fit the crime in this case? Yes, we would all admit that we have disobeyed God. But probably none of us have murdered someone. Probably we haven’t done something that would be considered horrendously evil and cruel. Isn’t eternal death and separation from God a bit harsh given the type of sins that likely characterize most of our lives?
Let me offer a couple thoughts that may help put this in perspective. In the first place, when we sin we separate ourselves from God, for we are disobeying God as we choose our own way. And God is the giver of life, the source of life. So, if we separate ourselves from the source of life, death is simply the natural result. It’s like if we were lying in a hospital bed with a breathing tube because our longs were not working properly. In that situation, the breathing tube is our source of life. If we separate ourselves from it, we will die. In a similar way, if we separate ourselves from God, the source of life, death is the natural consequence.
Second, all sin, no matter how significant or insignificant it may seem to us, is ultimately sin against a holy God. And because sin is rebellion against God our Creator, the punishment must be severe.
Perhaps a simple illustration will help us understand why. If I go into middle of the jungle with a can of black spray paint, find an old abandoned, dilapidated shack that hasn’t been lived in for years, and spray some graffiti on it, there will probably no consequences for that act or very minimal consequences at the most. If I do the same to one of the beautiful buildings here in the city center of Kuala Lumpur, I may have to pay fine, pay to have it cleaned, or perhaps do some community service. But if I go to the Louvre Museum in Paris and spray graffiti on Leonardo de Vinci’s painting, the Mona Lisa, the consequences will be even more severe. I would be in a lot of trouble!
Why the difference in degrees of punishment when it’s the same paint, the same act? Because the objects that have been marred are different and that determines the consequences. The more significant the object that in a sense, has been violated, the more severe the consequences.
When we sin, we sin against our Creator, the one and only, holy God. Sin is outright rebellion against an eternal God, and so there are eternal consequences.
Beyond that, we need to consider what sin is in addition to being rebellion against a pure and holy God. If we look back to the third chapter of Genesis, we get a picture of what sin really is. When the man and woman ate from the tree that God had forbidden them to take from, we see illustrated for us not only one particular act of sin, but we also see at a deeper level what sin is really all about.
For one thing, the disobedience of Adam and Eve reveals the desire we all have to live without any limits, any restrictions on what we want to do. God told the first human couple they could eat of any tree but one, but that’s the one they went for. There was just one thing that was off limits to Adam and Eve, but to them that was one limit too many.
As nothing else could do, death reminds us that there are limits to what we can and should do. Our very life in this world is now limited by death. And because our life in this world is limited, that should inspire us to give highest priority to making sure our heart is right with God so that we can receive His gift of life for the next world.
Related to that, the account in Genesis 3 makes it clear that sin really is our desire, or our attempt to be like God. That’s how Satan tempted Eve in the garden, and then Adam as well. Satan told Eve that if she ate of the forbidden fruit, she would “be like God, knowing good and evil” At its root, sin is trying to be like God, knowing good and evil, which is a way of saying determining for ourselves what is good or evil, right or wrong.
We want to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. We don’t want someone else – not even God – telling us what we should do and what we shouldn’t do. We want to be our own master, and that means we want to be God, or at least to be like God by doing what only God has the right to do. For only God has the wisdom and the purity of motives to determine what is right or wrong, good or bad. Yes, we can make that determination on some obvious things, but we will always try to rationalize our sin, trying to find ways of excusing it so it is okay.
Death, more than anything else, tells us in no uncertain terms that we are not like God. We are mere mortals. No other consequence, no other penalty for sin could have told us so convincingly that we are not God, that we are but creatures and not the Creator. In our attempt to be like God, death shouts out to us, “No, you’re not!” and there is Someone else we are accountable to.
That’s why death is the just penalty for sin. Sin is our attempt to be our own God, deciding for ourselves what is good and evil, permissible and forbidden. Death is the clearest proof that we are not God. Death in this sense is not only the just consequence of our desire to be like God, like one who is immortal, it also is evidence of God’s grace. For while the harshness of death declares to us that we are not like God, it is also the wake-up call we need to help us get things back in their proper order. It motivates us as nothing else can to get our lives right with God so that we won’t have to face eternal death.
Apart from a penalty as severe as death, we would not likely be motivated to seek after God, to find our deepest meaning in God and our relationship with Him. We would just live selfishly. And so, we need a severe penalty in order to move us to turn to God.
But the good news, the great news, is that though death is a fair and just punishment, God doesn’t want us to have to bear that. Here we see the profound love of God. God would rather bear that penalty Himself than make us pay it, even though we deserve it. This brings us to the first of the three phrases – the forgiveness of sin, which is what God offers us in Jesus Christ.
I Jn. 1:7 assures us that “the blood of Jesus…purifies us from all sin.” And I Jn. 2:2 adds that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world.” In this we see the profound depth of God’s love for us, which Rom. 5:8 underscores: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
So, our sin has been blotted out, to be remembered no more. There is no more price left to pay for Christ paid it all. While the penalty for sin is great, the remedy for our sin is even greater. God, in Jesus Christ, bore the penalty Himself and our relationship with God is restored.
The penalty for sin should drive us to seek the free gift of God – free for us that is. It cost God dearly, but He offers it to us freely. To say, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins,” means we acknowledge our own sin and that we have turned from God, we realize what the just penalty is, we recognize that Jesus bore that penalty Himself, and we then consciously ask for and receive God’s forgiveness.
As in any relationship, forgiveness must be both offered and received. The fact that God offers it to us does not mean it’s automatic. We must receive it. Christ died for all, but that does not mean all will be saved, for some refuse to acknowledge their need for forgiveness, and so they don’t accept His forgiveness.
Now when we receive God’s forgiveness, there is a future for us. Death, while still limiting our time in this world, is not the final limit of our existence. Because our sins have been forgiven, we can look forward to our own resurrection from the dead just as Jesus was raised. As the Creed states: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”
Just what does this mean? First and obviously, it means we believe there is life beyond existence in this world. When death comes the body dies but there will be a time when the body is raised.
This was true of Jesus. He was raised and resurrected, and this was verified because He had a body by which He was recognized. The disciples saw the scars from the nails and spear. They touched him and saw him eat. Of course, there were differences too. There was a new quality to His body. He ate, but He didn’t need to. He could appear and disappear, He could pass through locked doors. He was not bound by limitations of space and time, yet He had a real body.
So, does this mean that our physical bodies will simply be reinvigorated? If so, what about someone who was cremated, or eaten by wild animals? Well, our resurrected body will be identifiable with us, but it will not be the same body that is laid in grave.
As Paul points out in I Cor. 15:35-41, a farmer does not plant a miniature version of wheat or corn, but something that looks completely different – a seed. That seed grows into the plant. Our earthly bodies are like the seed. There will be a correlation between this body and our heavenly body, but they won’t be the same. This body is ideally suited for life on earth while our resurrection body will be ideally suited for eternity. So in vs. 40 of that passage, it says “the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another.”
This is highlighted by I Cor. 15:50-51, where Paul continues: “I declare to you that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.”
We will be changed. We won’t just be nebulous spirits, nor will we be flesh and blood. But just as Jesus had a physical body, but one different from before, so it will be for us.
Much of this is a mystery, as Paul wrote. But we can say this. Our resurrection body will not be subject to decay or corruption. I Cor. 15:42 states: “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable.” We know that this body is perishable. We get sick, weary, and tired. We break bones. As we get older our energy wanes. Finally, we die. But our sure hope is that our resurrection body will never wear out or decay. It is imperishable.
Another characteristic of the resurrection body is that it is a glorious body. I Cor. 15:43 says that the physical body is sown in dishonor but raised in glory. The Greek word for dishonor (atimia) means “subject to the disgrace of passions and weakness” – passions such as hatred, lust, greed, and resentment. And the physical body is subject to weaknesses, such as poor health, sickness, and the wearing out of the body. But this physical body is raised in glory; thus, it is free from these destructive forces.
So, the resurrection of the body means that the individuality of our personhood will not be lost but will live on. We will be identifiable. We will know our loved ones in heaven. But all the imperfections, flaws and weaknesses our human bodies will disappear. We will have bodies that are different from and yet maintain some continuity with our present ones.
And as the Creed closes, with our new resurrection bodies, we will experience “life everlasting.” What does everlasting life mean? Is it simply life that goes on forever and ever?
What Jesus offers us is not merely an eternal extension of existence. That might get a little boring after a few billion years. No, Jesus offers us life in all its fullness (Jn. 10:10). So, life everlasting is not merely an endless extension of existence but a transformation of that existence which yes, goes on forever. “Eternal” does not mean throughout all time but outside of time, for time will cease to exist.
Perhaps we can think of it like this: probably all of us have had the experience where it seems like time stops, like time doesn’t exist. It may be while we’re engaged in our favorite hobby, such as painting or playing a musical instrument. It may be while having romantic dinner with the one we love. It may be as we are engrossed in a captivating book or listening to a beautiful concert. However we experience it, I imagine all of us have had those experiences where it seems like time stands still, or like time doesn’t even exist. We are so caught up in the particular experience, we are enjoying that moment so fully that time loses its meaning. We think we have been engaged in this activity for 30 minutes, but when we look at our watch we are shocked to realize four hours have passed. Time stopped for us.
I’m guessing eternal life will be like that. We will be so fully enjoying the presence and beauty and glory of God, we will be so thrilled by all that the world to come offers us that we will be continually and eternally delighting in the present moment. We will have no sense that the experience has gone on and on, or been repeated endlessly, but it will be sheer and continuous joy that renders time meaningless.
Eternal life means “life with God”, life outside the confines of space and time. We can’t comprehend what that will be like, but main point is this: “Eternal life means that our present relationship with God is not destroyed or thwarted by death but is continued and deepened by it. Eternal life is of a quality that does not end when material things pass away.” So everlasting life says as much about the quality of life as its duration.
And we don’t have to wait until we die to begin to experience that, for we can begin to experience eternal life now. True, we’ll know the fullness of it only in the age to come (Lk. 18:30). But we can begin to experience it now. Jesus said in Jn. 5:24: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” From the moment we trust in Christ, we have eternal life, we have crossed over from death to life.
When we come to faith, we experience a newness of life. It begins now, will be intensified in the world to come, and will endure forever. As one writer put it: “To come to faith in Jesus Christ is to begin a new relationship with God that is not abolished but actually deepened by death – death sweeps away the remaining obstacles to our experiencing the presence of God.”
Isn’t that a great way to think about death? It’s not what we lose but what we gain. We can begin now to experience the fullness of life, and death removes the obstacles that keep us from experiencing that life in its fullness, for at death we will be fully in the presence of God.
So ends the Creed. The Creed opened with a statement of faith in God: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Chris His only Son, our Lord.” It closes with the affirmation of the sure hope that we shall one day stand in the presence of that same God, delighting in His love and goodness forever. Thanks be to God.