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The Crux of the Matter: Crucifixion, Sin, and Evil
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2 CORINTHIANS 5:13-6:2; JOHN 8:31-36

lent series titleWHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?

That’s a question I’ve been hearing a lot these days. Looking at the news, watching people’s behavior, seeing the ways in which humans seem bent on destroying one another and themselves, it’s a question that many people are asking and many people attempt to answer.


Some would say that what’s wrong with humans has to do with laws—some say we need more, others say we need less. Perhaps it has to do with better education, or healthcare, or more money. Others would say that people simply aren’t self-actualized, while others would say that self-focus is the problem. Everyone’s got an idea, but those ideas don’t seem to have worked.


Since the Enlightenment, Western culture has believed in the idea of human progress—that if we could just make people smarter, give them better technology, make them healthier, make them wealthier, and help them feel better about themselves they would be happier and less prone to acting badly. Well, how’s that working out? Sure, we’ve made some advances in science, medicine, and technology, but human nature hasn’t seemed to fundamentally be changed. Some would argue that it’s even worse, but that’s probably more a function of the fact that the 24 hours news cycle simply exposes us to more human brokenness than we have had access to at any time in human history.


Jews and Christians have long understood that there is, indeed, a basic and longstanding answer to what’s wrong with people. The word “Sin” encapsulates a lot of that meaning, but in the 21st century that term has even fallen out of favor. Pastor and theologian Fleming Rutledge says, “The category of sin has been displaced in our time by other categories such as disease, maladjustment, neurosis, deficiency, and addiction.” Fundamentally, most people in Western culture believe that the cure to our human woes can be found in simply creating a better law, a better pill, a better self-image, or a better iPhone app.


But those are about attempting to treat the symptoms of our human dysfunction and not its root cause. Indeed, we even have to go back beyond the traditional definition of “sin” to get at an even more insidious and endemic human problem. When we understand this problem, we will then better understand how the death of Jesus is the most important event in human history. That’s because it’s the only real solution to the real problem!



If we want to understand the human problem, we first have to understand the reason humans were created in the first place. For that we turn to Genesis 1. In Genesis 1:26-27, we learn that God created humanity as the pinnacle of his creation—creating them in his image with tasks to perform as part of the Creator’s purpose for creation. They are to reflect the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflect the praise of creation back to its maker. From a biblical perspective, the first five days of the creation reflect the ancient method of building a temple in which the presence of God will rest and, on the sixth day, God creates humans to serve as his priests in that temple. This is their divinely endowed purpose—their true vocation. They are to glorify God and serve as his representatives. As if to reinforce this, the Bible again and again calls God’s people “a royal priesthood” who serve within God’s good creation.


In Genesis 2 we are introduced to two archetypical humans—Adam and Eve, who are representatives of all humanity. Human beings, worshipping their creator, were the key to the proper flourishing of the world. All seems well until, in Genesis 3, at the prompting of another voice in the form of a snake, the humans begin to believe that they can be like God. It’s this belief that actually leads to the sin that Adam and Eve are most noted for—eating that which was forbidden to them.


But before their sin, their first failure was a failure to worship—a failure to uphold their vocation as priests and stewards of God’s creation. It was a failure of vocation that led to sin, which in turn led to death.


Paul talks about this in Romans 1:18-25, which we read during our last series. The real problem was that humans traded the truth of God for a lie and worshipped the creation rather than the creator. Idolatry was and is the most basic answer to the question, “What’s wrong with people?”



The Greek word for “sin” (hamartia) literally means to “miss the mark.” And what is the mark? The original vocation of humanity—a life of worship and stewardship in the image of God. Idolatry, on the other hand, turns our attention and our worship toward non-divine forces that then enslave us. We begin to serve them rather than serving God and the result of that false worship is “sin.”


This is the basic human problem—we become what we worship. There’s an old Latin proverb: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi – “As we worship, so we believe, and so we live.” Everyone worships something, whether you are a believer or not. The Bible calls these non-divine forces “the elemental spirits of the universe” and we systemically give our worship to them and become slaves to them.


Three basic examples of these forces are money, sex, and power. In and of themselves, put in the proper context, they are neutral. But when they receive our worship, they are destructive forces. In other words, they make great servants, but terrible masters. There are plenty of other forces like these to which we become enslaved—pride, prestige, influence, substances, material things, and on and on.


The non-divine forces of the universe seek our worship and our destruction, usually by our own hand. We might fear the shadowy avatar of evil the Bible calls “the Satan” but his name simply means “the accuser.” Like the snake in the Garden, he is the one who simply reminds us that we have a choice in who or what we worship. He would seek our destruction, but that destruction will come by our own hand.


This is the depth of the problem. Like the slaves we discussed last week, we live in constant fear that our masters will destroy us. We are slaves to sin and subject to the death of slaves. Rather than living lives of vocation and purpose, we live in fear. Rather than being endowed with divine purpose, idolatry and sin make us ever more godless. We are born into this condition of slavery and are helpless to break free on our own.



In Romans 7:14-24, Paul describes the human condition of slavery to idolatry, sin, and death – “We know that the Law is spiritual, but I’m made of flesh and blood, and I’m sold as a slave to sin. I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing I hate…So I find that, as a rule, when I want to do what is good, evil is right there with me…I’m a miserable human being. Who will deliver me from this dead corpse?”


Such is the power of slavery to Sin. It renders humans helpless and powerless. It strips us of our true humanity in the image of God. It reduces us to the status of beasts, who are driven to satisfy our deepest urges. And it destines us for death.


This is what’s wrong with people. And we know this, because if we’re honest, we know it’s what’s wrong with us. We become what we worship, and we become slaves. We aren’t sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners. As Jesus puts it in the gospel lesson from John, “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” Who will deliver us from this body of death?


The answer? Only one who knows our slavery. Only someone willing to enter our godless condition. Only someone willing to come and set us free.


Remember that last week we began this series by saying that the mode of Jesus’ death is as important as his death itself. Crucifixion was the “servile supplicium”—the death for slaves. And what, according to the Scriptures, did Jesus become in order to redeem us? “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” says Paul in Philippians, “and by becoming like human beings.”


In Jesus Christ, God willingly entered into our godless condition under slavery to sin and death, becoming a slave himself and enduring the death of a slave—the death that we deserve as slaves. Fleming Rutledge puts it this way:


Jesus’ situation under the harsh judgment of Rome was analogous to our situation under Sin. He was condemned; he was rendered helpless and powerless; he was stripped of his humanity; he was reduced to the status of a beast, declared unfit to live and deserving of a death proper to slaves—and what, according to Paul, were we if not slaves? Jesus was crucified because no other mode of execution would have been commensurate with the extremity of humanity’s condition under Sin.


On the cross, Jesus identifies with our godlessness. His cry was the cry of the godless—“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!” He dies the horrific death of a slave to save his fellow slaves. “For our sake, [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin,” says Paul, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This is the good news! “One has died for all…and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” They will be part of the “new creation”—and they will begin to live in it in the present, free to take on the vocation and priesthood they were meant for from the beginning.



Jesus died the death of a slave, for those who are slaves, so that they might be set free. And as Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!”


This is the message of the cross. Jesus became like us so that we might become like him—no longer slaves, but people free to be the people God created us to be; free to resume our vocation as people who glorify God; free to be priests; free to live without fear; free from the forces of sin and death.


It’s the power of the gospel. Charles Wesley expresses it so powerfully in his hymn, “And Can It Be:”


He left his Father’s throne above,

So free, so infinite his grace;

Emptied himself of all but love,

And strove for Adam’s helpless race.

’Tis mercy all, immense and free,

For O, my God, it found out me!


Long my imprisoned spirit lay,

Fast-bound in sin and nature’s night.

Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.

My chains fell off, my heart was free;

I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.


What’s wrong with people? They are (we are) slaves who need to experience the power of the cross to set them free. There is no other solution; there is no other savior than the one who became like us so that we might become like him. If the Son sets us free, we will be free indeed!


There is much more to say about this. In the next few sermons, we will look at the whole sweep of the Bible’s message about the cross—that Jesus’ death and resurrection took place “according to the Scriptures.” The story of the whole Bible is the story of how the Creator God rescues his people from slavery to Sin and Death so that they might be renewed in his image and reengage their vocation as a royal priesthood. We will dive into that story next week.


Today, however, I invite you to consider your own condition. It’s easy to ask, “What’s wrong with people?” without asking, “What’s wrong with me?” What is it that enslaves you? What is it that causes you to feel that deep cycle of doing the thing you don’t want to do. What is it that causes you to feel godless?


I invite you to hear the good news today—you can be set free. You can be set free from slavery to the idols, the sin that binds you. Jesus knows where you are. He became a slave and died the death of a slave to set you free. He became sin, who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God. And if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.



Rutledge, Fleming. The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Eerdman’s, 2015.

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