This is a sermon by Seth Trimmer on January 7, 2020. It explains the Christian conception of justification.
I was in the mall recently and, you know, not a whole lot of people like going to malls as much as they used to. And so they’ve got to find ways to kind of catch your attention. And one of the kiosks that I noticed was a virtual reality kiosk. They had these little pods and you put on these goggles and these little suits and you go in and you just kind of go into your own little world. Now, I was walking to the mall and it wasn’t hopping or anything like that. But there was this little boy who was in one of these virtual reality pods and his parents that obviously paid for him to do it. And he’s a pretty little boy, he was stoked on it. And so he has these goggles on and you’re watching him in the middle of the mall as he’s surrounded by, you know, bath and body works. And just like everything is going on around him. But he puts on these goggles and it’s the most entertaining thing in the world to watch this little boy experience a different world than anyone else currently is. And he’s just looking like all around him up and down.
You know, there’s nothing but a sad, outdated mall to look at. But he sees something very, very different. He starts getting surprised by something and just laughing hysterically, he’s got joy, he’s happy, and everything around him is just an immersive reality that no one else has a clue what’s going on. Clearly, he is experiencing something different than everyone else around him is. And the good news about what I see in that little moment, from what I’m hoping is going to happen here today, is there is something that happens when we come to encounter God’s amazing grace. It is like a virtual reality goggle that you put on and you get to experience a very different reality than everyone else around you. It doesn’t mean it removes you from the world, but it changes everything you see inside the world. And there’s things that everyone else like is just walking right past ignorant of that just lights you up with great joy. There’s far more for you to see and experience in your life rather than just trying to check things off your bucket list or upgrade, I don’t know, your health goals, or lose a few more pounds, or whatever it is. There’s something about God’s amazing grace that can bring us into an entirely new reality.
And it’s my deep, deep hope that this little sermon – it may not be the most complicated or tricky thing that I’ve ever taught – but it’s probably up there among the most important. So I want to talk about the text from Titus, Chapter three, Titus, Chapter three. Did you know there’s a book of Titus? There’s a book of Titus, you guys, and a table of contents. Go for it. Don’t be ashamed. Titus is a letter. There’s several letters. The latter part of the New Testament is basically letters written by church leaders and pastors to their people because email wasn’t a thing yet. So they have to write these letters and it’s an early Christian community. So many of them are just trying to get to know Jesus and be formed in the right ways of understanding him and who they are in him. And so these letters were playing a major role in helping to shape that as these leaders weren’t able to be as present everywhere as they wanted to be. And you could just say, well, they could just stay put and teach. Yes, they could. But the gospel called them to go and to spread. And so that required them to be on the move.
And these letters were the things that kind of kept everything tethered together. And though they weren’t written to us – they’re written two thousand years ago to these churches in the Near East and Mediterranean region – they’re absolutely written for us and they have some amazing things in here. Titus is written by Paul to one of his co-workers who was one of these guys who would stay behind in some of these cities after you’d established a church and help it to grow up and get established.
And he says this in Titus three verse three, he says, “At one time”, which just kind of the Bible’s way of saying, once upon a time, “we, too, were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures, we lived in malice and envy, desiring the good of other people and only wanting not good for them. Being hated and hating one another.”
This is Paul’s nice, little friendly way of summarizing the human condition, which isn’t super rosy. And it’s for this reason that Christianity sometimes enters into a little bit of controversial waters because philosophers have debated forever since there was such a thing as philosophy about what is the human condition, exactly what is the default setting on the human being really? Are we basically kind of good people, who, you know, go through tough experiences, have bad upbringings or occasionally make mistakes? Or are we fundamentally flawed human beings and occasionally we stumble our way into nobility or virtue or making good decisions here and there? Which is it? Which is it really? It’s not just a matter of is the glass half full or half empty. It really is: What is in the glass? What is actually in the glass? Whether it is half full or three quarters full, like what is actually in there? And it’s an important question. Now you can spend a whole lot of time philosophizing about it and reading a lot of deep thinkers about it. But I would encourage you just to have a child or go near one and they’ll answer it for you very, very quickly. The base setting on humanity is self-centered. That’s that’s where we all start from.
Amazingly, I never had to be taught how to lie. I figured that out very easily. Never had to be taught how to envy or to have malice. No, that was a base setting. And when Paul speaks of this as the default setting, he’s referring to the biblical story that just illuminates the wide, diverse ways in which humans have the propensity to mess things up. And he says, we all have been a part of the story and the theological term for this is that humans are under total depravity.
Just a little good, encouraging word for you to take home. Nothing like a fortune cookie. You are totally depraved! Huh? Oh, yes, total depravity. Now, total depravity is a theological term, trying to explain what Paul is laying the groundwork here, which is simply that the idea of sin, sin in terms of relational separation from God and disobedience to God, deception from God’s truth, this very core nature of sin is not just the stuff that we do. It’s the stuff that’s actually in us. It’s a part of who we are.
What total depravity says is that if sin was blue, you’d be a Smurf. All of you would be blue. Every last part of you would be blue.
You can’t just isolate it to your thoughts and say like, “If I can just think better, I’ll be better off.” No, that’s not it. It’s not just saying like, “Well, if I could just manage my feelings a little bit better, if I could just feel differently, then everything I do…” – that’s not it. Or “if I could just manage my behaviors, if I could just kind of control what I do with my body…” No, all of it. All of it is impacted. Your reasoning, your desires, everything about you is stained.
Now, what total depravity does not mean is absolute depravity. Absolute depravity means you are as fully depraved as you ever possibly could be. And that’s not nearly true of anyone, although some are giving it a good go. Total depravity just means you are inundated and everything is affected by it. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t acting out fully in the ways of sin. And it isn’t to say that some people haven’t gone further than others, but the common glue uniting the entire human story – no matter where we are on that sin spectrum, elite level experts just pushing the boundaries of what’s even possible in the realm of sin or just feeling like we’re in more of a medium sort of territory – we’re all covered and stained by it. It’s an actual state of being.
And in the scriptures it’s spoken of as a relational state and that you’re separated from God. It’s spoken of as like a living state. It’s described as death as opposed to life. And it’s described also as a legal state, where you’re actually guilty in the courtroom of God’s justice. And all these three categories come together to fill this term with all kinds of junk and dread.
And here’s why this is really important. Because Paul is about to, in the next verse, lay out all the amazing good news of Jesus. The good news of God’s amazing grace. But for Paul, the good news of Jesus doesn’t shine very brightly unless you understand how bad the bad news really is, which is why the conversation about sin needs to happen, as uncomfortable and awkward as it can be.
And believe me, I didn’t start off 2020 thinking to myself, you know what, fire and brimstone, hellfire and brimstone. That is going to be my new lane. That’s where I want to roll. But I’m trying to just be very faithful to something that is incredibly important to this whole idea of Christianity, that if you don’t understand the context of what it means to be a Christian as having been saved as a sinner by God’s grace, rather than just being a good person that maybe God can help upgrade. Those are two very, very different tracks with very different experiences. They mean worshipping two very different gods who’ve told very different stories about the world.
And it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for Jesus to die on a cross if he just came to be the next like forerunner of Tony Robbins to just elevate everyone’s adrenaline and give you a lot of inspiration.
Jesus came and was brutally murdered, so whatever his life was about, whatever his life was about, was serious. And this is where Paul begins with great seriousness, because you have to remember that for him and for all the early Christians, including many Christians throughout history, this is a life-changing sort of thing. Paul was dedicated to the eradication of the Christian church, and his life was radically transformed upon meeting Jesus and his amazing grace. And now he’s the one that’s actually building the church and is largely responsible for it. The reason why you and I are sitting here. He essentially leads our spiritual forefathers and foremothers, the Gentile community, and allows the church to expand beyond the walls of Judaism to such an extent that it could travel across oceans and millennia to reach us here today. And what changed so radically for Paul? What changed so radically for people that maybe didn’t have any interest in anything or even kneow how to spell Jesus for that matter, and then would all of a sudden give their lives away for him? They didn’t just see Jesus as an optional upgrade to life, they saw him as solving the deepest issue of their life.
Which is sin, the very thing that we constantly underrate.
But the Bible tries to point to it not just to throw an amount of religious shame on you to manipulate your behavior or giving. But so that you can actually diagnose if there is a sense of inadequacy or shame or guilt in your life where that is actually coming from. It is not from your circumstance. It is not from your happiness or lack thereof. And it’s not even – though it contributes to it – it’s not even just the sin and injustice of the world around you. It is your sin that is your biggest problem.
And to overstate it is almost impossible. It brings death, it’s killing you. It is the cancer of the world. Killing us. Bringing death and havoc, it is just that bad. There’s no way to like, scrub it off you. Sin is like the glitter of the spiritual world, that stuff multiplies and never goes away.
I had three boys and I knew nothing of this thing called glitter until I had a little girl. And now glitter. I will never get it off - I promise you. There’s a piece of glitter somewhere on my clothing or body, my van, my couch, somewhere, somewhere. My daughter wore a brand new dress last weekend and it had glitter all over it. And she came and gave me a big bear hug before church. And when she got off, she said, Oh, Dad, you’re sparkly now. I said, “Don’t worry, baby daddy loves a sparkle on stage. It’s all good.”
You know, that stuff just doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t. That’s sin. It’s just this thing you can’t hide, you can’t conceal. And the more you do, it somehow magically multiplies. In fact, here’s the tricky part about sin, that the sin itself that you try to locate in terms of your words or thoughts or behaviors are all rooted somehow much more deeply in your heart, in this thing called pride. And so even the idea, like “I’m not that bad” is the old like slogan of pride.
And so when Paul, like, throws literally everyone under the bus, saying there’s two kinds of wretches: those that just kind of nod along and say, yup, that’s me, what am I going to do about it? And there are others who are like, no, no, no, no. That’s him. Happy for Jesus to help him. In fact, I would love for Jesus help him because he’s driving me nuts. But not me. Which is why Jesus caught so many waves. And he would say things to basically these two crowds of people, those who are sick and those who thought they were healthy and lived their lives trying to externally cover up everything that was messy on the inside. And Jesus said it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. And this wasn’t his way of saying, like, yeah, some of you are healthy and some of you are sick. I’m just here for the sick ones. It was his way of saying, like, yeah, there’s two kinds of people in the world, those who are sick and those who are in denial.
And who can you help as any doctor or nurse or parent in the room will tell you? Teacher, social worker? Only those who will admit there’s a problem. And when you come to terms with this problem, it’s not a light one. These aren’t light words that Paul is using. He even used one of his letters to describe himself as the chief of sinners, the worst of them all.
And he was convinced that, you know, why God saved him and made him one of the most epic leaders in the church was just to show off how big his grace really is. Because if he did it with Paul, like, I promise you, you’re not excluded, it’s like I promise you there’s room for you too. And when you come to terms with this it’s a big deal. And then in comparison to the holiness and purity of God, there’s only one proper reaction… and that’s utter terror.
Most of us have such a low view of sin that God just kind of feels like the hall monitor passing out citations for running in the halls that you really don’t care about. You don’t really respect his authority and you really don’t know, like, it really isn’t a big deal. And so you just kind of say, “Yeah, I’m just kind of doing my thing. And I’m sure God has some general guidelines, but I’m sure there’s tons of leeway.”
But every time you see an encounter of a sinful person anywhere near the presence of God in the Bible, it’s terrifying. They assume they’re dead. This isn’t going to work. I’m unclean. I’m stained, I’m wrong. I’m unholy in every possible way. And God, he’s the epitome of perfect self giving, radiant love.
I remember when I visited Israel. On my way home, having to go back through airport security – it’s a little bit different from TSA here in America, given that a good chunk of the world’s population would be quite happy to eradicate all of them. So they take their security very seriously. On the shuttle ride to the airport, you pass through multiple random checkpoints on the freeway with armed guards and bazookas and everything else.
And you have to go through machine gun checkpoints before you even can go into parking or the terminal multiple stages. And when you do go to check into the airport, you have to check in before you check in and they scan all your bags before they’ll even allow you to check in and get your boarding pass and everything else, go through security. So there’s so many layers to it. It was why they tell you, I think you have to be at the airport at least three to four hours early, like minimal, or you’re going to miss your flight. And I didn’t really think it was all that true. And then I got there and for some reason I stood out in the crowd and they picked me to question. And I apparently didn’t give the right answers about what I was there for and what I was doing. And so I got flagged and pulled aside into a little room and they went through my luggage.
And when I said they went through my luggage, they went through my luggage. As detailed as – I wouldn’t have been able to hide a sewing pin anywhere. It was that thorough. And I knew I wasn’t a terrorist. I knew I had done nothing wrong. I knew I was just trying to go home to Corvallis, Oregon, and I was terrified. Because someone with that much power, and authority, and especially when you’re in a foreign country and you realize – I have none. You’re powerless, they could say I’m guilty and I just am. And I’m helpless.
And there’s something about Paul that just brings us to that place, not that you’re innocent, but in terms of God, you feel guilty, but like, no, you’re totally guilty.
You can’t even plead your case; there’s no rights that you have to call upon to somehow justify yourself, which is why if there’s anything between this whole God and us situation that’s going to actually work, the justification of our lives has got to come from somewhere other than us, which is exactly where Paul goes. He says “when the kindness and love of God, our savior, appeared…”, that’s not how I would expect verse four to begin after verse three “deceived, enslaved, disobedient, malice envy, full of hate.”
“But when the judgment and wrath of our God appeared”, that’s kind of what you expect to come next, right?
“But when the kindness and love of our God, our savior, appeared, he saved us not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ, our savior. So that having been justified by his grace, [a free gift], we might become heirs, having the hope of eternal life.”
And this is Paul’s way of trying to succinctly, although deeply, unpack exactly what the Gospel does. All of this, it justifies us by grace and all the residual benefits that come as a result of it are just so innumerable that even in the small space, Paul packs all these dense theological terms into it that just spark incredible joy. You would expect a beginning with like, “yeah, you’re a total sinful human deserving by very nature of death and wrath” to be followed up with “And God’s going to give you what you deserve unless you get your act together.” But instead, it comes with “in spite of you being an enemy of God and stained with very anti-God things like sin, the loving kindness appeared and mercy has been made available to you.” And something has happened where you have not had to justify yourself to God. But God has justified you, not you earning your right to stand with him. Jesus came and did it for you.
And this is where Paul’s mind flipped. The man who was so conversant in the laws of God and so dutifully obedient as possibly one ever could be, was totally rocked because he realised he could never earn his way to God. His works were like filthy rags before him. He had a proper vision of all that humans are supposed to be, and he knew how far he had fallen short. He had fallen short, and it was the kindness and mercy of God that justified him by grace, not by works, but by grace. That gave him a new pair of goggles to see reality.
He had never seen this before.
And a man who, by all intents and purposes, would have every right to stand on this stage and judge every last one of you with self-righteousness. If he were here today, he’d be saying what he said in his text, say, like, yeah, I was the worst sinner. You ain’t going to beat me. My pride will beat your pride. And even that very statement is a proud statement of my pride.
And yet, when the kindness and mercy of Jesus appeared, he filled me with this holy spirit, accepted me into his family, cleansed me of my sins, and justified me freely by his grace, so that I’m not just a part of his family – a distant, unliked relative. He put me in his will. I’m an heir and the future is mine eternally with him and this whole world – I’m going to inherit it all. Everything God has is mine. Because he has shared it and given it freely. Because I deserved it? It’s his amazing grace.
And that changes things, I mean, just look at this list, can we just look at this list for a second? And the kindness and love of God appeared in the coming of Jesus to this world to live the perfect life on our behalf and to pay for our sins through his death on the cross. We get saved, washed, reborn, renewed, filled, justified, and we become heirs. He put all that in a sentence, like in a tweet, in a text. And each one of these things is its own little pool that you could wade into so deep you’d never reach bottom.
God’s amazing grace is the story of him redeeming sinners, not just by forgiving them to alleviate their guilt so that they could sneak into the back door of heaven when they die, but so that they might be justified. Justified means made fully right with God, just as if I had never sinned. Full son, full daughter. Not because you know what – you deserve it. There’s something about me that is… No, it’s because you were his enemy and – it’s a story about how great Jesus is, not how lovable you were. It’s how great his love was. And once you see the disparity, that’s what puts the new vision upon your eyes. It’s what keeps you from the self-righteousness and pride that even under Christian churchy sort of lifestyle just lends itself to exhausting your own performance and having to live up to everyone else’s expectations and believing that somehow you need to constantly compensate for your own shortcomings and failures by your own performances.
Maybe your giving, maybe your church attendance. It’s what keeps you from ever being able to look down on anyone else, ever being that person in the room. That feels like you’re better than anyone. My list is your list. I haven’t reached some sort of the elite level just because you get to call me pastor. That’s a roll of servanthood, not of superiority. So I haven’t reached some level where because I followed Jesus for long, I’ve graduated from the grace thing. And so therefore I’m just here to help you all peons figure it out. I’m in that category.
After 20 years – try being a pastor for a little while, you get to meet super interesting people all the time – I’ve heard the stories of murderers and pedophiles and rapists and pathological liars and soccer moms and stockbrokers and real estate agents, you know what I mean? And you know what they all have in common? Sin. And I’ve never been able to look at any of them and say either: Am I better than you? Or envy them because they’re somehow better than me. My enemy is sin. My savior is not my willpower, it’s not my righteous deeds, it’s not my Bible knowledge, it’s not even my faith. My faith is Jesus is my savior. My trust is in him. He rescues me. And here’s the beautiful thing about it. Jesus is the good news.
My faith isn’t even what rescues my faith. Isn’t even that which rescues some of you here. Like, I don’t even know if I’ve got good enough faith. Here’s what Jesus said. It’s a mustard seed and here’s why. Because it’s only the smallest amount of faith in the right thing that actually rescues you. A little faith in the right thing will save you. Big faith in the wrong thing won’t.
If you’re falling off a cliff and see two roots dangling off of it, and you have to make a choice, which one do I grab, wanting to decide which one will bear your weight. You don’t need to have barely any confidence in the root that you grabbed – just enough to grab it. But it’s the actual strength of the root that will determine your salvation. You grab onto Jesus, which is the smallest amount of mustard seed faith that anyone in the room can muster. And God’s amazing grace floods in. You’ll never tell a story of like, “Yeah, one day, I just, I just built myself up. I just found my faith, I increased my faith, I grew my faith. And that’s how I grabbed hold of Jesus.” No, Jesus grabbed hold of you.
And maybe you had enough to like reach out with a pinkie or something. But something touched Paul. And he can never see the same again. Something touched me and I can’t see the same again. I’m living in a different reality. And you see things going on around me. It’s why some of you if you’re around a legit Christian that’s actually been touched by God’s amazing grace, you noticed that it’s like, “Man, I’m seeing the same thing you’re seeing, but you have joy when everyone else is terrified. And you’re pretty content when everyone else just wants more. And you seem to be pretty self-secure when everyone else is just comparing themselves to others. And you seem to have a whole lot of peace in your life. And everyone else is terrified of world war three.” What is it that actually transforms people in this world and actually lifts them out of the state of just normal in the world.
Amazing grace, because this world is not dependent on me. Because I wasn’t saved by me. If I worked my way into a relationship with God, I could work my way out of it. I live in it with a constant pressure of having to perform always, never sure when God’s going to punish me arbitrarily or deservedly. But when I’m saved by grace, not by works, I not only come in freely forgiven of my sin and included fully into God’s family, I stay in God’s family. And even when I try to run away, here’s what happens to me and God. And the lie that some of us think even here in this room, that you come into this place yet you didn’t come in knowing about Christianity or not knowing about God’s grace, but in reality, you felt like you’ve left God far behind you like he’s just too far away. I don’t know how I’ll ever get back.
But here’s the reality. God’s been with you every second of every moment. He’s been following you tracing you everywhere that you’ve gone, and he’s only one step back. Turn around. Give your mustard seed of faith back to him. Let that amazing grace transform you. Don’t let your story be “Yeah, I got my life together. I got all cleaned up. I beat my addiction. I started going to church. And that’s when I found Jesus.” Jesus has already found you, my friend. Why don’t you just tune into reality, turn around, give him a little bit of trust, and then watch what he’ll do from your life. From there. Your testimony will not be about all the things that you have done to find God’s salvation. It’ll be about God’s amazing grace. When I wasn’t even looking for it. He was looking for me when I thought I had it all together, when I just went along with this whole Corvallis, Oregon, American western sort of mindset that is far quicker to blame God for the problems of this world than it is to own up to our own sin that has caused them.
God sent his son to take responsibility for my sin. And through his death, I received his life. Is God fair? Never. Never will he ever be. Because what have I got? That I’ve earned? Nothing. Nothing. It’s something about a little boy at a mall with virtual reality seems to parallel. What happens when amazing grace justifies us. It changes everything. Changes everything. This morning. If you’ve never put your trust in Jesus, and received this amazing gift of God’s grace, you can. It’s as simple as saying, I trust you. Yes, I trust. I can’t work my way to you. But you have done all the work for me. So I trust your death on the cross. If you’re here and you are that person that’s wandered, and you feel like there’s a big gap. Same story. If you’re here and you feel like you know what, Seth? This was Sunday school like for me in like 1988. If you graduated from God’s grace, I don’t think you understand God’s grace is the pool so shallow, a toddler can wade in it but so deep, an elephant can swim.
In every moment of the day that is not saturated, being reminded of God’s grace is a moment where you are not living in the real world. Or you’re not seeing the world through the goggles of God’s amazing grace, or your stories. It’s about something Jesus has done in the past, not being awakened to what he’s doing in your life right now. To know the only thing holding you from the pit of death is grace. The only thing holding your mind and your heart and your body and every molecule in your being together right now. It’s the grace of God. That’s terrifying to think that it’s in someone else’s hands until you see whose hands it’s in.
They got scars, fam. Kindness. And love. When God our Savior appeared, he did not come to give us what we deserved. But to take it upon himself. So that as a free gift of his grace, we might be justified freely. I don’t care how you feel about it. He just says it’s what’s real. And true. So this morning, if you would like to take communion to celebrate that, or show your gratitude for that you can close out with worship. If here this morning, you want to make that decision: Christianity is a binary thing. It’s not “I’m trying to be” or “I’m working at it.” It’s a grace you receive or you don’t. Working at it and trying harder is not receiving the grace. Do you want to come to the party? It’s an open invitation. It’s not my party but I’m inviting you to it.