‘For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.’
The first step we each need to take is to admit that we are sinners in need of a saviour. Take a moment to consider how you feel about that label. Face yourself in a mirror and say, ‘My name is …, and I am a sinner.’
Yet despite this, throughout the New Testament, God’s people are addressed as saints, not sinners. So, now that we have been justified, saved and reconciled to God through the death of his Son, face yourself again and say, ‘My name is …, and I am a saint.’
Archbishop Sheen said “Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.”
It’s funny, but it set me thinking. Why do we confess our sins anyway? Particularly if, like those nuns, your sins are on the level of “I ate the extra sprout at dinner and didn’t tell Sister Delores, even though I know she really wanted it.” Does it really matter? To mis-quote Abraham: ‘Will you destroy the whole city for lack of a sprout?’
When we come to the confession in a service, have you ever found yourself racking your brain for the things you have done wrong? I know I have (not that it takes much racking). But there’s a problem there. What if I don’t remember something that I really should confess? Does that just hang around, festering until I remember? What if I’ve confessed my sins, say at chapel Eucharist and then I confess again at compline a few hours later. It’s possible that I might not actually have done anything so terribly wrong in those few hours. So should I confess again?
It depends on what we think we are confessing, and I think the answer is found in our passage. Verse 6 says ‘For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.’ And that theme is repeated over and over – not just in this passage but throughout Paul’s writings. Paul seems to have a very strong grasp of his own weakness, his own inability to do what he knows he should do– even what he wants to do – but so often finds himself powerless to do.
When we are confessing, we are admitting not just our sinS, but also our sin: our sinfulness, our inbuilt tendency to go off the rails, our weakness, our disease.
And it is like a chronic disease. Like kidney failure, like alcoholism. What makes someone an alcoholic is not when the person has a drink, it’s when the drink has the person. It’s not about an individual glass of gin. An alcoholic is still an alcoholic even if they have had no alcohol that week, because the inclination to slip back is always hovering. Alcoholism does not go away.
It’s like that with sin. Sinning doesn’t make me a sinner, being a sinner makes me sin. Otherwise I could confess my sins to God, have them absolved and in the few nanoseconds before I next sinned I would be righteous before God in my own right, with no need of a saviour. Instead, while I am freed from the burden and consequence of my wrongdoing, and counted as righteous for the sake of my Lord, I am still weak and imperfect and always in need of one who died for me. The sins themselves are not the problem. They are symptoms of the problem. And the problem is me.
It’s a bit like kidney failure. Jesus has provided the transplant that will fix me for good, but while I’m awaiting the operation I still need dialysis. Each time, that makes me better and cleans my blood, but it does not mean my kidneys are fixed. They’re not. I have to keep coming back for dialysis, over and over, until the final cure.
So, do I confess my sinS or my sin? Both. Sometimes I need to face up to what I have thought and said and done. To admit to myself as much as anyone. Like the Alcoholics Anonymous greeting. ‘Hello, my name is Fay, and I’m a sinner’. Perhaps we should start our services like that! Maybe not. But it is a powerfully healing thing to be able to say that out loud to you, and know that you’re all nodding back.
I’m weak. I can’t fix myself. With Paul I say, ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’
So while, in this season of Lent, we may be more acutely aware of our need for God’s divine dialysis, we can be assured that his forgiveness and mercy are not limited by our ability to recall each surreptitiously stolen sprout. We confess our sins, and we confess our sin, confident that though our disease is ever present yet through Christ the symptoms are dealt with, and one day we will be free and whole for ever. ‘For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.’
To quote Jerry Bridges, ‘Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.’
Sit quietly for a few moments. See yourself, on your worst days, sinking down, and God’s grace reaching down to you. See yourself on you best days, soaring high, yet never beyond the need of God’s grace to keep you aloft.
Romans 5:1-11 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.