All human beings are born into the wrong world. As we look more closely and consider the particulars, we see we are born into the wrong time and the wrong place; the wrong city and the wrong century. Sometimes it seems we are born into the wrong family and are born with the wrong skin.
This is the trouble of the Fall: We were created for a Garden, but we were born into a wilderness. We created with dominion over creation, to keep and care; but we are born under domination, in world of dominion run amuck. We were created royalty and live as serfs. We were created to live forever and born with a body programmed to fail. Everywhere, the cosmos may have space for us to live, but at the same moment contains snares which catch and kill. Even the sun and the water present danger as we need them both.
If the trouble were merely external, perhaps we could bear it with equanimity. But we are born subject to irrational, deceitful desires:
This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.
Ecclesiastes 9:3 (ESV)
There is the default to human existence. You need do nothing to achieve madness, or sorrow, or death. As Ms. Dickinson wryly wrote:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me
It takes no effort to die.
There is no solution to this trouble within the scope of this creation. The brokenness of the creation cannot be mended from the inside. It as if one is an ancient wooden ship in the heart of the sea while the hurricane roars and the planks break and the water charges in. How will you mend the breach? You cannot come to shore and prepare the wood and patch the break. You will be able to make planks from water as you will be able to remedy the world.
The One who has cursed the whole is greater than all the creation besides. The certainty of the end will not be moved.
And us, we cannot look to us to escape this doom. The insanity of my heart will never be repaired by my insane heart. The efforts of your insanity will not cure me. How will the mad ever cure the mad?
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad,” said Alice.
“You must be, said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
And the enemy Death stands as the absolute bar. It will not be avoided. Even if someone managed to drag their corpse 1,000 years into the future, Death would still be waiting. At 1,000 years more, Death would have been there first.
And what of those 2,000 years? Will the depraved heart be avoided? Will time finally make you good and wise? Will you rise above the common lot of humanity?
Since no one here gets out alive, the only solution must be to somehow find a door out. The Creation being under a curse; the sentence in stone, irreversible. As Thomas Brooks wrote centuries ago, “This world at last shall be burnt for a witch.”
No remedy could come from ourselves, we being too weak, too contingent, too mad. The remedy of God is not spare the present evil, but to rescue us from the same:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,
Galatians 1:3–4 (ESV). We receive papers to become citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). We are made “new creatures” and are reconciled to God in this new identity:
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:17–21 (ESV). And we, as new creations, reconciled to God, bearing the righteousness of Christ await the New Creation, the New Heavens and the New Earth where sin, sorrow, death have been forever put away. “Behold,” says God “I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)
And yet, despite such good news, a difficulty remains. We are rescued, but not yet. We are bound for the Promised Land, and we are living in the wilderness. We are made new creatures, but at present hold an earnest expectation of our full inheritance. A now which tarries over a “little while” (and O how that “little while” can seem), we are grieved with various trials.
We are going to the New Creation, but we are present in the Old. The scent of death still clings to everything we possess. The Creation is doomed and everywhere shows signs of groaning, as it too awaits its redemption.
That is a trouble indeed, but it is not the worst trouble we face in our new status. We are new creations, and yet seemingly not. It can seem more that we have awakened to a heightened sense of trouble, rather than having been delivered. As Thomas Manton wrote, “We are not yet out of gunshot till we come to the end of our race, and are conquerors over all opposition.” (Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, vol. 20 (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1874), 79.)
Think of this more carefully. We are plainly said to be set free from sin:
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.
Romans 6:5–10 (ESV) Here he says that we have been set free from sin. And in just another few sentences he will write, “For sin will not have dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14) We look to John’s first letter and read, “By this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” (1 John 2:3)
And it seems by logic that being a New Creature, I should look the part. And yet, John also writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8). If we have no sin upon salvation, then why the detailed instructions to all the churches? Why are we told that if we confess our sins, we will be cleansed?
Perhaps we need to stop and consider the utter depth and persistence of sin. Someone may consider themselves to be freed from sin. Have you avoided even the thought of lust or anger? Can you say that you have loved God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? Do you love your neighbor as yourself? And what of enemies? Do you love them. Do you pray for them? Do you bless them? And have you done this utter humility without the tinge of pride? Has all been for God’s glory, alone?
You see, sin sticks more closely to the new creature than may have at first seemed possible. This is why the Scripture records sin even in the best of saints. Luther in his first Thesis wrote, “The whole life of believers should be repentance.”
How then has this serpent managed to find his way into the life of the New Creature? Where does this monster make its den? Paul says it clings to us as flesh. And what could be nearer than flesh? James shows the danger in our own desire:
14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
James 1:14–15 (ESV) And so, Paul writes to the Romans whom he said were freed from sin to murder sin:
12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Romans 8:12–13 (ESV). This whole thing becomes seemingly more confused. How will this take place? There are myriad of issues and errors which can arise as we contemplate this instruction. But there is one which I particularly wish to consider: We cannot put sin to death without a change of identity.
Let us ignore for a moment the many things which are present in this command and look carefully at this element: The death of sin is not merely the death of this or that desire, this or that behavior. It is not as if a perfect being will be revealed if I merely scrub off the mud.
Sin is far more dangerous and damaging than that. To be this New Creature means something far more profound that teaching me manners and buying me new clothes. It means becoming someone else — and yet to become whom I was created to be. It means to shed sin and shame in a manner for more fundamental than can easily be understood.
The Scripture uses words life-death, resurrection and burial, renewal. Look at these seemingly simple words:
9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Colossians 3:9–10 (ESV)
You could read this and see the old self is put off, the new self is put on, I now just need to tidy-up. But look more carefully at verse 10: to be the New Self is to be in the process of transformation. The New Self in possession today is not the end but the beginning. The mortification of sin, the forgetting those things which lie behind and pressing on, is a process of becoming something else.
If you come to grips with this idea, it is disorienting. Perhaps we think of the person who has led a dramatically chaotic life who comes to Christ, gets a job, and gives to others and marries and raises children. Certainly, there is a radical-change, and we all appreciate it and give God glory for such a thing.
But what I am saying here is that the depth of the change is far deeper than giving up the most damaging of overt behaviors. We must give up an idol of self which is more fundamental in our thinking than we easily understand.
We give up this self, we crucify this self – not in the self-abnegation of mysticism, but in the utter transformation of new life in light of the Resurrection of Christ.
I have seen that one reason mortification is so impossible and some much good counsel goes to waste and so many believers struggle dejectedly with sin is that we seek to mortify sin without mortifying self; we seek to remain ourselves and merely shed our sin. But we are called to become something new.
Go back to that language of New Creation. It is not a promise that we will be ourselves with a ticket to the Promised Land. It is a promise that we are and will become something which we were not before.
And so rather than simply seek to hammer away at persistent sin by resistance, we are called up to become someone for whom such sins are unthinkable. Sin should be as strange to us as cuddling a porcupine or drinking lava.
How then is this new identity – because it is nothing less than a new identity – formed?