The Glory of Grace Triumphs over Sin

Dallas Willard Part 3 of 7

In 1977 while Faith Evangelical Church of Chatsworth, CA was just forming, the church asked Dallas, who many knew, to step in as their morning and evening preacher for a few weeks. This morning series on the book of Romans is an adaptation of material Dallas had been teaching elsewhere and appears in part in chapter 6 of The Spirit of the Disciplines. [Editor’s Note: We are missing sermons 2-4, dealing with Romans 1-4 and would love to find somebody with copies!]


Dallas: The spiritual understanding in the church is the words that occur in their music and I must say that by that test, this group gets a very high mark. The words which have been used and the songs which have been sung and special music since I have been here indicate to me a very deep understanding of what it’s all about and I’m so thankful to be able to get up and talk after that kind of music. [00:40]

What would you say if your roommate or your mate or your friend came to you one day and said, “Well, I’ve decided to quit sinning.”  Hmmm? He walks up to you just like that and says, “Well I’m going to quit sinning.” What would you think if they walked up to you and said, “I’ve decided I’m not going to quit sinning.” Hmmm?

Well, perhaps that gives you a feeling of the kind of bind we are in on the topic for today because I think you would feel uneasy in either case, would you not? If they said, “I’ve decided to quit sinning,” you might say under your breath, “Well, good luck!” You know? Or what next? Or something like that. But on the other hand, if they said, “You know, I’ve decided not to quit sinning.” You might say, “Well, now wait a moment. How can that be consistent with the hope of the Gospel and the plain intent of the Gospel? [2:06]

Friends, we are in a mess on this question. Shall we not just admit it? After all, you must either intend to quit sinning or intend to continue sinning or back up and have no intention at all with reference to the whole mess. Isn’t that true? You don’t have any choice. Where do you stand? I really think that very often as a church—as the church of Christ, we back away from the question entirely. We have seen so much foolishness and heard so much foolishness about it, so we talk against sin—you know the famous joke about Cal Coolidge who went to church and came home and he was a man of few words and his wife said, “What did the preacher preach about? And he said, “Sin,” and she said, “What did he say?” And he said, “He’s agin it.” So, there is an idea that the church is “agin it” and that somehow to be identified with the church is to be “agin” it. But, where do we go from there, you see. It’s a very serious question. [3:19]

Now, your statement of faith—I like to read the first paragraph of this because it comes out against sin. It says:

“Having been lead by the Holy Spirit of God and brought by divine grace to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ and to give up myself, holy to him by receiving him as Savior and confessing him as Lord in baptism and testimony, I now do solemnly and joyfully covenant with God to promise by the aid of the Holy Spirit to forsake the ways of sin and to walk in Christian love and in the paths of righteousness.”

Now, that’s an excellent statement. It might be helpful to clarify it to add a sentence, which says, “In other words, we are going to quit.” It may be that that explicitness would help us get clear after all on what it is all about but I expect on the other hand, we feel uneasy with that because we are not quite sure how it works. [4:20]

Now, this morning I am going to be talking more—I have in fact been talking on how it work—I am going to be talking more on this topic of how it works. I’m going to need your closest attention and your prayers because this is a very difficult topic and it is not without reason that it is avoided so often.

But now, we do have to face this question and Paul is facing it in the passage, which was read for us a few moments ago. I’d like for you to turn back to that with me. I will be wondering around as usual in various scriptures but I want focus here on the last part of the fifth chapter of Romans and the first part of the 6th chapter. [5:09]

Paul is talking about how grace triumphs over sin and perhaps we can illustrate what he is saying by suggesting an analogy. You might say you have a football team or a baseball team and they get no glory out of going out and just beating anybody. It’s the good teams that show whether or not a certain team is good. The glory comes from triumphing over tough opposition and Paul is saying here the glory of grace is seen from the fact that it triumphs over the power and awfulness of sin.

Let me say one word about grammar. You must be very careful when you read Paul in these passages to notice that he is speaking about something in the singular. He is speaking about sin, not about sins. And when I wrote on the board this morning for you to look at, shall we continue sinning? I wanted to put that up to stress the contrast between sin and sinning. [6:38]

The basic topic of Paul in this passage is not sinning; it is not sins in the plural. It is not particular actions. It is a system of this world, which is characterized primarily by the wrath that inhabits the system. He is talking about an evil way of getting along in life which works by manipulation, by force, by egoism, by grinding the life out of others in order to have life for yourself away which generates the wrath, which we see in all places from the home and the family, the school, at work, all the way up to the international level of the resentment and anger between nations over language and race, and religion.

He’s talking about a system, which in this passage, he simply calls “sin” and sin is a simple word for the bent and corrupted condition of the world system in which we live. In the old days long ago, in the early years of the church, one who became a Christian had to swear that they would stand against the world, the flesh, and the devil—the world, the flesh and the devil. And in so doing, they recognized a unified system of opposition, which they were against. That system of sin is what Paul says shows off the greatness of grace because the grace of God as it came into the world and the life and death of Christ is able to break the power of that system and enable people to live in a different way. (8:40)

Now, if by your testimony in your statement of faith, you intend to stand against that system and break its power, then you are on the side of God for it is the intention of God to destroy sin. In the first chapter of Matthew, when the angel speaks to Mary about the forthcoming Son, which is to be the Messiah, he says, “You shall call his name Jesus.” Why? For he shall save his people from their sins—in the plural in that case—he shall save his people from their sins. Now, not from just the result of their sin.

We saw last week how we are justified by his blood and saved from wrath through him—how we are “reconciled to God by the death of his Son but much more being reconciled we shall be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:10 Paraphrased) The total work of Christ is to bring us off of the old manipulative viscous system, which Paul in this passage calls sin and in the 21st verse of the 5th chapter “ . . . as sin hath reigned unto death,” that is where sin brings. Everyone one who involves themselves in it and looks towards it and rests upon it and depends upon that old system, “ . . . even so might grace reign unto righteousness or through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5:21 Paraphrased) [10:13]

Now, Paul says, well, then, if we want to see grace great, let’s make sin greater. If grace is great in conquering sin, the greater we make sin, the greater the grace will be which conquers it. Now, he is not just making a pleasant paradox. He is responding to a sincere objection, which many people have to the treatment of grace to the treatment of sin by grace.

The question is what do we do with sin? How do we handle it? What are we going to respond to sin with? And the saying that God loves to forgive sin and that he is gracious toward sin makes many people uneasy and they think that won’t work because if you do that, if you are gracious toward sin, if you forgive sin, people will just go on sinning. And they will find all sorts of rationalization, such as “wow” if grace is shown off to be great because it overcomes sin, let’s sin a lot so grace will be greater. [11:35]

Now, you may think there never has been people who have done that kind of thing but here really have. And there is no limit to the perversions, which can be placed upon the mind of man by the system of sin in which we are raised and by which we are formed. So there is a real question here—how do we bring people forth form that wrathful system? Children of wrath as Paul says in it Ephesians 2—vessels of wrath he says in Romans 9—full of wrath!

You know, you really can’t tell what’s in a vessel until you shake it a bit. If you have a glass of water, it may look empty from the outside but if you shake it a bit, something may pour out of it. You know, people are like that. Just shake them a little bit, punch them a little bit, shake them up; it’s amazing how quickly wrath comes pouring forth. Sometimes a perfectly lovely nice gentlemen or lady, two words can bring forth wrath. [12:55]

What is wrath? Wrath is unrestrained, uncontrolled anger. Wrath, which destroys and just breaks all the boundaries and doesn’t know any limits—it is anger which is out of control and many people are just filled full of it and indeed most people are filled full of wrath and if you want to know whether or not they are, just shake them a little bit. It may be sufficient to cut them off in traffic—scrape their fender a little bit. It may be sufficient to make them wait for three minutes. You know what I am talking about. And indeed a person may say, “Oh I ought not to do that and I wish I wouldn’t do that and I am not going to do that—but how? Now that’s the question I want to address the remainder of my time this morning.

How? And the quick answer to it is simply by becoming dead to sin—by becoming dead to sin. Watch what Paul says: “What shall be say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid.” (Romans 6:1 & 2 Paraphrase) How shall we? Please underline that phrase. One who comes might say, “Can we?” And that’s a serious question in many people’s minds—can we quit? Can we get unhooked from the system of sin? Can we stop sinning? [14:37]

Paul says, “How can we? How shall we? The impossibility for him is on the other side and it is only when we begin to understand the grounds of this impossibility, which Paul sees that we can begin to appreciate how deliverance from the system of the world operates. “How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:2 Paraphrased) The answer to the question , “How shall we?” is seen in the phrase “by being dead to sin—by being dead to sin.”

Now, I must take my time to make this as intuitive as possible. We see a person who has come in from work lying on a couch, passed out asleep; the news is on the television or some football game or something of that sort and someone comes by and looks at the person on the couch and says, “ They are dead to this world.” What does that mean? [15:55]

Well, it means that this world does not attract them, no matter what is on the television screen, no matter what is cooking in the kitchen, no matter what else is going on. They are indifferent to this world. Now, that’s a very simple illustration, which I hope you’ll keep in mind. Let me give you another one.

Long, long, ago the story is told about a newer convert to Christianity who came to an old Puritan minister and said to him, “What does it mean to be dead to self?” And the old minster who had just buried one of their friends said, “Do you know so and so who was just buried? Go to his grave and say every flattering thing you can think about him and so, the young Christian did—thought it was rather silly, but he did it and came back and was asked the question, ”What did our friend respond to you? And the answer was, “Nothing.” Now the minister said, “Go to the grave and say every vile thing you can think of to say about that person.” And by this time, the light was beginning to break on the young Christian, but he did it anyway. And as he came back, the same question, “What did our friend say in response?” “Nothing.” Now, said the minster, “that’s what it is to be dead to self.” It is to be indifferent to all of the good and the bad that comes to your ego and would make you feel worse about yourself or make you feel blown up and better about yourself. That’s what it is to be dead to self.  [17:52]

Now, the metaphor of death is of fundamental importance in understanding the Gospel and we are going to see next week, as we talk about the seventh chapter of Romans how very important it is but today I want to give you a passage from Ephesians 2—just to drive this home. In Ephesians 2, the first verse—“And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.”

Now, you see, our condition as lost people was a condition of death and what did that mean. That meant precisely indifference to God. It meant a condition in which we did not perceive and we did not respond and we did not choose in the light of this world. And just like the person who has passed out on the couch while the television is blasting away is dead to this world, we were dead to God. At most, we had very small promptings, which came to and and suggested there was something more there but we were in general dead in our trespasses and our sins. [19:07]

What did we respond to? We responded to another world. We responded to a world in which we are governed by our lusts, our desires, our comforts, the insults, the flattering remarks, the manipulation. We lived in that world and we were like puppets on the strings of that world. And that’s the condition, you see that Paul describes in this verse. “You hath he quickened,” given life, “who were dead in trespasses and sins; wherein in time past, you walked according to the course of this world . . .” (Ephesians 2:1-2 Paraphrased) And, what is the course of this world? That is sin in the singular. The course of this world is sin in the singular. It is that system of evil, which sets itself against God. [19:57]

Again in the third verse, “Among whom also we had our conversation in times past in the lusts of the flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature, the children of wrath, even as others.”  That is to say, “What is a child of wrath?” A child of wrath is one who bares the family resemblance of wrath. If you’ve got wrath all over, where’d you get that? You got that from your father. What’s your father? Wrath—that’s the sort of metaphor, which Paul is using when he speaks of those who are children of wrath. They’ve got lots of wrath in them that came from their father and in general, what is their father? It is the condition, the wrathful condition of the world in which people’s minds are twisted and bent and formed so that they do all of the outrageous things that they do.  And sometimes even call them good.

So dead in trespasses and sin. Now, that’s the opposite of what we have in Romans 6. Here instead of being dead in sin, we are dead to sin. You see, there are two fundamental ways in which you can bring people to lead a right course of action. One is to give them a set of rules and stand over them to reward them and punish them in such a way that they might come to be able to do something good. [21:26]

Now, the short story on that and the long one too is it doesn’t work. If you try to teach someone grammar by giving them a rulebook, they will never learn to speak and write grammatically. If you try to teach someone how to ride a bicycle or play the piano or sing by giving them a bunch of rules, they will never learn.

And this is the simple principle which Paul has in mind when he says, “If life could have been given by a law, then life would have come by law,” but you cannot bring people into a new life by rules and laws. But that’s one way in which people try and it is an important way in many respects but as Paul says in Romans 4:19—“”the law generates wrath.”  More wrath is the ultimate outcome of the route of law. It gives discouragement. It defeats because while it tells us what to do, it does not give us the strength to do it. [22:34]

Now, what’s the other way? The other way is by giving people such an experience of life that they appreciate the goodness of rightness. I want to give you that phrase again because this is in a sense the whole message for this morning—the goodness of rightness. Let’s go back to grammar.

What is it that we have in a situation where a young child, for example, is trained—and I’m not talking about knit-picking things like “ain’t,” you know—I’m talking about really being hindered with grammar. I’m not talking about questionable cases. I’m talking about really having a problem with it and what is it that happens for a person who is raised in a situation where they learn to speak well and to write well? It’s very simple. They learn to enjoy that kind of speaking and that kind of writing. Their life circumstances, their family, their companionship with others or whatever it may be gives them a form of experience in which they come to understand the goodness of rightness. [23:46]

If you are teaching someone to play a piano or to sing, it is primarily when they hear others and experience the goodness of rightness in the way music is performed that they themselves begin to take on the form of goodness. And let me say very simply that that is what Jesus did by coming into this world. He showed forth the goodness of rightness.

He came into a world of hate and fear where people with all kinds of rationalizations buttress their lies and actions which are founded upon hate and fear and he lived without hate and he lived without fear and he showed the goodness of it in such a way that no one could deny it. And then as people drew near to him, gradually they begin to shift their base and they were in a position to make decisions now. They were in a position to say, “I intend to stop. I intend to quit sinning.” And Jesus would help a person and then he would say something like, “Go and sin no more.” [25:11]

Now, may I tell you what I think? I think the person who heard that from the lips of Jesus did not hear that as a command. I think the person who heard that from the lips of Jesus went away saying, “Hallelujah! I don’t have to sin anymore! That’s a promise to me that God will help me. I don’t have to live like that anymore!” And that’s the beginning of the light, which breaks upon the mind and says, “There is another possibility. There is an alternate good for me. I don’t have to lie. I don’t have to be angry. I don’t have to be filled with wrath. I don’t have to grub my existence out of the ground. There is a good God whom I can trust.” And as that faith begins to take form in their life, they begin to contact that God and they begin to see the provision and they begin to experience the alternate good which is set before them and they know the goodness of rightness. And, it’s at that point that they say, “God forbid. How could I keep on doing that when I know this?”

That’s what Paul is saying. Paul is not saying, “Now how can we keep on doing it if we know that God is going to smack us if we do?” He is dead to sin in the sense that sin has no attraction. [26:53]

When I was a boy, one of the things we used to like to do was to go steal watermelons. Some of the boys around—a few of the girls—even like to go steal chickens. Build a fire out somewhere and cook those chickens and eat them. I never could get quite past that because I wasn’t that enthusiastic for chicken and I had seen a few of those things they called “cooked” and they weren’t exactly cooked but they ate them anyway because it was a part of the game. And it was a game, you see? “Let’s go steal come chickens. Let’s go steal some watermelon.” That was lots of fun.

Now you know if someone were to walk up to me today, and say, ”Dallas, let’s go steal some chickens.” That wouldn’t move me at all. I wouldn’t even be tempted by stealing watermelons anymore. Someone came up to you and said, “Let’s go steal some hubcaps or shoot out some street lights.” I imagine some of you did that when you were kids. You look pretty respectable now but we all have a past. Hmmm? I don’t think that would attract you at all. I think you’d be just as dead to that as the person who is flopped out on the couch is dead to this world. [28:20]

You see, when you come to experience the goodness of rightness in the life of Christ, you begin to understand what it is to be dead to sin. The route of law cannot give you that. You will never experience it in that way. You have to give up on that. You have to admit that you shot it that way and you have to come to understand that the righteousness of God is the love and forgiveness of God and his care about you even though you have done terrible things.

Listen, do you know the fellow who wrote this passage I am reading to you was a murderer? I apt to forget that. Did you know that Paul was a murderer? He used to like to murder Christians. He used to like to hunt them out. “Let’s go over to this town and hunt up a few Christians and kill them. God will be pleased with us if we do.” That’s Paul! Did you know that? Had you forgotten that? [29:31]

This is the man who to the end of his life said, “I am chiefest of sinners,” and he knew what he was saying and he meant it. But you see, he also knew that the heart of God does not wish to see the wicked parish. He doesn’t wish that. The heart of God does not hold, as the scriptures says, “does not hold our sins against us.”  And as we come to understand that the good heart of God extends beyond the forgiveness of sins to the removing of the wrath from our life by bringing us peace through his provision for all of our needs.

That’s the point at which we say, “How could we continue in sin?” I hope that’s the point and I hope upon hearing that, it makes you want to say very clearly, “I don’t intend to go on; whether I fail or not, I intend to stop.” And I hope there is not a person in this room who will leave without answering that question. Now, I am not talking about whether you make a decision to come forward or to join the church or to do whatever, I am talking about this very simple intention. I hope that you will go from this room today with a clear intention in your heart to stop. [31:04]

Now you say to me, but you know there are a lot of things which I don’t know are sins or not. I don’t care about those in the least. You may say to me, “Well now, there are a lot of things I think are wrong that Brother so and so doesn’t think is wrong or that my neighbor thinks is wrong or does and you may say there are a lot of things I think are right, other people condemn. I don’t care a thing about those. I’m not talking about those. I’m entirely happy to leave that to you and just talk about the things, which you know to be wrong.

Now, you are not trying to convince me. I am talking about in the form of your own heart, making the decision by God’s grace, “I will turn from the things which I know to be wrong and count on him to bring me through.” If you do that, just as the song says we are about to sing, God will have his own way. He will have his way in your life and it will be good and the time will come when you will see what Paul meant when he said, “God forbid, how could we do that? How could we do that?” And if you are not there, you will be brought to it speedily if you will simply make the simple intention to stand with this resolve by the grace of God. [32:32]

Let’s stand together and Bob is going to come and lead us. If you have decisions to make of one sort or another that we can help you with, we are not here to pressure you but to make an opportunity. There will be someone here to meet with you and help you. If you want to come forward, please feel free to do so as Bob comes to lead us in the song. [32:56]

Bob: Dr. Willard is going to lead us in the benediction and after the benediction, I would like for us to sing that chorus; it’s actually part of an anthem that I think all of us know—Because He Lives, I can live also.

Dallas: Now may the grace of God accompany us in everything we do; may it fill our minds and guide us into the way of truth ever more for the glory of God and for our benefit as his children. In Jesus name. Amen.

Listen to all parts in this Romans series