The Word Among Us

September 2011 Issue

Grace and Sin

Who has the final word?

Grace and Sin: Who has the final word?

"Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more." (Romans 5:20) Whether we know it or not, we are engaged in a spiritual battle. This battle “is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12). So if we want to fight and win this battle, we need to “put on the armor of God” (6:11).

Our own efforts will help us fight against the reign of sin to a point. But when all is said and done, our enemy is just too strong. If we want to see real and lasting victory, we need the Lord and his mighty power. We need his grace.

In this article, we will look at grace as a powerful weapon in our battle against sin. We will uncover the truth behind Paul’s promise that whenever sin increases, grace increases all the more.

Sin Abounds. In order to truly grasp the power of grace, we first need to understand the power of sin. The more we understand how powerful sin can be, the more we will see how deeply we need the grace of God. It is because we live in a sinful, fallen world that we see so many people hurting, so many marriages breaking apart, and so many friendships wounded or damaged. We should be careful never to minimize the effects of sin. We should never attribute our troubles only to human failures—or look only for human solutions to our challenges. We need to remember that there are spiritual forces of evil at work as well. And that means that we need to look for spiritual solutions in addition to the human solutions.

No matter where we go or what we do, we will always have to deal with the power of sin. A long line in the grocery store may get us angry. We may gossip about the amount of time a coworker wastes on the Internet. We may even lose our patience over something just a few minutes after Mass! And these examples don’t take into account our memories, where dispositions of mistrust, fear, anger, or cynicism may influence our decisions. St. Paul was right: Sin really does abound!

It’s ironic, but true: The closer we get to Jesus, the more sin we find in our hearts. It’s not because we have become more sinful. Rather, it’s because the Holy Spirit has put us under a more powerful microscope. He wants to make us more and more like Jesus, and in order to do that, he gradually shows us more and more areas of our lives that are out of order. He doesn’t do it to condemn us but to urge us to change. So even things that we once considered acceptable we now see as wrong and sinful. We begin to identify subtle areas of pride, jealousy, resentment, or moodiness, and we want to address them with the grace of the Lord.

No one likes to be put under a microscope. We don’t like to see our sins. But that’s not the end of the story. Yes, we see our sin abounding, but we also see God’s grace overflowing, bringing us freedom and deliverance. We experience a flood of grace helping us to overcome our weaknesses and fill us with joy. We should be confident that whenever the Holy Spirit shows us our sin, he also shows us God’s boundless mercy and his abundant grace.

New Dignity, New Mission. Yes, sin may abound, but God’s grace is always more powerful.

Do you remember the parable of the prodigal son? Surely sin abounded in his life. But what happened when he came home? His father ran to greet him. He put a robe around his shoulders, sandals on his feet, and a ring on his finger—all symbols of dignity and honor. The prodigal son had rehearsed a speech confessing his sins and stating his unworthiness, but his father wouldn’t let him finish even a sentence. He didn’t rehash the boy’s past sins and misdeeds. He didn’t dwell on the sins at all. In an instant, he wiped them away as if they had never happened, and welcomed his son back fully and completely.

This is a helpful way of looking at what God’s grace does in us. Not only does grace move us to repentance, it also washes us clean with mercy and forgiveness. Our sins may have stripped us of our dignity. They may have filled us with shame or guilt. They may have convinced us that God has rejected us and will take us back only after we have proved ourselves worthy again.

But that’s not the message of grace! Whenever we repent, our Father rushes to our side and lifts us up. He clothes us with his own honor and love. He does far more than pardon our offenses. He pours his unmerited, overflowing grace into our hearts, the grace of a new identity as a child of God. It’s the grace of dignity, the grace to see ourselves as God sees us. It’s the grace to rise above our own set of low expectations for our lives.

When Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, just about every apostle lost hope and fled. Peter even denied that he knew Jesus at all. Temptation was all around him at that moment. Sin was abounding, and Peter gave in.

But that wasn’t the end of Peter’s story. Just a few weeks after this took place, we see Peter boldly standing up to the elders of Israel, preaching fearlessly about Jesus and the power of his resurrection. We see him leading the church in Jerusalem, forging a new community of faith despite difficulties from outside and from within.

What happened? Grace overflowed, and Peter grasped hold of it and let it transform him.

The Grace of Reconciliation. Sin may separate us from God’s love, but sin never has to have the last word. Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He is greater than any sin. He is the One who has the last word. And what is that last word? To the sinful woman, he said: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50). To Peter, he said: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). To the woman caught in adultery, he said: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (8:11).

No, sin isn’t the last word. Grace is the last word. Grace is the word that most fully describes who we are, who God is, and how our heavenly Father deals with us.

We see this truth acted out in a powerful way in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. By its very nature, this sacrament ministers to us the overflowing grace of God. We come to confession burdened with guilt. We come feeling the weight of our sins and their consequences in our lives. But as we confess our sins, a marvelous thing happens: God wipes them away. Like the father of the prodigal son, he lifts us up and clothes us with the dignity of beloved, innocent children. He sets us free completely from the guilt and shame that our sins had brought us, and he welcomes us back home.

But confession is meant to do more than take away our sins. Remember, Jesus’ response to our sin is a superabundance of grace, not just enough grace to forgive us. His response is the same one he gave those who came to him two thousand years ago: Go in peace. Sin no more. Go out and serve my people.

This is the full grace of reconciliation! It is God’s very own strength and power to help us do away with sin. It is God’s own power strengthening us to say “no” to temptation. And even more important, it is God’s own power sending us out into the world as his ambassadors, filled with dignity and confidence.

Jesus knows that sin abounds. He knows that we are weak. That’s why he gives us his grace in reconciliation. That’s why he draws us closer to himself every time we confess our sins—closer, even, than the last time we confessed! He knows what we need, and he doesn’t hesitate to give it to us.

Grace Overpowers Sin. There may be days when it seems that the reign of sin is all around us. But we must believe that God’s grace is far more powerful. Every day, and especially on those days when it seems extra hard, we need to keep telling ourselves: “Where sin increases, grace overflows all the more!” Jesus came into this world “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). He has an inexhaustible supply of grace, and he is ready to pour it on anyone who comes to him!