This is Chapter 1 in Growing in Grace: a 36-Week Discipleship Course.
Listen to the content as delivered to Creekstone Church in Dahlonega, GA:
While some of us raise our own chickens for eggs, most of us buy our eggs at the grocery store. If you are like me, before you choose a carton to purchase, you open the carton and inspect the eggs to see if any are cracked.
Recently, I opened a carton and every single one was crushed. The entire carton was full of broken eggs and should have been thrown out.
But there it was on the shelf—a carton of broken eggs.
Which I an apt description of the human race.
The Bible has a name for this deeply flawed, broken condition. The Bible calls it sin.
What is sin?
In Romans 3:23, our first memory passage, the apostle Paul compares sin to falling short of an established standard which he calls “the glory of God.” While Paul originally wrote the letter to the Romans in Greek, he was a Jew and knew Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, from which he derived his entire worldview and understanding of God. He knew that the Hebrew word for glory, kabod, means weighty, substantive, and worthy of admiration.
One aspect of God’s glory is his moral purity and perfection—the glory that was revealed to Moses with the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai after the Israelites had been delivered from slavery in Egypt and were passing through the desert on their way to the promised land in Canaan.
The Ten Commandments were a reflection of the LORD’s moral perfection and would come to be known as the moral law—the moral standard. As law, the commands described for the people of Israel what it should look like for them to live together as a community of redeemed people.
In Matthew 22, Jesus was asked what he considered the greatest commandment in the law. Jesus responded in verses 37-40 by quoting two passages from the Old Testament.
- First, he quoted Deuteronomy 6:5, saying, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and first commandment.”
- Second, he quotes from Leviticus 19:18 stating, “And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
In his response, Jesus summarizes the Ten Commandments, showing us that the first half provides examples of how we are to love God and the second half gives examples of how to love one another.
In essence, Jesus boiled the entire law down to a single command to love, which is not a command primarily to feel something as much as it is to do something–to love is to bless. To love someone is to do good to someone, whether they deserve it or not. In other words, love is grace made visible.
Love is an action. It is a decision. Love is a choice. And often, that choice will require personal sacrifice in order to bless someone.
As the beloved people of God who had been saved by sheer grace, the Israelites were to live responsively, in light of this grace, as they loved others as they had been loved. As John says in 1 John 4:19, “We love because [God] first loved us.”
This means that if we are going to get to the root of what sin really is, we must understand it not as breaking the rules, but as failing to love—a failure to love God and a failure to love our neighbor. My spouse and even my enemy.
You see, every law—every command—that God has given is a specific application of how we are to personally and practically demonstrate love.
This is why we teach our children that grabbing a toy from a sibling is not just breaking the “we don’t grab toys” rule. The root problem is that grabbing the toy is unloving. It is a failure to be a blessing. Thowing a tantrum in the grocery is not breaking the tantrum rule; it is a selfish failure to love. It is a failure to be a blessing to parents and other shoppers. Staying out past curfew is not breaking the curfew rule; it is failing to love parents by keeping them up and causing them anxiety. It is a failure to be a blessing.
Therefore, the command to obey parents is not a rule; it is a way to love.
The command not to commit adultery is not a rule. It is a way to love.
The command not to bear false witness is not a rule. It is a way to love.
Can you see how relational the law is? It is not about keeping rules. The moral law of God measures us on the scale of love.
This means that the root question for me to ask is: “What will it look like for me to love? What will it mean for me to bless someone else and do good to them, even it is inconvenient and requires personal sacrifice?”
When I think of the law like this, I realize to a greater degree, as Paul says in Romans 3:23, how desperately short I fall of the standard and how much I am like the sheep in Isaiah 53.
Why does Isaiah compare sinners to sheep?
He says in verse 6, “We all like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.”
While the vocation of shepherding is not common in North Georgia, it was prevalent in ancient Israel and in the days of New Testament Palestine. Sheep were dirty creatures, known for their stubbornness and lack of intelligence.
These are the characteristics Isaiah had in mind when he described sinners as sheep, saying “they go their own way,” which in effect was to reject the ways of the shepherd.
Going their own way usually did not end well. They could fall off a cliff or get lost and find themselves defenseless against hungry predators.
Although heeding the way of the shepherd was for their good, sheep were known for continually wandering off.
We are the same way. As the hymn says, we are prone to wander. We tend to go our own way, too, which may be why Solomon, the King of Israel who was granted great wisdom, wrote to his son in Proverbs 3:5-7, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. 7 Be not wise in your own eyes.”
Solomon is saying that sheep need a shepherd whom they can trust and follow.
Imagine loving your sheep so much that you would risk your life to defend them, and when you call for them to come to you for protection and blessing, they turn and wander off in the other direction. And you keep calling them; and they keep walking away. How would you feel? Defied. Rejected. Despised. Unloved. Maybe even hated.
When I come to a fork in the road and decide to go my own way rather than follow the clearly marked way of the Lord, I am doing the same thing as that defiant sheep. In my rejection of the Lord’s ways, I am defying, even despising his wisdom.
Preeminently, we have rejected God’s command to love.
- Rather than love God, I have loved money.
- Rather than love the lost, I have viewed them as enemies to defeat rather than as POWs to rescue.
- Rather than love my wife, I have loved myself. The priorities of my time prove this. The tone of my words proves this. The tears in her eyes prove this.
- Rather than love my enemy, I have vengefully wished upon him failure, loss and ruin.
We could go on and describe how the lack of love may be seen in many traits, such as pride, a condescending spirit, sarcasm, hatred, rage, gloating, and even gossip.
When we understand the law as a scale of love for God and neighbor, we discover just how far short of God’s glory we fall.
And this indictment is universal.
I think it is significant that both Romans 3:23 and Isaiah 53:6 describe this “all-ness” of sin. Paul says, “All have fallen short,” while Isiah says, “We all like sheep have gone astray.”
What is so significant about the “all-ness” of sin?
First of all, this “all-ness” of sin means that none of us is exempt from the deep flaws that the law reveals. Just like a black light reveals unseemly, hidden stains in hotel rooms, so the law reveals the stain of sin upon our souls.
While it is true that some of our outer shells appear more damaged from the fall of the carton than others, the reality is that each of us is equally rotten on the inside.
This is true regardless of our ethnicity, whether rich or poor, educated or illiterate, whether we have good table manners or not. It makes no difference. Before the law, we all stand on level ground, equally broken and equally condemned.
Apart from grace, in our natural state as human beings, if any of us were truly inspected under the surface, there would be a revolting stench.
Here is what this means. Whenever the stench of someone else’s sin reaches the nostrils of your moral senses, there are three words that we should utter first. “I can relate.”
I’m convinced that the place where spiritual renewal will begin in our lives is when we begin to identify with other sinners in their condition, recognizing that we share a common, universal brokenness—we are all in the same carton of humanity.
- Sadly, I don’t see this very often from Christians. Just look at social media and you will see how often we as believers reveal a heart of hatred toward unconverted unbelievers rather than compassion, mercy and love.
- How is it that we, recipients of immeasurable grace, can so easily become self-righteous, religious snobs, critiquing and condemning the world as if we do not share their same natural condition.
The unintended result of Christians treating others as if they stink and we don’t is that the church communicates a false gospel to the world. Rather than communicate that the church is a community of sinful but saved people, we communicate that the church is a community of good people, and if you want to get in, you better be as good as I am. The false gospel we unintentionally promote is not the gospel of grace, but a gospel of moralism, which is no gospel at all.
We must remember that the world is not divided between people who are bad and good. Rather, it is divided between people who are proud and humble.
This means that if I tend to view someone else’s sin with disgust, disdain, and a sense of moral superiority, I reveal how desperately I need to go back to the beginning of my discipleship as a follower of Jesus and remember and embrace the “all–ness” of sin.
This is the ultimate purpose of the law. If the first purpose was to show God’s redeemed people what it looks like to live in community as recipients of grace, a second purpose is found in the very context of Romans 3:23. Starting back in verse 20, we read, “through the law comes knowledge of sin… 22 For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Paul says the same thing in Galatians 3:24, where he writes, “The law was given to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.”
In other words, by using the law to reveal the brokenness of our spiritual and moral condition, God shows us, as sinful sheep, our acute and desperate need for a Savior—a Savior who calls himself the Good Shepherd.
How is Jesus the Good Shepherd of sinful sheep?
In John 10, Jesus takes up Isaiah’s sheep analogy by calling himself the Good Shepherd, in fulfillment of Old Testament imagery of God himself being the true, good, faithful Shepherd of his people. As King David wrote in Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd.”
Most Lords require their subjects to sacrifice their comfort and convenience for the King. But in John 10:11, Jesus, as the Shepherd-King, reverses protocol, saying, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
The Good Shepherd sacrifices himself—his comfort and convenience—for the sheep! Not the sheep for the shepherd.
And the laying down of his life would not be metaphorical, but quite literal.
In Isaiah 53, the prophet foresees the very event of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Reading our memory verse in context, starting in verse 5, we read, “But he [Jesus] was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; but the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
The Hebrew word for “laid on him” is a strong word meaning “to fall upon with force, to crash down upon.”
Do you see what this means?
- I am the rotten egg that should have been thrown out.
- I am the sinful sheep that deserved the wounds for my rebellious rejection of God’s wisdom.
But Jesus was crushed for me. He received the chastisement that my sins deserved. Upon a cross of judgment, the unholy weight of my rotten sin came crashing down upon the Good Shepherd, who willingly, out of love, laid his life down that I would be blessed. That I would be made whole. That the stench of my sin would be covered by the aroma of mercy.
The gospel is that my unrighteousness—my failure to love—was placed upon Jesus and he was judged for it. In turn, his spotless righteousness—all the merit of his perfect love culminating upon a cross—was placed upon me. It was credited to me like the inheritance of the wealthiest man in the world—deposited into my moral account.
Now, when the Father looks at me he does not see an unloving, stinking, stubborn sheep, he sees his treasure. His beloved. His prize and joy. Because in us he sees the perfect love of Jesus fulfilled and overflowing.
This is grace. It is not something we earn or deserve. It is something we receive.
Have you received this grace? If not, will you believe that Jesus laid down his life for you. That he was crushed for you? Will you believe that because of the Good Shepherd you are now the forgiven and beloved of God?
This is where spiritual growth starts, as we begin our journey from a stagnate, withered, depleted spiritual state, to a life in Christ that is growing, thriving and filled to overflowing with the immeasurable, limitless love of God.
 This understanding of sin is far deeper than what many of us have previously considered. For some, sin is simply breaking the rules. However, when we realize that sin is profoundly relational, it reveals how personally wounding the actions of sin are, making sin and much more grievous, hateful, and wounding thing, which is why we say that sin is a conscious, personal rejection of God’s wisdom, ways, and will. Again, this personal rejection is not merely about rules, but relationship, meaning that to follow God’s wisdom is an expression, not merely keeping a set of rules, but of loving a personal God.
 While contemporary research has revealed that a trainer with a great deal of patience is able to train individual sheep for specific tasks, apart from intense training, sheep still are considered quite unintelligent. For complete article, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep.
 This is especially true when his clear and good commands challenge my personal comfort and convenience. But the ways of the Lord rarely take us on easy paths that are comfortable and convenient. This is what makes us think that our ways are better. The hard way can’t possibly be the best way, right? All we need do is ask Jesus, whose path led him to the cross.