The Beginner’s Guide to Giving Your Sin a Holy Name
The first lie I remember telling revealed everything about the man I would grow up to be. In six false words I prophesied my future—and yours as well. Here’s what happened.
Half a block down from my childhood home in Jal, New Mexico, a mechanic had set up shop years before. The half-acre of ground resembled an oil spill. A rickety old tin building housed the guts of every vehicle that had ever rolled down America’s highways. Cars and pickups, some old, some new, punctuated the yard.
One day my buddy, Tom, and I decided that we wanted to break into one of those cars. Just a couple of six year old criminals, we were. In my childhood naiveté, I had also decided that in my dad’s huge ring of assorted keys there must be at least one that fit those cars. So I pocketed the keys and Tom and I snuck down to the mechanic’s yard. Hunkered down behind a shiny Chevrolet, I began systematically to try every key on the lock.
We didn’t hear her walk up behind us. But there she stood, feet spread apart, wrestler-sized forearms crossed over her imposing bosom. A giant of a woman, the mechanic’s wife was.
“What in the hell,” she spat, “are you boys doing?”
With mouths agape, we turned and looked up. She glared through eyes as cold as December. “Well?” she repeated. I looked at Tom, and Tom stared wildly back at me. Then I looked back up at the giantess.
“Um,” I stammered, “we…Tom and I here,” jabbing my thumb in his direction, “we were just…um.”
“You were just what? What are you doing messing around with this car?” she said.
And then I said it. In six words I prophesied my future: “Well, we were gonna fix it.”
And Tom and I, out of lies, exploded from the car and ran like the wind.
Luther once said that sin never wants to be sin; it always wants to be righteousness. Although I was too young to have mastered the skill of lying, I also knew that I couldn’t very well tell this woman the truth. I didn’t want this to be stealing keys, trespassing, and breaking into a car. No, I wanted it to appear good and right and downright neighborly. I didn’t want my sin to be sin; I wanted it to be righteousness. And that boyish desire to justify every action, no matter how wrong, hasn’t changed; it accelerated and expanded as I became a man.
We are name-changers, you and I. We grasp the potency of language. It’s as if we’ve all memorized The Beginner’s Guide to Giving Your Sin a Holy Name. So as I named my childish mischief “fixing the car,” we christen our greed as “wise business sense.” We dub our slander as “truth-telling.” We brand the slaughter of infants as “a mother’s freedom.” We talk of racism as “love of tradition.” We identify adultery as “looking for our true soulmate.” On and on it goes. And when we want to be really convincing, we put a stamp of divine approval on the name change. We say things like, “the Lord has put on my heart that I should…” Or, “I feel the Lord would want me to….” Or, “God would want me to be happy so I’m going to….” Go ahead, name the sin, any sin, and I’ll show you how we’ve renamed it as righteousness.
What I find most revealing about this renaming tendency is the pressing need we feel to justify our actions. Think about it. Hardwired into us is the desire to be in the right, no matter what. We cannot stand the thought of admitting that we have lied, cheated, stolen, hated, or slandered, for the moment we confess these wrongs, we confess that we are standing outside the house of justification. So instead of confessing our sins, we sanctify them. Why? So we can declare ourselves justified in the eyes of God and our neighbor. So deep is our desire to be in the right that we will do every wrong to make it seem otherwise. Our greatest fear is revealing who we really are.
What we don’t realize, however, is that our greatest freedom actually begins when we confess who we really are. When we un-name our renaming of sin, we open up the possibility of true righteousness—and along with it, true peace and forgiveness. When we say, “I am a thief. I am a slanderer. I am a murderer, adulterer, bigot,” we strip away our self-justification and admit that we stand naked and filthy before the only true judge of our actions, God himself.
At that moment we are exposed to an astonishing truth: that God doesn’t want sin to be sin either. He too wants us to be righteous. What he does, however, is not rename our evils or excuse our sin; he removes it. Or to say it more accurately, he transfers it. He takes our lying and cheating and all other wrongs and wraps them round the body of a substitute. He says, “Jesus, take these away. Do for your brothers and sisters what they cannot do for themselves.” And he does. He assumes ownership of our wrongdoing; he willingly becomes our scapegoat. He says, “This transgression and that transgression are mine. All evil is mine, past, present, future. It is no longer yours. And I won’t ever give it back.”
But Christ does even more. Not content merely to pay the penalty for our crimes, to give us a clean start, he invests us with the riches of his own righteousness. We assume his identity, wear his clothes, are called by his name, are treated as royalty. Jesus dies, and we in him, and so our lives are hidden with Christ in God. Who he is, we are, and who we are, he is. Is Jesus perfect? So are we. Is Jesus holy and righteous and pleasing to his Father? So are we. Is Jesus the heir of heaven, the Father’s child, the beloved of God? So are we, for it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. All of this—as crazy and outlandish as it sounds—is as true as the fact that the sun shines and the rivers flow. Christ has done it all for you.
As for the book, The Beginner’s Guide to Giving Your Sin a Holy Name, you don’t need it. In quite another kind of book you yourself are renamed as the Father’s beloved, the brother and sister of Jesus, the temple of the Spirit, a forgiven and justified saint. And those new, God-given names now define who you are. And will, to all eternity.
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!