Albrecht Dittrich and Jack Barsky are two men from the same town in Germany. They share the same parents but they are not brothers…nor are they adopted. How can that be? How can one have the same parents and still not be brothers or at least be adopted?! That’s because Albrecht Dittrich and Jack Barsky is the same person.
Dittrich-Barsky served as a Soviet spy in the United States from 1978 until 1988. He maintained the two identities so completely that his parents didn’t even know that he was in the U.S. They thought he was doing top-secret work for the Soviet space program in southern Kazakhstan. But probably even more impressive, or perhaps more troubling was the fact that Dittrich-Barsky had two families. He had a wife and son back in East Germany, while married to another woman in the U.S. with whom he had a daughter. The two families didn’t know about each other. The spy later reflected, “I did a good job of separating the two. Barsky had nothing to do with Dittrich, and Dittrich wasn’t responsible for Barsky.”
Can you imagine…? …what it would be like to live such a double life? Actually, as a Christian, you do it all the time. As we continue our series The Lutheran Mind is a Biblical Mind, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, we’ve been led to see we live this double life. There is a battle that rages within us. Christians are at the Same Time Saints and Sinners.
Have you ever been surprised at how Christians act or react? Two people profess to be Christians can actually shout at each other in a mindless rage of accusation. Two people who profess to be Christians unlovingly shout at each other or fighting over some ultimately insignificant point of disagreement. “These people are Christian?” you wonder to yourself in shock and disappointment. Instead of compassion and patient understanding, you heard anger and bitterness.
This should not surprise us. Paul himself admitted: “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). This was the confession of a man who had dedicated his life to telling others about Jesus Christ. Paul admitted he struggled with this. And not just once in a while, but all the time!
Paul and every believer struggles with sin. Paul writes, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Believers continue to struggle with sin because we continue to possess a sinful nature. At first this sinful nature was in control of all our desires and actions—like a hacker who can make your computer do anything he wants to. But when we were baptized, the Word-infused-water short circuited the sinful nature’s control over us and created a new impulse within—a new nature that can and does struggle against the sinful nature’s schemes. The two now grapple with each other like opposing basketball players fighting for control of a loose ball. And you know what this grappling feels like. You want to be patient, you really do, but you keep losing it with your loved ones, and go to bed ashamed of how you treated your family yet again. You may even think to yourself, “How can I call myself a Christian? How can I say that heaven is in my future when my present actions are so evil?”
And this battle rages whenever my mind or body is engaged. I want to be generous, but I end up being selfish. I want to consider others needs before my own, but I end up thinking of myself first. I want to cut bad words out of my vocabulary, but I say the same things over and over again. I want to serve the Lord, but I want to be served.
It’s comforting to know that Paul, too, constantly struggled with sin. He wasn’t a total failure. We aren’t either. While our sins should trouble us they should not send us into hopeless despair. What did Paul say at the end of our text? “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24, 25a)
Left to his own devices Paul’s future would’ve been bleak. But Paul, along with every other sinner in the world, hasn’t been left to his own devices. God has delivered us from the consequences of our sin through the work of Jesus. When a double agent’s cover has been blown, his home country will do everything to extract him from the danger he faces. The spy’s boss will even send in an elite combat team, willing to sacrifice those lives to save the spy. Likewise our heavenly Father sent in his best commando, his own Son, whose life he knew he would be sacrificing to save ours. And Jesus saved us by taking on our identity to face the firing squad, while we escaped using his identity. When God looks at us now, He really sees His righteous Son even though we are still sinners. To summarize these truths Martin Luther once wrote: “Christians are righteous and sinners at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God” (Luther’s Commentary on Galatians 3:6, AE 26:232).
So while my sins are despicable, they don’t disqualify me from heaven, not as long as I continue to confess faith in Jesus—just as someone who has entered the witness protection plan is safe as long as he keeps using his new identity and not his old one. But confessing faith in Jesus is more than just saying you believe that Jesus is the Son of God and your savior from sin. Those who make that claim and really believe it won’t willingly continue to live in sin. Martin Luther correctly explained that the life of a Christian is a life of repentance (1st of 95 Theses). Paul is a good example of that truth. In our text he doesn’t shrug his shoulders at the sins he keeps committing. He’s bothered by them! He also throws himself on Jesus’ mercy for forgiveness. That’s what true believers still do today as the Holy Spirit works faith in their hearts.
I said at the beginning of this sermon that understanding that we are sinner-saints is important so that we are both warned and comforted. We are warned because we should never think that the sinful nature is going to stop making a play for our soul. Satan will continue to entice us, and the world will throw its weight behind those temptations. So I’ll always want more money. I’ll always want to put other people down to make myself feel better. I’ll always have dirty thoughts. Therefore I’ll always need Jesus and his forgiveness. I’ll also want to be wise and not expose my sinful nature to websites, movies, shows, and magazines that will excite it—just as you wouldn’t dream of carrying steaks into the enclosure where that vicious guard dog lives in your neighborhood. Why attract his attention and invite an attack?
On the other hand it is comforting to know that I’m a sinner-saint because it is not my good behavior that will get me into heaven. It is Jesus and what he has done. So I may struggle with a particular sin my whole life, but that won’t necessarily disqualify me from heaven. The key word there is “struggle.” If I’m not struggling against sin, then it means that I’ve either died and gone to heaven, or I’ve become an unbeliever.
It’s also helpful to remember that Christians are sinner-saints so that we interact better with other believers. It should not surprise us when believers do things that shock. Kind David committed adultery and murder. King Solomon had 300 wives and another 700 concubines! We have a sinful nature with which we do not want to play games. Do you know a jeep owner who thinks he can make it through any muddy bush trail because he has 4-wheel drive? But even 4-wheel drives can get stuck in the mud, just as Christians can become permanently stuck in sin so they end up abandoning the faith. When a fellow Christian does get stuck in sin, we will help them get unstuck by calling that individual to repentance in a gentle but firm way remembering how we often get stuck in sin too.
Dittrich-Barsky, the spy I told you about in the introduction, must be glad that he doesn’t have to live a double life anymore. Maybe it was exciting for a time, but he also must have known that he couldn’t do it forever. Sooner or later his cover would be blown and he would have to choose between one life or the other. For better or for worse he chose to stay in the States.
Likewise we have two identities that vie for our attention and for control. Choosing to live by the sinful nature is exciting to the sinful nature, but it will lead to eternal damnation. Living for Jesus who bought us with His own blood may lead to a more difficult life now in some ways, but in the end it will be worth it. Keep struggling against that sinful nature with His divine and ever-present help. And keep encouraging fellow sinner-saints to do the same. And when you fall into sin, because you will, look to Jesus for rescue. He will never turn his back on you. Amen.