In Romans 7, Paul shares his personal struggle with sin with the reader. "I do not understand! I do the very thing I hate." He is, it seems, powerless over his addiction to sin. Sin itself has control over him. Yes, the law is a good thing. But sin, working through the law, brought death--to Adam, to Paul, and to all humanity. But what is the 21st-century preacher supposed to make of that?
Sin is a hard thing for me to understand. It is both the transgression--the thought, word, or deed (done or left undone)--and the very propensity to trangress. In other words, to use Paul's language, I am a slave not only to the collection of wrongs I have committed in my lifetime but also to the very tendency I have to do them. When preachers like me talk about sin, I have a feeling that we fail to convey the double-meaning that seems so critical to Paul's understanding of the theological concept. And that leaves us with a shallow understanding of both our predicament and the relief that is offered in Christ.
If I sin were merely the acts I regret, where would me deliverance be? If Christ came to die merely that I might live a better life, that pseudo-salvation would last only as long as I managed to avoid any of the innumerable traps that I encounter in daily life. That wouldn't be hopeful at all. But Jesus came to set us free from something deeper. It's not the acts themselves. And it's not even the propensity to commit them. Jesus came to set us free from the consequences of our sin--both act and nature. In him, we are delivered from the burden of failure. Yes, we are still sinners. Yes, we still commit sins. Yes, we are still sinful, which is to say human. But God doesn't see us as such. God regards us as righteous because of Jesus Christ.
Maybe that's why this Sunday's gospel lesson ends with "my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Jesus is telling us that he sets us free not from the trials and struggles of this life--physical, spiritual, motional, etc.. He sets us free from the burden of consequence. Once free from slavery to sin, as Paul puts it, there are no eternal consequences for our sin--nature of act. Yes, there are consequences in this life, but thanks be to God that they end here.