Read: Ezekiel 36:16-27 and Romans 8:1-17
“Why do I constantly return to that dry, empty cistern? Why do I continue to drink of its spiritually bacteria-laced poison? Why do I fail to turn away and instead drink deeply of the Living Water that Christ freely offers me?”
This was an entry into journal written many years ago by someone who was struggling with habitual sin, with whom I was in a pastoral care relationship. The questions broke my heart then, and just speaking them aloud breaks my heart still today, as though I were hearing them for the first time.
The truth is, any one of us here could have made this journal entry. I know I could. It flowed out of a heart that desperately wanted to live a life that pleased God rather than one which seemed destined to disappoint. The pull of sin is so strong, and can be all-consuming, that it often feels like there’s nothing we can do about it. And who here hasn’t felt that way before. Maybe some of you are feeling way even today.
And the truth is, there really is nothing we can do about it! That is, there’s nothing that you and I can innately do about it. You and I have zero natural ability and strength to do anything about it. Left to our own devices, we will always fail and fall short. If our victory over sin depends upon our own abilities to resist it, to turn away from it, and to ultimately change, then the result is a foregone conclusion: disappointment and failure.
Fortunately, there is One who can do, and has already done something about it.
Why do you suppose the typical judicial correctional system in any country fails to actually and truly correct people? Why do prisons fail in their endeavor to rehabilitate? Because simply wrapping someone across the knuckles will never, ever transform a heart. You can whack at rock all you want, but it’s never going to soften. It may crack, and it may even splinter, but it’ll never be anything but a hard rock.
If that “rock” is a human life and heart, then I’ve got good news. There is One who can change cold, stony hearts into something warm and compassionate.
The ancient Israelites in the Old Testament were people conflicted within themselves. They wanted to please God; there are numerous examples of them saying “We’re sorry, we’ll do better!” But it was only a matter of time before they were back to their old ways. They wanted to please the God who rescued their ancestors from Egypt, who gave them the law, and who who promised to never leave for forsake them. But the harder they tried to keep it, the more they failed. Eventually their stubbornness resulted in their exile in a foreign land as slaves.
Fortunately, God didn’t give up on them. He sent a number of prophets their way to let them know that a day was coming when he would bring them back and build them up into a great nation once again. One of those prophets was Ezekiel, whom God sent their way to give them hope. Here’s what God told them through the prophet. It begins with God reminding Ezekiel of what got his people in hot water to begin with. Here’s what he says:
“Son of man, when the people of Israel were living in their own land, they defiled it by the evil way they lived. To me their conduct was as unclean as a woman’s menstrual cloth. They polluted the land with murder and the worship of idols, so I poured out my fury on them. I scattered them to many lands to punish them for the evil way they had lived. But when they were scattered among the nations, they brought shame on my holy name. For the nations said, ‘These are the people of the Lord, but he couldn’t keep them safe in his own land!’ Then I was concerned for my holy name, on which my people brought shame among the nations. Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign Lord: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, then the nations will know that I am the Lord. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.
Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations” (Ezekiel 36:16-27).
I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. (v. 26)
We can’t change ourselves, but God can. Only God can transform a stony, stubborn heart into a gentle, responsive one. You and I didn’t come into this world with the tools to perform this kind of spiritual self-surgery. But when you said yes to Jesus Christ, you were implanted with the only “tool” that could do that – God’s Holy Spirit.
And what does the Holy Spirit within you make possible? God says: I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. (v. 27) Where you and I can’t live a life of obedience by our own abilities, strength, and will, the Holy Spirit in us is our power to obey. He is our power. He is our ability. Transforming persons from the inside out is the singular purpose of the Holy Spirit. He changes our hearts of stone into hearts of compassion. He slowly moves us from disobedience to obedience and, if we’re open to it, from obedience to selflessness.
Doesn’t that sound like good news? Like most people—including Christians—you probably struggle with obedience. You do the things you don’t want to do, and don’t do the things you want to do. And then you beat yourself up over it, maybe even come to the conclusion that you’ll never be any different.
But here’s the truth, even if it’s difficult to see the evidence of it. In Romans 8:9, Paul declares, “You [Christ-followers] are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you” (Romans 8:9-11). Followers of Jesus Christ have been given the Holy Spirit; he lives within you. And on account of his presence within you, you are no longer a slave to sin. Your sin nature, though still a part of you, is no longer your boss.
This is where the reading from Romans comes in. Paul continues: “So you have no obligation whatsoever to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you keep on following it, you will perish. But if through the power of the Holy Spirit you turn from it and its evil deeds, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:12-14). To me, this sound a lot like the Ezekiel 36:27 – I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.
Now, maybe at this point you’re wondering, If this is so, then why am I still having such a difficult time resisting temptation? Why do I still give in as often as I do? The simple answer: because becoming like Jesus is a life-long process. No one gets there overnight. The good news, however, is that getting there has been made possible by Jesus. On the cross he destroyed the power of sin. And the same Spirit who raised him from the dead lives in you. And just as he brought back Jesus from the dead, so he did in you. You and I are living a resurrected life. Not because of anything we’ve done, but because of what Jesus did, and continues to do every single day through his Spirit who lives in you.
Has there ever been a better reason to praise our God? Our God, who is mysteriously one Godhead in three Persons– Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is worthy of every iota of praise and gratitude we can possibly muster up! Why? Because he did in Jesus Christ the Son and through his Holy Spirit what we ourselves could never do. He made a way for us to be declared us righteous and holy in the eyes of the Father. And he filled us with the power to live into that righteousness, making what was declared in us to become, in fact, an ever-increasing reality on the outside.
If you’ve ever silently wondered to yourself, “Why do I fail to turn away from sin, and instead drink deeply of the Living Water that Christ freely offers me?” then I have good news for you. Your heavenly Father loves you, and he knows your struggle, and yet he still loves you. And out of his love for you, he gave you his Son Jesus Christ who, out of his love for you, bore the guilt of your sins on the cross. And when you said yes to Christ, he poured his Holy Spirit into you, and turned your heart from stone to flesh, from a starting point of hostility towards God to one of being open to him. And because his Spirit lives in you, you have the power. The power to live a life that’s no longer inwardly focused on self, but outwardly focused on others. The power to live not only obediently, but selflessly…even at times to the point of suffering.
Do we fall? Every day. But remember who it is that picks you back up, dusts you off, and whispers into your ear, “You are my beloved child. I will love you forever and ever. And nothing you can do or say will ever change that.” Praise be to God!