The Man in the Mirror
March 22, 1992
Perhaps you missed it when you read the newspaper this week. It was just an odd bit of information tucked away in the obituaries. A friend happened to notice that “Wally the Wiretapper” had died. Normally that wouldn’t rate any special attention but as I read the clipping, I realized that “Wally the Wiretapper” was no ordinary crook.
The obituary called him a “fabled Chicago felon,” who engaged in a “variety of crime as a Damon Runyon-like character.” He freely admitted to tapping phones for his clients who included various well-known mobsters. He evidently was good at what he did. Here is how the obituary summed up his accomplishments:
Among other things, he had been convicted of possessing illegal wiretapping equipment, credit card fraud, defrauding insurance companies, posing as a federal agent and past-posting horse races, in which he used phones and electronic equipment to place bets on races that had already been run in other cities.
At one point in his long career he was approached by certain Hollywood types who wanted to make a movie about his life. But he was persuaded not to go along when his friends in the mob gently discussed the matter with him. “My friends in the mob,” he said, “asked how I was going to spend the movie profits if I was 6 feet down. I got the message, and I said goodbye to the Hollywood screenwriter.”
All of this is very interesting, you say, but what does Wally the Wiretapper have to do with anything? Good question. I was attracted to his story when I learned his real name—Walter Dewey Pritchard. When Mr. Pritchard was sentenced in 1984 after being convicted of interstate racketeering, the presiding judge made a telling comment. “I see no redeeming features for Mr. Pritchard at all, except that he’s a nice guy.”
It made me wonder if old Wally and I don’t share the same family tree. I’ll bet if you go back far enough, you’ll discover that he’s really my uncle, four times removed. After that thought sunk in, I felt somewhat miffed that the newspaper would speak of dear old Uncle Wally in such negative terms. He was always nice to me. At least I don’t ever remember him tapping my phone.
But that wasn’t the end of my reflection. As I pondered the matter, I realized that story could have been written about me. Uncle Wally and I have more in common than I would like to admit. A little more reflection led me to an unnerving conclusion: What the judge said about Wally the Wiretapper, he could have said about me: “I see no redeeming features for Mr. Pritchard at all, except that he’s a nice guy.” From a biblical standpoint, that’s a perfectly accurate statement. There are no redeeming features in me.
Murder in the Morning
That morning dawned like any other in Washington. Padrica Caine Hill, former bank teller and fulltime mother, dresses her three children, makes breakfast for them, lets the children watch TV while she smokes crack cocaine. Then with a clothesline she strangles eight-year-old Kristine and four-year-old Eric Jr. She tries to strangle two-year-old Jennifer but leaves the girl breathing softly on the floor. When the police come, Padrica Hill is unable to explain what happened. She says she loves her children. She appears genuinely bewildered by the turn of events. Why did she kill her children? “I don’t know. I hadn’t planned on it.”
Who is ultimately responsible here? The woman is, of course. But she’s not the only guilty party. What about the pusher who sold her the drugs? What about the man who supplied the pusher? What about the kingpin who imported the crack from Colombia? What about the Medellin cartel? For that matter, how about the police officers who look the other way? Or the peasant farmers who grow the coca leaves? Or the backroom chemists who transform the raw material into its final, deadly form?
We may all truly believe that Padrica Caine Hill is telling the truth. She didn’t mean to kill her children. She was just looking for a euphoric high, a temporary escape from the tedium of life. But something went horribly wrong in her brain when the runaway chemicals skipped a circuit or tripped the wrong wire, turning a normal housewife into a brutal killer.
We must not forget the larger picture. What starts out in a coca plant in Colombia runs through many hands before it finally ends up strangling two children. Evil is present every step along the way. If we focus only on the end result, we miss the great lesson: Evil has been let loose in this world. Evil is everywhere we turn. There is no getting away from that basic fact. (The story of Padrica Caine Hill is told by Lance Morrow in Time magazine, June 10, 1991, pp. 49-50.)
Let us make the matter more personal. There is evil in my heart and in your heart. All true religion begins with the recognition of this truth: Evil resides in every human heart. No one is exempt. Some may receive a bigger share of evil, some less, but the basic allotment is in there somewhere. If you would know God personally, you must come to grips with who you are.
You’ve got to take a good look at the man in the mirror. What you see, you may not like, but you must look anyway. If you don’t, you’ll never know who you really are. And until you know yourself, you’ll never know God for he never reveals himself except to people who recognize their need of him.
That’s why Paul begins his letter to the Romans with a long discussion of the doctrine of human sin. For nearly three chapters he has been building slowly to a great climax. Like a prosecuting attorney, he has laid out the facts one by one. Thesis: The whole world is under the wrath of God (1:18). Fact # 1: The Gentiles are guilty (1:18-32). Fact # 2: The Moralists are guilty (2:1-16). Fact # 3: The Jews are guilty (2:17-29). Fact # 4: No excuses will be accepted (3:1-8).
Now the time has come for the final argument and then the case goes to the jury. As Paul stands to speak, he glances at his notes, pauses for a moment and begins. First the basic charge is restated (3:9). Then the final proof is offered (3:10-18). Then the inescapable verdict is reached (3:19-20).
I. The Charge
Paul lays out the charge this way: “What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.” Who has the advantage in the eyes of God? Do the Jews get a special dispensation from the Almighty? Is it us? Is it them? Is it some other group? Answer: No one is better off. We’re all sinners before God.
Paul is teaching us the universality of sin. It has infected every part of the human race. No group is exempt. The Jews are guilty, the Gentiles are guilty, the moral man is guilty, the religious man is guilty. To make it more personal, the rich man is guilty—but so is the poor man. Oak Park is guilty—and so is River Forest. Men are guilty—and so are women. It matters not how you divide the human race. All are guilty before God.
The Empire of Sin
The key phrase is “under sin.” All are “under sin.” It’s a military term that means to be under the authority of someone else. It was used for soldiers who were under the authority of a commanding officer. It means to be under the control of someone else or something else. In that case, it means that the human race is under the domination of sin. We are all part of the “Empire of Sin.” Man outside of Christ is under the control of sin and is helpless to escape from it.
This is our number one problem. Sin is our problem. It is not the symptom, but the disease itself. Any solution to the human predicament that does not deal with the sin question is like putting a bandaid on cancer.
II. The Proof
In the next few verses Paul lays out an appalling picture of the human race. He does it by stringing together a number of Old Testament passages (cf. “It is written” in verse 10) which, taken together, establish his point beyond all dispute. Scripture is piled upon Scripture for cumulative effect: “The Bible says,” “The Bible says,” “The Bible says.” Eventually the point breaks through to even the hardest human heart. Sin has not only affected every person; it has affected every part of every person.
Have you ever said, “I’m not so bad. In fact, I’m a pretty good person.” Read these verses and see how you feel!
1. Sin in our Character. 10
“There is no one righteous, not even one.” Here is God’s evaluation as he looks down from heaven. He doesn’t see a single righteous person—not even one. But how can this be? How can God look down at 5 billion people and not see even one righteous man? Is this not an overly-harsh judgment? The answer is that God judges according to a different standard than the one we use. Most of us grade on the curve. That is, we look to our neighbor and say, “Well, I’m not as bad as he is.” Or we compare ourselves with someone we know at work who makes us look good by comparison.
But God doesn’t judge that way. When he looks down from heaven, the standard he uses is his own sinless perfection. He compares us to his own perfect holiness, his own perfect love, his own perfect wisdom, his own perfect justice. And compared with God’s own perfection, there is no one—not even one person—who comes close to being righteous in his eyes.
Where, then, will you find a righteous man on the earth? In Brazil? No. In Cambodia? No. In Japan? No. In Malaysia? No. In Turkey? No. In Israel? No. In America? No. Will you find a righteous man in congress? You must be kidding! How about Hollywood? Forget it! Oak Park? Sorry. River Forest? Not a one. Forest Park? Nope. Is there anywhere in all the earth where we could find a truly righteous man? The answer is no. From God’s point of view there isn’t a single righteous person in the entire human race.
2. Sin in our Mind. 11
“There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.” Here is the ultimate truth about our condition. Not only are we sinful in our natures, but there is no one among us who truly seeks God.
We do not understand the truth about God.
We do not seek God on our own.
The word for “seek” means to “seek with determination.” While there are many who claim to seek God, there is no one who by nature seeks God with wholehearted determination. Many people—even many Christians—doubt this is true. We secretly think that millions of people are seeking God the best way they can. Paul says no. Man left to himself never seeks God. He always turns to idolatry. To put matters in a broader perspective, if any man truly seeks God, it is only because the Holy Spirit is working in his heart. Without that inner wooing of the Spirit, no one would ever come to Christ.
This helps explain why the world is so messed up. The politician who is confused about God will ultimately be confused about the world God has made. Because he is confused about the world God made, the solutions he proposes will always be less than ideal. Because his solutions are based on a faulty world view, they will come to failure again and again. Write it down. A warped view of God leads to a warped view of the world which leads to warped thinking which produces wrong ideas, empty solutions, and bad decisions. But it all starts in the mind—”There is no one who understands.”
3. Sin in our Heart. 12
“All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” What starts in the character goes to the mind and ends in the heart.
The whole human race has turned away from God.
There is a total absence of goodness in mankind.
The result: Total corruption.
Let’s be honest and say that even as we read these words, there is something in us that resists this harsh conclusion. Verse 12 tells us that when God looks down from heaven, he sees a race of people who are “worthless” as far as redemption is concerned. We are like a basket of fruit that has gone rotten in the hot summer sun. We have all “gone bad” in the eyes of God.
Concerning doing good—There is no one!
This is the most damning indictment of all. Like an axle that goes out of alignment, man has an inborn tendency to deliberately move away from the path of God’s choosing. “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have each turned to his own path.” As a result, no one is on the right path, no one does what is good, everyone does what is evil.
It is important to understand Paul’s perspective in saying these things. Is he suggesting that there is absolutely no one who does good in any sense at all? No, he’s not saying that. Mother Teresa is a far better person than Saddam Hussein. Thank God, there is such a thing as the milk of human kindness. Some people are incredibly evil while others seem almost saintly. It would be pointless to deny that truth.
How do you reconcile the obvious moral differences among people with the sweeping conclusions of verse 12? The answer lies in the basic difference between relative and absolute goodness. In the sense of absolute perfec-tion, there is no one who does good. No human being could ever meet that standard. Within the boundaries of human nature, however, some people are much “better” and some are much “worse.”
Perhaps an illustration will help. Let’s suppose that you took a boat ride on Lake Michigan. When the boat gets a mile or so offshore, you turn to gaze at the Chicago skyline. Seen from a horizontal perspective, the skyline is quite dramatic—you see the Sears Tower, the John Hancock Building, along with hundreds of other smaller buildings. As you look from Lake Michigan, it’s easy to pick out the tallest buildings.
Now let’s suppose that you get in an airplane flying over Chicago at 35,000 feet. When you are directly over the Loop, you look out your window at the city. What do you see? From the vertical perspective, all the buildings look flat to you. The Sears Tower seems no taller than a four-story apartment building.
What makes the difference? Perspective. When we judge relative goodness, we’re looking from the horizontal perspective. Seen in that light, there really is a difference between Mother Teresa and Saddam Hussein. But when God looks down from heaven, relative human goodness disappears. Sin “levels” the human race so that when we are compared to God’s infinite perfection, Paul’s conclusion in verse 12 is correct: “There is no one who does good, not even one.”
What is the conclusion? There are no redeeming features in the human race. Not in the so-called “good person” nor in the evil law-breaker. From God’s standpoint, both are wholly corrupt.
4. Sin in our Lips. 13-14
Paul now shows how sin has infected the various parts of the human body, starting with the organs of speech. “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” He uses four different words for the various organs of speech—throats, tongues, lips, mouths, each one showing how thoroughly sin affects the things we say. Our speech is …
Corrupt—Throats an open grave
Deceitful—Tongues practice deceit
Uncharitable—Poison of vipers on our lips
Blasphemous—Mouths full of cursing and bitterness
Why does he spend so much time describing our organs of speech? Because sin is seen most often in our words. Jesus himself said, “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34) Whatever is in the heart will eventually come out. The Living Bible translates the first part of verse 13 this way, “Their talk is foul and filthy like the stench of an open grave.” Our speech has the smell of death about it because there is nothing but death inside us. Is this why we talk about “dirty” jokes and “gutter language?” And is it a coincidence that so many of our “dirty” words have to do with human excrement and perverted sex? Is this not a reflection of the decay inside the human heart?
Why do we love “dirty” talk and double entendres? Why do children love trash talk? Because inside your heart is a rotting corpse, and the stench of it comes out of your mouth.
Do you doubt that the human mouth is filled with cursing and bitterness? If so, then try this little experiment. Take a walk down the street and punch the first stranger you meet right in the nose. Then pay attention to what comes out of his mouth! (Then run for your life!)
5. Sin in our Feet. 15-17
Here are verses that well describe contemporary America. “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.” In America today killing the innocent is perfectly legal. We call it abortion. Since 1973 over 28 million unborn babies have been legally murdered. That’s 10 times more than the total war dead from every war in American history, from the Revolutionary War right through Operation Desert Storm.
And today we are “swift” to find new ways to kill. Now they are talking about RU 486, a do-it-yourself abortion pill. Now they are talking about harvesting organs from babies born without a brain. In a few months California will vote on a proposal to legalize certain forms of mercy-killing.
The AIDS Bandit
Every day the papers are filled with stories of brutal murder. Just this week Evander Hollyfield’s brother was shot to death. We wouldn’t know—or even care—except that his brother is the heavyweight boxing champion. Life is cheap in America. These days killing for pleasure and profit has become routine.
Did you read about the “AIDS Bandit” this week? That’s a fellow who’s discovered a new way to rob a store. Six times this week he has entered a store, holding up a syringe he claims is filled with blood contaminated by the AIDS virus. Six times he has been successful. And why not? These days you are better off being shot in the chest.
Mark it down. Wherever man goes, sin soon follows. Death and destruction follow his steps as night follows day.
6. Sin in our Eyes. 18
“There is no fear of God in their eyes.” This is Paul’s final indictment. The Living Bible puts it this way: “They care nothing about God or what he thinks about them.” Why is that true? Because when men reject God, they lose everything. No fear of God simply means living as if God did not exist, which is the exact state of millions of people today. They aren’t atheists per se, but they might as well be. They are practical atheists, living as if God did not exist. They ignore his ways, flout his commands, disregard his Word and violate his statutes. For them, God might as well not exist, so little thought do they give to him.
When you take these six statements together, they become the most damning indictment imaginable:
Sin in our Character
Sin in our Mind
Sin in our Heart
Sin in our Lips
Sin in our Feet
Sin in our Eyes
Sin has infected and affected every part of our being. But to say that is to say nothing more than the historic Protestant doctrine of Total Depravity. To say that man is totally depraved is not to say that he is as bad as he can be. It means that sin has affected every part of his being—his mind, his emotions, his will, his intellect, his moral reasoning, his decision making, his words and his deeds. No part of man’s being is exempt from the debilitating effects of sin. As someone has said, “If sin were blue, we’d be blue all over.” Part would be dark blue, part would be sky blue, part would be light blue, but every part would be blue in one shade or another.
Total depravity means that there is an evil seed inside each of us, a seed which may lie dormant for years and then suddenly pop up without warning.
One Rotten Egg
Many people have trouble with the concept of total depravity. While not denying they are sinners, many people feel that their sin isn’t bad enough to condemn them. What they don’t understand is that any sin is wholly unacceptable to God. Let’s suppose I invite you over to my house this Saturday morning for omelettes. The day comes, you knock at my door, I let you in, and go to the kitchen to prepare the meal. There on my counter are several mounds of chopped onions, green peppers, ham and sliced mushrooms. Nearby is a bowl of grated cheese. While you wait in the dining room I reach into the refrigerator for the eggs. To my shock I discover that I have only six eggs. That’s okay, except that one of the eggs is rotten. There isn’t time to go get fresh eggs so I say to myself, “I’ll just mix this rotten one in with the good ones and they’ll never know the difference.” In a few minutes when I serve the omelettes, you begin sniffing the air. “What’s that funny smell?” “Oh, don’t worry about that. One of the eggs was rotten, but I just mixed it in with all the rest.” Would you accept that omelette?
No, you wouldn’t. And neither will God accept your life when you mix in your sin with your good works. Just as the stench of rotten eggs makes the whole omelette putrid, even so the stench of your sin completely cancels out the value of your good works.
That’s what total depravity means. Sin has so invaded your life that any attempt to please God on your own is doomed to failure. He will not accept your life when sin is mixed in with your good works.
III. The Final Verdict
We come now to Paul’s final summation to the jury. The evidence is in, the charge has been presented, the indictment read and proved. Now comes the conclusion. “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” These verses make two clear points:
All are guilty before God. 20
No one can be saved by keeping the law because the law can only condemn. 21
J.B. Phillips says, “It is the straightedge of the law that shows us how crooked we are.” The law of God is like a mirror. It shows us how dirty we really are. The purpose of a mirror is not to wash your face. You don’t take the mirror off the wall and rub it on your face. The purpose of the mirror is to direct us to the water! The law is like that. It doesn’t save us. It is meant to drive us to the only place where we can be saved—the cross of Jesus Christ.
We come now to the end of this message. Ponder these words by Charles Hodge:
To be prepared for the reception of the gospel, we must be convinced of sin, humbled under a sense of its turpitude, silenced under a conviction of its condemning power, and prostrated at the foot-stool of mercy, under a feeling that we cannot satisfy the demands of the law, that if ever saved, it must be by other merit and other power than our own. (Romans, p. 87)
The words of this passage apply to us whether we admit it or not. Not all are equally sinful … but all are equally sinners. Some sin more, some less, but all are sinners to a greater or lesser degree. Those hidden seeds of inner evil may lie dormant for many years, decades even, and suddenly under provocation spring up to produce bitter fruit within us. Wise is the man who looks into the mirror and acknowledges the truth of his condition. For that man, no matter how bad his life, there is hope. The only truly hopeless case is the man who will not admit the truth about himself.
Salvation Begins With Silence
But many of us want to argue with the man in the mirror. We don’t like the truth about who we are. But silence is the beginning of salvation. God’s design in showing us our sin is to shut us up long enough to hear what he has to say.
Have you stopped arguing with God? Whenever you stop arguing, you can be saved. Hell is filled with people who simply would not stop talking. And because they wouldn’t listen, they never heard the truth about themselves. Since they never knew the whole truth about their condition, they never understood what God had done to save them.
When you finally stop talking and start listening, the truth of the gospel can come crashing through to you. As long as you defend yourself, you cannot be saved. So stop talking and start listening and see what God can do for you.