Swiper the Fox has a problem.
For those of you who do not what I am talking about, Swiper the Fox is a character on the popular Nick Jr. television show, Dora the Explorer. Dora and her monkey friend, Boots, go on many adventures together, aided by a talking map, a hungry backpack, and by many of their animal friends. However, one animal is not part of Dora’s inner circle. That animal is Swiper the Fox.
As I mentioned above, Swiper has a problem. He is a habitual criminal. Swiper, as his name suggests, likes to swipe things. He is a thief, albeit not a very good one. I don’t know if Swiper has ever successfully swiped anything from anyone. But he certainly does try to swipe things from Dora and foil her adventures. Dora, not being a typical innocent child but portraying the street smarts of hardened teenager, is not amused or fooled by any of Swiper’s attempts at thievery. When Swiper makes his move, Dora and Boots (and you, the audience!), tell him over and over again, “Swiper, no swiping! Swiper, no swiping! Swiper, no swiping!” Swiper eventually realizes that he is about to be caught red-handed, and he responds with his classic quip, “Oh man!” as he snaps his fingers and darts off the screen, no doubt planning his next attempt to impede Dora and Boots from attending Benny the Bull’s birthday party.
I feel bad for Swiper the Fox. I don’t feel sorry for him because he is never successful at swiping. Stealing is wrong, boys and girls. I feel bad because he is doomed to repeat the same pattern over and over again, not just because he is stuck in a formulaic kid’s show, but because he never hears anything but the law.
That’s right. I am about to make a theological point based off of a cartoon character on Nick Jr. This is my life now.
This is an important note for preachers and for parents and really for all Christians: Believing that simply saying “No” or that by forbidding an activity has the power to exact lasting change is completely unrealistic.
God’s Law, as revealed in his Word, is good and necessary. I am certainly not implying that the law is a bad thing. Rather, it is the perfect will of God. However, God’s Law, ever since humankind’s fall into sin, has one primary purpose: to show us our sin. From Romans 7:7- If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”
No one likes a bossy-pants, Dora!
God’s Law tells us what sin is and says “Don’t do it!” Dora and Boots serve this purpose well in their interactions with Swiper. “Swiper, no swiping!” Stealing is bad. Do not steal.
But because of our sinful nature, we humans are not able to produce the good works that the Law demands. In fact, the Law actually produces the exact opposite reaction from us than it intended. Paul continues in Romans 7- But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me.
What is Paul saying? He is saying that when we are confronted by the Law, sin actually increases, not decreases like we would expect. The Law does not and cannot produce its intended effect. The Law cannot produce in us the very goodness that it demands. Rather, it only increases our bad behavior. Perhaps you have heard the expression about tasting the “forbidden fruit.” When we humans are told we cannot have something or do something, we immediately want to have it or do it. The Law might be able to curb our sinful desire for a time, but it is unable to actually make us good or even inspire goodness. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian says this well in his excellent book, One Way Love:
We make a big mistake when we conclude that the law is the answer to bad behavior. In fact, the law alone stirs up more of such behavior. People get worse, not better, when you lay down the law. This isn’t to say the Spirit doesn’t use both God’s Law and God’s Gospel in our lives and for our good. But the Law and the Gospel do very different things. The Law reveals sin but is powerless to remove it. It points to righteousness but can’t produce it. It shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly. As Martin Luther wrote, “Sin is not canceled by lawful living, for no person is able to live up to the Law. Nothing can take away sin except the grace of God.” (From his commentary on Galatians) The Law apart from the Gospel can only crush; it cannot cure.
Doomed to repeat the same mistakes
This brings us back to our poor friend Swiper the Fox. Swiper hears nothing but the law. Swiper knows that swiping is wrong and hearing the law stops him from swiping…for a little while. But sooner or later, Swiper is back at his old antics, trying to swipe everything in sight. The law can curb his behavior, but it cannot change his heart. It cannot produce the desire to do the right thing. It can only condemn and accuse.
We often do the same thing with other people. Parents do this with their children. Preachers do this with their congregations. They hammer them with the law over and over again. Don’t do this! Stop doing that! Do better! Try harder! The problem with this method is that we cannot do it. We can try as hard as want, but we will never be able to achieve the goodness, rather, the perfection, that the Law of God demands. We may stop for awhile or even for good, but it doesn’t mean that we have been changed. Outwardly, we may look cleaned up while our heart is still corrupt.
The Law does not and cannot reform the sinful nature. Rather it reveals our sinful nature. It exposes us as sinners, and it drives us to the Good News found in Jesus! Only the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners can transform lives and give people (or foxes) the desire to do good. Only the Gospel can change your heart.
So preachers, preach the Law, but let the Gospel dominate. Don’t just stand up there and say, “Sinner, no sinning!” Preach the shed blood of Jesus which alone can cover their sinfulness. Connect the branches to the true Vine and see the good fruit which is naturally produced.
Parents, tell your children when they have done something wrong but always speak to them a word of forgiveness. Your unconditional love and forgiveness reflects their heavenly Father’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Let God’s love and mercy transform their sinful, selfish nature.
And let us always remind each other of Paul’s words in Romans 8:1-2 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
Thanks for coming on this journey with me! What was your favorite part?