Saltwater Fish and Freshwater Fish

This Fall, I will be leading my congregation through a sermon series entitled The Normal Christian Life. I’m seeking to answer the basic questions of Christianity for myself and then share them with the congregation. One of the questions I’ve been wrestling with is, “what is sin?”

A quick survey of the available literature reveals that the Church is really good at condemning certain sins, absolutely excellent at recounting various lists of sins from Scripture – Old and New Testament – and pretty abysmal at answering my question. The exceptions to this that I have found so far are John Piper and Wayne Grudem.

Piper and Grudem both answer the question, “what is sin,” by explaining the Reformed doctrine of “Total Depravity” – which in plain English reads like Psalm 51, “Surely I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” Piper and Grudem both do a great job of explaining that (pre-Rebirth) we aren’t sinful because we’ve committed sins, we commit sins because we are sinners. Grudem goes on to explain in Chapter 24 of his book, Systematic Theology, that the Reformed Doctrine of Total Depravity does not preclude people from being moral or performing acts of justice. It is just that, in a sinful state, we are not able to do anything that pleases God. “Our righteous acts are as unclean as a menstrual garments,” is Isaiah’s poetic phrasing in chapter 64.

As convincing and correct as I find both Piper’s and Grudem’s arguments, I felt something lacking. I couldn’t envision a clear and concise way of explaining this concept to an unbeliever – it was too heady and lacked conviction. So I set to work praying, asking God for a way to preach this message in a way that would be easily understood and carry the proper punch. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I’ll share what I have so far.

As far as I am aware, there are two main categories of fish – saltwater fish and freshwater fish. Each type of fish has evolved to be comfortable in that certain environment and to transplant a saltwater fish into freshwater (and vice versa) is to kill the fish.* So, if I wanted to save a bunch of fish in the ocean, I couldn’t just dump them off at a neighbor’s farm pond – the change of environment would kill them. If I wanted to transplant those fish, I’d have to find a way of changing the internal environment and chemistry of the fish so that they could survive the different level of salt in the water.

That is exactly what Jesus does for us.

We were all born as “saltwater fish.” If I were to corrupt David’s Psalm to fit my anaology, it would read “Surely I was a saltwater fish from birth. I was a saltwater fish from the moment my mother conceived me.” Through no conscious effort on our part, we were born saltwater fish. And the salt in the water is symbolic of sin. Fish in the ocean can see the salt in the water, even though it is all around them and directly impacts how they live and function. So it is with us. Until the Holy Spirit gives us the ability, we are blind to our own sinful nature, our own corrupted thoughts and desires. It isn’t until Jesus draws us to himself that we are able to see things clearly for the first time.

To continue with the analogy… the Kingdom is freshwater territory – saltwater fish don’t feel comfortable there, they are as hostile to that environment as the environment is dangerous to them. You can be the biggest, baddest fish in the ocean and it doesn’t matter – the Kingdom is Freshwater. Conversely, you can be the kindest, gentlest, most virtuous saltwater fish there ever was – and it still doesn’t matter because the Kingdom is Freshwater. Neither of them can live in the Kingdom for any length of time unless they become a different kind of fish.

Whichever of the two fish mentioned above you relate to the most, you still have to come to Jesus. He alone has the ability to change you on the inside so that you are comfortable in the Kingdom and that it will be a life-giving environment for you. Obtaining Eternal Life in the Kingdom isn’t about being moral and following a bunch of rules – it is about submitting your life to Jesus as your Lord and Savior. That is why we say we are “saved by grace through faith and not by works.” Will we go on to do good works after we’ve been transformed? Of course! That is what the children of God do – but we can never confuse our external acts with our internal state before The Lord.

That is what I have so far friends. Was this a helpful analogy for you? Why or why not? Could I clarify anything? Would you feel comfortable using this analogy when you are evangelizing?

I want to refine this concept because I think it articulates the heart of the Gospel, but I need feedback. If you would take a moment to comment below or send me an email, I would greatly appreciate it. As always, thanks for reading.

* [Full disclosure: in researching this allegory I did discover that there are certain subtypes of fish, mainly bull sharks, that can seemly survive for extended periods of time in either environment. For the purpose of this example, those fish are excluded. =) ]

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