We’re often told that Christians shouldn’t beat themselves up for their sins and yet so many do it. Maybe that’s because the advice has been understated. Maybe we should go one step further to say that Christians mustn’t beat themselves up for their sins.
I’m reading Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life for the umpteenth time. This quote reminded me today why this book is a classic:
What then of our attitude to Satan? This is important, for he accuses us not only before God but in our own conscience also. “You have sinned, and you keep on sinning. You are weak, and God can have nothing more to do with you.” This is his argument. And our temptation is to look within and in self-defense to try to find in ourselves, in our feelings or our behavior, some ground for believing that Satan is wrong. Alternatively we are tempted to admit our helplessness and, going to the other extreme, to yield to depression and despair. Thus, accusation becomes one of the greatest and most effective of Satan’s weapons. He points to our sins and seeks to charge us with them before God; and if we accept his accusations, we go down immediately.
Now the reason why we so readily accept his accusations is that we are still hoping to have some righteousness of our own. The ground of our expectation is wrong. Satan has succeeded in making us look in the wrong direction.
Our salvation lies in looking away to the Lord Jesus and in seeing that the blood of the Lamb has met the whole situation created by our sins and has answered it. That is the sure foundation on which we stand. Never should we try to answer Satan with our good conduct but always with the blood.
A Faith That Works is an examination of the gospel as the tangible power of God to save. Many Christians would be hard pressed to articulate exactly in what way the gospel had affected them. The absence of demonstrable change has become so prevalent that we’ve actually found a biblical basis to explain it. This excerpt from what may or may not be chapter 2 of the book dismantles that basis to make way for the legitimate work of God.
I can think of no better evidence to support my case that the gospel of the western church has been rendered inert through mishandling than the prevalence of the belief that Paul meant to describe the normal Christian life in Romans 7. I can’t count the number of times a Christian has told me something like, “Yeah, we’re forgiven by grace but we’re still going to sin every day. I know I’m not as strong as Paul and he had things he couldn’t get over either. Just look at Romans 7.”
Really? Is that the best that the power of God can do? If faith in Christ left Paul “dead” and “wretched,” then what in the “H-E-double-hockey-sticks” did it do for him!?
Far from commiserating with faltering disciples, Paul wrote Romans 7 to depict the state of existence that the gospel saved him from. Through his attempts to conform to an external standard of righteousness, he became as “dead in transgressions and sins” as the pagan recipients of the Ephesian letter had been.
Compare the description from Ephesians 2:1-3 of their pre Christian state with his condition described in Romans 7:
● Paul and the Ephesians had both been dead in sin.
○ “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” (Eph. 2:1)
○ “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” (Rom. 7:9-10)
● Paul and the Ephesians had both been in bondage to evil desires.
○ “…in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” (Eph. 2:2-3a)
○ “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:14-15)
● Paul and the Ephesians both had natures that were hostile to God.
○ “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:3b)
○ “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19)
If we agree that Ephesians 2:1-3 describes the lost state and then say that Romans 7 describes the common Christian experience, then we imply that the gospel produces no significant practical results. If we’ve come to identify a Romans 7 experience as the result of the gospel, then it’s no wonder there’s so little difference between the lives of Christians and nonbelievers. No wonder so few churchgoers evangelize. No wonder so many kids raised in church leave the faith.
I don’t talk about Jesus primarily because I feel sorry for anybody who doesn’t know him or because I would feel guilty if I didn’t. I talk about Jesus because I can’t keep it in. I talk about him because he’s just so wonderful that the idea of a person disregarding him, misunderstanding him, or not knowing him is nearly intolerable to me. It’s like trembling before the majesty of a gorgeous ocean sunrise only to look around at so many facing inland. Perhaps they’re consumed with concern over what the day might hold or perhaps they think they’ve seen it already. But they’re missing it and in a very short time it will be too late. Maybe you’re one of the people who’s missing it. If Jesus hasn’t wrecked your life, if he doesn’t consume your thoughts and dreams, if he isn’t the reference point for every decision you make or desire you have, then you’re missing him. I don’t have any light to give you but I hope to reflect him so that you might just turn (repent).
I’ve been attempting to follow Jesus for 28 years. I came to him because he was the only one who offered to give meaning to my life. Even as a child, I had little tolerance for self-deception. I want to see things as they are and to my way of thinking most people were living in denial over the one unavoidable reality of life that it would end. I couldn’t fathom the end of my consciousness. To describe it as “darkness” would not do annihilation justice since darkness describes the perception of the absence of light. Not only would such concepts cease to have meaning, they would never have had meaning from my standpoint. Other ideas about the afterlife such as reincarnation or nirvana were functionally the same outcome since they involve the utter loss of self. So, I pursued the One I’d heard about as a child in Sunday School but this time I sought him in the text of the New Testament. The man who shown from those pages was the one my heart had longed for. Jesus didn’t just offer pie in the sky by and by; he brought heaven to earth as he defied the pressures and pleasures of this existence for another plane of living that he called “blessed.” I gave myself to him and he reciprocated.
Sadly, the Dragon was there waiting for this child to be born and he quickly took me into custody with the promise of moral certainty. Satan used the very church in which I was baptized to lace the pure milk of the word with arsenic. My once-vital faith became feeble and sickly. My joy turned to disdain and the glorious picture of my Savior became hideously distorted behind a legalistic lens.
My Savior, it turned out, was more loving than I was self-righteous and he saved me again from my efforts to save myself. I discovered through the trial of my errors that the faith that saves must be alone since anything else must be mistrust. At his cross my guilty plea released me from the guilt of my past. The power of his resurrection, the blessed Holy Spirit, is freeing me from the sinfulness of my present. It is this Spirit at work to make me like Jesus, that assures me that he will return to claim me for himself.
Today, I am more amazed at grace than the hour I first believed. My life in Christ is not one of fear, failure, guilt or judgment. That any of these experiences could be identified with the kingdom of God is proof positive that there are forces at work in this world to slander Christ Jesus. The word “gospel” means, “good news.” To be “gospel” a thing must be both good and news. The gospel of Christ is not a set of religious or moral injunctions. That would be neither good nor would it be news. The gospel is good because it bypasses the substances we repeatedly apply to cracks and fissures of our individual and collective soul to hydrate us from within. As an ongoing expression of Christ’s resurrection, this inner healing results from and results in noteworthy actual events in the world, in other words, news.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the reasons that people have for disbelieving God or for questioning his nature. I myself have struggled and continue to struggle with doubts. In fact, I struggle to believe those who say that they have not struggled with doubts. It’s hard to believe in God. Bad things happen. Prayers go unanswered. Then there are the contradictions between the biblical narrative and scientific discoveries. Not to mention contradictions between the biblical narrative and the biblical narrative. Finally, and most devastatingly, there are the walking contradictions, those who claim to follow Christ yet do violence to his name through their behavior.
We’ve all encountered contradictions in various forms. What we do with them will shape our souls and the course of our lives. By spending some time recently reading literature from unbelievers, I have discovered a pattern in the way they tend to process these contradictions. Their thinking tends to follow an “if, then” heuristic. For instance, “If God is all-powerful and completely good, then why is there suffering?” That’s a great question to ask as are many others posed by those who do not believe in God. It’s a logical question. I respect people who ask good questions and I feel indebted to them for helping to take my thinking to a higher level. I don’t want a faith which is untested or based on assumption.
Having said that, I want to challenge the atheistic challenge by suggesting that drawing conclusions from the “if, then” heuristic presupposes that all variables are known. For instance, a child whose parents take him to get a shot might question the love of his parents for him since he has built a heuristic that says, “If you love me, then you won’t hurt me.” We can easily see that while for this child the dilemma is very real, the contradiction exists only in his faulty perception of reality. Here is another example which I found in Scripture the other day: “The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” (Luke 23:36-37) Roman soldiers standing at the foot of the cross could not possibly understand how or why a king would submit to crucifixion. They possessed a heuristic which said, “If you have power, then you will use it in your best interest.” Looking back at this event through the lens of redemption, we can easily see that not only did the cross not challenge Jesus’ identity as the Christ, it validated it. So, there was more to be understood and the soldiers reached a conclusion too early.
Perhaps in the debate over the existence of God, some humility is called for. Perhaps at the beginning, we should all acknowledge that there is much we do not know. I’d like to challenge myself and anyone else who will accept it, to allow contradictions to elicit further discovery rather than premature conclusions. After all, the first definition for “heuristic” in Dictionary.com is, “serving to indicate or point out; stimulating interest as a means of further investigation.”