May 31, 2017

Be merciful to me, a sinner . . .

Sometimes self-righteousness looks pious. Way back when I was a new Christian, I met a man who claimed to be sinless. He sincerely believed it because he thought being sinful was an insult to the saving power of the Gospel. His claim made me feel as if I was not a Christian. Only later did I find these verses:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us . . . . If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8 and10)

I hesitate to judge this man, yet am able to judge his doctrine based on what the Bible says. Being a Christian does not mean being sinless.

This week, I heard a different version of the same idea. In a Bible study, one person noted that these days, confession of sin seemed a rare part of prayer. After many others commented, I said that I firmly hold to the verse between the two verses quoted above, even thinking it is the most important verse in the Bible for spiritual growth and well-being. It says:

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

I also said that keeping short accounts with God about specific sin makes it much easier to pray with clarity and with knowledge of His will. It also seems the best way to finally be rid of those sins that we keep doing, because each confession of what I did eventually brings me to the root of why I was doing it. Once that was acknowledged to God, the problem disappeared, resulting in a wonderful freedom.

However, one person said, “I believe all my sin is forgiven: past, present, and future. When I pray, I don’t confess sin, and don’t even think about myself. I just pray about the needs of others.”

My first thought was that maybe my theology about confession is in error, or I’ve been self-centered in the practice of confession, too concerned about my relationship with God. After a while, the Holy Spirit put this parable from Jesus in my mind:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14)

The temptation to be ‘thankful that I’m not like’ those who boast of their spiritual piety is often strong, yet I know that in my flesh is no good thing. Confession is denying those kinds of temptations and feeding my soul with truth, even if sin is hard to admit. It is part of moving forward, of becoming more like Jesus.

That said, forgiveness is complete. God gives His children all we need to live the way He wants us to live. Our part is to simply do it, putting sin aside.

“His divine power has granted to me all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called me to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to me his precious and very great promises, so that through them I may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, I must make every effort to supplement my faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are mine and are increasing, they keep me from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of my Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, Elsie, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall." (2 Peter 1:3–10, personalized)

Because of God’s grace, I am in Christ Jesus. He is my wisdom from God, my righteousness and sanctification and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30). The Christian life is about growing up into what I already am, about living like Jesus instead of being governed by my fleshy nature. I’m to put off the old, put on the new. It has been my experience that confession is like taking off old clothes. As 1 John 1:9 says, when I confess, He forgives and cleanses. That ‘already but not yet’ reality brings me closer to what I already am.

Oh, my Lord Jesus Christ, confession of sin, particularly specific things like doubt, frustration, complaining, envy, and so on, always brings me into deeper communion with You. Confession is both humbling and freeing. It says You are right in Your evaluation of sin, but it also invites You to deal with the sin and bless me with a greater desire and ability to say no to those temptations. I am not thrilled to be in this battle, but I am thrilled by the joy and peace that comes with keeping short accounts. I’m also thrilled that Your Word has answers to all doubts and challenges to the faith You have given me.

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