Allow me to paint a picture for you:
I knew a man in my old neighborhood. He was an old leathery-faced balding biker with facial tattoos. He was the kind of guy that when you saw him, and his scowl heading in your direction, you thought about crossing the street, just in case. I met him at my old church’s neighborhood food pantry. Once you got to know him, you found out his wasn’t that bad. He was headstrong and had a temper sometimes, but he could also be quite sweet in some ways. He was also drunk or high around us too many of those times to count.
Including on Sundays.
Eventually, on occasion, he would come to church, sit way in the back and listen to the worship. If you glanced his way, you’d be surprised to see this old biker guy with tears in his eyes. He’d always leave at the end of worship, that was enough church for him, but not before leaving a couple of dollars on the pastor’s chair up front. I don’t think he was trying to buy his way into heaven. I do think for a guy that had so many struggles and temptations to overcome, it was the best he could muster as an outward expression repentance and worship. He didn’t get it like so many of us armchair theologians do. But I believe he still got it in a raw, unpolished way. He passed away a few years ago, never seeming to gain a true and continuous earthly victory over all his issues, but I do believe he rests with the Lord today, finally free of the curse of all his struggles with sin.
For all our best efforts, like my friend, we all struggle with sin. Maybe not to that extent, but the struggle, and at times failure, is there. Most of us hide it better than we care to admit. I know I do. It’s not easy to admit to those failings, because along with it, we must admit, at least to ourselves internally, that we doubt and fear over those failures.
Should we have more victories over our sin? Probably. But can we be honest, and admit that we don’t have as many as we’d like? For me, it can take the smallest infraction to bring guilt and condemnation.
I’ve been a Christian long enough to know that part of the reason I doubted and feared over my failure is because much of the “proof” of my Christianity was built around getting better and looking better. Experience has shown me that building my faith on self-improvement was not just a burden, but was dangerous to my faith. Despairing over my sin, which is not necessarily a bad thing, only doubled and tripled when I’d consider if I were really in the faith because of it.
Therefore, as important as it is to remember that Jesus died for us, we also must remember that he lived for us as well. We love to look to and reflect on the cross, where all our sins are cast, and we should! The cross is one of our most important symbols to remind us that God came down, dwelled with us, died for us, because he loved us, and wanted to save us.
But I also needed to remember that he lived for us too. Not just to prove his divinity, which it did, but to give us something back at the cross, in that great exchange.
His perfect life.
He lived a perfect life, a sinless life. That was only possible as the Son of God. We see that and know it affirms who he is. But then he trades it away to us. He takes our sin heavy lives, burdening himself with all our shame and failure. We in return, are draped with a feathery lightweight garment of righteousness. That garment is an added and secure hope, that when God sees us, even at worst, it’s as righteous.
They’ll probably never be a full day that goes by, where we won’t struggle and despair over our sin. Again, not a bad thing to be honest. You might even see it as a kind of a marker for your faith, whether weak or strong. But we should never despair over whether we are no longer God’s own. We should never worry that we’ve fallen out favor in that way. The sin is already paid for, and already exchanged for Christ’s righteousness. Despair and war over your sin, please! But be secure in that you’re not warring over your eternal position. This is where the great exchange helps me.
I believe, when we sin and struggle, not if, but when, we are encouraged to know that our sins are paid for at the cross, and it’s equally encouraging to know that when we do sin, because of Christ’s righteousness applied to us, God still sees us as holy and acceptable.
As a final thought, if you’re like me and still struggle to trust in that truth at times, consider the story of the prodigal.
As he was on his way home, humbled by life, the rehearsed words of his repentant heart never had the opportunity to be spoken. The father, running toward him, had already forgiven him. I’d say he’d restored his position as son, but I think all the father’s actions leading up to that moment, showed that he never lost it in the father’s sight.
Hopefully, that’s something to be encouraged by.
A theological misfit landing in the area of Lutheranism, Dominick has come to deeply appreciate the truth of scripture as defined by the distinction between Law and Gospel. He has found freedom in knowing that Christ is his substitute on even his worst days. He has been for the course of his church life everything from chair-stacker to men's ministry leader. He is blessed with a wonderful wife and two great young men, which he can say without a doubt, he doesn't deserve. He counts among his favorite things: Star Trek, classic superhero comics, movies, Yankees and yes, he admits to it, the Knicks. He enjoys a good conversation and good food. Finally, he is grateful for the opportunity to share the message of God's Grace among all these great teachers, pastors and theologians and hopes he doesn't mess up big time. But then again, that's what grace is for, right?