Accepting our Depravity
The Surprising Key to Christian Peace & Spiritual Success
This consists of extracts from some of my other writings. It’s a bit jumbled at present. I am working on tidying it up.
Though initially horrifying, knowing that I’m as evil as Stalin or Hitler or anyone you could name, has ended up becoming a cherished truth for me, freeing me from so much pressure. You are likely find my joy in this truth incomprehensible until you make the discovery yourself. I will try a couple of analogies, however, that might help you see how it is possible.|
Suppose you are hopelessly lost in a jungle, but haven’t yet discovered how dire your situation is. A rescue helicopter arrives, offering to winch you to safety. Accepting the offer would dent your pride. Which option would end in more peace and joy: swallowing your pride and accepting the offer, or wandering around aimlessly until dying of starvation?
For insight into another aspect of this, suppose you were enduring appalling hardship and danger, struggling to attempt something that is generally believed to be humanly impossible. The thought that thousands have tried and every one of them has failed would be so oppressive and discouraging that you would want to keep pushing that fact out of your mind. After you make it, however, this same fact that no one before you had ever done it would become an exciting truth that you savor for the rest of your life.
Likewise, human depravity is an unbearable truth, until viewed from the perspective of Christ’s victory and the purity that is now ours. If, instead of running from it and trying to live in denial, you embrace this truth, you will discover that what had seemed to be the ugliest of truths is actually strewn with the richest of treasures.
That might give you an inkling of how wondrously liberating it is for me to despise any foolish excuse I might find for thinking myself morally passable. I pooh-pooh the fact that I’ve never even had a speeding ticket. Instead, I glory in the truth that I am as guilty and as worthy of hell as any rapist-murderer and yet, through Christ, more innocent than any baby.
Christianity is not for escapists. God honors those with the courage to face truth head on. In Jesus’ famous words: the truth will set you free.
Run from your fears and they will terrorize. Face them and they will vaporize.
Does anyone think that to soar heavenward you must help a jumbo jet by pushing it? That is as nonsensical as people who think they have to help God in their quest to get to heaven.
We humans develop our own corrupt moral standards that allow us to label certain sins as ‘minor’ and ‘excusable.’ If we were drinking glasses, each of us would leak. Some of us might be in worse condition than others, but what difference does that make? Who would give a king a cracked glass? Nothing imperfect reaches God’s minimum standard. It’s an insult to God to suppose that even the most saintly person is good enough for God. In reality, earth has just two types of people: hopeless moral failures who cling to humanity’s only Savior, and hopeless moral failures who try to face eternity on their own. To abandon faith in oneself and put all one’s faith in Christ’s goodness is like stepping into a spacecraft. For even the nicest people to trust their own goodness is like them hoping they can reach the heavens by jumping high.
In the piercing eyes of the fearsomely holy Lord, even virgins who have never so much as touched anyone are so far from God’s standard of absolute perfection that they are defiled – like every other human not connected to Christ.
Isaiah 64:6 For we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteousness is like a polluted garment.
Carve that into the cortex of your brain. “All of us” – “all of us” – have become so defiled that even the greatest attempts of the most saintly person to do good is as repulsive as bodily filth.
So offensive to God are our highest moral attainments that, in the original Hebrew, Scripture resorts to an offensive expression to convey this shocking truth. Quite literally, without the slightest exaggeration, Isaiah is saying that even the noblest human attempts at morality are as soiled menstrual rags. To hold up to God, as if it made me worthy, my lifetime of sacrificial service or list of sins I have avoided, is as disgusting as proudly displaying my bodily filth.
Without Jesus, the best person is doomed; with Jesus the worse person is fanfared into heaven.
We have all been despicably evil, but only a few of us realize it, and the more we realize it, the more God longs to exalt us.
The Amplified Bible puts it this way:
Psalm 34:18 The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves those who have a crushed spirit. . . .
When overwhelmed by the gravity of our offenses, we may fear that God has left us, but he is actually closer than ever to us. While in this state, we can feel sure that God is angry with us when in reality he is brimming with tender compassion toward us. Like the lost sheep in Jesus’ parable, the Lord feels even more for anyone hurting over his or her sin than over countless ‘saints’ who, though special to him, are not hurting.
God can indeed be angry when we are in defiant rebellion against him, and yet even this is a manifestation of how important we are to him. As suggested in the book of Job, look up at the stars: are they moved from their place when you sin (Job 35:5-6)? It is only because he loves us that our sin affects God.
The Lord may have been upset, but the instant we move from defiance to sorrow over our sin, his heart melts.
The nicest non-Christian you’ll ever meet is of the devil, deceived, evil, and God’s enemy. Everyone not in spiritual union with Christ is dead to God. All of us have been in this terrifying predicament. To argue that one corpse is closer to being alive than another is ridiculous. Would you dare drag a corpse into a king’s presence? Would you say, “I think you should meet this man. You’ll get on well together. He’s such a good person. His corpse hardly smells at all”?
A person’s kindness, goodness and sacrificial love might be so astounding as to put to shame most Christians, but that person has still sinned and the wages of sin – one sin – one tiny infringement – is death.
Spiritually, we’ve all missed the boat. We are all in the same desperate situation, no matter whether we missed the lifeboat by thirty seconds, thirty minutes, thirty days, or thirty years.
Imagine a dozen murderers on death row, each despising each other and thinking themselves more moral than the others. That’s a picture of all of us until we come to our senses. Who of us has not, in a flash of anger or self-righteousness, wished someone were dead? That, insists Scripture, makes us murderers (1 John 3:15). There is no moral difference between someone who in a flash of anger wishes someone were dead, and someone who has a loaded gun in his hand at that critical moment. Someone who through fear of getting caught does not commit a crime is no more moral than someone who is braver and commits the crime. We need murder only once in our entire lives to be a murderer.
With the passionate thought being as evil as the deed (cf. Matthew 5:28), all of us are rapists, adulterers, sadists or murderers in the eyes of the Judge who will determine where we spend eternity. Whether we, or everyone on this planet, finds our offense excusable is irrelevant. Whether we like it or not, our Judge is divine. He does not judge by human standards. As the stars tower high above the earth, so are his standards, and the sooner we start thinking like he does, the better.
God’s standards shatter all distinctions.
For a surgeon about to operate, usual standards of cleanliness are hopelessly inadequate. You might be filthy and someone else walks off the street looking spotless, but by the standards the surgeon must maintain, both of you are equally untouchable. It can make no difference if the person approaching him is the love of his life or the most important or popular or respectable person in the world. Regardless of how special someone is or how clean by normal standards, a surgeon must not lower his standards. So it is with God. We might distinguish between sinners, but God cannot.
It is not to put anyone down that I expound the truth of everyone’s depravity. On the contrary, I do it because it is God’s longing that everyone reading this will be exalted, just as the tax collector humbly faced the seriousness of his sin and was divinely exalted above the highly respected Pharisee. I dare confront you with this truth because I want you exalted not merely in your own estimation but exalted by the Lord of all.
So let’s plunge into this icy truth that turns out to be the most exquisite warm spa.
God’s chosen priests, Nadab and Abihu, made an offering to God in a manner similar, but not exactly identical, to how the Lord had prescribed. They were not turning away from the Lord. They were not even ignoring him. They were worshipping him. And yet God struck them dead for making that offering (Leviticus 10:1-2).
Uzzah, seeing the Ark of God in danger of falling and being damaged, reached out in an instinctive, unpremeditated act to protect the Ark. God struck him dead for daring to touch the Holy Ark (2 Samuel 6:6-7).
Ananias and Sapphira sold their own property and generously gave not just a tithe of this considerable sum, nor even several times the value of a tithe, but such a huge percentage that they fully expected everyone to presume that it was the total amount. They, too, were struck dead (Acts 5:1-11).
Of course, many others have been slain by God, but I have focused on examples of particularly godly people. They were serving God. In fact, they were in the forefront of what God was doing, and not even that saved them. Whether, by the grace of God, any of these ended up in heaven is not for me to speculate. What is certain, however, is that not only did God slay them, he made a permanent record of the severity of his judgment. Clearly, the Judge of all humanity knows that the whole world needs to realize the blood-curdling gravity of what we are tempted to dismiss as trivial, excusable slips.
Instances like this show not the harshness of God, but his astounding patience toward every one of us who is still breathing. We must get it into our heads that it is not just ‘big’ sins that are terrifyingly serious. Our consciences are so callous that even much of what we think acceptable is actually defiled. Even things we think are acts of devotion to God are enough to send us to hell.
Like the disciples, we gasp, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’ answer rings through the centuries, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:25-26).
A person overwhelmed by guilt typically feels painfully alone, but the truth is that we are all floundering in the same spiritually catastrophic dilemma. No one but Jesus has ever reached God’s minimum standard for divine acceptance. For you to reach God’s standard is no more humanly impossible – and divinely possible – than for anyone else. Your sin is no more damning than anyone else’s sin. Your path to forgiveness is the same as anyone else’s.
God has powerfully used famous Christian leaders year after year while they were secretly conducting adulterous affairs until their sin was finally exposed. Nearly all of us are shocked when first hearing this. Our reaction exposes our spiritual blindness. The astounding thing is not merely that the Lord has used people regularly committing adultery; what is astounding is that he uses any of us. Probably, the most saintly Christians alive do things several times each day for which the Lord would be fully justified in striking them dead. All Christians are daily dependent upon the grace of God, even though most are as close to being as blasé about it as the Pharisee. Some of us struggle with addictions that horrify Christians. The rest of us struggle with sins that Christians excuse but horrify God. We must not judge anyone because all that does is prove our hypocrisy. We dare not abuse the grace of God. We must truly mourn our sins and fight them and crave total obedience to God.
If a building’s foundations have crumbled, it is no achievement to acknowledge that there are cracks in the wall and then start patching them. The entire building must be razed and rebuilt from scratch. Some people might think their effort to redecorate the building proves their high standards, when it merely proves their foolishness. So many people who think themselves Christians are like those who think that the building that will soon collapse is basically okay and just needs a bit of redecorating. Like that Pharisee, they are dangerously ignorant of how corrupt every one of us is.
All of us – not just those blessed with a tender conscience – are in the same chronic need of God’s forgiveness.
In the words of Jesus:
Luke 13:1-3 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all perish in the same way. . . .”
A cold-blooded murderer’s spiritual need is no greater than mine. If, however, that murderer is more aware of his sins that I am of my own, then I am the one in the more terrifying predicament.
If you are still only mildly convinced that by God’s standards no one is less sinful nor more sinful than you have been, I’ll have another shot at opening your eyes, but please go beyond my attempts and pray for a divine revelation.
“No one is perfect,” we glibly say. How serious would you rate the sin of sadistically devoting hour after hour after hour to torturing to death an innocent person? It was because I’m not perfect that the eternal King of kings, the darling of God’s heart, was tortured to death. My lack of perfection stripped him naked and publicly humiliated him. I flayed his flesh, mercilessly whipping the Innocent One, through whom the stars and flowers were made. My imperfection callously drove nails through the hands and feet of the One who has given me every good thing I have ever enjoyed. My sin did that. Dare I call it a minor sin? In the words of Peter, “You killed the author of life” (Acts 3:15). Oops! The Lord of lords is the indescribably majestic Being who alone keeps the entire universe from disintegrating (Hebrews 1:3). And my ‘insignificant slips’ killed this stupendous Being on whom everything in existence teeters! It is quite literally a miracle that the catastrophic event my sin instigated did not precipitate the annihilation of the entire universe. Dare I rate that as anything less than equal to the most atrocious offense in the universe?
Each of us has been monstrously evil. Self-righteous people despise this truth, but what offends the proud, comforts those who are overwhelmed by their own sin. This truth initially seems so devastating that most people spend their entire lives running from it. Those who dare face the truth head-on, however, eventually discover that it is actually one of the most exciting of truths.
The truth that every one of us deserves hell is the great leveler. That of itself is a great relief to the humble.
Most gossip and slander is an attempt to pull someone down to our own level. But anyone understanding the truth we have been exploring, realizes that without Christ, all of us are already on the same level. When the full implications hit, the pressure to slander, gossip and resent people vanishes, just as being given multiplied trillions of dollars would evaporate every temptation to steal or covet anyone’s money. But after leveling us, the Almighty exalts us far beyond our highest dreams until we are sharing God’s very throne. From there, all itching to put anyone down disappears. It is only insecure people haunted by feelings of inferiority who feel the ‘need’ to convince themselves that they are superior to at least some people.
It is a failure to comprehend that we are all equally defiled that keeps millions of people blackmailed into keeping guilty secrets – often from those who love them the most. They end up staggering through life feeling sickeningly alone and unloved and terrified that if ever their dirty secret were discovered they would be rejected and despised. Like a gangrenous wound slowly killing someone because he is too riddled with shame even to admit he needs medical help, so is a guilty past, until we make the liberating discovery that we have nothing to hide from each other because we are all equally defiled.
Spiritually, people aware of the hideousness of their sins are light years ahead of everyone else. Those who think themselves good are so deluded by their own pride that they are to be pitied. The humble know they have been abominably wicked, but if they accept Bible truth they know they are not alone. Everyone on this planet is in the same appalling predicament, and for each Christ offers the same glorious solution.
Humanity’s depravity throws the holy Lord into a horrific dilemma. The darlings of his heart – that’s you and me – are utterly unacceptable and should be eternally trashed. The Almighty has resolved this seeming impossibility by devising a way in which each of us can be re-made, thus completely undoing the effects of our sin and making us perfect.
If ‘small’ sins can condemn us to hell, then our eternity teeters on our willingness to repent not only of the sins we find inexcusable, but also on us repenting of sins we think excusable. For an example of a damnable sin we try to excuse, consider a refusal to pray God’s blessing upon those who have shamefully treated us. The despicable brutes who have hurt us are as worthy of hell as we are. (Remember, our sins tortured to death the Innocent Son of God.)
For forgiveness, we must act like the tax collector, in mourning our sins. But since ‘small’ sins are just as deadly as the ones that disturb us, for us to escape hell all our sins must be forgiven. It is therefore essential that we regret not only the sins we loathe but the sins we love.
The Lord freely pours his innocence upon all who want it. To want God’s innocence we must want God to deliver us – to rip from our lives – all sin. We must want to be rid forever from all sinful pleasure.
Suppose the Pharisee had been rushing to the temple. He turns a corner and does not see a toddler in the middle of the street before his donkey tramples the little girl to death. He enters the temple as hardened as ever over his sins but riddled with guilt over the death of the toddler. Do you expect him to be forgiven all the sins he is oblivious to, just because he is filled with remorse over an accident? In fact, he might focus so much on the accident that he is even less aware of his other sins. Only if the incident caused him to review his entire life and he repented of his self-righteousness would there be hope for him.
Distinguishing between ‘big’ sins and ‘small’ sins is largely a human invention devised by guilt-ridden sinners desperate to feel superior to certain other sinners. The same Jesus who was so gentle with those who regretted their sin was furious with hypocrites. To expect God’s forgiveness while we refuse to forgive someone is to tell God, “Do what I say, not what I do.” What could be more hypocritical? Despite all our protests, anyone we refuse to forgive is actually no more worthy of hell, and no less forgivable, than we are.
One sin we must want to be freed from is the sin of refusing to be as forgiving of others as we want God to be forgiving of us.
Matthew 6:15 But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Luke 6:36-38 Therefore be merciful, even as your Father is also merciful. Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Set free, and you will be set free. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you. For with the same measure you measure it will be measured back to you.
Luke 6:36-38 Therefore be merciful, even as your Father is also merciful. Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Set free, and you will be set free. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you. For with the same measure you measure it will be measured back to you.
The generosity or the miserliness of the measure we use to pour forgiveness on those who have hurt us is the measure God will use to forgive us. Like spitting into the wind, the way we treat others lands on our own head. If we treat others as unforgivable, that is how God will treat us.
Grace is not license to sin; it is license not to sin. It is freedom not just from the penalty of sin but from bondage to sin.
If it is an insult to God’s holiness to think anything substandard is good enough for God, it is an insult to his omnipotence to think that for God anything is beyond repair. Either God can restore you to holy perfection, or he isn’t God. And either he longs to make you as holy and perfect as he is, or he isn’t love.
One of the saddest things in marriage is when a man sees his wife as stunningly beautiful and is so in love with her that he can hardly contain himself but she shrinks from him because she sees herself as fat and unattractive. This is not just painful for the wife and ever so frustrating for the man who tingles with love for her, it is particularly sad because it is so unnecessary. He’s blessed with a wife he thinks is gorgeous and she is blessed with a husband who feels this way about her and neither get to enjoy this heaven-on-earth because she is too self-absorbed to delight in how exquisite she is in his eyes. Ideally, when she is alone with her beloved, all that should matter to her is his opinion of her, not how she fears others view her or how she sees herself. I know it is sometimes a difficult struggle for a woman to do this, but if only she could let go of her view of herself and see herself through her husband’s eyes, reveling in the fact that he sees her as beautiful, both of them could soar to unimagined heights of fulfillment and ecstasy.
Likewise, much in this stage of our spiritual life is devoted to learning to take our eyes off ourselves and centering them on God and his enjoyment of us. It is not easy. We tend to keep slipping back into looking at ourselves, rather than continually looking into God’s eyes. If we discipline ourselves to keep our focus on God, then if ever we see ourselves it is as we are, reflected in his loving eyes.
Since Jesus gives us moral goodness that no human could ever attain, it is pointless for us ever again comparing myself with others. We cannot look down on anyone because, were it not for Christ’s undeserved gift freely offered to us all, we would be as defiled as those we are tempted to despise. Neither can we think ourselves morally inferior to anyone, because Christ has clothed us in his perfection – and no one could ever surpass Christ’s perfection.
We need to seek divine help to be as merciful to others who deserve hell as God have been to us.
Without the Almighty, each of us is as useless as a brush without an artist. But together with him, we each can create divine beauty that will stun heaven and earth.
Most Christians try to exist in the dreary mediocrity of understanding pitifully little about the depravity of their past, nor the gloriousness of their present.
The Almighty’s standards are so exacting that for God to accept even the most saintly of us, would take no greater miracle than accepting the most depraved of us. When it comes to God delighting in any of us, the critical factor could never be what we have done; it must always be what the holy Son of God has done. He has absorbed all your shame in his own being and given you all his glory.
The King of kings accepts people not because of the smallness of their sins but because of the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice.
A man was offered a presidential pardon, but on the condition that he admit his guilt. That’s the ironical situation we find ourselves in. When we admit our guilt, God pronounces us innocent. If, on the other hand, we keep trying to convince ourselves that we are innocent, we will be tried for our every sin.
The only people with a smidgeon of morality are those appalled by their own sinfulness. Everyone else is so deluded as to be beyond hope, unless they, too, eventually become devastated by an awareness of their own depravity.
In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax man (Luke 18:10-14), I see the tax collector doing nothing except be devastated by the gravity of his sins, and desperately crying to God for mercy. If he went home justified, then I, too, am made just as if I’d never sinned, if I regret all my sins. If the devout, tithe-paying Pharisee could miss out because he trusted his own goodness, and the despicable, cheating tax collector won God-given holiness by abandoning faith in himself and trusting in your goodness, then divine holiness is mine, provided I stop considering myself better than sinners and follow the tax man’s lead.
Jesus reveals in this parable that some people are unforgivable. (That is not to say they could never change and hence become forgivable, but for as long as they act like the Pharisee they cannot be forgiven.) What renders them unforgivable is not the atrociousness of their sin – everyone would say the Pharisee was much less sinful than the tax collector. They miss out on forgiveness, simply because they think they have no need of further forgiveness, and so do not bother to ask for it.
What, for example, makes blaspheming the Holy Spirit unforgivable is not the magnitude of the sin, but the fact that it is believing that Jesus, the only Person who offers divine forgiveness, is in league not with the Spirit of God but with the devil. No one believing that Jesus is of the devil would dream of seeking God’s forgiveness through Jesus.
Whoever asks with faith in Jesus, receives. The Pharisee could never be forgiven in this life, nor the next, while he never bothered to ask for forgiveness. No matter how close to sinless a person is, he cannot be forgiven if he refuses to ask for forgiveness. No matter how many and how disgusting a person’s sins – including blaspheming the Holy Spirit – anyone can be forgiven if that person sincerely asks for it with faith in Jesus. Anyone doing this is no longer blaspheming the Spirit. (His faith in Jesus shows that he now believes Jesus is one with the Spirit of God). This change of heart means that he is no longer unforgivable.
Victories themselves become a critical test because, when looking at ourselves, instead of producing shame, can start producing pride, which is even more shameful. We must continue to focus on Jesus and as we do we will begin to cooperate with God in removing other imperfections in our lives that we had hardly noticed before.
We are saved not by our works but by a divine miracle. Jesus gave sick people the divine miracle of healing only because they wanted it. You might recall him questioning the sick to confirm that healing was what they really wanted (e.g. Luke 18:41; John 5:6).
If you were a thousand times more evil than your worst fears, it would not stop Jesus from making you blameless. However, if you were the most saintly person alive and you died thinking you did not need Jesus’ cleansing, you would rot for eternity in the stench of sins in your life that you were too reprobate to even notice.
Without exception, all of us are evildoers, but what infuriates God are evildoers who think they are better than other evildoers. Those who think they are good enough just because they seem to be in a bit better condition than some others are unlikely to see the absolute necessity of Jesus perfecting them. This is the most terrifying blindness because it has eternal implications.
When people see no great need of the purification that only Jesus can give, the Lord has no choice but to withdraw and leave them to try to work their own way out of hell into heaven, which of course is impossible. Their one hope is to come to their senses and admit that they are as worthy of hell as any and every person on this planet. If only they would humble themselves that way, the Lord would rush to exalt them.
We are all like people with cancer that will kill us unless we seek medical attention. Life’s most dangerous act is to live in denial of ‘sin cancer.’ When you are terminally ill, there is no comfort in saying, “His cancer looks worse than mine.” Only after admitting to ourselves that we have this ‘cancer’ will we seek life-saving treatment. So although this admission might initially seem depressing it is actually our passport to life and joy. Ultimately, it is denial that is scary and depressing. We must face the bad news – that we are terminally sin-sick – in order to enjoy the glorious news that we can be cured and overflow with vibrant health beyond our wildest hopes.
If ever the saying, “No pain, no gain” applied to anything, it applies to this.
This is why Jesus said blessed are they who mourn now (Luke 6:21,23). Everyone will mourn over his or her moral condition. The only difference between people is timing. Mourn now over your sin and you will find what Jesus offers and burst into purity and endless joy. Mourn too late, and you’ll mourn forever.
Ezekiel 6:6-9 In all your dwelling places the cities shall be laid waste, . . . The slain shall fall among you, and you shall know that I am the Lord. Yet will I leave a remnant, in that you shall have some that escape the sword among the nations, when you shall be scattered through the countries. Those of you that escape shall remember me among the nations where they shall be carried captive, . . . they shall loathe themselves in their own sight for the evils which they have committed in all their abominations. (Emphasis mine)
The ones to be envied are those who mourn while the joy of forgiveness is still on offer. Their mourning will turn into dancing; their sorrow into never-ending joy.
When you stand before your Judge he will not be interested in even hearing the charges. All that his penetrating eyes will see is whether you have clothed yourself with the righteousness of Christ – whether you are trusting Jesus’ purity for your approval, or whether you have the audacity to try to go it alone.
The only people who miss out – and tragically there are many – are those too arrogant to admit that they need Jesus’ purification or who refuse to believe he is powerful enough to make them pristine in God’s eyes.
Let’s try a parable. There was once a tiny nation in which everyone not in the king’s palace contracted food poisoning. They discovered that whenever people with this condition prepared food, they unavoidably contaminated it and spread the epidemic. Being unable to keep down contaminated food, and unable to prepare food without contaminating it, they were in a desperate predicament.
Alarmed by this, the king prepared from his own supplies a magnificent, endless feast to which everyone was invited. Protocol, however, demanded that no one could attend a royal feast without presenting the king with a highly prized delicacy that he would sample and then add to the banquet. Knowing that none of the invitees could provide uncontaminated food, the king himself, at great expense, provided everyone with food fit for a king that they could then give back to the king as their own gift.
Some despised the king’s free entry gift. Being too proud to accept it, they determined to pay their own way. So they prepared contaminated food and offered it to the king. You can imagine how the king felt about that!
Others were more noble in that they would not dare risk giving the king food poisoning but, having a low opinion of the king, they could not believe his generosity. They decided it was too good to be true that the king would accept the gift he himself had provided. So they refused to attend the feast and resigned themselves to starving to death. How do you think that made the king feel?
But some accepted the king’s generosity and, as the king had always intended, they gratefully gave his own gift back to him. Upon receipt of the gift, the king welcomed them into the feast where they were not only saved from starvation but enjoyed festivities beyond anything they had ever known.
To which group do you belong? Those offending the King of kings by offering him their contaminated good works? Those condemning themselves to dying of spiritual starvation and insulting the Lord of Glory by refusing to believe that by his sacrifice the Lamb of God has paid the entry price? Or those with the humility to accept Jesus’ payment and enter God’s magnificent feast?
Permit me to paraphrase two of Jesus’ teachings: The most important thing in life is to be in love with God, and the person who loves God most is the one most overwhelmed by the magnitude of his sin and yet realizes that God has erased every trace of it from heaven’s databanks (Scriptures).
Everyone is forgivable, not because what they have done is minor but because what Jesus has done is enormous. If God cannot forgive the world’s most depraved repeat offender or backslider who sincerely seeks forgiveness through Jesus, then God can forgive no one. It is never about whether anyone is lovable or forgivable, but solely about whether God is loving and forgiving. And since God is always loving and forgiving, that is all that matters.
Only if God himself were less than absolute perfection would his standards degenerate into relativism. Relative to you, someone might be less sinful, but from the stance of God’s perfection, all of us are utter moral failures, equally worthy of eternal damnation.
Even if we wrongly supposed that the moral difference between some of us is enormous, it would make no difference. The most distant star might be billions of times further away than the closest star, but it is impossible to jump up and touch either of them. Likewise, it matters not whether we are the most saintly or the most wicked people on earth, God’s standards are still infinitely beyond our reach.
We glibly say no one is perfect, but since perfection is the Holy Judge’s minimum standard, we’ve all missed our chance. If people miss the only flight to safety, it makes no difference whether some missed by far less than others. If none make it, the result is the same for the one who tried hard, as for the one who didn’t bother. When the wages of sin is death, there can be no consolation prizes. Nor can there be no greater penalty for a million sins. It takes no bigger miracle to resurrect one rotting corpse than another. For God to be able to save anyone, he has to be able to save you.
The tiniest sin is so horrendous in God’s eyes that if he can forgive anyone of the smallest sin, he can forgive anyone whose sins number in the trillions. And what is required is exactly the same – repentance and faith in the cleansing power of Jesus dying in your place.
There is a particularly tender place in my heart for people riddled with false guilt over the fact that a sexual predator molested them as a child. It is perfectly valid to insist that these victims of crime are suffering false guilt, because what happened was not their fault. I worry, however, when some Christians are content to only take this approach in comforting these dear people. It suggests there is no greater solution to guilt feelings than what a non-Christian could offer. The danger is that it implies that Christian survivors of abuse might not have been able to find the same peace had what they suffered been their own fault. It implies that Jesus is powerless to offer innocence in God’s eyes to some particularly wicked people who truly regret their past. Such a thought is a slur on the One who died for us all, and a failure to grasp how equally sinful we all are. Not only can little children find innocence in God’s eyes, but so can the world’s most sadistic serial killer who sees the error of his ways and wants Jesus to take all sin from him.
A Christian is someone who goes through life not thinking, “look at what I’ve done” (whether good or bad) but “look at what my Jesus has done.” With God, the issue is not what we can do for Jesus but what he has done for us. God is in the salvation business for what he can give, not for what he can get.
Some people mistakenly suppose God must be selfish to want his glory. What they forget is that God’s greatest glory is not his raw power or ability to force submission. God’s greatest glory is in displaying the extravagance of his love and flabbergasting his enemies by transforming into his princes and princesses earth’s most depraved, seemingly unredeemable human wrecks. As an antique restorer wins the greatest acclaim by transforming seemingly worthless pieces of junk into objects of beauty proudly displayed in mansions, so the more hopeless you seem, the more God yearns to win for both you and him the eternal acclaim that comes from beautifying you.
The apostle Paul was powerfully used of God not because his previous sins were minor but because he regarded himself as being the greatest of all sinners. God forgives people not because their sins are excusable; he forgives when they admit that their sins are inexcusable.
No one can stand in God’s holy presence except people willing to see themselves as having been hopelessly depraved morally and in desperate need of God’s mercy. Everyone coming to Jesus with this attitude is miraculously cleansed, because his faith is not in his own supposed goodness but solely in the goodness of God, who longs to purify us through Jesus. Having abandoned faith in his own morality, such a person is credited with Jesus’ moral perfection.
Isaiah 64:6 For we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteousness is like a polluted garment.
When reading this as a child I used to think of a mechanic’s dirty, smelly rags. Then I discovered that God was painting a picture far more repulsive than that and far more in keeping with the apostle Paul’s spiritual insights mentioned earlier. In the original language it is a reference to rags smeared with bodily filth. Our best efforts are infested with the disgusting maggots of pride, selfishness and impurity. To try to pass that off as righteousness is to insult God.
It is far, far better to be guilty of horrific sin and beg forgiveness, than to be so deluded as to imagine we could impress God with our ‘righteousness.’ The tax collector, overwhelmed by his sin, warmed the heart of God, and the Pharisee touting off to God his ‘good deeds,’ left God cold. Only one of them saw a desperate need to beg for mercy. Only one received it.
No matter how ‘good’ one has been, anyone imagining his life is morally passable, is lying to himself and to God. To be purified of every trace of sin, all we need do is stop trying to excuse ourselves as if our sins did less to send Jesus to the cross than the sins of the vilest criminal. It is essential that we put our trust, not in our ability to justify our actions, but in Jesus’ power to win our pardon by taking our place on death row.
By ‘the law,’ the Bible means God’s standards as outlined in the very Word of God, preserved in the Old Testament. This is far superior to our self-made morality, and yet it still fails to put us right with God.
It says, ‘There is no difference’ – whether God-fearing Jew or idolatrous pagan, tithe-paying Pharisee or money-grubbing tax collector – ‘for all have sinned . . .’ We keep thinking there must be a difference. God keeps insisting there isn’t. You are breaking the same Ten Commandments – the same divine set of laws – when you covet as when you murder. The wages of sin is death, whether it is a ‘respectable’ sin such as abusing our God-given body through overwork, or a sin society thinks is despicable. And once you are dead, you cannot get any deader.
Instead of ‘you who pass judgment,’ the King James Version says, ‘whosoever thou art that judgest.’ This more accurately reflects the Greek by better bringing out the fact that this truth applies to every person.
This Scripture sends us reeling in shock. How can it be that whatever sin we accuse someone of committing, we ourselves are guilty of? We suppose there are many sins we have not committed, and yet our presumption of innocence merely highlights what deluded hypocrites we are. To wish someone dead is to murder. To dress in the hope of sexually arousing someone who might not want those feelings is to rape. To keep back part of your tithe is to steal from God (Malachi 3:8). King Saul let his soldiers hold on to some of the livestock God told them to destroy. Though they claimed this was for the noble reason of sacrificing the animals to God, the Lord declared it rebellion against God and therefore the equivalent of witchcraft (1 Samuel 15:23). To be greedy is to worship an idol (Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:5).
My desire – and God’s desire – is to not condemn you, but to bring you to the point of surrender so that you can cease the endless struggle to justify yourself, or feel inferior or superior to others, and simply accept divine forgiveness in all its wonder and endless scope. This is one of life’s most liberating and exhilarating experiences.
Galatians 5:4 You are alienated from Christ, you who desire to be justified by the law. You have fallen away from grace.
When the Bible speaks of human attempts to justify ourselves, it usually means our vain attempts to offset our past moral lapses by doing good. This is utterly doomed to fail for many reasons. An obvious one is that any good we do now, we should have been doing throughout the past, as well as now. So nothing we do subsequently can counteract our past failures. Only Jesus could pay our debt to justice because only he had no debt of his own.
However, in our secular society, we commonly use the term justify in the slightly different sense of trying to excuse our past. It is this common meaning that I particularly want to focus on.
Once we gain even a shallow insight into the extent of our guilt, it quickly becomes nearly impossible to bear. We find ourselves with an almost overwhelming need to try to shift the blame. That leaves us with essentially two options. We can try to make other sinners take blame for our own sin, which will ultimately get us nowhere, or we can accept the staggering offer of the sinless Son of God taking our blame upon himself, suffering as if he were guilty so that we could get off scot-free as if we were innocent.
We have a choice. We can say, “My bad behavior was justified because of my atrocious upbringing, or the person I sinned against deserved it, or I couldn’t help myself, or because there are other people who are even ‘worse’ ”. Or we can choose to jettison that approach and say, “I am not justified by my actions or circumstances; I am justified (make innocent in God’s eyes) solely because Jesus bore the penalty that my sins deserve.”
Self-praise, they say, is no recommendation. To justify ourselves is as valuable as stale air. For Jesus to justify us, however, is profoundly significant. It means the eternal, holy Son of God declares us innocent.
We can try to justify ourselves, which will never allow us to be accepted by God, or we can let Jesus justify us, which will make us fully accepted by God. But we can’t have both, any more than we could be on a train to hell and at the same time on a train to heaven. If there were a literal train to glory and a train to damnation, they would be speeding in opposite directions. To be on one involves leaving the other. Likewise, justifying ourselves is the exact opposite of Jesus justifying us. We usually try to justify ourselves by excusing our sin; we are justified by Jesus, however, by fully admitting our sin.
To try to justify our past is to torture ourselves by trying to dream up lame excuses that would be laughed out of court when we meet our Maker.
Right now, we decide how God will judge us when we stand totally exposed before his Throne. We can through faith enter into a relationship with Jesus that makes us one with the holy Son of God, allowing us to ask God to judge us as if we were Jesus himself. Or we can abandon that option and put our faith solely in our ability to talk our way out of the guilt of every sin we have ever committed; trying to convince the all-knowing Lord that we have always been sinlessly perfect. What little faith we must have in Jesus’ ability to forgive if we still see the need to ease our consciences by trying to excuse our past! Feeling the need to justify ourselves indicates that we have not yet grasped the magnitude of divine forgiveness. When at last we see it, the result will be profound, liberating, and life-transforming.
We have already seen how what makes the apostle Paul, the former Pharisee, so spiritually different from the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable is that Paul finally reached the point where he wanted to be found on Judgment Day having no moral achievements that he could claim as his own. Jettisoning every act of devotion others might boast about, he staked his eternal destiny solely on the right-standing with God that Jesus offers everyone who trusts him for it.
Had he chosen to, Paul could have pointed to decade after decade of sacrificial devotion, prayers, fasts, financial giving, Scripture memorization, prestigious scholastic achievements in biblical studies, and meticulous attention to obeying God’s every command. Instead, he counted it all as stinking, stomach-turning animal waste.
Not only was he born to the right family, he was renowned as a highly qualified and respected theologian and Bible scholar. He followed God’s Word to the letter from childhood; his whole life devoted to serving God. And yet if challenged as to why he should go to heaven, he regarded all his clean living and sacrificial devotion and prayer and tithing and training and reputation and position among the cream of the religious elite of God’s chosen people, as being so much trash. When he stood before the x-ray eyes of the fearsome Judge of all humanity, he would sooner display his own bodily filth as hold up any of these as reason why Almighty God should accept him. He was resolute in this determination to put all his eggs in one basket and, on that fateful day when his eternal destiny hangs in the balance, ditch all his qualifications and declare, “Lord God, my one and only hope of your acceptance is that the holy Son of God died for me, the chief of sinners.” (Scriptures)
With more reason than almost anyone on the planet, Paul used to pride himself on his moral achievements. Then he encountered the terrifying holiness of Jesus and the unattainable beauty of his goodness. Suddenly, in the brilliance of Jesus’ purity, his own attempts at righteousness looked repulsive. Then he discovered that he could be credited with everything that Jesus has done, simply by asking for it in faith. No wonder Paul wanted credited to his account not the slightest good that he had ever done. To try to be credited with both Jesus’ righteousness and one’s own would be like being given sparklingly pure water and mixing it with one’s own filth.
What separates people spiritually is not how much they have sinned but how much they abandon faith in themselves and cling to Jesus as their Savior. We dare not dissipate our faith by trying to hedge our bets. All our faith must be in Jesus alone. We must avoid putting even a microscopic speck of faith in our own devotion or in the presumption that there are others even more sinful. Our certain but sole hope of gaining God’s approval is that on the cross Jesus swapped places with us.
Trashing as pathetically inadequate and unacceptable his every effort to please God, he staked everything on the conviction that nothing but the purity that comes through sheer faith in Jesus could render him acceptable to the Holy Judge. He insisted on putting all his eggs in the one basket. That’s what saving faith is all about.
People who think themselves good, are in grave spiritual danger. They want to hold on to all their acts of kindness and good deeds, proudly displaying to God ‘moral achievements’ that impress them, but in the eyes of the Holy Lord are imperfect and hence as repulsive to the Perfect One as bodily filth (Isaiah 64:6). A groundless, divinely-offensive pride – a preference for their attempts to do good over God’s free gift of righteousness – is why Jesus told the chief priests and the elders, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31).
We have just two options: present God with the perfection of Jesus’ purity, or present him with our defiled attempts. Guess which option impresses God!
Consider this scenario: Saint Paul dies and the first thing he sees is an angel who says, “Welcome, I’m Uriel. Like everyone, you must face the Judge to be sentenced to hell or ushered into heaven. I’ve been appointed to build your case for the defense. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you how vital it is that we get this right. We don’t have long, so let’s get right into it. Could I have your name, please?”
“Saul of Tarsus, but everyone calls me Paul.”
“Wow! You’re the great apostle Paul? What an honor to meet you, Sir! Could I have your autograph when we’ve finished? Anyhow, we’d better get on with this. On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your moral achievements?”
“Ha! Ha! Sorry, Paul. It must be your accent. For a moment there I thought you said minus ten!”
“That’s right. Minus ten.”
“Oh, dear! We’ll have to work out how to present this in the best possible light.”
“Forget it. I don’t want the life I’ve lived taken into consideration.”
“My sole defense is that Jesus died for me.”
“But Paul! We have only one shot at this! We need the best possible defense.”
“Jesus died for me. That’s it! I have nothing else to offer.”
“Well – er – um let’s try another tack. There are so many common sins that almost everyone has committed but you haven’t. Let’s . . .”
“Forget it. Alongside the perfection of Jesus, my best efforts are garbage. Nothing in my life will impress the Almighty except that Jesus died for me and has handed me his righteousness.”
“But what about all the imprisonments, deprivations and torture you’ve suffered for Jesus’ sake?”
“Suffering for Jesus was an undeserved honor. Yes, I believe the Lord is so gracious that I’ll be eternally compensated for anything I’ve suffered, but as far as escaping hell is concerned, the only suffering that counts is what Jesus suffered for me.”
“Paul, I hate to bring this up but we’ll need an exceptionally strong case. After all, you realize, don’t you, that you’ll have to plead guilty to torturing Christians, trying to get them to blaspheme. That’s a horrific offense, and with all your learning we can hardly plead ignorance . . .”
“Yes, I am guilty. I deserve hell a million times over, but Jesus died for me.”
“So that’s it? You’re staring at eternity in hell and that’s your only defense?”
“Congratulations, Paul! I knew you’d pass! It’s going to be great having you in heaven! Would you be willing to give me your autograph?”
Just as we cannot find salvation by dividing our faith between Jesus and false gods, so we dare not divide our faith between Jesus and our own attempts to please God. It would be a recipe for spiritual disaster to try to hedge your bets by placing some of your faith in the unique power of Jesus’ sacrifice to make you acceptable to the Holy Lord and some of your faith in your own efforts. It’s those who have abandoned faith in their own efforts to be holy who are destined for spiritual greatness and divine perfection, provided they go all the way by putting all their faith in the life-transforming power of what the Innocent One achieved by letting himself be tortured to death.
Not to be sold. © Copyright, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2020 Grantley Morris. May be freely copied in whole or in part provided: it is not altered; this entire paragraph is included; readers are not charged and it is not used in a webpage. Many more compassionate, inspiring, sometimes hilarious writings available free online at www.net-burst.net Freely you have received, freely give. For use outside these limits, consult the author.
Bible Versions Used
King James Version
King James Version