In our Christian experience, we strive for perfection, but we honestly admit we are a universe away from it. Our inability to live up to God’s standards can lead us to feel we can no longer benefit from divine forgiveness, at least not until we prove strong enough not to give into the sins we are battling.
Before moving across the ocean, Levi, my sister’s son (who I’ve always thought of as my own, too), stayed in our home for almost a year. Levi was like quicksilver: never in the place you saw him a couple of minutes (or seconds) before and always up to new mischief. I cannot remember exactly what he had done on the day I’m telling you about, but I know his last mischief caused me to have an urgent need for a breath of fresh air. Since one cannot go out into our backyard just to breathe, I lingered a bit longer, because there was always something to do no matter which way I turned. Meanwhile, a suspicious silence descended on the house, one that most probably announced trouble. No door was opened, no tiny voice asking to be let out was heard and no blonde head emerged at the window, eager to test the outside temperature. Stressed by the unusual quietude, I hurried into the house where I found Levi playing quietly on the carpet.
I noticed that his face was redder than usual, so I asked him in amazement if he had been crying. Levi contritely confirmed that he had and while I was trying to figure out what might have happened, he gave me the last explanation I expected: “I thought you would never forgive me.” I felt I must be such an awful aunt, if something in my gestures or words might have conveyed this horrific message.
As I hugged him I felt my heart change, from suspicion and frustration there was now just a stream of love and pain for the unjustified but real sorrow of this tiny little person. How could a human heart not forgive a child’s mistakes, no matter how irritating or reckless, or how sure you are that they would be repeated?
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” (Matthew 7:9-10), asked Jesus, thus opposing the lightness of human kindness to the authentic kindness of our Father in heaven, who will “give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11).
We know God loves us and forgives our confessed mistakes, but there are occasions when we shy away from asking for forgiveness because we feel unworthy and unsure we will be forgiven, since we’ve slipped into mistakes which we have already had to confess God knows how many times before. No matter how much commotion our feelings stir up, the reality is they cannot say anything credible regarding our status before God. Forgiveness, sin, and Christian sanctification are subjects in which God has the last word, and He has already made known to us in His letter all that we need to know.
The way Jesus treated sinners
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2)—this was one of the accusations frequently tossed around by the Pharisees during Jesus’ public ministry. Although they did not realise it, the truth hidden in the message which they were using to try to denigrate Him was, in fact, the best news humans have ever received: a God who did not avoid sinners, but sought them, healed them, forgave them and gave them the opportunity to start over.
Jesus was a guest in Zacchaeus’ house, someone who was considered very sinful by his fellow citizens because he was in charge of the publicans, notorious for corruption. This was not a mere courtesy visit. “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9), declared Jesus, thus confirming that there is hope for any sinner if they accept Jesus into their heart and home. Among His twelve disciples, Jesus also called a publican. He forgave the sins of the woman caught in adultery, and stopped at the well for a discussion of eternal impact with a Samaritan woman—one who was no paragon of virtue.
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10) and none of the lives who let themselves be touched by Him ever stayed the same.
Saints who sin
It seems natural for Jesus to forgive those who are living buried in sin and to recover the lost, but how does He relate to the sins of those that already know Him, who have been converted and have partnered with Him in His mission of salvation?
Mark, the evangelist, recounts a moment which took place close to Jesus’ crucifixion. When He arrived in Capernaum, Jesus asked the disciples a simple question which none of them hurried to answer: “What were you talking about to each other on the way?” The truth was they had been fighting, trying to establish who among them was more important in the kingdom they thought Jesus would soon establish. Since they knew well that such a discussion was inappropriate among them, they even slowed down so they could stay behind Jesus, hoping He would know nothing about the disputes going on between them.
This incident answers a very practical question, writes pastor Morris Venden: “Is it possible for saints to sin? Is it possible to sin, to know that you are sinning (…) and still be a Christian?”
The disciples knowingly made themselves guilty of the sin of pride, and their sin was in painful contrast to their Teacher’s humility. He was about to give His life for them. To explain this behaviour by saying they were not converted is erroneous, writes Venden, reminding us that they had taken part in a mission that was not entrusted to unbelievers—to cast out demons, to cure lepers and to resurrect the dead. Furthermore, Jesus told them they have a solid reason to rejoice, because their names are written in Heaven (Luke 10:20).
Even if they consciously made a mistake (which they would repeat at the last supper, when none of them offered to wash each others’ feet), Jesus forgave them, just as He forgave Peter, even though Peter had denied his Saviour with curses during Jesus’ most tormenting hours of suffering.
Jesus proclaimed two truly good pieces of news about forgiveness in His conversation with the woman caught in adultery, brought before Him by the religious leaders to be stoned to death. “Neither do I condemn you,” is the first good news, and the second, even better, is found in His command: “Go now and leave your life of sin.” Explains Venden: “Only the one who is loved and accepted even when he still makes mistakes, only he can stop making mistakes.” This is because, in this journey towards maturity, Jesus walks alongside us, forgiving us and strengthening us.
Perfection: a tangible goal?
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This is a request formulated by Jesus himself, which seems unattainable by human beings with a sinful nature. This verse is often applied in a scolding manner to other people’s imperfections, but it can easily become a source of discouragement for those who know well how often they need to bow down and confess their weaknesses and sins.
In fact, writes Tom Shepperd, New Testament professor at Andrews University, it is easy, under pressure from an apparently unattainable standard, to give up discipleship altogether or to relativise perfection’s demands, like the author of the Didache, in the second century: “If you can carry God’s yoke alone, you will be perfect; but, if not, do what you can.”
After explaining the message of the Sermon on the Mount, whose conclusion is the commandment from Matthew 5:48, Shepperd analyses the meaning of the term “perfect”. Even before the call to perfection, Jesus underlines the antithesis between a God who loves both the good and the bad impartially, and those who, like the pagans, love only those who love them in return.
In this context, perfection has to do with extending love beyond our group’s borders, until even our enemies are touched by it.
In His sermon on the mount, Jesus equates perfection with moral purity which should characterise not only our concrete actions but also our thoughts and feelings, where the seeds of sin are planted.
In fact, in Matthew 5:48, the term used for perfection is teleios, which means “perfect, flawless, complete, fully developed, mature, something that reached its purpose”. The Christian’s life is a journey which has as its goal and destination Heaven, and Jesus’ command asks us to complete this journey alongside our Guide and to remain, step by step, in His will, concludes Shepperd.
What do we do with our repeated sins?
During his monastic life, Martin Luther fought terribly to obtain forgiveness for his sins, using fasting, tormented hours of prayer, pilgrimages and even self-flagellation as means to obtain divine favour. According to his testimony, if someone could have earned heaven by penitential acts, he would have been one of the most likely candidates. In the end, after terrible discouragement, Luther felt at peace after reading the words the apostle Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans: “The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17).
People who resemble Martin Luther believe that God cannot accept them if they still give into temptation, and this is a clue to the fact that they believe their scrupulous obedience is what recommends them before Him.
However, the Bible clearly declares that “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (Romans 3:20). Although the Law’s role is to point us to the sin in our life, salvation is not the fruit of its keeping. God follows another criterion on which He bases His acceptance of us, namely, the righteousness He offers (Romans 3:21). We do not have a righteous life to present to God, therefore His solution is to place in us the righteousness of Jesus’ life. “Christ’s character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned,” explains writer Ellen White. This completely undeserved gift is received, according to the apostle Paul, by faith. We must believe that once we are at peace with God, Christ’s perfection is also ours.
Sins that persist even after conversion are a thorny problem, especially for those who believe that their relationship with God is annulled each time they sin. This yo-yo religion, brings frustration and discouragement, writes Moore, emphasising that defeating a sin takes time, victory being rarely instantaneous. We are tempted to believe that God no longer accepts us when, after a few battles won, we suffer shameful defeats. It is true that God wants us to grow and rid ourselves of our mistakes and not to remain under their dominion. At the same time, even if we had already managed to defeat all sin, the feeling that we are now finally accepted by God would be a deceitful one.
“God’s acceptance of us will always and forever depend on Christ’s victory over sin, not ours,” Moore points out. In support of this, he quotes the words of the apostle Paul: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” These verses show that God does not reject us each time we sin, but continues to give us His righteousness, including when we stumble in this experience of walking with Him.
A daily relationship with Jesus, by praying and studying the Word, will surely transform our characters, writes Morris Venden, mentioning that our role is to remain in this relationship and not set up a calendar of our growth.
The secret to a successful Christian life lies, therefore, not in a tense effort to overcome sin, but in a solid trust in the One who has already overcome it.
The process of plant growth teaches us something essential about our own spiritual growth, writes Ellen White. Plants do not grow as a result of their preoccupation, but because they receive water, light, food and all they need to develop from the environment. “What these gifts of nature are to animal and plant, such is Christ to those who trust in Him.”
This is a message that helps us “have peace with God” (Romans 5:1) at any stage of our experience, concludes pastor Philip Dunham, explaining that Christ is all we need, because, although it needs our collaboration and choice, our growth still remains His responsibility. Everything, from forgiveness to perfection, is God’s gift. That’s why we can say: “When I try, I fail. When I trust, He succeeds”.
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.