We can only know God well by knowing our iniquities… Those who have known God without knowing their wretchedness have not glorified him, but have glorified themselves. (Blaise Pascal)
I can remember back to when I accepted Jesus as my Savior. For me there is a specific moment when I came to the realization that I needed saving. I had grown up believing in Jesus – that he is the Son of God who gave up his life for my sins. And as a child and young adult I would ask him every Sunday at worship to forgive my latest round of sins. But I didn’t think, back then, that I need to be saved, on a daily basis, from myself. I simply thought about the sins that needed forgiving and not about what was producing those sins with great regularity.
But one day, thirty-one years ago, I came to the realization that my problem wasn’t just my sins. It finally dawned on me there was something about my make-up that would keep on producing sin after sin after sin – and that’s what I needed to be saved from. My sins were simply evidence of a much larger existential problem that plagues every human being: we can’t stop ourselves from sinning.
Most people think of sin in terms of an action (or thought) that breaks one of God’s laws. But the law-breaking is simply an outward manifestation of an inward disposition. Sin is not a momentary lapse in judgment in an otherwise decent life. It is a way of life that is common to every human being because all of us are naturally self-centered and self-serving. We’re all born this way. It’s just that some of us are more successful in masking or controlling this pervasive problem than others. The “decent” person is simply someone who is better able to deflect their innate sinfulness with occasions of thoughtfulness and good deeds.
Exerting a little will-power is not the cure for this universal human condition. For instance: have you ever resolved to be more patient and understanding with a co-worker who is tiresome and annoying? Or, have you tried to be more generous and forgiving toward a family member who is chronically critical and unappreciative? Regardless of how determined you are in situations like these, your resolve is not enough to overcome your inner disposition. Your best hope can only be to postpone the inevitable for a while. Your innate selfishness will always rear it’s ugly head eventually, and undo your resolve, and taint your thoughts and actions.
The apostle Paul expressed his frustration over this dilemma in his letter to the Romans: “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.” (7:18b-19). He goes on to say, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
This universal condition, called “Sin,” is something we all need to be rescued (or delivered) from. And only Jesus Christ, God’s sinless Son, can save us from ourselves. Only when we give up the project of trying to overcome our sinfulness with our own efforts – and instead accept our need to be saved – can the grace of Jesus Christ begin to rework and transform our innate selfishness. Jesus is the only cure for what ails humanity.
The disquieting truth about sin is that the convicted felon in state prison and the successful executive in his top-floor corner office are both equal before God in their need for salvation. The apostle Paul sums it up this way, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23). The severity or amount of sins is not the problem that must ultimately be addressed. It’s the inward disposition, called sin, which no one can transform on their own. All the goodness and good deeds of Mother Theresa came not from her own determined efforts, for she was a sinner just like the rest of us, but as a result of the grace of Jesus Christ at work in her. This transforming grace is available to anyone, convict and nun alike, who confesses their need to be saved and turns to Jesus and accepts him as their only hope for salvation.
When I came to terms with my sinfulness, many years ago, it was such a relief to discover the Cure for my problem had been right by my side all along. He had been patiently waiting for me to reach a point where I could admit the truth about myself. As I confessed my sinfulness I was simultaneously overcome by a profound sense of his unconditional and unfailing love. The good news I discovered is that Jesus did not die on the cross to condemn or humiliate me, but to set me free and give me abundant life in his name (John 10:10).
But I had to learn the hard way that in order for his abundant life to take hold, submission to Jesus must go hand in hand with accepting him as my Savior. More about this in my next installment of Losing Control.
Next week: Can Jesus be your Savior without being your Lord?