Bumbling towards salvation

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The Way of Life leads to perfection, but we often bumble and stumble as we follow it. Sometimes we may even veer off it. Whether we blunder or flat-out leave the Way of Life repentance is a necessary part of the Christian life.

Mastering yourself and not sinning is similar to mastering anything in that you will fail far more often than you succeed. Take greediness for example: you can probably progress from giving no financial support to your local church to giving a little, then to giving 10% of your income, then to giving even more than 10%. Going through these stages though will often involve failure, likely over the same things.

Specifically with greed one of the things to overcome might be the mindset that you are too poor to give something, or at least anything of consequence. So maybe you overcome this mindset by first realizing that you are not so poor that you cannot give at least a few dollars. Then maybe you also realize that the primary beneficiary of your giving is you, not the church because it helps you combat greediness. So, you go from not giving anything, to giving a little, to giving more and more.

Now, let’s say you go along doing this for a while but then for whatever reason you come into a financial crisis and no longer enjoy the income or financial stability you had before, what happens to your giving? Do you decrease to 5% of income from 10% of income? Or do you look for lifestyle changes you can make so that you can maintain the same percentage of giving? For instance, do you consider dropping some, or all, of your streaming subscriptions? Or do you decrease your giving so that you can indulge in whatever series you want to at anytime? Do you look for ways to eat more simply and plainly? Or do you give less so that you can still put cold smoked duck fat in your egg fried rice?

Most of us are decreasing giving. At least at first. Why? Because we haven’t actually mastered greed. We’ve made some steps towards overcoming it, like giving regularly to our local church, but we haven’t completely evicted it from our being. It’s still there, lurking, waiting for an opportunity to attack us again.

No matter how much progress we might make towards overcoming sin we’ll never achieve mastery over it (in this mortal body). Even if we were to master one passion, like greed, there are others that we will not master. It is because of our failure that repentance is a necessary part of the Christian life.

Lust is another desire that is difficult to master. After the prophet Nathan confronted David regarding his adultery with Bathsheba he (David) composed what is known today as Psalm 51. In that psalm we learn something of the nature of repentance: it involves both confession and reconciliation.

James Montogomery Boice [Psalms 42–106: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 431] provides a helpful outline of the psalm that I think will help us see the various aspects of confession and reconciliation:

  1. The approach to God, a cry for forgiveness (Ps 51.1–2)
  2. Confession of sin (Ps 51.3–6)
  3. An appeal for cleansing (Ps 51.7–9)
  4. Desire for inward renewal, creating of a pure heart (Ps 51.10–12)
  5. A promise to teach others the lessons he has learned (Ps 51.13–17)
  6. A concluding prayer for the prosperity of Zion (Ps 51.18–19)

The first 3 parts are all aspects of confession which I think will be readily recognized by most Christians. First, we need to actually approach God and address Him. Then we need to admit that we sinned. Finally, we need to ask to be forgiven, which is probably why we are confessing in the first place.

The final 3 parts, I think, will not be so recognized or their relation to repentance understood. As I’ve said in my article on salvation, sin is not the danger that Christianity claims to save people from. Death is the danger from which Christianity saves. The end of the Christian life is Eternal Life, that is being in communion with God and partaking in and participating in His nature and energies. It is this union that saves us, not living a sinless life.

This is why repentance requires more than just a confession and a forgiving of sins. All forgiveness does is cancel the debt that was owed, it does not stop someone from sinning. What we need is a way to stop sinning so that we can continue to partake of the divine nature [1Peter 1.3-4].

This is why David doesn’t stop at simply asking for forgiveness, but asks for a new heart [Ps 51.10]. He realizes how corrupt and sinful he really is and that if continues on this way he will ultimately be separated from God [Ps 51.11]. With his newly created heart [2Cor 5.17] then he once again has joy in following the commandments of God, the Way of Life.

So far everything has been personal and contained within ourself, but as they say, no man is an island. Our attitudes, outlooks, actions, words, etc all have an effect on others. Sometimes large and noticeable. Other times small and imperceptible. There is a large difference between a Christian who is miserable in their faith and one who is happy and joyous. A joyous Christian is described in Ps 51.13-17. They are, in one way or another, talking about it and telling others about it. This in turn results in others coming to faith and sharing in the same blessings that they are enjoying.

God offers us repentance because His ultimate desire for us is perfection and He knows that we will never reach that goal without being able to repent. Repentance is not a goal in itself, it serves the ultimate goal of perfection. Let us continue striving towards the goal. We will fail often, but God has provided us a way to get up and keep going. Keep going.

Photo by Phil Robson on Unsplash

Tom Ferguson ThM 2018, Dallas Theological Seminary