A Reprieve from the Governor
By David B. Smith
iBelieve: The Great Protestant Pillar | PDF Version
Sometimes we have to make do with sermon illustrations that are less than “spot on.” The Innocence Project, headed up by attorney Barry C. Scheck, has spent twenty years working to overturn wrongful prison sentences. So far, eighteen innocent prisoners on Death Row have been exonerated by their diligent efforts and recovery of exculpatory DNA evidence.
Imagine the flood of relief when a person is released from the fear of a countdown to their own D.O.E. — date of execution! But even more, we should each try to understand the inexorable joy that comes if we are actually guilty of a crime and yet find ourselves leaving prison as free men and women, set free by a generous Friend’s sacrifice. This is the experience of Christian salvation.
It is a wonderful thing to go from lost to saved and from broke to millionaire, to be able to sing about amazing grace with slave ship captain John Newton: “I once was lost, but now am found.” But how does this process happen? How do we seek and accept the saving blood of Jesus? The Bible describes five important steps.
1. Repentance. When we say we “repent” of a bad decision — maybe an expensive new car we really couldn’t afford or an inappropriate relationship that has caused heartache to our family — it simply means we have had a change of heart (and mind). A sinner comes to realize that his life, on the present path, is heading in a bad direction! Acts 2 describes people hearing a powerful sermon by Peter; the message “cut them to the heart.” When they asked him, “What should we do?” he replied: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins.” The Greek word metenoeo expresses the idea of changing one’s mind and feeling remorse.
On our own, this is an unnatural experience! Most of us try hard, consciously and otherwise, to feel good about ourselves. Only the Holy Spirit, actively invading our life, can make us long for something better. Romans 2:4 says that God’s kindness leads us toward repentance; repentance is God’s gift to us (Acts 5:31). However, C. S. Lewis personally found repentance to be a bitter, agonizing decision, and wrote later: “Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor — that is the only way out of a ‘hole.’ . . . Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than simply eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years.”
2. Confession. 1 John 1:9: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify (cleanse, KJV) us from all unrighteousness. The Christian faith is not a feel-good, illusory pipe dream; instead, it’s a journey for mature people ready to hear things as they really are and also confess them as they are. The good news is that if we honestly own up to our wrongdoing, God promises us unlimited and irrevocable forgiveness.
3. Forgiveness. We have a faulty, limited picture of how we as humans forgive one another. Someone betrays our trust, but we agree to overlook the offense. Our teenager disobeys a curfew, and sometimes we sweep away the mistake and “forgive” them. Two fragile realities remain. First, the wrong is still a real event; it actually happened. Second, our forgiveness is simply an agreement to look past the sin and keep going, hoping for reciprocal kindness.
But when God offers forgiveness based on Calvary, something cosmic and genuine takes place. The entire record is obliterated! As far as the east is from the west, so far as He removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12). The Message paraphrase for Micah 7:19 reads: Compassion is on its way to us. You’ll stamp out our wrongdoing. You’ll sink our sins to the bottom of the ocean. Borrowing from the Innocence Project, the forgiveness that God provides doesn’t simply get us out of Death Row; our record is completely wiped clean. The indictment and conviction aren’t overturned on a technicality; they are permanently expunged.
Now to the very heart of the Christian gospel . . .
4. Justification. Related to forgiveness is this powerful pillar of the faith: when we repent and accept Jesus Christ, we are declared completely justified, or not guilty. In one grand, cosmic act, heaven gives us permanent citizenship as sons and daughters of God, judicially proclaimed as perfect and whole. The Greek word here is dikaioo, to be pronounced and treated as righteous. Romans 3:24, 28: [We] are justified freely by His grace; a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
When we are surrounded by the sturdy wall of justification, then, we can be perfectly confident in our salvation! For the Christian, there should be no fear or anxiety (Philippians 4:6); the New Testament message is clear: He who has the Son has life (1 John 5:12). Jesus said: “Whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me HAS eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life (John 5:24).
A question immediately arises. Does the doctrine of justification simply paper over the hard fact that we are still fallen, struggling sinners? Theologians sometimes refer to this teaching as “legal fiction,” a giant charade of “let’s pretend,” where wicked people wear someone else’s pure robe of holiness while still harboring their old fallen habits. The good news (and this leads to Step #5) is that the Holy Spirit works within us to faithful transform the gift of imparted righteousness into an inward reality — imputed righteousness. Paul writes to his struggling friends in Corinth: God made Him who knew no sin [Jesus] to be sin for us, so that in Him we might BECOME the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
5. Sanctification. The word hagiazo means “to make holy.” The Bible consistently teaches the concept of growth, striving to be like Jesus and following His example of unselfish purity. Jesus Himself exhorted His listeners: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. In the same Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), He stated the obvious truth that our good deeds and obedience bring glory to our heavenly Father.
Here is the pivotal reality, one which has caused division and heated discussion between the Catholic and Protestant communities for long centuries. The Bible repeatedly teaches the value and importance of growing in Christian virtue, of aiming for the ideal of holiness. The apostle James declared that empty faith which doesn’t lead to obedience and acts of unselfish kindness is basically “dead” (2:17). However, it is critical to uphold the Protestant pillar that sanctification, important as it is, is not the basis of a convert’s salvation. The NIV text notes for James remind us: “He is saying, to use Martin Luther’s words, that a man is justified (declared righteous before God) by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. Genuine faith will produce good deeds, but only faith in Christ saves.” Luther correctly labeled the Doctrine of Justification the one and firm rock and used the Latin expression articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae (“article of the standing and falling of the church”) to declare: “If this article stands, the Church stands; if it falls, the Church falls.”
The good news for the forgiven sinner is that he or she can rejoice in a completed salvation, and then cheerfully try to serve, obey, and glorify Jesus without fear of losing the permanent gift. As C. S. Lewis memorably wrote: “Obeying in a new way, a less worried way.”
View related article: A Reprieve from the Governor
David B. Smith writes from California. (10 of 28) His web page is Copyright © 2014. Click here for content usage information. Bible Bay