I’ve been thinking again a lot more about the power of the pure gospel of grace and forgiveness to transform us. The goal of the gospel of Christ and Him crucified is not to transform us, but to save us. It is “the power of God for salvation for all who believe” (Romans 1:16). Apparently the idea of salvation was exciting enough for Paul to put it front and center in his premier letter which explains the Christian faith, the book of Romans. Perhaps we too should forego our neglect of the central importance of salvation (Hebrews 2:3). It is indeed powerful, as foretold! In fact, although the power of the gospel is not primarily meant to transform us but to save us, it is the only path to genuine transformation.
How does this work? I’ve been thinking again about this passage:
5 This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; 7 but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.
Simple Forgiveness is the Transformative Doorway
When we come to believe that the blood of Jesus has the power to cleanse us from all sin, and when we understand this not as demanding a behavioral change but rather as forging a lasting forgiveness, there is a fundamental shift in the way we are able to approach God. If we think that we must stop our sinful behaviors before we can approach God, we must in isolation from Him craft a plan for behavioral change before we come to Him. This supposes that there are certain areas of sin which are too much, which we can’t approach God with until we have designed a promising path to permanent change. What this ends up meaning is that you can’t really confess because you don’t really have a certainty that there is complete forgiveness. So the scary underworld of the inner proclivities and evil attractions that drive these behaviors cannot be confessed unless there is a genuine belief that the blood of Jesus is sufficient to forgive all sin. The underlying sin that really drives these behaviors remains active, unconfessed and untouched if we believe that approach on the basis of a successful veneer of behavioral transformation.
When we have done with pretending to reform before we approach God, and we come in full faith that the blood of Jesus is completely sufficient. When you come with this assurance of a full and powerfully sufficient forgiveness, you can confess everything! You can’t confess everything until you are convinced that everything is forgivable. If there are things that might be beyond the possibility of forgiveness, then if you suspect you might have some seed of that lurking in you you will refrain from bringing this to God. In the end you either bring everything to God or you bring nothing to God, because you can’t really divorce your sinful behaviors from the sin which indwells you.
The Question of Honor
For instance, take the commandment to honor your father and mother. You might think that a young person could repent of this by stopping disrespectful argumentative speech with their parents. However, this does not reach down into the root of the issue. You can’t just stop arguing, you have to “honor” them even when they are imperfect. If you only honor them when they seem honorable in your eyes, there would be no need for the commandment. Honor is proven when honor is challenged. That means in your secret thoughts and in your speech with friends and others you never even want to say something which does anything but honor them, even when they seem to challenge your idea of honor. This might be something which seems impossible to promise and to repent of. It is impossible! That’s why the traditional fleshly notion of repentance doesn’t work. You can’t think that you are gaining favor with your parents just because you have promised to not argue with them any more; if you still despise them and walk around silent and resentful and sullen and you gossip about them and turn your siblings’ hearts against them, you have not really repented. The thin veneer of the promise to change means nothing to the parents, and even more the thin veneer of our “repentance” means very little to God.
Darkness and Unbelief
Walking in the darkness of the pretense of righteousness is closely linked with an underlying lack of belief in the power of Jesus’ blood to forgive sin. This lack of belief prevents us from true confession with God or with each other. It is a problem if you try to make the word “wash” mean something else than “forgive” or “justify”. If you try to read behavioral change into the idea of “wash” you have just robbed yourself of the ability to truly confess. Do you see that? It is utterly clear from Paul’s writings that the blood of Jesus justifies us. We mustn’t muddy the water by reading some kind of works into this, or we are suddenly back sewing fig leaves in order to approach God.
Radical Grace: The Welcome Sign to Genuine Confession
So the total washing from guilt that we have through Jesus’ blood is the gateway to genuine confession. This ability to truly confess gives God deep access to us to administer grace and revelation and power to change. It also gives Him leeway to change according to His agenda. When Israel was looking for the coming of the Messiah just prior to His appearance, they had a certain kind of person they were expecting. They were expecting a conquering hero, a political and military leader who would throw off Roman tyranny. They were not looking for a baby in a manger, or a wandering homeless healer who told strange stories. In the same way, we have strong expectations for what we want God’s work and cleansing to look like in our lives. We want old-covenant law-style success. If it doesn’t look like this we believe He hasn’t come to us, that our confession isn’t working. If we trust the power of Jesus’ blood, we are able to let go of these expectations. He may want to change our deep inner motivations and long-standing strongholds of mistrust even if we don’t initially care about these things. He may want us to fail until we despair of our efforts to reform ourselves, so the power can be seen as being all His. He may see that if we succeed in our promised behavioral repentance, like the builders of Babel we will only use our success to rebel and to bolster our own arrogance. Our failures may be the hammer and anvil that strip our fleshly and shallow notions of repentance away from us and bring us truly to the the foot of the throne of grace. This is true cleansing, and the confession of Christ as our savior is the true confession. When we despair of our own genius and power and control, and depend only on the power of Christ and Him crucified for pure forgiveness, we can begin to live from the simplicity of being loved instead of the complexity of proving and earning our worth.
True Transformation is Relational
In the end the important transformation is that we enter the community of the beloved and redeemed. Anyone can be personally holy if they section themselves off from all society and influence. Anyone can say they are holy and call others to holiness when they themselves are not holy. We are not called to the darkness and isolation of theoretical holiness, we are called to the light of relationship with real imperfect people. This overcoming persistent one-way love is the light by which we see each other, and our sanctification is to learn to live in persistent edifying overcoming togetherness. It is the new commandment to love one another which begins to welcome us into interpersonal safe confession. This is the wandering story-telling disappointing miracle He has brought us: each other. It is a far greater gift than we could possibly know.