BY TRAVIS KOPP
Martin Luther said that the Christian life should be one of constant repentance. Does this mean that we should continually be beating ourselves up? I think in a way it does.
Whenever we are asked to do something, if we do not do it as well as we should it is reasonable to critically evaluate our performance. Now what does Jesus say to us? He says that we are to love our enemies, but we usually do not. He says we are to forgive people four hundred and ninety times (that is, all the time), but we often want to give up much sooner. He says we are to sell what we have and give to the poor, but we sometimes buy unnecessary things for ourselves instead. In short, He says, “You shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48, NKJV) But we are not.
How should we deal with this? In the normal course of human life perfectionism has an unhealthy effect. For example, during most of my time in high school I had a straight A record. By itself this was fine; however I felt compelled to maintain perfect grades and this was a source of constant, albeit usually background, anxiety. This fixation on perfect grades detracted from my fully appreciating life at that time. In a similar way anyone who feels that they must meet a standard of perfection in some area will usually eventually be crushed or twisted by this unrealistic ambition.
However Jesus calls us to be perfect. How is it that Christians are able to respond to this in a healthy way? A short but meaningful answer is that the Holy Spirit lives within us and enables us to do so. However I believe the Spirit uses two important truths to keep us from being crushed by the call to perfection.
First, we remember that we are not accepted or loved on the basis of our being perfect, but on the basis of Jesus being perfect. In high school I felt a need to get straight A’s because I believed my self-worth or identity depended on it. It was when I placed my identity somewhere else that I was able to give up this need. As Christians, our identity in Christ comes from our placing our faith in Him, not from our becoming sinless. In fact our own imperfection should send us into His arms since He alone is able to shelter us from the consequences of our sin. When we turn to Him we find acceptance not based on our works but on His and we find a love that is beyond anything we know on Earth and which satisfies us. It is a love that Itself was perfect for our sakes, a love that loves God with all Its strength and which loves us more perfectly than we love ourselves. Our failings, rather than taking away our security, should lead us to repentance and bring us into the presence of the love and mercy of God.
Second, we are encouraged by the knowledge that the task of perfecting ourselves is not ours alone but God’s. Even while not basing his or her self-worth on measuring up to a certain standard, having a goal which is never quite reached can still be discouraging to a person. If the goal set by our Lord were utterly hopeless we might give up. However God never sets about to do anything that is hopeless. Rather we know, as Paul writes, “that He Who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ;” (Philippians 1:6, NKJV) and “it is God Who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13, NKJV) We are promised that all of our struggling to follow Jesus will eventually bear fruit, and that His call for us to be perfect is not unrealistic, because God Himself is capable of and committed to perfecting us on the last day and to making us better throughout our lives.
How do these truths enable us to live lives of repentance? It is first important to ask what repentance is. In his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes, “Do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” (Romans 6:13, NKJV) I believe this reveals an important aspect of repentance. I would submit that repentance involves three things: recognizing sin in ourselves, confessing that sin to God and renouncing it and trusting in the forgiveness and acceptance of God purchased by Jesus on the cross.
The second of these, confessing and renouncing our sin, is an act of hope. We are committing ourselves to a life of perfection even while knowing that we have never lived up to this in the past and will not in the future in this life. What gives us the strength to do this through the Spirit is the knowledge that the project of perfecting ourselves is ultimately God’s. He promises to complete His work in us and thus, trusting in Him, we are faithful to recommit ourselves, knowing that we do not have to depend on our own defeated selves for ultimate success.
Similarly, in order to accept forgiveness it is necessary for us to understand that we are accepted by God on the basis of Christ’s perfection and not our own. We cannot trust in God to accept us, unless we know that His acceptance has a firm foundation. Nothing in us alone justifies God’s pardon, but we know that it was purchased by Christ through His suffering and His perfect life. Thus even as we confess our sin, knowing we are unworthy of God, we can look to the cross and trust that we will be accepted.
Therefore we should fight the good fight and not grow weary of doing good. We should strive to follow Jesus’ commands in all their purity and evaluate ourselves by them. This means that we must continually be recommitting ourselves to a holy life. We will inevitably fail, but by the grace of God this will not sever us from Him. Rather it allows us to remember that we are sinners but are accepted in Christ through repentance and faith and that God Himself is committed to making us holy so that we may stand before Him. We do not need to despair, but to continually turn to the Lord of forgiveness, knowing that He bore a cross in order to justify and make pure the ungodly, that is, us.