I have a friend who ends every prayer with, “Forgive us for the many ways we’ve failed you, In Your name we pray, Amen.” It doesn’t matter if he’s blessing the food before a meal or asking for wisdom in an important decision. The closing is his default praise, like a customized signature at the end of every email.
I’m sure he’s sincere--every time he prays it. Yet I wonder if Jesus ever gets tired of hearing it. Do you think Infinite Patience ever rolls his eyes at something that just gets old? OK, that’s snarky, I know. But no friendship or marriage on earth could survive if one partner constantly affirmed, “I’m no good.” What kind of relationship requires a constant--constant--rehashing of our inadequacy? I’d like to suggest an answer: an Old Testament relationship.
The book of Hebrews discusses the practice of forgiveness before Jesus came:
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. (Hebrews 10: 1-3, my emphasis)
Note the final phrase: the people of Old Testament experienced an annual reminder of their sins. My friend reminds himself of his sin as often as he prays. The unspoken message is that he was powerless against sin before he came to Jesus and he is apparently powerless against it after he received him.
Dallas Willard refers to this as miserable sinner theology. Simply put, if we are told often enough that we are miserable sinners who are unable to overcome our shortcomings in God’s eyes, sooner or later we will begin to see ourselves in that light—even though we have turned to Christ! This problem is widespread: the substance of most evangelical preaching is "sin management." (Willard again) by which Christians are reminded of their sin problem and God’s sin solution. It reinforces the idea they can find forgiveness apart from the call to come and follow Jesus. Yet following Jesus includes the possibility of being formed into his likeness.
Since many believers only hear about God’s grace in the context of forgiveness, their expectation of the Christian life is a cycle of sin, forgiveness, and more sin. Perhaps most dangerously, the presence of sin is considered normal in the life of a believer. Any real attempt at imitating Jesus is considered a presumption upon God’s grace because we cannot save ourselves through “works.” The Apostle Paul had a larger vision for the grace of God. It included the possibly of learning how to say “no” to ungodliness (Titus 2: 11-12). The grace of God in Jesus Christ is so much bigger than forgiveness: it does forgive, but it also teaches. Perhaps that’s why Willard says that God’s grace is not opposed to effort, but it is opposed to earning. Two pretty different things, aren’t they?
It’s not just a problem with our understanding of grace, it’s also our understanding of Jesus: his message, his sacrifice, his Kingdom and his mission for us. To see the work of Jesus as only an endless offering for sin is to consign him to the Old Testament priesthood.
Surely his is a greater priesthood, capable of altering us at the very core. I’m grateful that he paid the price for my sin--eternally grateful. I am also grateful for his resurrection empowerment, which is capable of changing me from the inside out. Perhaps we can usher Jesus out of the Temple once and for all, and receive him not only as the source of forgiveness, but also the Master teacher of life.