Thursday, August 18, 2011

Jesus: My Favorite Old Testament Priest

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.


  1. I feel similarly within orthodox Anglicanism, in which it is common to celebrate the older liturgy for its "sin talk" and hold the newer liturgy in disdain for its more muted tone. But I can't help but prefer the newer Rite II confession:

    Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

    To the more "orthodox" Rite I:

    Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ's sake, forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honor and glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    Read them aloud. Which sounds healthier for a Christian pursuing holiness and confidence in the Holy Spirit to say from week to week? Saying Rite I every Sunday gives the impression that, despite the closing, there really is no hope because nothing can stop our failure. I, too, have heard this same sentiment in the extemporaneous prayers of many, and it makes me sad that their vision of God's grace seems limited.

  2. Exactly, Jesse. Thanks for sharing the two Rites.

    I know we would both agree concerning the reality of sin, the need for confession and repentance, and the necessary cleansing which only Jesus can provide. Yet all these elements should points us (reset us?) toward a transformational walk with our Lord, and I concur: Rite 2, week after week, sets us just the right tone.


  3. Great read my friend!

    This reminds me of my aunt who always used to end prayers with "forgive me all for the sins I have committed...Amen". One day I asked her exactly what sins she was talking about? She looked at me a bit dumbfounded and said: "now that you mention it, I really don't know." There is definitely a real danger of letting prayer become ritual repetition. I think your post echos that message loud and clear!

    Have a blessed Friday/weekend!

  4. I once taught for a Christian school principal overseas on the opposite end of the spectrum. She believed she had achieved Matthew 5:48, "Be perfect, therefore, even as your heavenly father is perfect." Working for a person who is never wrong brought some challenges... Great post!

  5. Thanks, Mark: you have a great weekend as well!

    I love that you asked your Aunt a that question, because many Christians will readily take the label "Sinner" without ever naming a specific sin! I keeps us at a safe distance from the possibility of real change.

  6. Oh, no! It's hard enough dealing with someone on a single issue when they are convinced they've "heard God." I can't imagine day-to-day dealings on every detail. So your boss had read Matthew, but apparently didn't get as far as Philippians, where Paul says, "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me." (Either that, or she had her act together more than Paul!)

    Peace to you, Denette!