Late pastor and author Eugene Peterson said, “Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.”
I must say how grateful I am that worship in our own congregation always includes confession of sin, a vital time of telling the truth about ourselves to God, perhaps to each other, and certainly to ourselves. It’s a matter of acknowledging with our lips what God already knows is in our hearts. Lest we think this is an ancient anachronism for modern worship, we’re reminded by the Old Testament prophet, “The human heart is desperately wicked above all things; who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
In God’s mercy we’re not left alone to despair over this predicament. Another Old Testament prophet speaks for the Almighty: “Come, let us reason together, says, the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)
The trajectory from “desperately wicked” to “white as snow” necessarily moves from repentance to forgiveness, to restoration, but we’re assured that one follows the other as closely as our next heartbeat or breath: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
Lent is typically thought of as a season for relinquishing or giving up something as a sign of our devotion to God or the seriousness of our Christian discipleship, and there indeed may be patterns or practices that we need to jettison in favor of unencumbered, unfettered fellowship with God and with each other. This likely is part of what it means to be “consecrated,” set apart for particular, for special, for holy use.
But our holiness is determined, not by how our life stacks up against someone else’s, nor by minute attention to keeping a daunting set of rules, nor by trying over and over to scrub off what we think or know are sinful stains. St. Paul himself said, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19).
The Apostle recognized that there remains—even within our redeemed lives—a battle between good intentions and weak or willful capitulation, between supple obedience and stiff-necked resistance, between spirit and flesh and, ultimately, between life and death. Paul cries out, “Wretch that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” To this he quickly offers the only real remedy: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). It’s a matter of grace alone, and trusting by faith in that gift of God.
Discovering how in our daily lives we can unwrap that free gift is nevertheless an appropriate Lenten quest. It’s been said that the Christian life is not the most difficult life we can lead. It’s actually impossible apart from the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. This ought not surprise or frighten us. Christian living is a supernaturally-enabled process of the Spirit indwelling, filling, convicting, transforming, leading, guiding, gifting, and comforting which is at work at our very center—at the controlling interest within us—bringing true liberty and release. Thanks be to God indeed!
Paul expands in Romans 8, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
During a liturgical season often governed by self-reflection and evaluation, this striking and enduring promise of peace with God and with ourselves offers each of us the clearest view possible as we peer intently ahead through a Lenten lens.