During Advent, we look forward liturgically, not only to the initial coming of Jesus Christ in a stable in Bethlehem, but to his second coming to judge the world. In so far as this is true, there is a profound sense in which our whole lives between the times are lived in a protracted Advent season as we await the inauguration of God’s kingdom in all its fulness. That this accompanies a divine judgement of the living and the dead and a final separation of sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46) is something we may prefer not to consider.
Many Christians so emphasize God’s forgiveness and mercy that they forget that these make no sense by themselves. If God does indeed forgive, then it stands to reason that there must be something to forgive. This is where sin enters the picture. For centuries many Orthodox Christians have prayed the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Some have made a habit of praying this so continually that it accompanies every breath they take, thereby working its way into their hearts. Martin Luther described himself as simul justus et peccator – at once justified and a sinner.
The recognition of ourselves as sinners is inextricably linked to our salvation. We cannot leap over an unpleasant reality directly to the truth that God is a God of love. We know from Scripture that God hates sin and that he wills that sinners be transformed by his grace into the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). Those who persistently cling to their sins can expect to meet God’s wrath.
Thanking the Giver
To confess that we are sinners is profoundly countercultural and offends contemporary sensibilities. It dissents from the current counterfeit gospel of self-esteem, which tells us that we’re really not so bad after all and just need to feel good about ourselves. The moment of truth in this preoccupation with self-esteem is that a positive self-image is necessary to good mental health, and adolescent tentativeness properly gives way to adult self-confidence. People who are constantly second-guessing themselves will not be able to move ahead with their lives and to discharge their ordinary responsibilities. They may fall prey to alcohol or drugs out of a misguided belief that they are worthy of nothing better.
Yet it is not unusual for a person to experience good feelings about herself while remaining blithely unrepentant of her sins. Here is where the limits of our therapeutic culture become most evident. The human person is more than a bundle of emotions to be manipulated by psychological or behavioural techniques. She is created in God’s image and is thus uniquely programmed to respond to his all-encompassing claims on her life. Undergoing therapy may succeed in the short term in getting her through the rough patches, but in the depths of her soul she continues to follow “too much the devices and desires of [her] own heart,” in the words of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). The only true answer to her condition is wholehearted repentance from sin and trust in God’s promise of salvation.
God is indeed angry at our sins. Let’s never pretend otherwise. Although contemporary preaching generally does not emphasize it, we are indeed “miserable sinners” (the BCP again) in need of a Saviour. Whereas all of us are beneficiaries of God’s common grace, so many gladly receive the gifts without thanking the Giver. As we confess in the Nicene Creed, Jesus Christ will “come again with glory to judge the living and the dead.” All those who are in Christ and “do truly and earnestly repent . . . of [their] sins” will come to the seat of judgement assured of their forgiveness through the death and resurrection of the Son of God, in whose name we find our ultimate hope for salvation.
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