The Christian walk is filled with paradox. We are called to examine ourselves and repent of sin, yet we are warned not to become so preoccupied with sin that we lose our joy. We are free from sin by the forgiveness delivered by Christ Jesus on the Cross (should we accept His gift of Salvation), but we are not entirely immune from sin’s influences, even when we are born again. We are called to master sin, yet we are told we can do nothing about it in our own strength.
We live between the Incarnation and the Second Coming, in this tension between what has been gloriously provided by His Grace (forgiveness) and what will be the fulfillment of the Promise (complete deliverance and reconciliation).
We are forgiven of sin, yet sin still gnaws at us, it still tempts us, it crouches at the door, always ready to trip us up. We are called to be holy as He is Holy, yet we are reminded that we sin in thought, word and deed, daily.
This tension can easily cause two debilitating strains of behavior: a preoccupation with our own depravity; or the tendency to focus on the sins of others, judging them, and condemning them. The former is the hopeless wretch suffering from self-condemnation (a trick of the devil); the latter is the Pharisee, always pointing the bony finger, accusing the brethren, oblivious to his own sin (another trick of the devil).
Neither the miserable wretch nor the Pharisee find joy, neither can they share joy. Both appear baptized in vinegar. One flagellates himself, and the other flagellates others: somebody is always getting a beating, to no profit!
The Pharisee thinks he pleases God by his ‘holiness,’ by his performance, by his religious discipline and practice, even though the Scripture is clear we are not saved by works, but by faith. The hopeless wretch thinks he pleases God by crawling around on his hands and knees in broken glass, somehow by doing so, believing he pays for his own sin, ignoring the Scripture that teaches there is only one mediator between God and man, the God/Man Christ Jesus.
The church has existed very often in the extreme margins. One manifestation is the legalistic church run by Pharisees. The rules Rule. Performance is all that matters. If you don’t measure up, you are cast out. A weird symbiosis can arise between hopeless wretches and Pharisees: one group inviting abuse (thinking it is penance) and the other group glad to abuse the former, seeing itself the righteous judge. It is obviously a sick arrangement, one outside God’s will.
Another extreme is the loosey-goosey church where there is no discipline, no repentance, no soul-searching, and little regard for the dire warnings of Scripture. In this universalist setting, everyone is wonderful, nothing is required, heaven is assured no matter what. It’s a Cruise Control Christianity that judges nothing, requires nothing, costs nothing, and ultimately, it believes nothing, embracing the idea that everything is valid. Universalism and historic Christianity do not mix.
These matters are further complicated by false teachers who may be Pharisees or miserable wretches or deceived people or plants of the enemy, but in any case, they often allow just a little leaven to spread through the whole loaf, as the Master said. These false teachers may even question the sovereignty of God. They sometimes challenge His claim to be all knowing, all powerful, or ever-present. They sow doubt and confusion, just another form of abuse, nothing resembling correction unto righteousness. They make idols of their theological hobby horses, riding them right into the jaws of hell.
The key is accepting God’s grace to the extent we can understand it, and by faith, trusting Him even when we don’t understand. Jesus does not call us to be scourged. He already went through that for us. He does not call us to be nailed to a Cross. He already went through that for us. He certainly does not call us to scourge one another!
He declares himself the exclusive agent of Salvation, rejecting universalism as heresy, warning us about legalism. He condemns compromise, false teachers and the construction of idols. By His grace and His incomparable shepherding, He calls us to walk with him, step by step, in the Holy Spirit, to please the Father, allowing God to purge us, not just of sins, but of the entire sin nature, the lifelong process of sanctification.
Walking in this narrow way helps us avoid becoming miserable wretches or Pharisees or compromised Christians, and therein we find Joy. We then have that cherished child-like faith, secure in His love, freed by His grace, cleansed by His blood, healed by His stripes, granted Life by His death, even eternal life.
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. 2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.…