(This outstanding post is from one of my friends and heroes, Steve McVey. If you'd like to learn more and read more from Steve, you may find him at http://www.gracewalk.org/.)
"Why are so many Christians stuck in a cycle of condemnation and rededication? Because the truth is hard to believe: When God forgives, it’s a done deal."
After I became a Christian, I said the following prayer hundreds of times: “Dear Lord, I’m so sorry. I want to ask Your forgiveness for how I have failed You in my Christian life. Lord, You know my heart. I want to serve You faithfully, but I can’t stay on track. Help me, Lord, to live for You. With Your help, I promise to start doing the things that glorify You. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Maybe the words varied over the years, but the essence of the prayer was always the same. It started with me groveling in self-condemnation, asking for forgiveness. Then came the rededication part of my prayer, when I asked God to help me keep my promise to do the things He wants. Sometimes I was specific about the stuff I vowed to do -- things like reading my Bible in a year or getting up early to pray every morning. Once I even promised to not eat until I had verbally witnessed to at least one person. By the end of the day, I decided that a gospel tract left for the waitress could count toward that quota.
I don’t pray that way anymore. Every time I prayed like that, I sensed a gnawing awareness that it wouldn’t be long before I was praying the same prayer again. Yet I always had a heartfelt desire to please God. It finally dawned on me: I didn’t have a heart problem; I had a head problem. I wanted to keep my promises. I just didn’t know how.
In the last few years, God has begun to reveal spiritual truths to me that have totally transformed my life. These biblical truths will set a person free to live more effectively than he would with a lifetime of rededication prayers.
1. Realize that you can’t keep your promises. That may seem like a strange first step toward the goal of keeping promises, but it’s true. Miss this one and it’s like being told you didn’t touch first base when you come across home plate. Consider this question: If we could keep our promises, wouldn’t we have done it by now? How many times have we made the same promises? Let’s face it, rededication to keep promises won’t work. If it did, we wouldn’t find it necessary to keep rededicating ourselves.
Many of us have struggled with promise-keeping for one reason: We have focused on our performance more than on Jesus Christ. We have tried to keep our promises, but the Bible teaches that effective Christian living doesn’t come by trying. It comes by trusting Christ to express His life through us. He is the only One who can successfully keep promises. Before we can be effective promise keepers, we must become promise receivers. The Bible is clear about God’s promise: the One who has given us His life will be the One who lives it for us. Only Jesus Christ can effectively live the perfect life. He lives inside believers today and wants to reveal His perfect life through us (See 1 Thess. 5:24; Gal. 3:3-5).
2. A godly identity, not good intentions, must sustain our lifestyle. My own prayer of rededication always focused on my sense of sinfulness and my perceived need of God’s repeated forgiveness. Many men regularly pray to receive God’s forgiveness. We sometimes feel like there is a bad guy deep within us who is eager to come out. We ask the Lord to help us, hoping to suppress that “old man” so that he cannot have his way in our lives. But we fail again, either by doing what we should not have done or not doing what we should have done. And so we conclude that the “bad guy” within us has escaped our control and must be put back in his place. Then, once again, we seek forgiveness and recommit ourselves to keeping various spiritual disciplines.
This scenario sounds logical, but it is far from the teaching of the Bible. You don’t have a “bad guy” deep within you. To the contrary you are righteous at the very core of your being (See Rom. 3:22). The Bible refers to us as “saints” 63 times. God would not call you a saint if you were rotten at the core. At the cross, God took our old sin-filled spirit, with which we were born and crucified it (See Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:3; Rom. 6:6). He then placed His own life into us, imparting to us His nature (See 2 Pet. 1:4). We now have a new identity. God did not simply change us; He created a brand-new person (See 2 Cor. 5:17).
When we live independent from Christ, we are doing what Paul called walking “according to the flesh” (See Rom. 8). In other words, we sin. We then see that our sin is not consistent with who we really are, but only how we function when we are not depending on Christ to animate our lives. So it is possible to behave in a way that totally contradicts who we really are.
The Bible teaches that we are righteous by nature (See 1 Cor. 3:16-17; Eph. 4:24). When you believe that fact, it will begin to totally transform how you live. You will find yourself practicing godly behavior, not because of disciplined determination, but because that is how you want to live -- and because freedom from condemnation opens the door to God’s power. You will not act out of good intentions, but from a godly identity. Ultimately, people behave according to what they truly believe.
3. Experience the freedom of forgiveness instead of the curse of condemnation. My rededication prayers often began with the words, “I’m so sorry. I want to ask Your forgiveness.” I believed that it was by my continuous confession that I maintained a righteous standing with God. Much of my time was spent begging for forgiveness. Even when I could not think of any unconfessed sin, I thought that surely there must be covert sins down in me somewhere.
Like many today, I believed that when I was saved God forgave me for all the sins I had committed up to that point. Then it was like He deposited forgiveness in a heavenly account with my name on it. From then on, every time I sinned all I had to do was make a withdrawal by asking for God’s forgiveness. If I asked, He would forgive. Until then, I was unforgiven.
That perspective puts a person in a bad predicament. If remaining in a state of forgiveness depends on one constantly asking to be forgiven, our focus must be on ourselves at all times. After all, what if we sin and then suddenly die before getting forgiveness again? It’s hard enough to keep up with the wrong things you might have done, but to never miss doing something you should have done? Talk about pressure!
The liberating truth of the New Testament is that we are totally forgiven. God did not deposit forgiveness in an account for us at salvation. Because of the cross, He emptied the whole account on us! God is not restricted by time. He saw the sins of our whole lifetime and placed them upon Jesus at the cross. God has poured out forgiveness for the sins of a lifetime upon us. One might ask, “Do you mean that our future sins are already forgiven?” That’s exactly what I mean. Remember, when Jesus died for our sins 2,000 years ago, they were all future sins.
This is where God’s grace can seem absurd, even scandalous. After all, if all future sins are already forgiven, why not just go and sin all over the place? But the amazing fact is that, when we receive forgiveness as a finished work, it has the opposite effect. We see ourselves as the forgiven “new men” that we are in Christ, and we set our minds on that fact. The love of Christ expands within us, and He motivates us and empowers us toward a Christ-like life.
We are called to utter dependence on Christ, completely living by faith. It is humbling. But without it, we will never really know where we stand with God. When we stay in that place of certainty in Christ, the works of righteousness will burst forth. It will move us to repent (change our minds and our behavior) when necessary, confess our faults to others and seek forgiveness of people we have wronged. In other words, we will grow in living a life of love.
This ancient truth will sound new to some, because certain scriptures have been misinterpreted which weaken the truth. We have often blurred the lines between the Old Covenant (before Christ’s death) and the New Covenant. When we cross that dividing line and embrace New Covenant grace, we will discover how radical His grace really is.
The reality of grace is what sets Christianity apart from all other religions. It is the truth that Jesus spoke about, a radical forgiveness that enraged the Pharisees but delighted the humble and needy follower.
So if we want to keep our promises, we must start trusting. Let us choose to enter God’s rest and receive His love. Then we will discover that we begin keeping our promises, not because it is our duty, but because it is our delight.