John, referring to Jesus, says: "The light has come into the world, and people who do evil things are judged guilty because they love the dark more than the light. People who do evil hate the light and won't come to the light, because it clearly shows what they have done. But everyone who lives by the truth will come to the light, because they want others to know that God is really the one doing what they do" (John 3:19-21). In other words, if Jesus is God's true standard of what goodness is all about, then the test of our own goodness, or lack of it, is whether or not we are willing to live in a relationship with him, the risen and living Saviour.
Here lies our dilemma. When compared with the perfect goodness revealed in the life of Jesus, God's goodness, we all come a long way short. "All of us have sinned and fallen short of God's glory" (Romans 3:23). It doesn't make the slightest difference whether we are big sinners or little sinners—we are all sinners! And we don' t like our sins exposed, so we keep away from Jesus. However, God can't do anything about our sins unless we are willing to have them exposed. This is not an intellectual problem—it is a moral one.
Mike Yaconelli, a very perceptive American writer, sums up this dilemma in an article in Christianity.
Because the pain of knowing who we are is so great, we spend a lifetime running from ourselves. We have become experts in dodging, avoiding, hiding, pretending, covering, running, protecting, eluding, escaping, averting, evading the real us. This 'Great Escape' from ourselves is the way most of us have chosen to live our lives, Christian or not, because it is the way of less pain. That is why the Good News of the Gospel is so painful. Jesus wants to do much more than forgive our sins. He wants to capture our real self—and for us to face who we are. Not only is our real self full of sin, it is full of flaws and brokenness—and full of hope. To see who we are meant to be, who we are capable of being if we will stop running and start looking, is what conversion is all about.
Because the pain of knowing who we are is so great, we spend a lifetime running from ourselves. We have become experts in dodging, avoiding, hiding, pretending, covering, running, protecting, eluding, escaping, averting, evading the real us. This 'Great Escape' from ourselves is the way most of us have chosen to live our lives, Christian or not, because it is the way of less pain.
That is why the Good News of the Gospel is so painful. Jesus wants to do much more than forgive our sins. He wants to capture our real self—and for us to face who we are. Not only is our real self full of sin, it is full of flaws and brokenness—and full of hope.
To see who we are meant to be, who we are capable of being if we will stop running and start looking, is what conversion is all about.
If we are willing to have our sins exposed, in the light of God's goodness revealed in Jesus, then he will do two things for us. First, he will forgive us. One of the terms used to describe this forgiveness in the New Testament is the word "justified". It is a legal term that means we are acquitted of all the charges against us—accepted by God as if we had never sinned. We are"justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ" (Romans 3:24). The word "grace" in the Bible is a wonderful word that means God's undeserved kindness towards us. Someone has put it like this in a simple acrostic:
What it cost Christ in order to offer us this forgiveness was the cross. He went to the cross to take upon himself the just judgement of God, the consequence of our sins. This is the constant emphasis of the New Testament. 'God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). The riches he offers us in return are not only forgiveness, but reconciliation, his friendship and love, and a certain future with him beyond the grave in "a new heaven and a new earth, where justice will rule" (2 Peter 3:13).
The second thing he will do for us is to give us the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit will literally come to live within our human bodies. Our bodies become the "temple where the Holy Spirit lives" (1 Corinthians 6:19). His purpose is to transform us from the inside out in order to mould us into the sort of persons he planned us to be. This is a lifetime process as we learn to live in a daily relationship with him. One day he will "present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy" (Jude 24). In that day our salvation will be complete. Christ's call is not just an invitation to be on the right side; it is an invitation to become the right person.
One of the great benefits of having experienced this forgiveness and the transforming power of the gospel is that we no longer have to live a life of pretence. Paul talks about it as living in a relationship with God with "unveiled faces". "And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory" (2 Corinthians 3:18). As we are fully accepted, there is no need to hide anything. It becomes easier to acknowledge our faults, and we don't expect perfection of others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler and his stand for Jesus, wrote in The Cost of Discipleship:
Only those wbo follow Jesus and cleave to him are living in complete truthfulness. Such men have nothing to hide from their Lord. .. Complete truthfulness is only possible where sin bas been uncovered, and forgiven by Jesus. .. The cross is God's truth about us, and therefore it is the only power which can make us truthful. When we know the cross we are no longer afraid of the truth. We need no more oaths to confirm the truth of our utterances, for we live in the perfect truth of God.
A good example of our human inclination to believe what we want about reality comes from the reporting by the New York Times on the fate of Petrograd in 1917. There was no suggestion of any falsely planted information; the paper's liberal credentials were impeccable. One historian later summed up the paper's performance:
In the course of little over two years the New York Times reported the fall of Petrograd six times, announced at least three times more that it was on the verge of capture, burned it to the ground twice, twice declared it in absolute panic, starved it to death constantly, and had it in revolt against the Bolsheviks constantly, all without the sligbtest foundation in fact.
Writing about the same event, Walter Lippman, himself a journalist, commented: "The news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see."
When it comes to the truth about ourselves, we resist truth even more strongly. If you consider that your "goodness" is quite adequate to satisfy the living God and to merit you a place is his heaven, may I suggest a little exercise. Read through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel, chapters 5, 6 and 7, and prayerfully consider how you measure up.
Dick Tripp, Lyttelton, New Zealand
Dick Tripp, Lyttelton, New Zealand