So I have always thought of myself as “the difficult child” or at least “the slow one” in God’s family because it seems to take me forever to learn the simple truths of God. In reality I have learned (very slowly) over the past few years that this is indeed the case as God has been teaching me about my own sin and failures; and get this, because of my sin, I was too dumb to recognize what God was trying to teach me about my sin. Weird huh?
In short, this is what God has opened my eyes to see: I’m really bad, the worst of sinners actually. Of course, if you are like me, you read that and offer mental acknoledgment (“aren’t we all Robert”) but you don’t really feel it in your soul (at least I never really felt it in my soul). Even now, I don’t know that I genuinely feel the depth of my sin before God. Why is this I ask?
As best as I can tell, it’s because of my own sin, especially complicated by my strong sense of self-righteousness. Since my early teen years I have had a tremendous desire to be Godly and to measure up to the Lord. Hence, I began to search the Scriptures for appropriate actions to take, and gradually fell into greater and greater legalism. Because of my journey, I have a huge soft spot in my heart for all those trapped in the bonds of legalism. So many of them, like myself, honestly thought they were doing the right thing, thought they were measuring up to God, etc. However, there was one thing missing, just a minor thing called the gospel.
How did I miss the gospel? It seems like a no brainer, but the reality was that I had treated the gospel as a one-time occurance (and to a certain extent, this is correct: justification is immediate when God brings us to Himself and we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior). However, from that point on, the issue at stake is not to perfect our own righteousness as it is to live in Christ’s righteousness. This is the point that I missed.
I often quoted James 4:16 “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” This led me to believe that if I could be righteous then my prayers would be effective. Of course I prayed asking God to make me righteous, and I tried my best to be righteous. The problem was that in all of my focus on this verse, I failed to reflect on Isa 64:6 “Our righteous deeds are like a poluted garment” and Rom 3:12 “none is righteous, no not one.” Regardless of how hard I try to acheive any level of righteousness, I fall short. Thus, I can never be confident in my prayers based on my own effort.
Another concern I had was that I genuinely believed that I had conquered most sins. The only one that I “really” struggled with was lust, and I had deceived myself to the point that when I read lists of sins (like the works of the flesh in Gal 5) that I would only flag the ones on lust as having anything to do with me. All the rest I would mentally check off and thank God that He had helped me to overcome those sins (even though I couldn’t even really remember ever doing them because I was such a healthy Christian). I even knew the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9) and yet assumed it couldn’t deceive me. The very next verse makes it clear the Lord searches and knows the heart and yet I assumed He found it as I did: pretty clean, considering how devoted I was to the Lord.
Fortunately throug the grace of God, He has slowly been using the Holy Spirit to open my eyes. Honestly, I hate it! I’ve never felt so sinful before. I can’t decide if I have totally backslidden in my faith or just had my eyes opened to the truth. It’s hard to say, but I tend to think it’s the latter because I still spend time daily with God. My time with Him has changed though, because now it’s much more humiliating. The Bible is more clear, more penetrating. Could it be that now I read to be changed, rather than to further support my self-righteousness?
As I have been reflecting on the righteousness of Christ and realizing it has been imputed to me, the Holy Spirit has been opening my eyes to the real meaning of some of these passages. The prayer of the righteous man in James? That’s the man who’s faith (theme of the book) in the righteousness of Christ and is taking action (the second part of the theme) to live in that righteousness. It’s not that we achieve the righteousness as much as we live it out. My prayers are effective because I approach the throne through the righteousness of Christ. In other words, it’s what Jesus said in John 14:13-14 “Whatever you ask in My name, this will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” Since a name encompasses all that someone is, asking something in Jesus name is about asking something in light of His righteousness. We approach through His righteousness, we ask in accordance with His righteousness, and then He acts to demonstrate His righteousness. It’s not something we tack onto the end of a prayer as a magic formula to get our prayers through to God.
So as I have begun to see my own sinfulness, the cross has looked more beautiful as it has become more and more my only hope, not just for salvation from sin, but for any righteous standing before God. Now I can come to God, not in a mental ascent to the righteousness of Christ, but in a desperate yet firm stance in the total righteousness of Christ, seeing my self-rightousness nailed to His cross. Believe it or not, He had to die for my attempts at righteousness, because since they were acted in my own accord and strength, they were in reality an attack on God’s sovereignty and holiness. Ouch, that hurts. My best efforts to please God is what nailed Jesus to the tree.
Have I fully acheived this stance of living in the grace of Christ? Or course not. I’ll never fully understand it until I meet Him face to face. Has God called me to begin this jouney? Indubitably so! And in that I rejoice. What an awesome priviledge to begin this exhilerating journey into the righteousness of Christ. Oh to be found in Him, not having my own righteousness that comes through works but that which comes through faith in Christ–the rightousness that depends on God through faith (Philippians 3:9).