Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Our Struggle for Assurance

We so desire the assurance of God’s love, but sometimes it seems as if His Scripture presents the biggest obstacles. For instance:

“Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

I’ve often found this verse, and many like it, very troubling. I had been trying my best to trust that salvation is a free gift, only to encounter a verse like this, which seems to suggest that there is some fine print involved in the promise of salvation as a free gift. It seems to say that I must achieve a level of holiness before I can expect to become God’s child eternally. It’s like signing up for a home-owners’ loan to later discover that the interest has skyrocketed.

How can we have a peace and joy in believing when the source of our belief – Scripture – seems to say such contradictory things? If the foundation isn’t solid, how can the house built upon it be solid? And without the assurance that comes from believing that we are safe in a God who loves us beyond comprehension (Eph. 3:17-20), we’re doomed to continual, morbid self-examination to convince and then re-convince ourselves that we have achieved an adequate level of holiness.

To compound the problem, if our own holiness is the ticket, even in part, into heaven, then we’re condemned to feverishly trying to convince myself that I have the winning ticket, that I am worthy to enter this exclusive party. Such thinking is the breeding ground of self-deception, self-righteousness, and self-absorption – not very pleasant fruit.

Indeed, Scripture can wound, but Scripture can also heal us from those wounds. I found great comfort in learning about the lives of the Patriarchs. Jesus affirms that they will enter the Kingdom of God (Luke 13:28). However, when we scrutinize their lives, we are appalled, at least initially, by what we find. Abraham had made his wife Sarah into a prostitute. As they journeyed the various provinces in the Promised Land, he would coerce Sarah into claiming that she was his sister so that he could derive some material benefits. On one such occasion, because of her beauty, the king of the Philistines took her as one of his wives. However, God prevented him from having sex with her and warned him to return Sarah to her husband.

When the king asked Abraham how he could have done such a despicable thing, Abraham lamely tried to justify himself:

"I said to myself, 'There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.' Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her, 'This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, "He is my brother." ' " (Genesis 20:11-13)

On many accounts, Abraham seemed to have failed the holiness test. Of course, his nephew Lot was no better. He fell in love with the life of Sodom, even though it was infested with rapists. He was willing to sacrifice his two virgin daughters to the raping mob, and even after that, he had to be coerced into leaving that hell-hole, and then begged permission to reside in Sodom’s sister-city. Nevertheless, he is also regarded by God as a righteous man whose heart was grieved by the sin of his beloved city (2 Peter 2:7)!

How do we make sense out of these contradictory portraits? These aren’t unusual. In fact, we find them so often, that we are forced to try to make sense out of them. Jacob was the biggest conniver. Even his name reflected this fact. He swindled his brother Esau out of his birthright, deceived his father Isaac into giving him the blessing intended for Esau, and then spent the next several years competing with uncle Laban to be the cleverest swindler. Nevertheless, Jacob remains beloved of God (Romans 9:13).

All of these examples confront us with peculiar cases of people who fell short of holiness and yet were among the blessed of God. We can add to these many more – David who committed adultery, murder and deception; Peter who denied the Lord; Isaac who also pimped his wife; Paul who persecuted the church and caused Christians to disown their faith. Yet these miscreants found mercy because they repented. We can even say that our God worked lovingly in their hearts to bring forth this repentance (2 Tim. 2:25; Acts 5:31).

So how do we deal with the Bible’s requirement for holiness? The Book of Hebrews provides the reverse illustration of Esau to help us understand. Although Esau was nobler than Jacob, he lacked a heart for the things of God. In fact, Hebrews, after asserting the need for holiness, warns us about being like Esau:

“Lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.”
(Hebrews 12:16-17, NKJV)

Esau wanted his father’s blessing – it carried certain benefits – but he wasn’t interested in God. While he fought to have the blessing and even tried to kill Jacob, he never repented or was willing to confess his sins. He never came to terms with the fact that his life was devoted to self and not to the things of God. Had he been interested in God, he would have had more esteem for his spiritual birthright.

The resolution comes across like a trumpet blast: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness!!!” (1 John 1:9). This is what had made all the difference for the Patriarchs.

I don’t think we sufficiently appreciate what our Savior has promised us. In receiving God’s pardon, the past is no longer remembered. Abraham becomes a prince, and Jesus castigates the religious leadership for not having done the works of Abraham (John 8:39)! Clearly, Jesus would now only see holiness in Abraham.

Israel had been full of rebellion and criticized Moses for taking them away from their security in Egypt, yet our mysterious God declares of them: “By faith they passed through the Red Sea as by dry land” ( Hebrews 11:29).

Job had been dishing out many accusations against God, but after he repented of his rash speech, God declared to his judgmental friends: "My wrath is aroused against you and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has” ( Job 42:7-8). According to God, Job had spoken correctly. Evidently, all of Job’s railing had been obliterated, cleansed away!

We will always struggle with sin in this temptation-filled life, where our own holiness is unobtainable. However, our blessed Savior has provided a safety net – He will forgive and cleanse us as soon as we cry out to Him, even if we sin 70 x 7 times! Glory be His Name forever and ever!

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