Monday, March 28, 2011

Peace of Mind is Peace with Scripture

Peace of mind largely depends on peace and harmony of thought (Col. 2:2-3). You can’t find cognitive peace and rest as long as your mind obsesses among several conflicting thoughts. Of course, I’m not talking about the higher, more esoteric questions – “Is light a wave or particles?”

We also ponder these more esoteric questions within the corpus of Christian revelation. How can the Trinity be one God and yet three persons? I’m not talking about these irreconcilable questions either, but rather those that profoundly impact our lives on a daily basis – “Is punishment or even a harsh word ever justified” or “Is genocide wrong?” These questions not only require down-to-earth answers. They also permeate so much of our decision-making and even what we think about ourselves and others.

Perhaps even closer to home are questions and doubts about our relationship with God. Can we be sure that He loves, forgives, and accepts us? While many verses give us this assurance, there seems to remain certain verses that tend to undermine our assurance. For example, let’s take several from 1 John:

• 1 John 3:6 No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.

• 1 John 5:18 We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him and the evil one does not touch him. (NASB)

John seems to be saying that if we sin, we are not God’s. This is a terrifying thought, especially for the one whose hope rests exclusively in God. While I knew that we are saved by grace through faith without any consideration of my moral performance (Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5-7; Romans 3:27), I was still plagued with doubts. Perhaps God saved me without my deserving it at all, but perhaps now He required moral perfection in order to stay saved? Although this doubt didn’t sound right to me, I couldn’t absolutely dismiss it. Its accusing finger regularly appeared in my face.

This, however, didn’t seem to be the message of Scripture, which consistently asserted that we stood before God by grace, since no one could ever be good enough:

• Psalm 130:3-4 If Thou, LORD, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared.

• Psalm 143:2 And do not enter into judgment with Thy servant, for in Thy sight no man living is righteous.

I also began to find the same assurances in the New Testament:

• Romans 3:19-20 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

Paul himself confessed that he continued to struggle with sin:

• Romans 7:25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.

• Galatians 5:17 For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.

And Paul wasn’t alone in confessing the fact that he hadn’t arrived morally. James also admitted that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). I therefore was able to comfort myself that I was in good company. Besides, when I read about the Apostles, I found that they too continued to struggle against sin.

I was beginning to grow in confidence and peace of mind, but I continued to be troubled by John’s statements. However, at closer examination, I came to conclude that John couldn’t have possibly have meant that sinlessness was a necessary sign of salvation. For one thing, he claimed that anyone who said to be without sin was a liar (1 John 1:8, 10). “Anyone” includes even those who are saved!

Furthermore, he reached out to offer the very hope that we all, who struggle with sin, so desperately need:

• 1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

This suggests that sin doesn’t damn us, but gives us an occasion – many of them – to enjoy anew the grace of God each time we confess our sins to Him, thereby instructing us of His love and patience with us. Nevertheless, as a doubter by nature, I continued to obsess over the two verses that continued to condemn me from His loving assurances.

As I continued to study, I found other reasons to dismiss my two “accusers.” In other verses, John demonstrated that there was on-going forgiveness for people, like me, who continued to struggle with sins:

• 1 John 5:16-17 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.

John assures us that the sinning brother would receive forgiveness and “life.” Sin was a continuing reality, even for the “brother.” (Scholars have long disagreed about the “sin leading to death.” It seems that the easiest way to understand this is in terms of a sin that a “brother” continues to refuse to repent – the sin that should also excommunicate him. Although we should continue to pray for such a brother, we should not pray that he is healed until he repents.)

It is after these two verses that one “accuser” appears: “No one born of God sins.” However, this present active verb can also be translated “anyone born of God does not CONTINUE to sin” 1 John 5:18; NIV). Seen in this light, it is not the sin that precludes salvation but the refusal to repent of sin and willingly continue in it. And this refusal is something antithetical to true faith, which rejects the former life of sin and wants to follow God.

While the wisdom of the Reformation proclaimed that we are saved by grace through faith alone – sola fide – it also proclaimed that such a faith is not alone, because it would give rise to a changed life.

I then confronted my first “accuser” to find that it too lacked the killing venom. Let’s examine the larger context:

• 1 John 3:4-9 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. And you know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, let no one deceive you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning.

Once again, I found that the problem wasn’t a matter of falling into sin, but instead the unrepentant “practice” of sin, something that even paralleled the devil’s own practice and delight in sin. In contrast to this, I could now easily see that the one who “practices righteousness” is not necessarily the one who is sinless, but the one who strives against the practice of sin and who is cleansed as he repents (1 John 1:9). Likewise, our victory isn’t a matter of achieving sinlessness, but of receiving a true faith in God (1 John 5:4).

I felt myself delivered, at least from that struggle, and brought one step closer to assurance and the peace of mind that I so desperately sought. No wonder that Scripture tells us to meditate on the Word day and night (Psalm 1)! There is no more blessed practice!

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