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Real sinner, real grace

| Monday, April 4, 2022

“If you are a preacher of grace, then preach real and not fake grace,” Martin Luther wrote in a letter to Philipp Melanchthon in 1521. “If grace is true, then you must bear true and not false sin. God does not save those who are only fake sinners. Be a sinner — believing and rejoicing in Christ more boldly than you sin. And do so because Christ has overcome sin, death, and the world.”

In this letter, Luther reminds Melanchthon of a fundamental and precious reality: Jesus died for real sins and real sinners. He did not die for basically good people who simply make mistakes now and then. No, He died for treacherous, God-hating (Romans 1:30) sinners, for those who “were by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), for wicked men whose “every intention of the thoughts of [their hearts] were only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Indeed, natural men are called “the children of the devil” (1 John 3:10). It is for these He died, for these He “suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). When we see the blackness of our depravity and sins, the Cross gloriously shines. Salvation is truly all of God.

So often, though, I find myself wanting to make excuses for my sins rather than say with David, “Against you [God], you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). “I was tired,” I’ll say to myself. “I was really hungry,” “I’m just having a bad day,” “I’m not feeling the best,” “I didn’t know…” (when I clearly did know), “I didn’t mean to…” (when I clearly meant to do or say just that), etc. How often have you apologized for something you’ve done by saying “I’m sorry, but…”? Or how many times have you apologized to someone just because you wanted to hear that you’re still “a nice person”? We naturally make up excuses or desire words of affirmation because we can’t live with the fact that we are not good. Yet we secretly wonder how many more bad things we can do before we are no longer classified as nice, good, and kind.

In the world, being a good person is relative. It’s based on comparison to other people. But that’s not how God operates. So often in Scripture, we hear that “God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:11). God does not grade on a curve, to borrow from R.C. Sproul. “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers” (Psalm 5:4-5). So what is the verdict for all without Christ? Universal condemnation. That’s because “[n]one is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12; cf. Psalm 14:1-3). Even “our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” to Him, and “[w]e all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 64:6). Indeed, the imagery used for the law and the old covenant in Hebrews 12 is Mount Sinai, a mountain that could not “be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even a beast touched the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear’” (Hebrews 12:18-21). If we attempt to approach God with our record of “good deeds” or excuses, we will be condemned to hell. “[B]y the works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight” (Romans 3:20). 

How, then, shall we be saved? How can we escape the righteous wrath of God? The Bible tells us the answer: “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:22-25). “[H]e was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). “[T]he blood of Jesus,” John writes, “cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Through repentance and faith in Christ and His finished work, we are saved.

The boast, then, is not in ourselves, in our own works or in our devotion to God, but in God Himself. “[F]ar be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul writes (Galatians 6:14). This will eternally be the case. We are not saved by grace and then earn even part of our salvation on the back-end with our works. It is always and only by grace and by the blood of the Lamb. 

Thus, Luther’s point holds true. We should not create a facade of self-righteousness but should rather “[b]e a sinner,” meaning that we should recognize ourselves as sinners and the deep, real sins (both past and present) in our life — and rejoice all the more in the One who “bore our sins” (1 Peter 2:24), real and heinous sins, and the wrath of God in our place. In the Cross alone, we find real grace for real sins and real sinners, and we can say with Paul, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).

Andrew Sveda is a junior at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, majoring in political science with a supplementary major in theology. In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading and playing the piano. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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