Monday, September 17, 2007

The Great Work Desired

If you do not attend Metro East Baptist I would encourage you to read John Ensor’s book The Great Work of the Gospel with us. If you are reading along I trust that you have made your way to the second chapter.

Our joy in the Gospel is directly proportional to our understanding of sin. In other words, how can we rightly revel in Christ’s redeeming work on the cross if we don’t think our sin was that big of a deal? In this, many contemporary evangelicals have not been well instructed. I have found not a few Christians who do not even know that outside of Christ we were enemies of God (Colossians 1:21). One brother told me not long ago, “I know we’re sinners but we were never God’s enemies.” Sadly, he is not alone in his assessment. People who think our situation outside of Christ was bad but not that bad will never rightly understand the cross. They will never fully appreciate salvation. They are like ones who have been raised from the dead but believe they were only cured of a bad flu. They are thankful to be sure but not enough to reorient their lives around this profound reality.

Ensor writes about as well as anyone on the subject of forgiveness. One of the reasons his writing on this subject is so affecting is because he spends ample time explaining from the Scriptures the tragic reality that necessitated our need for forgiveness. He writes, “So the prerequisite work of God in grace is an examination of guilt. God, the surgeon of our souls, cuts deep into our natural pride to convict us of the reality of our guilt. The desirability of God’s forgiveness can grow only as the deniability of our own sinfulness shrinks.”

But fallen humanity will always resist a full and accurate acknowledgement of sin. We are dodgers and twisters. We take what may be known about God and ourselves and distort the truth according to our own sinful lusts (Rom. 1). Confession of sin has fallen from David’s “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…” to “I’m not perfect. I’m only human.”

Ensor writes, “Even when we feel guilty, we do not believe it is because we are guilty.” He places much of the blame, and justifiably so, on humanistic trends in counseling and psychotherapy:
“The solution, many suggest, is to treat guilt as a psychological condition. We look to therapists to sift through our memories until they find the clinker that set off our guilt, so we can remove it. We achieve success when we hear, ‘Really, there is not justifiable reason for you to feel guilty – it’s not your fault.’ Plenty of books will tell us this, as will religious swamis. People spend thousands of dollars to confirm that the origin of their guilt is found in what somebody else did to hurt them” (p. 33).

Don’t misunderstand. There are godly men and women who labor at the art of biblical counseling. These are people who have worked hard at learning how to get under the layers of troubled hearts in order to get them to the wholeness that is discovered in Christ. But every good biblical counselor knows what anyone familiar with the Scriptures knows: that men and women outside of Christ cannot be relieved of their guilty conscience until they come to Christ and taste of His full forgiveness.

Interestingly, I have encountered many professing Christians who struggle with debilitating feelings of guilt and condemnation. Sometimes it is the result of an unhealthy preoccupation with self. Other times there is abuse in the past that left them so scared that feelings of condemnation overwhelm them. But for many others, their source of guilt feelings spring from the fact that they have never truly reckoned with the nature of their sin. They may have “prayed the prayer” when they were a child but they never understood their need for forgiveness. Now as adults they are burdened with a guilty conscience and all that the therapeutically minded church can do is teach them a baptized version of “I’m Okay. You’re Okay.”

These therapeutic approaches are offered in an effort to help. But the person with a guilty conscience will not be helped until him realize that his sin is worse than they can imagine. This seems counter-intuitive, even cruel in an age of “feel good” spirituality. But only after an honest confession of sin which is often preceded by mourning can there be a proper appreciation for the fact that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).


riccrowder said...

Being a lay-theology student (of yours) how does this appreciation for forgiveness granted in the gospel balance with, what I understand to be, an unhealthy "worm theology". Is it possible to overemphasize the sin and minimize the redemption?

Todd Pruitt said...

As sinners it is always a possibility for us to get it wrong. A preoccupation with self can take on numerous guises. Some people are narcisistic. They are taken by their own "goodness." However, I have dealt with folks whose self-centeredness is driven along by unhealthy self-loathing.

My big concern however is that too many people are invited to "accept Jesus" not realizing that repentance from sin is necessary if we are to come to Him in faith. And there will be no repentance if the reality of our sin is minimized. As I read about great saints like William Carey, John Newton, John Bunyan, etc they all wrote with such joy about their conversion. But they also wrote with such grief about their sin. I really think those two realities go hand-in-hand. The most joy-filled Christians are the ones who really know from what they were saved.

Now, if a Christian cannot find joy and a sense of release then they have not properly understood the fullness of the forgiveness of Christ and that is tragic. To fail to know the joy of forgiveness is just as much a denial of the Gospel as denying the grievous reality of sin.