Most of the sincere, faithful Christians I know have a pretty healthy understanding of their own struggles with sin. We don’t usually live in denial over the ways in which we fail to honor God in thought, word, or deed. Typically we let the light of God’s Word shine into the dark corners of our hearts, illuminating and revealing the myriad of ways we fall short. Over these past months, as I’ve preached through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), I have been consistently broken over the sin in my own life. Each week, opening God’s Word to prepare to share it with my people, my own failures and messy brokenness have leapt at me off the page. Jesus demands everything, and I hold much back. He says, “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), and I am far from perfect. Hearing from my people over these months, the same is true for them. When we come to it with a grace-motivated, Spirit-produced humility and hunger, God’s Word has a way of opening us up and laying bare before our eyes who we really are.
Which leaves us with two options. When confronted by the persistent presence and ongoing power of sin in our lives, there are really only two ways we can respond. Let’s call them sin’s two roads – the two different ways we seek to deal with the reality of sin in our lives.
Sin’s first road is the road of works-righteousness. Most Christians know that they shouldn’t walk this road – that the gospel is about grace and not works. But at the same time, many find themselves slipping into this mentality, whether they realize it or not. It looks like this: “I feel like I am far from God because of my sin. I know that Jesus died for me and all, but I haven’t been living a very good life. I mean, I did [fill in the blank]!” And so, setting out on this road, people try to move closer to God through righteous obedience to his law. The problem is that righteous obedience with this goal in mind isn’t really righteous – because it’s done out of a wrong motive. Instead of serving God out of worship and delight, this righteousness is born out of duty and drudgery. It’s really just an attempt to manipulate God, appeasing him so that we can feel better about ourselves. If my wife and I argue, and I buy her flowers to help smooth things over, I’m really buying the flowers for myself, not her. That’s works-righteousness. Ironically (and devastatingly), the road of works-righteousness drives us away from the thing that we really need, because it makes us think that the solution to our ongoing sin problem lies within ourselves.
Sin’s second road is the road of repentance. But keep in mind, repentance is more than simply turning from sin; biblical repentance also involves turning to Christ and the gospel. It’s not adequate merely to turn from sinful patterns or behaviors. Instead, we must throw ourselves upon the mercy and grace of the cross, time after time, sin after sin. Only when we realize our ongoing need for the grace of the gospel, and only when we turn from sin and self-righteousness to a daily reliance on the gospel, have we truly repented. It is this road of true repentance that leads to the transformation of our character, to our sanctification. Many Christians have come to think that Christian growth means moving on from elementary teachings like the gospel to the application of deeper biblical principles. But we are not just saved by the gospel, we defeat sin by the gospel, too. Meaning we defeat sin when we continuously apply the gospel to our sin. We need gospel grace, every day, every hour, every moment.
When God’s Word does its heart-piercing work, opening us up to new understandings of our sin, may we run to God, clinging not to our empty self-righteousness, but to his perfect righteousness, credited to us through our faith in the gospel.