MORE SINFUL, MORE LOVED
Written by Doug Ponder on December 4, 2016
Becoming Worse Since Becoming a Christian?
I recently met with a friend who was worried about some trends he had noticed in his life. Since coming to faith in Jesus several months ago, he has often felt like he is even more sinful today than he was before. How could that be? he asked. Does this mean that God hasn’t accepted me? hasn’t forgiven me? Am I even a Christian? If so, why would I feel worse today than before I met Jesus?
I know the feeling. I think most Christians do. There is a paradoxical tension between the sins we see so clearly and our expectations that the gospel would lead us to freedom from these things.
Some people try to relieve the tension by suggesting that the gospel has “noting to do with our behavior, only our beliefs.” But that isn’t quite right. It’s true that salvation is not a reward for our good behavior, but salvation is a gift that changes our behavior. It’s the message that brings a change of mind and change of heart that lead to a change in action (that’s what “repentance” is, and it’s why Jesus calls us to continually repent and believe). The gospel, in other words, is about “more than heaves and forgiveness.” It is the total good news about all that God has done for us and will do in us, which includes renewing his sons and daughters in his image (Rom 8:29; Col 3:9-10; 2 Cor 3:18).
Then why did my friend not see or feel this renewal going on?
He wondered, perhaps, if this meant he had not been sincere enough in his apology or strong enough in his faith. Maybe he wasn’t really a Christian after all. Maybe. But I don’t think that is true of my friend. I have as much confidence as anyone can have that he understands the gospel and trusts in Jesus with saving faith. Everyone who knows him testifies to the same.
So what gives? How do we explain his feeling of being even worse today than he was several months or even years ago, before he came to faith in Christ?
We Are More Sinful Than We Ever Realized
I think the answer is this: We are more sinful and flawed than we ever dared to admit, even to ourselves.
When you have lived your entire life in the pitch-black dark, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust to that “marvelous light” that called you out of darkness (1 Pet 2:9). Or, to speak plainly, we were (and still are, to a great degree) simply unaware of the extent of our own sinfulness. Apart from Jesus, we see only the “big sins” in our lives (even if we did not call them sins).
But the longer we spend in the light, the more our eyes adjust to life in God’s kingdom. And the more our eyes adjust, the more we see the stains on our shirt. They’ve been there all along, of course, but now we see them. We once were blind, but now we see. And what we see clearly now is not just Jesus, but a new awareness of our sinfulness.
This explains why many Christians feel worse off many months and years after coming to faith in Jesus. This is why many Christians wonder if they have made any progress in sanctification or growth in holiness at all. The truth is that you are almost certainly not more overtly sinful today than you were before you came to trust and treasure the costly grace of Jesus; you are probably just more aware of how bad off you really were—and still are—apart from Christ.
We Are More Loved Than We Ever Hoped
Alas, too many Christians stop with the last paragraph. Exiting the train one station too soon, they begin to live as if their new mission in life is to exclaim to the world how bad off everyone really is. Thus the good news of the gospel nearly gets swallowed up by the bad news of our sin. But it ought not be this way. For while it’s true that we are far more sinful and flawed than we ever realized or dared admit, we are also more loved and accepted in Jesus than we ever dared to hope.
That truth, first expressed by Elyse Fitzpatrick and later made popular by Tim Keller (in its many variations), wonderfully summarizes the heart of the gospel. We are more far sinful than we thought, yet we are more loved in Jesus than we can possibly know. We are more messed up than we ever realized, yet God is more gracious in Jesus than we ever dreamed. “There is more mercy in Christ than sin is us,” as Richard Sibbes said. And considering how much sin there is still in me, that can only mean there is a lot of mercy still in Christ.
My closing encouragement to my friend (and to you, if you have ever found yourself in a place like he did), was not to beat himself up for the sins Jesus already took a beating for. When you come to a fresh realization of the depth of your sin, there will always be the temptation to think that maybe you should have tried a little harder, believed a little more strongly, or done something to somehow offset sins such as serious as yours. But when Jesus died for you, he already knew the depths of sin you are just now discovering—and he still died for you anyway. So don’t worry about the fact that you are more sinful than you ever realized, for this also means that you are even more loved in Christ than you once realized too.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is a regular contributor to RE|SOURCE. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.