My sister once noticed the following words pinned to the noticeboard of the hospital where she worked: ‘Due to government cutbacks, the light at the end of the tunnel has been extinguished until further notice!’
We may well feel the same way about our lives. The problem is not government cutbacks; the problem is sin. We despair about the hold sin seems to have on our lives and we wonder where the light is at the end of the tunnel.
There is hope, however. Although the Bible leaves us in no doubt about the evil of our own hearts, it also leaves us in no doubt about where we find hope. It is true that we have a daily struggle with sin, but God’s grace is greater than our worst sin!
This is what the apostle Paul shows us, having acknowledged the devastating problem of sin: ‘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 3:23-25).
Our lives don’t measure up to God’s perfect standards, but through faith in Jesus we can be justified (declared ‘not guilty’ before God) and redeemed (rescued from sin and for God).
Notice Paul says that this has all been given as a gracious gift of God and is only possible because of Christ’s blood spilt on the cross for us. The cross is the very definition of love; it is the place where God’s grace overwhelms the darkness of our hearts for ever. ‘In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10).
Although we must recognise the presence of sin in our lives as Christians, we must also recognise a greater presence. God is ever at work in our lives by his Spirit, and day by day he is making us more like Jesus. This process of being made holy (or sanctified) covers the past, present and future, according to the New Testament.
It is biblically true to say that the Christian has already been made holy. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians about the evil lives they used to lead before becoming Christians and then describes the difference God’s grace makes: ‘But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God’(1 Corinthians 6:11).
It is also biblically true to say the Christian is being made holy. The writer of Hebrews states that, ‘by one sacrifice [Jesus] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’ (Hebrews 10:14).
Paul writes on the same theme in 2 Corinthians 3:18, and there describes the Spirit’s work in our lives as that of making us more like Jesus: ‘And we … are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit’.
He describes the characteristics of God (‘the fruit of the Spirit’) that are being reproduced in our lives by the work of the Spirit: ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23).
Holiness is also part of our future as Christians. The Bible tells us that the Christian will be made holy. Paul prays these words for the Thessalonian Christians (1 Thessalonians 3:13): ‘May he strengthen your hearts, so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father, when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones’.
Elsewhere, Paul describes the church as the ‘bride of Christ’ (Ephesians 5:27). This church, Christ the bridegroom will one day ‘
present … to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless’. Jude speaks of Christians being presented ‘before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy’ (v. 24).
It is a bit like going out on a date with a new boyfriend or girlfriend. When you fall in love with someone, you take your meetings together extremely seriously. You anticipate them with great excitement. You prepare yourself for the day when you will be together.
If you are a woman, you chose the right perfume, style your hair and then change your clothes three times before you are happy that you look alright! If you are a man, you do something outrageous like have a shower, or put on after-shave, or even iron your shirt!
When you meet the one you love, you want to look as ‘faultless’ as possible, and you revel in the tremendous joy of just being together. That maybe gives us a small insight into another meeting we should anticipate with great excitement — the day when we are brought into the presence of the living God!
The wonderful truth about that day, however, is that God himself will have prepared us for it, through the work of his Son on the cross. We will be faultless. We will be totally clean and ready to meet God.
The Bible promises that this will be a day of tremendous joy. It is our future as Christians. We will be unstained, unwrinkled and unblemished in God’s glorious presence.
That day of perfection, however, is still a future one, so how then are we to live in the meantime? Well, we are called by God to pursue holiness.
It strikes me there are two ways we can wait as Christians for that future to be revealed. The first is what we might call ‘passive waiting’. That’s the sort of waiting that you do as you await the arrival of a bus.
You stand at the bus stop, read the newspaper or day-dream. In other words, you do nothing of any significance. But the Bible does not call us to be passively waiting for eternity; rather it calls us to ‘active waiting’.
That’s the sort of waiting you do as you await the arrival of new baby. There are all sorts of things which need to be done to get ready for that great day. You paint the small room. You borrow every piece of baby equipment you can lay your hands on from your friends and family, and you buy a shelf full of nappies and baby wipes.
There are important preparations to make. The same is true as we wait for eternity. We must pursue with every fibre of our being in this life what we will become in the next — being like Jesus.
The final activity of God’s Spirit I want to note here is that he empowers us to live as Christians and enlightens us so we can understand how much we are loved by Christ. Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians with these words: ‘I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.
‘And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge’ (Ephesians 3:16-19).
We may well feel weak and sinful, but God is powerful and is at work within us by his Spirit, combating sin and its destructive effects. He will help us turn from sin and be more like Jesus each day, and he will help us understand how much we are loved by Jesus.
The Spirit reveals to us the wonder of God’s grace in the gospel. He shows us day by day that Christ’s love for us is wider, longer, higher and deeper than we could ever have imagined.
He helps us to see we are loved by Christ with an intensity and magnitude beyond our wildest dreams. It is this understanding that gives us the motivation to keep struggling with our sin.
In Mark 1:15, Jesus commands people to ‘repent and believe the good news’. That is the response we first make to the gospel. It is through repenting and believing (by the grace and power of God) that we become Christians.
However, we need to be aware that these are not just one-off responses we make to Christ as we are brought into God’s family. They are actually the responses to the gospel Christians need to make daily.
We might think that repenting and believing are for non-Christians; once we have become Christians we can move on from this basic teaching to something else, but that is not what the Bible teaches.
The commands of Jesus, from Mark 1:15 in the original Greek, are in the present imperative tense, showing that they are to be continuous rather than one-off responses. Every day we must turn to God from sin, even at great personal cost. Every day we must put our faith in the Jesus of the cross. The Bible tells us to make an active daily response to the gospel.
The author is a lecturer at Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary. This article is an edited extract from his recent book Priority One (EP Books; 128 pages, £6.99; ISBN: 9780852349359).