In response to one of my recent posts on social media, a beloved agnostic friend of mine commented, in part, “What’s with all you religious folk feeling like you’re sinners, wretches, pond scum, broken, fallen, in need of saving, and just plain terrible creatures…I know you’re just loving and lovable humans with minor foibles.” He also indicated that he thought we needed to have a little self-respect and stop beating ourselves up.
My friend is coming from a position of having been deeply wounded by the religion of his youth. He was treated shamefully by those he trusted and was made to feel worthless by the church. His response has been to totally repudiate the entire system which he believes continues to perpetuate that type of Spiritual Abuse. I know that he cares about me, and it both angers and grieves him that, as he sees it, I am still mired in that abusive system and am apparently so blinded by it that I have not only bought into the lie but I seem to revel in self-degradation.
Probably if you asked any one of the teens I’ve taught in Sunday School over the years what my favorite passage of scripture is, they would tell you it is Romans chapter 3 beginning with verse 10:
As it is written:“None 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.”
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
This compilation of verses from the Old Testament which comprise God’s own opinion of humanity make up a pretty scathing passage, all-encompassing in its unflattering description, and seems an unlikely favorite; but it’s mine because, rather than finding it to be degrading, in it I find sweet relief.
I grew up in a church steeped in legalism. I was told that it was possible for me to be perfect, and that if I was not, it was only because I was wickedly choosing to block the power of the Holy Spirit in my life. I was told that, when I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, only my past sins were forgiven; and, from then on I was responsible for living a life of obedience. I had to be certain to confess any sins which I did commit, because there was no hope for those who died with unconfessed sin. I was taught that Jesus was now in heaven going over the records of all who claimed to be Christians, to see whether or not their lives confirmed their profession, and if their records were not good enough, they would be lost. I was told that no one should be so bold as to say that they were saved, because as long as you were still alive there was still time to fail, so only God could be the judge of whether or not you were saved. Through the years I went back and forth between believing I was hopelessly lost to being self-righteously certain that I was doing a pretty good job.
But then the gospel found me. When I wasn’t looking for it and least expected it, there it was in all of its too-good-to-be-trueness. And what I learned in Romans 3 was that I am so much worse than I thought I was that I couldn’t possibly be good enough to please God; because no one is good enough. As a matter of fact, no one is good at all! Not even one single person; and that set me free.
Verses 19-20 confirm this when Paul says,
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
In other words, after reading God’s description of us, not one of us has anything left to say. No human being will be justified in God’s sight by keeping the law, because no human being is able to keep the law. The law tells us what to do and what not to do, but that’s all it can do – give us the knowledge of what sin is. It cannot give us the ability to obey it. In these verses God confirms our helplessness.
The fact is, if there ever was or would be one single person capable of keeping the law, Christ would not have come. If it were possible to earn our salvation by our good behavior, then whoever managed to do it would be saved because they deserved it. The rest of us would simply be out of luck. But, because no human being can meet God’s standard of perfect law-keeping, and because God in his mercy could not leave us in our helpless state, he revealed his rescue plan:
"But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. 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. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." -Romans 3:21-26
God gave us his own righteousness (Think about that, we have God’s own righteousness!) by sending his son, Jesus Christ, to live a perfect life and credit that perfection to our account, and to die in our place, for all of our sins, thereby reconciling us to God when we accept that gift by faith in him. In doing that for us, God satisfied the need for justice—by punishing his son in our place; and then he freely justified us. He is both just and the justifier. He did this because there was no other way. We were without hope, utterly incapable of saving ourselves. We were sinners, wretches and pond scum, and he loved us and saved us.
For me, that is the best news there could ever be. I can stop my vain efforts to measure up, joyfully embrace my desperate need, and rest safely and securely in the sufficiency of what was done for me without a smidgen of my help, because I am not and could never be capable of helping.
So, to my dear agnostic friend, this is why those of us who were beaten down by the law for years without ever hearing the true gospel, who despaired of ever being good enough but endlessly tried and pretended with our fingers crossed, now constantly want to talk about our condition as sinners; because we know that is what qualifies us for the all-access pass to the free banquet of grace. It does not demonstrate a lack of self-respect as you define that; rather, it is the key to claiming our new identity in Christ as holy, righteous, redeemed and beloved children of God.
As Martin Luther explained it, I am both a sinner and a saint, simultaneously (simul iustus et peccator), and in that status I humbly and gratefully stand.