Thankful for Conviction

There is no app to download for any smart phone that proves if a person has been born of the Spirit or is walking in the Spirit. There’s no buzzer, no siren, no spinning light that shows the Spirit’s presence in an individual’s heart. So is it possible to know? Yes.

One signal, not the only one, but one signal of the Spirit’s work is conviction of sin leading to confession. In Ezekiel 36, God promised to send His Spirit and put new spirits within people. One effect of the Spirit’s work is that people will remember their evil ways and their not good deeds and “will loathe [themselves] for [their] iniquities and [their] abominations” (Ezekiel 36:31). In a similar way, Jesus, speaking to His disciples, promised to send the Spirit who, among other things, would convict the world concerning sin (John 16:8).

Without the Spirit there may be misery in sin, but there won’t be conviction of its offensiveness before God. Without the Spirit there won’t be confession of sin to God or others, but rather attempts to hide and rationalize it. Without the Spirit there won’t be acknowledgement of sin, nor any effective impulse to turn from sin. Whole-hearted conviction, open confession, and real repentance are only possible by the Spirit.

He is, after all, the Holy Spirit. His work includes opening our eyes to see sin, stabbing our consciences to loathe sin, and refining our tongues to taste the sweetness of holiness. Our weekly corporate confession depends on the Spirit’s work. If your sin weighs heavily on you and you find relief in confessing it, be thankful for that conviction. That’s a sign that the Spirit has given you life.

One Sign of Being Born

According to the apostle John, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).

In other words, no one stays the same after the new birth. Being born of God is like being raised to life from death, being transferred from darkness to light, being delivered from slavery to freedom, being released from guilt to peace, being cured from blindness to see sin for what it is and hate it. A regenerated man cannot keep on going in the same direction.

Christian, is the change visible in your life? Are you tending the imperishable seed sown by God in your soul? Are you putting away all filthiness so that you may receive the implanted word? Are you watching closely so that the cares of this world don’t choke the word and keep you from being fruitful? As one who is born again, are you practicing righteousness more reliably, loving the brethren better, and confessing your sin more eagerly? By these behaviors it is evident who are the children of God (1 John 3:10).

Though it ought to grow better by grace, our practice of righteousness and love of the brethren isn’t perfect. We do not say we have no sin. We will always be in need of an Advocate. That’s part of the reason for our corporate time of Christian confession: if anyone does sin as God’s child, he has an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1).

He caused us to be born again that we might not keep on sinning. But if we do sin, He promises forgiveness and cleansing when we confess our sins. Honest confession itself is one sign of being born of God.

Gloppy Gratitude

We impress no one by pointing out all the things that are wrong or incomplete. We live in a fallen world, so complaining about all the fallen things is easier than shooting fish in a barrel, it’s like breathing air while shooting fish in a barrel. Everyone does that.

Not everyone can or will give thanks for things in this sin ridden world. But the world is still God’s world, full of barrels and breaths, and He is making something of us in it. He also uses us to make something of others.

One of the things He intends to make us, and those around us, is thankful. We cannot sow grumbling, bitterness, or reluctance and think that we will reap thanksgiving. Our gratitude should belch and gush like runaway lava, carrying away small-minded criticisms and negative attitudes and spiteful squabbles. Our gratitude should be thick and sticky like a snowball gathering speed and size as it sweeps down the mountainside, uprooting every petty sapling planted in the path.

We need a gooey gratitude, nearly impossible to wipe off. If our thanksgiving is runny and thin, it will slip through the cracks and be easily ignored. But gluey, gloppy gratitude restricts how much negativity a neighbor can exercise. We won’t cause gratitude to abound by sharpening our complaints against crybabies; criticizing criticizers usually doesn’t deter them. Criticism ebbs as tides of gratitude surge. That consistency of gratitude will change a culture.

Ruined Appetites

We won’t receive the food of His holy Word if we are full of sin. We must acknowledge and abandon sin before we’re free to feed on Scripture, and feeding on Scripture is necessary if we hope to grow in salvation.

Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation– (1 Peter 1:1-2, NAS)

Numerous translations (such as the ESV, NIV, NRSV) read as if there were two commands but, really, Peter provides one prerequisite and then one command. We could play up the grammatical structure: “having put aside sin…long for Scripture,” or “Crave the pure after getting rid of the putrid.”

Peter mentions five sins and, though not an exhaustive list, these five are sufficient to inhibit spiritual growth. “Malice” or viciousness exalts oneself as judge over others and rather than positioning oneself under the judgment of the Word. “Guile” or deceit honors false words rather than the Word of truth. “Hypocrisy” allows division of soul rather than bring one wholeheartedly before the Word. “Envy” promotes pursuit of competing satisfactions rather than promoting the Word that is more to be desired than gold. “Slander” likewise ruins a tongue’s taste for true goodness.

Any and all of these sins will cripple our spiritual growth. But which sin in this passage is the worst? The greatest sin here is not longing for the Word. The other sins ruin our appetite for that which will nourish our souls. Sin burns our tongues, it leaves a bitter taste. All sins must be confessed and put away so that we will hunger for the good Word and grow.

Grow Right By

Growing in grace leads to surprising difficulties. As disciples we want to grow more and more into the image of Christ. As a church we want the whole body to be built up and knit together. Stagnant spirituality stinks, so how could spiritual progress not be necessarily refreshing? Growth is positive, yes, and sometimes painful.

Growing in grace can be painful when others see our growth and say something encouraging. A friend says, “You don’t fly off the handle nearly as often as you used to.” He’s thankful for the grace at work he sees in your life. You’re reminded how frequently you got up on the angry side of the bed. Your wife says, “I’m so thankful for how sweet and compassionate you’ve become.” You hear her talking about a husband formerly known as a selfish fathead. We wanted to be more patient and joyful. We prayed that God would make us more kind and loving. But now that other people notice, it hurts.

If they would just forget what we were like than maybe we could too. Of course, if they (and we) forget, the testimony of God’s grace is forgotten, too. Be careful when you grow in grace, other people may notice and it may pop more pockets of pride.

Be careful also when you want others to grow in grace. It can be painful, not only for them to see us grow, but for us to see them grow. Your disciple starts taking his kids for pancakes every Saturday morning and leaves you without a golf buddy. Your son gets serious about his faith and starts getting up early–unlike you–to read his Bible and pray. We wanted them to grow but not grow right by.

If they would just stay where they were then we could too. Of course, if they (and we) stay put, the God’s grace makes no name for itself. When others grow it may make us fearful that our own weaknesses and immaturity will be seen, or it make may us jealous that they’re receiving growth blessings that we want.

Blessings of grace, even in Christian growth, may make us uncomfortable and expose more need for growth and sins to confess.

No Successful Cover-Ups

Among his collected proverbs, Solomon teaches us a few things about the wisdom of confession.

Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)

First, attempts to conceal one’s sin ultimately fail because God already knows. Someone may ask how that observation comes from this verse. Here’s how. God’s fixes the truth in His universe that sin concealers cannot be a prosperers. But how does it work? Who enforces it? Assuming a successful cover-up as the verse does, how would we know whose prosperity to preclude? The principle holds because God knows. He cannot be snowed.

Second, confessing sin is the right foot forward and forsaking sin is the left foot, the necessary second step. Fools hop on confession alone. Honesty before God is good as far as it goes, but accurately describing a garden overgrown with weeds isn’t the same as pulling them out. Devoting time to confess sin should help us avoid the plastic smiles of hypocrites. But we also forsake sin rather than wallow in honest immorality.

Finally, the aim of confessing and forsaking is obtaining mercy. Confession doesn’t earn points with God; by itself, confession doesn’t make us presentable. We always need His mercy. In confession, we acknowledge our disobedience and our dependence on His grace. He gives grace to the needy, not to those who try to conceal their need by concealing their transgression. That’s why coming clean before God is wise.

Attitudinal Sins

What kinds of sins should we confess? What kinds of sins separate us from fellowship with God? What kind of sins did Jesus die for? The answer is the same for all three questions: all sins, every kind of sin, each sin.

I ask what kind of sins we should confess because a certain strain of defensiveness infects our hearts. This breed of defensiveness reasons and speaks about “attitudinal” sins in a way that suggests, or even asserts, that sins of attitude are untreatable.

Let’s acknowledge that we do not want to create an Attitude Bureau of sin detectives. It is not hard to imagine a Pride Gestapo getting out of hand, putting everyone in jail, then arresting themselves because they themselves were so proud to arrest proud people. The goal here isn’t to encourage quicker confrontation, but rather to encourage quicker confession.

Maybe the most protected attitudinal sin is pride and the denials are viral. “You don’t know what’s in my heart.” That’s true. We can’t know another’s heart absolutely, but what we see and hear comes from the heart, like it or not. “Everyone is proud.” That’s also true. But isn’t that an argument for recognizing sin and confessing, not against it?

Last week I read some reactions to a particular situation that’s become a very public confrontation of pride and other “heart” issues. Numerous responders seem to suggest that attitudinal sins ought to be left alone. Really?

So, as long as I don’t jab you in the throat with my “I’m #1” trophy, my anger and pride are untouchable? You’ve heard it said that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, but I say to you, unless that anger comes out in an objective way that everyone and their mother can identify, you really can’t call it anger or hold me responsible for it.

Sin comes through word and tone, in deed and motivation, in action and attitude. We ought to be gracious toward those with attitudinal sins in the same ways we ought to be gracious with all sorts of sinners (though graciousness is not the same as silence). Even more so, we ought to be ruthless in confessing all our own sins, including attitudinal sins.

Making a petty comment is easier to mitigate than punching someone in the face. It can be touchy to deal with things that aren’t superficial and obvious. But our hearts are also tricky and would prefer to hide. If it’s sin, it should be confessed, even if it’s our attitude.

Attached to Strings

When Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much is required” (see Luke 12:48), what was He talking about? In context, He certainly meant that those with great responsibilities should take great diligence in fulfilling those duties. In principle, He also meant that those with many resources should be great in sharing those resources. We received freely, we ought also to give freely. But is that all that is required from us with many blessings?

Is it not also true that those to whom much has been given, much rejoicing and thanksgiving is required? We received freely, we ought also to praise vigorously.

Openhanded sharing and openhearted celebration are not disconnected. Grateful people are more gracious, giving people. Those who sing at the top of their lungs are usually those who will sacrifice their lives. Conversely, a person who believes he doesn’t have enough to be thankful, won’t think he has enough to spare for others either. Those who fear that celebration might get out of control certainly can’t control what might happen if they give something to someone else. I mean, what if they don’t use it the right way? What if they aren’t appreciative enough?

Those questions, if accurate representations our perspective, condemn us. If God took that approach with us, would He ever give us anything? Instead, His generosity makes us generous and He has given much. In addition, He requires more than weak celebration. He requires not only that our hands receive and share, He also requires that our hearts receive and rejoice! We shouldn’t give with strings attached or sing like we’re attached to strings.

Good at What They Do

Our culture depends on deception. Our economy goes round as advertisers put the best face on their products, and it only takes $19.95 plus shipping and handling for us to realize that advertisers are good at what they do. In a similar way, much religious life goes round as church-goers stick on their best face for Sunday morning, and it only takes a little scratch before the sniff doesn’t smell so good.

Confession and deception occupy different sides of the field, and only one can side can advance the ball. In other words, it’s possible to gain ground in two directions but not at the same time. A man can mature in his integrity or in duplicity, in righteousness or in sin. He can become more practiced at living a whole life, the same inside and out, everywhere he goes. Or he can become better practiced at showing up as whoever he wants wherever he goes, a crafty actor putting on different faces.

Sinners who mature don’t sin less, they learn how to cover it better, or at least they think it’s covered better. We appreciate kids because they can’t help but speak candidly. Grown-ups are the ones who figured out the supposed benefits of distorting ugly words once they’ve left the heart on their way out the mouth. As we get older, it isn’t that we stop thinking foolish or sinful things. In many cases, we think worse things, but we’re more “wise” than to make it easy for others to see that we’re really fools.

Religious duplicity ruins the multi-faced and spoils everyone on whom it spills. Deceiving ourselves and others is easy, and is the easy way to destruction. We should do the harder work of confessing sin as sin in our hearts, turning toward light and walking in the truth, the only path to life.

Press On

It is a sin to be stagnant in spiritual growth. The apostle Paul said, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14). We always need to remember that we are saved and sanctified by faith alone in Christ alone, but true faith lives and grows. The Christian life is not a self-improvement project, but those who embrace the gospel cannot remain the same, they “press on.”

We are not done until we are complete in Christ. We long for the pure milk (of the Word) so that “by it [we] may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). We “make every effort to supplement [our] faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are [ours] and are increasing, they keep [us] from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).

To be sure, growth is often slow, but slow moving is not stagnant. Growth may not be immediately obvious, as with the physical maturation process, overnight is rarely long enough to observe measurable progress. But regular check-ups, perhaps with the help of others who know what to look for, may be quite important, especially if faith and hope and affections are not stronger. Every believing pilgrim makes progress and sins by staying in the same place.