KILLED ANY BUGS recently? And did you do it with a pure heart? It may not seem like a big deal to you, but back in the fourth century, a Catholic saint known as Macarius of Alexandria was troubled because he had swatted a gnat that stung him. It was not that he believed that killing bugs was wrong, but that he deplored his ‘unspiritual’ reaction to the sting. He had given in to his flesh! Being the pious man that he was, he was said to have sat naked in a marsh until he was bitten up so badly that he couldn’t even be recognized except for his voice! Legend has it that he remained in that marsh for six months!
Whether he was trying to appease his conscience, or trying to obtain a higher form of spirituality, he missed the point!
No amount of work or suffering could make him any closer to God. It is only through Jesus that we have access to God, and He said on the cross, “It is finished!”
When He died, the veil in the temple was torn in two, which made way for access into the Most Holy Place (Matt.27:51). This was the sacred place that, before, only the high priest could enter into, and that only once a year. He would sprinkle blood on the Mercy Seat, which covered the Ark of the Covenant and represented the throne of God. When Jesus died, His blood satisfied God for all of our sins and made a way for all to draw near to the throne. The point is that there is no other way. Forgiveness comes only through the cross, not works of self-beating. And the veil has already been broken– no amount of breaking ourselves can make us any nearer to the throne! We already have complete access through faith.
How to Draw Near to God
Through Jesus, you are as close to the Father and as loved as you can be. Do you believe this? Or do you still have some time in the marsh to do, before you consider God pleased? Will any amount of self-punishment please God in addition to the shedding of Christ’s blood?
“But I don’t feel near to God!” you might say. It is not something that is necessarily felt, it is something that must necessarily be believed. I’m not asking you to believe a doctrine, I am asking you to believe a REALITY: Christ paid the price for you, and thus God is pleased to receive you based on His merits. He isn’t remembering your sins (Is.43:25).
“Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19-22).
Notice it speaks of drawing near with “a true heart in full assurance of faith.” We do not draw near by penance or religious works, but by believing. It is “a new and living way,” not the old way of the law, which brought death. Yet many Christians bind themselves to a law of their conscience, and become burdened with a sense of God’s displeasure. They are remembering their sins when God isn’t! There goes the joy. It is like worrying about the high cost of a fancy meal and having no funds, when all the while your friend is treating!
Draw near by believing the truth about God– He is treating, and rest assured He is not short of funds– I mean grace.
Grace Goes All the Way
Grace is so simple and freeing, yet there is so much confusion about it that a large number in the church remain in bondage. Many believe that grace keeps them for heaven, but few understand that it keeps them in God’s pleasure even now. This is no new problem, as Paul alluded to it even among the Corinthians: “I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2Cor.11:3).
Somewhere along the line, the early church lost the simplicity that is in Christ. Gradually, much was added to the Gospel. Around the beginning of the third century, for example, many believed that it was baptism that washed away all of one’s offenses. Consequently, many Christians waited until they were closer to death before they got baptized, because they feared they might mess up again and lose everything!
Since this was clearly unreasonable, the church allowed for a single repentance again for those who had sinned after baptism. They had to lie in sackcloth and ashes, wear mourning clothes, fast, pray and weep, and bow before their elders, among other things. Later around the fourth century, excommunicated penitents might be allowed back into church fellowship if they suffered in some way ordained by the bishop; fasted; prayed; or abstained from bathing! This is man’s way, not God’s way.
Penance is a form of punishment, inflicted by the church or by oneself. Anyone who has seen the 1986 film, The Mission, will probably remember the scene with Robert De Niro straining to climb a muddy mountain with a great weight of armor strapped to his back. He was doing this in order to be forgiven and accepted by the people he had sinned against.
Very devout individuals have done penance, not necessarily to be forgiven for specific sins, but in order to destroy the passions of the flesh- believing that the flesh was holding their spirit back from closer communion with God. Thus, monks used to wear ‘hair shirts,’ which were shirts made of coarse cloth or animal hair that would insure genuine discomfort at all times.
There were, of course, many different forms of doing penance. We can look back on examples like these and shake our heads, but the truth is that penance can be very much alive and well in individual Christian believers today!
One may not sit in a marsh or put on a hair shirt, but still be inflicting punishment in the mind. Personally, I used to beat myself up all the time for stupid things I had said or done. My mood would become rather melancholy, and I would need time to ‘straighten up’ before I thought I could enjoy close fellowship with the Lord. I know many people feel this way in the church. It is as if we have to solve our thought problems and behavior problems before we can expect God to be happy with us again. This is a form of doing penance.
But this represents great confusion about God’s grace. Grace is not just a one time ticket that let’s us into God’s favor, and then we’re on our own! Grace covers us all along the way. Before ever knowing God, we came to Him by grace, believing that He would accept us through faith in Jesus Christ. There was no need to shape up. We could come, as the old hymn is titled, “Just as I Am.” After that, however, it seemed we had to measure up to keep Him smiling. The tendency was to pay more attention to our performance or the keeping of rules than to the work of Christ on the cross.
Grace for Grace
John wrote, “And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace” (John 1:16). It is not just that we are saved by the fullness of Christ. We actually receive it. And it is not just a one-time grace for entering into a relationship with God, it is grace for grace. That means that we are to continue in grace throughout the relationship and not just leave it at the beginning. Paul and Barnabas exhorted the new believers in Antioch “to continue in the grace of God” (Acts 13:43).
How do you continue in the grace of God, practically speaking? You do not beat yourself up over your corruption, or abstain from bathing! You do not spend a certain amount of time waiting for God’s anger to cool down. You go straight to Jesus, you see his body as the torn veil that grants you access to the Most Holy Place, you trust Him as the High Priest interceding for you, and you go covered in His sacrificial blood which has canceled out all sins (Hebrews 10:19-22).
A simpler way of putting it: you rejoice because all is well between you and God, thanks to Jesus. Then you worship Him for suffering for you and taking your blows. You bow down before Him in adoration because He cares so much for you. Then you rejoice in His resurrection and the hope of living eternally with Him, because it is His righteousness that has gotten you there, not your own. God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2Cor.5:21).
Don’t be confused about grace. There is no need to do penance. Repentance, yes, but penance no. Repentance is simply doing what I have stated above- turning to Jesus. That is all it takes. It does not take time or even a certain feeling. It is an act of the will.
The prodigal son (see Luke 15) repented as soon as he said, “I will arise and go to my father.” This son thought that he would have to do penance, thinking to ask his father to allow him to become a servant. But repentance was all that was necessary. The father received him with great love and joy. The father was not holding a grudge. Instead he threw a party!
Arise and go to your Father! Enjoy Him in His grace. You are not perfect, and you have perhaps just messed up, but He is waiting for you nonetheless, wanting to give you His best.