Yeah…Don’t Order the Cap and Gown Just Yet

God has been so faithful to me these past few years – actually, in hindsight, my entire life – that I hardly know where to begin. For today, I suppose, it might be helpful for me to share how He has been oh-so-gently calling me to true, deep repentance of some damaging, besetting sins. Rather than bring out the really big hammers – serious illness, loss of loved ones, financial ruin – He has instead, in His great mercy, seen fit to deprive me of 1) inner peace, 2) restful sleep and 3) an undisturbed stomach.

Sleepless nights may not sound much like an act of mercy in one’s life, but if the end result of these afflictions is a good, hard look at whatever heart attitude – a.k.a. “sin” – has brought me to this particular place of pain, then I want to say it is a small price to pay if God will use it to really focus my attention. Besides, I know myself well enough to be confident that, without pain, I am not prone to really hear much of anything God has to say to me. No pain, for me, frequently equals out to too much in the way of lip service and too little in the way of attention span.

If you’ve been attending The Crossing for more than ten minutes, you already know that one of the greatest gifts the pastors have to offer the congregation is an uncompromising devotion to the truth of God’s Word. That, along with an ability to boil down complex theological truths into short, simple, yet thoroughly-biblical phrases that anyone, even the most stubborn among us, can easily receive and (with His enabling) implement.

So here’s just one example: Which statement are you more likely to remember as you go about your work week?

  • When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent,” He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

  • You’re never going to get your cap and gown.

The first statement, Item #1 on Martin Luther’s list of Ninety-Five Theses written in 1517, is quite rightly a cornerstone of the Christian reformed faith. Yes, of course…I completely agree that we, as Christians, are indeed called to lives of continual repentance. I feel certain that there are all kinds of excellent reasons why Luther chose this to be the very first statement on his list, and of course learned historians and theologians have written (literally) volumes upon volumes in response to this assertion.

The second statement, seared forever onto my heart courtesy of Pastor Dave Cover, basically says the same thing: “You are never, ever, going to ‘arrive’ at a place in your walk with Christ where you can kick back and relax. As soon as the Lord has finished dealing with you in one area of sin, I guarantee that He is loving, just and faithful enough not to stop there. So if you are longing to get to that place where you can be content that you have achieved ‘sufficient’ holiness, you are just going to be frustrated, angry and depressed.” All of those thoughts, pared down to a single memorable statement, have served to remind me that walking with Jesus is never a done deal, at least not in this life. No cap and gown for me, much as I might want one.

Why, then, do I still feel my heart instinctively rebel at the thought that there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done…even when it is painfully obvious to me (and everyone else) that I still have far to go? What is it about us – or me, at least – that seeks to find a foothold where we can rest, be satisfied with the progress that has been made, and move on to other pursuits? “Thanks for all the help with the holiness! I’d like to turn my attention to other matters now, if that’s OK.” Perhaps there is more going on here than the Lord protecting us from ill-informed pride and smugness.

The life of the Christian is compared more than once in the New Testament to an athlete running a race (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Hebrews 12:1-2) and, indeed, The Crossing has an excellent sermon series in its bookstore entitled (if memory serves) “Running the Race of Your Life.” Where the Apostle Paul uses the imagery of a perishable laurel wreath (1 Corinthians 9:24-27), Dave chose to go with some more contemporary imagery that just about anyone can relate to. The wreath, just like the cap and gown, signifies that we have arrived at a triumphal ending, that a mark has been made that cannot be erased, and that we have moved on to still-greater pursuits. None of those concepts, unfortunately, finds a valid counterpart in our ongoing walk with Christ.

My immediate, fleshly response to yet another call for repentance is roughly analogous to a cancer patient refusing further treatment: “It’s going to be hard. It will hurt, and it will surely upset the rhythm of my daily life.” In short, death – whether it be physical or spiritual – seems “better” somehow. However, though I confess to balking initially at God’s ongoing healing in my life, I can also say that I am deeply grateful He continues to pursue me. Praise God for sleepless nights and upset stomachs, for not leaving me to myself, content to rest in some pathetic, imagined state of “sanctification achieved.” Even smack dab in the middle of my disquietude, I am exceedingly awed by God’s unwillingness to allow me to continue on in sin, folly and rebellion.

How odd that we are so reflexively prone to refusing Christ’s cure! May we all seek His enabling to quit whining and start repenting both of the sin He is mercifully revealing to each of us, as well as the desire to be handed our sanctification diploma in this lifetime.

Psalm 32 (ESV)

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

Therefore let everyone who is godly
offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found;
surely in the rush of great waters,
they shall not reach him.
You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you.

Many are the sorrows of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD.
Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

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