From current ideas about nutrition to parenting techniques to budgeting, organization, and every other kind of self-improvement, we seem to be fascinated with attempts at bettering ourselves. But as much as we want to improve, it’s not easy to talk about the reason we’re not okay in the first place. Sin is an increasingly unpopular word and it is used in fewer and fewer settings as the years go by.
Ironically, it is the one thing that unites and divides all of humanity. Remember that guy who cut you off in traffic last week? The lady in the news who left her baby in the hot car? Maybe the rude teenager at the Walmart checkout, or even that family member who has wronged you for years. We see those people and we’re glad that we’ve risen above their kind. We’ve been educated and enlightened and we would never act like them. But if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we ARE them.
The Bible tells us in Romans 3:11-18 (NIV),
…there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.
If that isn’t enough to make us feel, well, “worthless,” the Apostle Paul goes on.
Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips.Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know.There is no fear of God before their eyes.
This is not a picture that gives us hope for self-improvement. This is a picture of death. Do the images ring a bell? They should. When we read these awful phrases, pictures of our own ugly words, shameful deeds, secret thoughts, and failures to better ourselves flood our minds. We are in the same hopeless boat as our evil neighbors. This passage doesn’t say, “No one does good, except John, or Mary, or Evie.” It says, “No one. NOT. EVEN. ONE.”
The Bible is brutally honest when it comes to our sorry condition before God. While you and I would really like to make things better with a nice hot cup of coffee, a well-tended garden, or a great performance review, the words of truth, as well as the world around us, seldom let us bask in that illusion. But we try.
Let that ugliness settle in for just a minute longer. The perfect hair color you keep aiming for, the diet you keep trying to get right, and that promotion you’ve been stressing over will not make you acceptable to God. The resolve to stop losing it with your kids won’t help you. None of our human efforts can erase the past, present, or future sins that you and I will commit against each other, ourselves, and against the Lord.
Read the next few verses in Romans 3 and you will see that Paul addresses our self-improvement attempts. He tells us that learning and knowing the right thing to do only reminds us that we aren’t doing it. The dead have no way to improve their lives and we humans are dead–dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1).
What this means is that if there is any hope at all for our sorry condition, it must come from outside of us. It is not something that we can pull from somewhere deep inside us.
Romans 3:21-25 says,
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known…. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness.
Our hope comes from the righteous work of Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead. If our relationship with God is to be made right, the only thing we can do is put our trust in the perfect work of the Son of God.
Why is this good news? Think of the thing you are striving for most right now. That thing that is worrying you and stressing you out. If you are in Christ, you have no reason to worry about it. No one to impress. No one to compare yourself to. No future problems to avoid. Your life is hidden with Christ for all eternity. You are free from the judgment of others, and free from eternal judgment. The Father is pleased with you. You can do nothing to add to His love or cause Him to withdraw it. It is settled because Christ has once and for all exchanged your sin for His righteousness.
What efforts are you putting forth today that you hope will make you a better person? More beautiful, more at peace with other people, more intelligent, more successful? What reputation do you work hard to uphold? Instead of these efforts, first put your hope in the Good News that Christ has done the necessary work through His life, death, and resurrection. There is only one way to become acceptable and that is by the blood of Jesus Christ. This is called grace.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10).
So what part does our work for improvement play, if any? When the blood of Christ covers our lives, we are free to walk in good works. To do good and beautiful things that He has prepared out of the love He has lavished on us. We are free to ask others to forgive us when we have sinned against them. We are free to forgive others when they sin against us. We are free to repent and change as His Spirit works within us. The goodness that comes out of our lives will be for His glory! Bask in His glory this season and throughout the New Year. He came to pay the way that we can be washed clean.