God, Be Merciful to Me

I am a sinner. I don’t deny it. But most of the time I don’t think much about it either. I don’t seem to obsess about sin the way the ancients used to, at least not about my own sins. I  don’t punish myself or go to extreme measures to fight sin off. Most of the time, my sin feels more like a low-grade fever more than it does a raging fire. Its presence is an ongoing irritation that may hinder me from being my best, but it doesn’t keep me from functioning. Sin doesn’t bother me that much either. If anything, the fact that I am a sinner serves as a kind of escape clause when things go badly. “What did you think would happen?” I want to say. “I am a fallen person living in a fallen world. Of course, I went off the rails.”

The fact that we are sinners is one of the few religious concepts that a majority of people agree upon. Most people identify with the label sinner. I think we actually derive a measure of comfort from the assertion. We are strangely comforted by sin’s universal presence. For some of us, the comfort we take in knowing that we all sin is the kind that a bad student might take from the class curve. We reason that if sin is normal, then we are normal. Even if there is something wrong with us, we can at least say that it is only your average, garden variety of wrong. Everybody suffers from it. Surely God won’t penalize everybody?

The ancients weren’t as sanguine about the subject. The early Christian monastics went into the wilderness not only to pursue holiness but to make a study of their sinfulness. Those early Christians analyzed sin and categorized the many ways it manifests itself. They were interested not only in identifying the specific acts that should be regarded as sinful but wanted to understand the internal dynamics which shaped sinful behavior.

Why do we think so differently? One reason is that we have very different notions about virtue. Most moderns don’t think much about virtue at all. The word seems too out of date. Virtue sounds more like something our Victorian great-grandparents would have been concerned about. The notion of virtue is indeed an ancient one. The Greek philosopher Aristotle saw virtue as the pattern of right behavior that characterized a person. Virtue is a habit of life that moves in the right direction. Vice is the same, only moving in the opposite direction.

But even if the term seems archaic, the idea of virtue is not as old fashioned as we might think. Not if we understand virtue as a preferred pattern of life. We may have dropped the philosophical language as a culture, but we still have strong feelings about the way people should live. Theologian James K. A. Smith captures this when he defines virtue as “an ultimate vision of the good life.”

We may not talk about virtue much, but we believe in it. If you doubt this, spend a few hours reading through the opinions expressed on your favorite social media feed. What is all that outrage about? More often than not, it is about virtue or the failure of virtue. We may not all agree on the standard but our vision of “the good life” is clear enough that we regularly criticize those who don’t measure up to that vision. Contemporary interest in virtue seems to be primarily negative. Our ideas about what is good do not necessarily serve as a basis for self-examination and personal improvement. Often they merely provide the grounds for carping against others we perceive to have fallen short.

Others of us treat sin the same way we do high cholesterol or obesity. We know that if we ignore it, things will go badly for us. But our hope is that if we take certain basic measures, we can keep sin under control. This approach takes two primary forms, one is medical, and the other is athletic. The medical model sees sin as a kind of disease. The athletic model approaches sin like a weakness that can be remedied through discipline. Either view makes sin seem manageable. If sin is a sickness, it can be cured through treatment. If it is a weakness, that weakness can be eliminated with training.

One of the appeals of the medical model of sin is that it alleviates the moral pressure that comes with an awareness of sin. So far, I have had two major illnesses in my life. When I was a child, I contracted polio. As an adult, I was diagnosed with a form of cancer. I felt bad on each occasion, but I did not feel responsible. I knew that something was wrong with me, but I did not think that I was at fault. Even Jesus seemed to give credence to the medical model when, after being criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, He observed, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12). But the Bible also says that sin has a moral quality. Every sin is an act of rebellion. This is because sin’s ultimate reference point is God. As theologian Cornelius Plantinga explains, “All sin has first and finally a Godward force.” Plantinga defines sin as an act (any thought, desire, emotion, or deed) that displeases God and is worthy of His blame. This is what makes sin different from disease. Sin always comes with guilt, and that guilt is deserved.

The appeal of the athletic model of sin is that it makes me my own savior. If sin is a matter of weakness, then all I need to do to fix the problem is to find the right program or the right guru. I need a spiritual gym and a trainer. With a few disciplines and a little determination, I can lick this sin thing. But if you’ve ever known anybody who has tried this approach, you know that success inevitably gives way to intolerance. The “good” can’t understand why the rest of us can’t seem to “get it together” like them. The rest of us recognize such thinking for the pride that it is. But the virtuous are so fixated on their improvement that they are no longer able to see their sin.

According to Romans 7, sin is more than the absence of positive qualities in our character. It as a living force that resides within us. In that New Testament chapter, the apostle even gives sin’s location. It dwells “in my flesh” (v. 18). Flesh, in this case, is not a physiological term. It is not the skin that covers our bones. Sin is not organic in that sense. Rather, it is organic in an altogether different way. Sin is a force that is integrated into our nature. As New Testament scholar H. C. G. Moule so vividly puts it, “the intruder has occupied the whole dwelling, and every part of it is infected.”

There is no medicine that will cure me of this problem. There is no training program strong enough to counter sin’s own strength. But there is a remedy. It is the remedy that is echoed in the sinner’s prayer in Jesus’ parable: “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). It is not the prayer that is the solution. It is the one to whom the prayer is addressed. God’s mercy, shown to us in Jesus Christ, is the only solution when it comes to sin.

We cannot reason our way out. We cannot work our way out. We can only look to Christ to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus alone is sin’s answer. He is the only antidote to its poison. Sin is far more serious than we could have imagined, and God’s answer to sin is far greater than we know. Indeed, this may be the worst effect of all when it comes to our downgraded view of sin. Because we fail to understand the depth of our sin, we cannot see the magnitude of Christ’s salvation. Jesus was right. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. A sinner like me needs a savior.

The Quality of Mercy

Not long after I started driving I had to go to court over an automobile accident. It wasn’t a big one, just a fender bender really. But it was my fault. I hit a patch of ice and slid into an oncoming vehicle. There were no injuries and the damage to both cars was repairable. Still, the driver of the other car was angry. As the police officer wrote me a ticket and told me that I needed to appear in court, the other driver assured me that he would be there to make certain that I received the highest penalty.

I was terrified as the date approached. I’d never been to court before and wondered what the punishment might be. Looking back on it now, I suspect it would have been minimal. The judge certainly wouldn’t have given me jail time for a dent. But to me, it felt like a major offense. The worst part of it was that I knew I was the one at fault. I had misjudged the curve. I was driving too fast for the conditions. What verdict could the judge render on my behalf other than guilty? I felt ashamed.

When my father asked me how I was going to plea, I told him that I planned to admit my guilt. “I am a Christian,” I said. “I can’t lie about it.” He was furious. “You stand there and you tell the judge you are innocent” he demanded. When I told him I couldn’t do such a thing in good conscience, he swore and walked away, muttering something about my faith.

When my court date arrived, I took my place on an uncomfortable wood bench and waited for my name to be called. I felt torn between the demands of my conscience and the desire to please my father. As I listened to the other cases, I noticed that most of them were like mine, minor accidents that were a result of bad weather. I also noticed that many of the defendants didn’t admit to either guilt or innocence. When asked for a plea, they simply stood silent. “Do you stand mute?” the judge asked? When they answered yes, the judge told them that a plea of not guilty would be entered on their behalf.

At last, my turn came. I stood before the judge’s raised bench and shook as he reviewed the details of my case.“How do you plead?” he asked. “I stand mute” I replied. “Is the driver of the other vehicle present?” he asked. Nobody answered. “Is the officer who wrote the ticket in the courtroom?” the judge asked. He was not. “Case dismissed” the judge curtly declared.

The wave of relief that swept over me was palpable. It felt like mercy but it was not. My case was dismissed on a technicality. The judge could not declare me guilty because there was nobody there to testify against me. Mercy is something else. Mercy only belongs to the guilty. For the Christian, mercy is not a verdict, it is a person. God declares me innocent because Jesus took my guilt and the punishment as His own. For this reason, the word that the Bible uses to describe God’s verdict is not mercy but justice. By sending Jesus to stand in my place, God was able to be both “just” and “the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

It is only through this lens that we can understand the fifth beatitude: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). We are tempted to read this as a moral imperative. We think of it as a condition. If you want to be shown mercy, you’ve got to show mercy. In reality, it is a reminder. Mercy is not a warm feeling. It is not a determination to see the good in others despite their actions. It is a decision to absorb the offense and take it upon ourselves. There is only one sort of person to whom mercy can be shown and that is someone who does not deserve it. The Bible has a word for this sort of mercy. It’s called grace.