“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
I had not intended to write two consecutive posts on the wrath of God, but since I did, I need to be a good priest (and as a Protestant, I believe in the priesthood of all believers) and pronounce an assurance of pardon. Sin offends God greatly—until someone confesses. Then he simply cleans up the mess and goes back to what he does best: loving.
In the past two posts, I explained how wrath is not incompatible with a loving God. He hates sin and the damage it does to his people. Here I take up a related question: How can a justifiably wrathful God be loving?
Every one of us started sinning before we even learned to talk. Consider the common excuse, “No one’s perfect.” The only way we can either make the statement or accept it as an excuse when someone else does is because we have some innate idea of what a perfect person would be. We might not be able to explain it, but we know that no one measure up. That lack of perfection causes all kinds of trouble, hence the need to offer it as an excuse or apology. And that’s really all sin means. Righteousness, on the other hand, means right standing with God. Sin and righteousness cannot conceivably coexist in the same person.
So God tells each one of us, “You are an unrighteous sinner. Your sin hurts yourself, your relationships with other people, and causes other damage so far outside what you can perceive that you can never understand the depth of it.” How can we respond to that charge? Let me count the ways:
1. No, God. You’re wrong about that.
2. Yes, God. I’m guilty as charged.
If you deny the charge, you are self-deceived. If nobody’s perfect, that means you as much as it means any of the people who annoy you. Just because you are less offended by your imperfection than by someone else’s does not make it any less serious or any less harmful to you, your relationships, and beyond. If you deny either that you are a sinner or that your sin does real damage, essentially, you call God a liar. In wrath, God says, “Be that way, then. Continue to sin. Increase your sin if you wish. And accept the consequences.” The only life you can possibly live is a life of unrighteousness.
If you accept the charge, if you acknowledge that your imperfections hurt you and very likely hurt others even more, then you no longer stubbornly insist on continuing to sin. That changes your entire relationship with God. You have said, “You’re right, God, and I’m wrong. I have always been wrong up to this time.” Unfortunately, if that’s all that happens, you are powerless to change. Since your sin is innate and you have been practicing it since well before your earliest memories, sin is really all you know how to do.
But now that you have confessed that you have been an unrighteous sinner, you have lost the desire to continue to sin. You have repented. That means that you have told God, “From now on, have it your way.” Here is God’s way: he forgives you and purifies you. Forgiveness means canceling a hurt or grudge. Therefore in forgiving you God declares that he no longer holds your sin against you. Purifying you means that he has even washed the sin and unrighteousness away. It’s no longer there. You have right standing with God. Through no effort or merit of your own, you have become righteous.
In a cosmic, eternal sense, once anyone confesses sin and turns away from it, God cleans that person up as if the sin had never happened at all. It goes away, washed away by the blood of Jesus. The person who has repented from the desire is still powerless against the habit of sin. As long as we’re still breathing air, righteous people can still do some awfully rotten things.
The difference between the righteous and the unrighteous, therefore, is not that the righteous have become somehow superior people on this earth. None of us can see the cosmic, eternal beings that God can see. He knows us to the depths of each of our hearts. We have only sense knowledge. You can never know if I or anyone else you see is righteous or unrighteous. You can know which you are by your answer to one question. Have you repented?