By Mary Abrahamson
First let’s answer what makes a person Christian? Well, that’s an easy answer. Belief in one’s total sin and depravity, and further belief that Jesus’ perfect life and sacrificial death cleanses one from all that sin.
Somehow though, when we apply the adjective, Christian, to life or another noun, or when we put an adjective such as good or true in front of the noun, Christian, it’s easy to mix up the Law and the Gospel. Or to confuse Sanctification and Moral Living.
We hear quite often phrases like Christian living or Christian life or Christian home, good Christian, true Christian, etc. These conjure up images of the perfect life. A comfortable and clean home. Loving husband. Dependable wife. Obedient children. Giving to the poor. Treating others with proper courtesy. A row of well-groomed children in nicely pressed clothing, sitting quietly in church with a beatific expression on their upturned faces.
All these images of perfect morality match nobody’s reality.
If you don’t believe me, consider this question from the Confession section in Luther’s Catechism. It asks which are the particular sins we need to confess. The answer takes us through each role of our life, and demands we consider in what ways we have failed to fulfill that role perfectly.
“Which are these? Here consider your own situation according to the Ten Commandments, whether you are a father, mother, son, daughter, employer, employee; whether you have been disobedient, dishonest, lazy; whether you have injured anyone by word or deed; whether you have stolen, neglected, wasted anything, or done any harm.”
If we use as our measuring stick for a good Christian the ability to be good, we’d have to agree that nobody is a good Christian. We’ve all transgressed in various of the above ways. Everyone has something, and the sad reality is that most of us struggle with many of these sins constantly.
But thank God we don’t have to measure our Christianity that way. We have God’s promises. And we have our Salvation through Jesus.
This knowledge led me one day to a poignant realization. A very graphic image. An image I try to remember when I feel the burden of my own sin. And a realization I pull out when the very great responsibility of training my children oppresses me.
I sat one day, contemplating my children, their weaknesses, the ways I had failed them. I found myself taking a “worse case scenario” mindset.
I asked myself, “What is the worst thing that one of my children could do?”
All kinds of evil came to mind. Heinous crimes. Reprehensible behavior. Prison. Execution, even. All things that would bring shame, misery, pain, and embarrassment.
But I had to admit that none of those is the worst that could happen.
The worst thing that could happen to one of my children would be for them to deny their faith. I had to admit that bad behavior, even terrible, horrible behavior, is not an accurate indication of faith in Jesus or lack thereof.
We see in the Fifth Petition and its meaning that we are all evil, and so we must ask with all Christendom that by God’s grace we be forgiven.
THE FIFTH PETITION
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look upon our sins, nor on their account deny our prayer; for we are not worthy of anything we ask, neither have we deserved it. But we pray that He would give us everything by grace, for we daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment; and we on our part will heartily forgive and readily do good to those who sin against us.
I was forced to admit that no matter how terrible the behavior in any person, if he acknowledges his own depravity and need for a Savior, and if he clings to Jesus’ as that Savior, then he is a good Christian. And on the flip side, no matter how righteous the life of a person appears, if she forgets that even in her uprightness, she still sins and needs a Savior, she is not, in fact living a Christian life.
Of course I don’t want any of my children to inflict pain or trauma upon others. And of course, I would never want any of them to have to live with the temporal fall-out of a truly evil action. And of course I know that we must never excuse sin or make light of it.
But more than I don’t want all those thing, I do want this. I want them to know their sin and their Savior, Jesus.