A Culprit Barely Pardoned
When I was 20 or 21 years old, I realized that truth, the Truth, had to exist. And with a desire so deep I felt it physically, even painfully, I thought: If it is humanly possible to know the Truth, I want to know it, no matter where it leads me, what it costs me, what I have to suffer, or what I have to give up.
Three years later, through Seventh-day Adventists, I came to know the Truth. And what great news the Truth turned out to be: There is a God who not only created us but loves us so much that, in the Person of Jesus, He took upon Himself the sin of the world.
And yet, no matter how good that news is, I sometimes feel as if it’s just not good enough for me. After 34 years of knowing the Lord, knowing this message, knowing the Truth, I look at myself, my character, my spiritual life as a whole, and I’m overwhelmed with a sense of irreparable failure.
How ironic: I wanted to know Truth, no matter the cost; I found that Truth, at a great cost; yet that Truth I wanted so badly seems, at times, to condemn me.
No question, Christ has changed my life radically. The person I was 35 years ago would not recognize the person I am today. But not totally. Clinging fiercely, some of the old me remains, as close as breath. And if I were to live another 35 years, or another 135 years, it’s hard to see all of this being purged. If every speck of sin, self, and character defect must be gone in this life in order for me to have life in the next, then however good the news, it’s just not good enough for me.
I know the Ellen White quotes. I know the Bible texts. The question is What do they mean? If they mean that before I die I have to have a character as selfless, as loving, and as giving as Jesus; if they mean that I must have perfect motives in all I do; if they mean that I must never harbor a wrong, covetous, or evil thought; and if they mean that before I die every trace of self and sinfulness must be purged from me, then my end is assured: “the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Rev. 21:8).
I understand the idea of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the latter rain that can prepare us for the end-times. But why wait until then? Whatever the Holy Spirit will do then, I want Him to do in me now. And though I know Christ is working in me and changing me, I still struggle, even after 34 years, with the reality that sometimes “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing”(Rom. 7:19).
That’s why, whenever this overwhelming sense of spiritual and moral failure comes, I have to take refuge in the cross, in the promise that I am covered in Christ’s righteousness: “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom. 3:22). This is the Truth, the only Truth that has kept me from giving it all up a long time ago. And it’s the only Truth that keeps me striving today to overcome the sin that lodges so naturally in me.
Without that promise of Christ’ righteousness covering me completely, without the promise of Him justifying me by His works, by His perfect life, the good news is just not good enough for someone like me, not even if I were to live another 500 years.
How interesting that Ellen White wrote to John Harvey Kellogg: “I have a most earnest desire that you shall enter the city of God, not as a culprit barely pardoned, but as a conqueror.”*
I long to enter the city of God as a conqueror, I really do. But as “a culprit barely pardoned”? I’ll take it, for even that’s more than I deserve.
* Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 8, p. 125.