A vast array of lies and heresies have infected Christianity in America. It is difficult to narrow the list down. Certainly we cannot point to just one and say, “This is the one causing all the trouble.” But I think there are a few very fundamental falsehoods that have given birth to this whole huge tree of lies, with all of its many branches and vines and all of its rotten fruit, and all of the countless people who have gotten sick and died from eating it.
I want to focus on just one lie today. This is one of the worst because it is so popular and so appealing. Many Christians have been escorted into the darkness by pastors and priests and other Christian leaders who have convinced them of this deception. It is a deception that can not easily be summarized in one sentence, and is rarely stated as forthrightly as I will state it here, but generally it goes like this:
A Christian ought to always think positive and be optimistic. He shouldn’t think about his sin or worry much about repentance.
Some Christians have adopted this idea explicitly. I have heard it said — by layman and pastor alike — that God “cannot see our sin” because Christ’s blood covers it, and so we need not concern ourselves with repentance. Just as one brief example, here is Rick Warren telling his followers that they should just “relax” because God “does not see” their sin. He does not say anything about repentance.
This is not only wrong but blasphemous, as it denies (among other things) the omniscience of God. It claims that there are things in this world that we puny mortals can see but God cannot. It gives us power over God. It denies an essential truth of the Divine: that He sees and knows everything. There is nothing you’ve ever done or thought or said that God doesn’t know about. He sees your sin, He sees it clearly, He sees it far clearer than you see it, and He demands that you repent of it or face eternal consequences.
The majority of Christians will agree, theoretically, that repentance is necessary. But they approach it casually and dismissively, echoing the attitude of their pastors and priests who treat it as so trivial that it barely needs be mentioned in their sermons. The apostles and prophets and the Son of God all preached constantly of repentance — they were all “fire and brimstone” preachers, every one of them, Jesus especially — yet the message you hear in most churches today is one of unrelenting rainbows and sunshine. The flock is not called to fall to their knees and beg for God’s forgiveness. Instead they are given comfort and reassurance and positive thoughts to dwell upon. But it is a false comfort and a false assurance and a false positivity. It is a comfort and assurance and positivity that comes from ignoring their own wickedness.
Christ said something very different. “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). “Unless you repent, you will all perish” (Luke 13:3). Jesus doesn’t want us to “relax” in our sin. He wants us to make war upon it. He wants us to gouge out our eyes and chop off our hands if they are causing us to sin (Mark 9:43). He wants us to reach always for perfection and to never be satisfied with anything less (Matthew 5:48). Relax? No, there is no time for relaxation. In the Sermon on the Mount He tells us not to be anxious about Earthly and materialistic concerns (Matthew 6:25), but on the fate of our souls we should be obsessively focused, for it is a narrow and difficult road that leads to life (Matthew 7:13).
This message is repeated over and over and over again all over Scripture. Paul’s message was repentance. Peter’s message was repentance. John the Baptist’s message was repentance. Repentance is the first message that Jesus preached after He emerged from His confrontation with Satan in the desert. The word “repent” or “repentance” appears over 70 times in the Bible. Repentance was Christ’s first sermon and it must be our first step. We cannot have true faith without it. We cannot be saved without it. We cannot go to Heaven without it.
The first step to the first step is to feel shame for our sin. It does no good to say we are sorry if we are not really sorry. We “store up wrath for the day of wrath” when we have an “impenitent heart” (Romans 2:5). That is why it is so unfortunate that the modern church has developed a deep aversion to shame but not an aversion to the sin that causes it. A Christian will continue on doing shameful things while pushing away the shame that follows. “Jesus doesn’t want me to be ashamed,” he says. No, Jesus doesn’t want you to sin. But if you do sin, He wants you to feel shame and feel it deeply. It is Satan who wants you to sin and feel no shame.
If we have never felt shame and guilt, we have never repented. If we have never felt disgust at our sin, we have never repented. If we have never allowed ourselves to suffer for our sin and embraced our suffering the way the penitent thief on the cross embraced his, we have never repented. And if we have never resolved with all our hearts never to repeat the sin, we have never repented. If you’re like me, you have resolved a million times and yet sinned again anyway. Our flesh is weak, that much is obvious. But our spirit must still be willing, and a willing spirit means coming to God in total submission and saying, “I am devastated by my sin because I know that it offends You. I ask You to give me the grace to turn from this wickedness and never indulge in it again for as long as I live. I would rather die than continue along this path.”
This is true repentance. A repentant heart is a radical heart because it is a heart that prefers death over sin. A repentant man realizes that sin is what brought death into the world, sin is what put the Son of God on the Cross, therefore sin is the most terrible thing in all existence. He sees that his sins are the thorns in the crown placed on Christ’s head, the whip that scourged Him, the nails that went through Him, the spear that pierced Him. He sees this and weeps over it. A Christian who can stand casually before the Cross, and feel nothing for the abuse he inflicted on his God, is in an extremely dangerous state. He is even more lost, and closer to Hell, than an atheist or a pagan who does not believe in Christ but at least has a proper sense of guilt for his wrongdoing.
There is no way to be “positive” and “optimistic” as we look upon the Cross. Optimism is a temporal gospel for people only concerned with temporal happiness. The “positive thinkers” are able to think positive because they refuse to think about anything difficult. The Cross is difficult. It is the most difficult thing in history. The positive thinking Christian ignores it — ignores his Savior’s suffering and sacrifice — and becomes even more degenerate than the crowds that gathered on Calvary to spit in His face. At least they were there. The arrogant Christian, with his stupid positivity, can’t be bothered to show up.
The correct attitude is not one of worldly positivity and optimism, nor is it one of negativity and pessimism. Rather, it is one of hope. A “positive thinking” person refuses to look at anything that is painful or uncomfortable, especially the painful and uncomfortable things within himself. A hopeful person endures pain, embraces discomfort, confronts wickedness, repents desperately of his sin, weeps over what is sorrowful, hates what is evil, and still has joy — a joy much deeper than the fleeting pleasure of mere optimism — because he knows that something beautiful lies beyond the suffering. He does not attempt to go around suffering to get to the destination. Instead he picks up his cross and follows Christ through it, right into the pain, right into the dark, right up that terrible hill, where salvation awaits.
But the first step is to repent. And then to repent again, and again, and again, every time we sin. This is not the easiest or most comfortable road to walk. Indeed, it is the hardest and narrowest road of all. It is also the only road that leads to life. So all we can do is put one foot in front of the other and begin.