Casey in Michigan writes in with a very perceptive question: “Pastor John, I have battled depression for about two years. I have this view of myself as a vile, horrible, disgusting creature whose good works are filthy rags. When I sin, I tell myself, ‘Of course I sinned. I’m a vile sinner. I don’t know how to do anything else. It’s all I will ever do.’ These views don’t come out of nowhere. In fact, I always thought they were biblical views of mankind and that I was simply being humble. But reading the Word more and more, I see that Christians are supposed to have victory in Christ and they are beloved children of God. But I don’t know how to view my sin in any other way than becoming completely depressed. So my question is, how do I balance being humble, yet not completely disgusted with myself, and knowing I have value in the eyes of the Lord, yet not becoming prideful?”
Casey’s question is so well crafted there at the end that I can’t help thinking she knows the answer. That was really well said there at the end, especially those last words, and that is hopeful to me. That is hopeful to me. I take her at her word that she feels paralyzed by a sense of self-condemnation. So let me see what I can say. And I really do believe that the Lord has the answer here and applies the answer. My words may be a means, but God is the one who lifts us out of these kinds of darknesses.
Tim Keller, I think, is the one who has made famous the gospel formulation: “You are more sinful than you ever thought you were.” I want to say that even to Casey who stated her sense of self-disgust pretty strongly. But I would say Casey hasn’t gotten to the bottom. None of us has. So the first thing he says is, “You are more sinful than you ever thought you were. And you are more loved than you ever dreamed you could be.” And that is true for Casey too.
So the beauty of that statement is that it doesn’t become unrealistic at either end — not the sin end or the grace end. And surely for Casey believing this double gospel formulation — more sinful than we could know, more loved than we can dream — surely this gospel formulation is the key to both humility without despair, because that is what she said there at the end. How do you know your sin without the despair? And at the other end, how can you feel valued without feeling proud? So Casey, your sinfulness, which is worse than you think, is paid for at infinite cost. And God’s valuing you is a free gift of grace that you don’t deserve, but he delights to give. That is why he gives it. He wants to value you.
And so go ahead and let yourself see the fullness of the sinfulness of your sin, but with every glimpse, remind yourself of the infinite cost that was paid so that you don’t dishonor the beauties of the Lord’s sacrifice by holding on to the guilt that he paid to remove. And every time there is the slightest sense, “He loves me. He values me. He is making me his daughter. He is taking me into his family,” don’t let that produce a big hit. It won’t, because you don’t deserve any of that. It is a free, blood-bought gift of grace overflowing from the heart of God. You didn’t earn it. You didn’t constrain it. But he loves to give it.
Now that is the basic gospel answer to someone struggling like Casey, I believe. But let me say a little more, because I am sensing, as I hear the question, that there are a few things that need clarification that just might be liberating for Casey. And I have got two or three. First, let’s clarify this text about filthy rags. I have heard that text quoted since the time I was a kid. It comes from the King James Version of Isaiah 64:6. And every time I have heard it used, it is used to describe Christian obedience. That is emphatically not what the text means and it is wrong to describe Christian obedience that way.
Here is the context. Let’s read verses 5–6. I just want to liberate Casey from the weight of even thinking about her efforts at true Christian obedience being filthy rags. They are not. Verse 5 says, “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness.” So the very first thing in this context is God loves and honors and sees real righteousness in his people. We will come back in a minute to whether it is perfected or not. It is not perfect. Continue in verses 5–6: “. . . those who remember you in your ways. Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” — like filthy rags.
Now those righteous deeds are not righteous. They are not righteous. He has already talked about how he feels about righteousness. These righteous deeds are the kind Paul was talking about in Philippians 3:5–6 where he says, “As to the law, [I was] a Pharisee; as to zeal, [I was] a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, [I was] blameless.” So there is righteousness and it is blameless. And what does he say about it? He says it is filthy. It is dung. But that was not real righteousness. That was pure self-reliant legalism. That righteousness is dung. That righteousness is filthy rags. That is not the righteousness that Paul was talking about when he prayed, “[O God, grant that they would be] filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11).
Christian obedience in the power of the Holy Spirit is not dung. It is not filthy rags. It is the answer to prayer. It is the work of Christ. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is wrong to describe the beautiful work of the Holy Spirit as filthy rags. The fruit of the Holy Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, meekness, faithfulness, self-control — is not filthy rags.
Now here’s my second clarification: Casey might be helped in being reminded that every good deed that we ever do is imperfect — that is what is tripping her up here, I think. She knows that and feels that, and I do too. John Piper’s motives in my best moments are never completely free from indwelling sin and some kind of selfishness or pride is creeping in there. Yet that sinfulness, I must remind Casey, is covered by the blood of Christ, which is why Christ can delight in the good deed: Because he covers the aspects of it that are not good.
And Casey might have the unconscious sense — I think a lot of people do — that Christ died for her bad deeds, but the good deeds are so imperfect that they leave her defiled and hopeless. This notion that, “Well, if I really sin, he might cover that, but my good deeds, those are supposed to be really good and they are not really good and so nothing is covered in those,” and I just want to cry out from the housetops that Christ died for my good deeds. He died for my good deeds so that they could be acceptable, so that all the contamination in them could be covered.
And if you need a text for that, consider 1 John 1:7: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light [now that would be good deeds — doing good things], we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” Well, now wait a minuet. You just said you were walking in the light. What is this “cleansing you from all sin” stuff? What does he mean? Well, he means that none of our walking in the light is sinlessness. The next two verses say, “If we say we have no sin [and I would add, “while we are walking in the light”], we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins [which is part of what it means to walk in the light], he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.”
So I just want to make crystal clear that the blood of Jesus is given to cover our bad deeds and cover our good deeds so that it is possible for the living Christ in infinite holiness to delight in the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our life, even though Casey and I see everyday that it is not what it ought to be.
And here is the last one. Here is the last thing that she might need to hear, because I talked to people recently about this idea. God’s disapproval of our imperfections, which Casey feels in a paralyzing way, God’s disapproval of our imperfections, which are real and daily, is never a contempt for us. His disapproval of things in us is never contempt. So Hebrews 12 speaks of discipline. He is disciplining us and even bringing about suffering in our lives because he disapproves of something in our hearts or in our behavior. He disapproves of it. And what are the words used to describe that? “For the Lord disciplines the one whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (verse 6). And Proverbs, that is being quoted in Hebrews 12, is even stronger. It is more paradoxical. “The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12).
Now Casey needs to get a handle on that. She knows the Father is reproving her. She knows he disapproves of her sin and the good deeds that are contaminated. But she is dropping this verse half way through because it says he is doing that to people in whom he delights. Most people did not grow up in homes where this loving discipline was modeled; that is, a dad or mom with strong disapproval of things in the children, attitudes in the children or behaviors, and a strong sense of being dad’s delight, mom’s delight. Those things feel separate to most of us and so we have to re-school ourselves with texts like this. For God’s children, even while he is spanking them, even while there is a frown of disapproval on a behavior or an attitude, he never holds them in contempt. He never ceases to love them. He may never cease even to delight in them as his children.
So, Casey, let’s you and me and everybody else, because we are not by ourselves, let’s dwell on the wonders of grace. Let every sense of unworthiness which comes daily, hourly maybe, send you higher into orbit of praise for the infiniteness of the price paid for you. “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).