When the righteous turn from their righteousness, and commit iniquity, they shall die of it. And when the wicked turn from their wickedness, and do what is lawful and right, they shall live by it. -- Ezekiel 33:18-19
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered
-- Psalm 130:3-4
I've been surprised to discover in my readings that baptism was at one time thought of as the one and only way to receive God's forgiveness. Once you were baptized, all your past sins would be forgiven, but if you then committed another sin, you would be beyond all hope of redemption. As a result of this belief, most people would wait until they were near death before being baptized. Both Constantine the Great, who established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire during the 4th century, and St. Augustine who lived from the mid-4th to the mid-5th century, thought this way. They felt they could commit the worst sins up until the time they were baptized, but then after that they had to be absolutely good.
The passage from Ezekiel emphasizes this idea. And there are probably many passages throughout the Bible which convey this same message. But then there are other passages, like the one from Psalm 130, which seems to contradict it. Many examples of God forgiving people repeatedly are found throughout the Bible: Abraham, Jacob, David, Peter, and Paul, just to name a few.
One the other hand, in Jesus' day, there was the thinking that if you were a Jew who followed the rules of temple sacrifice, your sins were automatically forgiven .
Promoting the idea of God not being able to forgive a person because his or her transgressions are too great, or, of God automatically forgiving someone because he or she is a Jew, or a Christian, seems to bind, and manipulate, God's grace.
God knows our heart. He knows when our intentions are good. He knows when we are ignorant. He knows when we have been weak. He knows when we are sorry. He also knows when our intention is less than honorable. And, he knows when we intend to wound. We don't even have to say or do anything. God knows us to our core. Because of this, there is no way to manipulate God by pretending to be better than we are.
Sometimes the way we read a passage in the Bible depends on our personal experiences. I can see a way of reading the passage from Ezekiel that does fit my experience, somewhat. For me, Ezekiel describes a cyclical process. I try to be a good person, but all too easily I fall into sinful behavior: when I think I am Good (with a capitol G!), I become arrogant and judgmental. When I recognize my sin, it feels like death: the death of my better self. At this low point, I could easily give up on myself, if not hate myself. Only when I remember that God loves me and is waiting for me to turn to him for help, do I begin to live again. And, try again to be a good person.
What I am slowly learning, much too slowly I have to say, from repeated cycles of this, is humility. I know am no better than any other person, any other sinner. When I can keep this in mind, I have a much better chance of actually being the person God wants me to be. (God has a way of teaching us what we most need to learn!)
"Only God is Good," Jesus said. We humans will always fall short of perfect goodness. God knows this about us, and still he loves us and forgives us.
Dear and Loving God, thank you for repeatedly forgiving me. Your steadfast love, and patience, are almost too wonderful to comprehend. Love always, Pam