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This question leads into what for many evangelicals has become uncharted territory. We think of conversion as the moment when the guilt of all our sins—past, present, and future—is washed away by the atoning blood of Christ. As sinners justified by faith and heirs of promised glory, we rejoice in salvation and think no more about our continued shortcomings and how God might "weigh" them.

If asked, we explain our attitude as true evangelical assurance. But is it?

The Puritans of history were evangelicals too, but on this point they differed from us considerably. They remembered that Christ taught us to pray daily for forgiveness. One of their spiritual disciplines (not yet one of ours, generally) was self-examination each evening to discern what actions in particular, done or left undone, they needed to ask pardon for.

In the forefront of their minds was the holiness of God, the awfulness of his anger, and his amazing patience in nurturing and correcting his irresponsible, recalcitrant children. These were the realities framing their certainty that the precious blood of Christ cleanses faithful repenters from all sin. Most later evangelicals were with them until the 20th century. We are the ones out of step.

Scripture shows that in God's estimate some sins are worse and bring greater guilt than others, and that some sins do us more damage. Moses rates the golden calf debacle a great sin (Ex. 32:30). Ezekiel in his horrific allegory says that after Oholah (Samaria) had ruined herself by unfaithfulness to God, Oholibah (Jerusalem) "became more corrupt … in her lust and in her whoring, which was worse than that of her sister" (Ezek. 23:11, ESV). John distinguishes sins that do and do not inevitably lead to death ...

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In the Magazine

January 2005

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