In any polarized situation, the overriding human tendency is to draw a line with oneself and one’s allies on the good side and the opposing party on the wicked side, with very little attempt made by either side to understand the other. As these positions harden, it becomes almost impossible to achieve the insight necessary for a breakthrough.
For some years now I have kept a file that I call “The Line Runs Through.” This title is from Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic and one of those who resisted the Communists and was put in prison for his activities. When he came to power after the “Velvet Revolution,” Havel was conspicuously forgiving toward his former enemies and other collaborators. Some blamed him for this, but he maintained his position. In the central European regimes of the ’70s and ’80s, Havel said, “The line [between good and evil] did not run clearly between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ but through each person.”
The line between good and evil runs through each person. These words find an echo in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (7:15–21, RSV throughout). Is there anyone who does not recognize this?
The human being is in the grip of impulses that are more powerful than our wish to do good. Our Lord wants us to know of the power of these forces. In the words of Jesus in the Gospels, in the writings of Paul, we are told over and over in various ways that the powers we face are untiring, malevolent, and extremely clever. These powers seek nothing less than our destruction. But we are not defenseless. The apostle counsels us:
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:11–12)
The forces that we face are overwhelming, and the suffering that they cause is incalculable. The Christian should not be deceived about this. Jesus wants us to know ahead of time that the Christian life is going to be a long struggle against evil, sin, and death—most of all, the evil, sin, and death that threaten our own being.
It is important that we use the word “we” when we confess our sins during corporate worship. Human solidarity in bondage to the power of sin is one of the most important of all concepts for Christians to grasp. At the same time, though, saying words of confession communally in church does not always cause us to appropriate its truth deep in our being.
All of us need to say also (in the words of Thomas Cranmer’s General Confession), “I have erred and strayed from God’s ways like a lost sheep. I have followed too much the devices and desires of my own heart.” This is not so easy for us. All of us, to one degree or another, participate in that psychological phenomenon famously called denial. Denial, or avoidance, is a way of keeping consciousness of sin at bay. We think we can make sin go away by pretending it is not there; we are like the little girl who says, “I’ve got my eyes closed so nobody can see me.”
The line between good and evil runs through each person. The truly tragic person is the one who causes harm and never repents of it, never admits it even internally. That person is blocked from receiving the promise of the gospel that God’s grace is retroactive. If it weren’t, the promise it holds out to us would be empty. God’s power is able to make right all that has happened in the past. Paul seldom uses the word forgiveness. His stronger word is justification. Justification means that we sinners will not only be forgiven, but also justified, which means that we will be set right by the power of God, and all who have suffered as a result of our faults will have perfect restitution.
How can this be?
The sacrifice of Jesus our Lord is this: He has gone into the day of judgment utterly alone, separated from the Father, taking the sentence of condemnation upon himself, bearing it away from us. This is the gospel. This is the good news of the Christian faith. Neutrality is no longer possible. Satan is slashing and burning, but he is in retreat. His time will come. There is no longer any room for self-deception, excuses, denial, or evasion, for, as C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement; he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” It is the Lord Jesus Christ who disarms us.
But listen: We are not disarmed in order to be disempowered. There is “power in the blood of the Lamb.” It is the power of the Word of God that spoke, and it was so. It is the power that overcame Satan in the wilderness. It is the power that lifted the paralyzed man to his feet. It is the power that spoke through the voice of the Son of God when he said, “Peace! Be still!” and the wind and waves obeyed their Creator. It is the power that sustains every Christian in the struggles of this life.
This power is able to do things that we can only dream about. For this is the might of the God in whom Abraham believed, the God whose power “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). The God who reckoned Abraham righteous is the God who justifies sinners. For the righteousness reckoned to Abraham was not for his sakealone but for ours also. The promise of God to sinners today is that “it will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 4:24).
Excerpted from Means of Grace: A Year of Weekly Devotions by Fleming Rutledge, edited by Laura Bardolph Hubers ©2021 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.