Shame Makes Us Unclean
Kimberly is devastatingly sweet. Her likability may only be outdone by her fashion sensibility. Without fail she exemplifies her profession every time I see her—she is a stage designer. She became good friends with my wife, Laura and they regularly enjoyed conversations and walks down the street between our apartments. Their friendship opened up Kimberly to not only share her joy, but also her pain. Though her husband, Sean used to be a pastor they only sporadically attended our church. Actually, Sean came once. Soon we discovered the weight of his “shameful actions” were too much for church leadership to help them carry, so they were asked to leave. Kimberly’s woundedness was complicated by her community’s unwillingness to extend grace and understanding. Our friend felt dirty and damaged.
Like many of us, Kimberly felt shame. Her husband’s indiscretion robbed her of a clear vision of her God-given worth as his image bearer (Genesis 1:27). When we are victimized by the sin of others we feel dirty. We often feel unclean or exposed because someone we trust and love tells us a false narrative of our worth—with or without words. It's a product of disloyalty. Kimberly felt dirty because her husband betrayed her and her church abandoned her. By no guilt of our own we can feel unclean and damaged because of the sins of others.
In response to such devastating evil, we hide and try to clean ourselves. We attempt to wash away our shame. To be sure there are many ways we attempt to erase our feelings, memories, and experiences of pain, but often when it comes to shame we do what Kimberley did—just move on. We try to graduate beyond or minimize our pain. We try to erase the voices of a damaging narrative now in our heads. Kimberly attempted to replace her shame with a bubbly personality, clothes, and self-protection by distancing herself from the church and Christians. In her case (and many others) such a response is perfectly understandable, but regretfully ineffective.
Guilt Makes Us Unclean
Jon works really hard. But as he sat in my office—his dress shirt unkemptly tucked into his navy suit pants was lose around the neck—the work was obviously killing him. Weariness shook his voice as he described to me the aim of his life. He wanted to surpass his dad’s success in business but not become his dad in character. When Jon was young his dad was unfaithful to his mom. It tore their family apart. Now Jon was well on his way to reaching beyond his dad’s wealth (in half the time) but a series of one-night-stands, cheating, and multiple emotionally unhealthy relationships left him unable to embrace faithfulness. Jon was praying, reading his Bible, and going to church. But six months prior to sitting in my office he got engaged and his fiancé had no idea he was still finding it impossible to “settle down” in his heart and mind. He was trying to climb a ladder to his identity which never ran out of rungs. And with his wedding right around the corner, Jon felt broken and tired.
Jon is not alone. Many people within and outside of the church feel ill-equipped to stop sinning in a particular ways. Our brokenness and tiredness is a result of addiction and perpetual rebellion against the goodness and order of God. Every sin makes a promise it can’t keep. And so like Kimberly but for very different reasons Jon was in need of restoration. However Jon’s state of uncleanness was a result of his ongoing self-seeking heart and guilty actions (Jeremiah 17:9). Jon's guilt and lack of repentance made him unclean.
When we come face-to-face with the evil in our hearts, we like Jon try to clean ourselves. Often we attempt to cleanse ourselves by trying harder. Perhaps we are running from a past or a parent, either way we are running in our own energy to start fresh and will ourselves to be holy and pure. However Jon was figuring out just a few months from his wedding, he could not make himself clean. You see, in our guilt we don’t just have problems, we are the problem. Therefore we often reframe the problem (us) as the solution (us). But we can’t be our own redemption plan.
Self-Righteouness Makes Us Unclean
Samuel loves theology. In fact, he was born to be a pastor. His affection for community is only slightly overshadowed by his comfort on stage. And whether he is with people or in front of them he loves talking about Jesus. His understanding of God and the Bible is deeply informed and described by an orthodox appreciation for phrases like “total depravity” and “original sin”. This is of course tempered appropriately by a robust love for the redemption of Jesus. However, Samuel’s articulation of the devastating effect of sin is often the most memorable bit of information from a conversation with him or a sermon he preaches. Samuel is more than aware of his spiritual filth and that of everyone else around him.
There is a deep seeded issue in Samuel’s soul. In fact the subtly of his folly is often overlooked—by him and by others. What’s more we often think the aim of people like Kimberly and Jon should be to become Samuel—someone more aware of what the Bible says about their filth and sin and total depravity. To be sure their is great merit in gaining knowledge of our sin and the narrative of our inequity in the Scriptures. However knowledge only inflates an ego which is unmatched with a new heart (1 Corinthians 8:1). You see, Samuel knows much about the theology behind a fallen state, but he regularly fails to admit his understanding doesn’t save him. I know this, because I am Samuel.
And for people like me we try to clean ourselves by growing in knowledge and Christian responsibility. We modern-day Pharisees suppose ourselves to be on the ecclesiastic varsity team because we preach for a living and have words published on Desiring God. However supposing to make myself righteous through holy accumulation of spiritual activity and achievement is only a polishing of my white washed tomb (Matthew 23:27). In my self-righteous pursuit cast an uncleanness upon my soul.
Jesus Makes Us Clean
Kimberly, Jon, and I are all aware of our sin. Each of our experiences and stories inform an understanding of ourselves. Kimberly believes she is damaged by sin. Jon thinks he is trapped by sin. And I understand cognitive I am born in sin. All of us realized a foundational truth of our corruption—sin is an issue writ with permanent ink on our hearts. And this stain spreads through the whole of life in outlook, motivation, thinking, and relationships. The bad news we have all discovered is that we cannot clean ourselves. The good news is that Jesus makes us all clean. And he make us all clean in at least three ways.
Firstly Jesus makes us clean through his humanity and living a perfect life. Both aspects of this point are critical. You see, if the Son of God never sinned but never became a human being then there would be nothing fresh to celebrate. God would have been God. Conversely if Jesus Christ was "God with us" but failed to live a perfectly holy life, then that would be evidence enough he had the same problem as us. In other words, he would have been unclean too. But as fully man Jesus did live a perfect life. He never broke a single law—in his thoughts, affections, attitude, or actions. Jesus was perfect. Jesus was God. This dual reality led the writer of Hebrews to say, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus was holy and therefore the solitary candidate to make us clean because he was clean.
Secondly, Jesus makes us clean through his death. Now if Jesus would have merely died of old age or some natural occurrence our cleanliness would not have been possible. The nature of Jesus death is vital. Jesus death was substitutionary—he died willfully on behalf of sinful people. You see, we were destined by the stain of our soul for eternal separation from the holy God. But Jesus died in our place. Jesus' death was under a corrupt legal system and it was violent. It was a shedding of his blood, despite his innocence. That’s why Peter writes, "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). And as the unstained lamb of God (Acts 8), he was slaughter for our sin, taking on our consequence and pain—in this he gives us his righteousness and brings us to God.
Thirdly, Jesus makes us clean through the washing of his blood. John gives picture to this renewed relationship as walking in the light as a result of Christ’s work, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Blood is a euphemism here for the sacrificial death of Jesus. In a biblical understanding something that is washed in blood is purified. And the pure, undefiled blood of Jesus is said to wash away our stain of sin and make us white as snow (Isaiah 1:18). Jesus doesn't just live perfectly and die sacrificially, but through his blood he makes us pure, he makes us clean.
If you share Kimberly’s story, by faith Jesus washes away your shame and makes you clean (Romans 8:1).
If you share Jon’s story, by faith Jesus purifies your guilty conscience and makes you clean (Hebrews 9:14).
If you share my story, by faith Jesus gives you a new righteousness and make you clean (2 Corinthians 5:21).
As washed, purified, and new people we can enjoy life with God. And this is not a reality we should leave at the moment of conversation. This gospel remedy is not merely the message of our salvation but the method of sanctification. Each time we are tempted by sin or sin or are the victims of sin, Jesus continues to make us clean by faith. In other words the way out of death becomes our way of life—the gracious and cleansing work of Jesus. Enjoying fresh union with Christ and restored relationship with the Father is a work of the Spirit at the start and on into glory. We are made clean and kept clean by Jesus.