Author: Ron Graham
When taking the journey along the paths of righteousness, what are the true steps one should take? In this lesson, we examine the steps on that path that leads to eternal life. Each step involves something that we should have done, and would have done, had we walked the perfect path.
Illustration: There is a view that a person who has been eating wrongly, and become obese, will correct the problem by following the right eating habits of fit and healthy people. Strange and abnormal diets or “cures” just confuse the body, and if continued lead the body to more ruin.
In the same way, the sin-laden soul is not released from the burden of sin and brought back to spiritual life by a set of strange steps unlike those of the perfect path. The corrective path of conversion consists of carefully and prayerfully doing what righteous people do. You regain spiritual life by the same steps you would have taken anyway had you maintained spiritual life and never left the perfect path. The return path imitates the perfect path.
We are taught quite clearly in (Romans 10:4-18) that faith in Christ is the only way to be saved and have eternal life. And how can one believe in Christ? Only by hearing the gospel of Christ (Romans 10:17). The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes it (Romans 1:16). Anyone who is dead in sin can become alive to God again only by hearing the gospel.
Peter refers to the gospel as "things into which angels long to look" (1Peter 1:10-12). If angels have a longing for the gospel, surely human beings should. One who has never sinned will hunger and thirst for the word of him who "enlightens every man coming into the world" (John 1:4,9). One who is walking the perfect path would never say, "I am not interested in the gospel; it has nothing to say to me; it is for sinners only". Rather one would say, "Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalms 119:105).
Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Only those who believe in God and his Son shall "not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). Believing in oneself is fine as far as it goes, but it certainly won't get you to heaven. Nobody, saint or sinner, is justified by his own works, but by faith in Christ Jesus the righteous.
We are born with spiritual life, but we are not born with faith. We were, however born to have it. God is pleased enough with us when we are first brought into the world, just as he was pleased enough with all things he brought into the world, whether bird, fish, tree, beast, or insect. He saw that everything was "very good" (Genesis 1:31). The difference between us and a tree, however, is that God never expects a tree to hear, understand, and believe the gospel. But he does expect that of human beings.
When by God’s grace we grow old enough to understand God’s word and believe, then God expects and encourages us to do so. Jesus attributed a faith in him even to little children (Matthew 18:1-7). He viewed this early faith as very precious in God’s sight, for he says that anyone is wicked indeed who causes little children to stumble from their faith.
Just as it is not long before we grow old enough to hear and believe, so it is not long thereafter before we grow old enough to sin. One cannot resist sin on one's own, but only through trusting in Christ, for he said, "Without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). We cannot be righteous without Christ, and that is true even before we ever commit our first sin. In this world, even one who walks the perfect path is tempted; and especially so. Therefore one ought not to trust in self, but trust completely in Jesus. Faith in Christ, our merciful high Priest, is just as essential to resisting sin, as it is to being forgiven of sin (Hebrews 2:16-18, Hebrews 4:14-16).
What is the point of believing in Christ if you are not going to turn your back on sin?
Peter told sinners to "Repent and be converted that your sins may be blotted out" (Acts 3:19). He told a convert who had backslidden to "Repent... and pray the Lord that if possible the intention of your heart might be forgiven you" (Acts 8:22-23).
The commands to repent quoted above were to people who had sinned. One cannot be forgiven of a sin that one still wants to do. Until we recognise the wrong we have done, and make up our minds to get rid of that wrong through Jesus, the gate is shut to the path of conversion.
Is repentance applicable only to those who have sinned? You might say yes, because one cannot be sorry for sins one has not committed. Repentance, however, is not just feeling sorry. The word means a change of mind. Now when is the best time to change your mind about sin? After you have committed it, while you are being tempted to commit it, or before you are even tempted?
Illustration: Suppose you were thinking that you might walk past the orchard today, and you were also thinking that, as you walk by, you might steal an apple? Which would you rather do?
Surely the first is not the best. If you did one of the others, wouldn't that also be a change of mind? What if you consider committing a sin, but change your mind and decide not to? Haven't you repented, and in the best possible way? Yes, and if you had always repented in this manner, you would never have committed sin.
Thus we see that repentance is not a one-off event just before we are baptized, but an attitude and effort of mind that is a constant "ought" throughout our lives. All repentance is commendable, but the most commendable of all is perfect path repentance, which occurs before the sin is ever committed.
What is the point of having faith in one's heart and refusing to confess it with one's mouth? Confession of faith, letting everybody know you believe, is just as necessary as faith itself (Romans 10:9-10). Jesus promised to confess those before God who confess him before men (Matthew 10:32-33). Timothy made "the good confession" (1Timothy 6:12-13) and so should everyone.
What Jesus said above applies of course to all believers, including those who have never sinned, because refusal to confess Christ is a sin in itself.
Baptism is different to the other steps, in that baptism is not something done constantly, but only once. In baptism a person dies to sin and is buried and raised with Christ to be spiritually reborn and blameless (Romans 6:1-11).
Peter told people to "Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins..." (Acts 2:38). A person who has sinned cannot gain forgiveness by neglecting or refusing to be baptized; that only adds another sin to forgive. God, by his wonderful grace, has provided baptism to bring us by faith into the death and resurrection of Christ, that we may be dead to sin and alive to God. To reject baptism is to reject grace.
In good Christian homes, young children are taught the gospel (2Timothy 1:5, 3:14-15). It often happens that such a young child expresses a strong desire to obey Christ in baptism. The parents can see that the child is not just imitating the older members of the family in a copy-cat manner, but has an intelligent, genuine, and personal desire to obey God. But they don't consider the child is old enough to be deemed a sinner.
The issue illustrated in that case, is whether baptism is a step in the perfect path, or whether it is only for the corrective path of conversion. If a person is walking the perfect path, and therefore has not yet sinned, does there ever come a day when that person should request baptism? To answer that question, let us look at the great example of Jesus who did walk the perfect path and never needed to take the corrective path.
Jesus sought to be baptized by John who proclaimed "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4). John perceived a problem and "he tried to prevent Jesus, saying, 'I have need to be baptized of you, and do you come to me?'" Jesus replied, "Permit it at this time, for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:13-17).
We see, therefore, that the person on the perfect path is not exempt or excluded from baptism by having never sinned. Baptism is appropriate to fulfill all righteousness and thus to remain righteous. A person is not made a candidate for baptism by rebelling against God and becoming a sinner. A person is made a proper candidate for baptism by believing in God and desiring to obey him.
After baptism what? The answer to that is faithfulness. The path of the faithful is not toward spiritual death, but toward a mature righteousness. After baptism sin no longer has dominion. "I urge you brethren by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:1-2).
Faithfulness makes no room for sin. Certainly, God’s grace provides a way of dealing with sin, so that if sin occurs it can be forgiven and corrected (1John 2:1-2). However, God’s grace provides a way of preventing sin in the first place, as John implies: "I am writing these things to you that you may not sin" (1John 2:1-2). God’s will is that we don't sin, and he makes his will possible for us to fulfill. Don't regard sin as a normal and expected part of being born again in Christ. Paul asks, "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" He answers, "Certainly not!" (Romans 6:1).
The perfect path follows "that which is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:1-2) and that is what the conversion path restores us to.
Nobody can reject these steps. They are good works which God prepared for us. "By grace you are saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest any one should boast, for we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:8-10).