The following is an excerpt from Anthony Sweat's recently released book, Christ in Every Hour.
Once while teaching a class I wanted to help my students understand their everyday, fallen need for Jesus. “We all have sins,” I told my class, and beginning with myself I then started pointing to each of them, saying, “You are a sinner, and so are you, and so are you, and you,” going up and down the rows. Some students didn’t listen, others smiled and laughed, and a few shot back disapproving glares of “How judgmental!” with their eyes. I then came to one of the purest, most Christlike students I have ever taught, and, poking a little fun—because, like biblical Ruth, all knew of her virtue—I said, “Even you, Hillary, are a sinner.” The class laughed at the seeming incongruity of my claim. I smiled at my own lame sarcasm. And then Hillary dropped her head and sincerely said, “I know I am. . . . I know.” At that moment she taught the rest of us Pharisees in the room a profound lesson:
“And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:9–14).
Being tempted to not closely apply this foundational power of cleansing might say something indicting about ourselves. Those who think they have no sin or don’t have a real need to repent may be the ones most in need of cleansing. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). With more than a little sarcasm, Jesus taught a group of murmuring legalist Jews that “joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
Perhaps some of those who heard him or who have read that verse missed the message, even today: There aren’t ninety-nine people who need no repentance. We all do. There are only people who think they have no need for repentance. Christian author John MacArthur wrote: "This is the theme of the gospel according to Jesus: He came to call sinners to repentance. . . . Those who think they are good enough—those who do not understand the seriousness of sin—cannot respond to the gospel. . . The unmistakable message is that Christ’s gracious call to salvation is not extended to those who view themselves as righteous." Only when we become clearly conscious of our everyday weakness do we become clearly conscious of our everyday need for Christ (see Ether 12:27). To become one with Jesus, we must first realize we aren’t part of the ninety and nine.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, there are those of us who think we are so spiritually flawed that we cannot ever stand fully approved before God. We are more than conscious of our abundant sinfulness to the point of utter hopelessness. We think our sins and shortcomings are too serious and/or occur too frequently. The adversary can lead such a person away from Christ with his deceitful whisperings: “God is displeased with your constant faults. He’s frustrated with you. He’s given you too many chances and you keep failing. You know better, but look at how weak you are! God’s not going to forgive you. Not for that. Not again. You should be better by now. The road back is too far, too long, too hard. If you try, you’ll fail anyway. It’s time to give up.”
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Those words may be an over exaggeration for some, but for others, sadly, they are not. Those words actually understate the terrible mutterings of the evil one, who tries to crush the souls of all he can. To the disciples who may have lost hope—either because of serious sin or repeated sins, or both—the Lord’s comprehensive and continual cleansing power can overshadow those dark thoughts with the light of his love. The scriptures repeatedly attest of our Lord’s divine power and disposition to cleanse us freely, frequently, and fully.
There is a great gospel tension here: we must be clearly conscious of our own daily shortcomings and need for repentance, but be completely confident in Christ’s divine ability to daily cleanse us of those very weaknesses. Both elements are absolutely critical to availing ourselves of Christ’s continual cleansing power and of obtaining a daily hope in his salvation. The purpose of this article is for both the apparent saint and sinner (and everyone in between) to understand our daily need for the cleansing power of Christ and how to attain and continually retain that holy power. To do so we must first understand something fundamental about our dear Lord’s divine cleansing character.
Christ Freely Forgives Our Sins
From the moment Jesus was born, his ministry was centered on his unique spiritual cleansing power. Jesus’s very name says as much. To Christ’s earthly father, Joseph, an angel told him: “Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The very first recorded word Jesus ever preached in public was “repent” (Matthew 4:17). The Lord lovingly reminds all of us in our weakness and sin, “My bowels are filled with compassion towards [you]” (D&C 101:9). Micah informs us that the Lord “delighteth in mercy” (Micah 7:18) or, as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said, “The thing God enjoys most about being God is the thrill of being merciful.”