In my opinion, one of the greatest societal advancements that we have achieved as mankind has been the plethora of hand sanitizing stations littered across our land. We now have anti-bacterial wipes at the entrance of every grocery store. Schools now have automatic dispensers at the entrance of every classroom. And of course, we have containers as big as a gallon of milk or as small as a key chain filled with this vital gel. I love it because I’m a self-proclaimed germ-o-phobe. My arch nemesis is not a person, but a place – the public restroom. When my parents lived 9 hours away, I would plan my stops on the trip based on where I knew the cleanest restrooms would be. Yes, I know, I’m a little sick. I can take your ridicule, just give me my hand sanitizer. We’ve even trained our kids to get a squirt of anti-bacterial gel, which is always in the cup holder, whenever we get back into our van whenever we go out. I don’t know if my wife and I were scarred during the toddler years of our 3 kids when it seemed like someone was always sick in our house, but we are official germ freaks that are religious about our hand sanitizer.
I was getting into the van the other day with my family after we had visited the local Humane society (which is a completely different adventure that I don’t have the time to share), and I could not squirt that gel into my hands fast enough. I was leaving a building that housed a few hundred animals and I used about 5 or 6 doorknobs. My hands just felt filthy. As I was working that anti-bacterial in, the feeling of relief unfortunately reminded me of how I used to deal with my sin.
I grew up in a home where both parents were Christians, and I accepted Jesus as my Savior around the age of 7. I understood the message of the gospel to save me from the penalty of my sins and keep me out of hell, but I failed to allow the gospel’s message to work in my heart towards my sanctification (the process of becoming more like Jesus). The problem for me was that even after I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I still sinned, and whenever I would sin, I was left with huge feelings of guilt, shame and uncleanness. So my heart wrestled with this dilemma. I felt dirty. I felt bad because of what I had done. What should I do now?
Now as a young man, it would have been great if I had simply read the Bible and figured out a solution (see Romans chapters 5-8 and the book of Ephesians would have been a great start), but instead I fell into hand sanitizer theology. Here’s what I believed: if I did some really good religious, Christianny stuff, it would offset the bad stuff I had done and change my bad feelings of guilt and shame to feeling clean again. That was my solution. I thought a few squirts of human righteousness sanitizer would cleanse me. If I told an inappropriate joke to a bunch of guys, I would be really nice to the weird kids at youth group. If I failed to share the gospel at a golden witnessing opportunity at work, I would serve more at a ministry within our church. If I lusted in my mind, I would do my devotions for a week straight…in the morning…before school. I had this whole system worked out in my conscience. The problem was, I was becoming more hypocritical and more Pharisaic by the day. I wasn’t becoming like Jesus.
I was trapped in this cycle of sin and self-righteousness and I hated it. I even carried this kind of thinking into the pastorate, except now the sins were deeper and the human righteousness was bigger. If not for the Word of God and the Spirit of God, I would probably still be in that trap, squirting religious sanitizer from time to time so that I could feel better. I don’t think there was a one time ‘AHA’ moment for me, but I remember that God used the book of Romans, especially chapters 3-6 to radically change me. Here’s what I finally understood: I could never do enough righteous deeds to make God love me more. Yeah, I knew God had saved my soul, but my state of righteousness, past, present, and future could not be affected by my own works of righteousness (especially when the motivation behind it was for acceptance). Yes, God wants me to be holy as He is, but he wants obedience and holy living to be motivated by love and faith, and not for acceptance. Acceptance was won for me on the cross by Jesus. My feelings of righteousness needed to shaped by my understand of the gospel, not my human efforts.
Even now that I know all this and have been set free from the trap I was in, I always feel the pull to go back to my hand sanitizer theology. I want to prove to God that I’m worthy of His love. I want to feel clean based on my own human efforts. The key to staying away from the religious sanitizer is one thing: repentance. Repentance is a word that is used a lot at church, but it has nothing to do with walking an aisle and shedding tears. The best definition I can give for repentance is believing and telling God that He’s right. He’s right about who He is and what He’s done and He’s right about who I am and what I’ve done. When you finally realize the gulf between you and God, that’s repentance.
Yes, repentance is for our justification, but what I didn’t realize is that followers of Jesus, who understand God’s grace and righteousness, should always be in a penitent state of mind. God is always showing me my heart which is in constant need of renewal. It’s only when I repent that, as Peter said in Acts 3, times of refreshing may come from the Lord. My prayer is that if you’re a believer stuck in hand sanitizer theology, that you’ll discover the depths of the riches of the love of God. Live in His grace. Rest in the gospel. Repent joyfully. And obey because you love the One who loved you first.