When living in Spain, we were overwhelmed with the attention given to Easter week. Elaborate religious processions winding through the streets and avenues of almost every city, town and village abounded all over Spain. The participation of the faithful, both as procession participants and observers, was obvious. The spiritual fever was high. One could sense the crescendo leading to Good Friday.
But on Resurrection Sunday—nothing in terms of public religious processions. Absolute silence!
Of course, Christ’s resurrection is part of Catholic theology. But the public celebration of these events in Spain obviously favors Good Friday and the week leading up to it more than Resurrection Sunday.
There appears to be more balance within my own faith tradition. For example, many evangelical Christians will attend both Good Friday services and Sunday Resurrection services this next month. But when it comes to practicing the blessed results of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday for the believer today, I sense many think more about the cross and forgiveness of sins than the empty tomb and freedom from sins.
During the Easter season, many Christians are content with studying the biblical accounts surrounding these important events and emphasizing the theological significance of the cross and the empty tomb. While this is good and necessary, if we stop here and do not appropriate God’s resurrection power to free us from our sins now, we most likely will continue to live in bondage in many areas of our lives. And Satan is content.
God’s plan is different. In Matthew 1:21, we read that God wants to do something more than only forgive us of our sins and save us from eternal condemnation. He wants “to save his people from their sins.” He literally wants to free us from every thought, action and destructive habit that keeps us from being “molded into the image of his Son and share inwardly his likeness” (Rom. 8:29, AMPC). And he wants to do it now!
Sadly, I don’t hear a lot about this in my conversations. Forgiveness of sins—yes. Freedom from sins—very little.
Perhaps this may have something to do with a limited understanding of salvation. Scripture identifies three stages in the life of a Jesus-follower where salvation and liberation occur. These are seen in the usage of the verb “to save” in the past, present and future tenses in the biblical text.
• In the past, we believers were powerfully freed from the enslaving power of sin, the penalty of sin, the kingdom of darkness, our sin nature and our former manner of life when we entrusted our lives to God’s watch care (2 Tim. 1:9, Titus 3:5). This event is called conversion.
• In the present we continue to be saved from the conditions mentioned in the first stage as we remain faithful (1 Cor. 1:18, 2 Cor. 2:15, Phil. 2:12). We also are being freed from every prevailing sin, emotional hurt, destructive attitude and manner of speech that prevent us from reaching our life’s purpose to better think and live like Jesus. This lifelong process called sanctification happens when we repent.
• In the future we will be powerfully freed from this corrupt earth and every satanic influence to spend eternity in his blessed presence (Matt. 10:22, Rom. 13:11, 1 Peter 1:5). This event is called glorification.
Bill Hull and Brandon Cook of the Bonhoeffer Project argue “the primary gospel preached in America today, by default, is the ‘forgiveness-only gospel,’ which is almost exclusively focused on sin and atonement. The forgiveness-only gospel is connected to the idea of saying a magic prayer that gets you into heaven one day.”
With this “gospel,” the second of the three steps is essentially overlooked. The resulting impact on us to be robust and emotionally healthy witnesses for his sake (Acts 1:8) is diminished. I have only to look as far as my own life to see how this “get saved to go to heaven” gospel negatively affected me for so many years.
I realize now that many behavioral changes have happened since I came back to Jesus as a wandering and hurting 22-year-old. I have experienced his forgiveness and resurrection power many times over. And for this I am most grateful. But at the same time, I have struggled with many other destructive patterns of thinking and living for most of my ministerial life that have left me, in the words of Brennan Manning, “bedraggled, beat-up and burnt out” and have caused me to grow “weary and discouraged along the way.” I didn’t have a well-balanced “Easter theology” or a sufficient understanding of how God transforms us from the inside out. But that has changed. And so have I, with still more road to travel!
I know many others like me; they are believers, but they remain dogged by besetting sins and deep relational problems and exhibit an emotionally unhealthy spirituality. Their impact as disciple-makers is minimal.
I have learned that for victory over sins to take place we first need forgiveness. Good Friday always precedes Resurrection Sunday; forgiveness of sins always precedes freedom from sins; God’s mercy always precedes God’s power. And for both to happen we need confession and repentance of known sins. Forgiveness of sins and freedom from sins soon follow when accompanied by deep sorrow, a sincere desire to live in victory and a commitment to his steps for gaining freedom over sins (James 4:7-10).
1 John 1:9 is a beautiful verse that illustrates the process that goes from confession to forgiveness to freedom: “If we make it our habit to confess our sins, in his faithful righteousness he forgives us for those sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness” (ISV).
This version’s rendering highlights how confession is to be a habitual activity. It is daily confession that makes Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday more than historical events to be studied.
We are to confess our sins before God and others. As to opening up to God with our deepest pain and shame, pastor and author Pete Scazzero says, “Powerful spiritual breakthroughs take place deep below the surface of our lives when we slow down to spend time with God in stillness and Scripture. This provides space for his purifying love to burn away all that is false within us and set us free to live authentically in Jesus” (Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Day by Day).
Confession before another brother or sister can happen anywhere where there is self-awareness of the false self within, a personal transparency that is honest and risk-taking, a hope that God can heal, deep repentance and a willingness to “sin no more.” Recovery and discipleship ministries such as Celebrate Recovery, Regeneration and Emotionally Healthy Discipleship are valuable resources for becoming more like Jesus. Each highlights forgiveness of sins and freedom from sins through confession to God and others in a context of confidentiality.
Many of those who proclaimed, “He is risen!” following Jesus’ resurrection went on to live and serve in this powerful reality. “And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33).
As we follow the example of our post-Pentecost brothers and sisters and strengthen the gap between conversion and glorification, increasing joy and peace will blossom in our inner being; our interpersonal relationships will greater reflect God’s original and perfect design and our individual and corporate mission to the world will multiply. Only then will we today, along with the saints of old, “Sing to the Lord, for he has done wonderful things, and make known his praise around the world” (Isaiah 12:5 NLT).