For many of us, at the beginning of our Christian journeys, we thought of and spoke often about the radical forgiveness of a God who has been greatly sinned against. I remember myself going on and on about God’s longsuffering and patience, and how grateful I was for it. I also recall having conversations with friends who did not convert out of a debauched past, who had never known a time they didn’t consider themselves Christian.
Some were a bit dispirited about not being able to share in such supposedly illustrious conversion experiences. I’d always say to be grateful for that. Possibly knowing of God’s mercy in a more intimate way than a few others doesn’t eradicate the ramifications and reality of the past. And besides, whatever heightened sense of the grace of God great sinners possess almost always deteriorates over the years. In other words, I don’t go on and on about God’s longsuffering and patience these days; I’m more likely to go on and on about how longsuffering and patient I am, or so I think, the fool that I am.
Yet there is an antidote for this kind of amnesia, and Saint Paul summed it up nicely in his first letter to Timothy: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1:15b). The apostle is not bent on continually flogging himself here, as if he were only a worm before God. Nor is he thinking merely of his murderous self before Damascus. Rather, as Saint Paul grew in holiness by the power of God’s Spirit in union with Christ, he became increasingly mindful of his own sinfulness. It’s likely, then, that if we continue to grow in holiness, we too will become increasingly aware of our sinfulness. And being ever-mindful of God’s grace toward us can mean only one thing: we will repent (which is more than saying sorry, James 2:17) for the rest of our days.
Gone will be the notion that professing our allegiance and repenting to the one, true God revealed in Jesus Christ is a one-shot deal accomplished at the end of an aisle. Gone, too, will be the notion that if we sin badly we’ll need to rededicate our lives to Christ however many times it takes before it sticks. Gone will be our conversion experiences, and we’ll welcome the journey, albeit long, that lies ahead, fully trusting in the mercy, kindness, and patience of a God who wants us all to repent — for life (Acts 17:30; Rom. 2:4; 1 Tim. 2:4; 4:10; 2 Peter 3:8–10).