One of the perks of studying abroad with a college theater group was free or cheap tickets to theatrical productions playing wherever we were. Actors like to play to full houses, so if there are spare tickets, they are happy to find worthy recipients. On one such occasion while I was studying in Italy, the British National Theatre was touring with their production of The Passion Play, and we somehow gleaned tickets for a performance in Rome.
Because we had the “cheap seats” (the groundlings), we got to be very close to the action, sometimes part of the action, as we stood on the floor (for six hours with one dinner break). The first act told stories from the Old Testament, and the second act, the story of Christ from the gospels. Of course, during the Palm Sunday scene, everyone was excitedly cheering. Then during the Good Friday scenes, most of the audience was excitedly jeering. Except me. As one who seemed to be the “token Christian” in my group, I was not about to cry out, “Crucify Him!” I loved Jesus and wanted no part in demanding His crucifixion. And that’s what I shared when a couple of the others asked why I had been quiet.
I thought of myself like one of the women who had followed Him and watched the crucifixion, devastated by His murder. I had even portrayed Mary Magdalene several times in an Easter monologue―but I had not considered why she followed Him even to death. (See Mark 16:9.) That kind of gratitude was not part of my response at the play, nor even part of my testimony.
It was years later when I realized the raised-in-the-church-and-knew-all-the-Sunday-school-answers form of Pharisaism I practiced. Yes, I loved Jesus, but like the Pharisee in Luke 18, I was a good practitioner, less repentant than proud. Once I finally understood that I unquestionably took part in His crucifixion and was no less to blame than the Jews who prosecuted Him or the Roman soldier who nailed Him to the cross, then I cried out with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13), and only then could I truly identify with Mary Magdalene and join her at the foot of the cross.
For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). I knew the verse, and even though my mother always told me I was perfect, I knew in my heart I’m not, at least not like God. I thought I was pretty good, better than most, but I was blind to just how terminal my condition is. I had never understood or admitted the deep, despicable darkness of my own heart, the “total depravity” as John Calvin called it.
Only when I professed with Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners―of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His immense patience . . .” (1 Tim. 1:15b-16a NIV), only then could I really love Jesus for who He is and what He has done.
R. C. Sproul once wrote, “We aren’t sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.” You see, although I had the head knowledge that I was born in sin, I didn’t have the heart knowledge that everyone is the same shade of dead without the blood of Jesus Christ. As Brennan Manning points out in The Ragamuffin Gospel, only that heart knowledge “intrinsically brings change.”
In Matthew 5:48, Jesus gives a standard for change that no one—no one, but He―can live up to in this earthly life: “Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He sets this standard after giving a list of sins and declaring that even thinking about them could send us to “the fiery hell” (Matt. 5:21-47). So, though I may try to control my anger, try to not use the word “fool” (or its synonyms), try to keep my thoughts clean, try to keep my promises, my efforts are totally worthless.
Too often like the children in the cartoon, Family Circle, who blame a little phantom named “Not Me” for mischief around their house, I still rely upon “Not Me,” because my very best, most successful efforts are only phantoms. I still mimic the Pharisee in Luke 18, as my little “Not Me” wears a phantom halo, and when others sin, I think, “Not me. I don’t do that.” It’s part of the daily battle the apostle Paul describes in Romans 7:14-25 between my old sin nature and the new Christlike nature.
But then, Paul declares the good news: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Even though I’ve messed up and despite my best efforts will mess up again, the blood of Jesus Christ is enough. At the foot of the cross I fall and let His blood cover me, so I no longer stand on my own merit, but can proclaim, “Not I, but Christ.”
About the Author:
Marlys Roos is the publications coordinator for CDM. She and her family are members of Perimeter Church in Atlanta.