I wasn’t on the Christian road very long before I heard it. It sounded good, made me thankful for God’s grace, and allowed for me to cut myself some slack:
“I’m not as good as I want to be, as good as one day I will be, but thank God I’m better than I used to be.”
We probably get the point of what is being communicated. We still sin and one day we won’t sin, but for now at least we are improving! The country singer Tim McGraw put it this way, “I ain’t as good as I’m gonna get, but I’m better than I used to be.” For some, that sums up the Christian life.
However, something I read recently shattered this sort of thinking and living for me; my old friend John Newton was the culprit once again! Newton said in a letter to a friend dated May 4, 1773:
Shall I give you another bit of a riddle, that notwithstanding the many changes I pass through, I am always the same? This is the very truth: “In me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing”; so that, if sometimes my spirit is in a measure humble, lively, and dependent, it is not that I am grown better than I was, but that the Lord is pleased to put forth His gracious power in my weakness: and when my heart is dry and stupid, when I can find no pleasure in waiting upon God, it is not because I am worse than I was before, but only the Lord sees it best that I should feel as well as say what a poor creature I am.
Wow! There goes the well worn saying. What is Newton saying? Often in our desires to live the Christian life, we are tempted by two extremes: a public pride in our own achievement (the good days) or a private despondency when we mess up (the bad ones). But Newton says to avoid both.
Realize that when you are growing, it is the Lord who is working and realize, too, that when the weeds are growing, it is the Lord reminding you just how sinful you are and of how desperate you are for His help.
But let’s not take John Newton’s word for it. Newton only reflects the teaching of the Bible.
The Apostle Paul, with brutal honesty, tells us that his experience as a Christian was one of sinful struggle. In Romans 7:15 he says, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” As a result, he felt the weight of God’s good and righteous law upon him. And his reaction? The Gospel.
"Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:24)
In another place Paul reminds Christians that his life is not a quest to get better, but a quest to rest by faith in Jesus:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. Galatians 2:20
Of course, we are called to grow (II Peter 3:18), to be disciplined (I Corinthians 9:27), to run (Hebrews 12:1), to fight (I Timothy 6:12). Things will change in a heart captured by the Gospel, but we aren’t called to self improvement - to simply "get better". We aren’t on an upward progression from bad, to average, to good. We are called to realize the “bad” in us, and in doing so, to look away from our sinful ‘flesh’ to Jesus, the Gospel’s living victor!
So when you are doing well in the Christian life, thank God that you are in Christ and his power is being displayed in your abject weakness, and when you aren’t doing so well, remind yourself of the Gospel. Say to yourself: ‘I am riddled with sin, but I look to one who is perfectly righteous: Jesus!" Let’s put the age-old adages away and say instead:
I’m not as good as I think I am, I’m often worse than I realize, but thank God Christ is better than I imagine.