A Mirror is not a Washcloth – A Life-Changing Distinction

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Last week we looked at the only two ways God uses His law in our lives as described by Paul in Galatians 3:23-25: 1.) its external use as a fence to protect us from ourselves, in our relationships on the earth and 2.) its internal use as a mirror to show us our sin (James 1:23, 24), in our relationship with God. Paul describes this second use of the law in Galatians 3 as a paidagōgos, or “child-leader,” to lead us to Christ by exposing us as sinners.

The church has not only failed to distinguish between these two, mutually exclusive, legitimate uses of the law but instead has used it in an illegitimate way for which it was never intended—to please God by trying to keep it. Picture the foolishness of such a scene—scrubbing one’s dirty face with a mirror to try to clean it! Mirrors never work for cleaning; they only work for exposing. Its internal use is only to show us we are wicked sinners and then to bring us to repentance. Cleaning faces is the job of a washcloth. Only faith in God’s washcloth, soaked with the blood of Jesus, applied to our faces by God Himself as He opens our eyes to this truth, produces perfectly clean, radiant faces!

Making this distinction is absolutely essential in order to understand Theology 101, Question #3: “How do I relate to God?” I relate to God  as His child, never by obeying His law. That is its first use. Anyone, Christian or atheist, who desires to live a productive life and live at peace with those around him will attempt to do that, and some atheists will do a better job at doing so than some of the Christians.

However, I can never relate to God by obeying His law, whether I am a Christian or non-Christian. Trying to keep His laws, which are only meant for protecting and exposing, are never the means of relating to Daddy. That would be scrubbing my face with the mirror. I can relate to Him as my Father only by my faith in His bloody washcloth to initially, continually, and permanently keep me spotless, never by my obedience. Faith and obedience are polar opposites; obedience is something I do; faith is never something I do, but only what God alone gives me.

Faith was demonstrated perfectly for us by Jesus Himself while living on earth. Even though He was the eternal God, He lived for 33 years, not as the 2nd person of the Trinity, but as a man, the Son of Man, living His life here as God intended man to live. He said, “I do nothing of Myself . . .  the Father who dwells in Me does the works” (John 5:19; 14:10), and then shows me how to live the same way! God is always the actor; I am only the one acted upon, just as was Jesus, the least original man who ever lived.

Many of us began our walk with Jesus this way, just as did those in the Galatian churches, but we don’t continue to do so consistently, nor did they. Paul said to them, “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit (by faith), are you now being made perfect by the flesh? (by obedience to the law)and he says the same to us today.

It is initially very unpleasant when we get our first, real glimpse in the mirror of the law of God at work in our lives exposing us, as it is meant to do. We realize for the first time that much of what we do, say and think is sinful. We have unknowingly been exactly like the overweight, middle-aged, ex-beauty queen who only looks in mirrors that make her look thin, because looking in regular mirrors is too painful. When God opens our eyes to see the reality that is staring back at us in the mirror compared to the perfect law of God, we too can be devastated.

We eventually realize we are just just like the Pharisees whom Jesus addressed as “whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27). However, don’t despair but rejoice! In God’s counter-intuitive life of faith you are about to enter a genuine, brand new relationship with God, His life of “walking by faith.”

God’s world of the Spirit makes no sense to the natural mind. A universe where life comes from death (John 12:24), serving is leading (Matthew 23:11), last is first (Matthew 9:35), weakness is strength (2 Corinthians 12:9), and victory over sin only comes from embracing it (2 Corinthians 12:10) is foolishness to the world.

When we begin to see the law of God as a mirror rather than a washcloth, we find ourselves spontaneously praying three biblical prayers:

Prayer #1: ”Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts;  and see if any wicked way is in me” (Psalm 139:23, 24). When he prayed this, David realized that God already knew every ugly thing buried in his heart, but he actually wanted to see them for himself. He did not want to ignore them, excuse them or rationalize them. So, his prayer is for Daddy to open his own eyes to the wickedness in himself he has not noticed, as painful as that might be.

Also, for David, just “noticing” his sin was not enough. When he saw it, he owned it, and in a real way, even embraced it. David didn’t do what we are often told to do: “Don’t dwell on the negative; forget the past and move on to the positive.” Listen to David’s perspective on his own, now-revealed sin in  Psalm 51:3: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” This continual awareness of ever-present sin leads to Prayer #2:

Prayer #2: “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” – the prayer of the tax-collector in Luke 18:13. This is the prayer of repentance of the one who no longer is thinking “Nobody’s perfect,” and “Everybody does that.” He has finally given up on the hopeless task of using the mirror to clean his face. He is finally saying, “I have no hope of ever improving myself. My only hope is to cast myself completely on the mercy of God.” This prayer then leads to Prayer #3:

Prayer #3: “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!“ – the prayer of the father of the demon-possessed boy in  Mark 9:24. This is a beautiful prayer, expressing two very important truths. Frost a statement of childlike, complete trust in Daddy: “I believe!” Second, a recognition that my faith is weak and I am prone to fear. “Does Daddy still forgive my constant sin? Can I really trust that He will meet all my needs? Will He always be there for me? Does His love-needle really not move, even when I really screw up?” Fear is not sure; faith answers, “Yes!”

These three prayers represent the progression we all will take in our relationship with God—seeing the wickedness in our hearts experientially, not just theoretically; genuinely owning that real sin and repenting of it; believing it is all, past, present and future sin, totally and forever forgiven. Paul calls this process moving from “living by the law,” or “living in the flesh,” to “living by faith.” Next week we will investigate the incredible results He promises when that paradigm shift begins to occur in our lives.

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