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The Totality of Christ’s Cleansing

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John Newton, of Amazing Grace fame, wrote a lesser-known poem that sometimes haunts, sometimes comforts me. Maybe you’ve read it. Here it is, in its entirety:

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
 
’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
 
I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
 
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
 
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
 
Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.
 
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”

     How easy it is to identify with Newton’s sentiment! Sin threatens to undo us at every turn and the guilt of it is enough to drive us mad with despair. And it starts earlier than you might think, too. My eight-year-old daughter already expresses the frustration of feeling incapable of defeating indwelling sin.

     But that’s the truth, isn’t it? We are incapable of defeating sin, in our own strength. And feeling the frustration of it, as Newton teaches us, is actually part of God’s reminder that we must rest not in our own strength, but in his.

     In these moments, I remember Jesus’ conversation with Peter on the night of the Last Supper. John records in his Gospel:

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” (John 13:3-6)

If you’ve sat under enough Bible teaching you know why Peter was so horrified. The idea of their teacher, their honored Rabbi, stooping to such a disgraceful and dishonorable task as washing feet was unthinkable to him. But Jesus explains calmly that this act, like so many of his actions and words in John’s Gospel, had a much deeper symbolic meaning than Peter knew:

Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” (John 13:7)

Still, Peter remained unconvinced:

Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” (John 13:8a)

So Jesus explains precisely what this washing symbolizes, as well as why it is imperative that he himself perform it:

Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” (John 13:8b)

Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet is so much more than just a demonstration of servant-hearted leadership, although it is that. It also symbolizes Jesus’ sanctification of his people. He is the one who cleanses them. They are incapable of cleansing themselves, so he must do it for them. I’ve often wondered if it was this event that Paul was thinking of when he wrote Ephesians 5:

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word . . . . (Ephesians 5:25-26)

     At any rate, Peter seems to have gotten the gist of the idea. He knows that he needs Christ’s cleansing. And so he responds with his patented Petrine enthusiasm:

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (John 13:9)

     I think John Newton would resonate with Peter’s response. I know I do. Peter is in essence saying, “Lord, don’t just cleanse me a little bit! Cleanse me completely! Don’t leave any part unwashed! Make me even cleaner than you already have!” Or, in Newtonian verse: “I asked the Lord that . . . I might more of his salvation know.”

     But observe Jesus’ infinitely precious response to Peter:

Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean.” (John 13:10)

This response is not helpful at all if we’re still talking about physical washing. I shudder for the day my snarky kids run across this gem and start trying to use it to get out of bath-time. Because it won’t work that way, will it? Jesus cannot be talking about bodily bathing, because then his statement would make no sense. But if he’s talking about the spiritual cleansing that he alone accomplishes, then it all falls into place.

     What Jesus is saying to Peter is just this: “Once I’ve cleansed you, you’re clean. No further washing are necessary. The work is done. You need nothing more. You are clean”

     What Jesus is saying to John Newton is just this: “Your increased knowledge of your sin is meant to remind you that you have all the salvation you need. There is no greater knowledge to gain, no further grace to seek. You have what you need. The work is done. You need nothing more. You are clean.”

     What Jesus is saying to my eight-year-old daughter is just this: “I have cleansed you. Don’t despair. The work is done. You need nothing more. You are clean.”

     What Jesus is saying to each of us is just this: “Trust me. Be content in my salvation. You are clean.”

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