“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
What a wonderful promise! He is faithful! All we need do is confess.
But this presents a problem, for far too often we are faithless. Indeed, that is the very reason we need to confess. We err. We sin. We transgress God’s holy law.
But our faultiness doesn’t stop there. No, our condition is much more severe. Even in our prayers, we are deficient. Our motives are mixed; our sincerity is tainted. As we pray, we recognize the impurity of our prayer. Our thoughts wander. Our confessions are corrupted.
We long for greater sincerity–a truer heart. Yet we find our prayers testifying against us, for even as we seek forgiveness, we recognize that our tainted prayers cannot be accepted by a God who is “holy, holy, holy.”
Especially is this the case for us who recognize we are living in the antitypical Day of Atonement. There was a work of affliction to be done by the camp of Israel on this day (see Leviticus 16:29-31). Thus we are counseled,
“Those who worship God in sincerity and truth, and afflict their souls before Him as in the great day of atonement, will wash their robes of character and make them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Ye Shall Receive Power, p.359)
Yet, just as our obedience falls short, so does our sincerity. There is pardon for disobedient acts, but what is to be done for our half-hearted prayers?
On this point, I have known many a Christian to despair. The more they studied the final stage of Christ’s mediation in the heavenly sanctuary and the contrition of spirit to characterize God’s people during this period of redemptive history, the more they came to fear that their case was hopeless. They recognize there is forgiveness for acts of sin, but come to believe their pleas are too unacceptable to access it. They are well acquainted with their own feebleness; they know that they are corrupt channels.
Indeed, we’re told such a thought will nearly overwhelm God’s people during the great time of testing to come upon them:
Though God’s people will be surrounded by enemies who are bent upon their destruction, yet the anguish which they suffer is not a dread of persecution for the truth’s sake; they fear that every sin has not been repented of, and that through some fault in themselves they will fail to realize the fulfillment of the Saviour’s promise: I “will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world.” Revelation 3:10 (The Great Controversy, p. 619)
Their need is “the assurance of pardon” (ibid.), but they fear that they cannot obtain it because of “some fault in themselves”. They question the completeness and sincerity of their confessions.
What will protect us in that day? What will give us confidence to stand? Is such assurance of pardon possible, even today?
The answer is found in taking your eyes off of yourself and in fixing them on the sanctuary. Come and learn the full efficiency of Christ’s atoning work, not only for your faulty acts, but also for your tainted worship and polluted petitions.
We often emphasize the exacting nature of the sanctuary services. The worshiper had to follow strict guidelines for how he offered his sacrifice. Indeed, those who offered “strange fire” faced God’s wrath (cf. Leviticus 10). The type had to correctly anticipate the antitype.
Yet, do not forget that provision was made for imperfect worship. It had to be, for God was dealing with imperfect worshippers. Leviticus records a ritual for dealing with those who sinned in their handling of “the holy things of the LORD” (Leviticus 5:14-16). Moreover, the prayers of Israel were mixed with a fragrant incense while ascending to heaven (Luke 1:9-10), that incense representing the merits of Christ’s righteousness that made the defiled prayers acceptable (Revelation 8:3-4; cf. Testimonies for the Church 8:178). Notably, this incense is featured at the heart of the sanctuary services on the day of atonement (Leviticus 16:12-13).
It was his study of this aspect of the high priestly ministry that led the hymnist Horatius Bonar to realize:
“When seeking God, we need to have our way of seeking and our act of seeking forgiven. When praying for pardon, we need to have that prayer itself forgiven. Each petition bears witness against us. There is such imperfection, such coldness, such formality, such deadness, such wandering, such half-heartedness, such a want of everything that constitutes prayer, that, were there not forgiveness for the sins of our holy things, we might as well cease to pray. When coming to Christ, we need forgiveness for our act of coming, for the impure motives which lead us to come, as well as the defective way in which we come. All this is provided for. There is forgiveness, not merely for the sins we bring to Christ, but for our way of bringing them.”
(The Sin of Our Holy Things Borne by Christ)
Ellen White affirmed this same truth:
“The religious services, the prayers, the praise, the penitent confession of sin ascend from true believers as incense to the heavenly sanctuary, but passing through the corrupt channels of humanity, they are so defiled that unless purified by blood, they can never be of value to God. They ascend not in spotless purity, and unless the Intercessor, who is at God’s right hand, presents and purifies all by His righteousness, it is not acceptable to God. All incense from earthly tabernacles must be moist with the cleansing drops of the blood of Christ. He holds before the Father the censer of His own merits, in which there is no taint of earthly corruption. He gathers into this censer the prayers, the praise, and the confessions of His people, and with these, He puts His own spotless righteousness. Then, perfumed with the merits of Christ’s propitiation, the incense comes up before God wholly and entirely acceptable. Then gracious answers are returned.” (Selected Messages, Book 1 p.344)
Take heart! Don’t despair! You recognize the depth of your sin, now recognize the abundance of Christ’s righteousness. His perfect plea makes acceptable our imperfect prayers. All our holy acts are corrupted, yet in Him is no taint of corruption. Truly, in Him, we might “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22).