#5 – Saint Vs Sinner – Should Christians Struggle With and be Convicted of Sin?

Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you. John Owen

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After a few months away from the Saint vs Sinner discussion lets return. Let me restate there are many things I affirm and people I genuinely love and appreciate in the ‘Saints by Nature’ movement. I believe many things taught are helpful, make much of Jesus and should be believed, received and applied. However I maintain that in my view some of the doctrine taught is false and can be dangerous if taken to it’s logical conclusion. One of the key areas I believe this to be so is with regard to the doctrine of sin and how it relates to the Christian.

As discussed in previous posts, both the Old and New Testaments, teach that sin as something that flows from the sinner. Sin cannot and does not exist apart from a human host; to say otherwise is Gnosticism, not biblical or historical Christianity. In this sense sin not only defines activity but also identity. We are not identified as sinners because we sin; rather we participate in the activity of sin because we are identified as sinners. A good example of this can be seen in Jesus’ parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the temple. The tax collector does not ask for mercy because he had sinned rather it says,

“… the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13 ESV)

The Tax Collector identified himself as ‘a sinner’ and in need of God’s mercy. Yet the so-called righteous Pharisee no longer viewed himself in need of God’s mercy. He believed he was already righteousness, already good in his own eyes and therefore did not turn to God in need. The story ends stating that it was the humble sinner that was justified, not the proud supposed saint.

This story raises a few important questions?

  • Should Christians continue to struggle with and be convicted of sin? (It appears the righteous Pharisee is unaware of his sin)
  • Should Christians continue to repent of sin? (Being unaware of his sin he did not repent of his sin)
  • Should Christians identify as sinners or saints? (Should the Pharisee have identified himself as a sinner or simply repented of his sin?).

Over the next 3 posts I will attempt to answer each of these questions through an array of scriptural passages. These will be longer than normal. Therefore I’ll give three answers to each question – short, medium and long. Read what you will. Lets begin with question 1.

 

Should Christian continue to struggle with and be convicted of Sin?

 

Short Answer: Yes

Medium: Yes but not defeated or enslaved by sin. The language of the Bible expects an ongoing wrestle, struggle, fight against sin in the life of a believer, but with an expectation of victory through God’s word, the power of God’s Spirit, strength given through other believers and the new nature, with new desires received at the new birth. While there is a genuine wrestle against sin there should also be a pattern of freedom from sin by God’s grace. The Westminster Shorter Catechism makes two helpful statements

Q 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Q 82. Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?
A. No mere man, since the fall, is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed.

 

Long Answer: Hewbrews 12

Hebrews 12 comes after Hebrews 11. I know I’m an intellectual genius and your thanking me for revealing that incredible mystery to you. But in all seriousness it helps. Hebrews 11 is known as the chapter of faith. It’s filled with stories of men and women who placed their faith in the promises and character of God regardless of circumstances. As ‘pilgrims on the way’, to used language of Michael Horton (read ‘The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way” It’s brilliant) this world is not our home. We are citizens of heaven (Eph. 2:19). The Christian life is going somewhere, it is not stagnant, nor a holiday. It is a walk (Gal. 5:16; Eph. 2:10; Eph. 5:2) it is a race (1 Cor. 9:24) with a specific goal namely Christ.

Chapter 12 uses the idea of a ‘race’ and exhorts Christians to persevere and endure in light of those gone before (witnesses of chapter 11). Note verse 1

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,

The metaphor of ‘weight’ is used to highlight that sin is something that impedes your Christian life, your journey, your experience, or your ‘race’. It slows you down, holds you back. As Christians we are to fight against sin, we are to discard it, remove it, take it off, “lay it aside”. The writer of Hebrews had an expectation that sin would be something Christians continue to deal with.

 

looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

 

The writer then moves to Jesus. We are not to not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin”, rather we to look to Jesus trusting that he is the founder of our faith as well as the perfector of it. Also we are to endure like Jesus did. The objection often raised here however is to point to the fact that Jesus is the example yet he did not struggle from sin within. Therefore in light of that, this struggle against sin must be referring to sin from without. Again read my previous posts of how sin is described throughout all scripture, as we are to understand each passage of scripture in light of the whole. My reply would be that while Jesus is the current example and did not struggle from sin within; he is one of many examples given in order to make the greater point – ENDURE. The witnesses prefaced in chapter 11 all suffered from sin within and the key thought of persevering has continued throughout chapter 12. The emphasis is not, ‘be like Jesus’ in every sense, it is be like Jesus in the sense of persevering through struggle. Our struggle, while different from Christ’s, requires the same response – endurance and perseverance.

 

Additionally the Apostle Paul spoke of this struggle and encouraged believers at Rome to wrestle and fight against sin and to put sin to death.

Romans 8:13-14 – For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

To live according to the flesh” indicates that there is a part of the Christian that continues to desire fleshly things and infers that sin remains present but that the believer has the means to kill it ‘by the Holy Spirit’. While not an Apostle, John Owen put it this way.

Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.

 

To the Galatian church Paul sought to prepare the, ‘brothers and sisters’, for when other Christians would fall into sin. As Christians that had received God’s forgiveness for their sin, shown through “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward them in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7), they should do likewise when others sin. He additionally warned them to be careful not fall into the same temptation to sin. Once again outlining a real, genuine wrestle.

Galatians 6:1 – Brothers and sisters, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.

 

Back to Hebrews. Verse 5-11 says,

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

From exhorting Christians to throw off the weight of sin and to endure in the race, the writer proceeds to talk of God’s discipline and our response to it. Namely we “have to endure” (Vs. 7) and not be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Vs. 5-6). We are to persevere knowing that God loves us and, disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Vs. 10) and that it “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Vs. 11). Yet there’s even greater encouragement here. Verse 5 & 6, which cite Proverbs 3:11-12, uses the word ‘reproved’. This word is the verb elegchō (ἐλέγχω). It is the exact same word used in John 16:8 when Jesus describes the work of the Holy Spirit as one who will convict (elegchō) the world of concerning sin, and righteousness and judgment.” It is the same word used in Rev. 3:19 in which Christ says, “those whom I love, I reprove (Greek: elegchō) and discipline, so be zealous and repent”. Conviction of sin is an act of the triune God. God the Father (Heb. 12:5), God the Son (Rev. 3:19) and God the Holy Spirit (Jn. 16:8) continue to lovingly convict the believer of sin, calling them to repent of sin in order that they may “share in his holiness” (Heb 12:10) and experience the “peaceful fruit of righteousness”. (Heb. 12:11)

The exhortation continues.

12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;

The writer calls Christians to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees and make straight paths for you feet” (Vs.12) and to, “see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble” (Vs. 15). It is a warning to examine our self internally and see what roots there are that needs to be uprooted. The author alludes to Deuteronomy 29:18 which describes a person that turns away from God to false gods. This person is to, “Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit” (Deut. 29:18). Sin exists, not just somewhere out there, but inside, and we are to be aware of it and fight it.

 

SUMMARY: The Hebrew writer is exhorting Christians – you will struggle with sin, persevere, endure, fight.

HOW?

1) Take heart from those gone before you. If they can do it, so can you (Heb. 11-12:1). 2) Look to Jesus the founder and perfector of your faith, the one who began a good work in you and will bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6). Jesus also struggled and endured and therefore is a great example to learn from (Heb 12:2-3). 3) Your Heavenly Father is with you, helping you. Particularly through discipline, and although painful, it’s loving and for you good to keep you on the right path. 4) The Triune God (Father, Son and Spirit) will continually convict you of sin. Not to condemn you, nor to count your sins against you, as they are already forgiven in Christ, but to help you to run your race, conforming you to the image of Christ “that we may share in his holiness” (Vs. 10) and experience the “peaceful fruit of righteousness”. (Heb. 12:11)

 

In our next post we will look question 2 – Should Christians continue to repent of sin? Till then let me know your thoughts.

Saint Vs Sinner – #1 – What I Affirm!

Theology matters. Truth matters. Get truth wrong and you end up doing two egregious things – you misrepresent God and you mislead people…Therefore my aim with this series is to represent God well, both in what I say and how I say it. As well as to better equip people…

Let me begin by saying this will be a very in house blog series. By that I mean I’ll be focusing on a debate that is between people within the Christian community. So if you’re reading this and are not a Christian, there may be some big theological words, a fair bit of “Christianese” going on and maybe not a lot of interest from your end. For this I apologise. In saying that I’d still encourage you to consider reading this series as it may help you understand more of the Christian worldview. If you are a Christian I really encourage you to read the entire series, as I believe that whichever side of the debate you land there are significant implications.

In this first post I’d like to 1) give a quick summary of the debate, 2) establish my purpose in entering into the debate and 3) affirm what I appreciate about the ‘Saints by Nature’ movement. This will then be followed by a series of blog posts that will outline my theological, pastoral and practical concerns with the theology behind this movement and what I believe scripture actually teaches in regards to sin, righteousness, our nature as Christians, sanctification and so forth.

 

THE DEBATE

In short the debate can be summarised with a simple question, ‘Are we saved sinners or sinning saints?’. It has to do with whether a converted Christian continues to possess a sinful nature. The common held belief within Christianity is that before conversion all people possess a sinful nature. This is to say that sin is not just something we choose to do, although it’s definitely chosen but also something we are predisposed to do. It’s in our nature to sin and every human being will sin because ultimately our activity (what we do) is determined by our identity (who we are). However scripture also tells us that when we become a Christian we receive a new nature, a new identity in Christ. A nature that is righteous and not sinful.

Consequently, the debate has a number of nuisances to it and includes many different questions. What is sin? Where does it come from? Can a person simultaneously have two natures, both sinner and saint? Is there a difference between the imputed and imparted righteousness of Christ? (Don’t worry I’ll explain these words in a future post) Are either immediate or progressive? What’s the difference between justification and sanctification? If sin came from within the sinner (person with sinful nature) where does sin come from for the saint (righteous nature)? Note that while some in this movement are close to claiming sinless perfection, it’s my understanding that most would admit they continue to sin. How they define sin and what they attribute it to, is what I’d like to discuss.

As you can tell this is significant discussion. Therefore it’s going to take a number of blogs to discuss it. So buckle up and enjoy the ride.

 

THE PURPOSE

I’m a pastor not a theological scholar. My reason for entering this conversation is pastoral. I love discussing theology and truth, even a good debate is fun, but I don’t enjoy debate for debate’s sake. I genuinely care about God and about people’s lives, particularly those of whom God has placed under my care. Theology matters. Truth matters. Get truth wrong and you end up doing two egregious things – you misrepresent God and you mislead people. Theology has significant implications for people’s lives. Therefore my aim with this series is to represent God well, both in what I say and how I say it. As well as to better equip people directly under my care and to encourage those outside my direct care to thoroughly consider what they believe and the implications of their beliefs.

 

THE APPRECIATION

Often when camps disagree with each other, we lose sight of where we agree and what we affirm. As a Christian Pastor I do believe it’s important to draw lines of disagreement. We need to know who we are and what we believe. We also need to know who we’re not and what we don’t believe. However I also believe we should draw circles of agreement. With this in mind I’d like to affirm a number of things I see and hear regarding those that adhere to the ‘Saints by Nature’ theology.

 

  • Desire for Holiness – I see a great desire for holiness within this movement. Many of the discussions I’ve had with people adhering to this doctrine have included a real concern for sin, and do not wish to take it lightly. There is a desire to live a godly lifestyle because that is what God has called us to. They see people abusing God’s grace, exploiting it as a means to dismiss sin, and seek to counter this by putting sin to death and living in righteousness.

 

  • Love for People – Everyone I’ve spoken to directly, much of what I have read and teachings I’ve listened to online reveal a genuine love for people. Many who promote this theology have a heart to see people live a life free from sin. They seek to fight for God’s people and desire to see people live in genuine freedom.

 

  • Focus on Identity – A big reason I believe this theology has gained traction is the focus on living out of one’s new identity found in Christ. I really appreciate this movements determination to focus on our new identity in Christ and to call people to live out of that identity. Our new identity in Christ is fundamental to living out our faith and being a disciple.

 

  • Lifestyle of Mission – I love seeing Christians be bold in their faith. If we truly believe what we say we believe then it should be followed up with action. This movement could never be accused of lacking passion or being on mission. They truly believe what they say they believe and it’s evident in how they seek to live on mission.

 

I’m sure there are more elements that I affirm within the movement, for now these four are what comes to mind. I wish to encourage anyone that disagree with the theology of this group to take a step back and first consider what you can learn from them. It’s one thing to have theological disagreements with people, it’s another to dismiss everything altogether. While this series is my attempt to teach the truth, as I believe revealed in scripture, my desire is to also be gracious, humble and teachable towards those I disagree with. I pray that my aim to represent God well and lead people towards truth is achieved throughout this series.

I hope you stick with me for this important journey.