Friday, May 5, 2023

A Follow-up: The Need To Unpack The Reality Of Sin In The Christian Life

Introduction & review: saints who sin occasionally

    In our last post, we considered the question of Christian identity. Readers who want to review the last post may click here

    We asked "is a Christ-follower a 'sinner', 'a saint', or somehow 'both'". We concluded that, on the one hand, with respect to the righteousness of Jesus Christ credited unto me in saving faith, I am no doubt a "saint", a "holy one". Over sixty times we find Christians referred to as "saints" in the New Testament. We could say that the Christ-follower's "sainthood" in this present life speaks to their root identity. The Christian is by position forgiven of their sins and by relationship an adopted son or daughter of God.

    But now, what of the sins commited post-conversion? This secondary "on the other hand" reality of Christian living causes much discussion among Christian people. 

    Clearly, the Bible nowhere affirms that Christians are sinlessly perfect in this life (compare 1 John 1:8-2:2 for example). We know that Paul admitted, for instance, in Philippians 3:12

"Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus."

    Also too, the Apostle Peter would commit sins well into his Apostleship, as apparent in Paul's confrontation of him in Galatians 2:11-21. Even though the Christian has no excuse (since the last time I sinned I did not have to sin), it nevertheless stands that all Christians will choose to sin from time-to-time. As author Sinclair Ferguson notes in his book "The Blueprints for Sanctification", the pattern for Christian living ought to be that we sin less frequently and with less intensity. 

    It is true that Christians have a "new nature" from their conversion in saving faith (2 Corinthians 5:17; Titus 3:5). So, why then do Christian people sin? As I noted in the last post, some Christians refer to themselves as "sinners saved by grace". I won't go into the history of the use of this phrase. The history of ideas, and how they trickle down into everyday use, tends to lead to their misuse. Let's just say that its original intent, and the way it is taken today, are different and has led to much confusion.  This phrase "sinner saved by grace", though well intended, nevertheless needs retired. 

    In my last post, I noted that probably a better way of stating this secondary feature of Christian living in this world is to say "we are saints who sin occasionally" (to borrow from Neil T. Anderson and other theologians who write regularly on the subject of Christian sanctification). 

The reality of sin in the Christian life

    We know that Christian people retain the corruption of sin. The difference between pre-conversion and post-conversion man is that the first situation has man sinning by necessity. Put another way, unbelievers sin because of who they are - sinners. The church 5th century church father Augustine describes it as "not being able not to sin", or stated positively "able only to sin". The human will of the natural man is morally bent, tilted, in the direction of "desiring to do the opposite of God's will", as well as feeling the need to do what is opposite of God's will. 

    When we become born-again, regenerated, new believers in Jesus Christ, our nature is transformed. When the Christian sins, they sin because "they want do", not because "they have to". To quote our friend Augustine once more, we become as believers those "who are able not to sin", or stated positively, "we can choose not to sin". 

    I ended the last post by referencing Martin Luther's phrase in his summary of the Christian life "simul iustus et peccator" (saint and sinner at the same time). As I understand this teaching of Luther, the Christian is indeed a "saint" in the primary sense of their identity with respect to the credited righteousness of Jesus Christ, received in saving faith (compare Romans 3:24-26; Galatians 3:24). As I also understand Luther's statement, the Christian chooses to commit sin and, independent of consideration of who they are in Christ, they would be a sinner (which of course is no longer their central identity, due to conversion). Luther's point seems to be that the Christian's choice to sin is a "secondary feature" of their Christian life in this world. As I heard it once stated: 

"in the new birth, we are set free in justification from the penalty of sin; in sanctification, we are being set free from the power of sin; and in glorification, or after we get to Heaven, the believer is set free from the presence of sin".

The reason for today's post: a need to unpack the reality of sin in the Christian life 

    The Apostle Paul writes these words in Romans 7:24-25

"Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin."    

    With so much discussion over who a Christian is ("a saint", "a sinner", or somehow both), I wanted to take time to dive more deeply into where we can find the accurate portrayal of the polarity that exists for Christian people, namely that we are "saints" and that "we sin occasionally" - Romans 6,7,8. 
The 4 R's Of Romans 6, 7 and 8.

     I'll simply list what I call "the four "R's" of the Christian life in Romans 6,7, and 8 as a means of navigating the Christian's "sainthood" on the one hand and the painful reality of their post-conversion sinning on the other hand.

1. Realities of the Christian life.  
    Romans 6:1-11

2. Responsibilities of the Christian life.        Romans 6:12-7:6

3. Wrestlings between the new nature        and sin in the Christian life. 
    Romans 7:7-25

4. Rights of sonship for the Christian          life. Romans 8.

Closing thoughts

    As we devote time in future posts to these chapters of Romans 6,7, and 8, I'm reminded of what I heard a preacher say years ago in reference to understanding the Christian life in this section of Romans. The preacher noted:

"only when we understand the reality of Romans 6 and the conflict of Romans 7 will we be able to enjoy our inheritance laid out in Romans 8."

     It is hoped that in unpacking these three chapters, readers can gain clarity to untangling the difficulties of understanding the believer's true identity in Jesus Christ.