I had another revelation in the shower this morning. I get all my best stuff in the shower. At least, it seems like great stuff to me! Maybe this is obvious to all my esteemed readers. I really am a theological simpleton.
Sin and Punishment
Now, every Christian persuasion teaches that when we believe in Christ, the threat of punishment for our past sins is forgiven. The threat of punishment has been removed, because Christ has died for our sins. However, from that point forward there is some disagreement. There are two logically possible viewpoints, as illustrated in the diagram below. We’ll explore these one at a time.
Christianity as an Introduction to Law
Some would say that the threat of punishment from the point of conversion forward is over, because we have become new creatures and the performance of sins worthy of punishment far less likely. For the past, we are free from the threat of punishment for our sins because Christ has died for us. In the present and the future, we are free from the threat of punishment for sins because we are new creatures and we simply don’t sin like that any more.
So going forward we avoid punishment by being so renewed and different that we are able to suppress any behavior or thought that would warrant the threat. The threat still remains, but we become the kind of people that the threat wouldn’t apply to. This is the commonly held “mixed-grace” conception of Christian living.
There are several problems with this. For one thing, it isn’t biblical. John is quite clear in 1 John 1:8,10 that if we say we have (present tense) no sin, we lie. Paul says in Romans 7:14-24 that we as Christians still have powerful struggles with sin:
14 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?
In the stream of his thought, he is talking about Christians. He would not say in Romans 8:1 that there is therefore now no condemnation if our sinful behavior was completely in our past and as Christians we were largely sinless, because there would be no need to say so.
In fact, the whole point of the book of Galatians is to refute this very thing:
1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? 2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Another problem is that it simply doesn’t fit with experience. As Christians, we still sin. It is as simple as that. Romans 7 rings true because it reflects real life. It is ridiculous to pretend that right upon entering faith in Christ for the first time, from that moment on we cease to sin. No one believes that. The staunchest and most rigid “Lordship Salvation” proponents would hesitate to propose such a doctrine. Unfortunately that means their entire theological edifice fails.
In the end, this way of thinking about Christian living ends up making the gospel to be an introduction to living under the law instead of an introduction to living under grace (Romans 5:1-2). Since it is an introduction to law, it has the effect of nullifying grace (Galatians 5:21), since it is clear that such a belief holds that less than perfect success at living according to the law can trump Christ’s blood and destroy one’s salvation. It is basically saying that the effect of belief in Christianity should not be an assurance that you are saved by Christ, but rather that you are placed even more severely under the law, but that you should be much better at keeping the law. It isn’t a message of grace at all.
It is ironic that if it were true that in coming to Christ we were so changed that we avoided threat through behaving well, there would not need to be all of these New Testament imperatives. However there are NT imperatives, because even as Christians we still gravitate towards sin. Paul is telling us what to do and what not to do all over the place. That is because as believers, the dynamic of our relationship to God has changed, but it isn’t the change the “mixed-grace” crowd would have us believe.
Christianity as an Introduction to Grace
Instead, the true New Testament conception of Christian living is that we sin, and through Christ’s blood, the punishment for sin is taken away. We sin before conversion, and at conversion all of our prior guilt and the threat of all judgment is taken away from us because of Jesus’ propitiatory death. Post conversion, we may sin less, but we still sin, and the punishment for our sin is taken away. We sin after conversion and the threat of condemnation is still removed from us. The threat is removed for all of our sin, past, present and future. So we may still sin as in Romans 7:14-24, but there is always “therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The message of so-called “radical grace” or “hyper-grace” is the simple belief that Jesus has died for all of our sins, and that we have an assurance of eternal life. It is the belief that Jesus actually saves us through His blood. It is the belief that He conquers our sin and condemnation, not that we conquer our sin for Him.
How do we live as Christians? Do we just sin all the more?
The person who is thus under the law, and basically worships the law, feels their god being blasphemed when they hear the simple gospel. Their heart bubbles and gushes over with the Romans 6 question: “What then? Shall we sin all the more that grace may increase?” Their flesh recoils at the possibility, so they go back and water down the gospel of Christ and Him crucified to the point of meaninglessness, in order to remove this question. In so doing, they nullify the gospel. To them, this is the successful Christian life.
So, I’m telling you who read this who think that Christian conversion constitutes an introduction to a more severe law, you are going to hate my answers. Unless there remains a threat of punishment and condemnation, you will not be satisfied, because you do not really believe that Christ saves us. You believe adherence to the law saves us, because you are not under grace, but under law (Romans 6:14). You twist genuine gospel teaching around in your head until you think it means saying that sin is good (1 John 2:1-2). You believe that saying you can sin and be forgiven constitutes antinomian heresy, and in your worldview it does because you don’t believe that Jesus saves us, you believe our obedience and personal holiness saves us. Of all the things in the world, I stand most surely against this: that in the name of Christ you nullify grace and so teach others. I intend to offend you. However, I invite you to read on because it might spark faith in you, and you may really come to faith in Christ instead of living in the darkness and pretense you’ve been living in.
The nature of the fall is that our sense of the good has been divided. It was when Eve saw that the forbidden was desirable (Genesis 3:6) that she took and ate; before that they had assumed that the forbidden was also undesirable. When it came to us that the forbidden could be desirable, it opened the door to the need for moral good: the press and threat of guilt and punishment to corral us into obedience since our sense of aesthetic good alone could not lead us there. Because we flagrantly see attractiveness and beauty in evil, and we see colorlessness and futility in the moral, we need threat and coercion in order to do good. Thus was born the conscience, and thus we love the law because it represents the comforting threat we need to do right.
So we come to Christ and we think that we continue to operate under threat in order to do right. We think that “sanctification” involves a continued threat of punishment, and better mechanism to somehow obey or fulfill the law. In fact what has happened is that since the threat of condemnation has been taken away in Christ, just by simple belief we have landed ourselves back in a unified conception of the good. We have died to the law in Christ (Romans 7:4), so that since there is no longer any threat or coercion, we only have the aesthetic good left. As Paul says, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable.” (1 Corinthians 6:12) It is no longer an issue of fear of condemnation, but of what is profitable or desirable.
Do you see what I am saying here? Because the threat of punishment is genuinely removed through simple faith in the power of Christ’s blood, all things have become permissible. It is not a question of what things you can do without being condemned. In Christ you cannot be condemned. The whole appeal of the forbidden is over with. It becomes a question of what is best. In Christ you can think your own thoughts. Like the woman caught in adultery, there is no one on earth who can condemn you, and even God does not condemn you though you are genuinely guilty. What is left is your freedom. Go your way and sin no more. If it isn’t your way, it is still sin if you act from coercion and threat. Your heart must choose being mastered by the good or it isn’t really good! You now have the freedom to choose what is best because it “masters” you – you choose the good because you love it. This is the only true virtue anyway. When you choose sin you choose the lesser of aesthetic goods, and because there is no condemnation you are able to easily confess and repent without regret (2 Corinthians 7:10), and receive experiential cleansing in order to choose the right way from the heart.
Finally, through the blood of Jesus the law is fulfilled, and the Holy Spirit is thus able to bless us with His presence. We have the unction and empowerment to walk in powerful gifting and revelation and supernatural truth. We have a Helper. The whole Christian life becomes, not a question of lawfulness, but of love and gifting and service for the good of the body (Romans 12:3-8). If we think that we gain access to the unction and presence of the Holy Spirit by a sinless avoidance of threat, we err. The Holy Spirit honors Jesus’ blood in coming to us, not our flawed filthy-rags righteousness. In Christ we can always expect the favor and help and kindness of God poured out over us despite our daily need of mercy and grace. We have daily mercy and grace, and so the Holy Spirit is poured out within us day by day.