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.
I need to be saved and glad in Jesus. I need to believe and love his righteousness given to me. I need to be freed from obsessing over my thoughts and feelings. I need to be sure I’ve repented and believed but don’t know how when my mind thinks SUCH wrong thoughts toward grace. I need to love grace. I need freedom from demons thoughts. Please pray for me to love truth and be saved.
I’m praying! Here’s the thing: it isn’t hard! You know that He loved you and died for you; just say yes to it! Every time you sense an accusation or failure or sin or shortcoming or feeling of guilt, say to yourself, “Jesus died for that too! He is my advocate with the Father! You can’t repent enough to believe, unless you just repent of not believing. Just, believe! While you are yet a sinner, Christ died for you (Romans 5:8). It isn’t that you love God but that He loved you (1 John 4:10).
John 3:14 As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
He means for it to be a simple heart-level thing where you say YES to His gift. It sounds like you are doing that! So just soak up the comfort of being truly loved.
I feel like my mind is so twisted that it says no, that I cannot accept grace! That I’m not glad about it! Help me not have these thoughts with your prayers!
And that I’m too foolish and prideful to accept grace! And that you have to Repent along with believing and that I cannot repent and humble myself!
And that I’m angry with the father! May he help me see how wonderful it is to he reconciled!
And that I’m too weak and foolish and blind and will never be able to just trust him
Kathryn… Everyone I know who has come to God in a real and lasting way, has brought your kind of honesty to a God who is not offended by questions, temper tantrums, and wonderings. You can bring it all and sit with it while He sorts it all out and explains what it really means. You are headed the right direction. You are a breath of fresh air!
Jim, what do you say when people define this way of living as license? What is that really, anyway? Licentiousness? Need help wrapping the old brain around that.
It always amazes me how people ask these questions, and somehow we are responsible to answer for their pet doctrines, but they don’t have to answer for all of these passages all over the NT and OT that we cite all the time! I have written reams and reams on this, I even have a book that basically answers this question. There are lots of others. A lot of people don’t want answers. They want to nail you. They want to prove you wrong. They don’t care if you are right because they really are pharisees. There may end up being mercy for them and there may not, but to me they are dangerously close to the “Lord Lord didn’t I” folks (Matthew 7:22-23).
You have to ask, did Christ die for sinners? Yes. Are you a sinner? Yes. Then, do you need grace, today, right now? Yes. Then what are you arguing with me about? Or maybe they say, “I used to be a sinner, but not any more.” I say, “Really? You have resisted sin to the point of shedding blood? You prayed for your enemies, no, your MURDERERS to be forgiven? And you meant it? You’re lying! (1 John 1:8).”
Raw grace is the only path to holiness, because if you have to be threatened morally to love God it isn’t really love is it? You have to be able to choose love because you actually love God. And that is only going to happen when you realize first that He loves you. The tables completely turned for me when I realized that I was the pearl that He wanted, the apple of His eye. He gladly died for us – for the joy of it (Hebrews 12:2).
Besides, this is a spiritual realization. You have to pray for this to dawn on someone. Kathryn is right to ask for prayer, and I am praying for her. It is extremely simple, and it is not a matter of some outlandish supernatural vision or elaborate revelation. If you take communion and say, “yes I believe this. In taking this, I receive His grace,” then in that act of the will you express faith and that is entirely true.
Honestly, that Pharisee thing is the worst possible sin, to me. It is just insidious and sickening. One of these days, it will no longer be my (thankfully less-frequent) default setting. It’s like a darned virus. Bleh. No wonder Jesus was driven to table-flipping.
Carolyn, I know, right?! Are you coming to Washington to fellowship with us? Bread and Wine Fellowship. The McNeely’s love you, and you have been through a lot to still retain your beautiful faith! Heaven is going to be such a party!
I would love to come and visit you people! I am nearing the end of a year-long sabbatical to heal from the loss of Brooklynn,and Ken’s dad and Grandma. I am not making any major decisions until September 10, or so. This will probably correspond w the Jewish New Year. I usually get direction for the coming year at that time.
My faith is a result of pain, not in spite of it, believe me. Like Peter, all I can say is, “Where else am I gonna go, Lord? You have the words that will make me really alive. ” And following Betty’s wise counsel has kept me sane. Let’s hope it carries through the next season. I anticipate lots of blessings, but only after letting go of the rest of my dreams. We shall see if my faith is still”beautiful”. As long as Jesus holds me, I will be all right, but who knows who I will be after the final surrender….
6 In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, 7 so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; 8 and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, 9 obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:6-7
Well said, Jim. This one really needed saying, and you’ve done so in a manner to turn us, again, only to Christ.
Howard, I love you man! You are truly a precious brother in Christ. Thanks for the encouragement.