Saints and/or Sinners: The Desiring God Conference for Pastors 2014

It appears that I wasn’t the only one thinking about the identity of the Christian believer at the recent Desiring God Pastor’s Conference on union with Christ in terms of whether believers are simultaneously saints and sinners or simply saints who sin. My question (one of my sentences blended with others) was one of many fielded by the conferences plenary speakers John Piper, Michael Horton and Sinclair Ferguson [Audio here: 3:30-14:25]. I asked,

“If we are definitively “in Christ” and no longer in Adam (Ro 5-6), are we not definitively saints and not sinners?”

The answers were a bit mixed and appeared combined with some uncertainty and I wish I could have pushed back a little more to clarify what I was intending. My basic reason for asking the question is, to use Sinclair Ferguson’s phrase later in the panel, I think we live far under our privileges as Christian believers. And I wonder if one of the reasons we do this is that in trying to keep us from the errors of Christian perfectionism we undercut our glorious gospel identity. In no way was my question an attempt to minimize the radical nature of sin or the struggle of indwelling sin that resides within every believer.

Dr. Piper got at what I was after in speaking of his friend that came out of a homosexual lifestyle and became a Christian. This man would not let Piper use homosexual as a noun for him because this is not who he was. At conversion this dear man knew that his identity had fundamentally switched no matter what his struggle with a particular sin might be. The sin did not define him anymore. His name had changed.

And I am not certain that we should use “sinner” as a noun for any Christian. Dr. Ferguson, in his earlier talk at the conference, discussed baptism as a “naming event” and the fact that Jesus was baptized into sinners in Adam so that we might be baptized into him. Romans 5 and 6, which Ferguson beautifully unpacked, is clear that Christians have been taken out of Adam completely and placed into Christ. It is not a one-foot in and one-foot out deal.

In fact, many Reformed types don’t seem to bat an eye at speaking of those “in Christ” having undergone a fundamental identity switch in several categories, but we seem hesitant on the sinner/saint category. (I think primarily because of Martin Luther’s maxim simultaneously saint and sinner, Simul iustus et peccator, that Dr. Horton mentioned.)

We are not children of wrath and sons of God. We are not in the dark and in the light. We are not dead in sin and alive to God. We are not servants of the prince of the power of the air and servants of King Jesus. We are not slaves of sin and slaves of righteousness. The transfer is fundamentally complete in all of these categories even though our experience varies. So are we doing a disservice to our gospel identity when we don’t make the transfer from sinner to saint definitive?

To get back to Piper in the Q&A, Christian evangelicalism is indeed infected with those who minimize sin. The Osteenization of Christianity makes those with a high view of sin want to do all they can to preserve the seriousness of sin and to keep us from a chipper view of sinful men and women apart from Christ or a passive attitude toward making war on indwelling sin. Those in revivalistic parts of the charismatic movement who speak of walking weeks at a time without sinning cause the same reaction from those who will not deny the lingering tentacles of sin on the best of days. These super-rarely-ever-sinning-Christians are walking on the precipice of breaking the Apostle John’s warning in 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” These are aberrations. However, it is also the charismatic movement that seems to have a focus upon the identity of the Christian believer that the Reformed camp could use a bunch more of.

Nowhere can I find New Testament writers calling God’s people sinners.

That is except possibly one place.

Paul called the people of God, even at their worst, saints (see those Corinthians in 1 Cor. 1:2), but he did speak of himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). I wonder though if this was more of a reference to all that Christ saved him from than a reference to his self-consciousness as a Christian believer? This appears intended more to demonstrate the radical lengths God’s vastly gracious gospel goes in saving sinners no matter what their sins than in defining the fundamental identity marker for the Christian believer. Paul was deeply conscious of what God had saved him from and what God had saved him to.

It is good for us to remember who we were apart from Christ and who we are in Christ. The structure of Paul’s letters demonstrate that it is imperative we remember both. There are those in charismatic circles who seem to want us to forget entirely who we were and those in Reformed circles who seem to minimize who we are. Rehearsing the fact that you were a child of wrath reminds us of all that we have been saved from, and remembering that we are sons of God reminds us of what we have been saved to. Both are critical. Otherwise Paul wouldn’t structure his letters to remind us of these realities in the way he does. Nor should Christians only do one at the exclusion of the other. Depressive defeatism and overly optimistic triumphalism are both errors.

Piper thought this question might be contextually dependent: if you are a pastor surrounded by those who are continuously walking around defeated you need to emphasize saint, and if you are a pastor surrounded by those who walk around treating their sin lightly you need to emphasize sinner. I understand what he is getting at, but I’m not certain this is correct. I don’t know that Paul thought that this was a contextual issue.

Paul may go a little more Romans 1 and Ephesians 2:1-3 and jump into warning mode on those who minimize their sin, but I’m not certain he would—at the identity level—call true saints sinners. Would he name them presently in categories that belong both to their sinful past and their eternal inheritance? Wouldn’t this obstruct the privileges of the believer as God’s beloved sons in the family with big brother Jesus? Paul didn’t keep his beloved churches from sin by labeling them as simultaneously inside the realm of sin and inside the realm of righteousness. I don’t see him calling believers simultaneously saints and sinners, but I do see him reminding believers of who they were and who they are now.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones summed Paul’s appeal to the people of God in his use of indicatives and imperatives in the phrase: “Be who are!” And from what I’ve been seeing lately, this does not mean, be a sinner and a saint. Rather it means, be a saint, and put sin to death and put righteousness on accordingly.

You have a new name. You are new creation. Act like it.

But I admit: I’m still working through this. Thoughts?

Jesus, the Glad

Theologian B.B. Warfield, in his wonderful article “The Emotional Life of our Lord”, makes the case that Jesus was not primarily a man of sorrows, but a man of joy. It is true that the gospels do not attribute any laughter to him, but you got to think he snickered as he snacked on broiled fish in his resurrected body to stun marveling disciples at his side.

This shouldn’t be all that surprising when we consider that the first miracle he did was increase the wine supply at a wedding party, and two of the last miracles he did on earth were raise from the dead and give depressed fishermen after a night without a catch a net full of fish. Furthermore, he made fun of and regularly rebuked serious Pharisees and made care-free children the models of the kingdom.

Warfield gives several other reasons that describe Christ’s emotional life as one of great joy.

We call our Lord “the Man of Sorrows,” and the designation is obviously appropriate for one who came into the world to bear the sins of men and to give his life a ransom for many. It is, however, not a designation which is applied to Christ in the New Testament, and even in the Prophet (Is. liii. 3) it may very well refer rather to the objective afflictions of the righteous servant than to his subjective distresses.76 In any event we must bear in mind that our Lord did not come into the world to be broken by the power of sin and death, but to break it. He came as a conqueror with the gladness of the imminent victory in his heart; for the joy set before him he was able to endure the cross, despising shame (Heb. xii. 2). And as he did not prosecute his work in doubt of the issue, neither did he prosecute it hesitantly as to its methods. He rather (so we are told, Lk. x. 21) “exulted in the Holy Spirit” as he contemplated the ways of God in bringing many sons to glory. The word is a strong one and conveys the idea of exuberant gladness, a gladness which fills the heart;77 and it is intimated that, on this occasion at least, this exultation was a product in Christ — and therefore in his human nature — of the operations of the Holy Spirit,78 whom we must suppose to have been always working in the human soul of Christ, sustaining and strengthening it. It cannot be supposed that, this particular occasion alone being excepted, Jesus prosecuted his work on earth in a state of mental depression. His advent into the world was announced as “good tidings of great joy” (Lk. ii. 10), and the tidings which he himself proclaimed were “the good tidings” by way of eminence. It is conceivable that he went about proclaiming them with a “sad countenance” (Mt. vi. 16)? It is misleading then to say merely, with Jeremy Taylor, “We never read that Jesus laughed and but once that he rejoiced in spirit.”79 We do read that, in contrast with John the Baptist, he came “eating and drinking,” and accordingly was malignantly called “a gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners” (Mt. xi. 19; Lk. vii. 34) ; and this certainly does not encourage us to think of his demeanor at least as habitually sorrowful.

Jesus of Nazareth was and remains Jesus, the glad not Jesus, the sad. And if this is true, followers of Jesus have plenty of reasons to be glad too.

[Source: http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/emotionallife.html]

Waiting to Feel Better: The Greatest Snare in the Christian Life

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his typical hyperbolic preaching style, explains how important it is for Christians to know who they are:

“The whole matter of putting on the new man is in essence the application of truth to ourselves. It is the most important thing that one can ever discover in the Christian life. The real secret of Christian living is to discover the art of talking to yourself. We must talk to ourselves, we must preach to ourselves, and we must take truth and apply it to ourselves, and keep on doing so. That is the putting on of the new man. We have to hammer away at ourselves until we have really convinced ourselves. In other words, this is not something that you wait for passively. If you wait until you feel like the new man it will probably never happen. We must be active in this. There is no greater snare in the Christian life than to entertain the idea of waiting until we feel better, and of then putting on the new man. On the contrary, we have got to go on telling ourselves the new man is already in us. In his Epistle to the Romans the Apostle Paul says, ‘Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, and alive unto God’ (6:11).” Darkness and Light, An Exposition of Ephesians 4:17-5:17, 191-192

6 Reasons Not to Be Discouraged & Depressed Over Your Sins

William Bridge, a seventeenth century Puritan minister, and author of A Lifting Up for the Downcast, fills his book with ways to be encouraged when you are under discouragement or depression. In one particular chapter titled “A Lifting Up in the Case of Great Sins” he outlines several ways to be lifted up even after committing great sins.

One of the reasons he recommends for not being discouraged over your sins is that discouragement itself is a sin against the gospel. Countering the question, “Shouldn’t I be discouraged because of such and such a sin?” He answers, “No! for discouragement itself is a sin, another sin, a gospel sin.” (68). The biggest problem with discouragement is that it doubts the gospel. Depression over sin believes that sins power is greater than gospel power. Consequently, we must fight proneness toward discouragement and depression with all our might.

The biggest problem with discouragement is that it doubts the gospel. Depression over sin believes that sins power is greater than gospel power.

In the following I summarize and elaborate on some of Bridge’s reasons for Christians not to be depressed and discouraged over their besetting sins:

1. You will never be condemned for your sin because Christ was condemned for you. Since Christ was made sin for his saints, Bridge argues, “…sin shall not hurt them” (69). He quotes Luther, who wrote, “‘Christ is made sin-damning, our sin is sin damned: I confess, indeed…that I have sinned, but sin-damning is stronger than sin-damned, and Christ was made sin-damning for me'” (69).

2. You will never be forsaken by God for your sins even though you may lose a sense of the presence of God because of your sins. Your “sins may hide God’s face…but shall never turn God’s back” (70).  God’s covenant of mercy with his people is unalterable, and as a part of the people of God mercy is yours forever. You will be disciplined for sin, but never experience God’s wrath for your sin. The comforts of God’s presence may be felt as lost, but the privileges of the believer remain. “This sin of mine, indeed, it is a pest, and the plague of my soul, and a leprosy…[and] although I cannot come to the use of Him as I did before, yet I have right unto Jesus Christ now, as I had before” (73).

3. Your abundant sins are overruled by God’s superabundant grace. Paul, in Romans 11:32, says that God “shut up all to disobedience” in order to have mercy on all. Therefore “God never permits His people to fall into any sin but He intends to make that sin an inlet unto further grace and comfort to them” (71). Furthermore, “He never permits any of His people to fall into any sin, but He hath a design by that fall to break the back of that sin they do fall into” (72).

4. Your power for great sin is not as strong as God’s greater power to forgive. Bridge asks, “Is your sin as big as God, as big as Christ? Is Jesus Christ only a Mediator for small sins? Will you bring down the satisfaction of Christ, and the mercy of God, to your own model?” (74). David sinned greatly and confessed it in Psalm 25:11, and if David’s great sins can be forgiven so can yours.

Discouragement sees only God as Judge, while humility sees God as a just Judge and loving Father.

5. The commandment you have broken by sinning always has a promise attached to it. He states,

God has joined commandment and promise together; the promise and the commandment are born twins. There is never a commandment that you read of but has a promise annexed to it, a promise of assistance, a promise of acceptance, and a promise of reward. If you look upon the commandment itself without a promise, then you will despair; if you look upon the promise without the commandment, then you will presume: but look upon the promise and the commandment…together, then you will be humbled if you have sinned, but you will not be discouraged (83-84).

6. You should be humbled by your sins but not be depressed by them because God is a forgiving Father. The author continues,

God is not pleased with grief for grief, God is not pleased with sorrow for sorrow. The purpose of all our sorrow and grief is, to embitter our sin to us, to make us prize Jesus Christ, to wean us from the delights and pleasures of the creature, to reveal the deceitfulness and naughtiness of our own hearts (79).

The difference between humility over sin and depression over sin is the difference between a God-centered view of sin and a man-centered one. Man-centered views of sin bring massive discourgament because one is primarily focused one their own condition and says, “I have sinned; I have thus and thus sinned, and therefore my condition is bad, and if my condition be bad now, it will never be better; Lord what will become of my soul? (81). On the other hand, God-centered views of your sin are primarily focused on sin as an offense against God. Since sin is an offense against the God who is revealed also as a forgiving God, one can be forgiven and humbled for sin instead of discouraged and proud. Discouragement sees only God as Judge, while humility sees God as a just Judge and loving Father. Humility and discouragement have an inverse relationship. Bridge states, “…the more you are discouraged, the less you will be humbled; and the more humbled you are, the less discouraged you will be” (83). Therefore labor to seek true humility by focusing on the God-centered nature of your sin and seeking to know your Father more.

 

5 Encouragements from Predestination

I preached on predestination recently at our local church (audio here) because Pastor Bob Hapgood has been scaling the Kilimanjaro that is Romans 9, and one of the things I tried to do was show how encouraging this doctrine is to those who trust Jesus. Often predestination and election get treated as something meant for controversy and debate or as a mystery to be pretty much left alone and avoided. This is a sad, and, in my opinion, weakens the church because of the tendency to either dodge or debate this glorious aspect of its identity.

Predestination should enhance your joy not disturb it.

I’m convinced that if you ignore or just argue about the doctrine of predestination you will miss out on one of God’s ways of blessing you (Eph. 1:3). The first several verses of Ephesians 1 unpack predestination in order to show that it is a part of the multifaceted ways that God has blessed you in Jesus Christ. Therefore predestination should enhance your joy not disturb it. What follows are a few of the many encouragements for Christians to draw from the reality that God predestines:

1. God chose you because he loved you. Ephesians 1:4-5, in the ESV translation, says, “in love God predestined”. Therefore predestination is motivated by love. This means that God’s choice of you derives from his love for you. Sovereign choice doesn’t detract from God’s love it is the fountainhead of God’s love. We don’t go deeper into love by sidestepping predestination. We go deeper into love by diving into its deeps. We are familiar with the fact that God so loved the world that he gave his Beloved Son, but need to become more familiar with the fact that God so loved the world that he predestined adopted sons in the Beloved from all eternity (Eph. 1:5).

2. You are a gift of love from the Father to the Son. John 17 reveals that your salvation was planned in the heart and mind of the Triune God before there ever was a you (17:2, 24). This means that God’s love for you is bigger than you. It is tied to the love for which the Father has for his Son. And the reason this is encouraging is because the size of God’s love for you is not to be gauged by his love for you but by his love for Jesus. From his very own mouth, Jesus said, “[Father] you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (17:23). The astonishment that we should feel at being loved by God becomes even more mind-blowing because God’s love for us flows in the same stream as God’s love for God.

3. Your present sins may be many but your future sinlessness is certain. Romans 8:29 tells us that we have been “predestined to be conformed to the image of [Jesus].” As a son of God, you are guaranteed one day to look like the Son of God. Therefore you fight sin in hope not in defeated depression. Your Christlikeness is not dependent upon your performance but upon God’s predestination.

Your Christlikeness is not dependent upon your performance but upon God’s predestination.

4. Your very identity is “elect” because God has named you that. The apostle Peter begins his letter to those in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and Bithynia by calling them “God’s elect” (1 Pe. 1:1). Contemporary Christians don’t normally go around calling each other “predestined” or “elect” or “chosen” or “called”, but there is no reason why we shouldn’t. In fact, if we were named this by God, what stops us from calling each other that? What kind of massive encouragement would it bring to believers to have spoken over their lives the fact that God has picked them? Psychologically we see in various social situations that many times a person lives up to what they are called to. If you are called “loser”, “failure”, even “sinner”, and the like over and over again you will probably live up to it. If you trust Jesus, you can be confident that God has given you a new name. You have been chosen. God has called you something that you are not in and of yourself to make you something that you are in him. So act like it. Be who you are. Be what you have been called to be. Live up to your name.

The little phrase “to the praise of the glory of God’s grace” helps us see that one of the best ways to do everything to the glory of God is to do everything celebrating and enjoying God’s grace.

5. God’s predestination of you enables you to live life to the highest purpose of your existence, namely, “to praise of the glory of [God’s] grace” (1:6). All of us have heard the phrase “do everything to the glory of God” and too often it becomes a cliché that means nothing in practice. The little phrase “to the praise of the glory of God’s grace” helps us see that one of the best ways to do everything to the glory of God is to do everything celebrating and enjoying God’s grace. Predestination has a unique way of drawing this out of us because it drowns out our propensity toward boasting and relying upon works and establishes the fact that it flows from the sovereign heart of God uninfluenced by human decision and work. Election strips us from taking one ounce of salvation and putting it in our portfolio and propels us into praising God exclusively for everything. Predestination is exceptional at displaying that every piece of salvation is gift, and one’s who have been given such a great gift will joyfully praise and glorify the Giver. We live “to the praise of the glory of the grace of God” when we recognize that predestination is all of grace and for God’s glory.

Be encouraged! Predestination is meant to bedazzle your heart not just boggle your mind.

Don’t Go Back to Calvary!

…you sometimes hear people…saying something to this effect: ‘You know, we have to keep going back to Calvary’; and they draw this picture of the Christian life as a journey. You start at Calvary, and you walk in the fellowship, then you sin, and you have to go back to Calvary. No, you do not go back; in a sense Calvary is always accompanying you. You do not go back in your Christian life; if you fall into sin, you confess it and go on. It is the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses, and Calvary is something that accompanies us in the grace and mercy of God. It is exactly like the picture which the Apostle Paul draws in 1 Corinthians 10:4, when he talks about the rock that followed the ancient people in the wilderness. That rock was Christ, he says. [Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 132.]

You do not go back in your Christian life

If you know Jesus you will not always be following him in every action of your hands and attitude of your heart, but Jesus if following you. And not just that. He’s always with you (Mt. 28:20). Even more, he’s in you (Jn. 17:26).

Our hope in following Jesus is that he is following us. His once-for-all work at Calvary is not something we come and go from. We were crucified with him there. Therefore when you’ve sinnned, don’t put more confidence in your sin than Jesus. You can “have confidence”–right now! right after sinning–“to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19).

Penance moves backward. Faith moves forward. Don’t go back!

Isaiah 61: God is After Your Good & His Glory

This last Sunday I preached on Isaiah 61. The chapter is resplendent with how the promised Messiah gives everlasting joy to those in desperate conditions. Luke 4 shows how Jesus is this promised Messiah, and the gospels as a whole testify to how Jesus in the power of the Spirit embodies Isaiah 61:1-3 and brings joy to the depressed, mends broken hearts, comforts the mourning, liberates those in captivity, and proclaims the good news of the kingdom in word and action.

Therefore the ultimate goal of the joy and restoration that Jesus brings to the broken is the glory of God.

The mission of Jesus brings restoration to human brokenness in all its forms–physical and spiritual. He helps the helpless, makes the weak strong, the unrighteous righteous (Is. 61:10), and proclaims good news to those with nothing but bad news. In other words, Jesus’ aim is to usher in God’s goodness and favor and increase the happiness and joy of sinful humanity.

But the big sentence of verses 1-3, accelerating with God’s goodness to humanity, culminates in the phrase that he may be glorified. God’s gracious goodness in putting the world to right and imparting joy to sinful people in the person and work of Jesus are a means to his glory. This means that God isn’t only after your good (though he is pursuing that)–he’s after his glory. Therefore the ultimate goal of the joy and restoration that Jesus brings to the broken is the glory of God.

Jonathan Edwards, doing what he does best, elaborates on how God seeks the good of sinners and the glory of himself:

God in seeking his glory, seeks the good of his creatures…And in communicating his fulness for them, he does it for himself; because their good, which he seeks, is so much in union and communion with himself. God is their good. Their excellency and happiness is nothing, but the emanation and expresion of Gods’ glory: God, in seeking their glory and happiness, seeks himself: and in seeking himself, i.e. himself diffused and expressed, (which he delights in, as he delights in his own beauty and fulness,) he seeks their glory and happiness. [A Dissertation Concerning The End for Which God Created the World, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, reprinted from an 1834 edition in January 2003), 105.]