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?

The Devil, No, My Brain Made Me Do It: Neuroscience, Sin, & Personal Responsibility

I came across an article the other day on how neuroscience is playing out in the courtroom. In some cases, if a person is convicted of a crime, say, rape, murder, or child molestation the perpetrators and their legal team are using neuroscience to essentially show that their brain made them commit the crime or at least influenced them in such a way that they bear less of a responsibility for it. The writer states,

It’s the latest example of how neuroscience – the science of the brain and how it works – is taking the stand and beginning to challenge society’s notions of crime and punishment.

The issue has been thrown into the spotlight by new technologies, like structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) scans and DNA analysis, that can help pinpoint the biological basis of mental disorders.

A series of recent studies has established that psychopathic rapists and murderers have distinct brain structures that show up when their heads are scanned using MRI…

The lawyers for American serial killer Brian Dugan, who was facing execution in Illinois after pleading guilty to raping and killing a 10-year-old girl, used scans of his brain activity to argue he had mental malfunctions and should be spared the death penalty. In the event, Illinois abolished capital punishment while he was on death row.

Further breakthroughs in psychiatry and neuroscience are continuing to bring up complicated moral questions. The question of biological and genetic determinism is a classic battle between behavior and identity and brings up all kinds of questions about human responsibility. Courts, families, and churches will all be affected by these scientific breakthroughs and the debate that ensues. After all, if my brain gives me a propensity toward something that is immoral, am I responsible for it? For instance, in legal matters, if murder and/or child molestation is immoral and someone murders or molests someone else but had a “malfunction” in their brain that led to the act, should their punishment be reduced? In biblical studies, If homosexuality is sinful but you were born with a homosexual orientation and disposition, can it be considered sinful? The list can go on. Essentially the excuse “the Devil made me do it” has now been replaced “my brain made me do it.”

There is no doubt that neuroscience is uncovering all kinds of intriguing and important reasons for why we do what we do and feel what we feel as human beings and it should not be ignored by Christians. But not ignoring it does not mean necessarily embracing all the conclusions that judges, therapists, and psychiatrists will give.

From a Christian perspective, every single one of these breakthroughs is subject to the authority of God and the authority of his Word. Most likely we will continue to find biological reasons for human behavior but this will never take the sinfulness out of sin.

We humans love excuses for our sinful and immoral ways. Since the Bible assumes a view of human nature that is already bent toward sin, if neuroscience continues to uncover sins that human beings are bent toward it should not be surprising. An internal biological influencer toward a particular immoral act or crime does not strip us of personal responsibility. The Bible assumes original sin–all of us don’t just commit sins but are born sinners because of our father Adam–and personal responsibility–you are responsible for sinning like your father did. Being prone to a particular sin (whatever that is) is normal and does not exempt us from that particular sins penalties. Dr. David Powlison puts it this way,

Those with the “worry gene,” the “anger gene,” the “addictive pleasure gene,” or the “kleptomania gene” will be prone to the respective sins. Such findings cause no problem for the Faith. They do trouble a Pelagian view that defines sin only as conscious “choice.” But sin is an unsearchable morass of disposition, drift, willful choice, unwitting impulse, obsession, compulsion, seeming happenstance, the devil’s appetite for souls, the world’s shaping influence, and God’s hardening of hard hearts. Of course biological factors are at work: we are embodied sinners and saints. [Quoted by Justin Taylor from his blog post “Powlison on Biological Tendencies, Homosexual and Beyond” (March 6, 2007)]


As sinful human beings in a complicated world within and without, we need more than the mending of the malfunctions of our brains. We are not primarily in need of an innovative rehabilitation program, a new antidepressant, or sexual “freedom”, but a great Savior. And God has provided this in sending his Son to die and rise from death for sinners–those who are biologically predisposed to sin and simultaneously actively choose sin in their behaviors–and make them new creations.

Sure, your brain influences all kinds of your sinful behaviors, and for that matter so does the devil, just ask Jesus’ disciple Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Neuroscience will probably give us more biological insight and psychiatry may give more medical ways to alleviate and manipulate certain biological tendencies, but neither one can do what Jesus does and give the freedom he provides. He calls sinners to repent (take personal responsibility for their sins and sinfulness) and believe his good news–that he has taken the penalty of death sinners deserve and alone gives the grace of true freedom and transformation.


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.

Mr. Grumbly Gills

I’ve been thinking a lot about the sin of grumbling because I’ve been doing a lot of it I’ve been reading the book of James and Philippines in tandem lately, and there are two main texts that have stood out on this issue.

James 5:8: “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.”

Philippians 2:14-16: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.”

James says, “Don’t grumble to your brothers and sisters in Christ”, and Paul says, “Don’t grumble…about anything…EVER!” Some think these two apostles disagree on works (for the record, they don’t), but they are in full agreement on the issue of grumbling. When you grumble about your day, your car, your kids, your hurts, your sufferings, your _________–you sin. Period. It’s not to be passed off as a personality defect, but to be repented of as a fallen nature defect. It’s not just venting. Its plain good ‘ole fashioned, grade A sinning.

I can’t think of grumbling without thinking of Finding Nemo (yes, another Nemo reference–blame my firstborn). Dory’s cute and gentle rebuke of Nemo’s daddy by calling him “Mr. Grumpy Gills” and singing him a cheer-up song, remind me that grumbling and grumpy-ness are evil twins.

Paul and James are after Mr. & Mrs. Grumbly Gills in their local churches. They just don’t coat it with cuteness like Dory does.

The context in James and in Philippians shows that grumbling was a problem for those particular saints at that particular time because of the reality of suffering. In both books the specific suffering they were experiencing may be the presence of persecution (Ja. 5:10-11, Phil. 1:28-30). And if you are anything like me, your grumblings are in regards to much lesser ills. Oftentimes I’m not grumbling because I’ve suffered an injustice or persecution at the hands of an oppressor or neighbor, but because the line I’m in is too doggone long or my schedule didn’t go how I wanted it to go.

The issue the Holy Spirit through his Word is trying to press home in these passages is that in the midst of any difficulty (whether persecution or much smaller difficulties), grumbling is not an option for believers. Thankfully, God doesn’t only outlaw it but gives antidotes for it.

In Philippians Paul points out that difficulties should be faced by holding onto something instead of grumbling about something. Notice Paul’s phrase in verse 16, “holding fast the word of life”. When we grumble it’s because we are holding onto our present difficulty more than God’s eternal word. All too often our emotional grip is fastened too tightly to the day’s problems, and not tight enough to God’s promises. When we grumble we are saying to God, “My heart is more affected by my problems than by your gracious person and work”.

James gives us another practical help and calls us to patience or, in layman’s terms, a good-ole-fashioned “Shut up and stop complaining.” NT scholar Douglas Moo in his commentary on this verse writes the following,

How often do we find ourselves taking out the frustrations of a difficult day on our close friends and family members! Refraining from this kind of complaining and grumbling can be seen as one aspect of patience itself: patience is linked with ‘forbearing one another’ in love in Ephesians 4:2 and is contrasted with retaliation in 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15. The word stenazo, grumble or ‘groan’, is usually used absolutely; only here in the biblical Greek does it have an object (against one another). The meaning may be that believers should not grumble to others about their difficulties, or that believers should not blame others for their difficulties (cf. NEB). It is entirely possible, however, that both ideas are involved here. [James, TNTC, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 170]

A grumbling person blames others about their problems and/or is continually frustrated, stressed, and angry about their difficulties and makes sure everyone knows about it. Most of the time this occurs with those we are closest to. This should not be. Test yourself: Ask your spouse or friend if they are the recipient of your grumblings.

Instead of grumbling with our mouths we called to put a muzzle on our mouths and be patient. Thankfully, James doesn’t leave us with only the negative “Quit it and be patient”, but he encourages us to follow and model those who have gone before us. He tells us to look at the prophets as models of patient sufferers, and, especially to look at Job (Ja. 5:10-11). Job was steadfast under unfathomable difficulty–discouraging wife, children’s deaths, loss of wealth, friends that persecute instead of strengthen, immense physical suffering etc–yet he continued trusting in God and God blessed him for it. James says, “You think you got issues. Look at Job. Follow his way of life and emulate him.”

The greatest model and the greatest antidote to grumbling is to look at Jesus. The prophet Isaiah tells us that Jesus “was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (53:7). Jesus is our model. If he didn’t open his mouth about his crucifixion, you don’t have any excuse to open your mouth and grumble about your tough circumstance. But we must go further.

More important than this is the good news that Jesus is more than a model. He is our Substitute. Jesus didn’t “open his mouth” grumbling about being innocently beaten and crucified, because he was dying in the place of every grumbler who trusts him. Jesus absorbed the wrath of God for Mr. and Mrs. Grumbly Gills like you and me in order to purify us and make us righteous. This is where our hope comes from. Jesus was crucified for every grumbling, complaining heart and mouth that trust him. He gives grumblers the joy of forgiveness and empowers them through the person of the Holy Spirit with the joy of rejoicing at all times and in difficult circumstances.