Thursday, October 12, 2023

Perfect Confidence

We were talking in a previous post about the goal of perfection.

Christians sometimes expect this of themselves, and some even claim to have attained it. And we have to admit that since we serve a perfect God, it is most natural to jump to the conclusion that he expects perfection of us. And in a sense, he does: no one who is not perfect is fit for fellowship with God. But we ended on a hopeful note (I hope), since we saw that the work of making us perfect is not ours but God’s … and to him be the glory for it.

However, a question surely remains: If God’s going to do it, just how? Surely he expects some effort from me — he doesn’t want me to go on sinning like a wretch, while blithely waiting for him to sort me out in spite of myself; or worse, just presuming that because perfecting me is his work, and salvation is forever, I can live like a complete moral wreck and imagine God is obligated to take me in whatever state I end up. That can’t be the upshot.

Sensible Reservations

Those are sensible reservations. But if we don’t have the right answers, these sorts of reservations can easily drive us right back to where we began — looking to our own flesh to make us come out alright somehow, and perhaps also defining down “absolute perfection” until the absolutely-unattainable becomes the already-attained.

But worse still, we can end up back in that cycle of moral earnestness and failure, in which we strive to be better and continually disappoint ourselves. And this creates all kinds of bad psychology. I had a friend who once said to me, “When I sinned, I would not repent right away. Instead, I’d punish myself for a while, because I felt it would make it easier for God to forgive me.”

How sad is that? Does it sound to you like the way God wants you to spend your life? Does is sound like that’s how he wants to relate to you? In fact, does that sound like God at all?

We need a better answer.

Sanctification Exhaustion

To struggle to be good and to fail is the natural experience of any person who has been saved but then who fails to realize that even then, he’s not going to succeed in making himself into a good person.

Paul talks about this. He writes:

“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

There it is. It’s a wretched condition. You know what you should be, you try to become it, but you can’t; and you feel worse and worse because you can’t. No wonder, then, that people give up.

But Paul has a better response. To the question “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” he answers “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Answering the Bell


What does that mean? “Thanks be” for precisely what? How does mentioning “Jesus Christ our Lord” suddenly amount to a solution for sanctification exhaustion?

Well, it wouldn’t if you regard it as just a platitude. But if you take Paul literally, it really does. Paul’s saying the same thing he said to the Galatians: if you’re going to be saved from God’s judgment against sin, it will be by Christ alone. And if you’re going to be delivered from the presence and power of sin, it will be by no other agency — Christ will do it.

But how?

Not by the flesh, but by the Spirit. Not by being our Savior from God’s verdict against sin only, but also by being our active Savior in the midst of our daily struggle against sin. And he will remain that — not merely in our successes, mark you, but in our failures as well.

Our successes are not due to the strength of our wills but the reality of his Spirit working within us to produce fruit in our lives. As for our bad habits, our failures, and our faults, as Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan puts it, they “remain under God’s judgment”. They’re still bad, and since we are redeemed beings, we must forsake them. Nevertheless, the overwhelming fact remains that we are redeemed beings in spite of these; for God has dealt with them all, forever, at the cross.

Present Justification

That is why we can never, in our thinking, leave our justification behind, as a past event. We need to carry it with us throughout our Christian walk, to “take up our cross daily and follow” Christ. Every day, we need to recognize that our failures have exacted a terrible price from the Son of Man; and we need to be ashamed of our contribution to that. But we must not be ashamed of ourselves or fearful for our salvation. We have been called, paid for and purchased by the blood of Christ. We belong now to the Father. There is no possibility of going back.

Now we need to live in the good of that — in all the gratitude of the redeemed and all the earnestness of those set apart (“sanctified”) to God, but also in the confidence of those whose eternal destiny is set, and whose final perfecting is assured to come by the promises of God himself.

The Lord Jesus saved you from the penalty of sin. He’s actively saving you right now, from the power of sin in your life. And he will save you from the total presence of sin, perfecting you at his coming.

Yesterday, today and forever, Jesus is the same — he is the Savior.

There has never been another.

Theologically Put

I’ve been reading Oliver O’Donovan quite a bit lately. His most recent book is on the subject of “rest”: how we can come to accept ourselves — with all our present imperfections — and come to a position of peace, having confident reliance on God, even while continuing the righteous war against our old sinful nature. How do we keep up the battle, a battle in which we often fail, while not feeling like a failure all the time? That’s the question.

And O’Donovan’s got lots of good things to say. He says:

“Self-acceptance is a highly-valued state of mind in the age we inhabit, but any ground we may think we can find for accepting ourselves will seem shabby and complacent unless we can learn to say of ourselves that somehow God has touched us and owned us.”

In other words, it is not how good we’ve made ourselves — how hard our flesh has struggled to achieve perfection — that is the basis of feeling right about ourselves. It’s the realization that we are loved by God. (If you don’t take it from me, take it from this video by Jason Gray).

O’Donovan looks back on the 18th century turn toward belief in human perfectibility as a regrettable compromise with secular humanism. And he reflects:

“It was a mistake … to treat perfection as a stage of achievement in the general description of a redeemed life … to [introduce] a new threshold between the sinner’s conversion and the final entry into God’s glory … [It] introduced within the company of disciples a notional elite, not set apart by calling to a special service but simply by their level of attainment.”

The belief in human perfectibility creates two classes of Christians: those who imagine they have achieved “entire sanctification”, and those poor saps like us who know we haven’t gotten there yet: one group that preens itself on a perfection it doesn’t have, and another that’s continually reminded that it just doesn’t measure up to that. That can’t be anything but miserable. But as O’Donovan points out:

“The meaning of sanctification cannot be that a certain moral standard has been attained. In thanksgiving for sanctification the principle holds, ‘Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall’ (1 Cor. 10:12). Only ‘thinks’ he stands, because ‘standing’ is not what progress in the Christian life can ever be about.”

The truth is simply this: “The encounter of sinful man with the holy God turns him round in his tracks once and for all, or else it is a fabrication.”

In other words, if it’s not Christ who is doing the saving, no saving is being done. It’s certainly not a case of you saving yourself.

No Fear

Okay, this is a lot of heavy stuff. Sorry for that. But I think it’s all very important, because there are a lot of Christians who are living in fear that they are not what they should be. Maybe that’s you too.

But there’s an answer to that, a simple truth that anybody can get his head around: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Not to tell them to save themselves, nor to save them only from God’s wrath and then to leave them to their own devices. He isn’t just your past Savior; he’s your present and future one too.

And when you realize that, you can’t help but accept yourself. Because you realize that even were the standards against you a million times higher than your own (and indeed, they are), you’d still be saved. You’ve been made perfect in the eyes of the holy God, by the Savior himself.

So now, let’s get on with acting like it.

Not in fear, but in freedom.

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