Friday, May 24, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: Anonymous Asks (41)

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: It’s Crossover Friday!

A couple of weeks ago my co-contributor Immanuel Can helped me answer a question for one of my weekly Anonymous Asks columns. I had another doozy handed to me this morning, and I think I’m going to share this one with him too. Here goes:

“Many Christians seem to live more in defeat than in constant victory. Shouldn’t the word of God, being born again, or both, be more spiritually powerful in order to make it easier to battle sin? Wouldn’t a bunch of victorious believers be a better testimony?”

I’ll let you take first crack at that, IC …

First Crack

Immanuel Can: Hmm. I guess my first question is how far this ought to go. Is the idea that, ideally, the world should have two completely different types of people in it: the utterly perfect (Christians), and the seriously imperfect (everybody else)? Or is that an extreme, a mere caricature of what the asker has in mind? I’m not asking the question to mock, but rather to clear up what’s troubling the asker. But I guess you don’t have his/her answer to that in hand, do you, Tom?

Tom: Nope, no chance of that, but that’s usually the case with these questions. Let’s take the latter question first, because we certainly don’t want to assume our conclusion: Are consistent, faithful believers a better Christian testimony than faltering ones? Or is there ever any value in the world seeing us fail?

IC: I would say it depends. Is there any value in us deliberately “falling”, or falling through carelessness or indifference, and then showing that to the world? I doubt it. But is there a value in letting the world see that despite our high calling and aspirations, we too struggle and sometimes fail? I think it’s possible there might well be. And there might be even further value in letting the world see how we deal with the fact of our own failings … and those of others.

Victorious or Infallible?

Tom: Well, certainly there’s never any value in deliberately sinning. But I’m thinking of the sort of failures that teach us important lessons about who we are. Peter’s failure of courage before the cross is one example. He sure didn’t deny his Lord deliberately. He intended to do the opposite. But he needed to fail in order to recognize that he couldn’t serve God in his own strength, and the Lord said to him right up front, “When you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” So there can be value in certain sorts of “falling”, I think, in that you learn things you can use to help others, and the reality of your faith becomes evident to others in the fact that you keep getting back up. But, yes, you would never choose to fall.

IC: If by “victorious” our questioner means “perfect and infallible”, I think there are a couple of things that wouldn’t be so good. For one thing, those who were not so “victorious” would possibly think that the “victorious” people could have no sympathy or connection with them, and avoid them. And that would impede testimony. Additionally, I suppose that the “victorious” people, having achieved a high measure of freedom from the perplexities of sinners, would have an inclination to see themselves as also better than those not-so-victorious: and they’d be quite right to think they had become better than the mere mortals around them. That would create further alienation.

Tom: Pride is always a danger.

The Right Testimonial Position

IC: But finally, since the “victorious” people were already all they should be, what part of that remains for the Lord to do at his return? Indeed, one might think the presence of Jesus Christ at his coming was more-or-less a symbolic gesture or afterthought, with no perfecting work left to be done.

Put all that together, and I sincerely doubt it would be very helpful either to witness or to the honor of God if Christians were fully “victorious” at the present moment. I think there is something about our struggles that puts us in exactly the right testimonial position between heaven and earth.

Tom: I hope I’m not reading too much into the original question, but it almost seems like there is an expectation in it that God is responsible to make us holy in spite of ourselves. There seems to be an unstated assumption that the word of God and the new birth are deficient in some way if they do not transform each and every new believer 100% into the likeness of Christ in a time frame that seems reasonable to those who are looking on.

Maybe that’s not what the asker intended.

Groaning and Triumphing

In any case, what is not always understood about the new birth is this: in giving us his Spirit, God has freed us up to do the right thing, but he certainly does not force us to do it. God could easily march every new believer around like a mannequin, always doing exactly what pleases him. But what value would there be for him or for us in that sort of a relationship? He wants our voluntary, joyous choice of his will. He does not intend to impose it. There would be no “present your bodies” in Romans 12 if God’s #1 priority was always and only a perfect testimony to the world. He would simply make us jump to his tune. But he doesn’t, which suggests his priorities are elsewhere.

IC: That’s a good point, too. The exercise of our obedience is an important exercise, one connected to what theologians call our “progressive sanctification”, meaning we are being prepared now for our role in God’s kingdom. For a time, we have the opportunity to make decisions for God, in the face of stiff opposition from the world and from within our own natures. As the Bible says, we “groan”. But we also triumph, and have victory through Christ. But the time will come when we will have no more such conflicts. They will end: and then, whatever has been achieved in us through our striving will be as fully achieved as it’s going to get.

For now, all our strivings against sin are very noble and worthwhile, and I have heard it argued (not without warrant) that they even contribute to our eternal position. But we won’t have them forever, so we should make the most of them now.

Define “Triumph”

Tom: There is another question here too, and that’s “Triumph by whose standards?” We may feel that we are complete failures, because we are trying to be perfect by some standard we have concocted in our own heads. But God is gracious in ways we can’t account for. We are not the final arbiters of our own condition.

In the book of Revelation, there are seven references to the “one who conquers”. Read them carefully, and it quickly becomes clear that all true Christians are by definition triumphant, because we triumph not in ourselves, but in Christ. It is Jesus Christ who conquers, and those who truly believe in him get to simply tag along because we are “in him”. We bring nothing to the mix.

For instance, the Lord says, “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God,” and “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” In saying this, he is not establishing some kind of top tier of Christians who “conquer”, while the other believers fail to conquer. It should be obvious that if you are hurt by the second death or fail to eat of the tree of life, it is not evidence you are a sub-standard Christian. You are not even Christian at all. Everyone who really believes conquers in Christ.

Slaying Songbirds

IC: Going back to the word the questioner chose to use, what is a “victorious” person but one who has overcome against significant difficulties? “Victor” is a word of strife, of combat, of winning. But there’s no winning if there’s no serious opposition; and the size of the victory is determined by the size of the opposition, is it not? We would call someone a “great victor” for slaying dragons, but not for slaying songbirds, surely.

Tom: Good point. In summary, then, it seems to me the new birth and the word of God give the believer everything he needs to be triumphant over sin. It’s easy to look at the many cases of people who profess salvation and manifestly don’t triumph in the way we would like to see them triumph. I wonder though, if we sometimes forget about those that do. I think of one godly man I know who was saved in the late eighties with a serious alcohol problem. We’re thirty years down the road and I haven’t seen the slightest hint of it since. It’s about as gone as gone could be. And there are many cases like that we could look at.

The word of God and the new birth are not lacking in power. The question is whether we make full use of the power available to us.

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