Just Forgiven Sinners

confessionalWe’ve all heard it said from time to time:

Christians are not saying they’re better than anyone else, just that they’re forgiven.

I heard something very similar not so long ago: Everyone is a sinner; the only difference is that Christians are forgiven. To recognise that, so this particular argument went, is to give glory to God. Our continuing sinfulness shows that a Christian’s salvation must all be of God through the blood of Christ, because we, as sinners, can contribute nothing good.
It sounds so plausible, even obviously correct. But it’s not correct – something very important is being left out. And the end result is not good, and is damaging the church. What’s true in the statements are the following:

  1. Everyone is a sinner by nature. No-one is born with any fundamental difference in terms of how alienated they are from God. No-one is born without the moral problem that results from that alienation – they are unable to know and serve God.
  2. Christians are forgiven. God’s love for the world, for humanity, has led him to bring salvation. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we can be forgiven for our sins, which is just one part of what salvation means.
  3. We can contribute nothing to this salvation. Salvation is by God’s grace only – we don’t (and can’t) do anything to help us merit it in any way. In fact, no-one can merit salvation, because it doesn’t work on merit.
  4. Salvation is through the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus Christ died to take away sin – to bring forgiveness. His death was an atoning death and, when we believe, we are put right with God on the basis of what Jesus has done.

So, what’s left out?

What’s left out is that when we put our faith in Jesus Christ, our lives change. It’s called repentance. When we begin to follow Jesus, we become disciples; we start to think, speak and act in a different way. But how does that work, when we are unable to serve God? Because, most importantly of all, when we put our faith in Jesus, we receive the reality of the presence of Jesus in our lives through the presence of the Holy Spirit.  This transforming presence is what enables us to follow, and what effects a change in our lives (meaning our lives, not just the way we think about ourselves). Our actions change. We no longer do things that we did before we became disciples of Christ. Our whole worldview changes. We think in a different way. Of course, that doesn’t happen overnight, but the culture of the church in which we live ought to make the goal abundantly clear, and equip us to move towards it.

The radical change that attends our faith in Jesus Christ is expressed by Paul:

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. (2Cor 5:17)
So, there is a fundamental difference between sinners and Christians – it is most definitely not true that that the only difference is that we’re forgiven. When we read Romans chapter 6, we find Paul writing about this total realignment of our lives. And indeed there are so many places where this is so clear, it’s a wonder how it can be lost (Rom 12, 13; Eph 4, 5; Col 3; 1 Pet 4; 1 Jo 2…etc. etc.).
The results of this omission are serious. If Christians believe that they are still essentially sinners and that the only difference between them and non-Christians is that they are forgiven, then they carry the same expectations of falling into temptation and sin that they had before. They also sometimes adopt a twisted view of what’s called Christian liberty and live in compromise with the world. This is one of the reasons why some Christians seem so ill-equipped in their interactions with culture. They feel able to listen uncritically to the same music, drink in the same subliminal messages of the advertisers, watch the same TV comedies – all of which function as vehicles for a worldview with little in common with the Christian worldview. They incubate the same life-aspirations as others. They can do what everyone else does because, in the end, we are all sinners, but Christians are forgiven. So, after a dutiful feeling of remorse (often mistaken for repentance), at least they can sleep soundly at night. I’m not saying that these Christians are living debauched lives – but I am saying that this version of the Gospel is propagating low expectations for holy living, and hinders the development of a truly counter-cultural Christianity.

Our good works must follow our faith. To say that our sinfulness as Christians shows that salvation is all of God is a total confusion. Our good works do not negate the fact that salvation is from God alone. We are not saved by our good works, but we certainly won’t be saved without them.
Shall we sin, so that grace may increase (Rom 6:1)? No-one’s saying it so starkly, but some are coming pretty close to it. Sinners won’t inherit the kingdom of God…

And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:11)

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