An Evangelical Predicament: Two Kinds of Sinners
The great division within humanity is not sexual, economic, racial, or social — but religious. The great divide is captured by expressions like the City of God versus the City of Man (Augustine), covenant-keepers versus covenant-breakers (Cornelius Van Til), and by more explicitly Biblical terms like saved versus unsaved (Ac. 16:30) and Christians versus non-Christians (Ac. 11:26). Another way of expressing this distinction is to refer to repentant sinners versus unrepentant sinners. This final designation has the benefit of highlighting the reality of universal human sinfulness while implying the ethical benefits of Jesus Christ’s redemptive work — notably, his creating a new and holy people by the Spirit’s power (Rom. 6:1–12; 8:9–14). Repentant sinners are still sinners, but, being recipients of God’s grace consistently working in their lives, they have become a different kind of sinner. They may be sinners, but they are not sinners in the way they once were.
A striking example of these two kinds of sinners is found in the initial segment of the Old Testament book of Habakkuk. This book consists of alternating monologues between God and the prophet. In 1:1–5, Habakkuk (like many other Biblical prophets) decries the violence, injustice and otherwise depravity of his fellow Jews. Keenly aware of God’s covenant threats in texts like Deuteronomy 28, he grieves at God’s apparent diffidence over the depravity of his people. God had plucked Israel from the depraved, pagan nations of the earth and graciously lifted them up on eagles’ wings to be a unique, righteous people to him (Ex. 19:4–6). But in Habakkuk’s time, righteous they were not; they were tragically unrighteous. And Habakkuk was as incensed by their unrighteousness as he was with God’s seeming indifference at his people’s moral apostasy.
The Evangelical Quandary of Grace
Another quandary emerges almost immediately. “There is none righteous, no, not one,” writes Paul (Rom. 3:10, summarizing Psalm 14), yet the Bible clearly and plainly depicts certain believers as righteous, and it commends this righteousness. The Psalms are replete with mention and descriptions of “the righteous man” (try chapters 1, 11, 34, 37, and 58 — for starters). Likewise, Jesus spoke of righteous individuals (Mt. 10:41; 13:17, 43; 25:46). So did Paul himself (Rom. 2:6–11; 6:18; 14:7; Eph. 4:24). The world may be full of sinners (Lady Gaga in the lead), but there are righteous individuals in God’s sight.
Two Kinds of Righteousness
A typical evangelical way out of this quandary — one creditably calculated to highlight the grace of God and prevent any boasting of one’s righteousness — is to say that this righteousness is the “positional” or judicial righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed (or credited) to the believing sinner. The Bible most assuredly teaches this kind of righteousness. Both Jesus (Lk. 18:9–14) and, in particular, Paul (Rom. 4:11–24) refer to this imputed righteousness as the basis on which we are accepted before a holy God. We are not accepted before God on the strength of our own righteousness but on the strength of Jesus’ righteousness. His righteous standing accomplished by his death and resurrection becomes ours by faith alone, not by works.
Yet in many cases, the definition of the righteousness of individuals depicted as righteous in the Bible cannot be this positional or judicial righteousness: they are actually, existentially righteous (see Lk. 1:5–6; Jas. 5:16; 2 Pet. 2:8). They live righteous lives. They love God. They obey his Word. They hate sin (including their own sin [Ps. 51; Is. 6:5]). They are sinners, but they wish to please God in all that they do. They do enjoy imputed righteousness, but they also are the recipients of imparted righteousness: God has imparted to them the Holy Spirit’s power and (gradually) works into them his righteousness (Rom. 8:1–17). They are righteous, both judicially and experientially, by faith.
These are the relatively rather than the absolutely righteous (only God is absolutely righteous), but the Bible does not hesitate to depict these repentant sinners as righteous — conforming to God’s holy will. They are commended for this righteousness and held up as favorable examples.
This distinction discloses more fully the reality of the two kinds of sinners: the repentant and the unrepentant. The Bible calls repentant sinners “the righteous” (and similar terms). It labels unrepentant sinners “the unrighteous” (and similar terms). There is a huge gulf separating these two groups, and that gulf cannot be bridged by simply lumping all of them together as sinners. The gulf is so absolute that in the Final Judgment it will eternally isolate all of humanity in one of two places: heaven or hell (Mt. 25:31–46). Of course, all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). There is no righteous man on earth that does not sin (Ec. 7:20). If we say that we are without sin, we are liars (1 Jn. 1:10). But there has been a dramatic change in repentant sinners that has led and will lead increasingly to righteous living. In fact, John sees this righteousness as a criterion of authentic belief (1 Jn. 3:6, 5:18) — if we live lives dominated by unrighteousness, our Christian profession rings hollow. The right-living people are saved and the wrong-living people are lost. It is remarkable that some Christians, worried that God’s grace will be polluted if they stress the necessity of righteousness, refuse to affirm what the Bible so plainly teaches: that the righteous will end up in heaven and the unrighteous will end up in hell (Mt. 13:41–43; 25:31–46; Jn. 5:29; Rom. 2:6–9; Heb. 10:32–39; Rev. 21:7, 8, 24–27).
For this reason, when Habakkuk decried his fellow Jews’ depravity and apostasy, God did not respond, “But Habakkuk, you, too, are a sinner; you are really no better than these other Jews, who love violence and injustice and hate my law. You were saved by my sovereign grace and have no warrant to set yourself up to criticize their sin. Revel in my grace, Habakkuk, for there but for my grace go you!” God did not say this, nor (to my knowledge) does God ever reply this way when the righteous (repentant sinners) criticize or condemn the unrighteous (unrepentant sinners). In short, God affirms (implicitly or explicitly) the assessment that his righteous people level at the unrighteous. These sinners occupy two entirely different classes.
Are Christians Better Than Everybody Else?
Christians sometimes exhort, with well-intentioned humility: “We should not act as though we are better than everyone else in the world. After all, we are saved by grace.” Yet, if we are not better than unbelievers, what is salvation by grace all about? Not, surely, only eternal bliss, blessed though it will be. It would be a tragedy indeed if heaven were populated by unrepentant, depraved sinners. This would be hell, not heaven (Rev. 21:8). Heaven is reserved for those who have been saved by grace through faith in the blood and resurrection of Jesus and who, therefore, have been cleansed of sin and live as obedient, persevering sons and daughters (Rom. 2:6–7; Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:7).
The goal of God’s grace is a right-living (= righteous) people. Paul writes, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age. . . ” (Tit. 2:11–12, emphasis supplied). The goal of God’s grace is not Christians who so marvel at that grace that they fear righteousness. Grace necessitates — and produces — righteousness.
Today amid the din of religious apostasy and cultural depravity, a misguided piety may foster the attitude: “I am saved by the blood of Jesus and totally by grace. I do not see any moral difference between me and unrepentant sinners. After all, it is only grace that separates me from Lady Gaga.”
But that “only” modifying God’s grace in our salvation is a massive “only.” It is a grace that transforms a rebel into an obedient child and situates him on the path of righteousness. He loves what God loves and hates what God hates. He perseveres in righteousness by the Spirit’s power to press the Lordship of Jesus everywhere he can. He knows that all he is and does in the way of righteousness is God’s gift working for him (imputed righteousness) and in him (imparted righteousness). He rejoices in God’s grace that redeemed him not just from the penalty of sin but also, now, in this life, from the pleasure and power of sin and one day, in eternity, from the very presence of sin (A. W. Pink).
God anointed Jesus because he loved righteousness and hated lawlessness (Heb. 1:9). So should we.
Eternal life is not a reward for good behavior, but neither is grace an excuse for moral paralysis.