Can We Expect Only to “Muddle Along”?
I’ve already noted how that Mark Galli, Managing Editor of Christianity Today, has flirted with antinomianism in suggesting that the “gospel . . . takes ethics away as duty and gives it back as joy — precisely because we don’t have to do it anymore but get to do it in freedom.” But he offers another perspective that warrants attention. He writes:
As readers of this column know, I’m pretty pessimistic when it comes to claims that we can be “radically transformed” by the gospel in this life. I believe most of the transformation language in the New Testament is spoken in hope; that is, it refers to our life with Christ at the end of history, when everything will be transformed, root and branch (see Philippians 3:21, for example). In the meantime, we muddle along mired in sin, but not without hope. We know that it is not our sin that defines us, but our forgiveness in Christ. That we sin over and over is not news, and it’s no even longer even particularly bad news; it’s just old news. The truly amazing thing—the good news—is that this old news does not define who we are, which is beloved of God despite our sin, forgiven in grace!
But does the Bible really teach that transformation by sanctification and victory over sin must wait until the eschaton — the end of all things? Does it teach that until then all we can expect is to “muddle along mired in sin”? Hardly.
Paul writes in Romans 6:1–4 —
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
His point is that in union by faith with our Lord’s Cross and resurrection, we are raised to a life of obedience. We are “no longer . . . slaves of sin,” since “he who has died [that is, we, who are united to Jesus] has been freed from sin” (vv. 6–7). Paul proceeds to teach that Jesus’ redemption has liberated us from the power of sin. This can only mean that we are not destined to “muddle along mired in sin.” Of course, sin still plagues us (7:21f.) because we have not yet been fully sanctified, but we gain consistent (if not unremitting) victory in this life by the power of the Holy Spirit:
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:1–4)
The NT writers would find strange indeed that we cannot, in the words of Mark, be “‘radically transformed’ by the gospel in this life.” We read that “if anyone [is] in Christ, [he is] a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). From the context (vv. 15–16) it is clear that Paul isn’t referring primarily to the imputed (judicially credited) newness that accompanies the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ (vital though it is), but the actual newness of a newly obedient life.
Who can read the book of 1 John and deny that Christians are “‘radically transformed’ by the gospel in this life”? Because we are God’s children, we now consistently keep his commandments (2:3–4). This is no sinless perfectionism, because we all still sin, but if we confess our sins, the Lord will forgive us (1:8–9) by the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ (2:1–2). We have “overcome the wicked one” (2:13, 14); we can purify ourselves just as God is pure (3:2–3); we overcome false spirits because the one residing in us is greater than the enemy residing in the world (4:3–4); and we overcome the world in great victory because of our faith (5:4–5).
If this isn’t “radical transformation,” I don’t know what is.
A Comprehensive Salvation
For this reason, Mark, despite his best intentions, diminishes the power of the Cross and resurrection. We read in 1 John 3:4–5:
Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin. Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.
Jesus came to “take away our sins” so that we will abide in him and not live a life dominated by sin. It won’t suffice to say that Jesus died to cancel the penalty of our sins. Thank God, he did that (Rom. 3:21–26). This is the judicial cancellation of our sins known as justification: our being declared righteous in that Jesus’ law-keeping righteousness is imputed (credited) to believing sinners. In this way we stand righteous before God.
But Jesus came not just to forgive our sins; he came also to get rid of our sinning. He doesn’t wait until the eschaton to start doing that. From the very start, when we trust in Jesus, he begins to change us, gradually fostering a “radical transformation.” This is why Paul writes in Romans 8:3–4 that in sending Jesus, God condemned sin so that we could walk in a new life. Jesus died on the Cross to bring sin itself, not just us via his death, under judgment: Jesus’ death and resurrection were calculated to abolish sin. Jesus delivered a bone-crushing death to sin.
Late Bible teacher A. W. Pink, in his classic essay “A Fourfold Salvation,” furnished nomenclature for grasping the range of individual salvation’s effects. Christ’s redemptive work saves us from the penalty of sin; we no longer stand under God’s judgment (Rom. 3:19–25). It saves us from the power of sin; sin no longer has dominion over us (Rom. 6:14). Jesus’ redemption saves us from the pleasure of sin; though we sin, we no longer delight in it (Rom. 7:21–24). And in eternity it will finally save us from the very presence of sin (Rev. 21:27).
We are presently being saved from the pleasure and power of sin. We needn’t “muddle along mired in sin.”
That’s why Peter writes (1 Pet. 1:13–19):
Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.
Because of these facts, Mark, good intentions notwithstanding, diminishes the bloody Cross and empty tomb. To Christians who strive for holiness but weary in failure, Mark wants to comfort them with lower expectations. The Bible wants to comfort them, too, not by lowering expectations, but by heightening them: “Keep persevering; by the Spirit’s power, you can be holy!”
“Fight the good fight for holiness,” Peter is saying, because Jesus’ precious blood was shed so that you can in this life, amid great trial and hardship, be holy.
When we say that Christians can expect only to “muddle along mired in sin,” we are diluting the overarching efficacy of our Lord’s death and resurrection. We are saying that he died to save us from the penalty of sin one day, but that he did not die to save us from the power of sin right now.
In other words, we are saying that Jesus Christ did not die to save us from sin.
Let me encourage you Christians battling depression, anxiety, lust, discontent, avarice, envy, rebellion, and an undisciplined tongue (and any other sin) and who assume that you are destined to languish under sin’s slavery. You are not the slaves of sin! Jesus’ bloody Cross and victorious resurrection have liberated you. If you act in faith and obedience on this transformational fact — count yourself dead to sin and alive to God, a slave of righteousness (Rom. 6:11, 18) — you will soon experience an unprecedented victory over sin of that you can presently only imagine.
We need not — and must not — “muddle along mired in sin.” Jesus died and rose to secure victory over sin for you and for me.
Live in the victory.