Every Christian's Paradox

Tullian Tchividjian on the clashing identity of Christians as both sinners and saints.

“Sinners saved by grace.” This, perhaps more than any other identifier, is how many Christians describe themselves. It sounds simple enough, but behind it lies a paradox that every Christian must come face to face with.

Because sin and grace are direct opposites. We talk as if grace should cancel out all our sins—but most of us will attest to the fact that we fail often, and often miserably. Yet if grace doesn’t cancel out our sin—then the power of the resurrection doesn’t seem all that powerful anymore. How do we make sense of these two clashing identities as Christians? How can we be both at the same time sinners and also saints?

Let’s start at the beginning. We are all born “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1-3; Colossians 2:13), with no spiritual capacity to incline ourselves Godward. We do not come into this world spiritually neutral; we come into this world spiritually dead. Therefore, we need much more than to reach out from our spiritual hospital bed and take medicine that God offers. We need to be raised from death to life. But we are incapable of performing such a miracle on our own.

"The only qualification for the gift of the Gospel is to be dead." -Robert Capon

Romans 3:12 tells us bluntly, “No one does good, not even one.”

And because we are so deep in our sin, salvation only happens when God comes to us.

As Robert Capon puts it, "When the Resurrection and the Life says “Lazarus, come forth,” the rest of the story does not depend on Lazarus. He can drag his feet all the way—admittedly, a hell of a thing to do—but he rises, no matter what ... Jesus came to raise the dead. The only qualification for the gift of the Gospel is to be dead. You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to be wise. You don’t have to be wonderful. You just have to be dead. That’s it."

In this way, no one is totally beyond hope. We who were dead have been made alive.

Ephesians 2:4-6 says, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6).

So once God has raised us up with Christ, we’re done with sin forever, right?

Not according to Paul. He articulates his internal struggle in Romans 7: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Theologians teach of our “total inability” to come to God on our own because we’re spiritually dead. And the effects of sin are a spreading disease, corrupting the totality of our being. Our minds are infected by sin. Our hearts are infected by sin. Our wills are infected by sin. Our bodies are infected by sin.

So if sin still corrupts us—what is the purpose of our new life in Christ? How can they possibly coexist?

The painful struggle that Paul gives voice to arises from his condition as simul justus et peccator or simultaneously justified and sinful. He has been raised from the dead and is now alive to Christ, but remaining sin continues to plague him at every level and in every way.

We will always be suspicious of grace until we realize our desperate need for it.

Paul’s testimony demonstrates that even after God saves us, there is no part of us that becomes sin-free. We remain sinful and imperfect in all of our capacities, in the “totality” of our being. Even after God saves us, our thoughts, words, motives, deeds and affections need the constant cleansing of Christ’s blood and the forgiveness that comes our way for free.

While it is gloriously true for the Christian that there is nowhere Christ has not arrived by His Spirit, it is equally true that there is no part of any Christian in this life that is free of sin. Because of the totality of sin’s effect, we never outgrow our need for Christ’s finished work on our behalf. We never graduate beyond our desperate need for Christ’s righteousness and his strong and perfect blood-soaked plea “before the throne of God above.”

But there is good news in all this. Because this process, painful though it sometimes is, keeps us intimately close to Him.

The reason this is so important is because we will always be suspicious of grace until we realize our desperate need for it.

Our dire need for God’s grace doesn’t get smaller after God saves us. In one sense, it actually gets bigger. Christian growth, says the Apostle Peter, is always growth into grace, not away from it.

Many Christians think that becoming sanctified means that we become stronger and stronger. And although we would never say it this way, we Christians sometimes give the impression that sanctification is growth beyond our need for Jesus and His finished work for us. We subconsciously believe we needed Jesus a lot for justification; but need Him less for sanctification.

The truth is, however, that Christian growth requires coming to the realization of just how weak we really are—and how strong Jesus is. Spiritual maturity is not marked by growth veering toward independence. It is marked by our growing dependence on Christ.

11 Comments

Dave Wied

1

Dave Wied commented…

I am not a sinner. My identity is in Christ. I am a saint who too often sins. The Bible is clear that I am a new creation. The old is dead and I have been raised to new life as a new creation. 2 Corinthians 5:16-18 It is this very identity crisis that so many Christians live in defeat of thought. It is a copout to say, "oh well... I sinned, after all I am a sinner saved by grace..." I prefer, sin has no strangle hold on me, I am a saint, an imperfect child of the God of the universe who forgave, forgives and always will, despite my shortcomings.

Alan Chambers

3

Alan Chambers replied to Dave Wied's comment

Agreed, Dave.

Steve Scarduzio

4

Steve Scarduzio replied to Alan Chambers's comment

I agree with these comments. Not a very good article, in my opinion.

reg_rollins21

3

reg_rollins21 replied to Steve Scarduzio's comment

Wow, way to prove the point. A saint who sins is still a sinner. Simul justus et peccator. The point is, you are not a saint because of your work, but because of Christ's. Christ's work makes you a saint in God's eyes, but your flesh remains sinful. Having been redeemed, however, the Holy Spirit creates the desire to live up to God's view of you.

Alan Chambers

3

Alan Chambers commented…

I completely disagree. The miracle of salvation is that we receive completely new hearts. Sin no longer resides there--it cannot. While we continue to struggle with sin, we are not sinners--but such were some of you. Sin is quarantined to our flesh/members but not resident in our hearts. We are justified AND sanctified. I agree with the comment above---I am a saint and can no longer BE a sinner.

reg_rollins21

3

reg_rollins21 replied to Alan Chambers's comment

One who "struggles with sin" is a sinner. You are only a saint because grace is imputed. Grace does not alter the flesh, though it creates a desire to love as a saint, it won't be successful in avoiding sin until we receive new bodies in the new heaven and earth.

Jennifer

8

Jennifer commented…

Alan, I just searched this site hoping I'd see some articles by you and saw your comments and that you just joined up! Glad you're here and I hope you can contribute some articles re: Exodus International + God's Grace and the Homosexual next door soon! :)

Alan Chambers

3

Alan Chambers replied to Jennifer's comment

THANKS, Jennifer.

Daniel Miller

1

Daniel Miller commented…

I actually did appreciate this article – and I think the comments here (juxtaposed to the article) show a popular split in the theology of sanctification today. The two “camps” I have seen seem go something like this…
Camp 1: (Expanding Grace) – The emphasis is on our growing appreciation of God’s grace and mercy for us. As we mature we actually see more (not less) sin in our lives. It’s not so much that we become more holy (although we do over time), but that we come to a greater love and dependence of our savior as we recognize our own need.
Camp 2: (New Heart) – The emphasis is that we are a new creation when we become Christians. This means that we are no longer captive to sin right now – we are holy here and now. Although we do still sin (sometimes), it has in a sense become outside of our nature to do so because our new hearts.
Both “camps” are taught quite often today, but is one more helpful, true, or hopefully both?
Personally, I think sanctification is strongest when it incorporates both models. We love to talk about “spectrums” in Christianity (too much perhaps) but once again I think it is possible to swing too far towards either opposite extreme. For example: Extreme 1 might be “I can never hope to change at all or have victory over a particular sin” or extreme 2 might be “I am fundamentally above sin now – don’t confront me”. Considering both camps above, keeps us from either a defeatist depression or unwarranted spiritual pride/overconfidence. The article above ultimately probably leans towards the camp #1 (as do I), but I appreciate that it does provide an interesting (even if imperfect) synthesis of a very real paradox in the Christian faith.

reg_rollins21

3

reg_rollins21 replied to Daniel Miller's comment

One model is Roman Catholic, and one model is Evangelical. The problem is most so-called evangelicals have abandoned the Reformation understanding of justification as imputed grace and teach the Roman view of infused grace.

Laura

2

Laura commented…

At least we agree that we do sin. Someone who sins is A SINNER! It is no longer in a believer's nature to sin, but it still happens. To say you're not a sinner is to call God a liar. God's word assures us that we are a new creation and sin doesn't reign over us if we have received salvation, but God's word is also clear that evil is at work in the world and that no human (even a believer) escapes temptation of the flesh. We join in sainthood because as believers we have become adopted by God, but we are still called to acknowledge sin in our lives, repent of it, and receive forgiveness for it.

I agree with D. Miller that as we mature in our faith we see more, not less, sin in our lives. That is a part of living in God's light. I personally think God desires us to embrace both camps of thought that Miller lists - we have joy and freedom from sin as children of God who have a received a new nature, and therefore we ought to have a growing appreciation for the magnitude of His grace.

Log In

Please log in or register to comment

Advertisement