“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.
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.
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.