If you haven’t read part 1, part 2 or the quote interlude…I’d encourage you to do so, as those posts lay some of the foundation for these thoughts. Part 2 emphasized that we need to realize our sinful and humble state before the majestic and holy God. Here lies hope! Yet, some see this as self-deprecating or pessimistic, and we’ll just be hopelessly entangled in sin if we think that way. What about the Bible verses that say I am a saint, a new creation, and a victor?! Doesn’t that conflict with all this talk of humility and always being aware of my sinfulness? This is what I want to try to address in this post…Where to begin?
As I read the New Testament there is an “already, but not yet” aspect of our salvation that often seems overlooked. We tend to think of our salvation as primarily something in the past. But salvation is not only a past reality, it is also our future destiny! We have been saved (past tense), but we are also being saved (living out our faith in the present), and one day in the future our salvation will be complete in heaven. We still live in a fallen world. The world is not perfect and we are not perfect either. We are awaiting the return of Christ, when all things will be redeemed and made new. Only then will our salvation be complete. We have not arrived, but are on our way!
Many Scriptural references could be given…Romans 13:11 states our “salvation is nearer to us than when we believed.” Hebrews 9:28 states that Christ will one day return to bring us salvation. Or I Peter 1:3-5 refers to our salvation as a future inheritance that is coming.
So, what is the point? It is critical to maintain this tension or balance between the “already, but not yet” aspect of our salvation. We don’t want either an under-realized or over-realized eschatology. (Eschatology just being the fancy word for the theological study of future things.) Neither extreme is good. We’ll either end up with false delusions about our present abilities to reach perfection…..or just give up all together and make excuses for sinful, ungodly living! This isn’t just theological mumbo-jumbo! Understanding this concept is critical for our everyday life of faith.
The Bible does say that we, as believers, are saints. II Corinthians 5:17 says that we are “new creations” and that “the old is gone, and the new is here.” We have a new identity in Christ! However…the “already, but not yet” tension applies. Romans 12:2 tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. We are new creations, but we are also in the process of transformation. Our renewal is not yet complete. In Philippians 3:12-14, the apostle Paul made it clear that he had not yet “arrived” and was still reaching towards a spiritual goal.
Additionally, in I Corinthians 10:12, Paul said “let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.” Which might be another way of saying “pride comes before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). Even though we are new creations in Christ, we need to keep a realistic view of ourselves! We are saints, but sinners still. Yes, both. It is a tension. I John 1:8 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The new creation does not mean the old potential is not there. We need a healthy suspicion of our own spirituality. We seem naturally prone to self-deception, self-righteousness, pride, and rationalization of our flaws. Pride, in particular, is so very insidious! We need to be on guard…
In light of our tendencies to fall into self-deception and pride, a “man-centered theology” is particularly dangerous. We are already self-centered enough, without a theology that further puts the focus on ourselves and our capabilities! Too much of modern evangelicalism seems to have fallen into the “power of positive thinking” pop psychology paradigm. We are more focused on our spiritual success or victory, than on God and how our sin grieves and offends Him. Jerry Bridges says it this way:
God wants us to walk in obedience – not victory. Obedience is oriented toward God; victory is oriented toward self. This may seem to be merely splitting hairs over semantics, but there is a subtle, self-centered attitude at the root of many of our difficulties with sin. Until we face this attitude and deal with it we will not consistently walk in holiness….This is where holiness begins – not with ourselves but with God.
I spent a number of years in a certain type of Christian environment that had a strong emphasis on our saintly status as Christians. It was emphasized that Christians should not think of themselves as sinful. Sometimes the congregation would yell out “We are saints!”. Initially, we enjoyed the hopeful and positive attitude of this type of theology. But the problems became evident all too soon. We observed a lot of pretense, and rationalization of sin. Ironically, we observed more sin (not less) compared to other churches we’d been a part of. This theology sounded good “in theory” but seemed prone to fail when the rubber hit the road.
I appreciate how “The Message” (a modern paraphrase of the Bible) words I Corinthians 10:11-12: “These are all warning markers—danger!—in our history books, written down so that we don’t repeat their mistakes. Our positions in the story are parallel—they at the beginning, we at the end—and we are just as capable of messing it up as they were. Don’t be so naive and self-confident. You’re not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else. Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless. Cultivate God-confidence.”
We can make progress in our spiritual life and walk in holiness…but this comes through cultivating God-confidence, and keeping a realistic view of ourselves. It’s not that we want to think negatively of ourselves or be pessimistic. But…we need to remember the “already, but not yet” tension. We are saints AND sinners. We have not arrived yet, and need a humble caution in regards to our spirituality.
A friend of mine describes herself on her blog like this: “I am a walking oxymoron, broken yet redeemed, miserably wretched yet ecstatically forgiven, more sinful than I can imagine but more loved than I will ever know.” Amen! I firmly believe that keeping this tension in mind will help keep us from sin, and living a life of holiness that pleases the Lord.