Remaining sin is the ultimate guerrilla warrior. Though defeated, it still clings tenaciously to its former territory, attacking when we least expect it and hiding where we never thought to find it. It is a shape-shifter, sometimes masquerading as godliness and other times disguising itself in the most innocent of pleasures. It never rests. It will never make peace. It is opposed to every good thought, word, or deed we attempt.
Wow. Just writing that makes me tired.
If you’ve been a Christian for very long, you know that the battle against sin never ends. The good news is that, because we are justified by grace, the guilt of this remaining sin will never be charged against us. Christ has already paid the debt for our greed, our pride, our selfishness, our lust. That is tremendously good news, and encourages us in the fight. But (as heretical as this may sound) the good news of justification by faith alone isn’t enough to live the Christian life.
What? Are you turning legalistic on us, you ask? Isn’t justification – being freed from the guilt of sin – all we need? I’m convinced the answer is no, justification is not all we need to know and it is not enough for the Christian life. Here’s why.
Justification is a marvelous gift, and I must continually remind myself that all my guilt has been washed away by Christ. But the problem is sin doesn’t only make me guilty legally; it also pollutes me morally. Even if I certain that I will not face God’s wrath for my impatient words to my wife, I still want to grow in being more patient! Remaining sin, though forgiven, still dishonors God, hurts me, and hurts other. How is this pollution removed? Are we left to climb the mountain of sanctification by the sweat of moral self-exertion?
Thankfully, no. Sanctification, just as much as justification, is a gift of God in Christ Jesus. For every Christian, the pollution of sin is now and will one day totally be eradicated from our hearts. God does this by not only imputing Christ’s righteousness to us legally (pronouncing us “not guilty”), but also by gradually infusing Christ’s righteousness in us ethically (conforming us to Christ’s image). To use a gardening image, in sanctification God plants the seed of Jesus’ own holiness in our hearts by the Spirit, then waters, tends, and watches over the seedling until it grows into full maturity. The work won’t be completed until Christ returns, true. But an unfinished work is not an unstarted work. If you are a Christian God is conforming you to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29), one day and one degree of glory at a time (2 Cor. 3:18).
Let’s bring this close to home. Are you battling sin today? Has your pride made you defensive? Have your eyes wandered? Were your words harsh? Did you covet your neighbor’s new car or salary? If so, here is the good news of the gospel for you. The guilt of each of those sins is gone. And the fruit of holiness you long for – humility, purity, gentleness, contentment – is yours in Christ. He is perfectly holy and righteous, untainted with any of these sins and possessing every positive grace, and his holiness and righteousness is gradually becoming ours. So confess the sin. Fight with all your strength. Put to death sin and cultivate every gracious impulse in your heart. Because behind every battle God is slowly but surely conforming you into Christ’s image.
“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Image by Renaissance Chambara