The Christian life is a complex one. On one hand, we are righteous, and truly so, as I explained in a recent post. But on the other hand, we clearly continue to sin and get tangled up in the problems of this age. As John tells us, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us” 1. So we find ourselves in this awkward place, caught between the past and the future in a muddled present.
We often have a difficult time making sense of this, too. “Am I righteous? Am I a sinner? What exactly am I and why do I act the way that I do?” We hear different things from different preachers about exactly how these two things balance and function in our lives. But of course it’s not the theological theory itself that we want; we want out. What we need is a way forward. However our sin and righteousness interact, we want to know how to put the sin further and further down.
This is especially relevant if you think like I do. See, my mental processes when it comes to sin have two defining traits: big picture thought and introspection. First, my brain functions on the big picture. What makes it easier to do theology makes my flaws and failures all the more frustrating: with every little detail I see how it connects to and blends with a larger picture. So when I do wrong, what I see is not merely the stain on the wall but the entire growth of mold throughout the house. This is compounded by my obsessive introspection: I cannot stop looking in and examining myself over everything I do. The result of this blend is often a frustrated pessimism about myself. One mistake focuses me on the cracks running through my entire character and conduct, which seem too big to be repaired.
But when I find out that everything about me, running down to my least conscious everyday motivations, is polluted by sin, what am I to do? If even my best actions seem to, upon closer inspection, be tainted by selfishness or pride, how can I advance? What can I do to truly serve my God, or love my neighbor? What’s the point of even trying if all my tries will even be sinful? Will not my every sacrifice be, in the end, of blemished lambs?
This is where I found help from Martin Luther (and Karl Barth). Luther made a famous statement regarding our life as Christians: simul justus et peccator. We are “simultaneously justified and sinner.” Every moment we live in tension between the old man, the sinner who is dead through the Cross2, and the new, the saint created by the Resurrection3. God’s “Yes” and His “No” sound to us all at all times.
I don’t mean to say that God sees us as half-righteous, or that the old man still counts for anything. Far from it! Everyone in Christ is a new creation, and that’s all that matters to God4. But we live in what the Bible calls the “last days,” the time between the times when the old things are still hanging around but fading, and the new things are working their way in. Jesus has won and redeemed us, but He is away and in the mean time while we wait for Him to return we experience both the old reality and the new one, both sin and salvation.
So what is my point, exactly? I’ve learned from Luther and Barth that we have to accept the peccator side of the equation, the “No” of God which will hang over us until death. We are sinners still. That is the old reality, which though it is dying and defeated still exists. And we have to live with that. I have to live with that. Though by grace I am being renewed each day and march on towards the day of resurrection and restoration, until I reach this goal I cannot escape the condemned part of my existence.
This is the frustration which I must subdue. I want to be whole. I want to be good and righteous and innocent. But for now I’m not. Which means I am in the wrong. I sin. I have actually mixed and polluted motivations. Even when I think I’m being good, I’m still sinning. There are cracks, moral faults, running all the way through my life. Nothing I touch or do is totally pure. Even my best love has selfish distortion. And all of these things fall under the judgment of God. All of them incur His wrath and disapproval for good reason. And I must accept that. I’m not yet who God has recreated me to be, and until that day I’m still never innocent.
Yet there is the other side of the equation. So I am messed up. I may be a sinner in too many ways, the old and fallen creation wielding far too much power. But that can’t keep me from following God. My motives may not always be pure, but they’re not altogether rotten. Help my unbelief, Lord, but I do believe. For even in my weakness, I don’t have to rely on my own merits, anyway. As I just posted, I’m relying 100% on Jesus’ faithfulness, not my own.
So this is the key to keep moving: I must accept the two-pronged death blow to pride. I am so messed up, but I’m not relying on myself anyway so I might as well keep fighting the good fight. When my motives are mixed, so what? I stand by Jesus, whose motives were never impure, so I should just keep pressing on. If I wished to sing on stage to glorify God, but I suspected pride may be involved in my wish as well, I should sing anyway for Him, knowing that my pride is crucified with Christ either way. Even if I know my obedience will be fraught with mistakes and sinful failings, I should offer it anyway, because my living sacrifice is not made pure by my own goodness but by my High Priest before the Father.
So in sum, I can only suggest this: We’re sinful. Deal with it. Keep obeying and never give up in despair at your unworthiness, because our Savior is worthy. Accept God’s judgment on your wrongdoing, and strive for righteousness anyway. You know in the end there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.