Love Is War

I was reading 1 Corinthians 13 the other day and learned something which I did not know. Apparently, all (or most?) of the descriptions of love are verbs in the Greek. Phrases rendered like “Love is kind” could be rendered ultra-literally as “Love kinds” or more dynamically as “Love acts kindly.” Love is active throughout the passage.

Moreover, the actions ascribed to love in this passage are entirely contrary to the flesh, our natural way of living based on our merely animal aspects. We act in one way by default, by instinct, and that way is entirely opposed to the way of love. They cannot abide one another. They are antithetical at their very core. There is one way of acting characterized by love and another way of acting characterized by the self-being of the flesh, and one cannot act in both ways with creating inner conflict.

This brings me to another thought, namely the way that Christianity is often portrayed as a soft, feminine religion with no room for toughness, conflict, strenuous self-discipline, or heroic efforts. It seems unmanly by any of the traditional traits associated with masculinity. Christianity often appears to be an issue of “love, not war.”

But what I would like to point out here is that, in a very important way, love is war. It is strenuous conflict, the fight against natural instincts of self-service in order to do what is right for God and others. It involves determined efforts to kill the old man. We fight and struggle against not humans, but spiritual forces and powers and the corruptions in nature.

This is a Biblical theme. Paul speaks in Romans 9 to us about killing sin, putting it to violent death in our bodies because we have been hung on a bloody cross to die with Christ. We direct strenuous energy and training into fighting the war of love, which means following our Captain Jesus to fight the way He fought, not against humans but against sin, self-love, and the effects of death and Hell. Jesus fought by resisting all of His natural impulses to save or avenge Himself and instead suffering nobly to complete the mission of God. This is our call as well, and it is a hard one which requires an almost military discipline, or even more than that.

Acts is also portrayed as a conquest narrative. It has numerous parallels with Joshua, showing Canaan and then the world being conquered by the preaching of the Gospel through Christ’s elite warriors. These warriors suffer just as other warriors do, more literally than in most of these other parallels as they experienced flogging, beating, and all kinds of torture or harsh conditions.

This is all specific to love, not just a conception of Christianity in general. We do and must do all of these things for  the sake of love, love for God and for people. It is love which must be the force here, and yet it is also through these fights and struggles that we actually love. There is circularity here: love compels us to fight the war that enables us to love.

I also do not say this merely to point out an interesting idea in thinking about love. I’m pointing this out because this realization has two possible benefits. On the one hand, it is a reminder to men that Christianity is serious conflict, that it is not simply sitting around singing mushy songs and feeling fluttery feelings about God and others. Rather, it is a fight. In Christianity we are called to act like heroes who love by taking down sin and self-centeredness like Liam Neeson takes down Eastern European criminals in order to serve the ones we love. We are like the troops who lay down their lives to protect their families and honor their king.

On the other hand, I say this to remind us that love is effort, serious effort in which we will have to suffer. Like in war, we must discipline ourselves and be consciously vigilant against all threats. Love and our loved ones are located in a battle zone, and we must behave in a way that makes sense in such high stakes. It takes diligence, self-control, attention, and obedience to orders if we want our love, our mission to put God and others first, to succeed.

Onward, then, Christian soldiers. Let us march on to the war that is love.

The Father Loves Baby Steps

As Christians, we will always, until our resurrection and glorification, still be growing up. We have been born again, and after every birth one remains an infant for quite some time. The thing about the new birth is that, being a reality of the Holy Spirit acting upon our minds and hearts, it doesn’t always lead to the same obvious, consistent growth that our first, bodily births do. It’s mixed and splotchy and inconsistent, not because of any fault on God’s part but because of our sinful absurdity. 

Despite our ridiculousness, our heavenly Father is good, loving, and patient with us. We have been adopted by grace alone, regardless of the sins which beset us, and because we stand by this grace in Jesus Christ, we are perpetually accepted before God. This means that He stands ready and waiting to encourage and accept our every move along His way, while simultaneously ready and waiting to forgive all our stops and tantrums along the way when we stop and confess them to Him.

This fact of grace has been something encouraging to me as of late while doing my personal evangelism class at BCF. I know quite well that I am sinfully and woefully inadequate when it comes to sharing my faith with other people (primarily because I am sinfully and woefully inadequate when it comes to conversing with other people). I have made little progress, but I have made some. I was able to share my testimony recently. It wasn’t very hard in the particular case, though I had expected it to be more difficult. This was nothing, especially in comparison to other, more mature Christians, or in comparison to Christ Himself.

Despite my slow and crawling progress, God is gracious. Having adopted me for Himself, He is not cruel to and ready to punish me, but a happy Father who loves His new son. He accepts and rejoiced over my baby steps without for a moment compromising His demands for perfect obedience. He is a kind Father, and He loves me more even than I love my own son.

So remember this in all your faltering obedience. Never deny and forget that you are still a sinner and imperfect and even rebellious, but likewise never forget that God loves your baby steps towards Him.

Hate the World, Or Burn with It

Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For everything that belongs to the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle — is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.

1 John 2:15-17

This world will burn. I don’t mean that the physical, spacetime universe will be permanently destroyed, of course.1 I mean the rulers and systems of this age, the present cultures, structures, and institutions which are beholden to the flesh and the devil, which foster sin and exacerbate suffering. These are what John and Paul often refer to in Scripture as the “world” or “this age.” And as John said just above, they are passing away. The world will be condemned and toppled when Christ returns to judge and recreate.

But it is easy to talk about this stuff in general, abstract terms. What is this condemned world in real, actual life? What does it mean to love it and the things in it, as John warned us against? I’ve been giving this some thought lately, and it is not too hard to see how it works. The world offers its own vision for life in direct opposition to the call of Jesus. Naturally, this vision takes different forms in different cultures, and I do not know much about the way of worldly life presented to people in most cultures, but what I am familiar with is the American one. So what is the world in America?

One easily identifiable component of the world system in America is its relentless pursuit of personal wealth and “success.” Our society is powerfully shaped by this idol. Ideally, we go to school to get qualifications that land us in decent jobs from which we can work our way up to riches. Few make it all the way through this journey to the top, but its role as the standard goal is unquestionable. The life of corporate advancement, complete with expensive clothing, status watches, luxury cars, and all the rest, is taken for granted as an ideal, part of the good life for which we Americans strive.

Yet, while diligently working in a profitable job is by no means an evil or a sin, the system behind this success culture is clearly and certainly corrupt to the core. Quite frequently, it demands that you offer in sacrifice your integrity, your spouse, your children, your commitment to your church, and by all means your sacrificial giving on its pagan altar. It breaks apart families and in fact even individuals under stress and the pursuit of the wind. You are not permitted to give with unlimited generosity, sacrificing wealth and status too thoroughly to help the least of these, but must spend freely and extensively on certain restaurants, gizmos, and fashions with symbolic functions in order to climb the ladder. This system is greed and pride incarnate, the actual reality of the “pride of life.” It may be true that it is entirely possible to have one of these jobs while not participating in these corruptions, but it remains a frightening world, and one which demands intentional, diligent Gospel devotion for a follower of Christ to spiritually survive.

The world also manifests itself in the reigning sexual ethos, where the only thing that matters is personal sexual expression and unrestrained choice. The union of easy divorce, endlessly accessible birth control, affordable abortion options, casual hookups, proliferating online porn, and the de-shaming of adultery brings forth a sexual culture of death. It creates emotional distress, insecure men, unfulfilled women, rapidly spreading diseases, fuel for sex trafficking, and broken homes (the last of which tends to bring with it a host of other problems, such as generational poverty, drug abuse, gang crime, and school violence). What is hailed as “liberation” is actually slavery to the flesh. The culture which asks “What’s wrong with consenting adults doing what they want in the bedroom?” is the very same culture which robs millions of people of their consenting freedom to slavishly serve (in many cases quite literally) the god Sexual Pleasure.

I could go on exposing the systems and structures which make up the world, but I want to move on to make a more important point. We must hate the world. These systems are evil, pure evil, ruining God’s creation and the humans He loves so much, and they will be damned to Hell when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. We are not allowed to flirt and compromise with the enemy of God’s create humanity, even if this enemy is made up in large part of those same humans. Whoever may make up many of the ground troops, the rulers and powers behind the world are Satan and his hordes. To participate in the systems they have set up on earth in their time of power is to participate in cosmic, demonic rebellion against God. The force that might tempt you to a “harmless” casual hookup is the same one that turned a mere man into a naked, superstrength, chain-breaking monster before driving a horde of pigs to cast themselves off a cliff to their deaths.2

This brings me to a related point about human accountability. We often wonder how God could really be justified in condemning so many normal, seemingly decent people. Would it really be right for God to punish polite Jim Bob down the road just because he’s not sure Jesus rose from the dead? Yet I want to say on this that the majority of people are not as innocent as they look. No, Jim would never buy a sex slave, but he does give his money to a porn website that acquires much of its “talent” from trafficking organizations. Yes, Jim pays for welfare with his taxes, but despite his ability to afford a BMW he has politely ignored every email, telephone, and visitation campaign asking for his support for starving orphans in Afghanistan for 15 years. And of course, Jim would never expand his company with a sweatshop filled with impoverished children, but he has no problem making major business deals giving money to companies that do just that. He might be innocent of thousands of awful crimes, but in the end God sees how he is aiding and abetting tens of thousands.

The world is an omnipresent web of wickedness, and to avoid getting caught in it takes great care. But as Christians we must take that care, because to do otherwise is to entangle Christ with Satan. Nothing can result from such a union but pain, suffering, and judgment. As John said above, “the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.” If we do not want to pass away with the world, we will have to cling to Christ, but to cling to Christ is to hate the world which opposes Him and His reign of grace.  There is no other option. Hate the world or burn with it.

This will lead us to some tough questions about the lines and connections in participation with the evils of the world. We know it would be sinful for us to submit children to labor in rough conditions with pitiful pay just because they can’t survive otherwise, but is it wrong to give our money to companies that do so in exchange for affordable shoes? All evangelical Christians would agree that homosexuality is wrong, but does that mean we shouldn’t come to our gay non-Christian friend’s wedding? And while I may just need a job, is there something inappropriate in trying to sell services for a company that I’m convinced is seriously (though legally) ripping people off?

These questions all need to be addressed, but in addressing them all we must remember the enemy. The world is the devil’s kingdom. Let us not get drawn in, but draw our swords and fight to stand for the kingdom of God instead.

Bible Time with Owl City: Bombshell Blonde

Another new post series I’ve had in mind has been this: Bible Time with Owl City. Because Owl City. Since Owl City (i.e. Adam Young, the sole songwriter and singer) is a Christian and has made that perfectly clear, and some of his songs are either explicitly or implicitly founded on his faith, his material seems perfect for mining.

That said, I was a bit dismayed when I heard one of his newer songs, “Bombshell Blonde.” If you want to listen to it, here’s the YouTube link. Or just the lyrics. At first I was a bit confused and disappointed at what appeared to be a song basically about clubbing and trying to pick up a girl. Here’s the chorus, for example:

She’s a bombshell blonde, wired up to detonate!
I’m James Bond, live to die another day!
Bombshell blonde, high explosive dynamite!
She’s all I want so I, I’m on a mission tonight!

This bugged me. Adam had always appeared to be a rather genuine Christian, and around the same time I heard this song, his new hit with Britt Nicole “You’re Not Alone” was all over Christian radio. So a song that basically seemed to be about him trying to, well, get lucky with some hot chick was unexpected and unsettling.

Yet, precisely because this looked so out of character for Adam Young (his faith aside, his personality doesn’t even seem to match my initial impression of this song), I listened more closely until I realized something. The language used reminded me of Proverbs. So then it hit me: This isn’t a song about pursuing an attractive woman. It’s about resisting one. Evidence? Here’s Proverbs about seductive women:

My child, pay attention and listen to my wisdom and insight. Then you will know how to behave properly, and your words will show that you have knowledge. The lips of another man’s wife may be as sweet as honey and her kisses as smooth as olive oil, but when it is all over, she leaves you nothing but bitterness and pain. She will take you down to the world of the dead; the road she walks is the road to death. She does not stay on the road to life; but wanders off, and does not realize what is happening.

Now listen to me, sons, and never forget what I am saying. Keep away from such a woman! Don’t even go near her door! If you do, others will gain the respect that you once had, and you will die young at the hands of merciless people. Yes, strangers will take all your wealth, and what you have worked for will belong to someone else. You will lie groaning on your deathbed, your flesh and muscles being eaten away, and you will say, “Why would I never learn? Why would I never let anyone correct me? I wouldn’t listen to my teachers. I paid no attention to them. And suddenly I found myself publicly disgraced.”

Proverbs 5:1-14

So she tempted him with her charms, and he gave in to her smooth talk. Suddenly he was going with her like an ox on the way to be slaughtered, like a deer prancing into a trap where an arrow would pierce its heart. He was like a bird going into a net—he did not know that his life was in danger.

Now then, sons, listen to me. Pay attention to what I say. Do not let such a woman win your heart; don’t go wandering after her. She has been the ruin of many men and caused the death of too many to count. If you go to her house, you are on the way to the world of the dead. It is a shortcut to death.

Proverbs 7:21-27

There is actually even more material like this in Proverbs, but you should get the gist. Solomon speaks of these women in very attractive but deadly terms. Granted, so do many guys out looking for them anyway, but in this case the severity of the warning comes through loud and clear. Upon reexamining “Bombshell Blonde,” I think the exact same theme is present. Again, with this in mind, try reading some more:

That blonde, she’s a bomb, she’s an atom bomb.
Rigged up, and ready to drop!
Bad news, I’m a fuse, and I’ve met my match.
So stand back, it’s about to go off!

That vixen, she’s a master of disguise!
I see danger, when I look in her eyes.
She’s so foxy, she could lead to my demise.
So I’m running, ’cause I’ve run out of time.

All through the song, the same theme comes through that Adam is not going after this woman, but fleeing for his life. He’s running away and trying to save himself from the ticking time bomb. He is indeed on a mission tonight, not a mission to get something but to escape and “live to die another day.”

With that in mind, my confidence in Adam Young was restored, and indeed he seemed more clever than ever. I go on to present this as advice to all the guys out there: take Owl City’s advice. Don’t play around with desire or put yourself in the way of girls you know have a certain reputation. “It is a shortcut to death,” as the wisest king who ever failed to take his own advice said.

Not to be sexist, I should remind girls that it goes the other way ’round, too. Just because he’s sexy, or mysterious, or perhaps misunderstood, that doesn’t mean you should get involved. Be wary, especially when there are any signs of danger (even when that danger is simply your own desires). Flee youthful lusts.

Now, everyone, thank Owl City for being awesome. Until next time, listen to more of his music.

Apology: Who I Am, What I’m Doing, and What I Should Change

Who am I? I’m Caleb, a silly, nerdy 20-year-old with an obsessive interest in theology and a (relatively) new family. I’m a student, a learner. I’m young and inexperienced, but nonetheless feel the constant need to try to wrap my head around things real adults have worked on for thousands of years. I have no qualifications unless Google proficiency and fascination count. In what should emphatically be taken in the least pretentious way possible, I am the creature Karl Barth called a theologian: someone whose encounter with Jesus and His Scriptures forces him into endless wonder, concern, commitment, and faith. I’m socially awkward and fail at developing the conversations and relationships which should characterize a Christian lighting up the dark world around him. I’m as fallible, both intellectually and morally, as they come, and well aware of it.

What am I doing? On this little blog, I spill my thoughts. I take the major ideas and debates running around in my head as I study and put them into concrete, written form to share with the world. Why do I share with the world? Different reasons, I guess. On one hand, I’m looking for dialogue. I want to share what I think and hear what people have to say in response. I want to know if you think I’m on the right track, or if you have a correction, question, or suggestion. Has anything I’ve had to say given anyone edification, clarity, or a challenge? I would like to find out. On the other hand, I’m also filled with “OH MY GOODNESS THIS IS SO AMAZING AND EVERYONE NEEDS TO HEAR IT” zeal with some of the ideas I stumble across. I find what look like treasures to me in my studies, and then want to share them for the benefit of others. And sometimes I just find myself moved or touched and want to throw whatever helped me out there in case it can help someone else. Finally, in all honesty sometimes I just feel cheated that no one ever taught me something before, and I want to put it out there because I wish someone had put it out there for me all through my life.

So why am I babbling about all of this? Because I want to clarify myself. It has come to my attention at various times that I concern people about this or that, and that sometimes I confuse or flat out subvert some of my friends and family, by Christ and by nature. Yet I’m not a teacher, as if that weren’t obvious. But I want to make it clear that I don’t try to or intend to be. I might write like one sometimes, but that’s not conscious or intentional. It’s just the style I’ve wound up with. I don’t think I’ve got all the answers, or even most of them, and even many things I say that I say with a lot of confidence or certainty should really come with labels like experimentalprovisional, or I just thought of this yesterday and may change my mind by tomorrow. Some of my posts really ought to come with expiration dates. 

In fact, the only thing I hold as axiomatic, the only belief which I cannot and will not ever question, is my belief that I am utterly fallible. I always believe that I could be wrong, and probably am in more than a few places. Because I view myself as radically prone to error, I call every one of my beliefs into question at some point or another. This, of course, includes all of my Christian beliefs, and praise be to God that Jesus has held up with remarkable (divine!) strength in all of my questioning. But I know most of you share a great deal of my beliefs about God, Jesus, the Bible, etc. So these are also your beliefs that I call into question. But I don’t do this because of anything I see weak or wrong in the beliefs themselves, but because of what I see weak in myself, who believes them. I’m constantly testing and refining, because I know I can be wrong on absolutely anything. This doesn’t mean I think I am, and in fact I still hold to most things I’ve believed and been taught since childhood, although many of them have received new twists or emphases.

This brings me to another point where I confuse people. I spend a lot of time defending people I disagree with. Off the top of my head Catholics make a good (and controversial in my experience) example. Some people also seem to think pro-gay believers are in this group, though I have not given any defenses on here for them at all. But I do defend my opponents, despite strongly disagreeing with them. And I do this for a reason. I believe as a Christian I am called to truth and love, which in debate means an emphasis on clarity and charity. I must always make sure to represent people I disagree with accurately, and weed out misconceptions, straw men, and bad arguments against them before I even start to debate with them. A commitment to clarity and charity means I am not allowed to simply throw popular talking points at my opponents; I have to take them seriously on their own terms, give them a fair hearing, and only then make any serious work towards dismantling their position, though of course the whole time I am allowed to and should be clear that I disagree with them, sometimes strongly. (And honestly, once the caricatures are out of the way I am highly critical of both Catholics and progressive pro-gay believers, and even many people I like who agree with me on most things!) Yet I can’t spend all of my time on the defense of my opponents, no matter how much junk really needs to be cleared up. I can easily give off the impression that I don’t think our differences matter, or that we’re all perfectly okay as we are. That’s certainly not the right message.

But this all brings me around to the first word of my title: apology. I haven’t always been clear who and what I am disagreeing or agreeing with. I have confused people, and often haven’t given enough attention to who my audience is, and whether any given post will truly edify you or simply baffle you. Sometimes I’ve jumped the gun and posted something controversial before giving it serious thought. And honestly there have been a couple times I’ve just tried to get a reaction out of people. For all of this and more I am truly sorry, and ask that I can be forgiven on the basis of Jesus Christ, our common Savior, and His Spirit whom we all share. I have a change of direction in mind for this blog, one which I hope will contribute to edification, and reduce unnecessary confusion or controversy. Pray that God will keep me, and my blog, useful for the work of His kingdom.

In Christ’s love,

Caleb

P.S. I honestly encourage any of you who ever have a question, concern, or problem with what I’ve written to mention it to me. I’ll try to be humble and understanding, though I admit I won’t always succeed. But I have thick skin and want to learn, so by comment, email, or Facebook feel free to let me know anything you need to say.

How to Feel God’s Love in Jesus’ Arms

“I want to feel.” Isn’t that a common desire? I mean particularly for us Christians, especially evangelical Protestants. We want to feel God. Jesus Christ loves us to (literal) death, has brought us full forgiveness, and is our eternal life. Yet we cannot see Him. We cannot touch Him. He is physically away for now, and in the mean time we long to experience that He is still with us as He promised.

Unfortunately, we often find ourselves stuck and frustrated on that point. Unless we go the way of wild youth groups and Charismatic excess, intentionally working ourselves up into emotional frenzy with clever devices of music and social pressure, there’s only so much feeling we can get out of reflecting in our minds on truths about God. It’s just a bit abstract. One of the major methods of devotion is simply prayer and meditating on Scripture, but there’s only so much nourishment we can find in pondering such churchy words as “grace,” “salvation,” “atonement,” or “forgiveness of sins.” In fact, using these words so much often makes them less powerful than they deserve.

There’s another dimension to this. Not only do we want to feel God’s love and presence, but sometimes above all we need to feel His forgiveness and acceptance. When we do wrong, and our conscience beats us down, or when we know we are unworthy and feel ashamed to approach God, there is nothing so necessary to our soul’s health as to feel forgiven. We must experience God’s unconditional acceptance of us who are in His Son. Yet hearing people talk about forgiveness rarely does the trick. Even the best psychologically-devised plans to feeling better won’t always work, nor is it obvious that they even should. We hear about the Holy Spirit living in us, but often don’t feel like that makes any difference on our emotional/psychological state.

So what is the solution? How are we supposed to feel the mercy and grace of a Savior who is, for the moment, ascended to the right hand of the Father instead of present before our eyes? And what does the Spirit do to help beyond those occasional moments of emotional refreshment?

If I am at all on the right track, the answer is relatively simple. We need a hug in Jesus’ arms. And where are His arms? Since His physical body is away for now, we resort to His body by the Spirit.

All of you are Christ’s body, and each one is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:27

See, we are Jesus’ body on earth. The major role of the Holy Spirit is integrating Jesus’ life into our lives. So it is up to us to be Jesus’ love, be Jesus’ forgiveness, be Jesus’ acceptance. Since our Lord isn’t around to give us the hugs we need, we need to give each other those hugs by His Spirit.

Everyone should know that we need our senses to truly experience life and relationships. A compassionate hand on your shoulder, a graciously spoken word, or even just an understanding look can make all the difference. Jesus cannot do any of that for us while He is in heaven, but we can do that for each other, filled with His love by the Spirit He has given us. So when our fellow believers come in our churches, looking to know God’s love, we are called to give it to them with our love. You may not be able to feel grace all the time by reading Ephesians 2 (though it can help!), but how can you avoid feeling God’s kindness when your brothers and sisters in Christ treat you as more important than themselves?

None of this should be a surprise, honestly. Throughout the New Testament, we find commands to have unity, to share our hearts with each other, to show compassion and encouragement and mercy. We are repeatedly called to love one another, and we are told that we are all members of each other as Christ’s body. All of this, we are told, is to be done from the Spirit. Should there be any surprise that this is how we can experience our Savior’s love?

This is especially the case with forgiveness and acceptance. I have seen many times the damage that guilt and shame can do on a conscience, especially a believer’s. So often we feel the weight of our sin and unworthiness. How can we feel forgiven? What tangible proof is there that God accepts us in spite of it all? There is nothing more helpful in this matter than to see God reaching out with His forgiving hand through His children. When we forgive and accept each other, bearing with each other’s faults in patience and love, how can we not see that this is God’s own heart?

I actually want to make a serious practical emphasis of this last point. Too often church is associated with judgment. Even in good and supportive churches, it is hard to escape the feeling, “If I let them see me for who I am, they won’t see me the same ever again. They’ll judge me as someone less than them.” Yet too often the very things we are afraid to let everyone else know that we do are things we all do or have done. So why not drop the charade? Why keep pretending that we’re all doing better than we are? That doesn’t show God’s unconditional acceptance of everyone who believes in His Son. 

What we really need to be doing at church is showing the radical nature of God’s grace revealed in Jesus. We need to be able to look at the man who admits he didn’t pray at all last week, or the boy who confesses to a porn addiction, or the girl who says she gave in to peer pressure and got drunk at a party, and give the same response that overflowed from the heart of Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you.” To be sure, we can’t forget the “Go and sin no more” part, but we can’t expect them to listen to that when they’re too busy protecting themselves from a condemning reaction to their failures. Only when we all commit to truly forgive, and truly accept, and then truly encourage towards holiness, can we all enjoy the benefits of knowing Jesus’ love through His own hugs by His body on earth.

It’s simple, really. If we are Jesus’ body as the Church, then we need to be in the business of making His love, grace, and forgiveness things that you can see, touch, and feel for yourself. Otherwise we’ll all be left wishing and longing to feel the presence of our Life. And if you find yourself needing to know God’s love, find believers who by God’s Spirit actually make it real. If we all do this, maybe Jesus will shine bright enough through us for the whole world to see just what kind of God we serve.

For Now, I Am Sinner and Saint (Simul Justus et Peccator)

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.