The following is taken from a discussion with a friend where we considered exactly what sort of changes we should expect to see in our lives as Christians:
…It seems like this may be a point where metal grinds on metal in our comparative belief systems. With that in mind, I’ll say that this is something I still struggle to understand. I don’t think that I, in general, believe in complete sanctification as a sort of experiential plateau or milestone in the Christian walk. Interacting with Nazarenes a lot in the past, it always fascinated me because this concept seemed, in their view, to correspond in some ways to the way Pentecostals felt about Tongues. I can’t completely rule it out on at least a individual basis for the same reasons you mention — sovereignty and miracles.
However, I do believe in the possibility of besetting sins being overcome in a victorious way as the gradual result of a Christian walk. I believe in the sort of thing that can produce testimonies for the encouragement of those who struggle. Encouragement beyond just saying, “you’ll also struggle but you can make it.”
I believe this partially because I feel that I have to. My experience with habitual sin is that it was impossible stay where I was — I descended. I feel this really strongly… that there’s a de-evolution that occurs. That we become more like beasts. I’d hate to see what another 40 years would do. I won’t see what another 40 years will do. I can’t stand around and wait for that spirit to bring seven more like him back to the party.
Fear and experience by themselves, however, are usually a bad theological platform. I heard a guy dismiss the idea of a millennial reign by saying that the verses people use are all metaphors, but then he made a comment that he couldn’t accept that his father would be brought back to an imperfect point in time before the greater transformation of heaven and earth. You could really tell that it was the root of his motivation for such reasoning. Simple dislike of the idea. We’re all susceptible to such things.
So I also have to deal with the text of the Bible, which doesn’t always seem to support the very permissive reading that we modern christians find so comforting. Discussions like this are rarely comfortable, so forgive me for that.
There are a lot of places I could start. The obvious would be with James, the brother of our master, stating that faith and faithfulness can’t be separated, that double mindedness is madness, that those who don’t control their tongue are deceived with a worthless religion, to avoid anger because it doesn’t produce the kind of righteousness that God desires, etc.
Then there’s John. John perplexes people when he says that those who say they know Christ but don’t keep His commands are liars, that whoever claims to live in Christ must live as Jesus did, that whoever does the will of God lives forever (with the implication that those who do the opposite do not), and that, since Christ is righteous, everyone that does what is right has been born of him.
And then we come to the book of Hebrews, which I can’t seem to quit referencing. That book used to scare me as a child and as a teen, with the text describing all sorts of peril for my eternal destiny. It still makes me humble and fearful before God (however unpopular that very New Testament idea might be). Chapter 12 comes to the heart of what we were talking about and throws in a few extra scary things for good measure. He starts out by stating that we should throw off those besetting sins and encourages his readers to remember that we haven’t been tested to our limits:
“In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live!” Hebrews 12:4-9
First of all, after reading that we know that chastening is an indication that we are His children. This implies that it simply must happen in the life of a Christian. Second, that we should submit to it so that we can live. That’s a slippery word – live – you might argue that it just means that your life will be better, so:
“They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” v 10-11
Sharing in holiness, and a harvest of righteousness and peace seem to be the effective result of the chastening that all Christians should expect. Apparently God does have some criteria for what He thinks is better, otherwise, in my view, chastening would only prove that we’re the children of an abusive father (and some would say an unworthy God). Which brings to mind Tevye saying, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
I’ll be honest. When I talk about this I don’t have other people in mind. I have myself in mind. Maybe that makes this all about me, introverted and self-interested. But if I was going to answer your question, I’d have to say that, at least when I’m in my right mind, I don’t find any sin to be harmless anymore. No matter whether it’s not hurting anyone else or not. I’m not saying that in a condemning way, I’m saying that God sees the tragedy and damage that sin creates in our lives and He doesn’t even need to look at the collateral damage to others or the offense to Himself in order to desire change in us with His entire being. The goal is to remove the parasite from our lives and to teach us not to pick it up again. We shouldn’t be deceived, what we sow, we will reap. I believe that God’s commandments and His chastening are to teach us to plant better things. This is why Jesus said over and over, “If you would have treasure in heaven, do this.” He wasn’t talking about salvation, if he had been, then Jesus would have been a legalist.
Then in v 14-17, a warning:
“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.”
It all comes back to that old question, “How then shall we live?” The answer here seems to be that we should live righteous lives. I’ll leave those here for consideration, but I wanted to note that the root of bitterness is an idea from Deuteronomy 29:18. It’s a conceit that believes my own sin will be overlooked simply because I’m a part of the covenant. There are so many things in those four verses that should make us radically rethink our view of repentance and sin.
It’s hard to answer such a broad but foundational question without weeks of study and discussion. Hopefully that didn’t come off as some grand altar call or condemnation. I just want to examine such things carefully, with a lot of self-critical evaluation of how my beliefs stack up to the text and not a small amount of fear towards God.