One commonly hears Christians talking about their ‘sinful nature’. Over recent years I have become increasingly uncomfortable with this language, even though I appreciate the reality of what the language is generally being used to refer to. The problem is that such a way of speaking lacks biblical warrant. Christians are not to think of themselves as those with a fallen nature, but as those who have died to Sin.
Such a way of speaking about our nature is a description of our nature as it appears to sight. The Scripture, I believe, speaks differently. For the Scripture our true nature is found in Christ. Whilst Christians certainly sin, when they do so they are living in conflict with their essential nature. Sin, whilst undoubtedly present in our lives, is a very much an alien and ‘unnatural’ presence (despite this language, I hold to a harmatology of privation).
The NT, I am convinced, speaks of the true nature of the Christian as being found in Christ and apprehended by faith. I cannot know who I really am by sight. Sight tells me that I am a sinner. Faith tells me that my true nature is what God has declared me to be in justification — ‘righteous’. Our true life and nature is something that cannot be grasped by sight; it is hidden with Christ in God, to be revealed with Christ in His appearing (Colossians 3:3-4).
We should be careful of speaking of Christians as ‘sinners’ (a point that I first learned from Norman Shepherd). This is simply not the language of the Scripture. By speaking of ourselves as ‘sinners’ we reinforce the idea that sin is natural to us and to be expected and lived with as a tragic inevitability. Refusing to speak of ourselves as sinners is not a refusal to admit the fact that we commit (and will never, in this present life, finally cease to commit) sins. Rather, it is a refusal to say that we commit sins as ‘sinners’; we commit sins as adopted children of the Father, who are declared by Him to be ‘righteous’, whatever we might normally think ourselves to be.
Whilst I am opposed to notions of Christian perfection that come from the Holiness movement, there is something to be said in their favour, namely that they unsettle the fatalistic acceptance of continuing sin in our lives that can be fostered by thinking of ourselves as sinners by nature. Whilst I do not believe that we will ever be free of sin in this life, I do not believe that a defeatist attitude is warranted. In the Christian’s life Sin is fighting a losing battle. Whilst the battle against Sin cannot be finally won until our bodies are resurrected, we should not think of ourselves as being in bondage to it and doomed to constant defeat by it. We should expect progressive victory. The way that we talk about and think about ourselves can powerfully affect us in this area.
I also believe that there is an element of the doctrine of justification that is often lost sight of here. God’s declaration that we are ‘righteous’ is no mere ‘legal fiction’. In declaring us to be ‘righteous’, God makes us new people, re-symbolizing us. It is a transformative declaration. In seeking to identity the reason why such a judgment can be according to truth I don’t think that we can claim that it is without reference to any personal moral status of ours. This, it seems to me, has been the failing of many Protestants.
What we must recognize is that the justice of God’s declaration of justification is founded in part upon the promise of personal sanctification (or, more properly, what we have traditionally called ‘sanctification’; biblically ‘sanctification’ has more of a priestly meaning). God is just to declare us righteous, because our true life is in Christ. Our justification arises out of His justification — His resurrection. However, the fact that our true life is in Christ is not a fact that is revealed to our sight in the present. God’s declaration of justification has in sight a reality that will only become fully apparent to our sight with the appearance of Christ and the completion of our sanctification. God’s declaration of us to be righteous is just because when we see Christ we will be like Him, not as individuals detached from Him, but as those re-formed within Him, as those who have received their life from outside of themselves.
Such an understanding of justification has a number of benefits. It can clarify the place of works in justification. The Bible clearly teaches a final justification according to works. How do we account for this? I believe that the answer is to be found in the recognition that we are declared righteous in Christ, because our life is hidden in Him and His life is lived out in us. Christ’s justification becomes ours, because His resurrected life becomes ours. The Christian apprehends His true life outside of himself by faith. The righteous works of the believer are the outworking of the life of Christ in him. In justifying us according to works on the last day, God is not justifying us on the basis of autonomous (or even grace-assisted) moral effort on our part, but on the basis of the fact that Christ is our true life, a life that is manifested in our righteous works. The life of Christ that our works manifest is the ground of our justification. This life is not created by our works, but is manifested to the sight by our works.
The relationship between initial and future justification is made clearer. In initial justification the focus is on faith because our true life cannot be grasped by our sight. In future justification the true life of Christ, which was initially apprehended only by faith, is also seen to be revealed in our righteous works (which are also the fruits of our faith). The basis of our justification has not changed. The basis has always been the life of Christ. This life is not something that we work up within ourselves by moral exertion. Rather, it is something that we apprehend by faith from outside of ourselves. It is crucial to recognize that we must apprehend the life of Christ as our life. As we do so, this life will form us and produce righteous works in us.
A final thing that is brought to the fore in such an understanding of justification is the role of the Holy Spirit. God declares us righteous on the basis of our possession of the life of Christ. We do not possess this life in its fullness, but only as we have been given a measure of the Spirit as a down-payment. As Paul claims, ‘we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.’ Our possession of the Spirit and His ongoing work in our lives is an essential aspect of justification, as we see in Romans 8:1-4. We have not yet been completely set to rights, but have been given a foretaste and guarantee of our share in the life of the resurrected (read ‘justified’) Lord by the Spirit.