By Mike Willis
In the past few editorials, I have sought to discuss the various means which have been used by denominationalists and brethren in the past to deal with the problem of day-by-day sins in the life of a Christian. I have discussed the Wesleyan method of dealing with sin through the “second work of grace” doctrine of sanctification which leads to perfectionism. I also discussed the Calvinist approach to day-by-day sins through the imputation of the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ to the believer’s account whereby the possibility of apostasy is removed. Then, last week, I discussed the concept held by some brethren that sin is somehow automatically forgiven without the believer having to meet the conditions of repentance, confession, and prayer. I have personally rejected each of these concepts.
However, I need to present another alternative for dealing with the problem of day-by-day sins. The presentation of a number of negatives is useless if I have nothing better to offer in its place. I think that what I am going to present is the biblical concept of how to deal with the problem of sin in the believer’s life. I invite your study of this position.
If I understand the teaching of the Bible, we must begin with the admission that sin separates from God (Isa. 59:1-2). The nature of sin is such that it always separates from God; there are no such things as venial and mortal sins; there is just sin, and sin always separates from God.
Furthermore, the number of times that a sin is committed is not important. One sin separates a man from God just as certainly as does one hundred sins. One sin separated Adam and Eve from God (Gen. 3); one sin separated Simon the sorcerer from God (Acts 8:13-25); one sin separated Ananias and Sapphira from God (Acts 5:1-11). Hence, one sin separates a person from God!
The sins which a Christian commits can be forgiven by the grace of God. The Bible does not teach that once a man becomes a Christian, he must live a perfect life in order to be saved. Rather, God has provided forgiveness to the erring Christian just as He has provided forgiveness for the alien sinner. All of the charges that God requires perfection are absolutely false so long as a man asserts that one’s standing before God is conditional upon forgiveness.
However, the forgiveness which God grants to man is either conditional or unconditional. There is no debate among Christians regarding whether or not the alien sinner’s forgiveness is given conditionally or unconditionally. We are agreed that the alien sinner is not forgiven until he believes the gospel, repents of his sins, confesses his faith in Christ, and is buried with Christ in baptism. I simply maintain that the same is true with reference to the erring child of God; his sins are not forgiven until he repents of them, confesses them to God, and prays for forgiveness. This seems to be the clear teaching of Scripture as the following verses show:
Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee (Acts 8:22).
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 Jn. 1:9).
Notice that these verses condition the forgiveness of sins committed by a Christian upon repentance, confession, and prayer. Hence, the Christian is not forgiven automatically; he is forgiven conditionally.
This understanding of a Christian’s day-to-day sins has certain supposed disadvantages. It certainly gives the Christian no absolute or immutable assurance that he will die inside the grace of God. His relationship with God at any moment in time might be severed by sin; hence, he must constantly strive to be obedient to the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout his life. He can never rest in the contentment of self-satisfaction of apathy. This is not to say that the Christian can never know at any given moment in time whether he will be saved or not; the child of God can know what his condition is at any given moment in time through a measuring of himself by the revealed word of God.)
Another disadvantage of this position is the acknowledgment that one sin can separate a person from God. I have been pressed with the illustration that a man who had served the Lord for sixty years but becomes involved in a sin and dies in the commission of that sin is lost in spite of his years of service to the Lord. I must confess that my position leads me to that conclusion, although I personally could wish that the consequences of sin were not so severe. In reply to this illustration, let me make the following comments: (a) This is exactly the same position that I am in when I make baptism an essential to initial salvation. I have had to face Baptists for years who imagined a situation of a penitent believer who failed to meet the condition of baptism for salvation. They wanted to know if such a man would be lost. My reply has been that I cannot offer such a man any hope of salvation from the pages of God’s word; that is exactly the reply that I must make with reference to this erring child of God. (b) Although brethren have historically handled this problem by stating that God would allow such a person time to repent and pray or not allow him to die in such a condition, I cannot prove this from the Bible. (c) This seems to be the plain statement of Scripture as the following text demonstrates:
But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die (Ezek. 18:24).
This text demonstrates that when a righteous man (regardless of how long he had been righteous) departs from righteousness and walks in wickedness that he-is condemned by God.
Perhaps there are other difficulties which do not come to my mind at the present. However, I must admit that there are some things about this position that may draw criticism from some brethren whom I respect. Nevertheless, I am less uncomfortable with stating that (1) an individual who departed from righteousness in his last moments of life will be lost, than I am stating that (2) an individual who dies in the act of committing adultery has the hope of eternal salvation! The first position simply recognizes the terrible severity of all sin, which is repeatedly taught in the Bible, whereas the second position lessens the severity of some sin, extending a kind of hope nowhere clearly revealed in the Scripture. You can take your own choice about which position raises the greater difficulties, I have already made mine. Let us turn now to the advantages of the position which I hold.
(1) It encourages a person to strive for righteousness. The individual is encouraged to study his Bible, pray regularly, repent of his sins, and engage in other such spiritual activities because his eternal salvation depends upon that.
(2) It encourages gospel preaching. Based on the conviction that some brother in Christ is involved in sins which are separating him from God, we are motivated to take the saving message of Christ to him before it is too late.
(3) It treats all sins alike. Moral departures from God’s revelation are lumped in the same category as doctrinal apostasies which involve one in sin. (Notice that not all wrong doctrines result in sin. I might ignorantly teach that Methuselah died at 839 years of age without causing anyone to commit a sin or committing a sin personally. We are talking about doctrinal deviations which result in sin.) The man who is guilty of using instrumental music in worship or supporting church sponsored recreation is treated just like the man who is guilty of lying in that both have transgressed the holy law of God.
(4) It places one’s blessed assurance of salvation directly upon God’s revelation. Whereas the former positions have given the assurance of salvation to men who were walking in darkness (using instrumental music, supporting institutionalism from the church treasury, and other sins), this position offers a genuine assurance of salvation only to the man who is standing squarely upon the promises of God. Just as I can offer no genuine assurance of salvation to the man who received infant “baptism,” I can offer the man who is involved in any sins no revealed assurance of salvation. However, I can offer the man who is standing on the promises of God and trusting in God to save him, every biblical assurance of salvation.
(5) It develops a dependence upon God’s grace. The man who accepts this method of handling his day-to-day sins certainly must depend upon the grace of God to blot out his transgressions when he repents of them and prays for the Lord to forgive them. Although the other systems also manifest a dependence upon God’s grace (a kind of grace not revealed in the Scriptures, but grace nevertheless), the charge has been made that this system makes one depend upon his own works (repentance and prayer) rather than on the grace of God. Such a charge is utterly ridiculous! It confuses the grounds and the conditions of salvation. God’s grace in sending Jesus to die for us is the grounds of salvation; repentance, confession and prayer are merely conditions of salvation with reference to the erring child of God in the same way as faith, repentance, confession, and baptism are conditions of salvation for the alien sinner.
Hence, this method teaches a man to trust the grace of God for salvation. Such an individual recognizes his sins and, therefore, realizes that his condition is utterly hopeless without God’s grace being extended to him. His appeal to God to forgive his sins is a dependence upon God’s grace.
There might be other methqpds used to deal with the problem of day-to-day sin in the life of the believer which I have not mentioned in this review. I can assure you that this oversight was unintentional. I cannot imagine how those who take the Wesleyan and Calvinist approaches to this problem can be considered true to the Book. Yet, I am not ready to dismiss some of those who have accepted this “automatic forgiveness” position (but who show by their life and teaching that they have no intention to compromise with sin, whether moral or doctrinal. The immediate danger has come from some other brethren who utilize automatic grace in their compromising approach to a broader unity – a unity with those involved with instrumental music in worship and other apostasies!) I personally am afraid of the position and these loose implications of it.
Just about everyone who has accepted the grace-unity position of fellowship began with the acceptance of some loose manner of handling day-to-day sins. However, not everyone who has accepted that manner of handling dayto-day sins has walked down the grace-unity path. Many faithful Christians have accepted this position who are just as staunch in their opposition to institutionalism, church sponsored recreation, and other such apostasies as they can be. I think that they are in error on this subject and appeal for them to re-study their position. Yet, this application of New Testament principles in these areas leaves me in no doubt regarding their faithfulness to the Lord. Others who hold this position will probably come out in the same place as some of these brethren just mentioned; however, time has not given them opportunity to demonstrate that. In the meantime, they are making the same arguments as the grace-unity brethren and we do not have the knowledge of what application they are going to make on the fellowship question. Just exactly where they stand is an unanswered question. Again, I plead with them to re-study this important issue.
Truth Magazine XXIII: 35, pp. 563-565
September 6, 1979