George in Cologne, Germany, writes in: “Pastor John, if a Christian is born anew, and has died to sin, why is sin in the heart so decisive? The same for the flesh? Why must it be killed everyday? My status in Christ, and my daily work — this mortification — seems (and feels!) so contradictory!”
Yes, it does. I totally resonate. Let’s try to do two things in answer to George’s question. First, let’s show from the New Testament what actually happens in the new birth, especially as it relates to a Christian’s ongoing sinning. And then, second, let’s see if we can answer, at least partly, “Why does God do it this way?” Because that is really the heart of his question. But in order to get to that, I think we need to start by asking, “What happens in the new creation or the new birth?”
My answer to this first question is that what God creates in the new birth is not a sinless Christian. What he creates is an embattled, not-yet-perfect, Spirit-empowered, persevering, Christ-treasuring, sin-hating, new being — a new creation in Christ. And don’t miss those words embattled and sin-hating.
The new creation in Christ is a fighter. Paul said at the end of his life, “I have fought the good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7), and he tells Timothy, “Fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12). And he means the fight for holiness and the fight for faith: the good fight of faith. So notice these four paradoxical pairs of verses to see how the event of new birth relates to this ongoing battle.
1. Not Without Sin
Here is the first pair:
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning. (1 John 3:9)
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8)
The new birth creates a DNA, as it were, in this person — a divine-like DNA that cannot be content with ongoing sinning. Though, in this life, if we say we have no sin, we have a misunderstanding of how it is working. So that is the first pair.
2. Dead to Sin
Here is the second pair:
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6:6)
So you also must consider [or reckon] yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign. (Romans 6:11–12)
This is an imperative. Get about the business of killing sin, reckoning yourself to be dead to sin, and bringing yourself under the reign of Christ, not the reign of your mortal body. So, the indicative statement “you have died” (see also Romans 7:4) and the imperative statement “consider yourself dead and live in the power of it” (2 Corinthians 13:4) — that is the second pair.
Here is a third pair:
You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3)
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you. (Colossians 3:5)
So, the death that we died makes us a fighter against what we have died to.
4. Living Word
Here is the last pair:
You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. (1 Peter 1:23)
So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation. (1 Peter 2:1–2)
So, what I infer from those four pairs of verses is that what the new birth, the new creation, brings into being is an embattled, not-yet perfect, Spirit-empowered, persevering, Christ-treasuring, sin-hating, new being in Christ. The outcome is guaranteed, but the battle is real.
The Glory of His Grace
The last question is “Why does God do it this way?” He has the power to snap his finger and make us sinless. We know that he does because he is going to do that in the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:51–52) — at the resurrection or in the moment of death — and we won’t be made into robots when he does it. He will make us sinless without in any way making us less human or less free. We will never ever sin again in heaven. Why doesn’t he do it now? That is the question.
“One day God will make us sinless without in any way making us less human or less free.”
I think there is at least one clear macro answer to that question and some less clear micro answers to that question that flow from the macro. The macro answer is that God does it this way because he intends for the process of sanctification to maximize the praise of his glory, especially the praise of the glory of his grace.
I say that because of numerous places where this is the express intended outcome of sanctification, like Philippians 1:11. The outcome is supposed to be that we are “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” He is going to bring about a fullness of fruits of righteousness because he means to be praised. That is the design in why he does it the way he does it.
Second Thessalonians 1:11–12 likewise says the outcome of our sanctification is “so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
So, whether we can see at the micro level why this is the case, it is clear at the macro level that God has chosen to sanctify us through this painful, slow, progressive, embattled way because it glorifies Christ and the grace of God more than if he snapped his finger and made us perfect and sinless at the point of new birth. Now, are there any micro sub-reasons that we can see that might explain why that is the case? And I will just mention three.
Through this slow, painful, embattled process, we are reminded — John Piper is reminded — every day how dreadfully depraved and sinful and helpless I am and would be if left to myself.
God intends for me to know this, to feel this by my constant need for warfare to overcome my bent to sinning.
2. God’s Patience
Flowing from that reminder, we are made — John Piper is made — to feel the wonder of God’s patience and grace in holding on to me and returning to me again and again and reviving me and fighting for me and bringing me safely to glory — at least for 70 years now.
“God reminds us every day through sanctification how depraved we are and how gracious Christ is.”
It is no wonder that the book of Jude closes with a stunning doxology to God’s persevering, keeping power in the embattled Christian life: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority” (Jude 24–25).
Isn’t that amazing? What is he giving glory to God for? He is giving glory and majesty and dominion and authority to God for one simple reason: God patiently keeps working with us until the end. That is just astonishing to me, and I don’t think I would feel that nearly to the level that I do without God doing it the way he is doing it.
3. Savoring Beauty
The last thing I would say is that since true holiness is the reflex of seeing the superior beauty and value of Christ, the nature of the daily battle keeps this reality in front of me so that Christ and his beauty and his value remain central in my life.
It becomes clear that Satan is defeated not by the mere finger-snapping, raw power of God, but by the supreme beauty of Jesus Christ that I have to get clear every day from Scripture so that I am more attracted to Jesus than to unholiness.
I think the main thing that I would say to George is that, whatever the reasons are that God has chosen to sanctify us in this slow, painful, embattled way, this choice of his is because he gets greater glory when we fight the battle every day with the weapons he has appointed and the way he has ordained. So let’s get on with the good fight.