Mr. Believer Mr. Libertine and Mr. Legalist
Through the justifying work of God in Christ, applied to the sinner, the sanctifying reformation of a new creation begins to take place. Nor is it that this sanctifying work begins with minuscule magnitude.
by William Harrell
How is a true Christian to view his sin? By what measure should he judge its nature, its magnitude, its effects and consequences, as well as its power? There are two prominent but equally wrong ways in which believers understand the sin in their lives.
Mr Libertine reckons that he is justified by the atoning death of Christ, and that all his sins-past, present, and future-have been forgiven by God. There is truth in this reckoning. All the sins of any believer have been imputed to Christ, and their penalty paid for by Christ. But justification is not the whole truth of salvation. It is through sanctification that the perfect, sinless, and righteous character of Christ is imparted to us. Mr Libertine leaves the process of sanctification out of his reckoning. He lives with a cavalier attitude toward his sin, thinking that since it is all forgiven, it therefore is of no consequence.
At the opposite extreme stands Mr Legalist. He acknowledges with his lips but denies with his heart that Christ has accomplished a full and free justification. Mr Legalist is too proud fully to accept such amazing divine grace. He also underestimates the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, viewing it as making little progress in transforming the sinner into an actually holy saint.
Mr Libertine views his sin as non-existent. In his claim to make much of the atoning work of Jesus, he actually reduces the infinite cost our God bore in His accomplishment of redemption to a facile charm that does away with sin. The libertine speaks glibly of his sin being under the blood, but fails to consider that his sin was so great that its forgiveness required the death of the Son of God.
Mr Legalist views his sin as Lady MacBeth viewed her damned spot of murderous guilt, the indelible nature of which she declared with the words: All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Mr Legalist hears that the death of Christ has made a monumental difference for the believer, but he does not believe it. He covers himself not in the cleansing blood of Jesus, but rather in the rags of self-effort, while he fills his mind and heart not with the Word and Spirit of God, but with ceaseless self-loathing.
If these ways of a Christian understanding his sins are wrong, what, then, is the right view we should have of our sin? The biblical view of man prior to his regeneration is that he is altogether sinful. The common sentiment that God loves the sinner while He hates the sin is fallacious because it fails to understand that sin comes only from sinners. We sin because we are sinners. If God hates all sin, then He must hate sinners, the source of all sin. The pre-regenerate sinner can do and desires to do nothing but sin.
Radically different is the matter after regeneration. Through the justifying work of God in Christ, applied to the sinner, the sanctifying reformation of a new creation begins to take place. Nor is it that this sanctifying work begins with minuscule magnitude. The regenerate man has at the moment of his new birth not only a fully justified status before God, but also a new heart (Ezek. 36:26), with new appetites, new loves, and new hatreds. Mr Believer, who previously loved his sin and despised God, now has undergone a complete revolution, wherein he loves righteousness and hates evil (Rom. 12:9). For him, all things are new (2 Cor. 5:17). He has God dwelling in Him by the Holy Spirit, prompting him lovingly to cry to God as his loving Father (Rom. 8:15), and working within him, causing him to will and to do God’s good pleasure (Phil. 2:12,13).
Is Mr Believer, therefore, sinless? No, and if he thinks he is and says so, he is a liar (1 Jn. 1:8). But for him, the sinner he was has been killed, and he must contend only with the corpse, from whose dominion he has been released (Rom. 6:6,7,11). Paul works this out fully in Rom. 7:12-25. For the apostle-as for any believer-sin is a dead remnant, no longer an animated and animating power. David confesses his sin to God in Ps. 6 in terms of a disease: Heal me, 0 Lord, for my bones are dismayed. One can love a man and hate his disease precisely because the disease is not essential to the man, and the man himself hates the disease that afflicts him.
Mr Believer’s sin can grieve his God, but never anger Him. It can make the believer miserable, but never separate him from the love of God in Christ. It can defile him, but only temporarily, as believers are bound to stand before the throne of God’s glory blameless and with great joy (Jude 24). Therefore, we must never make light of our sin, for it is a terrible thing to grieve our heavenly Father, and it is unpleasant to bring misery upon ourselves. But neither should we make too much of our sin, esteeming it as a living and dynamic power sure to dominate us until the day we die. Our sin is but a rotting corpse, and, as such, a nuisance with which we must contend, but not a master against whose domination we cannot prevail. Let us, then, neither deny nor deify our sin. Let us take sin seriously; but let us take the saving blood of Jesus more seriously.
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