Unravelling acceptance and godliness

At the heart of Christian faith and practice there are two mutually exclusive truths. The first is that God accepts (justifies) sinners through faith in his crucified Son, Jesus Christ. The second is that these children of God should want to mature and so be more godly (sanctification). The two truths are like oil and water, they do not mix, but many Christians see them as cake ingredients and inseparably bake them together. This is a recipe for living in ways which do harm to the believer and do not glorify God.

1. The hopeless case: conditional acceptance and ungodly living

The hopeless case believes that God only accepts good people and he knows his behaviour is unacceptable. He will either live his life in a constant state of hopeless depression, self-loathing and guilt or spiral down into a life of increasingly destructive living.

2 and 3. The legalist or neonomian: conditional acceptance with godly living.

Legalism and neonomianism are technical terms for people who think that their behaviour is acceptable to God and so God accepts them. They are different only by degree. The legalist bases her acceptance before God only on what she says, thinks and does. The neonomian mixes God grace with her behaviour, thinking she needs forgiveness and mercy but also that she needs to walk the talk. If she doesn’t keep up her spiritual duties and good morals, she begins to feel unsure about God’s acceptance and lives a joyless, dutiful existence. She is always seeking a bigger bless-up in worship services, as these help her feel as is God still loves her.

4. The liberal: unconditional acceptance with no desire for godly living.

At the heart of liberalism is the attitude that change is not necessary. “Jesus accepts me as I am so I don’t need to change.” This lack of a desire for change can be based on any of a number of reasons:

  1. Inability, “I can’t change so I won’t.”
  2. Denial, “I am fine the way I am.”
  3. Self-centred pleasure, “I like the way I do things.”
  4. Genetic, “I was made this way and so will live like this.”
  5. Cultural, “this is the way we do things in our culture.”

4. The complete Christian: unconditional acceptance with the desire to be godly (change).

This Christian knows that God accepts (justifies) and loves him because he loves and trusts Jesus as the one who died to take away his sin and make him right with God. He can do nothing to add to this or take it away, as long as he goes on looking to Jesus, like a mountaineer hanging from a cliff face, unable to climb up or down, who looks to his climbing rope and says “as long as you hold, I’ll live”.

At the same time, he desires to change. He desires to be more like Jesus and less offensive to God.  This desire flows from knowing the love, mercy, forgiveness and grace of God in the wrath-turning death of Christ. If God was once furious with me but Jesus took that fury away and now God loves me, I’ll live for him in self-sacrifice, duty, service and obedience.

In the next couple of days I’ll relate these things to church and marriage.

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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