Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Paradox of Winning by Failing - How Sinful Christians Persevere and Thrive

If you know that there is a devil who seeks to trap and outwit you every day (see the last post), one life-changing lesson from this is that none of your struggles with temptation are isolated incidents. They are all part of an ongoing war where the devil is either gaining ground on you or losing it. If you don't fight back, you will get overrun. Practically, the pursuit of holiness in the Christian life is not in being perfect but in continuing the fight against all sin and disobedience. C.S. Lewis describes it this way: "Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible." Mere Christianity, Part 48 (p. 132).

But we have a problem: we keep failing in this fight. One of the biggest sources of confusion and discouragement for Christians is how we can enjoy our relationship with God and feel His favor and approval when we keep 'letting Him down.' Paul agonizes over this in Romans 7. The solution is realizing that we have the wrong idea about what God expects from us in this relationship. He doesn't expect our part to be that we never fail. In fact, He expects that we will fail. (1 John 2:1-21 John 1:7-10). An essential part of our relationship with God is that we are dependent on Him for grace. We cannot stand by our own efforts or merit. He must supply the perfection, which He did by uniting us to Christ as a Savior who both perfectly kept the law and bore all our punishment for failing to keep it. Our part is to trust in that work of substitution and believe that we are accepted by God because of what Christ has done.

Astonishingly, the more we are willing to admit our weakness and put all our hope in what Christ has done, the more honor and glory we bring to God. Even when we have sinned, we can still be victorious in the fight against the devil by showing faith in God and proclaiming His work of salvation. That is the fight that we are really involved in against sin: the fight to keep trusting God by faith and proclaiming in every way possible that He is good and right and just. If you repent of your sin and cry out in faith to God for mercy, your trust in God's faithfulness frustrates the devil's design in trapping you in sin. You cannot sin enough to exceed the sufficiency and perfection of Christ's payment for your sins or God's grace in forgiving you; the only way you can fail is to stop believing in the greatness of this Savior or the grace of this God.
"When we fail, if we respond to it rightly, we honor God and bring glory to Him."
In short, when we fail, if we respond to it rightly, we honor God and bring glory to Him by the act of trusting in the forgiveness of our sins through Jesus Christ. There is victory even in our failure. It is, of course, much better not to do wrong in the first place. We also bring glory to Him by obeying Him in trust and faith, and we don't deliberately sin just to give an occasion for grace. But there is no getting away from the fact that we are imperfect and pulled in different directions by various passions and temptations. We are going to fail. We will always be dependent on God to cover our failures with His grace and forgiveness, which we have because Christ bore our sins. There is a vast difference, however, between striving with all our might not to fail, even though we stumble, and simply resigning ourselves to failure and not making any effort to resist it. To do the second is to simply take sides with sin and the enemy. To do the first is taking sides with God and declaring Him righteous.

If you fall short of the standards, yet affirm the standards as right and true, then you still honor them for what they are. But giving up on trying is the same as saying the standards don't matter. It's the same as saying God is so unimportant and His commandments are so unnecessary that they aren't worth bothering much about. It is also true that if you don't try, you will sin much more and become much more lawless and reckless than if you try with all your might to resist at every turn. Yet I think this is not the most important point. Although it is evil to sin more rather than less, I am convinced that the more destructive thing, and the thing that dishonors God more, is to treat Him as if He doesn't matter. To resist the lure of evil is good because it limits the evil that you commit, but it is even more important that resisting the lure of evil is an act of declaring God to be right and trustworthy. When you resist sin, you pledge allegiance to God. In effect, you worship Him and honor Him as Lord. It is an act of faith.

One practical effect this should have on your faith is this: to not look at your failures and your sins as failing grades in the test of being a Christian. Look instead at who you gave glory to in the fight. A Christian who falls into sin, yet resists bravely and stubbornly for some time, is not conspiring with the enemy. He or she is fighting against the enemy, yet coming to the end of their strength and being overrun. If you fall defending a hill, you still honor the Lord for whom you fight. There is a crucial difference between laying down your weapons and welcoming the enemy, or resisting the enemy until your strength is spent. The worship and devotion that you ought to give to God is first to avoid sin and remain faithful, but second to honor Him in any of your failings by declaring Him right and confessing your need for forgiveness. God does not expect perfect soldiers; He expects soldiers who continue to return again and again to His banner. The only godly and righteous thing you can do when you have fallen in your fight against the devil is to pick up your weapons and get back in the fight of faith.
"The only godly and righteous thing you can do when you have fallen in your fight against the devil is to pick up your weapons and get back in the fight of faith."
Finally, there is a very important reason why I don't say that your response to sin should be to commit to NEVER DO IT AGAIN. Many well-meaning Christians can get very uncomfortable with the kind of things I have just said, because they are on guard against lies such as antinomian teaching (literally, "lawlessness," the error of thinking obedience to God doesn't matter because sin is all forgiven). If you lived your entire Christian life of faith wrapped only in the principles I just laid out, you might go very far from Jesus indeed - just as you would if you spent your entire Christian life focused on avoiding antinomianism at all costs. There is much more to it. All the pieces need to function in cooperation. For instance, to balance what I am saying, see this reflection on why "You Just Might Be an Antinomian" - and why you'd rather not be one. Don't stop reading and thinking about how to attack this problem from all angles. Don't stop reading the whole Bible. Surround yourself with the Gospel.

But the reason I reject the "NEVER DO IT AGAIN" school of commitment is that it is a lie. If your response to falling into sin is to grit your teeth and swear that you will make yourself stronger and never make the same mistake again, you have just put your trust in yourself instead of in God. The shortest route the devil can take to destroy you is to get you to stop depending on a Savior. This takes the focus off of faith in Christ and puts it on you. Your 'will' becomes the hero of the story. It is exactly the opposite of the victory of honoring God in your failures. This detour can only lead to two places: legalism, in which you become convinced of your own holiness as you carefully track how strong your performance in keeping the commandments has been, all the while being blind to the depth of your sins (especially the pride and self-righteousness); or despair, as you realize how impossible it is for you to keep the commandments and you crumble under the weight of shame over your failures. Both of these errors are destroyed by the Gospel. The Gospel proclaims at once that you are sinful and cannot make yourself holy, yet also declares that if you trust in God and honor Him, He is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

This is how an imperfect Christian can have victory in Christ. To understand this more deeply and helpfully, get Jerry Bridges' book The Discipline of Grace, which confronts both these errors and charts the Gospel path between them. It is the kind of book that may change your life.

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