The following program is a presentation of
Grace Communion International and Grace Communion Seminary and is made possible by generous
donations from viewers like you. On this episode of You’re Included, theologian, Jeff McSwain discusses sanctification and how Christ transforms us. Our host today is Dr. J. Michael Feazell Jeff, thanks for joining us.
Great to be here, Mike. Thank you. In Christ, we’re a new creation, and yet
we still sin. How does sanctification actually work in our lives?
That’s a great question, because one of the biggest struggles that we have is, well,
if I’m already a new creation, then why do I sin the way I do?—maybe even worse
than I did before I became a Christian? The other side of that coin is: What about people
who aren’t Christians, but who seem to live lives that are more Christian, than Christians
do? What about people who seem to exhibit more fruit of the Holy Spirit who aren’t
Christians—where does that come from? So it’s two sides of the same coin.
Where do the bad things in Christians’ lives come from, and where do the good things in
unbelievers come from? It’s a very practical question. It’s one that confuses young people
tremendously. When they go to a camp experience and when they’re told that because they
made a decision for Christ they are a new creation—the old has gone, the new has come.
And they really do feel that way when they leave the mountaintop. But when they go home,
however, then life hits them hard and they begin to wonder: “Oh man, was I just brainwashed
at camp? What was that good feeling that I had? I don’t feel like a new creation at
all. I feel worse than I ever did.” What’s going on there? Let’s go to that
passage in 2 Corinthians where Paul talks about a new creation – that whole passage
is very universal in scope. (I hesitate to say the word universal because people often
take that to the next step of Universalism, but no, this is the idea that every single
person is implicated in what Christ has done). In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul talks about new creation
in verse 17. Right before that, he had been talking about how everyone is implicated in
the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and from now on we look at no one from a human
point of view. We always look at people now through the perspective of Christology and
who we know Jesus Christ to be. Because of that, we can know that everyone
has a sinful side to their lives—not just unbelievers, but also Christians. We can know
that that’s still there, but we can also know that there’s been something that has
been done about that in the death and resurrection of Christ that has eradicated all sin and
made us pure, holy, and blameless in the sight of God.
But how do those two things fit together? That’s the question. The first point is
worth repeating: this is true for everyone. This pattern of the two things going on in
the same space is not a linear one. Oftentimes we think of it as linear. I was an old creation,
now I’m a new, and the old is gone. It’s a replacement of the old with the new. Anytime
we think about this as just a replacement of the old with the new, all we have is the
new. We have no way of interpreting any of our sinful nature or any of our sinfulness
anymore because we’ve said the old is gone. So how do we get bad out of good? We’ve
got to be able to see that those two things are happening in the same space, and they’re
happening in the same space for every human being. However, by the Holy Spirit who lifts
us up to live into our life with Christ and allows us to manifest the fruit of the Spirit
in a more overt, or in a more manifest way than an unbeliever most of the time. We can
see that, as we work out our salvation in fear and trembling, the Holy Spirit works
to allow us to grow into the person that we already are.
The key to understanding those two things that go on in the same space is Christology.
It goes back to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. I read the book Fahrenheit 451 a long
time ago. I don’t remember what that was like, but I thought about writing a book that’s
called Christology 451 or Humanity 451. It has to do with this theological anthropology
of how we look at human beings from a Christ-centered perspective.
You don’t need to go any further than a few verses down to see how it is accurate
to say that those two things, our sinfulness and our purity, can be put in the same space,
because we have to look no further than Jesus Christ himself. That passage says, “He made
him who had no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”
[2 Cor. 5:21]. What that passage says, and it packs a lot, is that Jesus Christ never
lost his divinity and his deity and his purity in the incarnation, but he became sin.
How can those two things fit together? I’ve always been taught that a holy God couldn’t
touch sin. I’ve always been taught that sin and holiness are two completely different
categories. But this passage explains that completely, and says yes, they are two different
categories, but instead of it being a dualism, it’s a duality. It’s two natures in one
person. That is the Christology of Chalcedon—two natures. Christ assumed our corrupt depraved
humanity and he always remained God, pure and holy and unblemished the whole time. Somehow
in the one person of Jesus Christ, those two things exist in the same space.
The whole idea of the atonement and the idea of substitutionary atonement sometimes falls
prey to a Christology that is not orthodox according to the earliest creeds. What I mean
by that is, you’ll say, in order for Jesus Christ to become sin, he must have had to
take a few days off, at least, from being God. There’s no way that he can be sin and
be God at the same time, because they come into the whole thing with this presupposition
that the two cannot exist in the same space and therefore there is a mutual exclusivity
there that if God became sin, he must have stopped being God. That’s bad Christology,
but in turn it’s also bad anthropology, because of what Christ has done for all of
us. A lot of times the idea is that Christ became
human in the sense of Adam before the Fall, so that Christ’s humanity is untouched or
untainted, a perfect humanity. To say it that way, the church fathers would
turn over in their graves, because for them, the un-assumed was the unhealed. If Christ
assumed a perfect humanity, then how could he redeem it, what didn’t need to be redeemed?
He had to grab onto us, and really grab onto us, or else this whole thing becomes a transaction
that occurs over our heads where it never really touches us. The fact is, he grabbed
onto us and plumbed the deepest depths of our sinfulness.
This is all solved by the church in the Apostle’s Creed. He descended into hell, the creed says.
We have to know that he embraced us at our worst, that he became us—even Martin Luther
would say he became the greatest sinner of all. Why did Jesus have to die? Because he
was a sinner. This, people can’t take because they don’t think of those two things as
being able to happen in the same space. Not because he sinned himself, but because
he took our sinfulness, our sinful nature on himself.
He took our sinful nature in a way that was even more perfect and more deep than we even
take our own sinful nature or that we even fall prey to our sinful nature. He does everything
more perfectly than us. That helps, because we know there’s no residue, there’s nothing
below our sinful nature that hasn’t been touched by Jesus Christ, that he became 100
percent sin. He became sin. He was made to be sin, it says.
That doesn’t minimize in the least anything about him becoming something like sin, or
he associated himself with sinners. No. This is even deeper. This says he became sin, 100
percent sin. He was also 100 percent God the whole time. Thankfully, 100 percent God is
deeper than 100 percent sin, otherwise we’d be in real trouble. But the point is that
he reached down… I remember Gary Deddo, one of my mentors,
telling me this. I love this picture. He reached down into the sock, all the way to the very
tip of the sock, and pulled it inside out. He didn’t reach halfway down the sock or
somehow touch the sock and zap it or do a transaction above it that somehow paid a penalty,
but the doctor became the patient and he dived down into the very deepest part of our sinful,
corrupt humanity, grabbed onto us there, and pulled us out, pulled hell inside out.
People sometimes say, Jeff, you don’t hell seriously enough. I say, you might be right,
but maybe you don’t take Christ seriously enough because hell, sin, death, and the devil
have been defeated. How do we translate what happened in Jesus
Christ and his assumption of our fallen corrupt nature? How do we translate that into good
theological anthropology for us as human beings? Getting back to that sanctification question
is the next step to that. I think that we are not God. We talked at breakfast about
the fact that to be adopted by God is good language, it’s a metaphor, it has its shortcomings
just like all metaphors, but it has its strengths in that we are not God, we are adopted by
God to be in his family, but we get to share fully in the Trinitarian life of God, and
we get a full inheritance as sons. But, as Peter says in the epistles, we get
to participate in the divine nature [2 Peter 1:4]. We are not of the divine nature intrinsically
and inherently by right. We are not God, but we get folded into that by the grace of our
Lord Jesus Christ. And because of that, we are sons and daughters of God. We are pure
and holy children of God, and we really are. Not like Jesus, but he is sharing his real
sonship with us, and so we participate in the divine nature, we have the indicative
of grace, but we share in God’s nature by grace and not inherently.
At the same time, we also know we’re fully sinful in our old man, in our old selves.
And we are one person. So in the same way the “two natures in one person” pattern
of Chalcedon, there’s a definition of our humanity. The only difference is that our
divinity, so to speak (and the old deification idea is not that we become God, but that God
has become man to share his divinity with us in such a way that our divinity, so to
speak, as sons of God, is by grace, nothing intrinsic). But still, we really are sons
and daughters of God, and that doesn’t really sink in a lot of times.
We use the term “already, but not yet.” It’s like we focus more on the “but not
yet” than on the “already.” That’s because we’re creatures of habit
who walk by sight instead of walking by faith. When Paul says in that passage in 2 Corinthians
5:16, “We no longer look at anyone from a human point of view,” what he’s saying
is, there’s been a change in thinking. We have a new framework now. We have repented.
Metanoia [the Greek word usually translated as repentance] is a radical change of mind.
Let’s say this is our fallen human selves, and we used to look at ourselves like this,
and we saw our sinfulness and we saw our shame and we saw our guilt. And maybe Christ adds
onto that somewhere, but he’s kind of secondary, he’s kind of incidental, he’s kind of
accidental, and maybe we can be like him someday, and we’re trying to get better, and we’re
trying to be sanctified and to grow toward being more Christ-like, but it all really
starts from looking at ourselves first and foremost as fallen, sinful people.
But instead, repentance is to look at it from the other side and says yes, this horizontal
aspect of this duality, this horizontal describes our flat line, our death, our incompetence,
our futility and bankruptcy as sinners. The wages of sin is death, and yet now we look
at no one from that point of view. We look at everyone through Jesus Christ and we see
that yes, we are all wicked, but we are righteous in Christ. Repentance is to turn in your thinking
to look at everyone as if Jesus Christ applied to us all. That allows us to do is move past the zero-sum game of sanctification. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard people
say this before, but they’ll say, sanctification is kind of like John the Baptist, his saying
of, “I must decrease and he must increase.” If we think of that in a linear way, it’s
kind of like a football field and the teams marching down the football field, and they
get to mid-field, and they get to the 40-yard line, 30-yard line, 20-yard line, and we’re
trying to get to be more Christ-like, which would be to cover the whole distance. But
then we fall back, and we slide back, and we get pushed back into our own end of the
field. And we’re constantly going back and forth, and it’s a zero-sum game. We’ll
be 60 percent like Christ and 40 percent not. Maybe we fall back to 30 percent, maybe we
fall back to 20 percent and 80 percent needs to be improved on, and it’s this sliding
scale of sanctification. We think that we’re trying to get to a place that we’re not
already. The beautiful thing about the grace of our
Lord Jesus Christ, and as it is patterned in the Caledonian formula, is that we’re
already there. We are 100 percent pure and holy, without blemish, free from accusation,
seated with Christ in the heavenly realms as sons and daughters of God. That has already
taken place—not because of anything we’ve done, but because of what Christ has done.
If we start with that as the baseline, then all of a sudden, instead of trying to minimize
our sin or manage it, we can see how heinous it is. To me, this is one of the great keys
of sanctification for us as believers in the economy of grace. We can give ourselves permission
to say, “I am wicked in many of my motives. I am bankrupt. I struggle with original sin.
I am tempted in ways maybe now that I wasn’t tempted before.”
What we are allowing ourselves to do is to start with the starting point of total grace,
and from within that, to be able to see our total depravity. But to talk about total depravity
outside of total grace will destroy us absolutely. That’s why Karl Barth, the Torrances, and
others have always wanted us to know that God’s “no” to humanity was always inside
of the larger “yes.” Our solidarity with Adam and our solidarity with Christ fit in
the same space. What Karl Barth does, and this is beautiful,
in Church Dogmatics 3, Book 2, he takes Friedrich Nietzsche and folds him into his own program
on anthropology because Nietzsche’s outlook on humanity was dismal, hopeless, futile,
absolutely abysmal, and it paints a terrible picture of the darkness of the human race.
Karl Barth says, to take what Nietzsche says and to apply it in a vacuum is destructive.
But if we understand total grace and that we’re 100 percent there already, we can
allow ourselves to then see, “I’m 100 percent sinful, too. I am wicked. I don’t
know if anything I ever do has a pure motive. I am a mixed bag.”
We see this all the time. We think, these are great Christian men who seem to fall.
A congressman who has a lot of influence, or a person who leads a Christian camp who
abuses kids, or a person who leads someone to Christ even when they’re cheating in
an adulterous affair. What is going on there? It’s so confusing.
If we can know that those solidarities with Adam and with Christ are there, we’ll have
greater victory over that solidarity with Adam because grace always outruns sin. Sin
never trumps grace. Sin never gets the upper hand. But we allow ourselves to see just how
bad sin is. That’s why it just kills me when people say Karl Barth is soft on sin,
because soft on sin means to play the zero-sum sanctification game where we think we’re
marching down the field and becoming more like Christ and becoming less sinful. That’s
the most proud, haughty, pharisaical way of thinking that there is. And religion is the
great opiate that allows us to be able to rationalize our sinfulness and think we’re
not that bad. Karl Barth says: no, we’re bad. God had to come and die on a cross.
If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s frustrating, because we know we never actually make progress,
and if we do make progress we do lose it, and we get nowhere because we never actually
get to the finish line, to the goal. To be able to say “I am moving toward the
finish line because Christ has carried me across the finish line” is a beautiful way
of thinking. I am going to make it across the finish line because I have [already] made
it across the finish line. Sanctification depends on starting with the end in mind.
It comes down to believing that we’re home before we start.
When Paul gives these so-called sin lists or gives admonition about right living, he
always starts from “here’s who you already are, therefore act like it, therefore behave
this way.” Not “If you behave this way, then you’ll become the child of God,”
but “You’re already a child of God, this is who you are, therefore start living like
it.” Yeah. First Corinthians 5 and 6 is a perfect
example of that, when Paul is talking about church discipline, and he’s saying, expel
the immoral brother, expel the wicked brother from among you. But he’s just told the whole
church that they are the unleavened bread, they are holy and pure, that they should think
in rightness and in truth about who they are. There’s an accountability to grace. The
reason Paul doesn’t want that person to be in the church at that particular time is
because he’s holding that person to grace. One of the greatest disservices that I think
we could do, would be to exercise church discipline without the discipline of Chalcedon, without
the discipline of the indicatives of grace. Theologically, we’ve got to be disciplined
enough to give everyone the indicative: This man is pure and holy and blameless, therefore
we can call out the sinfulness of his behavior, and that of our own behavior, and say “That
doesn’t belong anymore. That doesn’t fit. That is not in correlation with truth, and
we’re not going to pretend that it is in correlation with truth. He needs to learn
his lesson and then come back.” The indicative, however, is never in question—not
even with the wicked man, because then Paul goes down through that list of sins. And who
could stand up under that? Idolaters will not inherit the kingdom of heaven, adulterers
will not enter the kingdom of heaven. We’ve all been idolaters and adulterers
in Jesus’ definition, and so is this some kind of sliding scale? Liars will not inherit
the kingdom of heaven, but as long as you don’t lie too much. Or, perhaps what it
means by idolater is someone who practices it a lot. Where is that point when you become
an idolater, instead of just falling prey to idolatry once in a while? The fact is,
we’re all, and I can say this because I believe in the total grace of our Lord Jesus
Christ, we’re all idolaters. Thank God that idolaters will not inherit
the kingdom of heaven. Thank God that that adulterous Jeff McSwain has been crucified
with Christ and no longer lives. In the ultimate scheme of things, he doesn’t have a future.
Thankfully, I don’t have to define myself that way anymore, so I can give full play
to my sinfulness and say thank God that that doesn’t inherit the kingdom, thank God Jesus
Christ has taken care of that, thank God that grace is a slaying grace—that I have been
crucified with Christ, that when Christ died, I died, and so did all of us, and we’ve
been given a new life. To think about it from that perspective…
The very fact that we are that way is why Christ came, and is what the gospel is all
about. That’s why the gospel is good news, because he’s done something about that fact.
That good news is not some kind of sloppy permissiveness. It’s not some like, “Okay,
I’ll just forgive you, and you’re off the hook.” It’s an accountability. Grace…because
Christ is our life, sin would be to say, no, he’s not. But he is our life, he is living
our life for us, and there is an accountability to that grace.
We have to hold each other to grace. That’s what that whole passage on church discipline
is about. I’m going to hold you to grace. I’m not going to let you pretend like this
is not true about you. It all comes down to how we view everyone in the church and out
of the church. But the church is a group of people who want to live into this reality,
they want to help each other and hold each other accountable.
If I knew that somebody in my church was involved in pornography, I wouldn’t go and say, I’m
not sure you’re saved. I wouldn’t go to him and say I’m not sure that you should
be coming to church until you change your behavior. I would say to that person, “Listen,
this is not of Jesus Christ. Christ is your life. This is not of Christ.” I would hold
him accountable to grace. It gives us a higher ethic than the law.
In Titus, Paul is writing to Titus and he says, “Grace teaches us to say no to ungodliness.”
[Titus 2:12] What a totally different perspective. The very fact of our desire to say no to ungodliness
doesn’t come out of saving ourselves and trying to work out our salvation and get salvation,
it comes out of the fact that we already have grace, live in grace, are under grace.
That’s right. That passage, it starts out with, again, the comprehensive view of humanity,
“The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all. It teaches us to say no
to ungodliness.” Later in that same passage, he says, “The whole point of this is that
you might be eager to do it as good. You’re motivated by grace.”
So if I’m holding someone to grace and they say, “forget that, I don’t want to listen
to that, don’t tell me that, everybody’s a sinner, I’m forgiven, I’ll do whatever
I want to do,” then that is not the economy of God. That’s some kind of sloppy permissivism,
that’s some kind of slapping some forgiveness onto sin and God saying yes to our sin. He’s
never said yes to our sin. In spite of the fact that that’s often used
as an attack against you talking about grace too much. I’ve never met somebody who actually
says that, who actually believes “I can do whatever I want because I’m under grace.”
The spirit of God in us doesn’t even let us think like that.
Alan Torrance has a good line about that. He talks about how in the prodigal son story,
when the son comes back and the penny drops for him that he’s unconditionally loved
and accepted and has always been a son in his father’s eyes, and he comes home to
the feast… Can you imagine that son, after that encounter with his father that day, saying
oh great, now I can go back out to the brothel. Exactly. It’s nonsense.
That’s a misunderstanding of grace. That’s why Paul says, “By no means does that mean
you just go out and do whatever you want to do.” Karl Barth gets us back to this very
helpful way of thinking about Chalcedon when he says, in regard to the already-but-not-yet
(because the already-but-not-yet goes both ways. The old man has already been crucified,
but not yet. We are already seated with Christ in the heavenly realms, but not yet. Those
two things, they go both ways). Karl Barth says, “I was and still am the
old man. I am and will be the new man.” He gets those asymmetrical, those solidarities
there, but he always wants us to know they’re asymmetrical. One has a future, one doesn’t.
By the Holy Spirit we may and can live in it now. Even though our lives are in this
matrix of a mixed bag of righteousness and wickedness, we may live as righteous children
of God by the Holy Spirit now. The Spirit lifts us up to live into our true selves and
therefore gives us the ability to call our old false selves what they are.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, we see in a glass darkly (in the Old King James) a poor
image as in a mirror, but then he talks about how what we really are, is what we’re having
trouble seeing, seeing our true selves as he’s made us to be. But he says the time
is coming when we will see ourselves as we really are.
Right. That distortion is there because we think of our own sinfulness in a sinful way
and only by the revelation of God can we see him and ourselves as we really are. We have
to keep reminding each other of that. That’s why this whole thing is corporate
from beginning to end. What must I do to be saved? Well, be saved because you are. How
do I do that? I want to know how. How? How? Well, let’s do it together. Let’s just
celebrate it. Let’s pretend like it’s true. Let’s keep thanking God over and over
and be grateful for what he’s done, and let’s rub in the ointment of grace. And
pretty soon we’ll begin to have the mind of Christ, which we have been given, to think
about ourselves more accurately, but not only that, to think about everybody else in the
world more accurately. I was and still am the old man. I am and will
be the new man. That’s such a clear perspective to hold onto.
Right, right. You’ve been watching You’re Included,
a production of Grace Communion International.