There it was, just in front of me, on the rear bumper of the car that had cut me off in traffic! “Christian’s aren’t perfect,” said the slogan, “just forgiven.” It got me to ruminating a bit, since my mind wanders in traffic jams. What does this modem slogan really mean?
First, we should remember just how profound slogans and short sayings can be. After all, serious theological truths have often been reduced, helpfully or otherwise, to slogans. Slogans such as sola fide and sola Scriptura are both valuable and helpful. What bothered me that morning was what is behind this particular slogan. Now, within all half truths, there are clear elements of truth. This is certainly true with this saying. Christians plainly are not perfect! Few of us ever claimed that we were, though some, in recent centuries, have mistakenly spoken of “entire perfection” in rather unhelpful ways.
Second, Christians certainly are forgiven. Thanks be to God for this reality. If we were not forgiven, and by God Himself, there would be no basis for us to call ourselves Christians, or to follow Christ in faith and hope. Forgiven? Yes, most assuredly.
But something about this slogan still profoundly disturbs me. Are we not, in stating such a theological truism, actually making a bold statement about our less than biblical lifestyles? Are we not, if the truth be known, excusing our lack of conformity to the holy law of God by referencing our detractors away from our less than consistent lives to the grace and forgiveness of God? And are we not denying the simple truth that Jesus said the world would (should) judge our faith by actually scrutinizing our lives? Isn’t this popular slogan, ultimately, just another way by which we can talk about faith without obedience, faith without works, or of a faith that is not the true gift of God? Let me explain.
True Christians have a faith that works. Faith, variously defined and illustrated in the Holy Scriptures, is ultimately confidence which is directed toward a future in which God will be and do all that He has promised in divine revelation. The very purpose of the gospel of forgiveness is “to bring about the obedience of faith. . . (Rom. 1:5). Paul concludes his famous Roman epistle, which sets forth forgiveness as a major theme, by reminding his readers that God did all of this in order “to bring about the obedience of faith. . . .” (16:26)1.
Surely here is the missing note of almost all evangelical preaching in our time. We have treated faith as assent, as decision, or as mere recognition. But faith, by definition, is tantamount to obedience.
The whole intent of the Mosaic Law in both the Pentateuch and Paul was to enjoin the kind of obedience which is rooted in and flows out of true faith. This kind of obedience excludes “boasting” precisely because we, as fallen creatures, have nothing to offer to the Creator. Why? Because the Lord of heaven and earth can not be “served by human hands, as though He Himself needed anything, since He Himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25).
But our problem is that we live with the delusion that there is something, even though it may be quite small, that we can offer to God that meets some need in God. If we can meet a need then God will somehow be under obligation to show us favor. This is why every religion in the world urges people to be like the Pharisees in the temple, recounting their great accomplishments with the idea that such might constitute service to a needy God.
No, God is displeased with all the works in which men boast (cf. Psa. 50:7-13). The God of the Bible stands ready to serve only those people who are: 1) thankful; 2) who honor Him by keeping their promises; and 3) who call upon Him for deliverance in the day of trouble (Psa. 50:14-15).
The problem is that modern evangelicals have inherited massive theological presuppositions from two schools of interpretation — dispensationalism and covenant theology. In both systems, in various ways, it is taught that good works do accompany genuine faith. In dispensationalism the emphasis is usually upon the distinctive work of the Holy Spirit in this age. In covenant theology the emphasis is usually upon the consequent necessity of a vital relationship between faith and works. Both have missed the mark at a significant point 2.
Consider that Paul speaks twice, to the Thessalonian church (cf. I Thess. 1:3; 2 Thess. 1: 11), of what he calls “the work of faith.” What is this? I answer, succinctly, it is the same thing as “the obedience of faith” in both Romans 1 and 16. My conclusion, which would require scores of pages to unfold and demonstrate, is quite simple: In biblical terms true faith is not merely accompanied by good works, as if they may or may not be present, or may or may not somehow be part and parcel of true faith. True faith is itself the very mainspring which produces obedience. You can’t speak of having faith without having “the work of faith” as well. This was no less true under the older covenant than it is now under the new. We do not have two Bibles. (In fact, the idea of an Old Testament within the one Bible did not arise until the late second century.) The way of grace is the same under both administrations. Law and gospel are not to be held in complete contrast. If we have true saving faith, it causes us to lead a life of faithfulness, a life which works and obeys because of the essence and nature of what faith is.
So what does all of this theology have to do with the slogan I saw that morning? Precisely this: We have so severed faith and works that we have created a nightmare in the modem North American church. We have millions of people who believe they are forgiven, have been told countless times that they are forgiven, and who reason that since they are not perfect this is OK with God. After all, what I do ultimately has nothing vital to contribute to what I believe. Such people have no love for the law of God, no love for His commandments. They believe the commandments are in contrast to the grace of God so they need not be guided by them. They do not walk in obedience before God and do not, accordingly, persevere in true faith, which in its very essence is faithfulness to the covenant. They are, consequently, deluded. They walk about in a spiritual stupor. And much of what the modem church teaches them — as summed up in the modern slogan “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven” — will ultimately lead to their being cut off in the final day.
Dr. John H. Armstrong has been president of Reformation & Revival Ministries since 199 1. He is the editor of both Viewpoint and Reformation & Revival Journal, a quarterly designed for church leadership. He is a frequent guest on many radio programs throughout North America, a speaker in dozens of conferences each year, and the author/editor of seven books. He has contributed to a number of other books and publications as well. He serves on the Committee on Evangelical Unity in the Gospel. John is married, the father of two adult children, and the grandfather of one. He makes his home in suburban Chicago.
This article appeared in the October-December 1999 issue of Viewpoint, a bi-monthly magazine available from:
Reformation & Revival Ministries,
The magazine is sent free by request.
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