Eric Landstrom, “Christian Discipleship and Sin”

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Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Pet 3:18).

Consider your joy in salvation. 

Repeatedly well-meaning, well-intentioned disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ justify their poor, worldly, unloving behavior displayed toward one another by appealing to the fact that they are sinners. They believe they are obligated and must manifest their sinful behavior to the detriment of their relationship with our Lord and the detriment of their relationship with their fellows. 

I’m grieved at this proliferation of defeatist attitudes taught as though they are orthodoxy in seminaries and from the pulpit. Pericopes such as Galatians 2:20, Romans 6:3, and Romans 6:15–18 are torn from the Bible from a lack of understanding. Brothers and sisters, are we not dead to sin and alive in Christ? I hear claims that although justified, we’re all helpless sinners, but how come I never hear of the justified reckoning themselves dead to sin? If you don’t know enough to grieve over this sad state of affairs, my heart cries out that what I’m about to say will be heard. 

There is a criticism of the Western theological tradition made from the Eastern tradition that the West’s view of satisfaction leads to an improper theological consideration when satisfaction theology is incorporated into individual Western theological traditions. More disturbing to the Eastern tradition is that the application of satisfaction theology leads to improper views of sin that hinder God’s works to bring about personal sanctification and good works (theosis in the Eastern tradition*). Like Protestant traditions, the Eastern tradition believes that good works, as Paul indicated, spring from the love of God and one’s neighbors. Good works are the by-product of the Christian faith and come about organically from righteous thought and conduct that is embodied in believers who cloak themselves with the character and nature of Christ.

The critique is that Western judicial theology cultivates expressions of gloom in the general demeanor of its disciples, particularly in public. Outward signs of an individual’s exemplary character are patronizingly and piously manifested.** Theologically, the underlying Eastern criticism is interesting and premised on the idea that the original notion of sin as missing the mark has been changed in Western juridical theology to consider all sin constituting a grievous legal transgression for which a form of legal punishment is due. For the Eastern tradition, the seriousness of missing the mark (sin) is the lost relationship with God for the non-Christian or the interruption in communion with God for the sinning Christian. The seriousness is not that some type of punitive punishment is necessary for atonement. For the Eastern tradition, the practical outcome of anybody practicing juridical theology is that sin involves a spiritual bankruptcy of a morass of guilt. This spiritual bankruptcy results from the suspicion that any sin transgresses an undefined legal criterion of morality beyond a simple prayer of apology and a resolution to do better next time. It is also an inability to recognize that God is continually providing by grace the means to do better if the grace he gives is picked up and acted upon in faith. 

The hindrance to progressive sanctification in the Western tradition is evident if it is believed that sin cannot be overcome by grace. Or that the Christian must ultimately act upon sinful temptations. The resulting spiritual bankruptcy leads to a loss of the joy of salvation and emphasis on self-effort that leads to repeated frustration and spiritual suffering in the belief that God will leave the sinner in his or her sin. It may also heap condemnation toward those expressing theosis or the attitude of improving one’s relationship with God and their fellows by embodying more and more grace and faithfully acting on it. 

Influenced by the Eastern tradition, Wesleyan theology embraces the call of progressive sanctification (theosis or perfection). In this, the Wesleyan tradition views sanctification not in the abstract as though personal holiness or self-righteousness is something that can never be realized in this life. Or that any attempts to repent ultimately leave the disciple defeated in their outlook of living out life in terms of reckoning oneself dead to sin and alive to God. Instead, the Wesleyan tradition considers sanctification in relational terms. The disciple strengthens their relationship with the Lord by continually embodying the grace God provides and acting on that grace in faith. Hence John Wesley’s primary contribution to Western theology was the rediscovery and emphasis that like justification, sanctification is also by faith. The practical application of this doctrine begins when the disciple realizes that they don’t need to act on the daily sinful temptations. By grace, the Christian can finally and at last be made free from sin and become a servant of righteousness (Rom 6:18). 

By the grace of God, do we go.

* In the eastern tradition theosis is the call to man to become holy and seek union with God beginning in this life and later consummated in the resurrection (2 Pet 1:4).

** When I interned under the General Secretary of the Evangelical Free Church who was in charge of ordinations and pastoral discipline, I learned the more rigorous the outward piety, the more a sense of shame was likely to conceal and allow sin to fester rather than express personal confession and petitions for prayer and help. Rigorously pious church cultures were also less likely to actually help those who were steeped in sin in preference for standoffish condemnation.