By Alfy Austin
“True Christians won’t practice sin.” These words from an authoritative and respected pastor stuck in Len’s mind, often haunting him. What was wrong with him? He still sinned. In fact, his struggle with sin never seemed far away. Why did he still wrestle with anger, jealousy, and impure thoughts? Was something wrong with his faith? And, what did the preacher mean by practice sin?
Len was raised in a good Christian home. His parents were sincere believers and the church was a big part of their lives. Len’s mother had led him to faith in Jesus Christ when he was four years old. During high school he went through a period of indifference but not really rebellion, and by God’s grace he avoided many of the serious pitfalls of adolescence.
After high school the church he attended got a new pastor, one who preached so-called Lordship Salvation, though at the time Len had no idea what that was. It was from this pastor that Len heard the words that plagued him, “True Christians won’t practice sin.”
Ironically this was also a time of increasing spiritual devotion and interest in Bible study. On the one hand Len was growing spiritually; while on the other hand, he could not understand why he still had this struggle with sin. And, what exactly did the preacher mean by practice sin? He never was sure. His was not an attempt to rationalize his sin; on the contrary, his frustration grew out of a sensitive spirit and a sincere desire for purity. He was disturbed and actually hindered spiritually by unclear and inaccurate, albeit authoritative, teaching.
This sort of teaching is all too common today. We are told that real Christians won’t do certain things. Then, if a person does one of those things, he proves he is not a real Christian.
There are several problems with this contention. One problem with it is that there is no agreement among such teachers on the precise list of sins a real Christian is incapable of committing. So how can a person be sure whether or not he has committed a sin that would prove his faith was faulty?
A second problem is that there are examples of”real” believers in Scripture who did some awful things. David was guilty of murder and adultery. Peter denied the Lord three times.
A third problem is that believers are repeatedly warned in the Bible against certain sins which some teachers of Lordship Salvation say believers are incapable of committing. Why warn Christians not to commit sins which they are incapable of committing?
Other Lordship Salvation teachers will not go so far as to say that a Christian is incapable of committing a given sin. What they say is that a real Christian will not practice any sin. The problem with this teaching is just the problem Len experienced. What constitutes practicing? Does practicing mean committing some sin three times, or four, or ten? Does practicing mean sinning in the same way for a week, or a month, or six months? The very subjectivism of this teaching is one of its inherent weaknesses. Many accept it uncritically because of the authoritative way in which it is presented and because it sounds reasonable. The motivation for such teaching is laudable. It is a desire for purity among Christians. It is a reaction against sin in the church. But no motive, regardless of how praiseworthy, can justify playing fast and loose with the Scriptures.
One of the sad consequences of this unclear and inaccurate teaching is that it destroys assurance. One can never really know whether one is a genuine Christian. Even near the end a person may fall into sin and prove himself spurious. The result is that no one can know for sure that he or she is truly saved. The doctrine of assurance is, for all practical purposes, rendered useless by Lordship Salvation teaching.
Should sin then simply be tolerated and allowed to have its way in the lives of Christians and the church? By no means. Sin must be dealt with in our personal lives and in the life of the church. But hanging Christians over the pit is not a biblical way of dealing with sin. In Matthew 18 Jesus gave very clear instructions for dealing with unforsaken sin, culminating in excommunication of the sinner from the church. Please note that one of the steps is not to call the person’s salvation or faith into question. Nor does Jesus tell us to get the person saved and the problem will go away. Quite the contrary, Jesus call the sinner a brother. Jesus did not seem to feel that the use of such a term as “brother” would give false assurance to people. Rather, Jesus’ use of this term indicates that He believed that a genuine believer was tragically capable of sin so serious and so persistent as to necessitate excommunication.
In 1 Corinthians Paul addresses a church with more problems than any modern day church I have ever heard of. Jealousy, strife, pride, factions, immorality, lawsuits, legalism, drunkenness, profaning the Lord’s Supper, and abuse of spiritual gifts were just some of the problems among the Corinthian Christians. Yet Paul never calls their salvation into question. Remarkably, he calls these messed up people brethren throughout. One cannot help but imagine that if a teacher of Lordship Salvation had written this letter it would include repeated exhortations for the readers to get saved and constant reminders that they could not be true Christians and live the way they were living. This Paul does not do, but he does forcefully confront them with their sin. Among the warnings Paul mentions of the tragic consequences of believers’ sins are loss of reward (3:15), excommunication from the church (5:9, 13), and sickness and even death (11:30).
We must deal with sin. But destroying assurance and casting doubt on one another’s salvation is not the way to achieve purity. That will only lead to frustration and failure, primarily because it is unbiblical. To deal with sin we must teach, among other things, the tragic consequences of sin in the life of a believer. We must warn of the very real danger sin represents for believers.
Growing up, Len’s parents had taught him that since he had trusted in Jesus Christ he was secure and could not be lost. Len would often go back to that assurance during periods of doubt. He was saved, even when he did not feel saved. He was secure. The resultant assurance did not become a license for sin; rather, it was a source of comfort and encouragement in his struggle with and victory over sin.
Alfy Austin is the Pastor of Woodstock (IL) Bible Church and is a member of the GES board. Len is not a fictitious character. He is an eider and respected member of Woodstock Bible Church.