2 Corinthians 2:14
“But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.” (1 Corinthians 2:14)
The approach to defining sin, clearly enunciated in the Old Testament, seems to provide the key to unlock the mystifying teaching of I John. John assures us that to claim sinless perfection is gross self-deception. And it makes God a liar, too! (I John 1:8-10) How then can the same author a few verses later assure us that anyone who sins does not even know God? In fact, belongs to the Devil! (I John 3:6-10). I’m convinced that the solution lies in the fact that John’s thinking was from the context of his Scripture, the Old Testament. Based on the Old Testament distinction among sins, he assures us that anyone who claims to be free of any and all sin is badly deceived, because even if we have not chosen to violate some command, still we fall far short of God’s moral likeness (I John 1). But, if I take that awareness of sinful failure as license to choose sin, again I am badly deceived. My choices have proved I don’t belong to God at all. That this is the teaching of John in chapter 3 seems clear from the verb tense he chose, a tense which is not clear in most English translations. “If anyone is sinning…” says John, if anyone continues in deliberately choosing to violate God’s known will, that person does not know God. At least any assurance of belonging to God does not come from Bible affirmation. Nowhere does the Bible assure the person who persists in deliberately sinning that he or she is acceptable to God. The Bible tells such a person, rather: Repent! Quit that sinning!
Though this distinction between two categories of sin is not taught by all advocates of successful Christian living, it may well help define our hope of victory. Do we speak of sin as deliberately choosing to violate the known will of God? Then the Bible promises full deliverance, consistent victory. No need to ever fail. Do we speak of involuntary failure to measure up to God’s likeness? Then the Bible promises us steady growth toward that goal, though we will not be fully delivered from sinful attitudes and behavior until we “become like him” when we “see him as he is” at the end of our life.
I call this the mediating view of sanctification because it stands midway between those who hold out hope for absolute perfection on one hand and those who hold out no hope for a victorious life on the other. It is much easier to go to a consistent extreme than to stay at the center of biblical tension!
In reaction to perfectionist teaching, some have concluded that there is no hope beyond the common Christian experience of struggle and defeat. Their preaching and writing about the inevitability of living in constant, deliberate sin does not sound exactly like Paul’s great proclamation of emancipation: sin shall not have dominion over you! (Romans 6:14). He gives thanks to God who always causes us to triumph (1 Corinthians 2:14) and exults in the assurance that we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37). These are not isolated proof texts but rather reflect the mood of the entire New Testament. These texts extend from the promise of abundant life (John 10:10) and a bumper crop of Christlike characteristics (John 15) by Jesus himself to the promises of Peter that we can escape from the world’s corruption and experience abounding godliness (1 Peter 1). These texts continue on to John’s assurance that we must (and can) live out life in the moral light (I John 1). If we don’t live life in the light, we should question if we even belong to God at all (I John 3). The gospel is good news not merely for life beyond the grave, but good news for success in daily life today.
This does not mean, however, that living the God-intended life is easy. Ours is no spectator religion in which we relax and let Christ live out His life in our bodies. There is indeed the rest of faith, but there is also the wrestle. Nevertheless, it is warfare with victory assured, not defeat. And those who settle for a life of defeat are “shortsighted, even to blindness, and have forgotten that they were purged from the old sinful ways” (1 Peter 1:9). In fact, Paul calls such people “carnal” because they behave like the unconverted (1 Corinthians 3:3).
Not all Christians, then, experience the God-intended life. The difference among Christians is not merely one of degree, all on a growth track with some growing more rapidly than others. Who are the defeated, the “carnal,” the “shortsighted”? There are three varieties: 1) some are ignorant of God’s plan for victorious living or the way to experience it; 2) some may know basic principles but have drifted out of a tight relationship with God, perhaps through neglecting the means of grace; and 3) some are in flat-out rebellion, deliberately saying “no” to God in some matter.
What do people need when they find themselves in habitual sin? They need a fresh encounter with God, a return to the original contract of faith they signed when they received salvation. They need to yield and trust. No person is more than two steps away from a life of victory in Christ: surrender and faith, consciously yielding to God unconditionally and trusting him to keep his word. Such is the relationship that releases Holy Spirit power for living. It does not provide instantaneous perfection, but it does start the process of transformation from one degree of his glorious character to another till we are finally made complete in Christ when we see him as he is. That is our glorious hope!