What happens when one or two aspects of our Christian identity get emphasized at the expense of others? What happens when we fail to keep the four central elements (sons, saints, servants, sinners) of our identity in tension with each other? Let’s see.
Some have made “sons” and “saints” the message of the gospel and have neglected the categories of “servant” and “sinner.” The result has been a strong emphasis on our unchanging security as children of God and our safe status as “holy ones,” righteous in Christ. Many hurting souls have derived great comfort from this constant refrain. Those of “tender conscience,” to use the Puritan term, have found deep consolation in regular reminders of sonship and sainthood.
However, in the absence of an ongoing emphasis on “servant” and “sinner” the result too often has been complacency about duty, service, responsibility, and even about sin.
“Don’t should me,” some preachers have been known to say. “There is nothing that I must do that will make God love me more. There is nothing that I have done that will make Him love me less,” these preachers rightly insist. Yet, they continue, “My Father is always pleased with me and never displeased. He sees me ‘in Christ,’ perfect and complete.“ Consequently, don’t tell me what I need to do. I don’t need to do anything – just bask in grace. When I fail, I’m loved and accepted. When I fall, I am safe and secure. The Christian life is not doing but being, being ‘in Christ.’”
There is a problem with this even in terms of sonship. While fathers don’t love their children more or less according to their performance, they may be more or less pleased according to service and obedience. We are regularly told to do the things with which God is pleased and that He rewards and blesses (e.g. Mt 6:1ff; 2 Cor 5:9; Col 1:10; Eph 5:10). God’s love is unchanging. However, He may be more or less pleased with us, and may be at times quite displeased.
Beyond this, the larger problem is the emphasis that is being placed on one aspect of our identity (sonship and sainthood) at the expense of the other (servant and sinner). We are called to serve (Rom 12:1,2). I am a son, but I am also a servant. This means that I have the duties and responsibilities of a servant which I am not to neglect.
Moreover, while I am a saint, I am also a sinner. I have not yet arrived. I must “press on,” as the Apostle Paul put it (Phil 3:14). I have not yet been glorified. I am not yet in heaven. I am not in a state of non posse pecare. The dregs of sin that remain can only be overcome by strenuous acts of mortification and vivification, as we have seen. No room is left for complacency.
Err in one direction and I may end up in Vanity Fair with those who are “at ease in Zion” (Am 6:1). If all I hear is that I am a son and a saint, I may become flippant about sin and negligent of duty. However, if I err in the other direction, I may sink into the Slough of Despond. If all I hear is that I am a miserable wretch of a sinner, then I am unlikely to experience the joy of forgiveness: justification, adoption, and the certainty of eternal life. If all I hear is that I am a servant, then God may become to me an oppressive taskmaster, whose presence is avoided because an awareness of God means still another task added to my already overburdened job description.
Our concept of the Christian’s identity must accommodate notions of obedience, duty, responsibility, obligation, and fear. I must not conceive of the Christian life in such a way that excludes these demanding elements of the Christian experience. If I fail to incorporate them into my understanding of what grace gives and requires, then I have formulated a false grace. A concept of Christian identity that excludes obedience, duty, responsibility, obligation, and fear is unknown in the New Testament, a Christian life unanticipated by the Apostles.
Likewise, I must not allow my concepts of Christian obedience, duty, etc., to undermine the Christian’s absolute security. It is the faith of the one “who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly” that is “reckoned as righteousness” (Rom 4:5). Nothing can “separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38,39). We have a divinely given safety, a peace and joy that no one can take away.
J. I. Packer taught me to dislike the word “balance.” He called it a “horrible, self-conscious word.” We might use a term like “proportionate.” Keep these themes of identity in proper proportions. Or we might use a term like “perspective.” Don’t lose a biblical perspective on these issues. Yet, it is balance that we are urging. These elements of our identity must be kept in dynamic tension with each other, lest we fall into legalism on the one side, or antinomianism on the other. We are advocates of lectio continua preaching in no small part because it forces preachers to deal with the whole Bible, biblical themes in biblical proportions. As we do so, may we avoid the pitfalls of an imbalanced emphasis on one aspect of our identity at the expense of another.