Being under the weather for the last few days, I’ve had the opportunity to lie around and listen to MP3s. One I listened to was an episode from Michael Horton’s (Wikipedia) White Horse Inn entitled “Sin and Grace in the Christian Life” (Summary | MP3), dated 8/19/07. I think this was the first time I’d listened to Horton, and my previous exposure to him came primarily through reading his contributions to Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation—a good book, but not without some issues.
The topic of discussion in the radio program was grace and the problem of ongoing sin in the Christian life. Michael Horton led the discussion with Kim Riddlebarger, Rod Rosenbladt, and Ken Jones. I love gospel-centered theology and preaching, and I agreed with much of what they said. However, I found some of the discussion a bit disturbing and imbalanced—perhaps more what they didn’t say than what they did say.
The launching point for the discussion was a recording taken at a Christian conference of answers to the question, “What do you think happens if you die with unconfessed sin?”
Most of the answers fell into five categories:
- You go to hell.
- You can’t know.
- God is lenient.
- God looks at your heart.
- God’s grace and Jesus’ blood cover all of your sins.
You go to hell.
I think you’re in trouble.
I think they’re going to hell.
You can’t know.
I don’t know. I’d rather not die with unconfessed sin.
Only the Lord knows, . . . and I would never want to stand in judgment of anyone else.
I really believe that God only knows the answer to that.
God is lenient.
He knows we’re going to mess up, but if we’ve trying to do right and we’re trying to live right for the right reasons, then I believe that we’re going to go to heaven.
Luckily, I’m not the one sitting on the throne, making that decision. . . . God is a little more understanding than we put Him out to be.
If I’ve done everything that I know to do, intellectually and spiritually, then God will take care of the rest. That’s what He promised.
God looks at your heart.
I think God looks at your heart. He looks at your heart and your actions together.
The Lord . . . knows our hearts, and I would never want to stand in judgment of anyone else.
God’s grace and Jesus’ blood cover all of your sins.
We’re not under condemnation.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to depend on the grace and mercy of God, which is poured out into me unbelievably in my life and I’m dependent on that.
There’s lots of sins that I’ve committed that I haven’t confessed. God sees all of those and they are washed in the blood of Jesus Christ. . . . If you die without confessing every little sin, surely you will be covered by the blood of Jesus Christ.
Horton and the others lamented the answers as being devoid of the gospel, the blood of Jesus, and the righteousness of Christ—even though at least three of the answers seemed biblically on target. Then they turned to one specific answer and discussed it in more detail.
One lady responded,
I believe if they are not making a habit of that, if they are not walking in that sin, that they are covered. If a person is living in sin, for example, fornication, and they die in that sin or any other that they are making a habit of then I would shutter to think . . . . Those who live by these things will never see the kingdom of God. . . . If we are doing these things continually, I think it shows that we don’t have faith in him, that we don’t love him, because He says, “If you love me, you will obey me.”
In addressing the issue of habitual sins, they referred briefly to passages like these:
9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. —1 Cor 6:9–10
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. —Gal 5:19–21
One of the men then commented, “Those passages start with the fact that Christ never committed adultery, Christ never gossiped, Christ never lied. Christ fulfilled every one of those perfectly. Christ’s death fulfills every time I haven’t fulfilled those perfectly.” Another added, “What does the Scripture mean when it says that no adulterer will enter the kingdom of heaven? This is what you are without the righteousness of Christ.” A third continued, “This is a new evangelical category that really troubles me: the idea that as long as it doesn’t become a habit. Where is that in Scripture?”
I was uncomfortable with the way these passages were handled and with the overall tenor of the discussion. I don’t want to minimize Christ’s substitutionary life for His people—it’s a glorious truth—but I think Paul has more than justification in view in these passages. As 1 Cor 6:11 goes on to say, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Paul is dealing not just with a change of standing with God, but with a transformation of lifestyle.
I was also troubled by the way the notion of habitual sin as not characteristic of the believer was written off as unbiblical. First John seems clear on the matter. Believers live differently than unbelievers. To be sure, believers will struggle and commit the same sins multiple times, but not apart from continual confession and repentance—and progress. Horton and the rest admitted that the believer (1) will be miserable in his sin and (2) want to do what’s right, but I didn’t get the impression that anything else really sets the believer apart from the unbeliever. Based on their discussion, a believer could theoretically live the same as an unbeliever so long as he feels remorse and wants to do right. That, in my opinion, falls short of a biblical view of sanctification, which is, by the way, also part of the gospel.