The Pitfalls and Joys of "Trying Harder"

I recently wrote a brief defense of the importance of personal effort (or “trying harder”) in God’s gracious design to transform His saints. My central claim was that we put ourselves at odds with the NT if we understand or teach the dynamic of sanctification in a way that devalues or strongly cautions against hard work.

But that doesn’t mean emphasizing hard work has no attendant hazards.

Bob Hayton wrote of one of these pitfalls in a post last summer: Particular Pitfalls of Independent Baptists: Performance-Based Sanctification.

Work hard, feel good; blow it and feel terrible. Where is the confidence in God’s grace in this model? The secret to living victoriously for Christ is gritting your teeth, doing more, and not doing the things you shouldn’t do. Try, try, try. Harder, harder, harder! Don’t quit. Keep going. We say that salvation is by grace, but growing in Christ is about the will power, the commitment and the determination.

This can lead to despair or a terrible form of pride.

The solution Bob advocates (citing Terry Rayburn and Tim Kellar, in part) is to reject trying harder, and focus exclusively on faith. Several Reformed leaders have emphasized a similar perspective in recent years (with a burst of back and forth on the Web beginning in the summer of 2011, see the table posting tomorrow), Tullian Tchividjian and Sean Lucas among them.

My purpose here is to explore the problem Bob and others have described. Perhaps we can come to more fully understand it.

The “just preach the gospel to yourself” view of sanctification has a legitimate complaint when it describes the despair-pride yo-yo experience many believers go through. I’ve not only met Christians like this but have done my share of bouncing up down as well. Whatever might be lacking in the “just preach to yourself” or “gospel centered” model, it’s advocates are right that a state of alternating inner turmoil and arrogance cannot be what Christ and the apostles had in mind in the New Testament.

Where is the peace?

Jesus said He was leaving His peace with us and that our hearts should not be troubled (John 14:27). We know that this trouble-free state isn’t intended to be unvarying (1 Pet. 1:6-7, for example). But it is supposed to be a state of heart that dominates our experience and never completely subsides. Though Jesus promised His followers hardship and toil, He also promised us abundant life (John 10:10) and rest for our souls (Matt. 11:29).

Especially after His resurrection, Jesus’ favorite greeting was “Peace be with you!” (Luke 24:36, John 20:19, 21, 26). And it’s no coincidence that Paul’s favorite opening blessing focused on “grace and peace.”

John 16:33 brings the experiences of trouble and peace together.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (ESV)

In the midst of trouble, we are called to gather up the loose ends of our thinking and rest our hope on our future grace (1 Pet. 1:13). So if our efforts to live the Christian life in a God-honoring and God-pleasing way have us in a state of continual turmoil, we’re not doing it right. Something is out of kilter, in attitudes, actions or both.

Where is the joy?

Just as Jesus promised a life of peace, He promised one of joy. He said one of the specific aims of His teaching was to impart His joy to them and that this joy would be “full” (John 15:11, compare John 17:13).

The epistles are also full of calls to rejoice. “Rejoice in hope” (Rom. 12:12); “finally brothers, rejoice” (2Cor. 13:11); “you also should rejoice and be glad with me” (Php 2:18); “rejoice in the Lord” (Php. 3:1); “rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16). Peter sums it up beautifully.

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (ESV, 1 Pet. 1:8-9)

If our approach to the pursuit of godliness is joyless, we’re actually trying to be godly by being ungodly. You don’t need a Master’s degree to know that can’t be right.

The real problem

The anxiety and pride yo-yo experience does not represent what the NT teaches about sanctification, but does it follow that we should reject “trying harder” in favor of exclusive focus on faith? To approach the question from another angle, is it possible to call believers to more sacrifice and greater devotion, and emphasize obedience, without producing anxiety-ridden, joyless or proud Christian living?

As my post last week shows, it must be possible because it’s what the NT actually does. The imperative is not sacrificed for the indicative or the indicative for the imperative. Calls to faith, peace, and joy abound along side of (and directly related to) calls to try harder.

So what’s really behind this worried, joyless, struggle-focused sanctification dynamic?

1. Selectivity

The Pharisees described in the Gospels were not sincere God-loving men who happened to be overly fond of rules. They were unbelieving God-rejectors in the service of their father the Devil (Matt. 23:14, John 8:44-47). Still, it is possible for believers to resemble Pharisees in some ways. One of the most common ways we do this is by creating a highly selective list of criteria for gauging Christian authenticity and maturity. It’s often a very superficial list we find personally easy.

But when we select a handful of superficial benchmarks to pursue with great zeal we end up neglecting some “weightier matter.” We replace the call to “walk in a manner worthy” (Eph. 4:1, Col. 1:10) with a call walk in outward conformity to our pet values. This version of “try harder” is usually a pretense for “You all need to try harder so you’ll be like me [and I’m not trying at all anymore.]”

“Trying harder” in this way robs believers of joy because it puts distance between us and the One who is the real source of our joy.

2. Impatience

Effort in the pursuit of holiness becomes anxious and joyless when we lose sight of the big picture. For reasons of His own, God’s way is to bring us slowly and sovereignly to Christlikeness. This is why Paul had to remind the Philippians that God would be “faithful to complete” the good work He had started (Php. 1:6).

If we’re boiling with anxiety about some lingering sinful habit, the question is “Am I being faithful in using what God has provided?” If the answer is yes, we’re not only permitted, but called to rest in His wisdom about what He changes in us when and in what sequence.

3. Forgetfulness

The “preach the gospel to yourself” advocates are right about one thing. We do need to constantly preach the gospel to ourselves. The error lies in giving this task exclusivity in the sanctification dynamic or in emphasizing this task in a way that belittles the value of working hard. We are to preach the gospel to ourselves and try harder. It’s the only way to avoid forgetting who we are, what has been done for us, why we are to not be conformed to this world, and where the transformative power comes from.

Interestingly, Peter links forgetfulness with failure to try harder (2 Peter 1:8-9). But he does not say the relationship can only work in one way. If we get too busy working, we can easily fall into Martha’s error and become so busy trying harder we forget Who it’s all about (Luke 10:41-42).

Conclusion

When we pursue the work of sanctification with a deep and abiding awareness that we do so because God is at work in us (Php. 2:12), trying harder becomes a joyful participation in what God is graciously doing. We see Him work in and through us and overflow with humble thanks for what we know we do not deserve—and we rejoice all the more in anticipation of what He will do in the future.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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Bob Hayton's picture

I guess what I would add is that preaching the gospel to yourself is what we should do when trying hard fails. Too often, Christians aren't taught to preach the gospel to themselves at all. They are left with rules and effort. That's it. That is what people like Keller and others are getting at. Not that one shouldn't try at all, but to not trust in your effort alone, and not to just assume the gospel but to appropriate it.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

dmyers's picture

When I'm trying harder, am I more pleasing to God, more acceptable to God, more glorifying to God, or more usable to God? 

When I'm trying harder, how is my daily life objectively better as far as God is concerned when in fact I'm still sinning in numerous conscious and unconscious ways even on my "best" days?

Regarding how 1 John 1:9 fits into this discussion:  (1) If God forgave all my sin (past and future) when I was saved (or at Calvary) on the basis of Christ's payment for that sin and my reliance on that payment, how is it that we speak of my needing His forgiveness for my subsequent sins?  (2) Is the popular exposition of 1 John 1:9 (that it calls on Christians to confess their post-conversion sins as they go to obtain some form of post-conversion forgiveness) erroneous, because there John is speaking not to or about Christians (who by definition have confessed their sins/sinfulness) but to non-Christians who are denying that they are sinners in need of a savior (cf. 1 John 1:8)?  (3) Apart from the popular exposition of 1 John 1:5-10, what is our basis for teaching that "[f]ellowship is disrupted" by post-salvation sin?  Analogies to the human parent-child relationship are common, but are they misplaced given that my child doesn't have a mediator with me who has already atoned for any and all infractions my child will commit, allowing me to view my child always as perfect on the basis of the mediator's perfection?

Steve Newman's picture

In counseling with young believers, especially those coming out of jail, it seems important to emphasize that Christ died for their sins (there is a great price paid by Christ for their free salvation!), but it is also important for them to be determined to do differently then what they did before. However, the form of the "try harder" is also planning to do/be different than they were. As we emphasize our new life in Christ, we encourage them to live out their new life. In Ephesians 4:25-32 the new life takes different forms. The liar plans to be a truth-teller, the one who speaks corruptly plans to be a gracious speaker, etc.

There is a rejection of the old life, a renewal of the mind, and a replacement with the new (v.22-24). It is based on "how we learned Christ". That's a lot more than "try harder". It's giving God the opportunity to fill you with His new life. But the renewal of the mind is where we "work smarter". If we do what we always did, we will get what we always got. So we have to plan and execute something different, depending on God to provide the strength to do so. We also depend on "the mind of Christ" to be able to know what to do in situations. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

When I'm trying harder, am I more pleasing to God, more acceptable to God, more glorifying to God, or more usable to God?

When I'm trying harder, how is my daily life objectively better as far as God is concerned when in fact I'm still sinning in numerous conscious and unconscious ways even on my "best" days?

Ultimately, I'm not sure it matters. What I mean is, before I attempt to answer these questions, it might be good to pause and remember the simpler truths:  We are commanded to try harder and are lead to believe that this is what our Lord wants from us.  We are also commanded to "do all for the glory of God" even down to eating and drinking. An imperative like that necessarily implies that God's glory is in some sense diminished by our disobedience. How exactly it's diminished--I admit I find this difficult. He works all things according to the counsel of His will. So even the wrong in the world will take it's place in an over all "story of all mankind" that glorifies Him. Be that as it may, Paul's reasoning is simple: God's glory is at stake in our obedience.

Now for the how is my life objectively better? I'm not sure I understand the question. It's better in every way that it is better. It doesn't make sense to reason that if it's not perfect it can't be better. But again, we're second guessing the NT to even go there. Peter's "add to your faith virtue" (2Pet.1:5ff) and "grow in grace," as well as Paul's  "do so more and more" (1 Thess 4:1)--to mention a few random examples--demonstrate that when we obey and grow we are, in fact better.

(To put an even finer point on it, it's clear that we are (a) not the same and (b) not worse. Therefore, better.)

About "more useful"

Yes, when we are obedient, we are "more useful." This is Paul's reasoning to Timothy, for example.

21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. (2Tim. 2:21)

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Bob Hayton wrote:

I guess what I would add is that preaching the gospel to yourself is what we should do when trying hard fails. Too often, Christians aren't taught to preach the gospel to themselves at all. They are left with rules and effort. That's it. That is what people like Keller and others are getting at. Not that one shouldn't try at all, but to not trust in your effort alone, and not to just assume the gospel but to appropriate it.

Yes, I'm for gospel-saturation before and after trying hard fails... which, in the short run, it often will. To use James' phrase, "we all stumble in many ways."

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Vance Havner- "The Lord Jesus did not deliver lectures on faith to candidates for blessing; He told them something very definite to do: “Stretch forth thy hand!” “Go thy way!” “Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house!” He asked the very thing that seemed most impossible."

Perhaps the objection to typical IFB performance based sanctification doesn't lie in the 'trying harder' part, but in the motives and behaviors behind those who are using the pulpit to manipulate, dominate, and control.

The lesson I've learned, in the simplest terms, is that we DO what we LOVE. My affections have to change before my behavior does, but my affections won't change until I obey some Biblical mandates, such as studying to be quiet, or repentance, or being grateful. All these efforts are enabled by the Holy Spirit. I don't think we can effectively dissect this dynamic. 

 

Anne Sokol's picture

Bob Hayton wrote:

I guess what I would add is that preaching the gospel to yourself is what we should do when trying hard fails. Too often, Christians aren't taught to preach the gospel to themselves at all. They are left with rules and effort. That's it. That is what people like Keller and others are getting at. Not that one shouldn't try at all, but to not trust in your effort alone, and not to just assume the gospel but to appropriate it.

and it needs to be said that many of the ways we "preach the gospel to ourselves" (or however one wants to say it) involves spiritual disciplines (ie., work!). It's nothing like repeating Jn 3:16 to myself every time I sin. It's hard, hard work of digging down into what we know and want to be true to actually becoming what we believe and do.

Anne Sokol's picture

dmyers wrote:

When I'm trying harder, am I more pleasing to God, more acceptable to God, more glorifying to God, or more usable to God?

Let's phrase it this way: As His child, God will always have goodwill toward you. There might be hard consequences or results from sin or rebellion, but it is all going through God's goodwill towards His child. There might be enormous suffering for a christian with no rebellion, but it's still God's goodwill.

I am not sure if what Aaron said about God's glory is quite accurate. Vitaliy was just reading something to me about this a few days back. That we cannot subtract or add to God's glory. It's all His glory; we can't minus it. We can reflect it. (or not)

dmyers wrote:

When I'm trying harder, how is my daily life objectively better as far as God is concerned when in fact I'm still sinning in numerous conscious and unconscious ways even on my "best" days?

V is actually preaching about this on Sunday. He's going to talk about the older son in the story of the prodigal son. He really needed to stop trying earn some blessing from his father and his sanctification, so to speak, is more to learn that he is already blessed. and learn to respect and value others who aren't rightly following God. He was failing to understand how the father was accepting him. ... Anyway, that's one take on it.

 

dmyers wrote:

Regarding how 1 John 1:9 fits into this discussion:  (1) If God forgave all my sin (past and future) when I was saved (or at Calvary) on the basis of Christ's payment for that sin and my reliance on that payment, how is it that we speak of my needing His forgiveness for my subsequent sins?  (2) Is the popular exposition of 1 John 1:9 (that it calls on Christians to confess their post-conversion sins as they go to obtain some form of post-conversion forgiveness) erroneous, because there John is speaking not to or about Christians (who by definition have confessed their sins/sinfulness) but to non-Christians who are denying that they are sinners in need of a savior (cf. 1 John 1:8)?  (3) Apart from the popular exposition of 1 John 1:5-10, what is our basis for teaching that "[f]ellowship is disrupted" by post-salvation sin?  Analogies to the human parent-child relationship are common, but are they misplaced given that my child doesn't have a mediator with me who has already atoned for any and all infractions my child will commit, allowing me to view my child always as perfect on the basis of the mediator's perfection?

My mom was reading this to me, too, a few months back--about Jn 1:9 being not for saved--that all our sins are already forgiven. I will ask the source, if she can remember.

About post-salvation sin and fellowship, well, i have some thoughts but no time. And the parent/child thing, too. and it's limitations perhaps. maybe we are making God in our parental image? like the greeks and romans made their gods? I mean, the whole israel and God punishing them--He waited so long to punish them! the analogy doesn't work for parents really. ... gotta go.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

When my own kids do things--especially things I know they know better than to do--the way I feel about it is always mixed. I don't love them less, but I am quite displeased with them at the same time--and, in fact, even more displeased because I love them. (When other people's kids do wrong... it's not even close to the same, know what I mean?)

I remember seeing this in my own parents when I was growing up as well. Because they had taught me better, they expected better and disobedience was that much more out of place and disturbing (reminds of Paul's phrase in Eph. 4 - you did not so learn Christ).

Susan, great pts about doing what we love. ... and learning to love some things by doing them first. 

I like the food analogy. Some of the foods I enjoy most now as an adult I hated as a kid. They are acquired tastes and come only with some patience.

dmyers's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

When my own kids do things--especially things I know they know better than to do--the way I feel about it is always mixed. I don't love them less, but I am quite displeased with them at the same time--and, in fact, even more displeased because I love them. (When other people's kids do wrong... it's not even close to the same, know what I mean?)

I remember seeing this in my own parents when I was growing up as well. Because they had taught me better, they expected better and disobedience was that much more out of place and disturbing (reminds of Paul's phrase in Eph. 4 - you did not so learn Christ).

Susan, great pts about doing what we love. ... and learning to love some things by doing them first. 

I like the food analogy. Some of the foods I enjoy most now as an adult I hated as a kid. They are acquired tastes and come only with some patience.

I reiterate the distinction between we human parents and children vs. God and us:  our children's sins against us have not been "paid" for; they have no mediator with us who has taken all their punishment, in advance, such that we actually view them at all times as covered with the mediator's perfection.  What is the effect of this significant difference in our relationship with our heavenly Father?

Further, even in the absence of a mediator, my children's misbehaviors, regardless of how serious, do not disrupt their fellowship with me (at least, when I'm being the father I want to be).  I am/want to be like the father of the Prodigal Son, who did not lessen his fellowship with his wayward son in any way.  Are there any fathers out there who think the loving, biblical way to raise children is to cut off or reduce fellowship with them when they misbehave, unless and until the child apologizes?  If so, I wholeheartedly disagree with them.  I want my children to know that they are welcome in my presence (preferably under my arm, but I'll settle for in the room) at all times, including (especially?) when they've messed up and whether or not they're willing/able to admit it yet.  So where is the *biblical* warrant for saying that post-conversion sins disrupt fellowship with God?

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Dmyers,

The classic verse on this is, of course, Psalm 66:18 - "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me." This verse is in the midst of others that indicate that David is indeed in right fellowship with God, so I would call it "post-conversion," albeit in an OT sense. I guess you can write this verse off by saying it's OT, or that it only indicates sins that are nurtured and cherished rather than ones we fall into, but it still seems to indicate that sin can, in some way, lessen our fellowship with God.

And isn't this true with your children as well? Even if you still love them unconditionally, and they know that, isn't there a sense of broken fellowship when they know they have done wrong? Isn't that also true when you know you have done wrong against them? None of that changes you accepting and them unconditionally as your children, or they you as their father, but the relationship is not the same when things are not right.

Dave Barnhart

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I reiterate the distinction between we human parents and children vs. God and us:  our children's sins against us have not been "paid" for; they have no mediator with us who has taken all their punishment, in advance, such that we actually view them at all times as covered with the mediator's perfection.  What is the effect of this significant difference in our relationship with our heavenly Father?

There are differences certainly. Parents are sinners raising children who are sinners, etc. But there are also similarities and that's really the point. Important similarities include: in both cases there is an authority that is to be obeyed, and that authority desires to see the child grow and change. And instruction, discipline and protection and provision all parts of that goal of transformation.

Further, even in the absence of a mediator, my children's misbehaviors, regardless of how serious, do not disrupt their fellowship with me (at least, when I'm being the father I want to be).  I am/want to be like the father of the Prodigal Son, who did not lessen his fellowship with his wayward son in any way.  Are there any fathers out there who think the loving, biblical way to raise children is to cut off or reduce fellowship with them

I think you're confusing a couple of different things here. "Disrupted fellowship" does not require that either of the people involved decide to lessen or reduce anything. Rather, it's a natural consequence of causing pain to someone you love. When you let somebody down, you feel guilt about that. In addition they are harmed or disappointed or offended in some way. And there is a disharmony in the relationship. This is what is usually meant by "disrupted fellowship." They need to clear the air between them. This is what 1 John 1:9 is all about.

So in this sense, fellowship is indeed disrupted between parents and children when children do wrong. Nobody decides to disrupt it. It's just what happens as a result of wrongdoing.

dmyers's picture

dcbii wrote:
Dmyers, The classic verse on this is, of course, Psalm 66:18 - "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me." This verse is in the midst of others that indicate that David is indeed in right fellowship with God, so I would call it "post-conversion," albeit in an OT sense. I guess you can write this verse off by saying it's OT, or that it only indicates sins that are nurtured and cherished rather than ones we fall into, but it still seems to indicate that sin can, in some way, lessen our fellowship with God. And isn't this true with your children as well? Even if you still love them unconditionally, and they know that, isn't there a sense of broken fellowship when they know they have done wrong? Isn't that also true when you know you have done wrong against them? None of that changes you accepting and them unconditionally as your children, or they you as their father, but the relationship is not the same when things are not right.

You raise an interesting point with Ps. 66:18.  But even in its specific context (not just that it's in the OT), it seems clear that David is speaking of a different relationship with God than we have through Christ.  Verses 13-15:  "I will go into Your house with burnt offerings; I will pay You my vows, which my lips have uttered and my mouth has spoken when I was in trouble.  I will offer You burnt sacrifices of fat animals, with the sweet aroma of rams; I will offer bulls with goats."  Conceptually, how or why would God not "hear" a Christian who is "regard[ing] iniquity in his heart" when, by definition, the Christian by virtue of his conversion and Christ's sacrifice has *already* been forgiven of the iniquity *before* he ever regards it in his heart?

As to the parallel with our children, no one has attempted to account for the glaring difference between our human relationships and our relationship with God the Father:  we have a mediator/substitute; our children don't.  So I don't think it's sufficient to bootstrap whatever "broken fellowship" we sometimes have with our children (which I think is often overstated and, even where it does happen, is most often the result of our own fallenness) into an equivalent effect on our fellowship with God.

dmyers's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

I reiterate the distinction between we human parents and children vs. God and us:  our children's sins against us have not been "paid" for; they have no mediator with us who has taken all their punishment, in advance, such that we actually view them at all times as covered with the mediator's perfection.  What is the effect of this significant difference in our relationship with our heavenly Father?

There are differences certainly. Parents are sinners raising children who are sinners, etc. But there are also similarities and that's really the point. Important similarities include: in both cases there is an authority that is to be obeyed, and that authority desires to see the child grow and change. And instruction, discipline and protection and provision all parts of that goal of transformation.

Further, even in the absence of a mediator, my children's misbehaviors, regardless of how serious, do not disrupt their fellowship with me (at least, when I'm being the father I want to be).  I am/want to be like the father of the Prodigal Son, who did not lessen his fellowship with his wayward son in any way.  Are there any fathers out there who think the loving, biblical way to raise children is to cut off or reduce fellowship with them

I think you're confusing a couple of different things here. "Disrupted fellowship" does not require that either of the people involved decide to lessen or reduce anything. Rather, it's a natural consequence of causing pain to someone you love. When you let somebody down, you feel guilt about that. In addition they are harmed or disappointed or offended in some way. And there is a disharmony in the relationship. This is what is usually meant by "disrupted fellowship." They need to clear the air between them. This is what 1 John 1:9 is all about.

So in this sense, fellowship is indeed disrupted between parents and children when children do wrong. Nobody decides to disrupt it. It's just what happens as a result of wrongdoing.

But even this explanation of "disrupted fellowship" takes no account of the key differences between our relationship with God and our children's relationship with us:  we have a mediator/substitute and they do not, so that we are forgiven in advance.  Having already provided a sacrifice/payment for our sin, together with God's omniscience, He is never harmed or disappointed or offended by our post-conversion sin.  He already knew it was going to happen and He already forgave it.  So why (and how) is the fellowship disrupted?

Also, you've defaulted back to I John 1:9 without responding to my questions upthread about whether that verse even applies to Christians.  To be converted in the first place, a Christian has already confessed his sins and his sinfulness, and God has already forgiven his sins and cleansed him from all unrighteousness.  Isn't I John 1:9 addressed to non-Christians who deny that they have sinned and/or that they are sinners?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Having already provided a sacrifice/payment for our sin, together with God's omniscience, He is never harmed or disappointed or offended by our post-conversion sin.  He already knew it was going to happen and He already forgave it.  So why (and how) is the fellowship disrupted?

This is an inference and makes some sense but where does the Bible teach it? There's a difference between these two things:

  • Unalterable standing before God
  • Complete unresponsiveness of God to to what we actually think and do

The latter is not taught anywhere in the Bible, not even in the NT. Rather, several passages indicate that He is pleased or displeased in varying degrees in response to what we actually do. Fellowship is indeed disrupted, not only on our part as we feel bad for disappointing Him but also on His part--He is genuinely displeased. (His displeasure is satisfied by the cross. All penalties paid, but the cross does not render God ambivalent about sin in His children)

I'll come back to that, but first... why 1 John 1:9 is written to believers

  1. The epistle itself is written to believers. There would need to be strong contextual evidence for seeing any part of it as directed at the unbelieving.
  2. The close context indicates that "we" is believers. For example, the group John says he is writing to is described in 1:4 "and we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete." Right after the famous 1:9-10 passage, he addresses "my little children" in 2:1. There is no indication here that he has changed audiences anywhre in the chapater.
  3. The language of "confessing sins" is not used anywhere in the NT as conversion language. Rather, the emphasis is on turning and believing. On the other hand, we do see language of confession used elsewhere of believers (James 5:16).

There are probably several other reasons, but I'm trying to be brief. 

As for God feeling nothing in response to the sin of believers, if that is the case, the following passages simply make no sense:

Col. 1:-10  2 Cor. 5:9  1 Thess. 4:1

In addition, it's pretty hard to make sense of Heb. 12:7, 10 and 1 Cor. 10:5-6.

But there are also major logical problems with this "I'm justified so God is never unhappy with me" idea. It runs counter to the entire purpose of the gospel, which is not merely to justify people, but to change them. 

Secondly, it's impossible to read the many imperatives of the NT calling us to walk in a worthy way, pursue holiness, run with endurance, etc, etc, and believe that we are supposed to feel nothing at all when we fail. A sense of highest duty is being appealed to in these passages. How shall we who died to sin still live in it? (Rom. 6:2). "My brethren, these things ought not to be so" (James 3:10). Paul refers multiple times to "shame" in 1 Cor. (1Cor. 6:5, 15:34).

The sense of "oughtness" cannot reasonably exist with a belief that what we do simply doesn't matter. And if it matters it is impossible that God should not care about it. I.e., if He is not pleased or displeased, then it doesn't matter, plain and simple.

But this view of Christian living cannot be sustained through a reading of the NT.

dmyers's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Having already provided a sacrifice/payment for our sin, together with God's omniscience, He is never harmed or disappointed or offended by our post-conversion sin.  He already knew it was going to happen and He already forgave it.  So why (and how) is the fellowship disrupted?

This is an inference and makes some sense but where does the Bible teach it? There's a difference between these two things:

  • Unalterable standing before God
  • Complete unresponsiveness of God to to what we actually think and do

The latter is not taught anywhere in the Bible, not even in the NT. Rather, several passages indicate that He is pleased or displeased in varying degrees in response to what we actually do. Fellowship is indeed disrupted, not only on our part as we feel bad for disappointing Him but also on His part--He is genuinely displeased. (His displeasure is satisfied by the cross. All penalties paid, but the cross does not render God ambivalent about sin in His children)

I'll come back to that, but first... why 1 John 1:9 is written to believers

  1. The epistle itself is written to believers. There would need to be strong contextual evidence for seeing any part of it as directed at the unbelieving.
  2. The close context indicates that "we" is believers. For example, the group John says he is writing to is described in 1:4 "and we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete." Right after the famous 1:9-10 passage, he addresses "my little children" in 2:1. There is no indication here that he has changed audiences anywhre in the chapater.
  3. The language of "confessing sins" is not used anywhere in the NT as conversion language. Rather, the emphasis is on turning and believing. On the other hand, we do see language of confession used elsewhere of believers (James 5:16).

There are probably several other reasons, but I'm trying to be brief. 

As for God feeling nothing in response to the sin of believers, if that is the case, the following passages simply make no sense:

Col. 1:-10  2 Cor. 5:9  1 Thess. 4:1

In addition, it's pretty hard to make sense of Heb. 12:7, 10 and 1 Cor. 10:5-6.

But there are also major logical problems with this "I'm justified so God is never unhappy with me" idea. It runs counter to the entire purpose of the gospel, which is not merely to justify people, but to change them. 

Secondly, it's impossible to read the many imperatives of the NT calling us to walk in a worthy way, pursue holiness, run with endurance, etc, etc, and believe that we are supposed to feel nothing at all when we fail. A sense of highest duty is being appealed to in these passages. How shall we who died to sin still live in it? (Rom. 6:2). "My brethren, these things ought not to be so" (James 3:10). Paul refers multiple times to "shame" in 1 Cor. (1Cor. 6:5, 15:34).

The sense of "oughtness" cannot reasonably exist with a belief that what we do simply doesn't matter. And if it matters it is impossible that God should not care about it. I.e., if He is not pleased or displeased, then it doesn't matter, plain and simple.

But this view of Christian living cannot be sustained through a reading of the NT.

This is a good discussion, and I appreciate your continued participation.  But you've misunderstood the alternative to disrupted fellowship.  It is not "complete unresponsiveness of God to what we actually think and do."  I agree with you that that is not taught in the Bible.  But neither, it seems to me on closer inspection, is disrupted fellowship.  For an example of both our points -- yours that God is not completely unresponsive and mine that His response is not negative toward us (due to Christ's intervention) -- look at the father's behavior in the parable of the prodigal son.  I have no doubt that the father was grieved by his son's gross sin, but he was grieved *for* his son -- for the pain and harm he knew the son was causing himself -- not grieved *at* his son.  As evidence, see his posture and his reaction at the end of the story:  before any I John 1:9 behavior from the son, and without even knowing whether such behavior would be forthcoming, he ran to the son and embraced him and welcomed him home.  The son had to insist on being allowed to confess and ask forgiveness.  It seems pretty clear that the moral of the story is not that the prodigal was estranged from the father because of the *father's* reaction to the prodigal's sin (and until the prodigal confessed and was forgiven); instead, the moral is that the prodigal need never have been estranged from the father, the estrangement was only on the prodigal's end, and the end of the estrangement was not dependent or conditional on the son's confession.  Of course, the attitude that was best for the son was one of contrition, but the father's warm, welcoming love was in no way affected by the presence or absence of that contrition.

Likewise, I'm not saying that "we are supposed to feel nothing at all when we fail."  The prodigal son felt significant contrition, as he should have.  But how did he feel the next time he sinned against his father after he saw how graciously his father welcomed him home from his prodigal wandering?  We would naturally expect that it didn't take him nearly as long to "come to his senses" and "return" to his father, because he knew now that his father didn't regard their fellowship to have been disrupted at all.  One concern I have with an imbalance toward imperatives (and the corollary that God is disappointed/offended/angered by His children's sin) is that its natural effect is to keep prodigals in the pig sty longer, dreading the day of reckoning.  They're being taught that they have to return to God as the prodigal returned to his father, in abject misery and flagellation, when in fact the prodigal's father made no such requirement.  Nor does God.

Another huge problem with the emphasis on imperatives is that the only way we can live with ourselves at all (if we really think that our post-conversion sins have a negative impact on God's feelings toward us) is to downplay the extent and seriousness of our sin.  Even the "best" of us -- those who do all the right externals (daily devotions, church involvement, visitation, etc.) and don't do all the wrong externals (insert list) AND who pay utmost attention to their internal attitudes, motives, etc. -- are filthy rotten sinners in God's eyes.  But if we believe that truth (and it is the truth) and we also believe that each of our failures has a negative effect on our relationship with God, not just on our end but on His end too, we'd go insane with grief.  So instead, we convince ourselves that it really is possible to "walk worthy" or to "please" God by our adherence to the imperatives, but only by ignoring either many of the imperatives or many of our failures.

As to I John 1:9, I may not have been clear.  Of course the book in general and vv. 5-10 specifically were written TO Christians.  What I meant to question is whether v. 9 is describing the daily, post-conversion life of a Christian, as it is often taught.  The problem is that v. 9 is part of a contrasting couplet with v. 8 -- "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."  In other words, if we maintain that we aren't sinners, we haven't appropriated the truth and we aren't saved; we're effectively saying we don't need a savior.  What we have to do to be saved is to acknowledge our sins and ask forgiveness -- recognize that we need a savior and that Christ is that savior.  So v. 9 is simply a statement of the theology that is a predicate for conversion; it's not a prescription for post-conversion life.

Your thoughts?  Thanks.

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

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Only have a minute.

I think I'm understanding your view more clearly.

I don't have time to support anything much at the moment, but in general, I'd say that my view sees a greater distinction between our position in Christ and our relational experience with God. I see 100% of God's judgment is paid for on the cross--and we are justified permanently. But in reality we still sin and God approves or disapproves of those acts when they happen.

In the end, I don't think it's any easier to reconcile "God's response is not negative" with than it is to make "God feels nothing at all" with the NT.

By the same token, the sense of oughtness that underlies so many of the imperatives still crumbles if there is no negative reaction on God's part or ours when we sin.

As for the prodigal son: I would take that parable the way you seem to take 1 John 1:9 - as referring to conversion. On the other hand, is there an application for believers who stray? Sure. But it's extracting too much from the parable to conclude that the joy the Father feels when we repent is exclusive: that there was no grief or displeasure before the joy.

Anne Sokol's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

But in reality we still sin and God approves or disapproves of those acts when they happen.

... By the same token, the sense of oughtness that underlies so many of the imperatives still crumbles if there is no negative reaction on God's part or ours when we sin.

if this is so, doesn't God have to be always displeased with us? Because every single thing we do or attempt never meets His standards.

?? do you think?

It's an interesting question all around because I wonder how much we assume or project feelings or reactions onto God. for many years, when my conscience was so hyper-sensitive and untrained, I would feel/imagine disapproval. When now I understand there wasn't.

Maybe this why we are searching out this question.

i have more rumbling around but I can't see how to put it into words yet.

dmyers, what do you think about the Lord's prayer saying "forgive us our sins as we forgive...."  ?

dmyers's picture

Anne:  I agree with you that the unavoidable implication of the concern with "oughtness" is that God is always displeased with us, because we never fully behave/feel/think/are motivated as we ought.  But of course no one who believes in thoroughly synergistic sanctification believes that; or, if they do, they don't live in anything like pervasive awareness of it.  Hence my concern, expressed to Aaron above, that proponents of synergistic sanctification unavoidably downplay Christians' post-conversion sinfulness.  Seems to me there are only three responses for the person who believes in synergistic sanctification:  perpetual grief; downplaying their sin; or grateful realization that, as Steve Brown puts it, "God's not mad at you."

Interesting that you asked about the Lord's Prayer -- the same question occurred to me, so I dug into it some.  Here's my tentative answer:  In sum, it's the difference between pre-Cross and post-Cross.  In Mt. 6:9-14, Jesus is speaking under the Law.  As He did with anger, lust/adultery, and other topics, He was communicating to His hearers that the Law is even more difficult to keep than they imagined.  On this topic, He told them that *they had to forgive to be forgiven*.  After the Cross, though, the order is reversed, per passages such as Eph. 4:32 ("forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you") and Col. 3:12-13 ("Forgive as the Lord forgave you").  We forgive (or should) *because we've been forgiven*.  Our forgiveness from God is no longer conditional on our forgiving others, because we are in Christ.

Aaron Blumer's picture

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Anne Sokol wrote:

Aaron Blumer wrote:

But in reality we still sin and God approves or disapproves of those acts when they happen.

... By the same token, the sense of oughtness that underlies so many of the imperatives still crumbles if there is no negative reaction on God's part or ours when we sin.

if this is so, doesn't God have to be always displeased with us? Because every single thing we do or attempt never meets His standards.

Actually, whenever we obey He is pleased. It really is that simple. Though our obedience is till often tainted by a pinch of selfishness or something else, He pleased with every bit of the growth and progress He has brought about in us.

We shouldn't think of our obedience as a "perfect or nothing" scenario. The NT just doesn't frame it that way. Rather, we have imperatives to pursue: love God w/all heart soul strength. It's a self-defeating mindset if we reason "Well, I'll never love Him perfectly, so what's the use?" The same is true of all the put-off, put-on passages. 

Not a sports fan, but baseball helps here. It would be silly for really good batters to simply not try because they will never bat 1000. We recognize that the guys are doing 300 or better are accomplishing something.

So to sum up whenever we obey, we are meeting His standards... that's what "obey" means.

Anne Sokol's picture

name  a day you've ever obeyed more than disobeyed ...

do you or I even understand how much we don't obey? The more I see Jesus and ponder the depths of God's commands, the more I see that I don't obey.

does that mean I quit everything? Of course not. That would be silly. Though there are people who go that way when they can't meet their own man-made expectations. 

It means that I work with joy because Jesus did it all for me perfectly. I am following in His steps. I cannot nor will ever earn God's good pleasure.

obedience really is perfect or nothing. Jesus was perfect. I'm just following him, and my efforts are not praiseworthy. They are worth doing in that I'm following Jesus and serving as he served. but shucks. even my obedience is riddled with incompleteness.

dmyers's picture

Aaron, earlier you wrote:

"'Disrupted fellowship' does not require that either of the people involved decide to lessen or reduce anything. Rather, it's a natural consequence of causing pain to someone you love. When you let somebody down, you feel guilt about that. In addition they are harmed or disappointed or offended in some way. And there is a disharmony in the relationship. This is what is usually meant by 'disrupted fellowship.' They need to clear the air between them. This is what 1 John 1:9 is all about."

In your last comment, you wrote:

"Actually, whenever we obey He is pleased. It really is that simple. Though our obedience is till often tainted by a pinch of selfishness or something else, He pleased with every bit of the growth and progress He has brought about in us.

We shouldn't think of our obedience as a 'perfect or nothing' scenario. The NT just doesn't frame it that way. Rather, we have imperatives to pursue: love God w/all heart soul strength. It's a self-defeating mindset if we reason 'Well, I'll never love Him perfectly, so what's the use?' The same is true of all the put-off, put-on passages.

Not a sports fan, but baseball helps here. It would be silly for really good batters to simply not try because they will never bat 1000. We recognize that the guys are doing 300 or better are accomplishing something.

So to sum up whenever we obey, we are meeting His standards... that's what 'obey' means."

This seems to me to be an example of the cognitive dissonance that inheres in your view.  Describing the disrupted fellowship concept, resort has to be made to our "causing pain to" God, our "feel[ing] guilt about that," our "harm[ing] or disappoint[ing] or offend[ing]" God, and "disharmony in the relationship."  But when it's pointed out that we sin frequently enough that our fellowship must necessarily be disrupted on a regular basis, the tenor changes -- now the focus is on how pleased He is with what (relatively little -- or any?) we do right and that even if we're batting .300 we "are accomplishing something."  (Note that your understanding of 1 John 1:9 doesn't "clear the air" as to the majority of our sins, which never even register to us.)  I think this yo-yoing between self-abnegation and an inflated sense of the good we do is what leaves the average Christian so confused, conflicted, and frequently despairing about his walk.  (By the way, it seems to me there's a rather large problem with the baseball analogy.  The .300 hitter is doing well compared to the small percentage of the human population who are baseball players.  If he had an owner or manager who insisted on a 1.000 batting average, he'd live in constant failure and frustration.)

You're right that the "what's the use" attitude is self-defeating.  But the traditional alternative -- disrupted fellowship remedied by 1 John 1:9 -- is an inferior solution (as is to be expected if, as I believe, it's actually unbiblical).  The superior alternative is the understanding described by Keller in Prodigal God, Tchividjian in Jesus + Nothing = Everything, Steve Brown in Three Free Sins, etc.  God is always pleased with us, in Christ.  We have nothing to hide, nothing to lose, and nothing to prove.  There is no such thing as disrupted fellowship as far as God is concerned.  God's grace covers our post-conversion sins and failed performance both positionally and relationally.  The practical result of this understanding is gratitude and freedom to do a better job of obeying than we would otherwise do. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

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"name  a day you've ever obeyed more than disobeyed ..."

Why does this matter? The failures do not erase the successes God is bringing about in our lives. Every time we obey, we walked worthily in that moment; it's His grace at work and we should rejoice in that.

It's so self defeating and joy-draining to focus on the failures.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Describing the disrupted fellowship concept, resort has to be made to our "causing pain to" God, our "feel[ing] guilt about that," our "harm[ing] or disappoint[ing] or offend[ing]" God, and "disharmony in the relationship."  But when it's pointed out that we sin frequently enough that our fellowship must necessarily be disrupted on a regular basis, the tenor changes -- now the focus is on how pleased He is with what (relatively little -- or any?) we do right and that even if we're batting .300 we "are accomplishing something."

I think we would do well to just go back to the NT and work with what it says. For that, I refer you to the OP and the preceding article. However difficult some of us may find it to reconcile what Scripture says with the way we think things must be, the NT still says what it says.

As I posted earlier (and these passages have not been addressed by the other views), the NT appeals repeatedly to a sense of oughtness and often speaks of shame (1 John 2:28 is another example).

So when we sin, we are supposed to recognize the entire truth of the situation. The truth is all of the below . . . .

  • God is in the process of remaking me in His image
  • God is pleased when I obey
  • God is displeased when I do not
  • God never loves me any less or more, regardless
  • God never requires any kind of payment (from me) for my sin, regardless
  • The progress in my life honors Him ("worthily" is the word for the walk); the remaining sin does not
  • I should be displeased and ashamed about sin in my life
  • I should pleased and delighted by obedience in my life

There is really nothing hard to understand here (though obedience is often hard to do)

When you're heading on a long trip to see a loved one, you are simultaneously glad for the miles behind you and bummed out that there still many yet ahead.
If we dismiss unfounded either-or thinking (it's still a mystery to me where this comes from) on the topic of sanctification the NT is not hard to understand on this.

Anne Sokol's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

"name  a day you've ever obeyed more than disobeyed ..."

Why does this matter? The failures do not erase the successes God is bringing about in our lives. Every time we obey, we walked worthily in that moment; it's His grace at work and we should rejoice in that.

It's so self defeating and joy-draining to focus on the failures.

no one is saying to focus on the failures. What I'm saying is that if God's being pleased with me is contingent upon my obedience, He will have much more reason to be displeased with me.

the commands in the NT show us, first of all, what Christ did for us. When we have the spirit of following Him, then the commands take their rightful place.

If we focus on obeying the commands, we 1) reduce them to do-able, measurable things, thereby 2) fooling ourselves that we are obeying in a sufficient way, when really 3) we lose the intent of the command, and 4) can even obey the standard we set yet at the same time be disobeying God in certain situations. 5) we limit our growth/sanctification to a human level.

This is why Christ is the emphatic focus of these men's writings. They are not saying disobedience is unimportant or irrelevant. They are saying that what we focus on is what leads us to obedience, that what we emphasize in sanctification (Christ, the all-life-encompassing truths of the gospel, etc) will be the best aid into obedience that pleases God.

Aaron Blumer's picture

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The passages that speak of our calling to strive to please Him are still in the NT. And these passages are meaningless unless failure is displeasing.

9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col. 1:9-10)

 

See also 2 Cor 5:9, Eph. 5:10, 1 Thess. 4:1

The missing concept here is simultaneity. Both-and. 

  • We are justified (righteous standing) even though we are not actually righteous
  • God is pleased in that sense even though He is also not pleased by our sin

Though the Scriptures are clear enough read directly, a bit of reasoning strengthens the argument a little:

  • It is not possible for God to be unaware of our sin
  • It is not possible for God to fail to be displeased by sin
Anne Sokol's picture

But you are then minimizing God's displeasure. Can you bear God's displeasure for your sins? No one can. Christ had to do it--He had to bear God's displeasure (for pre/post conversion sins).

Christ took/bore all our shame and the displeasure of God.

Think about it this way:

When we were unbelievers, our sins were horrible and deserved the wrath of God. We all agree about this.

But now, when we are his children, ..... oh my, it's MUCH WORSE that I sin because I have the Bible, the indwelling Spirit, spiritual gifts, so much knowledge of God and his ways. Do we now think we can bear the displeasure of God towards our sins? It should be much worse displeasure b/c of all He's done for us!

So, yes, our sins now can displease God. But it was poured onto Christ on the cross.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'm not sure what "bearing" displeasure means in this context. But in any case, it's not the same as simply feeling it, which is what I'm talking about. Displeasure expressed in punishment? We're already agreed that Christ has taken care of that for those who believe.

Anne, I'd still like to see your thoughts on two things that are pivotal on this topic:

  1. What about the Scriptures that clearly indicate that both God and His children ought to be displeased when we sin?
  2. What about simultaneity? 

Much of what you're saying still seems to assume that we must feel less pleasure and joy whenever we feel more displeasure or shame. But this is not the case. In fact, meditating on some of the great hymns (not to mention the Psalms) shows that these two feed each other and are both part of godly affections and attitudes.

Again, I'll return to the journey analogy. On a long journey to visit a loved one, I'm simultaneously sad that I still have so many miles to go, yet glad about the miles already behind me. Neither diminishes the other. They feed eachother. I'm only sad about the distance because of the joy I anticipate at the destination. And the the toil of travel and pain of separation will make the time together that much sweeter. But the joy is dominant because of the bigger picture. The all-encompassing reality that frames both the suffering and the joy is the loving relationship that makes the whole journey happen. There is a loved one I am going to see.

In the Christian life, our displeasure (and God's) toward sin feeds the greater joy of knowing that sin is already paid for, that our glorification is certain, that we are the recipients of indescribable generosity, that we are adopted into an irreversible kinship of great blessing, that an incorruptible inheritance is reserved for us. None of this diminishes our grief and displeasure over sin; it puts it in a context of deeper joy.

That joy--far from diluting our drive to do right--intensifies the fact that we ought not to sin (Rom. 6:2, Heb. 12:1-2) and ought to try harder to walk worthy of our calling. So both the pleasure of what we already have/who we are, as well as the displeasure of the ways we still fail, serve to compel us to "try harder."

Anne Sokol's picture

that article. I have sometimes wondered the same question--why He didn't remove the sin at salvation---would save us all a lot of trouble. But then I see that he's not afraid of my sins but uses it all for teaching me.

I'd like to know what "trying harder" looks like for you. Let's say a person wants to have good prayer life. So, how you do go about thinking about that and doing it, in the 'trying harder' mode?

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