One would have thought that a very basic, long-standing, and well known theological principle needs little or no defending and explaining. But regrettably it seems clear that many believers do not have such basic understanding, and one must go back to basics and seek to elucidate some primary biblical themes and principles once again.
But there is nothing new here in this regard sadly. As the author of Hebrews had to say 2000 years ago, “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again” (Heb. 5:12).
So let me deal with what is known as the standing/state doctrine. I emphasise this because there are plenty of groups who are going off into real error – if not heresy – because they fail to get this basic theological principle. For example, the emergent church folks seem to utterly fail to grasp these biblical truths.
So do the hyper grace folks. And so too those who rail against what they call ‘lordship salvation’. These three groups – and others – all flounder because they have forgotten or rejected this basic biblical teaching. So just what is it then?
Theologically we can speak of the believer’s life and walk in terms of his ‘standing’ and ‘state’. Our standing with Christ involves an already complete and perfect position. Because of the finished work of Christ on our behalf, and because of his matchless grace, we are declared to be righteous and holy and sanctified in his sight, when we come to him in faith and repentance.
But – and this is an important but – my actual state or condition as a Christian is a work in progress. Am I perfect now in my actual walk and character? No, of course not. I still struggle, I still sin, I still disobey, I still follow the flesh. Thus we must ‘work out our salvation in fear and trembling’ as Paul tells us (Phil. 2:12).
Both are part of the same package and must never be separated. But they must not be confused or conflated either. In Christ we are indeed already viewed as perfect and complete. But in reality, we have a lot to work on. Both aspects are true, both are ultimately due to God’s grace, and both must be emphasised together.
The trouble starts when we confuse the two, or when we over-emphasise one while ignoring or down-playing the other. But as is always the case, if we fail to get the biblical data in right balance, we can easily go off into error. Thus we need to uphold both truths simultaneously, and always maintain the biblical balance.
To emphasise our standing while overlooking our state can lead to license and a careless attitude toward sin. To emphasise my state while ignoring my standing can lead to legalism and a harmful works righteousness approach to salvation. So as always, we must stress all biblical truths and seek to keep the biblical balance.
If we just stress our standing, we are only being partly right. If we just stress our state, we are only being partly right. Those who stress the former for example will appeal to texts like Hebrews 10:10: “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
That is a terrific verse, but of course a verse discussing our standing, not our state. This verse speaks to our perfect and complete standing in Christ. A glorious truth indeed. So on the one hand all we have in Christ is solely due to his grace – that includes our justification, sanctification, and glorification.
But on the other hand, the Bible is utterly clear that we have a real role to play here, especially in our own personal sanctification. There are hundreds of New Testament commands which tell us to work on our sanctification, to obey, to grow, to seek Him, to pursue holiness, to work out our salvation, to put off the old man, to put on the new man, to strive to be Christlike, to resist temptation, to seek Christ earnestly in all things, etc.
These many passages about our state also must be stressed. Both are true, and both comprise one complete biblical teaching. To seek to separate these two parts of one great truth, or to wrongly confuse the two elements, will lead us into all sorts of trouble.
Another way in which the New Testament deals with this same issue is what is known as the indicative/imperative. In Christ we are already complete (the indicative), but we are to make this a reality in our daily walk (the imperative). But I speak to this in greater detail here: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/08/the-indicativeimperative-and-the-christian-life/
The indicative/imperative teaching basically speaks to the same reality as the standing/state teaching. Both stress what Christ has already done for us, and what we are called to do in our ongoing walk of discipleship with Christ. To only stress the first element of this equation leads to the sorts of errors we find in the hyper grace teachings and so on. To only stress the second will also lead us into error, as in seeking to earn our salvation by human works alone.
As I say, all this is – or should be – fairly basic Christian teaching, at least in Protestant evangelical circles. Plenty of others can be drawn upon here to take this further. Let me mention just one – John Piper. In his sermon on Romans 6:1-14 he says this:
Believers are commanded to become in practice what we are in Christ: dead to sin and alive to God.
Romans 6:11, “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Romans 6:13, “Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead.”
Notice carefully, Paul does not draw the conclusion of a mechanical or automatic obedience from our death and resurrection with Christ. He does not say, “Since you all died to sin in Christ and are alive to God in him, there is no need for me to command you to do anything, and there is no act of obedience involved. There is only an automatic, mechanical outcome of sinlessness. You died to sin; so you automatically don’t sin. You are alive to God; so you automatically serve God. No need for commands.” No, that is not what he says. Instead he says, you died, so consider yourselves dead. You are alive, so consider yourselves alive to God. You are . . . so now become what you are.
We are justified by grace through faith alone because of our union with Christ whose righteousness is counted as ours. And now we see that this same union with Christ explains why we will not continue in sin. I hope you can see how crucial this is and will stay with me and learn with me how to live as justified people. O how free and peaceful and joyful and radical we would be if we learned this together. I will do my best to open it for us. Pray with me that we see it and live it – to the glory of Christ: our righteousness.
Here we have the standing and state distinction. Here we have the indicative and imperative distinction. In both pairs, the two truths are – and must be – held together. Yes, in Christ we are already perfect. But in our actual life, we have a long way to go. It is because of what we already are in Christ (our standing, the indicative) that we have the ability to become all that we can be in Christ (our state, the imperative).
So let us never cease to proclaim the whole counsel of God. Failure to do so will result in all sorts of error, if not outright heresy. Thank God for our perfect standing in Christ. And thank God that because of this, he makes possible our state of progressive growth and sanctification in Him.