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Ligonier Conference (II)

This morning began with John MacArthur’s second and final sermon. His topic was “Simultaneously Righteous and a Sinner” (or, to use the latin theological term, simul iustus et peccator). He turned first to the well-known story of the raising of Lazarus and on that basis titled his message (rather creatively, I might add), “We Have Been Raised but We Stink.”

He looked to the story of Lazarus and remarked on the fact that, even after Lazarus left his grave, the smell of death would have been upon him. His clothes would have been scented with death, so that though he was alive, death clung to him. MacArthur used that as a metaphor for Christians today—people who have been saved from sin but who still have death upon us. Of course eventually the metaphor breaks down. After all, once Lazarus removed his grave clothes, the smell of death would have left him. He could have bathed and all traces of death would have been gone. But our predicament is not quite so easy. We do not just have grave clothes that stink, but we have a full, dead carcass—the presence of sin that remains upon and within us. The stench of death is not just on us, but all through us.

From here he turned to Romans 6 and 7 and showed that there the Lord tells us that we are no longer slaves to sin because once a person dies he is no longer a slave. Death frees him. Through Christ’s death we have been freed from sin’s mastery—we are no longer in slavery to sin. Sin no longer rules or has dominion. We now need to consider ourselves dead to sin but alive to God. Having been freed from sins we now become slaves of righteousness. There was an entity in existence that is no longer in existence. There was a real death and this was a real transformation. We often hear that when we are converted we have a new nature added to our old nature. But this is not the language of the New Testament. It is not addition but transformation—the death of one entity and the creation of a new one. The change in you when you were converted is greater than the change will be at your death. Death is simply subtraction.

Can we become total masters over sin and achieve sinlessness? Is that our goal or objective? Those who hold to perfectionism necessarily separate the act that brings justification and an act that brings sanctification. They separate these so a person can, by an act of his free will, become entirely free from sin. To support this, they downgrade the definition of sin only to acts which are premeditated.

Even mature, theologically-informed Christians can fall into the trap and fall into wrong thinking about sanctification. Part of the cure is ensuring that we truly understand both justification and sanctification—the similarities and differences. If you know these things you can immediately dismiss all talk of perfectionism.

He outlined five similarities between justification and sanctification:

  • -Both arise from the free grace of God.
  • Both are part of Christ’s redemptive work of salvation.
  • Both will (and must) be present in the same persons.
  • Both begin simultaneously.
  • Both are necessary to glorification.

And then he outlined five differences:

  • In justification a person is counted righteous because Christ’s righteousness is imputed to him. In sanctification a person has to work out his salvation over time.
  • The righteousness of justification is not our own, but Christ’s. The righteousness of sanctification is ours, though wrought by the Spirit.
  • Our works play no part in justification but are critical to sanctification.
  • Justification is instantaneous and instantly complete while sanctification is an incomplete and imperfect work.
  • Justification does not increase or develop or grow while sanctification is progressive as Christians grow in their spiritual walk towards glorification.

MacArthur took us on a survey through Scripture to show that perfectionism simply cannot be supported by Scripture. The Bible supports no leaps into eradication or total consecration. Rather, the Christian life is a slow and steady climb towards increased holiness (or, as J.C. Ryle says, a slow climb up an inclined plane). While we try to do the right thing, all we do and all we are is permeated by the flesh, by that old man who cannot be entirely eradicated until we are glorified.

What do we do about it? Believers do everything they can to kill the sin that remains. They do not imagine that they have no sin, but instead endeavor by all the means of grace to mortify the sin that remains. They abstain from sin, they avoid sin, they read Scripture, meditate upon Scripture, pray constantly. It is a lifelong battle we fight daily. It’s a battle that must be fought with passion.

MacArthur closed by borrowing an Old Testament example. He turned to 1 Samuel 15 where God commands Saul to utterly destroy the Amalekites for their cowardly attack on the Israelite women and children. But Saul and the people disobeyed God, sparing Agag and the best of the plunder. Failure to obey God cost Saul his throne and cost him his kingly lineage. Finally Samuel commanded that Agag be brought before him and he hacked him to pieces, but did not wipe out all of his people. A few years later the Amalekites were stronger than ever and began to torment the Israelites with raids and with battle. David attacked but once more did not destroy them utterly. A few generations later Haman showed up (in the book of Esther) and once more sought to destroy the Jews. The analogy is this: that you need to be obedient to God, ruthlessly hacking sin to pieces or it will come back and will come back stronger than ever. Putting sin to death is a lifelong process and one that will be perfected only in the day of Jesus Christ. Until then we are and shall remain both righteous and sinful.