Sabbatical, Day 61: Not Perfect, Just Forgiven – Or More?

I’m going to raise a theological issue in a moment. Please don’t go away. It doesn’t require (many) long words, and it’s about an important issue in Christian life and witness. It’s something I’ve had in the back of my mind for a year or two, but never thought a lot about. But it has come up again today while I’ve been reading Tim Keller‘s ‘The Reason for God‘, and it’s rather more important than the continued slow broadband speeds I’m trying to diagnose here. (Something like 200k speed instead of our usual 1.8 meg or so. I’m currently running a full virus check as part of PlusNet‘s faults procedure.)

So here’s the issue. What do we expect of Christian behaviour? Twenty years ago at theological college, I was in conversation with a tutor. I don’t remember the topic, but I must have expressed some disappointment about church life in a placement. He replied, “David, never forget that the church is a company of sinners.”

And I wanted to reply, “Yes, but …”. We are a company of sinners, but I don’t like that most cheddary of Christian slogans, ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’ It seems to be an excuse for all sorts of unacceptable conduct. (Says he who is the chief of sinners. But I don’t want to excuse myself, either. I’m too good at rationalisation.)

The difficulty surfaced again when I read Eugene Peterson‘s book ‘The Jesus Way‘ in 2007. Much of that book is routine wonderful Peterson, but I found one part awkward. In using the example of King David’s life, he rightly trumpets the extraordinary grace of God in bringing forgiveness after forgiveness. And again, I thought, “Yes, but?” The grace of God is truly astonishing. How he picks up people like me, dusts us down and sets us on the road again is staggering.  My ‘but’ was that I wanted to read something about transformation. If it was there, I missed it. 

And that is the one area where I have struggled with Keller. There are so many riches in ‘The Reason for God’. I loved the passage on page 57 where he said that the problem with Christian fanatics isn’t that they are too serious about the Gospel, it’s that they aren’t serious enough, because they act like Pharisees rather than those who know grace. I also appreciated the fact that he tackles so many of the popular objections to faith, including the one where people rightly say that the behaviour of Christians doesn’t always compare favourably to that of non-Christians. 

Now Keller rightly says that Christianity isn’t about moralism. It is – again – about grace. He also says the Christian faith has theological resources for understanding, if not expecting this dilemma. We can expect non-Christians to live outstanding lives, because (using the Calvinist term) he bestows ‘common grace’ on all. We all have the image of God in us, however damaged, is how I would put it. On the other hand, Christians are still sinners. So in believing the best about non-Christians and the worst about Christians (something we rarely do in the church), we need not be surprised if people who do not share our faith outshine us at times.

I am refreshed by the way he consistently goes back to grace. I think he is a shining example of not shooting down those he disagrees with in some crude culture war. Yet I think non-Christians have a point about expecting Christian conduct to be better, even without misunderstanding our message as one of moralism.

I have wondered whether Keller and Peterson’s Presbyterian traditions have anything to do with this. I’m thinking of the debates at the Reformation about justification. Essentially the Reformers separated justification and sanctification, whereas the Catholics conflated the two. Thus the Reformers, in emphasising their difference from Rome, stressed justification as being by the free grace of God through faith in Christ. Sanctification, in the sense of holy living, is also by grace through faith, but the Reformers wanted to separate it out as clearly as possible in order to deny any possible thought that good works merited salvation. So I would suggest it’s possible for someone in a strongly Reformed background to end up emphasising justification (in a Protestant sense) and underplaying sanctification. Might this explain Keller and Peterson?

The weakness I can immediately see in my argument is that the theological college tutor I mentioned was a Methodist. For Methodism has a subtly different tradition here, as I understand it. Wesley was with the Reformers in preaching that sinners were saved entirely by grace through faith in Christ and his atoning work on the Cross. But he moved onto sanctification much more quickly than the classical Reformers did. If you had faith, then (as in Galatians 6), that ‘faith worketh by love’: it was evident in a new lifestyle. The new lifestyle did not save you, but it was the evidence of having received salvation. It was gratitude for salvation, not the cause of it. It was a sign of the Spirit’s work of assurance, which was more than the objective promises of Scripture that the Reformers had stressed. With a theological heritage like that, then whatever one might think about Wesley’s controversial doctrine of Christian Perfection, you will not settle for ‘Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.’

So do the likes of Keller and Peterson allow us to be too easy on ourselves, or is that just the wonder of grace? Does Wesley lead us into moral self-flagellation, or is he simply calling out the cost of discipleship? And for those of you who might know Keller, Peterson, Presbyterianism in general or Wesley better than me, have I misread them at any key point? I would be very interested to read your comments, because – as I said in the opening paragraph – this is an important issue in Christian life and witness. For it is about the nature of salvation and a proper portrayal of Christianity to the world.

As Dr Frasier Crane used to say, “I’m listening.”


  1. Your theological college tutor only gave you half the proper answer. The church is a school for sinners, and a society of saints – at one and the same time. That’s grace at work in individuals and in community. Yes, I think sanctification is an important key to understanding it, but grace is even more important – how can the same people be so different in worship, at home, or in church councils?!

    Still on the journey…


    1. Tony,

      Thanks – that’s how I felt about my tutor’s response! And whatever I’ve said about apparent omissions regarding sanctification (and I can’t believe Keller and Peterson don’t believe in it – see my reply to Andy below), grace is primary in everything – thank God.

      Also still on the journey …


  2. I think you’ve got some insight here regarding the Reformed Tradition. In my own Lutheran background, we had a similar emphasis on grace – also too much, in my view. (True, Lutherans are not Calvinists, but they are very keen on Grace!)

    I agree with you that bringing ‘holiness’ and ‘sanctification’ back into the Reformation was one of the things that Wesley was trying to do. In the US, Methodists and the wider holiness tradition are often accused by Reformed types (and conservative Lutherans!) of believing in salvation by works. I have the same ‘yes-but’ reaction you do and I suspect that Wesley did too.

    It’s a fine line to walk between understanding that there isn’t anything we can do to save ourselves and also understanding that God calls us to grow in holiness. I read ‘What’s so Amazing about Grace?’ about 10 years ago, but one story sticks in my mind: about the married man who took a lover and planned to divorce his wife and marry his lover on the basis that God would forgive him. The man went ahead and did this against the advice of Christian friends and then ended up falling away from God. There is a profound point in there, but I struggle to express it in words. Perhaps, ‘Don’t make plans to sin and to rely on cheap grace. Grace isn’t cheap.’ (Which begs an additional profound theological discussion!)


    1. Pam,

      Thank you. I did wonder whether you might comment on this – and rather hoped you would, knowing your Lutheran background. There is a whole exploration to be had about why Arminians get accused of teaching salvation by works. Usually it centres on the place of free will, doesn’t it? However, Wesley was clear about salvation by grace through faith, and I think he did something important in his teaching about holiness (whatever reservations people might have about ‘entire sanctification’). To me, he did so without lapsing into Pelagianism. But yes, there is a fine line to walk.


  3. I guess Keller and Peterson might reply “We DO profoundly value sanctification, we just think it flourishes best in an environment where maximim attention is given to free, unmerited grace”. The danger of telling people to be holy is that they will start mustering fear (“I must be holy or I’ll be punished”), shame (“I must be holy or people I care about will look down on me”) insecurity (“I’m worthless, but if only I was holier I’d have value”) and pride (“I’m the sort of person that is holy, unlike all those other unholy people”) to get the job done. If you major on grace (not cheap grace, grace that is experienced subjectively as well as known objectively to have been unspeakably costly for Christ to win) you get free, joyful holiness as a by-product.

    Does this work in practice, in my life? Not really, no. But the times I get closest to free, joyful holiness are the times I am most aware of how gracious God is, and have most forgotten about the rules I need to keep.


    1. Thanks, Andy, I find that helpful. I can’t believe Keller and Peterson don’t believe in holiness (excuse the double negative!), and I agree there are unhelpful, if not downright legalistic ways of expressing the call to a holy life. It’s so easy to promote guilt trips from the pulpit and other places. I guess I’d just like to hear more from them on the subject. I agree entirely with the old point that until you’ve been wrongly accused of antinomianism you probably haven’t truly preached a gospel of grace, I still feel Keller gave a half-answer to the question. I’m also disappointed, because his and Peterson’s writings are so rich, I can’t help feeling they must have some profound contributions to make in this area, and I’d love to find help from them. Perhaps it’s along the lines you suggest.


  4. Dave:

    The ‘free will’ bit is where I fall down in Lutheran theology as I have not studied Lutheran theology as an adult. Lutherans believe in free will and this – obviously – distinguishes them from Calvinists. Lutherans get accused by Calvinists of believing in ‘salvation by baptism’! (think of Luther’s statement that whenever he doubted his salvation, he reminded himself that he was baptised).

    But there can also be a difference between a stated theology and the way that people live it out. In the congregation that I grew up in, there was significant suspicion of both evangelism and what I’d call practical mission (e,g setting up a hospital in the name Christ) Both were seen as potential ways of trying to earn one’s salvation. I doubt most mainstream Lutheran theologians would agree with that theology, but this was all due to the emphasis on ‘we are saved by Grace’.

    I confess I’m ignorant as to how Lutherans balance free will and grace. But they do NOT believe in predestination – of that I’m certain.


  5. Pam,

    Insofar as I understand it, Lutheranism is committed to a ‘single predestination’ view, that God elects people to salvation, but not a ‘double predestination’ view like Calvin, where some are definitely elected to damnation.

    Your example of Lutherans being accused of ‘salvation by baptism’ by Calvinists is an interesting one for Methodists, I think, given the strong emphasis in official church documents (at least in the UK) in recent years about the importance of baptism. I think that Conference decisions on the giving of communion to children (much as I approve of the practice!) and the liturgy of the 1999 Methodist Worship Book service for the baptism of infants reflect this view. I suspect it is something we might need to tease out more in our tradition. It has all sorts of implications, not least the way Luther applied it, as you rightly said, to an understanding of Christian assurance.

    And I think that your point that there can also be a difference between a stated theology and the way that people live it out is a critical one, too, and again one that comes into play in contemporary Methodism. Our doctrines are very clear about justification by grace through faith, but there is a lot of popular belief that sails close to ‘salvation by works’ – at least in my experience. I sometimes wonder whether it might also go some way to explaining the tension between the E P Sanders school’s understanding of Second Temple Judaism and the commonly accepted picture of the Pharisees in the NT. Was there a difference between official confessional documents (or their equivalent) and popular practice?


  6. Where I am a little confused here is the separation between justification and sanctification, and moreso the separation between grace and sanctification. As to the former, Wesley believed it all one single process (often using his house metaphor). As to the later, Tony’s comment about grace being more important than sanctification: Wesley believe the entire process is by grace, leaving some Wesleyan historians and theologians to compare ‘justification by grace through faith’ with ‘sanctification by grace through faith’.


    1. Perhaps we need to speak of both stages and processes? Certainly everything has to be of grace, and therefore I entirely agree that sanctification is also by grace through faith. It has to be if it is a matter of co-operation with the Holy Spirit, and if it isn’t, then we are into the legalism of which the Reformed tradition can accuse Arminians.


  7. Will, I wasn’t saying that grace is more important than sanctification, but that grace was probably a more important key to understanding the tensions in the life of the community of believers. Salvation is by grace through faith, and salvation comprises justification (“I have been saved”), sanctification (“I am being saved”), and glorification (“I will be saved”). All these are therefore necessarily by grace – which gives the lie to some of the distorted understandings of holiness which Andy points out, such as ‘holiness as my achievement.’

    As to separation between justification and sanctification – perhaps that is more apparent than real? I often illustrate it by describing a tank factory which closes down, and is then bought by someone who wants to produce tractors. It has a sign up saying “under new management” but at first the assembly line is still set up to produce tanks, not tractors; the new owners now have to replace the old machinery with the new, in order to produce the proper product. Now, like any illustration it has its shortcomings, but it is intended to show how someone can be ‘under new management’ and still need the lifelong process of reconstruction to be able to really produce the fruit of the Spirit. It isn’t intended to say (as it can appear) that only at the end of the reconstruction can the fruit of the Spirit appear, as I think that is something which grows over time. But that’s a different issue, and a different illustration.


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