Jeff McSwain, Are We Sinners, or Saints?
Jeff McSwain is the founder of Reality Ministries of Durham, North
Carolina. Jeff went on to earn his doctorate in 2015 at the University of St. Andrews.
If we are new creations, why do we still have old habits? Jeff McSwain talks about sanctification.
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JMF: In Christ, we’re a new creation, and yet we still sin. How does sanctification actually work in our lives?
JM: That’s a great question, because one of the biggest struggles that we have is, well, if I’m already a new creation, then why do I sin the way I do? – maybe even worse than I did before I became a Christian? The other side of that coin is: What about people who aren’t Christians, but who seem to live lives that are more Christian, than Christians do? What about people who seem to exhibit more fruit of the Holy Spirit who aren’t Christians – where does that come from? So it’s two sides of the same coin.
Where do the bad things in Christians’ lives come from, and where do the good things in unbelievers come from? It’s a very practical question. It’s one that confuses young people tremendously. When they go to a camp experience and when they’re told that because they made a decision for Christ they are a new creation – the old has gone, the new has come. And they really do feel that way when they leave the mountaintop. But when they go home, however, then life hits them hard and they begin to wonder: “Oh man, was I just brainwashed at camp? What was that good feeling that I had? I don’t feel like a new creation at all. I feel worse than I ever did.”
What’s going on there? Let’s go to that passage in 2 Corinthians where Paul talks about a new creation – that whole passage is very universal in scope. (I hesitate to say the word universal because people often take that to the next step of Universalism, but no, this is the idea that every single person is implicated in what Christ has done).
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul talks about new creation in verse 17. Right before that, he had been talking about how everyone is implicated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and from now on we look at no one from a human point of view. We always look at people now through the perspective of Christology and who we know Jesus Christ to be.
Because of that, we can know that everyone has a sinful side to their lives – not just unbelievers, but also Christians. We can know that that’s still there, but we can also know that there’s been something that has been done about that in the death and resurrection of Christ that has eradicated all sin and made us pure, holy, and blameless in the sight of God.
But how do those two things fit together? That’s the question. The first point is worth repeating: this is true for everyone. This pattern of the two things going on in the same space is not a linear one. Oftentimes we think of it as linear. I was an old creation, now I’m a new, and the old is gone. It’s a replacement of the old with the new. Anytime we think about this as just a replacement of the old with the new, all we have is the new. We have no way of interpreting any of our sinful nature or any of our sinfulness anymore because we’ve said the old is gone.
So how do we get bad out of good? We’ve got to be able to see that those two things are happening in the same space, and they’re happening in the same space for every human being. However, by the Holy Spirit who lifts us up to live into our life with Christ and allows us to manifest the fruit of the Spirit in a more overt, or in a more manifest way than an unbeliever most of the time. We can see that, as we work out our salvation in fear and trembling, the Holy Spirit works to allow us to grow into the person that we already are.
The key to understanding those two things that go on in the same space is Christology. It goes back to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. I read the book Fahrenheit 451 a long time ago. I don’t remember what that was like, but I thought about writing a book that’s called Christology 451 or Humanity 451. It has to do with this theological anthropology of how we look at human beings from a Christ-centered perspective.
You don’t need to go any further than a few verses down to see how it is accurate to say that those two things, our sinfulness and our purity, can be put in the same space, because we have to look no further than Jesus Christ himself. That passage says, “He made him who had no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” [2 Cor. 5:21]. What that passage says, and it packs a lot, is that Jesus Christ never lost his divinity and his deity and his purity in the Incarnation, but he became sin.
How can those two things fit together? I’ve always been taught that a holy God couldn’t touch sin. I’ve always been taught that sin and holiness are two completely different categories. But this passage explains that completely, and says yes, they are two different categories, but instead of it being a dualism, it’s a duality. It’s two natures in one person. That is the Christology of Chalcedon – two natures. Christ assumed our corrupt depraved humanity and he always remained God, pure and holy and unblemished the whole time. Somehow in the one person of Jesus Christ, those two things exist in the same space.
The whole idea of the atonement and the idea of substitutionary atonement sometimes falls prey to a Christology that is not orthodox according to the earliest creeds. What I mean by that is, you’ll say, in order for Jesus Christ to become sin, he must have had to take a few days off, at least, from being God. There’s no way that he can be sin and be God at the same time, because they come into the whole thing with this presupposition that the two cannot exist in the same space and therefore there is a mutual exclusivity there that if God became sin, he must have stopped being God. That’s bad Christology, but in turn it’s also bad anthropology, because of what Christ has done for all of us.
JMF: A lot of times the idea is that Christ became human in the sense of Adam before the Fall, so that Christ’s humanity is untouched or untainted, a perfect humanity.
JM: To say it that way, the church fathers would turn over in their graves, because for them, the un-assumed was the unhealed. If Christ assumed a perfect humanity, then how could he redeem it, what didn’t need to be redeemed? He had to grab onto us, and really grab onto us, or else this whole thing becomes a transaction that occurs over our heads where it never really touches us. The fact is, he grabbed onto us and plumbed the deepest depths of our sinfulness.
This is all solved by the church in the Apostle’s Creed. He descended into hell, the creed says. We have to know that he embraced us at our worst, that he became us – even Martin Luther would say he became the greatest sinner of all. Why did Jesus have to die? Because he was a sinner. This, people can’t take because they don’t think of those two things as being able to happen in the same space.
JMF: Not because he sinned himself, but because he took our sinfulness, our sinful nature on himself.
JM: He took our sinful nature in a way that was even more perfect and more deep than we even take our own sinful nature or that we even fall prey to our sinful nature. He does everything more perfectly than us. That helps, because we know there’s no residue, there’s nothing below our sinful nature that hasn’t been touched by Jesus Christ, that he became 100 percent sin. He became sin. He was made to be sin, it says.
That doesn’t minimize in the least anything about him becoming something like sin, or he associated himself with sinners. No. This is even deeper. This says he became sin, 100 percent sin. He was also 100 percent God the whole time. Thankfully, 100 percent God is deeper than 100 percent sin, otherwise we’d be in real trouble. But the point is that he reached down…
I remember Gary Deddo, one of my mentors, telling me this. I love this picture. He reached down into the sock, all the way to the very tip of the sock, and pulled it inside out. He didn’t reach halfway down the sock or somehow touch the sock and zap it or do a transaction above it that somehow paid a penalty, but the doctor became the patient and he dived down into the very deepest part of our sinful, corrupt humanity, grabbed onto us there, and pulled us out, pulled hell inside out.
People sometimes say, Jeff, you don’t hell seriously enough. I say, you might be right, but maybe you don’t take Christ seriously enough because hell, sin, death, and the devil have been defeated.
How do we translate what happened in Jesus Christ and his assumption of our fallen corrupt nature? How do we translate that into good theological anthropology for us as human beings? Getting back to that sanctification question is the next step to that. I think that we are not God. We talked at breakfast about the fact that to be adopted by God is good language, it’s a metaphor, it has its shortcomings just like all metaphors, but it has its strengths in that we are not God, we are adopted by God to be in his family, but we get to share fully in the Trinitarian life of God, and we get a full inheritance as sons.
But, as Peter says in the epistles, we get to participate in the divine nature [2 Peter 1:4]. We are not of the divine nature intrinsically and inherently by right. We are not God, but we get folded into that by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And because of that, we are sons and daughters of God. We are pure and holy children of God, and we really are. Not like Jesus, but he is sharing his real sonship with us, and so we participate in the divine nature, we have the indicative of grace, but we share in God’s nature by grace and not inherently.
At the same time, we also know we’re fully sinful in our old man, in our old selves. And we are one person. So in the same way the “two natures in one person” pattern of Chalcedon, there’s a definition of our humanity. The only difference is that our divinity, so to speak (and the old deification idea is not that we become God, but that God has become man to share his divinity with us in such a way that our divinity, so to speak, as sons of God, is by grace, nothing intrinsic). But still, we really are sons and daughters of God, and that doesn’t really sink in a lot of times.
JMF: We use the term “already, but not yet.” It’s like we focus more on the “but not yet” than on the “already.”
JM: That’s because we’re creatures of habit who walk by sight instead of walking by faith. When Paul says in that passage in 2 Corinthians 5:16, “We no longer look at anyone from a human point of view,” what he’s saying is, there’s been a change in thinking. We have a new framework now. We have repented. Metanoia [the Greek word usually translated as repentance] is a radical change of mind.
Let’s say this is our fallen human selves, and we used to look at ourselves like this, and we saw our sinfulness and we saw our shame and we saw our guilt. And maybe Christ adds onto that somewhere, but he’s kind of secondary, he’s kind of incidental, he’s kind of accidental, and maybe we can be like him someday, and we’re trying to get better, and we’re trying to be sanctified and to grow toward being more Christ-like, but it all really starts from looking at ourselves first and foremost as fallen, sinful people.
But instead, repentance is to look at it from the other side and says yes, this horizontal aspect of this duality, this horizontal describes our flat line, our death, our incompetence, our futility and bankruptcy as sinners. The wages of sin is death, and yet now we look at no one from that point of view. We look at everyone through Jesus Christ and we see that yes, we are all wicked, but we are righteous in Christ. Repentance is to turn in your thinking to look at everyone as if Jesus Christ applied to us all. That allows us to move past the zero-sum game of sanctification.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard people say this before, but they’ll say, sanctification is kind of like John the Baptist, his saying of, “I must decrease and he must increase.” If we think of that in a linear way, it’s kind of like a football field and the teams marching down the football field, and they get to mid-field, and they get to the 40-yard line, 30-yard line, 20-yard line, and we’re trying to get to be more Christ-like, which would be to cover the whole distance. But then we fall back, and we slide back, and we get pushed back into our own end of the field. And we’re constantly going back and forth, and it’s a zero-sum game. We’ll be 60 percent like Christ and 40 percent not. Maybe we fall back to 30 percent, maybe we fall back to 20 percent and 80 percent needs to be improved on, and it’s this sliding scale of sanctification. We think that we’re trying to get to a place that we’re not already.
The beautiful thing about the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and as it is patterned in the Caledonian formula, is that we’re already there. We are 100 percent pure and holy, without blemish, free from accusation, seated with Christ in the heavenly realms as sons and daughters of God. That has already taken place – not because of anything we’ve done, but because of what Christ has done.
If we start with that as the baseline, then all of a sudden, instead of trying to minimize our sin or manage it, we can see how heinous it is. To me, this is one of the great keys of sanctification for us as believers in the economy of grace. We can give ourselves permission to say, “I am wicked in many of my motives. I am bankrupt. I struggle with original sin. I am tempted in ways maybe now that I wasn’t tempted before.”
What we are allowing ourselves to do is to start with the starting point of total grace, and from within that, to be able to see our total depravity. But to talk about total depravity outside of total grace will destroy us absolutely. That’s why Karl Barth, the Torrances, and others have always wanted us to know that God’s “no” to humanity was always inside of the larger “yes.” Our solidarity with Adam and our solidarity with Christ fit in the same space.
What Karl Barth does, and this is beautiful, in Church Dogmatics 3, Book 2, he takes Friedrich Nietzsche and folds him into his own program on anthropology because Nietzsche’s outlook on humanity was dismal, hopeless, futile, absolutely abysmal, and it paints a terrible picture of the darkness of the human race. Karl Barth says, to take what Nietzsche says and to apply it in a vacuum is destructive. But if we understand total grace and that we’re 100 percent there already, we can allow ourselves to then see, “I’m 100 percent sinful, too. I am wicked. I don’t know if anything I ever do has a pure motive. I am a mixed bag.”
We see this all the time. We think, these are great Christian men who seem to fall. A congressman who has a lot of influence, or a person who leads a Christian camp who abuses kids, or a person who leads someone to Christ even when they’re cheating in an adulterous affair. What is going on there? It’s so confusing.
If we can know that those solidarities with Adam and with Christ are there, we’ll have greater victory over that solidarity with Adam because grace always outruns sin. Sin never trumps grace. Sin never gets the upper hand. But we allow ourselves to see just how bad sin is. That’s why it just kills me when people say Karl Barth is soft on sin, because soft on sin means to play the zero-sum sanctification game where we think we’re marching down the field and becoming more like Christ and becoming less sinful. That’s the most proud, haughty, pharisaical way of thinking that there is. And religion is the great opiate that allows us to be able to rationalize our sinfulness and think we’re not that bad. Karl Barth says: no, we’re bad. God had to come and die on a cross.
JMF: If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s frustrating, because we know we never actually make progress, and if we do make progress we do lose it, and we get nowhere because we never actually get to the finish line, to the goal.
JM: To be able to say “I am moving toward the finish line because Christ has carried me across the finish line” is a beautiful way of thinking. I am going to make it across the finish line because I have [already] made it across the finish line. Sanctification depends on starting with the end in mind. It comes down to believing that we’re home before we start.
JMF: When Paul gives these so-called sin lists or gives admonition about right living, he always starts from “here’s who you already are, therefore act like it, therefore behave this way.” Not “If you behave this way, then you’ll become the child of God,” but “You’re already a child of God, this is who you are, therefore start living like it.”
JM: Yeah. First Corinthians 5 and 6 is a perfect example of that, when Paul is talking about church discipline, and he’s saying, expel the immoral brother, expel the wicked brother from among you. But he’s just told the whole church that they are the unleavened bread, they are holy and pure, that they should think in rightness and in truth about who they are.
There’s an accountability to grace. The reason Paul doesn’t want that person to be in the church at that particular time is because he’s holding that person to grace. One of the greatest disservices that I think we could do, would be to exercise church discipline without the discipline of Chalcedon, without the discipline of the indicatives of grace.
Theologically, we’ve got to be disciplined enough to give everyone the indicative: This man is pure and holy and blameless, therefore we can call out the sinfulness of his behavior, and that of our own behavior, and say “That doesn’t belong anymore. That doesn’t fit. That is not in correlation with truth, and we’re not going to pretend that it is in correlation with truth. He needs to learn his lesson and then come back.”
The indicative, however, is never in question – not even with the wicked man, because then Paul goes down through that list of sins. And who could stand up under that? Idolaters will not inherit the kingdom of heaven, adulterers will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
We’ve all been idolaters and adulterers in Jesus’ definition, and so is this some kind of sliding scale? Liars will not inherit the kingdom of heaven, but as long as you don’t lie too much. Or, perhaps what it means by idolater is someone who practices it a lot. Where is that point when you become an idolater, instead of just falling prey to idolatry once in a while? The fact is, we’re all, and I can say this because I believe in the total grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we’re all idolaters.
Thank God that idolaters will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. Thank God that that adulterous Jeff McSwain has been crucified with Christ and no longer lives. In the ultimate scheme of things, he doesn’t have a future. Thankfully, I don’t have to define myself that way anymore, so I can give full play to my sinfulness and say thank God that that doesn’t inherit the kingdom, thank God Jesus Christ has taken care of that, thank God that grace is a slaying grace – that I have been crucified with Christ, that when Christ died, I died, and so did all of us, and we’ve been given a new life. To think about it from that perspective…
JMF: The very fact that we are that way is why Christ came, and is what the gospel is all about. That’s why the gospel is good news, because he’s done something about that fact. That good news is not some kind of sloppy permissiveness. It’s not some like, “Okay, I’ll just forgive you, and you’re off the hook.” It’s an accountability. Grace…because Christ is our life, sin would be to say, no, he’s not. But he is our life, he is living our life for us, and there is an accountability to that grace.
We have to hold each other to grace. That’s what that whole passage on church discipline is about. I’m going to hold you to grace. I’m not going to let you pretend like this is not true about you. It all comes down to how we view everyone in the church and out of the church. But the church is a group of people who want to live into this reality, they want to help each other and hold each other accountable.
If I knew that somebody in my church was involved in pornography, I wouldn’t go and say, I’m not sure you’re saved. I wouldn’t go to him and say I’m not sure that you should be coming to church until you change your behavior. I would say to that person, “Listen, this is not of Jesus Christ. Christ is your life. This is not of Christ.” I would hold him accountable to grace. It gives us a higher ethic than the law.
JMF: In Titus, Paul is writing to Titus and he says, “Grace teaches us to say no to ungodliness.” [Titus 2:12] What a totally different perspective. The very fact of our desire to say no to ungodliness doesn’t come out of saving ourselves and trying to work out our salvation and get salvation, it comes out of the fact that we already have grace, live in grace, are under grace.
JM: That’s right. That passage, it starts out with, again, the comprehensive view of humanity, “The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all. It teaches us to say no to ungodliness.” Later in that same passage, he says, “The whole point of this is that you might be eager to do it as good. You’re motivated by grace.”
So if I’m holding someone to grace and they say, “forget that, I don’t want to listen to that, don’t tell me that, everybody’s a sinner, I’m forgiven, I’ll do whatever I want to do,” then that is not the economy of God. That’s some kind of sloppy permissivism, that’s some kind of slapping some forgiveness onto sin and God saying yes to our sin. He’s never said yes to our sin.
JMF: In spite of the fact that that’s often used as an attack against you talking about grace too much. I’ve never met somebody who actually says that, who actually believes “I can do whatever I want because I’m under grace.” The spirit of God in us doesn’t even let us think like that.
JM: Alan Torrance has a good line about that. He talks about how in the prodigal son story, when the son comes back and the penny drops for him that he’s unconditionally loved and accepted and has always been a son in his father’s eyes, and he comes home to the feast… Can you imagine that son, after that encounter with his father that day, saying oh great, now I can go back out to the brothel.
JMF: Exactly. It’s nonsense.
JM: That’s a misunderstanding of grace. That’s why Paul says, “By no means does that mean you just go out and do whatever you want to do.” Karl Barth gets us back to this very helpful way of thinking about Chalcedon when he says, in regard to the already-but-not-yet (because the already-but-not-yet goes both ways. The old man has already been crucified, but not yet. We are already seated with Christ in the heavenly realms, but not yet. Those two things, they go both ways).
Karl Barth says, “I was and still am the old man. I am and will be the new man.” He gets those asymmetrical, those solidarities there, but he always wants us to know they’re asymmetrical. One has a future, one doesn’t. By the Holy Spirit we may and can live in it now. Even though our lives are in this matrix of a mixed bag of righteousness and wickedness, we may live as righteous children of God by the Holy Spirit now. The Spirit lifts us up to live into our true selves and therefore gives us the ability to call our old false selves what they are.
JMF: Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, we see in a glass darkly (in the Old King James) a poor image as in a mirror, but then he talks about how what we really are, is what we’re having trouble seeing, seeing our true selves as he’s made us to be. But he says the time is coming when we will see ourselves as we really are.
JM: Right. That distortion is there because we think of our own sinfulness in a sinful way and only by the revelation of God can we see him and ourselves as we really are. We have to keep reminding each other of that.
That’s why this whole thing is corporate from beginning to end. What must I do to be saved? Well, be saved because you are. How do I do that? I want to know how. How? How? Well, let’s do it together. Let’s just celebrate it. Let’s pretend like it’s true. Let’s keep thanking God over and over and be grateful for what he’s done, and let’s rub in the ointment of grace. And pretty soon we’ll begin to have the mind of Christ, which we have been given, to think about ourselves more accurately, but not only that, to think about everybody else in the world more accurately.
JMF: I was and still am the old man. I am and will be the new man. That’s such a clear perspective to hold onto.