In an exercise science class in my early college days, I had a professor try to tell me that since the triceps muscles functioned to extend the forearm, one only needed to do bicep curls to exercise the whole arm. Her reasoning was that lowering the weight extended the forearm, and thus exercised the triceps. She had taken a basic fact and misapplied it because she neglected to account for simple facts like gravity being the force that lowers the weight as the lifter slowly relaxes his biceps.
Similarly, in the Christian life, we can easily misapply things. This is especially so in the case of the Bible’s language regarding Christian growth and God’s grace. For instance, some see the passages about justification by grace through faith is the ultimate or only expression of the Christian life. In so doing, they can actually believe/explain a version of faith that does not lead to good works or obedience in Christ.
On the other hand, some look at the passages in Scripture about spiritual growth and the need for obedience and see these as the ultimate or only expressions of the Christian life. The danger here is teaching that one is saved by one’s efforts and not God’s grace and the progress is always obvious and linear.
But one can see two aspects of the Christian life in Scripture. These aspects are often called the gospel/law, justification/sanctification/ and indicative/imperative distinctions. While I grasp all of those, I think that they can confuse certain issues. For instance, in Scripture the gospel includes commands, indicatives result from imperatives, and sanctification is not always about growth and obedience.
My preferred language is to distinguish the positional and progressive elements of the Christian life. I’m sure somebody came up with the language before me, but I haven’t seen it anywhere and it popped into my mind when I was teaching a class about the gospel/law and justification/sanctification distinction.
These are aspects of the Christian life concerning one’s identity in Christ. They are gifts of grace to be claimed as a certain possession by the faithful. Biblical examples include but are not limited to:
- Justification by faith (Romans 4:24-5:10)
- Adoption (Ephesians 1:3-23)
- Sanctification/being called saints (Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:29-31)
- Being beloved by God (all over the Bible)
The importance of the positional aspects of the Christian life appears is that they give us individual and communal identity, they are dependent ultimately upon God, and they are not dependent upon our progress (justification by faith is true for anybody who has faith).
These are elements of the Christian life in which growth and progress can be made. The confusing thing is that sometimes the Bible uses the same words for progressive and positional categories (sanctification, grace, live like children of God, etc). Biblical examples include but are not limited to:
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God. Being a son of God here is a designation based on character, not a declaration based on grace received through faith.
- Matthew 6:33 (seek first the kingdom of God and it’s righteousness). Righteousness is not a declaration but a virtue to be pursued.
- Hebrews 12:14 say to strive for the holiness/sanctification necessary to see the Lord.
- Abiding in God’s love (1 John 3, John 14-26)
The importance of these aspects of the Christian life is that they speak of the goals toward which faith strives. While one does not have to be a perfect peacemaker to be justified by faith, one should have a faith of the sort that will lead to peacemaking. These aspects of the Christian life also speak of how one experiences life with God and approaches true happiness and Christian virtue.
When one properly grasps the difference between these two modes of Christian discourse it becomes significantly easier to understand how one can be justified by faith but still be commanded to strive for “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).” The faith that justifies is faith that seeks holiness (the holiness doesn’t justify). Similarly, the state of justification is a hope and comfort specifically for those who live in faith.