This is a common question that plagues the consciences of many believers. Due to ongoing sin, many believers live with doubt and anxiety concerning their relationship with the Lord. There are scores of believers in the church who question God’s favor toward them because of their miserable performance in obedience to the law. This is one of the biggest pastoral problems in the church.
Evangelicals today float from church to church, read how-to book after how-to book, attend all the latest popular conferences and seminars and yet still have some sin or struggle that has them in what they think is a death grip. They wonder am I really a Christian because I keep doing this? I try to stop but I can’t. I take one step forward and three steps back. Is God angry with me? Am I out of fellowship and favor with the Lord?
The answer to this dilemma rests in understanding the distinction between the Lord’s vindictive wrath and His Fatherly chastisement.
To understand this distinction, the believer must first understand that he is now dead to the law as a covenant of works. In other words, the believer needs to understand the proper distinction between the law and Gospel. The believer is free from the law as a condition of life for obedience, “Do this and live.” He is also free from the law as a condition of death for disobedience, “Do, or else be damned,” (Gen. 2:17; Gal. 3:10). The ground of the believer’s freedom from the law as a covenant of works is Christ’s perfect obedience in his place (Rom. 5:19-20). John Owen wrote, “…the whole power and sanction of the first covenant was conferred upon Christ, and in him fulfilled and ended.”
In Matthew 19:17, Christ says to the rich young man, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” God’s commandments must be kept either by us or by Christ. The moment a believer is united to Christ, Christ’s law-keeping (thus fulfilling the condition of eternal life) is imputed to the believer. “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). Thus, the Christian is no longer obligated to obey the law as a condition of life and he is free from the threatening of wrath and death for his disobedience.
Through union with Christ, believers are dead to the law in that they are not under it to be justified or condemned but are fully and totally free from the law as a covenant of life for obeying and death for disobeying. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). In the words of that great hymn, And Can It Be That I Should Gain, written by Charles Wesley,
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own!
The importance of the believer’s death to the law cannot be overstated. Under the law, man is in bondage. He is in bondage to the command of perfect obedience. He is in bondage to the curses and threatenings of the law for his disobedience. He is in fear of God’s vindictive wrath and judgment. But, “in Christ” the believer possesses a glorious liberty from the curses and threatenings of the law. “…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36)!
Through faith in Christ, the believer’s status is changed from one of guilty to pardoned (Rom. 5:1). Believers are no longer under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14). By grace believers are rescued “from the domain of darkness, and transferred to the kingdom of His beloved Son… (Col. 1:13).
Thus, the law in the hand of Christ no longer condemns the believer. The law no longer threatens the believer with vindictive wrath. In Christ, there is no threatening of eternal, vindictive wrath and punishment. In Christ, believers have no fear of judgment. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love,” (1 Jn. 4:18). Believers no longer fear the threats and punitive punishments of the law because they are under grace. Ralph Erskine, quoting Samuel Rutherford, wrote, “The Gospel forbids nothing under pain of damnation to a justified believer, more than to Jesus Christ.”
“The Gospel forbids nothing under pain of damnation to a justified believer, more than to Jesus Christ.”
Does this then suggest that sin in believers is less serious than sin in unbelievers?
Sin, whether in believers or unbelievers, is always a serious offense to a holy God (Hab. 1:13). There are examples in Scripture of God being angry with His children and disciplining them (e.g., Ps. 79:5; 85:5; Heb. 12:5-11). But, this is far different than God’s vindictive anger.
Ralph Erskine explains, “Though the sins of believers deserve hell, and the intrinsic demerit of sin is still the same; [yea, I think the sins of believers being against so much love, and so many mercies, they deserve a thousand hells, where others deserve one;] yet, being dead to the law, he hath no vindictive wrath to fear, Rom. v. 9, “While we were sinners, Christ died for us; and much more now being justified by his blood, we are saved from wrath through Him;” and sure he is not to fear that which God calls him to believe he is saved from: his slavish fear, therefore, is from unbelief, and weakens his hands in duties” (Law-Death, Gospel-Life, p. 56).
Slavish fear and doubts concerning God’s favor arise from failing to keep the Gospel central in one’s mind and affections.
Vindictive wrath is applied to those who are dead in sin and under the law. Fatherly chastisement is applied to those who are alive in Christ and dead to the law. To be sure, as Erskine points out, the sins of believers deserve vindictive wrath and eternal hell. The intrinsic demerit of sin in a believer is still the same as in unbelievers. God will always find in believers just reason for disciplining them. Yet, because Christians are in union with Christ and thus dead to the law, there is no more vindictive wrath to fear (cf., Rom. 8:1; 1 John 4:18). Why? The blood of Christ shed on the Cross quenched the fire of God’s vindictive wrath (cf., Rom. 5:9). Christ exhausted God the Father’s wrath against sin on the Cross (Rom. 3:25). Because we are in union with Christ, we have been delivered from God’s wrath (via Christ’s propitiation). We are not to fear that which God calls us to believe we are saved from (Rom. 5:1, 10-11).