In the old covenant God’s people were characterized by the sign of circumcision. Circumcision began with Abraham to mark that he had faith and was accepted as righteous before God. However, Abraham was justified with God before he was circumcised showing that God’s acceptance of him was not dependent on this sign.
Romans 4:9-11 “Well, we have been saying that Abraham was counted as righteous by God because of his faith. But how did this happen? Was he counted as righteous only after he was circumcised, or was it before he was circumcised? Clearly, God accepted Abraham before he was circumcised! Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised.”
Colossians 2:11 “When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision–the cutting away of your sinful nature.”
Romans 2:29 “No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by God’s Spirit.”
The point I want to make is this: we believers are justified and made righteous by faith alone. We are accepted by God because we believe in Christ. However we receive this spiritual circumcision as confirmation that we believed. The apostles Paul and John look for this evidence in believers to see if they are saved or not. That is why Jesus gave us two commandments.
1 John 3:23 “And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us.”
Just like Abraham, when we believe in Jesus we are made righteous and accepted by God and later, sometimes to our surprise, we find love and gratefulness in our heart which is coming from the Spirit that lives in us.
Hebrews 10:15-17 “This is the new covenant I will make with my people on that day, says the Lord:
“I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”
Then he says,
“I will never again remember
their sins and lawless deeds.””
1 John 4:8 “But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
1 John 2:29 “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.”
1 John 3:9-10 “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God“
God’s “seed” is the Holy Spirit living in us who shows everyone of us God’s love and reminds us of his incredible grace. As we come to accept his love we find ourselves living grateful and generous lives. And that generosity is evidence that we know God’s love which came through the what Jesus did.
What if Christians continue to sin?
If we have the Holy Spirit in us why do we continue to sin? We’ve all had times in our lives where we really messed up after becoming a Christian and sometimes we’ve dealt with sinful habits that lasted for years even as a Christian.
The Holy Spirit is actively at work healing us and leading us out of those things and I’m sure there have been times where you found victories over those habits or behaviors. But having the Holy Spirit doesn’t mean we now live perfect lives. Note that the same author who said we don’t continue in sin also said this:
1 John 2:1-2 But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate who pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous. He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.
Philippians 3:3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh
This is the awesome part of our gospel. Even after becoming a Christian when you sin God’s grace keeps getting bigger (Romans 5:20). The more you fail the more you find God’s love and the more you realize the price Jesus paid for you. And if you ever accept that reality, it changes your life and becomes the very thing that leads you out of sin (2 Peter 1:5-9).
We all struggle with accepting God’s grace and love, sometimes because it’s too good to be true. Even the apostle Paul didn’t fully grasp it.
Philippians 3:8-9, 12 “I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith… Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
And when we don’t grasp and believe in the forgiveness and righteousness that God has given us in love we may find ourselves stuck in bad habits because we don’t know his love.
1 John 4:8 But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
1 John 4:19 We love because he first loved us.
Luke 7:47 But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.
We doubt his grace, we suppose we’ve hit those intolerable limits, we think we have to earn it, we think God gives up on us, etc…
But the good news is that we are forgiven of all our sins, including those committed after becoming Christians.
Romans 5:9 “And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation.”
However in the long run of your life you will see evidence that your faith is real because the Holy Spirit is continually at work in you reminding you of God’s love and softening your heart with grace.
Works follow Grace
So when Jesus gives us two commands: to believe and to love, the first alone justifies us before God and the second justifies us before man to prove the first. The second one is a fruit of the first, it is the “sign” of circumcision.
James 2:21-24 “Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” He was even called the friend of God. So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone.”
Notice here James does not say “we are right with God by what we do” but rather “are shown to be right with God by what we do.” We are right with God before we have done anything and we receive the ability to do right as a sign that God’s Spirit was given to us.
I want to give another example to show that it is faith alone and not faith and works that makes us right with God.
Luke 23: 39-43″One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!”
But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
This criminal had no godly actions to prove he was saved other than the fact that he simply believed and confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. This action alone was enough to justify him.
Understanding difficult passages
So when we see scriptures like,
Ephesians 5:5 “You can be sure that no immoral, impure, or greedy person will inherit the Kingdom of Christ and of God. For a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world.”
we know he is assuming that these people are not saved because their radically sinful behavior does not show evidence of it. He is not referring to christians who sometimes stumble even with these particular sins. All christians will inherit the kingdom of God.
2 Corinthians 1:22 “and he has identified us as his own by placing the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the first installment that guarantees everything he has promised us.”
Ephesians 1:13-14 “And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago. The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people.”
I am not saying that a believer can never act greedy or impure, but he is not defined by those things and does not make a practice of sinning because of God’s Spirit in him.
Only the pure gospel of grace can produce love
So what about people who for a while leave the church, quit being Christians, or struggle with awful habits. Why would they do that if they have the Holy Spirit? It may be due to never hearing the full pure gospel. I want to end this article with a warning to churches, not from myself but from scripture.
2 Peter 1:5-9 “In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone.
The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But those who fail to develop in this way are shortsighted or blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their old sins.”
Sometimes the reason we don’t see good fruit being produced in a believer’s life is because there is no gospel in his heart producing that fruit. What I mean is even though he is saved he does not fully realize that he is forgiven and so he continues to manifest those old habits.
This is why we must be careful to teach good doctrine at churches. If we teach conditional salvation and forgiveness determined by behavior, then when people fail they won’t be able to believe they are forgiven and will continue to digress! And instead of realizing we are not teaching the gospel we claim they are not christians because they don’t bear good fruit! If you are the only water source to a plant and you do not give it water how do you expect it to flourish? Why do you blame the plant for not producing fruit when you neglect to give it proper nutrients?
The apostles were assuming good fruit from believers partially because they knew they were teaching good doctrine. An impure gospel will produce impure fruit and it’s harder to determine who’s saved.
So if your gospel takes the free gift of forgiveness, salvation and righteousness and introduces a few reasons to doubt that we may not continue to have or receive them then your gospel may be one of the reasons people are turning away from the Lord.