Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Sin, Grace, and the Total Gospel

Here are a few thoughts from the notable 17th century mathematician, inventor & philosopher Blaise Pascal: I may be a mathematical genius, but I cannot talk about God without using paradoxes
There must be feelings of humility, not from nature, but from penitence, not to rest in them, but to go on to greatness. There must be feelings of greatness, not from merit, but from grace, and after having passed through humiliation. Pensees #524

The incarnation shows man the greatness of his misery by the greatness of the remedy which he required. Pensees #525

The knowledge of God without that of man’s misery causes pride. The knowledge of man’s misery without that of God causes despair. The knowledge of Jesus Christ constitutes the middle course, because in Him we find both God and our misery. Pensees #526

Man either hides his miseries, or, if he discloses them, glories in knowing them. Pensees #405

And here's one from his near contemporary, Fenelon:

The true method of profiting by the humiliation of our faults, is to behold them in all their deformity, without losing our hope in God, and without having any confidence in ourselves.
Francois de Fenelon, "Spiritual Progress"

In its simplest form, the Gospel can be reduced to these two broad concepts: the depravity of man (what Pascal calls "misery"), and the grace of God. These two parts must never be separated.

I have found that my faith struggle often lies in forgetfulness of one of these realities. For me, unbelief rarely manifests itself as an outright doubting of God's character, the truth of the Gospel, or the reliability of the Bible. It's much more insidious than that. It affirms one half of the Gospel without embracing the other, creating a dangerous state of imbalance.

We dare not speak of the grace of God until we have spoken of the utter sinfulness of man, for which grace is the remedy. And we must never speak of our sin without a sharply focused eye on grace. Sin without grace leaves us either despairingly enlightened about our condition and crying "woe is me," or it deep-freezes our smugly deceived hearts in their self-righteous complacency. The graceless way we view and treat others will reveal this. Grace without sin, on the other hand, leads us to a soft, fluffy version of Christianity which tells us we're basically okay and just need to try harder. Apart from a knowledge of what sin is and does, grace is never truly appreciated and clung to. The result is a "christianized" self-esteem teaching, the social gospel, and a merging of the church with the world.

Half a Gospel leaves man worse than he was without the Gospel. Imbalance in these matters can easily lead to frustration, ineffectiveness, complacency or heresy.

Recently, God seemed to say this to me: "You are more humbled by your own unfaithfulness than you are by MY FAITHFULNESS. You are more humbled by your depravity than you are by MY GLORY" Some of my virtues are half-baked. When I have only been living in the depravity side of the Gospel, my humility is truly felt, but it is too dependent on the knowledge of my weakness. It's a circular chain that only spirals downward. Real humility, like every other virtue, is grounded in a true apprehension of the complete Gospel - the Gospel of GRACE for SINNERS. True humility calls us to see not only what we are apart from God, but also Who He is in Himself.

Sometimes I am like a man who stands before the Grand Canyon, glances briefly at it, takes off his mirrored sunglasses to study his own reflection in them, and an hour later wistfully declares, "I'm so small and insignificant." This man misses the point altogether. And so do we, when we forget to keep the total Gospel balance of SIN and GRACE in perspective.

Isn't grace beautiful?

Grace is God's awe-inspiring display. It is divine activity which flies in the face of all our man-centered, legalistic ideas about justice and truth. Grace smashes our self-pity and makes us rightly ashamed of ourselves. It is designed to get - and keep - our attention throughout time and eternity. It is infused with a lasting glory, the glory of the infinite God. It seeps down into the lowlands of human depravity and raises those who cannot lift themselves. It carves through the bedrock of human sin, revealing what is there. But also removing great portions of that bedrock and redeeming the dry, accursed ground. For all eternity we and the angels will marvel at what God has done with sinful humanity by the working of His grace. We who have believed will forget ourselves and get lost in the abyss of this mercy. Angels will fall down adoring God, while demons and rebellious humanity agonize under a restless, grace-free existence.

Are you amazed by your inconsistency, your incessant bent toward sin, your ugly deceitful heart? You should be. But remember to lift your gaze to get stunned and captivated by God's response to your misery: a GREATER GRACE that mirrors your sinfulness in the opposite direction. Where sin abounds, grace does MUCH MORE abound. Mercy TRIUMPHS over judgment. And His lovingkindness PREVAILS over us.
Grateful acknowledgement is made to Tony Hayling at Agonizomai for his assistance in defining the thoughts in this post, and for the Fenelon quote.


  1. Derek,

    Very well written. I far too often fall into this sinful pattern of looking at my own sinful existence, wondering why God bothered to call me. This post helps me to see what is missing. The Glorious grace of Christ. I see that grace should be first in my thoughts. I need to ever exalt the One who ransomed my soul, and be constantly amazed by this grace.

    Thank you for a well written and inspiring reminder.


  2. Russ,

    I am glad this post has blessed you. You, of all people, know how much I struggle to lay hold of God's grace and apply it to my life. It is kind of you to receive benefit from my writing.

    In the end, it is God alone Who brings us through this sorrowful life where we make so many mistakes and suffer under so many grievous experiences of sin. I count it a blessing to walk through these dangers with a friend like you, who exhibits the humility of Christ and exemplifies servanthood with abundant patience and grace. Your life is full of the evidences of grace, even though it is sometimes difficult for you to see them.


  3. I've enjoyed your site since finding it a couple of years ago and only recently felt compelled to post... I have been drawn in by the idea of paradox for years now and what we call "compatibilism". A place I am wrestling with currently is the idea of practical sin (sins we commit-commission) and how it squares with Paul's words in, say, Galatians 5:21, that those who commit such sins (see list) will not inherit the kingdom... with, say, Romans 7 when Paul himself exclaims what a wretch he is and asks, "Who will save me from this body of death?" The apparent paradox is found in the issue of sin and grace. Obviously, those who commit such sins WILL inherit the kingdom of God because we all sin. So, what is Paul saying here? I've read some that think Paul is talking about habitual sin that disregards grace as in 1 Corinthians or Romans when Paul asks, "Should we sin so grace can about? By no meansf!" and I get that, but it all seems... well, contradictory and thus a paradox.

    In thinking about salvation it creates a great amount of tension (a word I have used regularly for several years now). I've told some that the tension they feel about their sin and salvation is probably the proof of their salvation. If their were no tension there would likely be no conflict and thus no salvation as grace and faith will cause one to experience the power of the Holy Spirit.

    I continually come back to Jesus' words in John 6:29 when asked, "What is the work that God requires of us?" and he responds, "To believe in the one he sent." It really is that easy and yet it is the hardest thing anyone will ever experience... thus, another paradox.....

    Anyway, thanks for your site. I've enjoyed poking around. Feel free to respond or point me in the direction of something you've already written. I'm going to read the Atonement piece here soon.



  4. Gino,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. The topic you bring up here is wide and deep, and also very important to grasp for growth in sanctification and assurance. I wrestle with these issues, too. It may take me a few days to write out a clear response, but I will attempt to articulate what I believe to be a concise Biblical viewpoint over the next few days and post it here (and perhaps it will also become the next post). I'm glad you have asked this question, and I'm glad the Lord has blessed you through this blog.

    BTW - I visited your site and enjoyed the work you did on "Oh Lord, Our Heavenly King." A beautiful song, and nicely updated!

    Grace & peace,

  5. Gino,

    I've spent a few days thinking about your question, and have found that I could write an entire book on this topic (I'm not sure if it would be a good book, but book length at least). Rather than write that book here and now, I'll just touch on the most important points I have thought of. Hopefully this is helpful.

    1. In answering this question, it is clear that we must avoid the traps of legalism and pride. Anytime we start to categorize sins, we face the temptation to become proud by comparing our present level of victory to others; and we face the temptation to become legalistic and judgmental by too critically examining the failures of others. Mercy and humility must characterize us. Any consideration of sin (our own or others') should rightly humble us and show us our need for God's mercy. It should also give us great compassion for others.

    2. We must avoid the traps of licentiousness and self-deception. We cannot simply ignore sin or act as if it is not an offense to God. We cannot pretend sin has no effect on ourselves and our relationships. We cannot overlook the need for sanctification and the call to holiness. We need the light of Truth, and it may well leave us shattered. It is better to despair of our own strength than to carry a false hope. It is better to recognize our sin than to be blind to it.

    3. The best way to avoid the traps of legalism, pride, licentiousness and self-deception is by faithful application of law and Gospel in daily life. The Law convicts and humbles us. The Gospel reassures us and gives us confidence (not in ourselves, but in God). By applying both, we avoid excusing sin on the one hand, and denying grace on the other.

    4. The sobering passages of warning must be taken seriously and applied. They will drive us to repentance. Sin should be evaluated from many angles based on the Word of God. "Commission" and "omission" are useful distinctions. We should recognize that falling into a sin once is different than practicing sin habitually. Struggling with a sinful habit while walking with God is not the same as walking in total apostasy. Each of these categories (and others) can help us to understand the depth of our own sin struggle and evaluate the needs of those we are helping. However, we must be careful not to oversimplify the complexities of the human (sinful/fallen) condition. We must not use these categories to make snap judgments about a person's salvation (either positively or negatively).

    5. The reassurances and promises of the Gospel must be lavishly applied. Ultimately, the Christian's hope is in the Gospel, not his performance or level of sanctification. Is the struggling believer receiving the Gospel and embracing it as the Word of Truth? Is he excusing his sin, or confessing it and taking it to the cross? Is he looking to a risen Savior to save him from his sin, or is he walking in wickedness and refusing to admit that it is wrong? Does he preach to himself the truths of redemption, adoption, reconciliation, sanctification, justification, union with Christ, and glorification? Does he refuse to doubt the powerful work of Christ, even as he admits that his own ways are vile and damnable? Does he look to Christ to change him, or trust in his own abilities? Does the anticipation of a sinless, God-saturated heaven delight him? Does he revel in the hope of shedding this body of sin and receiving a perfectly holy body?

    (Part two to follow)

  6. 6. Repentance and faith must be continuous and ongoing. A solid definition of repentance should be cultivated. Repentance is not a changed life; it is the blessed heart change that leads inevitably to a changed life. It is not always easy to tell if this heart change is happening. We should look for fruit, but not demand perfect fruit as "evidence." At the same time, a total lack of conviction and no hint of desire to change would seem to indicate a lack of conversion. Still . . . no matter how deep the Christian's present struggle is, no matter how habitual the sin may seem to be, no matter how apparently defeated he might appear to be -- if he is turning continually to God, trusting in Him, confessing the sin, repenting and seeking new habits -- there is genuine ground for hope that conversion has happened and change will eventually follow, just as promised in God's Word. As a spiritual leader, needing to have this level of discernment about the spiritual condition of another person calls for much prayer.

    7. The Christian must recognize that he is both sinner and saint. His hope must be set on God, grace and the Gospel. He must refuse the lies of "sinless perfectionism;" yet he must also avoid the snare of apathy and the virus of worldliness. He needs to be realistic yet relentless in his pursuit of godliness. Doggedly and persistently seeking it, in spite of many failures.

    8. Ultimately, God knows those who are His and God promises to sanctify them. Look for genuine evidences of grace, the work of the Spirit, the application of God's Word, and the (sometimes painfully gradual) change that results. Recognize that perfection will only come with ultimate glorification; in the meantime, there should progress and advancement.

    I am not sure I have answered your question. Perhaps I have only recommended some outer boundaries within which your answer should lie. Hopefully, God in His mercy will bless these brief and inadequate meditations.

    Grace and peace in Christ,


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