A COMMON CONDITION
God tells us we are sinners—each and every one of us. We are all born that way. Each descendant of Adam belongs to a race characterized as the walking dead. The Bible identifies our lineage and describes that walk:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. Ephesians 2:1-3
Under sin’s guilt and power, we are naturally inclined to a lifestyle of rebellion against our Creator. We seek identity apart from the One in whose image we are made. We defy His will, doing what is right in our own eyes, defining “right” by our own standards. Each of us.
The Bible understands our “deadness” in sin as a spiritual condition. We are born into this world shackled in sin’s guilt and slaves to sin’s power—and it shows.
A COMMON BOND
With that pernicious pedigree, we would expect a horrid world. But that’s not predominantly what we see, is it? Across the board, we find much nobility and compassion and beauty and kindness. While all those born into this world rebel against God by their fallen nature, even those in overt, intentional, even militant rebellion can—and do—display sensitivity and sacrifice.
How do we understand this humane humanity? Do these symptoms speak against the biblical diagnosis of being dead in sin?
The Bible points us to what is often called the “common grace” of God. Tim Keller describes this grace in respect to contributing to and benefiting from one another’s work in society, irrespective of spiritual standing with God.
“God gives out gifts of wisdom, talent, beauty, and skill according to his grace—that is, in a completely unmerited way. He casts them across the human race like seed, in order to enrich, brighten and preserve the world. By rights, sin should be making life on earth much more unbearable that it is…. The reason it is not worse is because of the gift of common grace.” (Every Good Endeavor, 191)
Common grace showers blessings across the human race, enjoyed by all, benefiting one another, together contributing to society. It should prompt in us a mutual love and respect and enjoyment and appreciation for all people. But we don’t want to let that general blessing obscure the Bible’s diagnosis of terminal sin. Neither do we want to misinterpret or minimize symptoms of rebellion against God prevalent in society. If we do, then we will entertain a false sense of security and not seek out the remedy provided by God.
AN UNCOMMON GRACE
The passage we opened with from the letter to the Ephesians carried a “before” feel. “You were dead in trespasses and sin.” It goes on to speak of the intervention of God to provide the remedy only He could.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 2:4-7
The grace mentioned here is not common grace that bestows blessings lavishly on all people. It is the special grace of salvation that brings forgiveness from sin’s guilt and freedom from sin’s power. The gift of common grace brings a cup of cold water to those enchained in sin, awaiting God’s judgment. The gift of special grace delivers from the prison of sin into which we are all born, the “before” state described in Ephesians 2:1-3.
The Bible calls this “making alive” by God the new birth or regeneration. Sometimes we hear it expressed as being “born again” or “born from above.” This rebirth is not metaphorical but actual—spiritually real. Jesus explains in the third chapter of John’s Gospel that the new birth is necessary for entrance into the kingdom of God, wherein are found a right standing with God, the peace of reconciliation with Him, the joy of a God-centered life for which we were created, and the ability for a new walk with God.
This new birth is nothing less than a direct, new creating work of God Himself. Along with John, the Apostle Paul expresses the work of God in terms of creation.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:6
Letting “light shine out of darkness” alludes to God’s creating work in Genesis 1. Indeed, the Gospel of John itself can be seen as a new creation account, as it opens with the words, “in the beginning, God….” Paul goes to declare in 2 Corinthians that if “anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).
AN ONGOING STRUGGLE
This new creating work brings deliverance from sin’s guilt and power and allows for freedom for a new life. We don’t want to get the idea that in this new condition we will no longer have to wrestle with sin. On the contrary, our struggle with sin may well intensify. Born the way we were, sin was natural to us. Oftentimes, we embraced it. We cultivated it. We celebrated it. To some degree that sin with its gravitational pull remains in us, although we are no longer in its bondage or debt.
Sinful tendencies, inclinations and struggles may well plague us our entire lives in this world. Our hearts might lean to desires and behavior we know are unbecoming a child of God and that are contrary to His design for us. But we cannot allow these desires to hold sway, to rule over us as though we were still in bondage to them. As new creations in Christ, we can no longer give legitimacy or license to our sin, regardless of societal blessing. Jesus is now our Savior and our Lord. We belong to His kingdom.
The epistles of the New Testament are letters written to believers, ones born again by the Spirit of God, part of His kingdom. They depict the struggle with sin all Christians face. Just read Romans 7 to see Paul’s journal of his personal struggle with sin. That description is especially profound and startling as it finds itself bracketed by Romans 6 and Romans 8 that speak of the believer’s new standing with God and new life with Christ.
The epistles constantly remind us of the reality of God’s work in us and call to us as His born again children. They lay out God’s wisdom and provision to living in a manner that recognizes Him and pleases Him. For example, take note of the following passages from Ephesians that lay out a new orientation to life and new lifestyle in which to walk for those now alive in Christ.
[F]or at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Ephesians 5:8–10
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Ephesians 5:1–3
The struggle with sin by those born again of the Spirit of God is tempered with the knowledge that one day they will take possession of their heavenly inheritance and their struggle with sin will be no more. They long for the “coming ages” of which Ephesians 2:7 speaks for those made alive in Christ and made heirs of life.
AN INCLUSIVE OFFER OF AN EXCLUSIVE HOPE
Jesus explained in the Gospel of John, chapter three, that for anyone to inherit the kingdom of God, that person must be born again. The grammar there is not a command. It is a statement. Just as we had no say in our first birth, where we were born into this world as rebels dead in sin, so we have no part in the new birth by which we are freed from sin’s bondage and made part of God’s eternal kingdom.
God’s plain declaration is that “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God.” All of us are born that way—unrighteous. By nature, we are born sinners—rebels, law-breakers, at odds with God. We can try to change ourselves but reformation is not the answer. The issues are too deep; the scourge of sin too pervasive. Or, we can persist in our rebellion and give ourselves over to the sin in which we were born—embracing our identity as sinners, celebrating our rebellion against the God, even presuming His blessing upon us.
But God holds out a third option.
While we cannot make ourselves born again, we can cry out to God for mercy. We can see the One to whom God points us and hear the offer of life bound up exclusively in Him. The chapter of the Bible in which Jesus explains the necessity of the new birth is the same chapter that holds these words of great promise—and loving warning:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:16–18)
How does this promise to faith in Christ relate to the new birth? God Himself explains.
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12–13)
If you would like to understand the Bible’s message of life, please click here for a brief overview.