Read in Light of Hebrews 12:8
If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Hebrews 12:8 ESV)
As we saw in a previous letter, it is immensely comforting to know that God is at work in our lives, keeping us from falling and continuing the good work that he began when he saved us (Phil. 1:6). If we’re concerned about degenerating into evil like the people in the time of the judges did, this thought from God’s Word comes as very good news. But you might have another thought that cancels out that comfort—isn’t it true that Christians can backslide? Can’t we stumble into sin? Can’t we even live in a sinful state for a long time? If so, the comfort from Philippians 1:6 seems a bit diminished, doesn’t it?
We should admit at the outset that a Christian can backslide. Backsliding in the Bible often refers to total apostasy, but it sometimes refers to a true believer’s sinful degenerating (cf. Jer. 14:7). We see in the New Testament that believers sometimes fall into sin and error and need to be corrected (see Galatians and Corinthians). There is little doubt that a believer can even live in sin, insensible and hardened, for a time. David did so for months (see 1 Sam. 12). In Psalm 32, he describes the experience of keeping silent and not confessing sin. He says it drained his strength away, making him weak. Then he confessed and found the relief of experiencing God’s forgiveness. So yes, a Christian can backslide and even live in a state of not being honest with God and not enjoying power to live rightly.
Though Christians can backslide, it isn’t wise to speculate how long a Christian can live in such a state. Not only does the Bible not specify how long, it says over and over that the normal state of a Christian is one of not being dominated by sin.
Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law but under grace. (Rom 6:14)
Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. (1 John 5:4)
The Bible even goes so far as to deny that true Christians will persist in sin.
No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. (1 John 3:6)
Such verses may be confusing when compared to the earlier ones, but they make it quite clear that a true Christian has substantial victory over sin, though not complete victory in this life. Empowerment is what you should expect, and if you are not experiencing that, you must flee to Christ for his gracious filling of the Spirit (Eph. 5:18; Gal. 5:16). Empowerment over sin is your birthright, so take hold of what is yours!
What are we to think of those whose life is awash in evil and rebellion? If a person is experiencing no power over sin, if that person has little to no inclination to do right, and if that person is making excuses for sin while claiming the identity of a Christian, there is little doubt about how Christians should view that person—as very possibly in need of salvation. He or she may conceivably be a true Christian, but since we are to “know them by their fruit” (Matt. 7:20), believers should be deeply concerned for the person’s soul and eternal state.
When Christians really get a hold of what this means, they get serious about mortifying sin in their lives by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13). They begin realizing that true Christians are known by their holiness, and they think, I’d better get busy showing it. They realize that “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). As people used to say, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” The proof of a Christian is in his fruit. If you have tolerated sin, dismissed God’s commands, pointed fingers at others, and if you have thought of obedience as merely optional, wake up now and see your danger. Ultimately the Bible offers little hope to people who want Christ and want their sin too. It offers hope to repentant believers in Christ.
The only right response to Scripture’s teaching on all this is not to try to make room in your life for a measure of sin. The only right response is to flee to Christ immediately in repentance—“Be afflicted and mourn and weep,” as James 4 puts it. The moment you are aware that you have tolerated sin in your life and have lived in it for any length of time, start mortifying it. “Always be killing sin, or sin will be killing you” (John Owen).
Is there hope for believers who fear they might end up living in sin, since they know it is a possibility, despite God’s continuing his good work? The answer is, yes, there is massive hope and comfort to be found in God for anyone who seeks him in repentance.
There is the promise we looked at, the promise of God’s continued working in us; it is a mighty promise that ought to bring joy out of us always. But even more, God takes care of his children who stumble into sin, and this fatherly care takes the form of chastening—“The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:8). Not only does God empower Christians to do right (Phil. 2:13) and continue that good work in them (Phil. 1:6), he also diligently chastens us when we wander! It might seem strange to get excited about chastisement. Admittedly, it doesn’t sound like a very encouraging prospect, but a little reflection will reveal that it actually is quite encouraging to Christians who fear God, hate evil, and don’t want evil to cling to them. The picture of God that emerges is one of almost doting care over his people. God empowers us to fight and overcome sin, he keeps diligently pouring on the help, and he also corrects our deviations. He is providing for our needs in all sorts of ways. He is approaching our problems from many angles. He is lavishing care upon us. No wonder the Bible uses terms for God such as Shepherd and Father!
Now, how does this affect Bible reading? How does it relate to having joyful devotions always? Well, when we read of godly people in the Bible suffering punishments for their sin, we might begin to fear and draw back from God, like Peter who said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Instead, we need to see those punishments not as God’s wrath and anger, like when God judges the wicked. We should see it as God’s love. We should see it as his fatherly care and shepherding. Chastening should lead us to him not drive us from him.
Read the difficulties and hardships in Christian’s lives as the chastening that God lovingly administers to his children. When you see David’s hardships after his sin of adultery, see those hardships as God’s fatherly love; don’t misinterpret it as God’s hate. God didn’t default on “surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life” when David fell into sin. God’s actions toward David after David’s fall were chastenings, and chastenings are evidence of God’s love. Though chastening is painful, it is not incompatible with joy. When we read that Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land, remember that he was instead taken to the heavenly Canaan. When we read about Job’s sufferings we are told that his story is supposed to show us how merciful God is (James 5). Yes, chastening can be hard, but we can rejoice even in chastening when we realize it is evidence of God’s fatherly care, and every true child receives it.