THE BELIEVER’S STANDING IN CHRIST
by David Dunlap
There can be no greater joy for a believer than to know that through the work of Christ his standing with God is settled. He who was once an enemy of God, is now a child of God. He who at one time was at war with God, now has peace with God. The apostle explains, "Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand" (Rom. 5:1-2). Our immutable standing with God is the position in which God now views us because of the finished work of Christ. We are justified, holy, children of God, kings and priests of God, we have unfettered access to God – all this and more is ours because of our standing in Christ. Victory over sin does not enhance our standing in Christ. And our standing in Christ should never be used in such a way as to excuse sin. Our standing is what we are in Christ, secured by the very power of God; therefore it can never suffer damage nor loss.
This standing, however, must be seen in distinction from our state, which changes day by day. Our state is the practical side of our Christian life; it is the "living out" of the Christian life. Our standing is perfect, but our state is imperfect; this state is what we are in ourselves. Spiritual failure, sin, and disobedience are all common to our state. We must not be satisfied with our state, but we should seek to rise to the level of our standing in Christ. Yet at the same time, we should not condemn ourselves and engage in self-flagellation because of guilt of sin. For our salvation is never in doubt, and it is eternally secure because of our standing in Christ.
This truth is extremely important in striking the proper balance in our spiritual life. Careless thinking in regard to this truth will have far-reaching spiritual consequences. Throughout the history of the church there have been those who have not fully appreciated the truth of the believer’s state and standing.
Reformed Theology and Spiritual Consequences
Reformed theology has never clearly acknowledged the biblical truth of a believer’s standing in Christ. Respected Reformed scholar and author Dr. John Gerstner illustrates this position when he writes,
The classic dispensational distinction is evidence of a persistent misunderstanding of the doctrines of justification and sanct-ification.1
In another place he writes,
A man's standing is perfect before God, though his state may not be. This might seem to be the only traditional distinction between justification and sanctification, but it is not. In Reformed teaching this difference is one of fact… that is, according to the Reformed view, the justified person is not perfectly (positionally) sanctified.1
Instead of affirming that a believer in Christ has an unshakable standing, Reformers sought to attain this standing through fasting, asceticism, and a rigorous discipline of the flesh. They soon discovered, however, that the flesh is incorrigible; it can never be improved. A prolonged focus upon the flesh in the believer's life can never lead to spiritual victory. The biblical focus is to yield to the sanctifying work of the Spirit in the believers life. The Scriptures exhort us, "Walk in the Spirit and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh." (Gal. 5:16). However, leaders of this doctrinal perspective from the 1700’s down to the present day have suffered spiritually because of this crucial misunderstanding. This suffering arose out the guilt from indwelling sin, which, in turn, cast doubt on one’s eternal salvation. This resulted, in some cases, in heart-wrenching despair, and the unnatural desire for death, as a means of deliverance from the corruption of the sin nature. Listen to the voices of spiritual anguish, which were the result of setting aside the importance of our standing in Christ. One year before his death, in 1769, George Whitefield (1714-1770), the renown eighteenth century evangelist wrote concerning an earlier time of great difficulty in his life,
I began to fast twice a week for thirty-six hours together, pray many times a day and received the sacrament every Lord’s Day. I fasted myself almost to death all the forty days of Lent, during which I made it a point of duty never to go less than three times a day to public worship, besides seven times a day to my private prayers. Yet I knew no more that I was to be born a new creature in Christ Jesus than if I had never been born at all." On another occasion he writes, "The searcher of hearts alone knows what agonies my poor soul has undergone… the Lord has withdrawn Himself from me… I have sunk into deep despair, and like Elijah, I wish for death."2
Some Reformed leaders have laid such stress upon the elimination of all sin that it became the determining factor in whether one was a Christian at all. The clear distinction between standing and state, law and grace became hopelessly blurred. Representative of this perspective is William Law (1686-1761), the famed author of A Call to a Devout and Holy Life who writes,
Unless our heart and passions are eagerly bent upon the work of our salvation; unless holy fears lead our endeavors, and keep our consciences strict and tender about every part of our duty, constantly examining how we live, and how fit are we to die, we shall in all probability fall into a state of negligence, and sit down in such a course of life as will never carry us to the rewards of heaven.3
This practice of excessive self-introspection often led to self-condemnation for the guilt of sin. Instead of a focus upon Christ and His finished work, the focus was directed toward self, sin, and personal failure. In time this practice became the source of an incurable spiritual plague withering the souls and spirits of men in the front lines for the cause of Christ. David Brainerd (1718-1747), a missionary to the Indians in New Jersey, wrote of this plague in his journal. He mourns,
My heart seemed like a nest of vipers, or a cage of unclean and hateful birds; and therefore I wanted to be cleansed of all sin…my sinfulness, the plague of my own heart…which often drove me to an impatient desire of death, a despair of doing any good in life: I would rather choose death than a life spent for nothing.4
Reformed theology lays such little stress on the finished work of Christ in a believer's life that the joy of our position in Christ is all but lost. There is a strange silence concerning the guilt of our sins blotted out forever, and condemnation ended forever. Reformed theology seems to encourage spiritual misery, dread and fear in the believer's life. This point is well illustrated in Bunyan's Characters by the Scottish Reformed preacher Alexander Whyte (1837-1921), of St. Georges West, Edinburgh, when he writes of the plague of the guilt of sin.
Our guilt is so great that we dare not think of it… It crushes our minds with a perfect stupor of horror, when for a moment we try to imagine a day of judgment when we shall be judged for all the deeds that we have done in the body. Heart-beat after heart-beat, breath after breath, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, and all full of sin; all nothing but sin from our mother's womb to our grave.5
Is this the hope of the believer in Christ? Are not all our sins forgiven? Is not our standing in Christ sufficient and able for every sin? Is this "miserable sinner" Christianity, the Christianity of the Bible? We must in the strongest terms protest that it is not! Reformed theology seeks to establish the believer's standing in grace by the progress he has made in his state. The result in the lives of the most illustrative saints is misery, guilt, and despair. The word of God is clear we grow in grace not into grace (Rom. 5:1-2). C.H. Macintosh, author of Notes on the Pentateuch, carefully sets forth the inherent dangers regarding this point of view, when he writes,
We must not measure our standing by our state, but ever judge our state by our standing. Many err in reference to this, and their error leads to disastrous results. Hence, if a Christian set about measuring his standing by his state, he must be miserable, and his mental misery must be commensurate with his honesty and intelligence… there must be mental anguish if the standing is measured by the state.6
The Adversary of our souls longs to turn our eyes from all that Christ has wrought to that which we are in the flesh, from an immovable standing in Christ to a standing of shifting sand.
Dispensational Truth & The Believer's Standing
The believer’s standing in Christ was first clearly taught by early dispensationalists as an important pillar in the foundation of biblical truth. Leaders of the so-called Plymouth Brethren were among the first to provide clarity in this area. Many were pleased to see a biblical balance struck in this area at a time when Reformed Theology was the dominant. Leaders among the Church of England, Presbyterians, Baptists, and other denominations began to express their appreciation of this teaching. Watchman Nee, the Chinese church leader, looking back to this time in church history, sums up the theological impact of this teaching when he writes,
They showed us how the blood of Christ satisfies the righteousness of God, our standing in Christ, the assurance of salvation…since church history began, there never was a period when the gospel was clearer than in that time.7
However, leaders from the Puritan and Reformed churches began to circulate papers largely critical of this teaching. Criticism came from such notable reformed leaders as C.H. Spurgeon, and later from Dr. A.H. Strong and B.B. Warfield, and in our own day from Reformed Baptist radio preacher Dr. John MacArthur. Much of this criticism rises from a commendable zeal to stem the rising tide of antinomianism in the church. The critics charge that Dispensational theology fosters and advances antinomianism. John MacArthur points to dispensationalism as the primary reason for a growing permissiveness in the carnal living among Christians today. He writes,
It is undoubtedly also true that this idea of two classes of believers (carnal and spiritual, 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:4) was an unfortunate extension of Chafer’s dispen-sational perspective, a classic example of how dispensationalism’s methodology is carried too far.8
Leading dispensationalists such as D. L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, Lewis Sperry Chafer and J. N. Darby spent much of their lives vigorously fighting against every inroad of antinomianism. Those who knew them well would testify that they would never condone sin nor promote a worldly Christianity. Moreover, how can the work of Christ, which affords the believer a righteous position ever be the cause of unrighteousness? Clearly, disobedience in Christians must never be ascribed to the work of Christ, but rather to the failure of the believer to avail himself of his rich spiritual resources in Christ. Is our standing in Christ a case of aberrant dispensationalism carried too far or a gracious provision as taught in the word of God?
The Believer's Standing and the Flesh
The word of God tells us that the moment one trusts in the finished work of Christ, he is a child of God, a new creature in Christ. The moment one places his trust in Christ, his standing is secure. Even as the moment a child is born in the family of a king, he becomes a prince; he may not yet behave in a princely manner, yet his standing is never in doubt because of his royal birth. In the same way, the Christian’s standing in Christ is secure through regal birth. At his new birth, the Christian receives a new nature, a new relationship, a new power. The new nature enables him to enter fully into his new relationship with Christ. Out of this vital, living relationship comes the strength to live a godly life.
Our standing is not based upon a process of improving the flesh. It will never do to take the material of the "old man" and, through fastings, vigils, religious discipline, attempt to make the corrupt flesh acceptable to God. Consider, for a moment, the example of a homeowner who negotiates with a builder about some work that needs to be done, and then he inquires how much it will cost. "Oh, it won’t cost very much at all," the builder explains, "because we can use all the old material." Similarly, in the things of God that just will not do. There must be a new start with altogether new material. The apostle explains further the purpose of God, "For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son, in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh" (Romans 8:3). The flesh was disqualified and set aside as unusable, worthless for the purpose God. Our standing is founded upon our new life in Christ.
The believer’s standing in Christ is based upon grace. The true estimate of a believer is not what we are in the flesh, but rather what we are in Christ by virtue of His grace. It is not what we are doing now, but rather what Christ has done on Calvary’s cross. It is not what we think of ourselves, but what Christ thinks of us, that is of eternal consequence.
The apostle John counsels believers that the condemnation of our heart is a faulty compass and it is not to be trusted. He writes, "Beloved if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts, and knoweth all things" (1 John 3:20). We may be like the thief on the cross, sentenced to be unfit to live on earth, but through His boundless grace, we are accepted in the Beloved (Eph.1:6). All our attempts to live righteously in Christ, when viewed in the light of eternity, may be no more than soiled rags; yet our true standing in Christ is that we are justified, declared to be righteous (Rom. 5:2). We may be clothed in this world with rags of poverty, but in Christ our true standing is that we are "heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ" (Rom. 8:16).
Reformed teachers have so stressed the guilt, the horror and plague of sin that it has inadequately emphasized the believer's standing in Christ. This is one of the great shortcomings of Reformed theology. However, it is one thing for a non-calvinist to make such a statement but it is a powerful indictment for one from their own camp to pointedly address this issue. J. Sidlow Baxter, the Reformed Baptist pastor and author writes,
Also, the more I reflect upon it, the surer I become that we cannot have a true disposition toward the New Testament teaching on holiness unless we have a discerning appreciation of our standing and privilege in Christ. Nobody thanks God more than I for the Protestant Reformation. Nobody glories more than I in its triumphal arch of the "doctrines of grace," with its shining keystone, "justification by faith." Nobody marches more positively than I under the aegis of Luther and Calvin. Yet just because I march beneath the same banner I claim the same right to differ… the "miserable sinner" emphasis of the Reformers may be overdone to the point where it actually incapacitates our response… All the New Testament epistles were written to Christian recipients, and they all alike assume that the new Christian standing has fundamentally changed all the relationship of those who are "in Christ." The standpoint is not that we are seeking forgiveness but that we are already forgiven… we are not just seeking peace with God but we "have peace with God." May we never forget the New Testament emphasis, that the Christian belongs to the new, in Christ, rather than the old, in Adam. It says that we already are saints, positionally, in Christ, and that we are to become saints of His in our character."9
A proper understanding of our standing in Christ will on one hand preserve us from legalism, and on the other from spiritual laxity. Christ, in His infinite grace, came and died in our place, paying the eternal punishment for our sins, and thereby satisfying perfectly the righteous demands of a holy God. Now God sees every believer in Christ; He has accepted them all because of the Beloved One; no one and nothing can ever touch this high and glorious position, which is ours through and because of Christ. ¢
David Dunlap is involved in a preaching and teaching ministry in Land O' Lakes, FL. He also writes the "Bible & Life" newsletter five times a year.