Sin is indeed troubling. Whether we consider sin as a nature that sets us in opposition to God’s holy nature, or as acts that are detestable to a righteously vengeful God, or as that which God has sacrificed his own Son to overcome, sin is counter to God’s nature, his demands, his work, and his love.
As God’s baptized children, we dare not treat sin with a caviler attitude that in some gospel reductionist fashion supposes that sin does not matter, or that God’s holy law doesn’t apply to us. Willfully persisting in sin, or refusing to identify and confess sin in our life is at odds with our new nature in Christ, and is really at odds with the person and work of Christ who bled and died to overcome sin.
This is easier said than done, for it is often hard to know what to do…or even to know how active and intentional of a role I ought to play in my sanctified life.
Stuck in the Conflict
We are stuck in the tension that is succinctly summarized as simul justi et pecator, simultaneously saint and sinner. As one such conflicted creature, I along with Paul in Romans 7 say “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Yes, it must be the work of God through Jesus that delivers us—both from the eternal punishment that we deserve, and from this temporal struggle of our old Adam continually waging war on our new nature in Christ.
What to do?
What then should I do? Confess. Receive absolution. Remember my baptism. Receive the Lord’s Supper. Pray. Study scripture. Fellowship with others in the body of the church. Love my neighbor. Yes, absolutely, I gladly do all of these things, and embrace the necessity and efficacy of doing so.
But what then should I do? Is re-asking this question an indication that I don’t trust God to accomplish his will through the means he provides? Would it be better to ignore my ongoing condition of simul justi et pecator, perhaps pretending either that sin does not matter, or that I don’t sin? Or is this whole line of thought simply the narcissistic curving in on one’s self that our human nature seems to crave?
Or to put this another way, what ought my outlook be as I live out my life in Christ? What is sanctification all about? What is my role in sanctified living, and in particular, what is the role of my volition? Am I to actively struggle against my sinful nature, or am I to passively trust that the Holy Spirit will do his thing and accomplish his will in me?
There are many different ways we can answer this line of questions, and many different errors we can fall into in trying to embrace a single succinct answer. Alas, both-and is not conducive to the kind of focus we crave for the doing that lies before us in our temporal lives.
Is the Christian life “do”, or is it “be”? If both, is it “Do, be, do, be, do”, or is It “Be, do, be, do, be”? Does our doing flow from being, or does our being flow from doing? Here too, there are many godly answers to these questions, and many opportunities for error as well. Being and doing are both essential to the human experience, and are both integral parts of our sanctified lives. More than that, doing and being are interrelated and intertwined in a way that makes causation difficult if not impossible to determine.
How then can I find clarity as to the steps that I ought to take when I get out of bed in the morning? The urgency of our vocations provides us with practical answers to this: I can simply work at all the things that my callings set before me to do. This is good, but is not completely satisfying. This still does not address the “do, be” versus “be, do” question. This still does not give me direction as to the role of my volition in the mortification of my flesh and the pursuit of (or the passive waiting for) my sanctified life in Christ.
Spiritual disciplines could be of value, but they can also teeter on the brink of pietism and monasticism. Instilling urgency in the form of spiritual habits can, like the urgency of our vocations, keep us busy in the undertaking of godly work. But chasing after even godly busyness may be little more than a distraction from answering the question of what is my outlook on my sanctified life in Christ.
I think that Jesus gave us the answer to the question of sanctified living. His answer can break the recursive pondering of “do/be” “be/do”, and can end the breakneck pursuit of vocational and spiritual urgency for the sake of distraction. Jesus’ answer can fill us with his peace, while granting us joyful desire to labor in service to his kingdom and our neighbor.
What is Jesus’ answer of which I speak? Jesus gives us his answer is in the parable of the prodigal son. More precisely, it is after the end of the story: the morning after. His answer is his illustration of the restored prodigal waking up to new life on the next day, the eighth day.
The Restored Prodigal
Saved from death, hunger and shame, the restored prodigal is back. He is back in his father’s house, under his father’s care. But beyond that, he is back in his role of trusted son: he has the father’s ring on his finger, and empowered to do the work of the father’s business.
Consider what it is like to wake up as the restored prodigal the morning after the homecoming feast! The past lies behind. I am back. Now what?
There are many wrong answers to this question:
- I could begin packing my bags and demanding money to head back out into riotous living, heedless of my restoration.
- I could invite the whores and dubious friends I have encountered in my wanderings to come over to dad’s house for a raging party.
- I could go further aggravate my brother by flaunting what I got away with.
- I could sit around and do nothing but eat and drink leftovers from last night’s fatted calf celebration.
- I could lord my position over the father’s servants, and impose upon them to make me comfortable in my idleness.
- I could say to my father, “Dad, thanks for your help. I’ll prove myself to you and show you I’m not just a screw-up.”, which might sound good at first, but in reality, denies both the fact that I am a screw-up, and that dad has already restored me and has nothing for me to prove.
- I could say to my father, “Thanks, Dad. Don’t worry: I’ll repay you for everything.”, which is both hubris and a denigration of the father’s sacrifice for my restoration. I can’t ever repay him—nor does the father want me to try to do so.
…and so on. There are many, many bad things that I as the restored prodigal could set out to do.
Eighth Day Living
Instead, I as the restored prodigal on the morning after, on the 8th day, can begin my work as the father’s restored son. I can work diligently at the father’s business at hand—making sound decisions with the authority of the ring the father gave me. I can be a good steward of the father’s resources, and work confidently and compassionately to use them to accomplish the father’s will.
I have freedom—not to be wicked, not to be idle, and not to pridefully self-promote, but rather to live and work diligently, without worry or want. I am free to use the skills and gifts and experience that I have to do the father’s will, without looking back over my shoulder to be burdened once again by my past wicked and wasteful living.
I am not prideful, but I am confident in my standing in the father’s household and in my role in the father’s business. I trust that I am in my rightful place—not because of my merit, but because of the father’s declaration.
I have no desire to leave the father’s house, or to squander his assets, or to be idle. I want only to be and do (or do and be) what I am: the father’s beloved son, with full standing within the household.
When viewed from this angle, do/be, be/do, volition, causation, willful sinning, legalism, moralism, pietism and monasticism all melt away. I am who I am—the restored prodigal, the beloved son of the father, with nothing to prove and nothing to repay.
What do restored prodigals do, and what is their motivation? Exactly the same thing as good sons living faithfully in the father’s household…for that is what we are.
Will I err, or even shirk my responsibilities at times, or at times willfully pursue my lusts instead of the father’s will? Unfortunately, yes I will. But now such failings—such sin—is not part of an effort to run away from the father’s house. Such sin does not endanger expulsion from the father’s house, but neither is it something that is acceptable to the father—or to me as his restored son.
Yes, I will use my volition, my wisdom, my experience, and everything at my disposal to avoid sinful failings—because sinful failings have no place in the father’s house. My motivation is neither fear of the father’s wrath, nor arrogant self-justifying pride. I just want to live in the father’s house, under his continual care, faithfully living as that which he declared me to be: his beloved, fully-restored son.
And as further comfort, I know that the providence of the father, the security of his house, and the accomplishment of his will are eternal certainties that not even my sinful failings can thwart.
This approach to eighth-day living of our sanctified lives in Christ helps avoid many errors that may otherwise ensnare us:
- Hedonistic antinomianism
- Selfish idleness
- Prideful self-righteousness
- Dishonest perfectionism
- Purpose-driven restlessness
- Third-use denial
- Gospel reductionism
- Worldly social justice
- Meaningless busyness
…and many more
That is to say, that these errors are best overcome not by the strivings of either scholasticism or pietism, but are instead overcome or even rendered absurd by simply living on this eighth day as the restored prodigal in the father’s house.
Eighth Day Stewardship
Some years ago Microsoft ran a successful ad campaign with a slogan of “Where do you want to go today?”, implying that Microsoft would be able to help get you there. As a restored prodigal living in the father’s house, I can ask myself this same question.
No, I am not going to leave the father’s house. But in terms of my actions and focus, what is it that I want to do today, on this eighth day? What needs to be done? What specific resources are at my disposal? What are my callings? What would a good son do in this situation?
There is great abundance in the father’s house, and he has given me charge over many gifts. There is great freedom for me to pursue what I want to pursue, and to “go” where I want to “go” today.
In thinking about where I will go today, my motivation is not selfish gain, or wickedness, or sloth. But rather, in view of my specific context and my brothers around me, what can I do as a good son today? The father’s house will stand—with or without my efforts—but I want to do whatever I can as a good son to accomplish the father’s purposes. I want to live as a good steward of all he has placed in my care.
As I begin my day, it is not about me or my need to prove myself to the father. Rather, it is all about the father’s work, and what he has entrusted to me as his restored son. And so now I go…to faithfully live out the sanctified life he has given me on this and every eighth day, living ever under his graceful and abundant providence.