Imputed Righteousness without Repentance?

Prof. Johan Malan, Mossel Bay, South Africa (May 2011)

A dangerous practise occurring in most Christian churches, even among those who profess to be evangelical, is the lowering of spiritual standards in an effort to bypass the biblical demand of complete repentance. Faith in Christ is proclaimed in such a way as to suggest that the righteousness of God is imputed to all believers without demanding a reciprocal reaction of the forsaking of all known sins. In terms of this erroneous understanding of justification, sins should be confessed but not necessarily forsaken.

On his website www.gracethrufaith.com Jack Kelley clearly endorses the contested doctrine of justification through imputed righteousness without an explicit obligation on sinners to repent from their sins. According to him, the holy nature of Christ is imputed to us, and that is the only nature which God sees when looking at us. As long as we put our trust in Christ to save us, the actual sins that all of us still commit are not held against us as the Lord Jesus has died to forgive all our past and future sins. In his article, Left behind for bad behavior?, Jack says:

“Because of our faith in the sufficiency of the cross, God is able to see us not as we are but as we will become when we’re perfected in the rapture. The sins we still commit are viewed as if it’s no longer us doing the sinning but the sin nature that still temporarily dwells within us. Here’s Paul again: I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it (Romans 7:18-20).”

What a lamentable and low spiritual standard we have fallen to if we regard the description of Romans 7:13-24 as the ordinary Christian life! Paul is here referring back to the time when he was awakened and convicted by the law, fully conscious of the sins which completely dominated him, but not yet saved by Christ. During that time, Paul was a habitual sinner: “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!” (Rom. 7:22-24; NIV).

Is this a fair description of Paul’s life? Was he, after his salvation, a person who delighted in the law (not in the cross of Christ), and also a wretched and insistent prisoner of sin? The verbs in this section indicate continuous actions and an uninterrupted state. Paul says: “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:19). And further: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I [continuously] do not do, but what I hate, I [continuously] do” (Rom. 7:15). In the last verses of this chapter he gives the solution of this severe problem of being conscious of your sins due to the enlightenment of the law, but still a helpless prisoner of your old, sinful nature: “Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25). The law was his tutor to Christ (Gal. 3:24-25).

After our salvation we should continuously identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: “Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:11-14).

This does not mean that we will achieve a state of sinless perfection, but we should at least strive to attain it. Paul says: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil. 3:12). On the way towards perfection we should spiritually grow up “till we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Phil. 4:13-14).

If we wish to grow up in this way we should be strongly committed to observe the command to holiness. We will receive this blessing only if we actively exert ourselves to obtain it: “Let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). Filthiness of the flesh refers to moral sins while spiritual defilement refers to false teachings which we have accepted. In the process of sanctification the Holy Spirit guides us into deeper truths of God’s Word (John 16:13). If we fail to fully surrender ourselves to the call to sanctification we actually resist or even reject the Holy Spirit: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification... He who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 4:3,8).

We cannot wilfully persist in certain sins as that would lead to a broken relationship with the Lord. Perpetual sinning can definitely keep people out of heaven. If we live in the atonement (or under the blood, as some prefer to call it) all sins of which the Holy Spirit convicts us, should immediately be confessed and forsaken (Prov. 28:13; 1 John 1:9). These sins are committed because of the weakness of our human body and nature (cf. Rom. 6:19).

Weakness is not sin in itself but a human characteristic which may lead to sin (cf. Heb. 5:2; 7:28). We have a human body which, by virtue of its senses, is exposed to temptations from the world, the devil and the lust of sin. We are also beset by other weaknesses; e.g. limited knowledge and bodily strength, as well as negative emotions which sometimes take control of us. Because Jesus also had a human body such as ours, He was also tempted but never submitted to it. He fully understands our problem and is always there to help us in our weakness, to give us power to overcome, and to forgive us when we have sinned:

“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16). “For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Heb. 2:18).

However, if we avoid the throne of grace where we can be forgiven and cleansed from all unrighteousness, and instead wilfully and continuously live in sin, we indulge in a lifestyle which constitutes spiritual rebellion. Such “believers” become habitual sinners who can no longer claim to be under the protection of the atonement. They do not walk in the Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:16) but remain under the domination of the flesh with its sinful lusts. “If you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13).

Backsliders who again and again give free reign to the flesh and persevere on the wicked way of sin, will eventually lose their faith and salvation (cf. John 15:6; Heb. 3:12-13). But this is not the way Jack Kelley sees it. According to him, every believer enjoys eternal security of salvation, regardless of how he/she lives. He says, “Although we’re encouraged in the strongest possible way to behave in a manner pleasing to the Lord, no where in the New Testament are we told that our behavior will endanger our salvation, nor will it jeopardize our place in the rapture. So while we can theoretically do whatever we want, some behavior is just not good” (Left behind for bad behavior?).

In another article on Kelley’s website he confirms this view: “We are made righteous because of our faith, as righteous as God is. That’s because when Jesus went to the cross He took every sin of our lives, past present and future, and paid the penalty for all of them (Col. 2:13-15). We are no longer considered by God to be unrighteous, and there is no sin we can commit to make us so, because Jesus has already made atonement for every sin of our life” (OSAS and 1 Cor. 6:9-10; OSAS refers to the teaching of ‘Once Saved, Always Saved’).

This assurance, which is very pleasing to all backsliders and wilful sinners in the church, is also given to “believing homosexuals and lesbians”.

The position of ‘gay believers’

The following question and answer on the position of gay believers also appear on Jack Kelley’s website:

“Question: Your response to the woman whose sister was gay but also a believer gave me pause…I guess I always have read 1 Cor 6:9-10 to mean that those who engage in such activities will not inherit the Kingdom of God. So I’m wondering how one who is living as a homosexual and is convicted but not repentant, as she seems to be, would still be included in the Rapture of the Church? Doesn’t repentance mean literally, turning away from one’s sin and walking in a new way? ... I’m having a very hard time reconciling your response to this woman’s question… and please understand, I’m not coming from the perspective that homosexual sin is greater or worse than any other sin. I hold fast to the fact that none of us is perfect and it’s only by His blood and His grace that any of us are saved... but I also believe I have some responsibilities in walking out my salvation with fear and trembling. I know salvation is not about works but shouldn’t our lives be expressed in Christian living that continues to look more like Christ and not like the rest of the world we’re living in?  Would you please clarify?

“Answer: Please forgive me in advance, because I’m probably not going to appear as diplomatic in answering your question as you have been in asking it. I’ve been asked about this several times and want to make certain that I’m absolutely clear, for you and for the others who’ve asked.

“In 1 Cor. 6:9-10 the key phrase is ‘the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom’. Paul followed it with a partial list of behaviors that are exhibited by the unrighteous. The problem is that believers often exhibit this behavior too. You only have to read a little bit of the Sermon on the Mount to see that. How can this be? Because our righteousness is imputed to us by faith, in spite of our behavior. In God’s sight the old us has already gone and the new us has already come (2 Cor 5:17). Accepting the Lord’s death as payment for our sins made us as righteous as God is (2 Cor. 5:21). We’re no longer part of the unrighteous who won’t inherit the Kingdom.

“The writer said her sister is born again, and recognizes her behavior as sin. If so, that makes her repentant because to repent means to change your mind. It doesn’t mean to stop sinning. If it did then the Bible’s admonition to repent and be saved wouldn’t make sense because if we could stop sinning we wouldn’t need to be saved. Even Paul confessed that he couldn’t stop sinning, but was grateful that when He sinned, the Lord saw it as the sin nature living in him, and not he himself (Romans 7:20).

“All through the New Testament we’re admonished to behave in a manner that pleases God as a way of saying thanks for our salvation, but nowhere are we threatened with the loss of it if we don’t. This woman is not living a victorious life on Earth and will miss out on blessings because of that, but the loss of her place in eternity is not one of them...

“If the writer’s sister is born again then she’s already guaranteed a place in the Kingdom (Ephes. 1:13-14) and she’ll be taken in the Rapture. When she gets there she will be in a new perfect body and all her sins will be part of the dark and distant past, just like yours and mine. Until then the only difference between us is that her sins are more obvious to us than ours are to her.” (End of quotation from www.gracethrufaith.com).

Response

Jack Kelley and all like-minded people should be reminded that the promise of a resurrection body and a subsequent life of sinlessness in heaven is no excuse for indulging in wilful sins during our present lives. The Lord Jesus came to the world, not only to pay the penalty for our sins but also “to save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). How can we live a life of wilful and persistent sinning, and yet regard ourselves to be saved from our sins? How can such believers ever testify of having mortified the flesh with its sinful lusts?

Apostatising is a very real and very tragic possibility in the lives of those who dabble in sin by becoming habitual drunkards, fornicators, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, or extortioners (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Paul clearly and unambiguously informs members of the church in Corinth that if they persistently live in such sins they will not see the kingdom of heaven. How can they claim to be washed, cleansed and delivered from their sins if they still live in them? Such people deceive themselves and are clinging to a dead faith without works (Jas. 2:26).

But Jack Kelley says it is OK to be a habitual homosexual if only you have the testimony of accepting Christ as your Saviour. According to him, God will never again even consider your sinful acts as He will only see in you the perfect life of His Son that was imputed to you. That is not what the Bible says. Paul warned apostatised Hebrew believers that persistent sinning would eventually destroy their faith and give them an evil heart. They were initially “brethren in Christ” but ended up as hardened sinners who have departed from God:

“Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today’, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:12-13). Such people are not overcomers because they did not persevere to the end on the way of holiness: “For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end” (Heb. 3:14).

We are on a narrow way which does not allow for compromising and sinful lifestyles under the guise of an outward form of godliness. Human weaknesses or personal liberties cannot be offered as excuses for our lack of holiness and true commitment to the Lord Jesus – neither for a form of imputed righteousness which makes no moral demands on us. “Pursue... holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

Paul says that on the day of the rapture we should be blameless in our spirit, soul and body (1 Thess. 5:23). The Lord does not only consider our spiritual dedication to Him, but also our psychological disposition and bodily behaviour. We should lead lives of continuous putting off and putting on:

“Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you also once walked when you lived in them. But now you must also put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Col. 3:5-10; cf. 1 Pet. 2:1-2; Jas. 1:21-22; Eph. 4:31-32).

Sins should be confessed and forsaken the moment we become conscious of them, and instead we should put on the holy nature of Christ. In the above-mentioned Scripture the Colossians are reminded that previously they walked in certain sins, and that rendered them disobedient people who were under the wrath of God. But they were delivered from these sins and are now admonished to proceed on this way by confessing and forsaking all sins of which they are convicted. They should not only, as Kelley says, confess the sins and then feel free to keep on practising them. We have to tighten the circle and also put off wrong attitudes, lies, anger, and filthy language as they are contrary to the holy nature of Christ.

It is only when we make a complete surrender that the old nature with its sinful inclinations is surrendered to be crucified, and in consequence the Holy Spirit will imbue us with the new nature of Christ. Subsequently, all our conduct should be a testimony of the filling of the Holy Spirit: “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). The Spirit will continuously convict us of sin, and also of the righteousness of Christ. Should we regard a certain sin as unforgivable or unconquerable, then we undervalue the grace of Christ and render ourselves slaves of that particular sin. How can the world regard us as redeemed people under such circumstances? Much less will the Lord describe us as overcomers. Come to Him, because He is mighty to save.

Do we take a definite stand against all forms of sin, as the Lord does? God hates sin, and for this reason He always clearly indicates that His wrath rests upon sinners. This attribute of God was evident since prehistoric times when Satan and his following of rebellious angels were cast out of heaven. Human history also yields ample proof of this fact. Consider Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden after the Fall, Israel’s dispersion from the Holy Land because of persistent apostasy, and the rejection of the end-time church (Laodicea) by Christ because their excessive materialism and self-justification gave rise to spiritual bankruptcy and a dead form of godliness (Rev. 3:15-17). The end-time church is also the victim of devil-inspired deception, causing it to completely depart from the truth (1 Tim. 4:1). Fortunately, there are still relatively small evangelical congregations that have not departed from the truth (Rev. 3:8). But they are few and far apart.

The outward behaviour of people is a reflection of their inner spiritual state. When a person has converted and was justified by virtue of his faith in the Triune God, his salvation should also be visible in his conduct as he is committed to bear fruit worthy of repentance. What happens if such a person later reverts to the sinful lifestyle that he followed before his repentance? Can he lay claim to eternal security if he no longer walks as a saint and again starts eating and drinking with the drunkards? (cf. Matt. 24:48-51).

“But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; because of the unfaithfulness of which he is guilty and the sin which he has committed, because of them he shall die” (Ezek. 18:24).

The same God, who expects a holy conduct from all believers in the time of Ezekiel, still does so in New Testament times. It is a basic principle of God’s kingdom that we should not sin. If we do, it is a serious error which should immediately be corrected: “These things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:1-2). The devil accuses us before God’s throne when we sin (Rev. 12:10), and claims control over us if we become slaves of sin. If we remain true to the conviction of the Holy Spirit by immediately confessing and forsaking our sins, the accusations of the devil are nullified and rejected. But if we resist or ignore the conviction of the Holy Spirit and continue indulging in sinful behaviour, we are on a sure way of apostatising and are no longer living under the atonement.

Through His Holy Spirit the Lord gives us power to be more than conquerors. He looks at our lives to see whether we live as overcomers who do not succumb to temptations and sin. Listen to the promise of the great Conqueror: “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the book of life; but I will confess his name before my Father and before His angels” (Rev. 3:5). But the names of the backsliders who departed from the truth of God’s Word will be blotted out from the book of life, despite the fact that they had previously been entered in that book (Rev. 22:19).

Faith and conduct should be in harmony with one another. My life is the outward expression of the things in which I believe. If a person has a faltering faith, or if he has a mere form of godliness and only serves the Lord with his lips (Matt. 15:8), he will not have the power of the Holy Spirit in his life and will consequently be overcome by temptations and sin. Such people tend to justify themselves on the basis of their faith, and then fatalistically accept that “we are all sinners” who should pray for the forgiving of our perpetual sins. This attitude amounts to absolute capitulation to the power of sin, and is also an expression of unbelief in the Lord Jesus as Saviour. Such people will be lost, even though they may have confessed the Name of the Lord, regarded themselves as Christians, and even preached to others. To the Lord, sinful behaviour is proof of a sinful heart, and for this reason it is impossible to live contrary to God’s Word and at the same time claim to be in the right relationship with Him:

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bear good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:13-21). The root (faith) will be evident in the fruit (behaviour or nature).

What is God’s will? To be holy in all your conduct (1 Pet. 1:15-16). Paul says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality... For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 4:3,7,8).

Profs. Walvoord & Zuck (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 701-703) says, among others, the following on the command to holiness in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12:

“The first instruction designed to produce greater holiness is abstinence from sexual immorality. Paul called his readers to avoid it, implying the need for exercising self-discipline, enabled by God’s Spirit. Christians are to avoid and abstain from any and every form of sexual practice that lies outside the circle of God’s revealed will, namely adultery, premarital and extramarital intercourse, homosexuality, and other perversions. The word porneia, translated ‘sexual immorality’, is a broad one and includes all these practices. The Thessalonians lived in a pagan environment in which sexual looseness was not only practised openly but was also encouraged... Two or more people practising sex out of God’s will are calling God’s wrath down on themselves: ‘...fornicators and adulterers God will judge’ (Heb. 13:4)... Sexual immorality is sin, and God will judge all sin (Rom. 6:23a)...

“The second specific exhortation regarding Christian living is the cultivation of brotherly love... Christians quickly learn that there is a real kinship between believers, and they relate to other Christians in a way they do not relate to those outside God’s family... The evidence that they had learned the lesson of brotherly love was their deep, selfless, giving affection for Christians in other parts of Macedonia...

“Third, working with one’s own hands demonstrates love for the brethren because a self-supporting person is not a burden to others. Paul himself set the example by working with his hands when he was in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:9). This verse (1 Thess. 4:11) dignifies manual labour. The Greeks deplored manual labour and relegated it to slaves as much as possible... Work itself is a blessing, and working with one’s hands should never be despised by Christians. A man who is willing to work with his hands demonstrates his love for his brethren by being willing to humble himself to provide for his own needs so that he does not depend on others but provides for himself” (end of quotation).

There are also various other applications of sanctification which should all be visibly demonstrated through Christian behaviour. In its widest sense, sanctification may be defined in terms of the following characteristics:

·       The filling of the Holy Spirit, which will be evident from the fact that such a person will have a good reputation in society because he demonstrates personal holiness and is also full of divine wisdom (Acts 6:3). He will not be an arrogant or violent person, and not greedy for money (1 Tim. 3:1-7; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). He will walk in the Spirit, and because of that he will be an overcomer who leads a pure life (Gal. 5:16).

·       Such a person will have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, and that specifically also includes the use of alcoholic beverages (Eph. 5:11,18; 1 Tim. 3:3). Our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and should not be defiled by sinful habits (1 Cor. 3:16-17).

·       This person will be full of the love of God that will be poured out into his heart by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). Love for the world and love for sin are contrary to such a heart and will not have dominion over him (cf. 1 John 2:15-17). Those who again pursue another love are backsliders who no longer live holy (Rev. 2:4-5).

·       A holy person is a humble servant (Luke 9:23; Mark 10:44-45). He will glory in the cross of Christ and always give the Lord the glory for everything that has been achieved in His Name (Gal. 6:14). He is not a proud and boastful person.

·       True holiness is always associated with the filling of the Holy Spirit. It gives a person power and boldness to proclaim the gospel to a hostile world. He will have a love for evangelisation and go to great lengths to promote and support it.

·       Holy people prevail over sin and all Satan’s attacks against them. A person who is full of the Holy Spirit will be strong in the Lord, resist evil, and remain standing against all the wiles of the devil (Eph. 6:10-11).

·       Holiness is also characterised by a life of prayer and an unshakable faith (Jas. 1:6; 5:16). A truly sanctified person talks more to God about souls than talking to souls about God. For this reason, the anointing of the Holy Spirit rests upon him and his labours are blessed.

·       Holiness always leads to a keen interest in the fulfilment of biblical prophecies (John 16:13; 1 Thess. 5:20). Truly sanctified people watch and pray that they may be worthy to escape the coming tribulation (Luke 21:36). They also endeavour to be blameless in holiness when the heavenly Bridegroom appears (Eph. 5:25-27; 1 Thess 3:13; 5:23-24; Rev. 19:7-8).

We should ensure that, through the message of our lives, the light of the holiness and saving grace of the Lord Jesus will shine brightly in a dark world. How will we be able to convict the world of divine truths if we follow the same carnal lifestyles, have the same appearance, speak as they speak, and share the same perverted values as they do? Carnal believers are not an asset to the church of Christ but rather a big embarrassment (1 Cor. 3:1-3; Gal. 5:17). It is absolutely unjustified to give such people the false hope of eternal security after they have made a half-hearted and doubtful commitment to the Lord. They should rather urgently be called to an honest self-examination, recommitment and full surrender to sanctification (2 Cor. 13:5).