Q&R WITH BRAD JERSAK: “UNDER GRACE, ARE WE STILL ‘SINNERS’? IS CONFESSING SIN A DENIAL OF GRACE?”
Under grace, are we still ‘sinners’? Is confessing sin a denial of grace? What about saying “the Lord’s Prayer,” which asks God to forgive our sins? Some grace teachers regard the Lord’s Prayer as Old Covenant since Jesus taught it before the Cross and at the Cross, all sins were already forgiven. What’s your take on this?
These questions are loaded with a backstory, for sure. I can hear the wounds of shame in how the words “sin” and “sinner” were used as bludgeons on sensitive hearts. And believe me, I can relate. As long as these are still associated with the old pangs of religious shaming, it will be hard to use them at all. What the New Testament describes is not what they came to mean for so many of us. But let’s try to work it out together.
The Foundations of Grace
Before anything else, let’s get the foundations of grace and our theology of the Cross firmly beneath our feet:
- The Incarnation of Christ established God’s union with humanity at the conception of Jesus Christ, from the moment the divine Word assumed human flesh. This means the redemption project began, not at the Cross, but in the womb of the Virgin.
- The Ministry of Christ proclaimed that the New Covenant Jubilee had already arrived, not at the Cross, but from the moment the Lord announced that the kingdom of God had come in him and from the beginning, he said, “TODAY this is fulfilled in your midst.”
- The Cross of Christ (which includes his death AND resurrection) was the apex of his Incarnation and Ministry,when his Incarnation and Ministry are made absolute and universal by “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and the power of death is defeated.
- “It is finished” means “it is accomplished.” Was there more to do? Of course! Christ still had to plunder hades, rise from the dead, ascend to the right hand of the Father, pour out his Spirit and continue rescuing lost sheep. “If I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself” is the ongoing ministry that flows from the Cross.
Our New Identity in Christ / the Truth of our Being
With due credit to C. Baxter Kruger, the “truth of our being” (our ‘ontology,’ a fancy word for ‘being’) is “in Christ.” By faith, I identify myself as a beloved child of our Abba. That was established, not at my conversion, but already on the Cross, when I was yet “powerless,” still a “sinner” and his “enemy” (Romans 5:6, 8, 10). Already at the Cross, Paul says Christ died for us, forgave us and reconciled us to God (Romans 5:9-11). Forgiven, justified and reconciled-a child of God-that is the truth of my being, my new identity.
That said, the indwelling grace of Father, Son and Spirit in us is at work in me, transforming me so that the truth of my being becomes “the way of my being” (my real-life existence). The truth of my being in Christ (my identity) will impact the way of my being (my life) by the Grace of God. Our role is not through self-will and religious performance but by surrender to God’s Grace (2 Cor. 3:18).
Our New Life in Christ / the Way of our Being
God’s transforming Grace (the Holy Spirit) empowers our “new life in Christ.” They aren’t to be divorced. In an email exchange with Wm. Paul Young, we co-wrote the following:
- Our true identity in Christ emerges from within our real humanity, rooted in encounter, union and community. At its heart, the truth it knows, experiences and lives is that you are not alone.
- There is another version of “our identity in Christ” that is a disembodied, dissociated, abstracted ideal, usually imagined in a separated “heavenly realm” (a kingdom elsewhere, not truly ‘in you’ and therefore, not truly ‘in Christ’). This idealized identity is a two-dimensional avatar that the self-deceived self assumes, and ultimately another delusion as disconnected from reality as Adam in his turning.
What we’re getting at is that identity (the truth of our being) doesn’t ignore or negate reality (the way of our being). It transforms it. And that includes the real struggles of our lives. And that struggle, we sometimes call “sin.”
The Reality of Sin
Imagine my disappointment. I had given my life to Christ in a standard Baptist “sinners prayer” at a young age. I had welcomed Christ into my heart (though I know now he was already there). I remember the sincerity of that moment vividly and I recall the assurance it gave me that I was indeed a child of God. That inner knowing has never left. It was real.
Why disappointment, then? Three days later, I remember coming to the realization that I had sinned, even after my heartfelt prayer. It was jarring. I thought that conversion would make me sinless. That the struggle would be over. That I would no longer be a “sinner.” Even at that young age, I saw the disparity between the truth of my being and the way of my being. My identity in Christ had not yet completely transformed my life in Christ. Ontologically, I was a son. Existentially, I still struggled to think and act like one. I came to discover that is the journey, not some salvation drive-thru.
Am I still a “Sinner”?
If “son” is my identity, am I still a “sinner”? Well, “sinner” no longer identifies the truth of my being. “Sinner” is not my identity in Christ. “Sinner” is not my ontology. The truth of who I am is enfolded into my union with Christ, not in some ethereal spiritual courtroom, but in the deepest part of my being. I believe this.
What I don’t believe is that the way of my being, my real existence, is without struggle or free from sinful behavior. Have we really become so perfect in daily practice? That would be a strange kind of denial-and specifically, a denial of Grace!
Some go so far as to claim they no longer sin, or even that there is no such thing as sin! Really? “Am I a completed work? I mean, in real life? In my relationships? Have I arrived?” Hmm, do you mind if I ask your spouse or children or colleagues or closest friends? Never mind, I’ll just ask John the Beloved. Hang on … ah yes, I thought so. He said,
- If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10).
I know the typical ways to skirt this passage. Here’s my summary response: don’t skirt the passage. Rather, try reading it without a shame lens for a moment. Try hearing it without the old wounds of oppressive religiosity that loaded the word “sin” and “sinner” with self-loathing. Here’s what I mean:
Description, not Identity
Admitting “sin” is simply acknowledging that I’m not always loving. Paul sees “sinning” as common to the human condition. He’s not freaked out by it. Let me paraphrase Rom. 3:23-24 so you can hear the tone:
- “Hey,” Paul says, “everybody sins! That’s no newsflash. We all struggle, right? Any demon or religious moralist could tell you that. Your conscience accuses you of your failure to love well all the time. And they’re not wrong. But what’s important is God’s response: he doesn’t accuse. He redeems. So, just as everyone sins, everyone is being justified freely by his grace.”
This means that while “sinner” is no longer our identity-no longer the truth of my being, no longer my ontology-it IS a description of my ongoing struggle to love and my regular failure to do so. I have not escaped the reality of the human condition. Paul would even confess that he is (not was) the chief of sinners. Has he lost the plot? No, look at how he sandwiches that description with the corresponding gospel truth:
- And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. 15 This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life (1 Timothy 1:14-16).
He describes himself (not identifies) as someone who qualifies for God’s superabundant grace, someone who regularly experiences God’s mercy and longsuffering, and most importantly, as one through whom Christ shows his patience and mercy. SHOWS! Aha! The Truth of his being is SHOWING through the Way of his being that sin is overcome, not by perfectionism nor by denial, but by the transforming Grace of God.
Thus, I am completely comfortable and no longer triggered by the term “sinner.” It is not my identity. It is simply Paul and John’s description of the reality of our struggle and our growth, the facts of the human condition, but NEVER apart from the Grace of my all-merciful Christ.
Is Confession a Denial of Grace?
There’s this old adage, “Confession good for the soul.” Is it? Many would deny it because they’ve been burnt by it. They’ve been stung by the way Christianity attached self-loathing and groveling to confession. They had married confession to a false identity in which the truth of our being is that we’re nothing but depraved sh*t. No wonder those who discover Grace go to such lengths to leave behind confession. They’re rejecting something toxic within confession.
But there was a terrible cost. It involved creating an entire theological system that reduced the New Testament teachings concerning confession (in Matthew, Luke, James and 1 John) to either old covenant or evangelistic—indeed, some rejected the Lord’s Prayer itself (and with it, ALL Christ’s teachings) because it included the line, “forgive us our debts.” The reasoning was that if on the Cross, all is forgiven, then asking for forgiveness is a denial of the Cross.
To be direct, it doesn’t work that way. And it’s a very serious collapse of Christianity when we say we’ll no longer follow the Way of Jesus because he laid it out prior to his crucifixion. Rather than debating the bizarre, I’ll explain the why and how of confessing already-forgiven sins:
The Way and How of Confession
1. We confess (admit) sins, not to get forgiven, but to confess our belief in the finished work of the Cross.
2. We confess (admit) sins, not as a denial of Grace, but to appropriate the Grace of the Holy Spirit’s transforming presence.
2. We confess (admit) sins, not to identity with worm theology, but to admit our current struggle to see the Truth of our being become the Way of our being.
3. We confess (admit) sins, to acknowledge the problem of shame through an accusing conscience, and our tendency to self-alienation.
4. We confess (admit) sins, to hear God’s reassurance that we have already been forgiven, our guilt removed and our reconciliation complete.
5. We confess (admit) sins, to embrace our need to turn to love, make amends to those we’ve hurt and forgive others who’ve hurt us.
The confession dynamic in real life:
I turn from love or fail to love someone as I ought. I do real harm. My conscience accuses me of falling short of the royal law of love. My instinct is to shame and alienation. Like Adam, I want to hide from God behind the fig leaves of denial and distraction or some other false comfort. Instead, Christ beckons me and asks, “What’s troubling you?”
I confess what I’ve done. “I’ve stumbled. I’ve not loved as I should.”
“Ah,” Christ says, “of course. Everybody sins. That’s why I came. Remember the Cross? You’ve been forgiven. You’ve already been reconciled to God.”
“If I’ve already been forgiven, why do I need to confess?”
“Because you need to be reconciled, not to me, but to your accusing conscience. Your conscience needs to hear the good news. You need to be cleansed of the shame and condemnation of accusation. You need to hear again (because you’re human) that you belong, just as you are—that alienation is unnecessary.”
“But if I already know that…”
“Confession showers your soul and conscience in my mercy, rather than asserting you have no need for it. Confession opens your heart to welcome Grace to transform the Way of your being. Confession reminds you that sin is a failure of love, and I’m calling you back to love. It opens your ears to hear me call you to back to the Father’s house. It calls you, also, to forgive others and to seek their forgiveness. Confession, in short, is a discussion with Grace and a surrender to divine Love. We have this conversation often, not because your heart is rotten, but because the plaque of sin obscures your truest self. It wants removal so that you shine brightly in this world.”