The Normal Christian Life
Lord’s Day 33
Question 88. Of how many parts doth the true conversion of man consist?
Answer. Of two parts: of the mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man.
Question 89. What is the mortification of the old man?
Answer. It is a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins, and more and more to hate and flee from them.
Question 90. What is the quickening of the new man?
Answer. It is a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.
Question 91. But what are good works?
Answer. Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations, or the institutions of men.
How does the Bible describe a true Christian? Is one a Christian simply because he believes that the Bible is true? Is a believer defined by what and how much he knows? Is she a Christian because she does not do, say, or watch certain things that are accepted behaviors in the world? She doesn’t drink, swear, or watch movies—does this make her a Christian? Is the Christian a person who no longer sins, one who has overcome all evil desire?
On the flip-side, is one not a Christian because his theological understanding of Scripture is not complete? Is she not a believer who is tempted by lust? Does his notorious sin mean that he is no longer or perhaps never was a Christian?
What defines the Christian? What makes you a Christian?
The answer? The Christian is not defined first by what he/she does or does not do, nor by what he/she knows or does not know, nor by the thoughts he/she has or does not have. Rather, the Christian is defined by who or what he/she is spiritually. The true believer is one who has been made a new creature by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the result is that the child of God knows and confesses certain things, lives a certain way, rejects certain things, thinks heavenly and spiritual thoughts, and has desires that are in line with God’s own will/desire; but these things do not make you a Christian. They become true because you are a Christian.
And this new thinking, desiring, speaking, and doing are never perfect on this side of heaven.
This Lord’s Day of the Catechism describes the basic elements of the normal Christian life, the believer’s Christian experience in this world. We are changed, but not yet perfected.
The previous Lord’s Day taught the necessity of good works.
But what is truly “good”?
Most people give a “humanitarian” answer to this question: doing some good deeds that serve the common good of humanity—recycling and the Red Cross. The Catechism, however, answers it by looking higher, to God, our Creator. Then good works are those that (1) proceed from a true faith, (2) are performed according to the law of God, and (3) are done to His glory.
This means that the only ones who truly do good works are believers, for their obedience springs from a heart of love for God, the positive principle of the law (). And they do good with God’s glory in view, not merely for “humanitarian” reasons.
It also means that the teaching of common grace, which says that “civic good” is an evidence of God’s gracious work in the unregenerate, is not Reformed. Truly good works do much more than help people, and spring from a much deeper source than mere good intentions.
And, it also means that the Christian is “zealous of good works.” Where faith is, where love for God is, where there is a delight in the law of God, and where one aims at God’s glory and not just human good, there will be a life of works that is pleasing to God.
The true Christian is not defined simply by what he does for others, but by a heart of love for and delight in God, which aims at His glory above all else.
What motivates you to good works? Is it the praise and recognition of men, or the glory of God?
The normal Christian lives a fruitful life.
Our good works, however, are stained with sin, and this is why we need to hear about true conversion.
In giving a biblical definition to conversion, we should not limit ourselves to the date and time when one became a Christian. Nor is conversion the reforming of a few habits or sinful behaviors in one’s life. Neither is it merely your act of turning to God, or your “acceptance” of Jesus into your heart. Conversion is not your story or testimony to share with others.
When the Bible speaks of conversion, it refers to the work of God’s Spirit in the heart of an elect person, by which his heart is given new spiritual life and is infused with the power to believe the gospel and turn in faith to Jesus Christ and away from sin. This is not the result of human persuasion, for no man can do this work in the sinner’s dead soul. Rather, conversion is the sovereign work of God’s grace in the hearts of those whom He has chosen (). In our natural state, the “old man” has complete control over us; it is only by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit that we turn away from sin to serve the living God.
Though there may well be a definite, conscious moment that one receives the Holy Spirit, has his spiritual eyes opened, and turns for the first time in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ, this does not receive emphasis or attention in Scripture’s discussion of conversion. Instead, Scripture speaks of conversion in terms of daily repentance and a continual living by faith (; ). All of life is repentance. The test of whether one is truly converted is not one’s “testimony,” but one’s present and ongoing life and experience as a Christian.
“Conversion” and “repentance” are in fact synonyms in the Bible (). The word for repentance means, in the Greek, “a change of mind,” which points to something much deeper than a modification of behavior. The one converted begins to see and understand things from a heavenly and spiritual perspective, especially the things that concern himself. He begins to see himself before God.
The result is that he repents. True repentance involves the knowledge of sin (), a heartfelt sorrow and hatred for one’s sin ( ), and a turning from sin to God ( ). This repentance is called in the Catechism, “the mortification [or putting to death] of the old man.”
The sorrow of true repentance is accompanied by faith in Christ and joy in God. As we hate and turn from sin, we at the same time love God and turn to Him. We look in faith to Jesus Christ as our Savior and Substitute, and our hearts are filled with love, gratitude, and delight in God. This is what the Catechism calls “the quickening [or bringing to life] of the new man.”
Living in daily repentance is the normal Christian life.
Progress in Sanctification
Even though we continue to sin daily, believers in this life do grow and progress in their life of holiness. The Christian life is not stagnant or static, but ought to be one of spiritual growth, onward and upward.
The Scriptures speak of this progress, both from the point of view of it being God’s work in us, and from the point of view of our calling to grow. In Philippians 1:6, Paul writes, “He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Again, in, he says, “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” While we are preserved by God’s grace in salvation, we are also empowered by His grace to grow more and more into the image of His dear Son.
At the same time, we are called to grow and progress spiritually., the verse immediately preceding the one just quoted, calls us to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” In and , New Testament believers are chided for their lack of spiritual growth. Peter speaks of “grow(ing) in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” ( ) and of desiring the pure milk of the Word “that ye may grow thereby” ( ).
Sometimes we think of this growth as mostly external, an increase in good works or victory over a particular sin in our lives. But from a subjective point of view, growth in grace is much deeper. It is a continual and growing awareness of the depths of sin in one’s heart, and a greater sorrow over sin—“more and more to hate sin.” It is realizing that while I may have been able to overcome or change a sinful habit in my life, there is a deeper root to that sin in my heart. I may repent from adultery, but I recognize that there is lust in my heart for which I also need repentance.
The closer we come to Christ, the more we become like Him; and the deeper our fellowship with Him, the greater is our awareness of our sin and the greater is our experience of His grace. Also, as we grow in grace and repentance, the more we know that we are pleasing to God, and the more we experience the joy of walking with Him.
Central to our growth in sanctification is the Word of God, read privately and heard in the preaching. “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee” (). Through the reading and memorization of Scripture, and through hearing the indispensable preaching of the gospel, we grow and progress in holiness.
The normal Christian life is one of progress in sanctification.
A Lifelong Struggle
So long as we remain on this earth, we will not become perfect in holiness. In fact, we only ever have a small beginning of the new obedience. Because of this, the struggle with sin remains with the believer until the day of his death. This is what Paul writes about in Romans 7 when he says, “The good that I would I do not; but the evil that I would not, that I do.” And again, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind” (vv. 19, 22, 23).
Every true believer knows this to be true, from his own experience; but rather than despairing over this, we should see God’s purpose in leaving us, while on this earth, to deal with the remnants of sin and the old man.
Why do we still struggle with sin? What is God’s purpose in this?
First, God wants us to be humble. When our experience is victory over besetting sin, we are immediately tempted to an even greater sin: pride. So, Paul says, God gave him a thorn in the flesh “lest [he] should become exalted above measure” (). Worse than lust or murder is the sin of pride, which says, “I don’t need God.”
Second, in the constant experience of God’s mercy and grace, God wants us to show mercy to others and to forgive readily. Just as we constantly, daily need forgiveness, so we should forgive others the wrongs that they do against us, which though they may be grievous, can never measure up to the debt of our sins that God has forgiven.
Third, remaining sin increases in us a longing for heaven and perfection. Few things in life make us long for heaven more than our constant struggle with sin. Paul’s groan in Romans 7:24, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” is an expression of his longing for the final day of deliverance from sin’s presence and power. This struggle and longing do not make us complacent toward sin, but encourage us to hate sin, to strive, to run, to wrestle, to press on, to fight, to mortify the old man, and to quicken the new.
The normal Christian is one who struggles with sin all his life long.
Do you live the “normal” Christian life? Is your conversion true/genuine?
Are you fruitful?
Do you live in daily repentance?
Are you progressing in holiness?
Are you involved in a lifelong battle with sin?
If you answer “Yes” to those questions, that is normal—for Christians.
Questions for Discussion
1. What constitutes a good work? Would you describe philanthropy as a good work? Why or why not?
2. Why is it necessary for us to be converted?
3. What are the two aspects of conversion?
4. Is conversion a one-time matter or a continuous process?
5. How does one know whether his conversion is genuine?
6. Why is growth in sanctification important for the Christian? Can/ought we stand still in our spiritual growth?
7. How do we grow in sanctification?
8. Is it abnormal for a believer to be struggling with sin?
9. What are God’s purposes in our struggles with sin? How are these different than the experiences of one who does not struggle with sin, but instead gives himself over to sin’s pleasures?
10. What does the normal Christian life look like? How is this an encouragement to you as a believer?