When I first became a Christian, the believers I was among hammered home the distinction between our standing and state. I later came to see what a great gift it was to clearly delineate these two important truths.
Our standing is who we are in Christ; our identity as blood-bought, redeemed sons and daughters of God. Our standing is sealed by the indwelling Holy Spirit, whom Paul refers to in Ephesians 1:13 as the seal of our inheritance.
Standing is unalterable and fixed, because its foundation is the person and work of Christ. No amount of trial, no amount of failure on our part, nothing we do can diminish this once-for-all completed work of the Lord Jesus. One of the richest passages for these truths is found in the first few verses of Romans 5:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
The apostle begins with a “Therefore”, the assumption that this is a truth to count on. We have been justified. It’s a past tense, a completed thing. And it is through the Lord Jesus Christ. Secondly, we inhabit an atmosphere of grace, it is the ground we stand upon. Nothing here depends on our doing, or our performance. It is all of Christ, and all in Christ. This is our standing as Christians, and it cannot change. Our acceptance can never be questioned because the work of Christ can never be questioned.
Our state is a different thing. It is changing, temporary, fleeting. How I react on a given day to trials may be God-honoring. The next day, it may be otherwise. I will fail, I will sin, and so will you. Our obedience is less than complete. John affirms the reality of this when he says “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Our old, Adamic nature doesn’t improve, it doesn’t get better. It’s still with us, though believers now have a new nature. Paul encourages us to “consider ourselves dead to sin”—because there is that within us that still responds to sin. This encouragement to reckon ourselves dead to sin is a slaying, but it is a judicial one, rather than an actual one. Paul also tells the Ephesians to put off the old man, and to put on the new. These truths demonstrate that fluctuation in our state is not only possible, but expected.
Believers that look to their state for assurance or peace will in fact find they don’t have assurance or peace. Because state is decidedly not fixed, it can never provide any sure basis for peace. Christian maturity is in one sense a continual adjustment of our state to our standing. That is, Christlikeness is the process of bringing my state into closer conformity with my standing. I do this by dwelling on all that Christ has accomplished in his suffering, death, and resurrection, and all that he continues to do as my Advocate at God’s right hand. When the accuser of the brethren hurls his condemnation at me, I look to the cross, and say “It is true I am unworthy, but he is worthy, he is altogether lovely, and the Father is well-pleased by his Son.” In other words, assurance and peace come from recalling my standing in Christ, an unassailable position made certain by the Father’s acceptance of His Son, and the unalterable facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Too many Christians I have spoken to are unclear on this important difference between standing and state. If you are struggling with acceptance or assurance, I encourage you to consider whether it may be because you haven’t made this important distinction.