The game “two truths and a lie” is a popular ice-breaker for youth ministry gatherings, at least it was when I was working with high school youth groups. A person states three “facts” and the hearers must guess which of the the three is a lie. The game plays on expectations and what people know—or think they know—about the person. Laughter usually ensues at the admission of what is actually true. “I did not expect that from you!”
I encounter a version of this in the Christian life from time to time. That is, some who deny the two seemingly contradictory truths that believers are both sanctified and being sanctified. This is another way to express the “already/not yet” dichotomy we see throughout the New Testament epistles. Luther captured this by the phrase simul justus et peccator – just and sinner, at one and the same time.
The New Testament is full of exhortations, of imperatives directed at believers that focus on our growth into Christlikeness. To cite a few:
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Rom 6:12
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Rom 12:2
Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rom 12:10-11
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called. Eph 4:1
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Eph 4:24
One could go on and cite many other apostolic commands. Their purpose is that believers no longer live as they did prior to conversion, but that they behave differently.
Some object that this somehow represents an attempt to manufacture one’s own righteousness, to work one’s way to God. But this is manifestly false. Aside from “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ”, no New Testament imperative is given to make us what we are not, but to make us more of what we already are. That is, every injunction we have is not to make us children of God, but because we already are his own.
Others rely on the law/gospel distinction, saying anything we are commanded to do is law, and thus has no place alongside the gospel of justification by faith. But that is too facile an explanation. Paul surely knew what the law was, yet he also gave many such imperatives. Apostolic teaching is not law, and Paul’s instructions are not predicated on what the Pentateuch contains, but “as the truth is in Jesus.” (Eph 4:21) His commands are centered on the person and work of the Lord Jesus.
This brings us back to the “two truths and a lie.” The two truths are these. First, we are redeemed, we are holy, we are sanctified in Christ. Our position as heirs of salvation as the adopted sons of God could not be firmer. This identity is because of the death and resurrection of Christ, not anything we have or could do. It is decidedly not because of our obedience. Because it is nothing of us, our position in Christ is unassailable.
The second is we are not yet as holy as we might be, we are not yet as sanctified as we might be. This process goes on throughout our earthly life. As Paul expressed, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil 3:12) The apostle captures both sides here. He is not yet complete, has not already obtained the fullness of conformity to Christ, yet Christ Jesus has made Paul his own. He does the first because of the second, because he already belongs to Christ.
The lie is that these two truths are somehow contradictory, that if we pursue Christlikeness we are denying the security of our identity in Christ, or the finality and completeness of salvation. But it is not so. It is true that we are redeemed and assuredly so because of Christ alone, but also God’s will is for our sanctification, that we more and more become imitators of God as beloved children. These truths are presented side by side in the New Testament, and with no conflict whatsoever. Let us not give into the lie that, having saved us, God has no thought to continually transform us.