Like Lazarus’s grave clothes, believers still bear the stench of their former, sinful lives. Through His work of sanctification, the Holy Spirit limits the effect and influence of the sinful flesh we still carry around. But what about professing believers who refuse to deal with the remains of their depravity? Does God intend for His grace to cover our ongoing, unrepentant sin?
by Jeremiah Johnson
In the apostle John’s account of the Lord miraculously raising Lazarus from the dead, there’s a short statement that never fails to make church kids smirk. Always with an eye for practicality and propriety, Lazarus’s sister Martha urgently warned Christ, “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days” (John 11:39 KJV).
As we’ve already seen in this series, Lazarus’s resurrection is a vivid depiction of God’s work of salvation in the believer’s life. And even in his revived state, Lazarus—still draped in his foul grave clothes—bears a distinct similarity to the believer’s new life in Christ. As John MacArthur explains,
The story of Lazarus offers a particularly graphic illustration of our predicament as believers. We have been raised to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). We “joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man” (Romans 7:22). Yet we cannot do what we desire (Galatians 5:17). “The wishing is present in [us], but the doing of the good is not” (Romans 7:18). We are held prisoner by the remnants of the very fallenness from which we have been redeemed (Romans 7:22). It is as if we were still bound in our grave clothes. . . .
There is, however, an important difference between our situation and the raising of Lazarus. His mummy suit came off immediately. It was merely a linen shroud. Fortunately, the corruption of death—such as the awful stench Martha feared—did not follow Lazarus forth from the grave.
Our predicament, however, cannot be resolved so quickly. It is not just a linen shroud that fastens itself to us, but a full-fledged carcass—Paul calls it “the body of this death” (Romans 7:24). It is the fleshly sin-principle that casts its pall over our glorious new lives throughout our earthly pilgrimage. It befouls our spiritual atmosphere, surrounding us with the fetid stink of sin. It no longer can dominate us like a ruthless tyrant, but it will plague us with temptation, torment, and grief until we are finally glorified.
Even though we’ve been transformed through Christ’s redeeming work, we still bear the stains of our sinful past. Last time we considered how the Lord, through the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification, diminishes the effect and influence of our sinful past.
But not all professing believers willingly submit to the refining work of sanctification. In fact, many reject the predicament altogether, instead adopting a cavalier attitude toward their sin and eschewing any rebuke or condemnation for it.
In past generations, defending that position usually meant invoking the idea of “carnal” Christians. Based on a misunderstanding of Paul’s rebuke in 1 Corinthians 2 and 3, many Christians have been led to believe that there are two classes of Christians—carnal and spiritual. Spiritual Christians display the evidence of their status through their godliness—righteous living and mature faith. On the other hand, carnal Christians make professions of faith, but remained mired in the sin and corruption of the world.
Today a similar idea is rapidly growing in popularity. When it comes to dealing with lingering sin in a believer’s life, the trendy solution is not to preach repentance and discipline, but to focus exclusively on the grace of God. Rather than dealing biblically with their sin—“Hacking Agag to Pieces”—they argue that salvation releases us from any expectation of obedience to God’s law, and that God’s grace dissolves guilt and defuses conviction of sin in the believer’s life. It’s not the guilt of our sin, they argue, but the striving for righteousness that leads so many believers to spiritual frustration and despair. In fact, they try to shame other believers out of their pursuit of holiness by mislabeling it as works righteousness, that is, works done to earn God’s favor.
In his book, The Vanishing Conscience, John MacArthur warns against twisting God’s grace into an excuse.
God’s grace does not mean holiness is optional. There have always been people who abuse God’s grace by assuming it grants leeway for sin. Paraphrasing that philosophy, Paul writes, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” (Romans 6:1). If grace abounds most where sin is worst (Romans 5:20‑21), then doesn’t our sin only magnify the grace of God? Should we continue in sin so that God’s grace can be magnified?
“May it never be!” Paul answers in a phrase so emphatic that the King James Version renders it “God forbid!” The notion that anyone would use such an argument to condone sin was clearly offensive to Paul. “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:3).
Sadly, this corruption of God’s grace isn’t restricted to the fringes of the church. It’s coming from some of the most popular speakers and authors in the evangelical movement today. And it’s a threat to the spiritual growth and godliness of the countless men and women caught up in its deception.