Just As If I’d never sinned? Not Really. - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonArticles on Justification by Faith Alone
Just the plain facts about this non-sensiscal phrase that seemed to catch on in the modern church.
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The modern church has a bad habit of dumbing down doctrine. In an attempt to dumb down justification by faith alone, they fabricated an idea that not only does damage to justification, but retreats back into a Roman Catholic idea, without keeping some of the Roman Catholic baggage of penance. However, in redefining the idea, they have in essence discarded the biblical nature of justification.
The biblical doctrine of justification has been precisely defined by the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith in chapter 11:1. It states, “Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.” (Rom. 3:24; 8:30; Jer. 23:6; Rom. 3:22, 24-25, 27-28; 4:5-8; 5:17-19; 1 Cor. 1:30-31; 2 Cor. 5:19, 21; Eph. 1:7; Titus 3:5, 7; Acts 10:44; 13:38-39; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:7-8; Phil 3:9.
The phrase which the modern church believes is this doctrine of justification is that God treats me “just as if I’d never sinned.” Have you heard this catchy phrase? Some like to think that this phrase is an acceptable and easy way of understanding the word “justification.” In other words, they believe the phrase is a sufficient definition (over simplified) of the doctrine of justification. But is it right? Is the biblical doctrine of justification the same as saying that God treats me as if I’d never sinned? No, not really. As a matter of fact – no, absolutely not! The phrase is pithy, but not very accurate. Why? Justification is an affect of the forensic judgment of God (a declaration he makes about me) in lieu of the imputed righteousness of Christ on me as a sinner. Men are wicked, and this is not difficult to prove. Simply look in the mirror and see this fact for yourself. You know your sin, and you know you are sinner. Even as a redeemed sinner, you still know, ever more now than before your conversion, that you are a worm.
The mirror of our conscience is not the only place to see that sin abounds practically. The Bible also poses this as an important aspect of redemptive history. In the days of Noah the wickedness of men, “was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” (Genesis 6:5). Genesis 13:13 says of the modern culture in the days of Abraham, “But the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the LORD exceedingly.” In Jeremiah’s time the consensus of the heart of men was, “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). And it is certainly without a doubt true in our day and age that men are as wicked as the day is long. They are no different than those of Old Testament times or even New Testament times. All men are sinners. How many are sinners? Everyone is a sinner, fallen in Adam, plagued with original sin, and working day in and day out in actual sin. Romans 3:23a says, “For all have sinned.” And, “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:” (Rom. 5:12).
If men are really sinners, how then could someone infer that God treats men as if they were not sinners? (Just as if I’d never sinned?) This would be inaccurate for a few important reasons. It would be inaccurate 1) in light of the wickedness and depravity of men’s hearts, 2) in light of its theological essence, and 3) in light of the cross of Christ, for, it would do great damage to all of Christ’s work as the Redeemer of God’s elect in the covenant of grace.
First, since men are sinners, God must deal with men as sinners. God never deals with men at any time as if they never sinned. It is precisely because they have sinned that they are justified, or can be justified, by the work of Jesus Christ. Even after the forensic judgment on a soul takes place, (God’s declaration about a sinner being received through Christ), God still treats them as sinners, but as redeemed sinners. Both before and after one’s conversion men are still sinners and God deals with them as such. Even after God saves men from the wrath that is due them, they do not cease to be sinners. The Bible says that we are made new, but the sinful remnant of our flesh still remains in us to do battle against the Spirit which now also dwells in us. That is why we are repeatedly told to mortify the deeds of the flesh. For instance, “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” (Romans 8:13) And what about Colossians 3:5? “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth.” These verses are written and relevant to redeemed sinners. And what of 1 John 5:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Redeemed sinners are still that, redeemed sinners. We are exhorted, commanded, instructed, motioned, prodded and empowered by the Spirit of God to kill remaining sin in us, after our conversion, for that very reason. Otherwise, we would not need to be justified at all.
Another reason this phrase is objectionable, is that it is Arminian at the core – its theological essence exalts man to a measure that he should not be. Every attempt at making man “good,” in some respect, does a great injustice to the sovereignty of God in salvation and the eternal election of the redeemed through his covenant of grace. God does not treat those after conversion who are justified by faith in an elevated status as if they never sinned. God very well knows they have sinned. The ones justified know they have sinned. And the very reason they are justified is intrinsically linked to the truth of their sinfulness. Romans 4:2 says, “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.” Where does man have a right to glory before God, even after justification, to think that he is now treated on some higher level in which God views him as if he had never sinned? In reality, he knows, much deeper, that he is a sinner, and his whole life is a continual reflection of that fact to a deeper degree. What would God owe such a person at that point? Well, in truth, if such a person existed, God would owe Him as much as He owed His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus was perfect, upheld God’s Law perfectly at every point, and never sinned. He was God in the flesh. God owed Him for being sinless and perfecting his work to all righteousness, the exaltation of righteousness that He received when He went to glory. He now sits at God’s right hand in infinite power interceding for all his people. Why? Jesus Christ sits at the right hand because He is God’s righteous servant. (Isaiah 53:11). If we were now considered as if we have never sinned, God would owe us much, for he must always recompense reward to those that are righteous. We are not righteous in that way. We are still sinners, though redeemed sinners. God does not treat us as if we had never sinned. Rather, the very fact of the Spirit’s empowering for service to the church shows we need help even after we are converted. Jesus said, “for without me ye can do nothing,” (John 15:5). 1 Corinthians 12:7 says, “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.” We need help even in our basic giftedness in the church for the very fact that we are sinful, still dealing with remaining sin even after conversion. The Spirit must give us this power, without which, we would not be able to serve God acceptably because we are still fallen. Before we were justified we were lost, and sinners who were on their way to hell. After we were justified, we were saved, but still sinners on their way to heaven. We are sinners in either case. As Romans 7:15 states, “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.” Sinners are still sinners. Even in heaven, we will be redeemed sinners. Though the remnants of sin will be vanquished in us, though in heaven we will be changed so that we will not be able to sin against God anymore, we will still remember our sinfulness and what Jesus did, “And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.” (Revelation 5:9) The very song we will sing is a reflection of our remembrance that we are redeemed sinners, even though we will never sin again. In this way, to say that we are able to glory in our newfound “goodness” is simply an extension of Arminianism, and at its essence, it has God exalting man instead of exalting the work of the Anointed Savior.
This little catchy phrase also attacks the work of Christ, which culminates in the cross. How would this reflect on the work of Jesus Christ and the cross? Jesus lived a perfect life, a life without sin. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus’ sinless work in keeping God’s Law allows His perfect sacrifice to be acceptable before God. Then the double cure takes place – our sin is imputed to His account and He takes on our punishment for that sin, and His righteousness is imputed to our account and we are reckoned righteous because of His work, (our sin is expiated, and the wrath of God is propitiated, and his justice is satisfied). So, to say that we are now those who are reckoned as if we never sinned nullifies the very reason why we are justified in the first place. Jesus died to redeem sinners, and to cover them. If I am reckoned as one who has never sinned after my justification, then the entire idea of the cross and Christ’s work becomes nonsense. Martin Luther described redeemed sinners in this way: as a pile of dung covered in gold. This is well said.
The redemption of sinners does not stop at justification. It goes much further than that. Most of the New Testament is taken up with exhortations, commandments and instructions to a holy life. Why would this be so if justification rendered us as if we never sinned? 2 Corinthians 7:1 states, “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” Why would there be any perfecting needed if we are now considered as though we never sinned? Is it just a consideration? Is God simply considering us one way when the fact is simply another? Is He simply looking the other way though the reality of the facts before Him are contrary? Is God merely winking at sin, considering us as if we had never sinned? No. God considers the work of Christ as that which justifies, not our own work. We are the justified, not the justifiers. Jesus Christ is the justifier. In reality, this modern phrase would give us a license to sin because if God now looks on us as those who “never sinned” that would have to mean that He continues to do so if it is a forensic judgment based on Christ’s work for all time. In this way, we would always be considered in this manner no matter how we acted or how we transgressed the Law of God. We would always be viewed as non-sinners, as if we had never sinned, even though we would be sinning to our hearts content.
If God treated us “just as if we never sinned,” then we have no need of the continual Mediatorship of Jesus Christ. Why would we need Him if God treated us as the righteous elect who are seen as if they never sinned? Hebrews 4:12 would be nonsense to us, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” Grace? Why would we need grace? We would be considered as those who never sinned. What need, therefore, is grace for those who are virtually considered as unfallen, as if we had never sinned? No, we are not reckoned as if we never sinned, but we are reckoned accepted and justified in Christ through His redemptive work as those who are in need of a Savior for the very fact that we are sinners. Then, since we are desperately aware of the fact that we are sinners, we come boldly to the throne of grace – why? – To receive spiritual help we need in light of the fact that we are frames made of dust, worms before God, and in need of the Spirit’s fruit!
The phrase “just as if I’d never sinned” is more Roman Catholic than anything else. Now, the Roman Catholic believes that a person can actually lose the justification that they acquired from Christ if they sin. They are baptized as an infant, receive that justification from Christ, and then when they are at an age of accountability, they then sin, or not sin. If they do sin, and we know they will, they must take into account Rome’s sacramental system, and do penance, so that they can get that righteousness back which they lost in their sinning. This means they need to continually regain it by certain works that they accomplish (Our Fathers, Hail Marys, etc.). Certainly, most Protestants who adhere to this little phrase are not intending that we can lose our justification (though Arminianism, and other aberrant theological systems, who believe much the same thing, do believe you can lose it). But to adhere to this kind of phrase is the essence of Roman Catholicism’s doctrine of infusion and not true justification. When a Roman Catholic is baptized, they are infused by the righteousness of Christ and deemed as one who “had never sinned.” They are pure until they lose that righteousness through an act of sin, whether venial or mortal. Now the Protestant who thinks justification is “just as if he never sinned” simply is, theologically considered, a closet Roman Catholic. He thinks he is considered as one who has never sinned at almost the same level as the Roman Catholic who has been infused by an alien righteousness that is losable. One who attempts a mix between the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone and the biblical doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints, cannot miss that with the Roman Catholic idea of infusion (and I assure you that they are not mixable). Such dumbing down of doctrine misses the wonderful and sublime truth of the grace of Christ for sinners. They misunderstand the glorious imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner.
As you can see, this little phrase opens up a number of theologically heretical ideas and erroneous misconceptions. It does great damage to the work of Christ, the cross of Christ, and the continued intercessory Mediatorship of Christ. It exalts man to a status that he has never attained, nor ever will. It neglects the reality of the exhortation to live a holy life and denies all of those Scriptures that exhort us to conform to the Law of God in righteous living. It is akin to the Roman Catholic doctrine of infusion. The phrase is a typical, non-precise aberration fabricated by the 21st century church. It not helpful, and simply adds to the simpleton confusion that the church already possesses. Christians should abhor the idea and reject it outright, to take on a complete, meaningful definition of the doctrine of justification, such as this one:
Question 33. What is justification? A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace [a], wherein he pardoneth all our sins [b], and accepteth us as righteous in his sight [c], only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us [d], and received by faith alone [e].
[a]. Rom. 3:24
[b]. Rom. 4:6-8; 2 Cor. 5:19
[c]. 2 Cor. 5:21
[d]. Rom. 4:6, 11; 5:19
[e]. Gal. 2:16; Phil. 3:9