Last time we ended with just one of the many promises of Christ that He lives in us and we in Him. What does it mean to be “in Christ”? In its most succinct description it means that our separation has ended. The separation that existed between us and the triune God prior to our salvation is no more.
Bill Vanderbush writes, regarding our connection to God, in the appendix to The Forgotten Way, “If you believe you are separated from your Father as a Christian, you will interpret the Bible through the lens of that broken and fragile relationship.” How many of us feel – though secure in our initial salvation – that our current connection to the Father is broken, or at best fragile? How many of us have been taught to strive harder to gain God’s approval or are walking on eggshells to protect ourselves from losing it? And may I say with sadness that there is plenty of Bible teaching today wrapped around the idea that we as believers are still separated from our Father.
I believe there are two prominent camps that exploit this misunderstanding about our perceived separation from God. The first group are the legalists who compel us to close the separation between us and God by working harder. If you try harder to keep the rules, if you move up their ladder to a higher level of righteousness, if you follow their set formula, you can close the gap. But how much “work” is needed to close the gap and will it ever be enough? Can the gap even be completely closed? Or can we only move somewhat closer to an ever changing target, never fully confident in our connection to our heavenly Father?
This kind of effort leads straight to a self-righteousness that Christ condemned. It looks down on others who are not keeping up. It leads to pride when we are doing well, and shame when we inevitably fail. Eventually that failure, rather than spurring us on to new effort, actually causes us to give up. It puts all the burden for the relationship on our efforts to fly right. It replaces Christ’s work with our prideful effort. And in doing so, it misses the mark of all that Christ accomplished when He died in our place.
The second group gets us closer to the mark. It is hard to wrap a name around this group of teachers that I refer to as Reformed, or Gospel Coalition types, or “gospel-centered” writers. These teachers rightly point out that our separation from God cannot be closed by self-effort. They see us separated from a holy God, but by God’s grace that separation is covered by the cross. And it is, praise the Lord! They are entirely correct that we are approved and accepted based on the gospel – Christ’s work on our behalf – not by our works.
Where these teachers fall short, in my opinion, is in their continuing focus on our depravity and sin even after our salvation, and little focus on the victory and power to live the life. Yes, in theory and theology and positionally, the cross covered our separation. But they imply that in practice, we are still pretty rotten folks; still experiencing some form of separation from God because of our sin. Their focus always seems to be on how the gospel “covers” our sin. But I rarely hear what Christ and the apostles highlight as the crucial next step. That is, yes, the gospel covers our sin; but it also empowers us to live above sin, to put sin to death, to no longer obey sin as our master. These messages of victory over sin – wrought by Christ living His life through us – seem to be in short supply.
And I think it all goes back to some thought, maybe even on a subconscious level, that we are separated from our Father. This empty feeling may have been brought on by what we have been taught, or by our own experience with sin, or by a feeling of not being fully accepted and approved by God, or by how authorities in our lives described us, or for any number of reasons. The bottom line is, we feel in our heart of hearts a separation.
But I proclaim to you. The message of the New Testament is, “Your separation has ended!” How can we be sure? We will tackle that topic next time.