One becomes a Christian by faith in Christ (John 3:16; Eph. 2:8-9). However, being a Christian and living the Christian life does not always go together, although it should. Justification does not guarantee sanctification. Spiritual life does not guarantee spiritual growth. It’s possible, even actual, for Christians to behave like the world around them. When this happens, there’s no distinguishing the Christian from the unbeliever who is governed by his sin nature. The apostle Paul spoke to carnal Christians in the first century, stating:
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men [i.e. mature Christians], but as to men of flesh [carnal Christians], as to infants in Christ [immature believers]. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly [Grk. sarkikos– pertaining to the flesh, carnal]. For since there is jealousy and strife among you [stemming from their sinful natures], are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men [unbelievers]? (1 Cor. 3:1-3)
One can sense the frustration in Paul’s words, for he wanted to have an adult conversation with these Christian brethren, but he could not, because they were too immature and were still feeding on the bottle when they should have been feeding on the “solid food” of Scripture. It’s unfortunate that Christians are sometimes marked by “jealousy and strife” among themselves; sadly, this is the state of many Christians in our day. It’s important to realize that Paul sought to address the issue of spiritual immaturity by teaching them the necessary truths that would help them advance in their spiritual walk. Paul gave them the spiritual food that would help them grow spiritually, but the nourishment was beneficial only to those who consumed it. As they grew spiritually, they would begin to manifest the fruit of the Holy Spirit rather than the fruit of the flesh, and this is what Paul wanted to see in all believers (Gal. 5:16-21). Spiritual fruit in the life of the Christian starts with humility and learning God’s Word. The Christian cannot live what he does not know, and learning God’s Word necessarily precedes living His will. Once learned, the Christian can then live God’s Word as the Lord creates opportunity; for “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). This is consistent with the grace of God.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. (Tit. 2:11-14)
That God calls His children to “good deeds” is the clear teaching of the New Testament. However, my original point is that being a Christian does not necessarily guarantee good works. One is a Christian by faith in Christ, but it does not follow biblically or experientially that the Christian automatically walks with the Lord and does the things he ought to do. One reading of Scripture reveals that believers can and do sin, and sometimes the Lord has to discipline His children to bring them into His will (Heb. 12:5-11); and when they refuse, He will discipline them to death and bring them home to heaven.
If anyone sees his [Christian] brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death. (1 John 5:16-17)
It happens from time to time that a Christian will see another Christian “committing a sin” (1 John 5:16). The apostle John distinguished two kinds of sin in the life of the Christian: the “sin not leading to death” and the “sin leading to death” (1 John 5:16-17). The “sin not leading to death” is any sin the Christian commits that does not warrant death from the hand of God, though it may bring divine discipline if the believer continues in it. When Peter publicly denied the Lord Jesus three times, it was a terrible sin, but it was not one that resulted in his death afterwards (Matt. 26:69-75). When King David had an affair with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah, it was a terrible sin, but not one that resulted in his death afterwards (2 Sam. 12:9-13). The Lord punished David severely for his sin and told him “I will raise up evil against you from your own household” (2 Sam. 12:11); however, David was also informed by Nathan the prophet “you shall not die” (2 Sam. 12:13). Peter and David both committed horrible sins, yet they were sins “not leading to death” (1 John 5:16).
The Christian can commit habitual sin, or engage in a sinful lifestyle that results in the Lord taking his life. The sin that leads to death refers to the Christian who has become so sinfully rebellious and habitual in his sinful ways that God disciplines him to point of death and takes him home to heaven. There are references in the Bible where God personally issued the death penalty for one or more of His erring Children who had defied His authority and these examples can be found both in the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Lev. 10:1-3; 2 Sam. 6:1-7; Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 5:1-5; 11:30).
Learning God’s Word and living His will in humility is always the proper way for the Christian to advance spiritually and bring glory to God. Pride and sin are always impediments to spiritual growth and bring conflict among brethren. I don’t know any perfect Christians (I’m especially imperfect), and so there’s always room for more humility, love, and growth in God’s Word. I love when Peter tells his readers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). That’s a verse from which we can never depart. If we were study the Bible eight hours a day, every day for a thousand years, at the end of that time, Peter would still tell us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). We never stop growing in grace until we leave this world and enter in the presence of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; and what a glorious day that will be!
Steven R. Cook, M.Div.