The way we think of ourselves, and our relationship to God, will greatly affect the way we live out our faith. Sometimes, in Christian zeal, we may slip into a tendency of presenting the Christian life in a way that is not realistic, and has the effect of discouraging our walk in Christ rather than encouraging it. A right view of the gospel will lead the Christian who stumbles back to Christ again and again as he is reminded of his own human fallenness and frailty. The difference between “superhuman” and “realistic” Christianity can be seen by comparing two of the first Christian biographies ever written.
The “superhuman” way of viewing the Christian life can be seen in the biography of St. Antony which was written in the fourth century. St Antony is recorded to have done miracles, battled demons in what was practically hand-to-hand combat, performed amazing feats of self-deprivation, and received direct visions from God. He is presented as the embodiment of holiness; sort of an untouchable, you might say. You walk away from reading his biography thinking, “Man, I’m nothing like that guy. He was a super-Christian!”
The autobiographical Confessions of Augustine, on the other hand, presents a much more realistic view of life and conversion and Christianity. You find out that as a teenager, Augustine was stealing fruit from his neighbor’s tree with the guys from the neighborhood. What’s more, he knew all along that he didn’t even like the taste of them. He ended up throwing them to some pigs. He just did it because of the peer pressure and the thrill that went along with acting sinful. Later, as a young man, he developed a thirst for violent sports. While his conscience kept telling him it was wrong, he was repeatedly led astray (again by his peers). The thrill of sin got the best of him again. He describes major battles with lust, pride, and other sins. And yet, with his conversion, Augustine finds the freedom to love God whereas before he was only and always given over to love of self. He talks freely of seeking to love God supremely above all visible things. He has totally new desires that are at work in his life now that he is a Christian. And yet he admits candidly how his love has still at times been diverted to lesser things. You walk away from reading his biography thinking, “Man, that guy is just like me in a lot of ways. I guess I am a normal Christian!”
Which one of these views is reflected in the Bible, we might ask? What kind of people was the Bible addressed to? I would suggest the latter.
For example, the author of Hebrews was writing to a people whose track record was checkered at best. Some were in danger of hardening their hearts and not entering the rest of God (Heb. 3:7-11, 15, 18; 4:3-11). They, like ancient Israel, were often found to be ignorant, wayward, and beset with weakness (Heb. 5:2). By now they should have been teachers, but the reality was they still needed to be spoon-fed basic teaching (5:11-12).
Then he makes this tremendous statement:
“Though we speak this way, yet in your case beloved, we feel sure of better things-things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.” (Heb. 6:9-10)
They have a checkered past, but the writer of Hebrews is confident that God’s grace is, and will continue to, produce good fruit in their lives. After all, there are certain things that “belong to salvation,” despite our sinful tendencies. This is a good example of how the Bible is taking a realistic view of man’s sinfulness on one hand, and a realistic view of God’s grace on the other.
This biblical realism is sometimes described as the already / not yet phenomena of the Christian life. We are already saved and sanctified (Eph. 2:8; 1 Cor. 6:11). On the other hand, we are not yet saved and sanctified (Rom. 13:11; 1 Thess. 5:23). Furthermore, in a very real sense, we are also being saved and sanctified (1 Cor. 1:18; Rom. 6:19, 22).
This just means that a biblical view of Christianity sees us as both sinners and saints. We have faith and yet also foibles. There is no sin that a Christian must now commit. Yet there is no way that a Christian can altogether avoid committing sin. In light of this kind of biblical realism about the Christian life, we are equipped to live for Christ without stumbling over false expectations. We are set up to look to the gospel for our hope rather than put confidence in the flesh.
Now think back to Hebrews. Consider this appropriate exhortation the writer of Hebrews gives to his original readers and to us:
“And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” (Heb. 6:11-12)