… And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags…
Isaiah 64:6b NKJ
Question 78 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “Whence ariseth the imperfection of sanctification in believers?” It gives the answer, “The imperfection of sanctification in believers ariseth from the remnants of sin abiding in every part of them, and the perpetual lustings of the flesh against the spirit; whereby they are often foiled with temptations, and fall into many sins, are hindered in all their spiritual services, and their best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.” Last week we looked at the difference between justification and sanctification. This week we consider how sanctification in this life is always imperfect.
Many verses in the Bible teach that all men, even redeemed believers in Christ, are still sinners:
“There is none who does good, no, not one,” Rom. 3:12.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” Rom. 3:23.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” 1 John 1:8.
Christians are regenerated by the Holy Spirit of God (Joh. 3:3). We are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17). We each have a new nature (Eph. 4:24). Christ dwells in us by His Spirit (Rom 8:9-11). God is at work within us making us holy (Phi. 2:13), but we remain sinners until the day we die.
The Catechism states this fact by first pointing out that there are remnants of sin abiding in every part of believers. The word remnant conjures up images of scattered pockets of resistance lingering on after the war has been decided. That is a partially accurate picture of how we should think of the sanctification process. If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, the battle for your soul is over. Christ has won. You are and most certainly will be saved. However, in saving His people, the Lord Jesus Christ has not chosen to fully deliver any one of them entirely from the presence of indwelling sin. The battle has been won. The victory is secure. But by design, once we are saved we are recruited and put into service to continue fighting the necessary mop up operation against those remaining enemy troops. Why does Jesus save us this way? The short and ultimate answer is that saving us into a life where we are called to fight against remaining sin is for God’s glory and for our good.
However, unlike the example of a victorious army painstakingly securing a conquered territory inch by inch, every part of the believer has and will continue to have remnants of sin within. We should not think that we can ever achieve sinless perfection in any one area of lives, or even in any single thought, word, or deed. As the Scripture at the head of this article declares, all our righteousnesses, that is, all of our best deeds remain polluted as measured by God’s perfect Law. The Catechism rightly teaches this Biblical truth by describing the lustings of the flesh against the spirit as “perpetual.” As long as you remain in this life, you have a sinful nature. The old man has been defeated, he has been mortally wounded, but he will not fully and finally die until you die. Paul declares this fact many times in Romans 7. Thus, “I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good,” (Rom. 7:21).
This “law” is why believers still sin. In the words of the Catechism, it is due to the lustings of our flesh that believers are “often foiled with temptations, and fall into many sins, are hindered in all their spiritual services, and their best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.” We often fall into gross sin, but even when we do not, we remain imperfect in every part, defiled in every good work. Rather than causing us to despair or give up, this teaching of Scripture ought to spur us on to ever more diligently look to Christ and His strength in our fight against sin! For it is only when we are deceived into thinking that we can do it in our own strength, or that we can fully cleanse even a part of our lives from the power of remaining sin that we actually fall and are overcome. Believer, give thanks to God for the victory He has won in your soul, and keep your eyes focused on Him. Then the blood of Christ will cleanse all remaining imperfections from your good works, they will be pleasing and perfect in His sight, and you will be kept from falling!