Faithfulness, Not Perfection

by Matthew W. Bassford

Over the past few weeks, Shawn and I have spent Sunday mornings explaining how it is that we can know that we are heaven-bound for certain.  We've seen that we can put our confidence in the powerful sacrifice of Jesus and in the perfect forgiveness of God.

However, that doesn't quiet the fears that many Christians have.  They know what the law of God says.  They know that God offers His people forgiveness of sins.  However, they also know that it is possible for Christians to fall away, to become so entangled in sin that they find themselves outside of the grace of God.

The problem is, though, that they don't know where the falling-away line is.  Are the sins that they hate and struggle with enough to eternally separate them from God?  As a result, rather than living lives filled with hope and peace, they live lives filled with doubt and fear.

That's a sad place for any believer to be, but for most of us, I don't think we belong there.  The problem is that we don't have a good understanding of God's expectations for us, and that throws everything else off.  Instead, we can know that we are heaven-bound for certain because God expects faithfulness, not perfection.

Faith and Faithfulness

I think most of us know that faithfulness is an important Biblical concept, but we often don't realize how important it is or how deep it goes.  To illustrate this, I want to look at the connection between faith and faithfulness.  I'm not a preacher who likes to bring a lot of Greek into his sermons, but I think it's important to do so here.  In English, even though "faith" and "faithfulness" share a linguistic root, we look on them as related but different concepts. 

In Greek, that's not the case.  Instead, both "faith" and "faithfulness" in our Bibles are translations of the same Greek word, pistis.  "Believing" and "faithful" are both translations of the same word, pistos.  As a result, whenever you see faith in God or belief in God or anything like that in Scripture, it nearly always carries with it overtones of loyalty and faithfulness.  There are only a few places in the New Testament where this is clearly not true, as when the demons in James 2 believe that God is one and tremble.  Obviously, they aren't being faithful!

However, remembering that this nuance of faithfulness is nearly always present can shed some new light on some familiar passages.  Consider, for instance, one of the great faith-only proof texts, Romans 4:3-5.  Of course, every translation that any of us uses will have "believed", "believes", and "faith".  However, we should also remember that it would be legitimate to translate this same passage with "was faithful", "is faithful", and "faithfulness". 

Now, I'm not saying that all those translators made a mistake here.  Instead, I'm saying that they had to pick a single English word to fit, but no English word can capture the full meaning of the Greek, which is often true with translation.  It's accurate to say that Abraham's faith was counted as righteousness, but it's important to remember that this saving faith also involves loyalty and continuing trust and faithfulness.  We're not justified because we're works-focused.  We're justified because we're God-focused.

Walking in the Light

John adds some depth to this discussion of faithfulness with what he says about walking in the light.  Look at I John 1:5-10.  This is a text built on "if" statements.  Three of them are bad:  "If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness," "If we say we have no sin," and "If we say we have not sinned."  Those lead to various forms of spiritual doom.

The other two "if" statements are good:  "If we walk in the light" and "If we confess our sins."  Both of those lead ultimately to righteousness and fellowship with God.

To me, this text is the perfect pick-me-up for Christians who are worried about the spiritual effect of their sins.  Yes, sin is awful.  Yes, we should hate it and strive never to sin.  However, John is quite clear that for all of us, sin is going to be a fact of life for as long as we are alive.  If we see sin in our lives, that's actually a good thing.  As John points out, if we say we have no sin, we are lying to ourselves and we are making God Himself out to be a liar.  If we are convinced that we are sinless, that's not a part of walking in the light.  It's a part of walking in the darkness!

Instead, it is walking in the light and confessing our sins that are inseparable.  The first part of John's description of walking in the light sounds ominous.  I have to walk in the light as God is in the light.  That means that I have to be perfect like God is perfect, right? 

Wrong!  As John tells us in the latter part of I John 1:7, one of the effects of walking in the light is that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.  Absolutely every Christian who is walking in the light of God has sin and is dependent on God for forgiveness.  That's what faithfulness looks like.  Perfection, on the other hand, has never been part of God's expectations for His people.

The Practice of Sin

So. . . what's the difference, then, between the Christian who is walking in the light and receiving forgiveness from God and the Christian who is walking in darkness and headed for disaster?  John helps us understand this better with his discussion of the practice of sin.  Consider I John 3:6-8.  If you haven't figured it out yet, I preach and teach from the English Standard Version, and this is one of the texts where I think the ESV is clearly better. 

Many other translations will render the first part of I John 3:6 as "No one who abides in Him sins."  I have two problems with that.  First, it's alarming.  If I sin, does that mean that I don't abide in Jesus?  Second, it's confusing.  As we saw in the last point, John clearly teaches that faithful Christians do sin, so what's all this about?

Instead, what John means, and what the ESV makes clearer, is that faithful Christians don't practice sin.  This is a whole lot different from sinning, period.  Let me give you an illustration.  Many moons ago, I went to law school and passed the Texas State Bar.  I am a lawyer, and when it comes up, I will give people legal advice from time to time.

However, I don't practice law.  I work in this church building, not in a law office.  I support my family by preaching, not by lawyering.  I talk about God and His word every day, but weeks or months might pass before I consider a legal issue.  The law is not a regular, habitual part of my life, so I don't practice it. 

This is the question that we need to use to evaluate ourselves.  When it comes to the things of the spirit, what is my habit?  What is my practice?  Am I somebody who regularly strives to be righteous, with occasional sins mixed in there?  Or, instead, am I somebody who regularly seeks after sin, with occasional righteousness mixed in there? 

If the former, I belong to God.  I am faithful.  If the latter, I belong to the devil.  I am faithless.  If we are honest with ourselves, we will be able to tell where we stand.  Faithfulness isn't about one choice.  It's about our whole way of life.

The Preserving of the Soul

The outcome of faithfulness is the preserving of the soul.  Read with me from Hebrews 10:35-39.  Once again, this is a text that calls us to take a 20,000-foot view of our lives.  Rather than getting hung up on one bad incident or even one good incident, we need to ask what the overall course of our lives is.

There are two ways that the life of the Christian can go.  We can be people who can hold on to our confidence in God, who endure, and who live by faith.  On the other hand, we can be among those who let go of that confidence, who turn aside to something else, and who shrink back from following Jesus.  In short, we are either choosing to be faithful, or we aren't.  Once again, in our heart of hearts, I think every one of us knows the truth about the manner of life we've chosen for ourselves.

The Hebrews writer is pretty clear about the outcome, too.  On the downside, if we shrink back, we shrink back to destruction.  This might seem particularly relevant to the struggle of the Hebrews against persecution, but I think that shrinking back is a much more general problem.  Any time we sin, really, we are shrinking back from God's call because we're afraid of the consequences of obedience.  We'll miss out on something.  In reality, though, a lifetime of shrinking back will lead us to miss out on an eternity with God.

The result of faithfulness is very different.  If we live a life for God instead of for ourselves, we will preserve our souls. This doesn't mean that we will have a perfect record.  We will only be perfected by the blood of Jesus.  However, it does mean that we will have been faithful, and if we are faithful, we are heaven-bound for certain.