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The Etiquette Of Heaven

As I left the podium someone in the audience called out, “You did not disappoint.” Though the remark gratified, it sort of rolled off me. However, his remark became more meaningful a few minutes later when I asked my wife how the previous speaker had done. I didn’t have the opportunity to hear him as I was teaching the youth at the time.

“It was a total bomb!” she said. The vehemence of her reply rocked me back on my heels as she is normally so gracious and quick to point out the positive. It seems that the speaker – a young man, newly married, without children, just starting out in ministry – declared to his incredulous audience that from that moment forward they could live their lives without sinning. (Please note that I do not hold those attributes against the man. I only mention them to point out his lack of experience and seasoning.)

Setting the Scriptures aside, just based on my own experience of living the Christian life – for many more years than the speaker has been alive – it’s a proposition I would not want to try to defend. Particularly to an audience containing several preachers, Elders and other church leaders.

To do the man justice he never got the opportunity to explain how one could achieve this state of perfection. Members of the audience interrupted him long before he could complete his sermon. They pointed out that the Scriptures clearly indicate that Christians do sin. To his credit, the preacher did not get angry or become flustered as he explained away the texts people quoted to him. For example, he claimed that the struggle Paul describes in Romans 7 refers to the time prior to Paul’s conversion.

Finally, an Elder said, “Folks, what he’s trying to say is that we shouldn’t automatically assume that we’re going to fail. After all, a sports team doesn’t go onto the court assuming it’s going to lose. When we’re tempted we shouldn’t assume that we’re going to give in to it.”

However, according to my wife, that’s not what the man was trying to say. He flat-out claimed it was possible to live without sinning at all.

Is he right? Is it possible to live without sinning? In a sense, yes. God imputes Christ’s righteousness to those who “put on Christ.” That means that when God looks at us, He doesn’t see us but, rather, the sinless Christ.

In another sense, however, I think that those who claim to be without sin show a profound lack of understanding about what sin is.

When most people think of sin they probably have the “sins of commission” in mind – that is the violation of direct commands. Personally, I find avoiding the “thou shalt not” commands fairly easy. More difficult to put into practice are the positive, “do this” commands. I commit a “sin of omission” when I fail to take action.

There’s another “sin of omission” which is even more difficult to avoid. These are the things we ought to do which are implied by the prohibitions. For example, take the command against giving false testimony. I find it relatively easy to refrain from lying about someone. However, the prohibition also implies a responsibility to speak the truth. I find it much harder to stand up for someone. It’s all too easy to let myself off the hook by saying it’s none of my business. So long as I haven’t said anything untrue about the person or the situation, I’ve fulfilled my responsibility.

Someone might argue that all this talk about dos and don’ts is so Old Testament! I agree. And I also fully agree that all of us who are in Christ are being transformed into the image of Christ. When the transformation is complete – when we are fully formed into the new creatures God intends us to become – we will, by nature, always do what we ought. But whether we refrain from sinning because of a rule or because of being given a new nature does not change the character of sin itself. It merely speaks to our motivation for avoiding it.

In fact, the concept of being transformed into the image of Christ contains the seed of my biggest objection to the notion that we can live sinless lives. There is more to sin than acts of commission or omission. Paul writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23 NIV). Imagine that we are archers and God’s glory is the target. The problem is not that we play mumblety-peg at the archery butts (sin of commission). The problem is not that we don’t set an arrow to the string (sin of omission). The problem is not that we neglect to wear an arm-guard (sin of ignoring implied responsibility). No, the problem is that even with totally pure motives, honest intent and the best will in the world, when we loose a shaft it doesn’t even reach the target, much less hit the bullseye. Our best efforts don’t measure up to fullness of God’s character. Our love is incomparably less than His. Our compassion does not reach the extent of His. Our goodness only pales before His. To change the metaphor, our righteousness is as filthy rags in comparison to God’s perfection (Isaiah 64:6).

Why do we miss the mark – and keep on missing it? I suggest that one reason is ignorance. Like with anything else, there’s a learning curve to Christianity. We don’t know everything when we first come to Christ. And, no matter how long we live for and in Christ, we still don’t know everything. It’s a life-long process (1 Corinthians 8:2).

In the beginning we don’t even recognize many sins for what they are. Our consciences have not yet been trained to discern good from evil (Hebrews 5:14). Christ is continually refining us. Or, to put it another way, we should be growing and maturing in Christ. Unfortunately, until we reach the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13-14), we will continue to stumble (sin) in many ways (James 3:2).

Perhaps a story will illustrate my point. I grew up in a foreign country in a different culture. Not long after returning to the States I had to attend a funeral. Afterward someone severely criticized me for not dressing appropriately. It was not my intent to embarrass anyone. It certainly was not my intent to show disrespect to the grieving family. I honestly did not know I was causing offense. No one told me what was appropriate to wear or what the expectations of this culture are. Since then I have learned what is appropriate and have not been guilty of that particular offense again. But I had to learn – it wasn’t something I knew intuitively.

If we continue to offend (sin) even after we become Christians then why does the Bible refer to us as pure and holy? This is one of the beautiful things about God. John writes that if we confess what we know about, God cleanses us from all of it – both the sins we realize we’ve committed and those we haven’t a clue about (1 John 1:9).

Because of my experience with my own ignorance it concerns me when I hear the dogmatic assertion that we can avoid sin altogether. I see at least two dangers in making the claim. The first is that it can easily lead to spiritual pride. It is evident that, any assertions to the contrary, Christians actually do sin. If they sin while I do not, it is tempting to look down on them. “…God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” (Luke 18:11-12 NIV)

A second danger is that it’s easy to deceive oneself. If it is my position that real Christians don’t sin then, rather than admit I have fallen, it’s all too easy to excuse my actions as not really being sinful. John flat-out says that those who claim to be without sin (and he is writing to Christians), deceive themselves and truth isn’t in them – they are liars (1 John 1:8, 10).

There’s another biblical analogy which helps me put this whole concept in perspective. Jesus told His disciples that unless they became like little children they could not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:3). Many Scriptures refer to Christians as “children of God.” No doubt the term describes our relationship both to God and to one another. No doubt Jesus was referring to the unconditional love, trust and acceptance that children extend to their parents. However, I think there is another aspect of childhood worth considering. We accept and tolerate behavior from small children we would never accept or condone in adults. Why? Because little ones do not understand the conventions of adult society. When they are very small they do not even have the capacity to understand what proper behavior is. They have to be taught not to chew with their mouths open, to cover their mouths when they cough and not to burp out loud. They have to learn not to interrupt when others are talking, to sit still and not to shout in the library. They have to be taught how to share and put others first. To put it another way, they have to learn proper etiquette. Even if they understand some of the concepts they may not have the motor skills to fully comply. We put bibs on toddlers for a reason.

Just as adult behavior and proper etiquette is often incomprehensible and beyond the grasp of children we, too, actually know very little about the heavenly realms. We are created beings constrained by the limitations of our minds and bodies. God is outside of nature. We cannot conceive of Him as He really is. As Paul implies, the reality is beyond all we can think or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). As long as we are in this body – part of this nature – we will not fully know or understand the etiquette of heaven. God makes allowances for our weaknesses, our incapacity and our lack of understanding. Though we offend, He does not count our sins against us. However, we look forward to the day we we will fully know as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:11-12). As John writes, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2 NIV)

At last, we shall fully learn the etiquette of heaven. Until then, though we do our best to please our heavenly Father, we will continue to fall short of the glory. Thank God, He makes allowances for His children!

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