For better or for worse, we often have a tendency to think in terms of all or nothing, black or white. This is true in church life and it is also often true in our individual spiritual lives. Now there is a good and healthy “all or nothing,” but there is also a bad and dysfunctional “all or nothing.” Trying to keep this straight is an immense challenge. I want to reflect for a moment on how to hold on the healthy “all or nothing,” while discarding the dysfunctional “all or nothing” in our walk with God.
The bad and dysfunctional mentality sometimes appears when Christians think that the “all” must be there with their sanctification, or there is nothing in their justification. In other words, our being declared right by God depends on us being 100% on track with our progressive holiness. If the progress in our holiness is minimal, then our position as God’s children is in doubt. We cannot be accepted by God, because we do not measure up for God. For there to be “all” in our justification, there must be “all” in our sanctification. Our justification then depends on our sanctification. This is bad and dysfunctional because it is a functional denial of the gospel. This “all or nothing” mentality ends up adding sanctification to the basis of our justification. In reality, it seeks to add something to the finished work of Christ on our behalf. With that thinking, we’ve lost the gospel of grace recovered by the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
But there is also a healthy “all or nothing” mentality that Christians can and should have. That has to do with the finished work of Christ for us. It is really quite simple: either Jesus has lived an entirely perfect life in my place, perfectly keeping all the commandments for me, or he has not. All or nothing. Either Jesus has made satisfaction for every single one of my sins or he has not. All or nothing. The reality is that he is a complete Saviour. He is the Saviour who gives all that we need for our salvation — we have everything we need in him and him alone. In him, I have the perfect obedience God requires in his law. In him, I have the full forgiveness of every sin I have committed in the past. In him, I have the full forgiveness of every sin I might commit at this moment. Wonderfully, in him, I have the assurance that every sin I will ever commit in the future is already forgiven and paid for in full. I have nothing in myself, but all in Jesus Christ.
I love the way this is expressed in Lord’s Day 11 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “…For one of two things must be true, either Jesus is not a complete Saviour, or those who by true faith accept this Saviour must find in him all that is necessary for their salvation.” If we are trusting in Christ alone for our present and eternal well-being, we have all, we have everything — and nothing can take that away from us. As Paul says in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” “No condemnation” means precisely what it says. If we are in Christ Jesus by faith, there is absolutely nothing standing against us and there never will be.