Foundations of the Faith: The Standing and State of Believers

November 5, 2019
Gary McBride

A person may be a citizen of a country and commit treason or in some way embarrass their nation on the world stage. This type of activity may result in punishment but one does not cease to be a citizen of their own country. In the same way, our children may rebel against our authority, move out of the home, and engage in activities that we as parents strongly oppose. Even if this happens, they do not cease to be our children.

This is also true of those who are citizens of heaven and members of the family of God. Bad or sinful actions will have consequences but our citizenship and relationship does not change because of our behavior. What we are in Christ relates to our standing, things that were true of us the moment we were born again. What we do or how we behave is a matter of our state, our state may fluctuate but our standing never will.

The word “state” is found only in Philippians 4:11 where Paul uses it in a non-theological way. Paul is talking about the circumstances of life. He says that he has learned to be content with little or with much in a material sense. However, there is no way a Christian can be content with their state when they are engaged in sinful behavior.

When saved we are justified, that is declared right in God’s sight. Nowhere in scripture does it teach or support the undoing of justification. We are given eternal life as a present, personal, and perpetual gift; note it is eternal not temporary. The Holy Spirit sealed, indwelt, and brought us into the family of God. The use of the past tense is indicative of the fact that our standing in Christ is unalterable. We are saved, justified, sanctified, reconciled, made righteous, and our sins are forgiven. All of these truths relate to our position or standing in Christ as those who have been redeemed by His blood.

A lack of understanding of the distinction between our standing and our state has led to poor interpretation of some scriptures and certain doctrinal difficulties. Some believers use passages that are about our state to support the possibility of losing one’s salvation but as we will see this often stems from this misunderstanding.

A number of words or phrases expresses this distinction. For example: our relationship and our fellowship; our position and our practice; our positional and our practical sanctification; we are holy but we are to be holy. We died with Christ but we are to put to death our members; we have rest in Christ but we are to labor to enter that rest; God has given us everything we need to live the Christian life but we are to be diligent to add to our faith. We are secure in Him but we are to make our calling and election sure; we are made worthy through the work of Christ but we are to walk worthy of our calling. There are many more such phrases but these show the distinction and reveal the “tensions” in God’s Word.

Following are some examples that show how our view of this reality affects the interpretation of a passage.

In John 15:1-8, the Lord Jesus gives an extended metaphor from agriculture. There are various interpretations of this passage often presented from an existing theological position. Some would say the fruitless branches are Christians who have left their union with Christ and have thus lost their salvation. Others say the fruitless branch represents a professing believer who has not persevered thus revealing their unsaved position.

The context is that the Lord Jesus was addressing His own disciples and the pronoun “you” gives support to this fact. The Lord is not addressing believers and non-believers but only those who are in Christ. The topic is fruit bearing which is a result of “abiding.” The act of abiding relates to fellowship, thus has to do with our state not our standing. There are conditional clauses, “unless you abide” and “if you abide in Me” indicating we as believers have a choice. If it were a matter of our standing, the passage would be teaching a works-based salvation.

Verse 6 sounds like a text that supports the possibility of a person losing their salvation. Note that it is “they” who gather and burn and it is not the Father. The consequence of a fruitless Christian life is that there is no testimony before the unsaved. This is similar to the salt that has lost its savor and “is to be thrown out.” (Mt. 5:13).

In 1 John 1:1-2:2 there are various interpretations given for this passage. The context is that John is addressing believers as indicated by the pronouns, “we,” “you,” “us,” and “ours.” Note also the conditional clauses, “may have fellowship,” “if we walk in the light,” and “if we confess our sins.” Some commentators look at verses 6, 8, and 10 as referring to the unsaved. The subject is “fellowship,” mentioned twice in this passage; the collective pronouns indicate that there is already a relationship.

As believers, we can move out of fellowship due to unconfessed sin. The statements in verses 6, 8, and 10 present a denial of sin in a person’s life. The resources in verse 9 and chapter 2:2 provide a means to restore fellowship. Verses 7 and 9 can only apply to Christians, as it is not possible for unbelievers either to walk in the light or to receive forgiveness and cleansing through confession. The only clause that touches unbelievers is in 2:2, “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”

Our standing is solely on the work of Christ on the cross and the offer of salvation. We become children of God, are adopted as sons, and become part of the body of Christ. Our state or fellowship is solely up to us and is a result of either obedience, which maintains fellowship, or disobedience that breaks fellowship. Sin sends unbelievers to a lost eternity but for believers unconfessed sin breaks fellowship.

There are many precepts, and even imperatives, that apply to our state or practice. Consider for example the book of Romans. The first eight chapters reveal God’s judgment on sinners and the fullness of the salvation found in Christ. In chapters 12 to 16, the theme is how we respond to what the Lord has done for us. Presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice is a reasonable response in light of God’s mercies. The verses after 12:1-2 tell us what a living sacrifice looks like and how it behaves. For instance, Romans 12:9-19 describe how a believer should act and react. These things may or may not be true of my conduct on any given day. I know I do not always give preference to others, nor always bless those who persecute me. A lack of obedience in these areas affects my fellowship with my Savior. I would think that every believer who has ever lived has failed in one of the twenty items in that list at some time or other. Thankfully, our position and security in Christ is not dependent on us.