To correctly interpret many New Testament passages we must distinguish between the believer’s position and practice. Our position has to do with our identity in Christ and is often indicated by the phrase “in Christ” or “in Him.” Our practice pertains to how we are to conduct ourselves as believers. For example, 1 Timothy teaches how we are to act in the local church while the book of Titus speaks of how we are to behave as we interact with the government, the world, and other believers. The first three chapters in the book of Ephesians teaches us about our position in Christ while the final three exhort us to live in light of that position.
The believer’s position is that they are perfect in Christ for God sees us without sin (2 Cor. 5:21). On the cross our sins were imputed to Christ as He was made a sin offering for us. Since the penalty for sin has been paid, God legally declares us righteous, imputing Christ’s perfect righteousness to us. At the moment of salvation, God sanctifies us or sets up apart from the world (positional sanctification), saving us from the penalty and power of sin.
Yet our practice is an entirely different matter. In contrast to our perfect position which never changes, our everyday experience can fluctuate with victories one day and defeats on another. The believer is on the journey of progressive sanctification, the process whereby we are increasingly saved from the practice of sin. God’s Word exhorts us to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, to be strengthened in the inner man so that this inner work of God may result in us becoming more like Christ. One mark of a mature Christian believer is that their practice over time increasingly aligns with their perfect standing in Christ.
Sometimes one verse may speak about both our position and practice. For example, 1 Corinthians 5:7 says, “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us.” On the night before the Passover the Israelite was instructed to remove all traces of leaven from their house (Ex. 12:15). This foreshadowed Christ our spotless Passover Lamb. Paul uses leaven as a picture of sin, contrasting the leaven of malice and wickedness with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (v. 8). Though this passage deals with sin in the local church, its exhortation is equally applicable to the individual believer.
Believers are called to take firm action against all forms of evil so that we might be a new lump, or in other words be pure in conduct. This speaks to our practice. Paul then concludes the first sentence by saying “since you truly are unleavened.” This speaks to our position. Since God sees the believer in Christ as without sin we should endeavor to match our conduct to our identity in Christ.
Again, 1 Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Positionally, Christians are the people of God and belong to Him. In light of that the Lord exhorts us to be faithful witnesses, publicly praising God’s perfect attributes and works. Especially His magnificent work at Calvary that has brought us out of darkness into the marvelous light of His salvation.
In summary, we must look carefully at the verse’s context to see whether it is speaking of our position in Christ or whether it is speaking about our conduct. Someday when Christ returns for us, God will glorify us, granting us our ultimate or completed sanctification. Then the sanctification process will be over for we will be saved forever from the presence of sin. For now, it is God’s desire that we endeavor by His strength to live according to our position “I…beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called” (Eph. 4:1).