Jon Moffitt: Today on Theocast, we are talking about triumphalism or what is also known as the victorious Christian life. We’re always encouraged by modern evangelicalism that there should be an upward trajectory to our Christian life and that we should be overcoming sin and gaining new levels of righteousness as we grow year after year. Yet that is not the experience of many Christians. They feel defeated, they lack assurance, and they do not have joy.
We are here to bring some relief and show you from Scripture what the Christian life should be, and how triumphalism and the victorious Christian life is a distraction that actually robs us of the true hope and assurance we should have.
We hope you enjoy.
Jimmy Buehler: So today, gentlemen, we are talking about the idea of triumphalism or you could also call it the victorious Christian life. In a 10,000 or perhaps even 30,000-foot view of things, what we mean by that is as we think about the Christian life, the daily grind, the ins and outs, that if we were to take a step back and look at ourselves, we would always see this onward and upward trajectory that. Even though we might stay in a struggle a little bit each day, we can look to the confidence we have in ourselves that we are struggling less than we did perhaps even a year ago or two years ago or five years ago – and it’s really this heavy emphasis on victory in the Christian life. There’s a heavy emphasis on a trajectory of goodness or holiness.
Before we begin to talk about this idea, we want to be clear from the get go that we do believe here at Theocast that we are sanctified in this life. That as we continually look to Christ and faith, we believe that God uses means to make us more like Jesus.
This is going to be a nuanced conversation as we look at some of these themes. What I want to do is throw it out to you guys and see if you want to help flesh out this definition of what we mean by triumphalism or the victorious Christian life.
Jon Moffitt: This is something that has been a part of Theocast from day one; it’s something that I can remember when I became confessional, started to understand covenant theology, and understood saint-sinner realities – that sin is a state versus an action. All of these began to inform my understanding of communicating the gospel and the Christian life to people.
What I had received my entire life was this onward and upward trajectory that I should be triumphing. I am pressing myself towards this progression. Every sermon in every book, the way I approach my Bible reading, the way I approach prayer or mortification of sin, it was always making sure that I was adding to the spiritual muscle that I had, the spiritual agility that I had. To make sure that I could become a better spiritual athlete so that I could have victory – victory over sin, victory over bad habits. Sermons and books were seven ways for this, and five ways for this, and three ways for that.
What ends up happening is you take these small victories that you do find, but you neglect the reality of your nature where you ignore the inward battle and struggle. In a triumphalism and victorious Christian life culture, to admit you’re not progressing or to admit that you aren’t overcoming is failure. So you don’t confess sin. You don’t confess that you struggle with some kind of addiction or that you are depressed.
We just did a podcast on depression. People who are depressed or who suffer from anxiety are crushed underneath the weight of triumphalism.
Jimmy Buehler: It’s a bitter pill.
Justin Perdue: There are a number of observations that could be made out of the gate here. To pick up on what you’re talking about, Jon, I think a couple of things that characterize this triumphalist perspective – this onward and upward, clean, linear progression stuff – is that it necessarily means that we are always trying to quantify everything that’s going on in our spiritual lives. We’re always measuring certain things where generally speaking, we’re measuring two or three things.
One, we’re measuring how well we’re doing at overcoming sin. So how are we doing it? Overcoming vice – am I doing better than I was? What’s the trajectory there? We think about how we’re doing with respect to our disciplines. And am I more disciplined? Am I doing better? Am I more consistent in these various things?
The other thing is we will often try to quantify our affection in particular towards God and his word and the like. We’re always measuring ourselves there. The question that we’re asking is, “Am I better?” Are you better than you were a month or a year ago or three years ago? The implication is if you’re not doing better than you were, then something is terribly wrong, and you need to be really concerned about your spiritual state.
We’re going to go here in a number of different ways. I’m sure it’s just very unrealistic and it’s not the way that the Christian life unfolds for us as we live as fallen people in a fallen world. Take depression or anxiety or addiction or any of these things that we are struggling with on the regular. We’ll go through seasons in our lives. We might have seasons where the struggle is not as intense and the Lord has given a lot of grace and we aren’t even that aware of the temptation or we’re not even that aware of the darkness or whatever it may be, and we’re doing pretty well.
But then they are going to be other seasons where it absolutely jumps on us like that 400-pound gorilla. It comes out of nowhere. Sometimes you may be doing well today with respect to the state of your heart and mind and you’re thinking, “I’m doing pretty well with respect to depression. I haven’t been in the throes of it in a while.” That does not mean, brother or sister, that in five, 10, or 30 years as you continue to trust Christ, that it will not rear its head again and be crippling.
So there is a lot of damage and harm that comes from this. It sets unrealistic expectations for the Christian and it robs us of peace, comfort, and assurance because we’re always looking to ourselves and assessing our progress.
And anybody who is sane and self-aware is going to realize that there is a ton of failure mixed in with the successes.
Jimmy Buehler: Even as we think about the everyday goodness of the Christian life. To the listener right now who perhaps feels a little bit rubbed against as we’re speaking this way, maybe you are going through a particular time in your life where you feel like your prayer life, Scripture intake, and affections for God are rich.
And praise God for that.
Exactly, Justin. What we want to do is encourage that and say that is great. Praise the Lord that you feel these ways and you’re thinking these ways.
I saw a meme the other day and it was sometimes David goes, “I am okay,” and then the next day, David is going, “No, I’m not. I’m just kidding.” The book of Psalms is encouraging because as we look at the life of David as it’s expressed in the Psalms, there are days where he is asking, “How long, o Lord, will you forget me forever? Why have you turned your face from me? My tears have been my food. I’ve soaked my couch in my tears. So on and so forth.” But then there are days that he says, “I am ready to go to the nations and declare your glories among them. Let’s go.”
What we’re trying to say is that there is such a spectrum in the normal, everyday Christian life that, Lord willing, by God’s grace and his kindness and mercy toward you, the light of His countenance will be toward you and you will even have some sort of feeling of that. But there will also be days when you will feel the real struggle of your own frame. In all of this, what we are seeking to point to is that we as Christians are far more fragile than we think. We are far more fickle than we think, and we are far weaker than we think. Triumphalism, or the victorious Christian life, often doesn’t give room for that.
Jon Moffitt: Your illustration with David is a great example. Towards the end of his life, you wouldn’t say he lived the victorious Christian life. It was horrible just watching his own children and what they did to each other, and just even his own heart and his own soul. One of the things that happen when you live in this triumphalism culture is that your level of joy and assurance is going to rise and fall based upon you. It’s a highly individualized system. It’s focused in on you. When you approach God and your relationship with him, you are always introspective. If you’re new to Theocast, this is going to be new to you. If you’ve been around Theocast for a while, this is a little bit of a repeat, and we do this often to remind ourselves not to be so introspective.
I’m going to be totally frank with every single listener. I know both of you are going to agree that if you were to look at Jon Moffitt 20 years ago, I would be a much different man than I am today. There are many reasons why but not all of it is because I’ve been in the word. A lot of it is because I’ve been beaten down – I’ve gone through sorrow, I’ve gone through loss, I’ve gone through pain. God has used the suffering. But the thing is I don’t know if I’m a better man. I know that I’ve made better decisions but I can’t say that my life is one of triumph. I have a lot of failures from back then. I’ve had a lot of sin struggles from back then until today. The thing that has motivated me to continue to find joy, the thing that’s motivating me to continue to find a surety is to not be introspective, to not look at myself, but to look outside of myself.
What Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians 3:18 – 2 Corinthians 4 is that when we look at the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, that is when we are transformed into from one degree of glory to the next. Meaning that Paul isn’t pointing the believer inward to look at the trajectory of their life; he’s pointing them out and up. He does this at the end of Colossians 2. He says all of these outward ways that you’re trying to control your body. He even mentions asceticism. He says there is no value of stopping the indulgence of the flesh. Where does he point you? Up to Christ. Focus your attention on Jesus Christ. So triumphalism is inward – what are you doing and how do you make yourself better? Here are the steps.
We would say the biblical call and even the confessional call is to point yourself out, extra nos, away from yourself to something that is greater that pulls you.
Justin Perdue: I want to reiterate so that we’re not misunderstood that transformation of life is real, and that everybody whom the Lord has justified in Christ Jesus, He will sanctify. At the same time, we want to be crystal clear that sanctification and the transformation of life is a community project. It is a corporate reality.
Jon Moffitt: That’s a huge point, Justin. We say that, but I don’t think people really feel what we’re saying there. But it’s huge.
Justin Perdue: It’s massive. When we read the New Testament, take the Epistles because this is where we often will go. All of them basically are written to congregations with the exception of the Pastoral Epistles that are written essentially to churches through the pastor. So they’re all written into a corporate reality. If we think about the things that are described in the New Testament with respect to the transformation of life, they are all taking place most pointedly within the context of the community called the church. So it is not this hyper-individualistic journey and process that you’re on. You’re on a journey with your brothers and sisters in the church, and so you’re looking to Christ.
As you said, Jon, 2 Corinthians 3-4 most pointedly there described that reality that as we behold Christ, we’re changed. But as we live life in the church, we’re changed. So not only are we looking outside of ourselves to Christ, extra nos, for our justification and our standing before the Lord, we live an outwardly oriented life where we are concerned with the good of our brothers and sisters and the good of our neighbor.
It’s in that way that we are transformed and changed most fundamentally and most effectively. When we navel-gaze – we use that term a lot – when we are hyper-introspective and we’re always focusing on ourselves and our performance and our progress, it actually is a great hindrance to our sanctification. We don’t grow as we should and we often are just blind to many of the realities that exist. Where are we to take our gaze off of ourselves and fix it on Christ and our brothers and sisters and our neighbor? As God has intended, it would be much better for us. As Jon pointed out already, in that approach, there is peace and rest and assurance because we’re looking outside of ourselves, and the Lord does His sanctifying work in us as we look to Christ and as we live in the church.
So we can’t beat that drum hard enough that we’re all for the transformation of life, but it is a corporate reality. It is not an individual pursuit.
Jimmy Buehler: Right. Let’s be clear about something: we do believe that victory exists in the Christian life, and what we believe about that is that victory exists in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. That ultimately, Christ is victorious. What we are arguing to look toward is that the victory is not so much found in the increased goodness and sanctification of yourself, but the victory is found in your status, that you are a forgiven sin-sick wretch who is sitting under the banner of the victory of Christ.
The other thing that is helpful to remember is what has been known as simul justus et peccator, that we are both simultaneously saint and sinner. That as we think about the Christian life, we live in a constant tension of Romans 7 and 8. That we naturally wake up in a Roman 7 world – that we struggle with our flesh, we struggle with sin, we struggle with things that we never thought we’d struggle with – but we are constantly looking to the Romans 8 reality is that there is no condemnation for us in Christ Jesus.
You guys might speak to this a little bit more later, but the simul life – simultaneously saint and sinner – has been a very helpful category for myself even as I think about the everyday Christian life.
Jon Moffitt: I know if there’s someone new to Theocast and they’re from a conservative, reformed, or even Calvinistic background, they’re yelling at their phone or their car speaker right now. “But the Bible clearly says in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that for those who are in Christ, they’re a new creature. Old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new. The whole put off the old man, put on the new man. There seems to be Paul saying that there is a trajectory where we are focusing on putting off the old man and that we are living in this new nature that we have, and the new nature provides us the ability to be progressing in our sanctification. So it sounds like you guys are ignoring these verses that. The reality you’re describing is not the reality that I’m reading in the New Testament.” How would you reply to such accusations?
Justin Perdue: The same apostle who wrote 2 Corinthians 5:17 wrote Romans 7. What we’re trying to do is hold these things in appropriate tension and have a theology that incorporates the entire Bible, even all of the apostle Paul’s theology. It is entirely right and true that in Christ Jesus, we are a new creation – we have been regenerated by the spirit of God, we have been circumcised, not by a circumcision that is made with hands or done in the flesh, but we have been circumcised of heart with the circumcision of Christ. So we have been raised to walk in newness of life and to walk in the good works that have been prepared beforehand for us to do.
All of those things are entirely true, and there will be this transformation of life that we’ve already alluded to multiple times. There will be change. Jon, you described your own life. I’m different than I was 20 years ago. 17 or 18-year-old me versus me now in my later thirties… there is a world of difference. There’s a world of difference from 10 years ago. I am in no way saying don’t pan back and look at your life and praise God for what He’s done. Of course we do. At the same time, we acknowledge that we are not yet fully sanctified. We are not yet glorified. We will know complete victory over sin and we will know only righteousness in our experience at the resurrection, but not until then. That’s what we’re trying to say. And Paul is crystal clear.
Jimmy, you mentioned Romans 8. Even if we think Romans 6, we think about our new identity. Our new war in Romans 7, our new hope in Romans 8. That’s the world that we live in. We’re just trying to press back biblically with a more – dare I say the word – balanced approach. To say we can’t just talk about transformation, we can’t just talk about victory, we can’t just talk about overcoming, and we can’t just talk about the new nature. We’ve got to acknowledge simultaneous reality of new nature – saint, old man – we are not resurrected and fully sanctified yet. Those are both characteristics of our reality.
Jimmy Buehler: As we look at sanctification, we do recognize that there is a progressive nature to it. Something we also need to remember is that there is a definite nature of sanctification that we are set apart by God in Christ. One of the things we wrote about in our primer on rest is that when we think about the corporate realities of church life, or even the individual realities of church life, is often when the emphasis is on the victorious Christian life or triumphalism, the gospel shifts to the background; the good news of what Christ has accomplished on our behalf moves to the
Think about the modern evangelical way of sharing testimonies – what is the focus? Jesus changed my life or Jesus transformed my life. I’m not against that, but it often carries a message of, “You better not regress where you are right now. Otherwise Jesus didn’t change your life.”
I’m going to say something that’s probably going to blow people’s minds and we’ll get another email about antinomianism.
My worst and most heinous sins have been committed after I became a Christian. Think about that. I have sinned against my wife and others in ways that if you would’ve told me about them when I was a teenager, I would have run from you and fear and said, “There’s no way I’d ever do that. There’s absolutely no way I’d ever do that.” But here I stand, and I can say no other, that my nature to sin and my propensity to sin is great. It is unbelievable. Something I like to say to our church all the time is we are experts in sin. We’re just naturally good at it.
What we’re trying to say is when the progress of the Christian life moves to the foreground, it is going to wreck you when you struggle. It is going to wreck you when you sin. Because you have it in your brain that your testimony is that Jesus changed my life, and if you regress anything lower than that standard of that day when you gave your testimony, you’re going to find yourself in a heap of trouble because you’re going to begin to question everything.
Jon Moffitt: Jimmy, that is super insightful and helpful because it’s true. If you were saved as a young child as I was, then your worst struggles are ahead of you. I was saved when I was 12 so my greatest, deepest struggles hadn’t even happened yet even from a natural standpoint. If you come from a drug background and you are a partier and all of a sudden you’re not there, you can have a false sense of assurance. You can even have a false sense of being good with God because “at least I’m not sleeping around and doing drugs anymore.” When you always look to what you’re not doing to find your assurance, that’s very dangerous. It’s very obvious that Christians are going to struggle.
Scripture says you’re a new creation – I want to reference that real quick – to Paul’s warnings in Galatians 6:1 about those who are trapped in sin; all the warnings in Ephesians 4 and following about the battle and struggle against sin that you’re going to have within; the internal battle that you’re going to have.
Justin Perdue: And church discipline exists for a reason.
Jon Moffitt: It has to exist. So this is all true. But even going back to 2 Corinthians where it says you’re a new creation, what Paul is saying there is that you are a new type of person that has never existed within humanity. Before now, we had people who are depraved, fallen under the curse of Adam, and now there’s a whole new type of person. And this type of person is still living within a body that is depraved, that’s fallen and sinful, but has the Spirit to give it power to have a belief and not be trapped to sin. He is not saying your new creation means you shouldn’t struggle with sin anymore. This is triumphalism’s biggest lie: that over time, the battle against sin goes away. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to sit down with individuals and say, “You are going to fight sin for the rest of your life. You’ll never get to a moment where sin will no longer be tempting to you.” That is just not a reality. Even the New Testament doesn’t give us that reality. That is the lie of triumphalism.
Justin Perdue: It’s so damaging.
The impression that people are given on how the battle with sin will go away, or sometimes the presentation is that the battle was sin will always be there but it will get a lot easier – as if it won’t be as hard to do as you mature in the faith versus where you are now in your more infantile state – is just flat out untrue. It’s patently false on the face of it because there are going to be times in our lives where the battle gets more intense as we grow. And that ebbs and flows season by season.
I want to pick up on something else that you said, Jon, where we are putting our confidence oftentimes in a triumphalist framework; we’re putting our confidence most fundamentally in our own transformation of life, rather than placing our confidence in the finished work of Christ in our place; we constantly are looking to how we’ve changed as the, the ground of our confidence. You’re safe in Christ, but how do you really know that you’re going to be in heaven? How do you really know that you’re legit? “Well, it’s because you have adequate and sufficient transformation of life to look to and to fall back on.”
This is just a public service announcement for everybody. Lest we think that we’re crushing it in the Christian life, unless we think that we really are on this super soaring upward trajectory and we’re just doing great… Let’s consider the great commandment from the words of our Lord, that we’re to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Assess that honestly. In light of your life the last 10 minutes, let alone the last week – and give it 30 seconds of thought – if we rightly understand our minds and hearts, we would be prostrate on the floor before the Lord, saying, “Father, forgive me because I have not loved you with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength for one second of my sin-sick life.” Even in our “best moments” as we perceived them, we’re naive and deluded when we think we’re doing that great. In our best moments, we are always debtors to grace and we are always looking to Christ. Even in our transformed lives, there is no ground to stand on to say that is legit. Only Jesus is legit. There will be real transformation that we can look to and have our assurance bolstered as we see the work of His Spirit in our lives. But we need to be more realistic in our assessment of ourselves in light of what God requires and nobody meets the standard.
Jon Moffitt: That’s right.
In Scripture we have promises of how the body or how we are to be transformed. Paul very pointedly says in Ephesians 4 that when the body functions properly, it builds itself up in love. The believer within the New Testament is pushed into a corporate reality, a body of believers, where you have people who are teachers, you have people who are gifted with giving and love. There are so many gifts. When we approach the Christian life this way, what we’re doing is we’re reaching out and grasping onto something that is pulling us towards Christ. We are not pushing ourselves to Christ.
In the triumphalist system, the focus is always you getting better. It’s like anybody who’s working out – they adjust their entire life. If someone is trying to become fit, the way they eat, the way they sleep, how they work out, and when they work out – their entire life is focused in on that so they can accomplish that goal. Then we think this is how it works in the Christian life – the way in which you do everything spiritually, you’re going to build yourself up – but it just doesn’t work like that. Growth within the Christianity is a community event. It’s always been that way, and that’s how the New Testament pushes us.
Let me give you an illustration here that I used for my church last Sunday. If you were going to say you want to consume God’s word, or you as a church are going to consume God’s word, and you start from the beginning to the end and just let God’s word be read over you… I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this, but 95% of God’s word is narrative and descriptive; it is describing how God accomplished redemption through all kinds of crazy stories of death, magic, people coming back to life – it’s just the most incredible, gnarly ride from the beginning to the end. Then you get to the New Testament and in the Epistles, there are some very important instructions; you have the Old Testament Law that’s still applicable to us. The Law doesn’t take up a lot of word count and some of the Law applies to us – lying, stealing, cheating, and all that kind of stuff.
When it comes to the New Testament, you’re looking at 3-5% that is for you to read and obey. There are instructions in there for what you should be doing. This means the majority of your experience with God and His word to you is not focused on what you should be doing. It’s focused on what God did to keep His promise. It’s causing you to look outside of yourself and towards God and His faithfulness. Point being this: do you know the narrative of the Bible? Humans fail, God succeeds. We try and read the Bible and say, “I need to be better.” Then we try and take guys like Daniel or David and use them as examples for our triumphal Christian lives. And yet those guys are failures.
In the story of the Bible, where men have always failed, starting with Adam, is that we should have sought wisdom from God. Eve receives the fruit tempted by Satan. Adam should have taken the fruit, walked right over to God and said, “What do I do here?” Instead, Adam sought his own wisdom to be equal with God.
And from that moment on, we have done the same.
Jimmy Buehler: There is an order to the text. We don’t even have to look at the New Testament; let’s look at the Old Testament. What you have in Exodus 19 is God who has brought His people out of Egypt. Something that has been so helpful for me is this: redemption always precedes commandment. When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, He reminds them of these indicative truths of Himself: that He is the one who has saved them, He is the one who has borne them on eagle’s wings, so to speak. Then he says, “Now if you will do this…”
Even in the Old Testament, God always begins with indicative truths of Himself, and who He is. I believe it’s Psalm 3 that says that salvation belongs to the Lord. As we look at the Bible, it is interesting to take the approach that it is a manual for us to execute a victorious Christian life, because if it’s a manual, it’s a silly manual. I don’t want to insult God’s intelligence that He could have written a better manual, but really what it is it’s a grand narrative of redemption.
As we begin to wrap things up here, what we’re not saying is that transformation in the Christian life does not exist. It does, but it exists within the greater narrative of the Bible that salvation belongs to the Lord. That the victory always is in Christ and Christ alone.
Justin Perdue: And that God is the one who does the transforming work in and through us. We don’t do it ourselves.
To wrap up with this thought of victory, we’ve described triumphalism in the terms of the victorious Christian life. We’ve already talked about how Christ Jesus is the victorious one. I think we would all be helped if we would just redefine what we understand victory to be. In the Christian life day-to-day, victory in the Christian life is most often described in terms of, if not complete, almost complete deliverance from sin and if not perfect, almost perfect affections and thoughts and the like. That’s unhelpful. We’ve already depicted how that’s bondage and slavery, and it’s something that we will never achieve in this life just because of the fact that we still are fallen. But if we could redefine victory in these terms that victorious Christian living is continually taking our sin and our struggles and our shame to Christ in faith, and relying upon the Holy Spirit of God to do His transforming work in our lives.
Jimmy, you were talking about the definite aspect of sanctification. Hebrews 10:14 is a favorite verse of mine for a reason where we’re told that Jesus has perfected for all time, those who are being sanctified, if we would remember that perspective.
“So what do I do, brother?” You trust Christ. You rely upon the Spirit; you live life in the context of the local church, and you wake up again tomorrow should the Lord give you life and you do that again. The next day you confess sin to the Lord; He’s faithful and just to forgive you and cleanse you of all unrighteousness. Pray that God would give you grace that you might not sin, and we just continue to do that. There’s nothing magical to it. It’s going to be up and down. It’s going to ebb and flow and praise God that Jesus Christ is victorious and that He’s our righteousness always on our best day or our worst day. That’s a more victorious approach to living the Christian life, and redefining victory is a piece of that.
Jon Moffitt: We’re going to go over to our members’ podcast. For those of you that don’t know what that is, it’s a simple way for us to help support what we’re doing here at Theocast. We are trying to produce audios, two different podcasts, transcripts, and books. All of this cost money and the way that we found that it’s most helpful is to provide extra content for those donors who can support us on a monthly basis, or on a yearly basis. So if you go over to Theocast.org, you can learn more about our membership. We do an extra podcast, and to be frank, it gets pretty spicy over there.
This is kind of where we walk into the back room, take our shoes off, and have a little more fun. Those of you who are members, we’ll see you there. If you want to come check it out, there’s a 14-day free trial. We encourage you to come check it out. We’ll see you over there.