Question: “Do you need to turn away from sin in order to come to Christ?”

Have a think about it.

After all, if:

  • God saves his people by grace in Christ…
  • God’s people are those who turn away from sin…
  • Can we then say “to become a Christian, you need to turn away from your sins?”

In other words, are we saved by our holiness?

This simple question about the role of holiness (or sanctification) in the Christian life kicked off a huge debate called “The Marrow Controversy” in 18th century Scotland. The original question that trapped William Craig in Auchterarder was: Do you agree that “it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ”? (i.e. do you think it’s unbiblical to teach that you need to turn away from your sins in order to become a Christian?) A group of pastors (“the Marrow men”) agreed with the statement, and were accused of antinomianism (being against God’s law). Conversely, the Marrow men held firm because they saw the need to challenge a subtle legalism (a reliance on following God’s law for salvation) the question presented. Christians have debated all kinds of important issues throughout history, but the place of good works in the Christian life still brings up debate.[1]

On one end, you might think: NO! If I’m saved by grace through faith in Christ, and not my good works… then how dare anyone tell me what to do with my life?

  • “If I’m free in Christ, why shouldn’t I be able to get drunk, sleep with whoever I like?”
  • “If Jesus has forgiven me, then I can watch whatever I want, right?”

Yet on the flip side, some may feel the opposite. How could God save me if I’m not holy? How could He possibly welcome me otherwise?

  • “Do I need to fix my bad temper before I can call myself a Christian?”
  • “If I can’t keep my lust under control, am I even part of God’s family?”

Whether you believe that: “In Christ you don’t have to be holy”, or “You have to be holy to be in Christ”, both extremes are wrong.

In Ephesians 5:3-21, we see Paul give a nuanced call to holiness. He doesn’t say “In Christ you don’t have to be holy.” Nor does he say: “You have to be holy to be in Christ.” He charts a third way: “in Christ you will become holy.”

Consider the following verses:

“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” (Eph 5:3)

What’s the logic here? It’s not “avoid sexual immorality” so that you’ll become God’s holy people. Nor is it “don’t worry about who you sleep with or what you watch or eat” now that you’re God’s holy people. Paul is arguing: in Christ – because of His great love for us shown on the cross – you are God’s holy people. So live like it, do what’s proper for His people, and stay away from the life of the those who don’t inherit the kingdom of God (v5).

“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.” (Eph 5:8)

Notice Paul didn’t say, once you walked in darkness. He said, once you were darkness. Not just what you did, but what you and I were by nature. But now by faith in Christ, by His saving work for you, you are light in the Lord. And if we are light in Christ, we should walk as light for Christ. The order matters.

When Christ shines on us, women and men aren’t objects for sexual pleasure, they’re brothers and sisters we can serve. When His Light covers us, food isn’t something to obsess over or get addicted to, but good gifts we share with others.

You see? The way of Jesus is not be holy so you’ll be saved. And it’s also not don’t worry about how you live. Rather – in Christ you are His Light. So live as children of light. Paul walks the tightrope between law and grace; who we are and how we’re to live. In Christ, we are children of light, called to walk in wisdom. The order makes all the difference.

[1] Note: For a fantastic summary and reflection on the Marrow controversy, I’d highly recommend “The Whole Christ” by Sinclair Ferguson.

(This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Ephesians 5:3-21. You can check it out below or on SpotifyApple podcasts etc.)