BY: HARRY R. FOX, JR.
Editor’s Note: This is a sermon first delivered to the Church of Christ in Redondo Beach, CA, on March 3, 2002.
During the sixty-two years that I have served as a gospel preacher in congregations all over America and Japan, I have noticed a reluctance of members of those churches to think of themselves as “Saints.” This reluctance is largely based on an impression that no Christian should be qualified to be called a saint, that it would be arrogant for anyone to so regard himself or herself, that we should always be characterized by humility and a sense of unworthiness.
So the question arises, how can we be aware of ourselves as saints without arrogance and with a healthy humility? The answer lies in the title of this sermon, namely, that we are saints “proleptically.” Such an awareness is what the Apostle Paul expresses when he calls our attention to the fact that Christians are “righteous” only by being “reckoned” to be so by God in spite of their not being so actually, which is to say, that God unilaterally declares us to be what we are not. Paul first introduces us to this amazing truth in the fourth chapter of Romans where he speaks of Abraham as an example of a man who was reckoned by God to be righteous even though in actuality, he was “ungodly.” In verse 5 of chapter four, Paul boldly says that Abraham accepted this truth about himself and “trusted God who justifies the UNGODLY” (Emphasis mine). This truth is so shocking to the conventional mind (both in and out of the church) that it is almost impossible for such a mind to believe or accept it to be true. But Abraham did accept it to be true, and experienced the tremendous blessedness of proleptic, reckoned righteousness, and thereby, became what Paul called the “father of the faithful” (Rom. 4:11), that is, father of all who accept God’s reckoning of them to be righteous even though they know themselves to be otherwise. This paradoxical truth is articulated by the author of I John 1:8-10 in conjunction with what he says in verse 9 of chapter three. In 1:8, John says that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But then in 3:9, he says that “no one born of God commits sin; for God’s seed” (KJV) or “nature” (RSV) “abides in him and he cannot sin because he is born of God.” When the paradoxical nature of the reality articulated in these two apparently unreconcilable quotations is seen “proleptically,” it can be rightly understood and appreciated. Webster’s Third International Unabridged Dictionary defines the word “proleptic” as, “the representation or assumption of a future act or development as being presently existing or accomplished”; also as “prevision and apprehension of holiness which we call faith.”
Now back to I John 3:9. What does it mean to have God’s “seed” in a person so that it can be said he or she “cannot sin?” In the parable of the sower in Matt. 13:15, Jesus says that the “seed” sown by the farmer is “the word of the kingdom.” When we proceed to seek what Jesus means by God’s “word of the kingdom,” and consider it in the total New Testament context in which Jesus speaks, we discern that it means the “good news” of God’s unconditional prevenient love and mercy for an undeserving world of sinners. When a person accepts this gospel deep into the very core of his being, he will have accepted God’s “proleptic” pronouncement of himself as “righteous” even though not yet “actually” sinless. Such a person will continuously live in this consciousness of God’s gracious acceptance and will not have to choose only one or the other half of the paradox it involves. Then, we can affirm both our righteousness and our sinfulness simultaneously. This was the glorious rediscovery of Paul’s gospel made by the 16th century reformers who formulated this truth in the phrase, “both righteous and sinful.”
When this is applied to our daily walk as Christians, we will be more conscious of our being right with God than otherwise. (Compare II Cor. 1:18-20 where Paul implies that God’s ultimate word in Christ is YES!). Thus, we will not be burdened with the unnecessary load of guilt that is felt by those who do not yet have their eyes opened to the proleptic gospel. We will confidently live in the sunshine of God’s continuing, ongoing daily forgiveness and not dwell in the dark shadows of guilt and fear. (Cf. I John 4:17-18 where we are told that those who dwell in God’s love are freed from fear of punishment since perfect love casts out fear). Nor will we feel any need to deny our sins but will freely confess them to God and to each other per James 5:16 and experience the “rest” that God offers us in Matt. 11:28-30, and in the third and fourth chapters of Hebrews. So, let us all avail ourselves of said rest!
PROLEPTIC SAINTS [Harry R. Fox, Jr.] 1