Imagine this scenario. Your friend at church (who is a believer) comes to you and confesses an ugly sin they committed. And they feel terrible about it. What do you say?
No doubt this scenario is played out countless times a week in evangelical churches all over the country–particularly given the church’s fascination with authenticity and vulnerability (see my post on that issue here). And it is not always easy to know how to respond.
But here’s one response that gets used a lot: “Don’t feel bad about this sin. If you are a believer, then God is always pleased with you. He can never be more pleased with you than he is right now.”
Is this response helpful? Yes and no. It depends on what a person means and how they frame it.
Our purpose in this post (as in all the posts in this series) is simply to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of this phrase. We will do this by asking three questions: (1) Why do people use this phrase? (2) What is correct or helpful about this phrase? and (3) What is problematic about this phrase?
Why Do People Use This Phrase?
The reasons for the popularity of this phrase are many, but I will mention two here. One is that some Christians have grown up in a church culture where guilt-mongering is the standard method to encourage obedience. God is portrayed as perpetually irritated and dissatisfied with us as his people, and our goal as Christians is to work really hard each day not to tick him off. The motivation for obedience is to earn God’s favor.
Needless to say, if that is a person’s perception of God and the Christian life, then this phrase would feel like a glass of cold water in a hot desert.
But there is also a second reason this phrase has become popular. In Reformed circles, there is (rightly) an emphasis on the wonderful doctrine of imputation. When a person trusts in Christ, the perfect righteousness of Christ is imputed to their account. This means that God regards us as “righteous” even though we are not. This is why there is “now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).
Thus, for some people, the phrase “God is always pleased with you” is just another way to describe imputation. But, as we shall see, things are not quite that simple.
What is Correct or Helpful about This Phrase?
As with all the phrases in this series, there are positives worth noting. For one (as we just noted), if this phrase is designed to speak of imputation, then we can give it a hearty amen. The righteousness of Christ has been credited to our account. And, in this sense, God is “pleased” with what he sees.
Also, we can affirm that guilt-mongering is not a biblical tactic for motivating believers to obedience (although there is a proper place for godly sorrow as we will see below). God is not perpetually irritated with us and if this phrase helps eliminate that impression, then great.
What is Problematic about This Phrase?
Even with these positives, this phrase has (unfortunately) been used in problematic ways. In fact, sometimes it is flat out wrong. Here are a few of places of concern:
1. It confuses justification and sanctification. This phrase can be used in such a way that it takes what is true of justification (God sees the perfect righteousness of Christ) and applies it without qualification to our sanctification (therefore God is never concerned about our sin). In other words, it assumes that if God is pleased with us in justification (because of the righteousness of Christ), then he is always pleased with us in terms of our sanctification.
But, the Bible gives the opposite impression. God is not always pleased with our actions as believers. Indeed, this is why God is busy (through the Spirit) convicting us of our sin patterns and calling us toward repentance.
In other words, in sanctification God is very aware of our sin! This is why he disciplines those he loves. He is not finished with us, but is proactively shaping us more into his image.
It is analogous to the way parents think of their children. No matter what my son does, he will always be my son and I will love him (justification), but I am still concerned with his behavior and give him loving discipline (sanctification).
I would be a poor father if I used his permanent status as a son as a reason to overlook and ignore his sin patterns. In fact the opposite is true. It is because he’s my son (and has permanent status as such) that I will not overlook those sins, but actively discipline them for his good.
In short, there is a role for fatherly displeasure in both human parents and in God.
2 . It overlooks the fact that the Bible explicitly states God is not always pleased with believers. There are numerous examples of this in the Bible, but the most obvious is King David, a man whom God loved dearly. After David’s sin with Bathsheba, the text tells us: “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord” (2 Sam 11:27).
This one verse presents a hearty challenge to this phrase. It tells us that in the process of sanctification, God sees our behavior and is not always pleased with it.
3. It can be used to downplay legitimate guilt/sorrow over sin. Whenever a believer comes to us feeling bad over there sin, it is understandable that we would want to comfort that person. And this phrase is often used to do just that. We put balm on their wound by reassuring them that God is always pleased with them.
But we have to be careful here. Not all guilt/sorrow over sin is bad (2 Cor 7:9-11). Telling someone that God is always pleased with them might sound compassionate, but we may find ourselves working against the Spirit as He works to bring conviction and repentance.
And in our world today, genuine sorrow over sin seems in short supply. Our kids grow up in a world where everyone tells them how awesome they are all the time. No one is ever displeased with them. Everyone is a winner.
In such a context, the fatherly displeasure of God is an important category that we cannot allow to get swallowed up into the doctrine of justification and forgotten.
In the end, this phrase has positives and negatives. Positively, it can help celebrate the greatness of God’s justifying work in Christ and how his righteousness covers all our guilt. But negatively in can be used to downplay the importance of sanctification and God’s active role in it.