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.
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.