Monday, May 30, 2005
I haven't paid attention to the details. The main sticking point I've heard is that the Constitution was too capitalist for the somewhat socialist leanings of the nation.
Well, I'm not surprised. Before I begin my fun, let me say that I give any individual of any stripe the chance to be themselves no matter the groups to which they belong. Let me also say that I still eat French Fries and wish I could speak the language fluently. There's a part of me that just has to love the French, despite their suicidal and perverse ways.
Here's another example. The French are some of those self-destructive people who just can't help but shoot themselves in the foot and any one else they can pull down with them. Here is a moment of progress for Europe, an opportunity for the EU to move further toward being more of a world power and eventually a counterbalance to the United States. But the French will have none of it.
Now mind you, I am not a mega-capitalist. I would style myself an Adam Smith capitalist--someone who sees capitalism as a way to improve the lives of the little people. Today that means a good deal of regulation and control of the capitalistic monster. Smith did not foresee the Microsofts and Wal-marts that actually run over the little guys. I suspect Smith would be appalled with his economic worshippers and say, "I have ought against thee because you have left your first love."
But the Frenchies are a completely different story. They weren't stung enough by communism to get the depravity to which it led in Eastern Europe and Russia. They enjoy protesting and guillotining people too much in the name of freedom and individual rights to set up a more prosperous society. They want to be able to strike every other day in the name of la boheme.
I have mixed feelings about France. I have been to Paris a half a dozen times and spent a week in Mougins last year while we were in Europe.
But I also have memories of leaving hastily for Germany because the whole city of Paris was going on strike (again). I have visions of ticket checkers just waiting at my train door in hope that I hadn't filled out the date on my Europass before the train started moving (I hadn't gotten it out yet because I was in a sweaty luggage fest. He fined me twenty Euros). I remember filthy dirty streets in Paris and Parisian hotel managers lying about not taking American Express when the sign on the door said they did (which threw my budget off). I remember being cheated on change in Strassbourg and nearly being pick-pocketed at McDonalds. Hmm, I don't have those memories of England or Germany.
Would I go back? You bet. Are they nice people--not generally, but it's nothing personal. It's just their way. Most of them would still give your child their seat, even if they did it with a scowl on their face muttering something under their breath.
They're just a funny people that sometimes, of course, aren't so funny. Eventually, after they've bickered and complained for as long as possible, they get around to doing what they need to.
Romans 3:23 says that
"all have sinned and are lacking the glory of God."
Many take the glory of God here in some way to refer to a moral standard to which we cannot attain. Thus the New Living Translation renders it "God's glorious standard."
But when we get into Paul's world, it becomes extremely likely that Paul is alluding to Psalm 8 in his Greek Bible:
"What are humans, that you remember them,
or the son of a human, that you look on him?
You made them lower than the angels for a little while.
You crowned them with glory and honor.
You appointed them over the works of Your hands
You subjected everything under their feet."
We find a number of places in Hebrews and Paul's writings that allude to this psalm. From these scattered comments we can reconstruct the story of salvation:
1. God created humanity to be in the role we read about in the psalm. Humanity was meant to have glory and honor in the creation. "When He subjected everything to humanity, he left nothing unsubjected to them" (Heb. 2:8).
2. But Adam sinnned, and all have sinned like Adam, "and are lacking the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). Humanity did not attain to the glory God intended them to have. This is the problem. As Hebrews says, "Now we do not yet see everything subjected to them" (Heb. 2:8).
3. But God had a solution.
"But what we do see is one who was made lower than the angels for a little while--Jesus--who because of his suffering of death was crowned with glory and honor so that by the grace of God he might taste death on behalf of all" (Heb. 2:9).
At the resurrection, Jesus will conquer death for good.
"Death is destroyed as the last enemy, for God subjected everything under Christ's feet... and when everything is subjected to Christ, then the Son himself will be subjected to the One who subjects everything to Himself" (1 Cor. 15:26-27).
4. Ultimate salvation certainly means escaping God's wrath. But it also means attaining finally the glory God intended humanity to have.
"Through Jesus we have had our entrance into this grace in which we stand and we boast because of our hope of the glory of God" (Rom. 5:2).
"It was fitting for God, because of whom and through whom all things exist, to perfect Jesus, who leads many children to glory, the pioneer of humanity's salvation, through sufferings" (Heb. 2:10).
This "glorification" will take place at the resurrection for those Christians who have already died at the time of Christ's return. For those who are alive and remain at his coming, it will take place at the same time as we are caught up to be with the Lord:
"Behold, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we all will be transformed, in a moment, in the twinkle of an eye at the last trumpet" (1 Cor. 15:51-52).
"For our citizenship exists in the heavens, from which we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform the body of our humility to the same form as the body of his glory according to the power that enables him even to subject everything to himself" (Phil. 3:20-21).
And it is not just we who will experience this transformation, this ultimate liberation from our mortal bodies. The creation itself as a whole will finally experience its salvation from the power of sin and corruption.
"For we consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy in comparison to the glory that is about to be revealed to us. For the eager expectation of the creation awaits the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility because of hope. For even the creation itself will be freed from the slavery of corruption for the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8:18-21).
What a glorious hope! It is full salvation, by any reckoning.
This short account of salvation in the New Testament is a story that begins even before the story as we began it. It begins with a gracious God who creates a universe full of hope. He creates humanity and shows His greatness by His concern for such a small part of all that is. He creates us to experience a place of glory and honor over the creation.
But it doesn't happen. As a result of Adam's sin humanity is demoted and is lacking the intended glory of God. The created realm, including our physical bodies, are enslaved to the power of sin and the decay we now see in the creation.
Still, the story does not end at this point. Because of His great love and His saving righteousness, God sends Jesus His Son to troubleshoot the human problem. Jesus lives out the human experiment without sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15). Accordingly, he is able to attain the glory intended for humanity and is now in a position to lead many other children to glory as well.
At the resurrection, God will transform our bodies to be like Christ's glorious body. We will be finally and ultimately glorified. We will no longer face even the possibility of being in the flesh for "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 15:50). Further, the creation itself will be transformed. It will no longer be subject to decay and corruption.
"Thanks be to God, who gives to us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!" (1 Cor. 15:57).
Sunday, May 29, 2005
Western culture pushes us to think of salvation and sanctification as an individual experience, but the Bible thinks about most of these things as much in corporate as individual terms. So while we tend to think of our individual bodies as the temple of the Holy Spirit, Paul uses the plural word for you:
"your [plural] body is a temple of the Holy Spirit in you [plural]" (1 Cor. 6:19).
The Holy Spirit inhabits the church as his body even more than our individual bodies.
Similarly, Paul's prayer for the Thessalonians is "May the God of peace Himself sanctify you [plural] completely, and may your [plural] whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thess. 5:23). Paul equates belonging to God and thus being holy (being sanctified) to being free of blame. He prays that the Thessalonians will be this way collectively even more than for each one individually.
And so we are not surprised that Paul also encourages his churches to work together so that they are all saved on the Day of Judgment:
"So, my beloved ones, just as you always obeyed, not only when I was there but now even more now in my absence, work out your [plural] salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).
As usual, Paul is speaking in the plural. The Philippians are to work together to help each other make it to the day of salvation.
The idea of "working" having anything to do with salvation goes against the grain of much Christian thinking today, but it was an essential element in Paul's understanding. Here it is important to point out the difference between justification--becoming right with God--and salvation--escaping God's wrath on the Day of Judgment because you remain right with Him. Only faith or trust is operative in justification. But God expects us to honor Him in response to His grace in order to be saved ultimately.
Paul only contrasted faith and works when he was writing about becoming a Christian. Even then, he primarily contrasted faith in Christ with works of the Jewish Law (e.g., Gal. 2:16). At the same time he made it clear that faith will yield a certain kind of "fruit" in one's life (e.g., Rom. 6:22). In 1 Thessalonians, Paul commends the Thessalonians for their "work of faith" (1:3).
Further, the same passage in Ephesians that says "by grace you have been saved through faith... not on the basis of works so that no one can boast" goes on in the very next verse to say,
"For we are his creation and we have been created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared ahead of time so that we might walk in them" (Eph. 2:10).
It is thus God's will that Christians walk together ("we") in a certain way after they are justified, a way that Ephesians calls "good works."
We can gain great clarity on these things if we realize that one way in which the original audiences of the New Testament would have understood grace, which is often defined as "unmerited favor," is in terms of what scholars call patron-client relationships. Patrons were wealthy individuals with excess resources. Clients were individuals who could use these resources. Patrons often gained honor and prestige in the ancient world by accruing clients to themselves. The clients of course did not earn or merit such hand outs--the giving was much greater than anything the client could return. But at the same time, the client was usually expected to do various things for the patron in turn, not least of which was give them honor for their giving. If they did not appropriately honor their patrons, the giving would of course stop.
While this model is not the only way early Christians would have understood their relationship with God, grace and gift language pushes us to see it as one way they did. God was a divine patron who freely gave to those who sought Him. No one could earn His divine patronage. On the other hand, the idea that such patronage came with no strings attached would have made no sense at all to any of the New Testament authors or audiences. After all, this is the same God who made a covenant with Israel in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 28 leaves no doubt that such a covenant involved clear expectations of God's people or else the relationship with specific individuals was severed.
Thus in the New Testament, God expects His people to serve Him in return for His gracious gift of justification and salvation. If they do not serve him, 1 John 5:16-17 speaks of a "sin unto death" that severs our relationship to God. Similarly, Hebrews 10:26-27 says,
"If we continue to sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, the sacrifice for sins no longer remains, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment and of the eager fire that is about to eat God's enemies."
Paul himself expresses the need for faithfulness when he says things like
"So I run not as if I did not have a goal. So I box not as if I were beating the air. But I keep my body under control and I lead it as a slave so that I myself might not become disqualified somehow after I have preached to others" (1 Cor. 9:26-27).
"I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings as I am conformed to his death, if somehow I might attain to the resurrection of the dead" (Phil. 3:8-11).
Even Paul himself did not believe his acceptance in Christ was unconditional. It demanded an appropriate response, a response Paul was determined to give.
Paul had not yet attained the resurrection. The next verse in Philippians 3 continues:
"Not that I have already received [resurrection] or have already been perfected [as I move into the next age], but I pursue [the resurrection] if also I might take hold of that for which I was even taken hold of by Christ. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of [this resurrection]. But one thing [I do], forgetting the things behind and reaching out to the things before me, I pursue with my eye on the goal the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 2:12-14).
It is common to think of Paul as forgetting his past sins and failures here when he says he is forgetting that which is behind. But we can only do that if we rip these words from their context. The earlier part of the chapter is a rehearsal of Paul's accomplishments on a human level--that which was "to my gain" (Phil. 3:7). Indeed, Paul here says that he had been blameless as far as the righteousness that was in the Jewish Law (3:6). This comment debunks the all too common notion that Paul felt like a failure at keeping the Law before he became a Christian. On the contrary, Luke 18:9-14 probably is a better picture of the pre-Christian Paul.
It is also common to see Paul's comments in Philippians 3:12-14 as a basis for the idea that "I'm not perfect, just forgiven." Again, you have to ignore what Paul has been talking about to interpret it this way. The verse that precedes this passage is talking about resurrection. Paul is saying he is not yet absolutely guaranteed a place in the resurrection and thus, salvation. I don't think Paul ever had serious doubts or felt insecure--nor should we. But he reminds the Philippians that they must remain faithful to God even after He has graciously made us right with Him through Christ (cf. Phil. 3:9).
Paul ends the section in this way:
"Therefore, as many of us as are perfect [mature], let us have this attitude. And if you think differently on something, God will also reveal this fact to you. However, let us walk appropriately to that which we have already reached" (Phil. 3:15-16).
After Paul has mentioned perfection as something that will happen at the resurrection (Phil. 3:12), he refers to the Philippians as already perfect or complete in a sense (3:15). The mature attitude is for them to continue together on their journey toward salvation. God will reveal areas of growth. But far from saying, you will mess up continually on things you've already mastered, Paul says not to fall back on those things. Move forward without falling back from where you are.
How can we move forward toward salvation together?
There are any number of obvious answers. We can pray for each other (1 John 5:16). We can carry each others burdens (Gal. 6:2). We can confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). We can intercede for others that we see sinning and work for their reconciliation (James 5:19-20).
There are any number of enslavements we know of today that most often seem healed through the care of others. We hear testimonies of instantaneous healing from various addictions in the past. Is it our lack of faith that keeps us from seeing them today? Regardless, God seems to work often today through the body of Christ and through others to bring us to healing on various enslavements in our lives. We should not shun each other. The person who tries to be victorious over some temptation alone today is often someone who repeatedly fails. The Bible urges us to bear each other's burdens, and this can only take place if we share them with people we trust and to whom we can be accountable.
Many Protestants are also prone to ignore various "means of grace" that God has given the church as a way of experiencing His presence and strength. If communion is practiced correctly, we should feel an extra shot of God's power after we have received it and be invigorated by the "communion" with the rest of the church.
Prayer and devotions have become means of grace in our time. But we've forgotten things like fasting, hospitality, and confession. Some of these things we can do in private to find God's strength in our struggle against sin. But the Bible urges us not to forget the corporate ones as we work toward salvation. We should "not abandon meeting together, as is the habit of some, but we should [come together] to encourage each other"(Heb. 10:25).
We can celebrate the return of the small group in recent years. John Wesley organized small groups like these with a rigor we would feel uncomfortable about today. But the idea was exactly what we need to work out our salvation together, not as a group afraid or insecure, but secure and optimistic in the love of God for us. When we think that the Corinthian church may have only constituted a group of about 40-50 people, we realize that they were far more accountable to each other than many of us are in our churches today.
We probably should not close our discussion without some mention of corporate sin. The goal is of course for us to find ourselves before God as a "glorious church, without spot or wrinkle" (Eph. 5:27). But it seems unfathomable that we will ever find the church on earth to be entirely pure. There is a place for the church as a whole to confess its corporate sin, particularly those things that we have left undone.
Luke and Acts especially speak of salvation in terms of the restoration of God's people and the forgiveness of their sins. To be sure, Luke-Acts think of this salvation firstly in terms of the forgiveness of Israel's sins and the restoration of Israel (formulated on the Israel of that day). But we find in these books a model for the forgiveness of the church today as it moves toward ultimate salvation.
The church is also meant to be God's yeast in the world, changing it by God's grace to be more and more like Him. It will not always be possible in every time and place for us to have great impact on our worlds. At least it may not seem that we are. But God calls the church to go and to make disciples. Acts does not model a pessimistic view of the success we will have in this task. We must keep in mind that the church that wrote Revelation and 1 Peter was a suffering church. In some times and places God does not foresee the times getting worse and worse. In some periods of history God has used the church to make things better and better.
Friday, May 27, 2005
It is fairly clear in theory that the New Testament teaches that Christians are supposed to be consistently victorious over the temptation to sin. But even if we did not look any more at the New Testament, we would all affirm that this theory doesn't always make it to our practice.
1 John 2:1-2 powerfully attest to this fact:
"My children, I am writing these things to you so that you will not sin. And if someone should sin, we have an advocate with the Father: Jesus Christ the righteous one. And he himself is an atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only our sins, but even for the sins of the whole world."
Similarly, in the middle of Paul's presentation of the powerful truth of victory over slavery to sin, Paul writes,
"Do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies so that you obey its desires" (Rom. 6:12).
Willful sin remains a possibility for believers, even if they have the Spirit. While we should be free from the power sin can have over our mortal bodies, in a sense, the power of sin is only as far away as our bodies, just as victory over sin is only as far away as the Holy Spirit.
The Corinthian church provides us with a helpful, although unfortunate example of the fact that Christians can be torn between "flesh" and "spirit." On the one hand, Paul refers to the members of this church as "sanctified" (1 Cor. 1:2)--they belong to God and are set apart by the Spirit as His. They are the "temple of God," and "the Spirit of God dwells in you" (1 Cor. 16).
Yet at the same time, they were fleshly:
"I was not able to speak to you as to spiritual people but as to people made of flesh, babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink and not solid food, for you were not yet able. Even now you are not able [to stomach it]. For you are still fleshly" (1 Cor. 3:1-3).
While the Corinthians claimed to be spiritual, Paul makes it clear that they are not really.
What did their fleshliness look like? It looked like the deeds of the flesh Paul mentions in Galatians 5:19-21.
"You are still fleshly. For when there is jealousy and strife, are you not fleshly and walking on a human level?" (1 Cor. 3:3).
Here we have a sharp point of dissonance between where the Corinthians were and where they needed to be. Paul encourages them to "become what they are."
Again, we should not think of their fleshliness in terms of passing desires or of thoughts swirling around in their minds. 1 Corinthians is a testimony to the concrete ways in which jealousy and strife were showing themselves in the every day lives of the church.
Historically, various traditions have taken different approaches to the question of "becoming what you are" in Christ. Among those with an optimistic view of God's power over sin, some have still seen the Christian life as an endless struggle between a desire to sin and God's power over temptation (Keswick). John Wesley had some days of optimism, in which he taught a person could in God's timing deliver you even from an orientation toward sinning.<1> On his pessimistic days, he might see this moment just before death. Phoebe Palmer in the 1800's argued for a "shorter way." She saw God's removal of the bent toward sin as a matter of faith that a Christian might appropriate almost immediately after coming to Christ.
All these discussions go well beyond anything a New Testament author would recognize. Paul was dealing with someone who wanted to do good but couldn't, not with someone who could do good, but had a part that didn't want to. Nevertheless, these traditions bespeak a common truth: that God can make you consistently victorious over sin in this life and that He can even change a person's bent toward sin.
Some testify to an instantaneous moment when they experienced an empowerment over sin of immense proportions, a time when after long struggling with the desire for sin they were freed and empowered. Others would attest to a gradual empowerment over certain desires and struggles over time. Regardless of the path, the destination is clear--God can and wants to give us the power to defeat sin in our lives, whatever its form.
God will scarcely do this work for us unless we are a "fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ," to use a phrase made popular by Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church. The first step in power over sin is to surrender our lives as best we know how to God. Sure, new things will enter our lives--we will need to surrender those as they arise. And from time to time we might struggle again with things over which we had previously seen victory--we must surrender them again. But God will only "fill" those parts of our lives that we have made available to Him.
But ultimately, power over sin and an orientation toward righteousness is not something we can do in our own power. Becoming a "fully empowered follower of Jesus Christ" is only something God can do for us through His Holy Spirit. This is a matter of faith and, as we will see, usually involves God's church.
"Therefore, in the light of God's mercy, I urge you, brothers, to be presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice, well pleasing to God, your appropriate service of worship. And stop being conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind so that you can demonstrate what the will of God is, His good, pleasing, and perfect will" (Rom. 12:1-2).
<1> I am indebted to Dr. Chris Bounds of Indiana Wesleyan University for this breakdown of movements in the Wesleyan tradition.
An area of the New Testament's teaching that is greatly misunderstood is the place of sin in the life of a Christian. You will commonly hear Christians today say that a Christian cannot help but sin, that sin is part of what it is to be human.
In some senses of the word "sin," this sentiment is true. We will never be absolutely perfect in what we do. Take sins of omission, for example, most if not all of us from time to time will unintentionally fail to do things we should have done. Or take sins of ignorance: most if not all of us will unintentionally wrong others or fail to give God His due at some point or another. The Old Testament considers these kinds of wrongdoing sin and requires their atonement.
But for the most part, the New Testament is not referring to these types of sin when it ascribes blame. The New Testament almost exclusively is thinking of willful, intentional wrongdoing when it speaks of sin. I can honestly say that there is not a single passage in the New Testament that teaches a Christian cannot help but sin intentionally. The New Testament teaches that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23; 1 John 1:10) and thus that all of us have sin that we need Christ to cleanse (1 John 1:8). But it does not teach that Christians cannot help but do sin.
While the New Testament does not use the word "salvation" in reference to the power of sin, part of being in Christ is being saved from the power of sin over our lives, the power that makes it impossible to "do the good" we might want to do. One of the most important respects in which we can be saved today literally is being saved from the death grip of sin over our lives and the way we live. Paul puts it in this way:
"What will we say? Should we remain in sin so that grace might abound? Certainly not! How will we who have died to sin still live in it?" (Rom. 6:1).
"For when you were slaves of sin, you were free to righteousness..., but now that you have been set free from sin and enslaved to God, you have your fruit in holiness and the end result of it is eternal life" (Rom. 6:20, 22).
"For when we were in the flesh, the passions of sins aroused through the Law used to work in our members, so that we bore fruit to death, but now because we have died [with Christ] we have been released from the Law by which we used to be held so that we might serve in the newness of the Spirit..." (Rom. 7:5-6).
"There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:1-2).
"A wretched human am I! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Praise be to God! Through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 7:24-25).
Some will notice that I have given Paul's words both before and after a famous passage that is often quoted to say that Paul did not believe a Christian could ever keep from sinning. The broader context in Romans makes this popular reading impossible. When Paul says "the Law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold under sin" (Rom. 7:14), he cannot be talking about his current experience without contradicting his entire train of thought in Romans 6-8. He has already made it powerfully clear that Christians--including himself--are no longer "slaves of sin" but "have been freed" (Rom. 6:20, 22 above).
It is an atrocious and violent misreading of Paul to see Romans 7:13-24 as a testimony to Paul's failure at keeping the Law. If we read these verses in context rather than ripping them out of Romans, they are Paul explaining why a person under the Law is unable to do good even if he or she wants to.
But in Paul's thought, a Christian is no longer under the Law. These verses in Romans 7 thus depict a person who might want to do good, but who does not have the Spirit to enable them actually to do it. Such a person in Paul's thought is still "in the flesh," under the power of sin over human flesh. Such a person might say, "I find a rule in me--the one who wants to do the good--that bad is present in me" (Rom. 7:21).
It is a beginner's understanding of language that thinks the present tense always means present time. Let's say I am wanting to talk about what it is like to want to do good but not be able to do it. Although I try to do good, I can't because of the power sin has over me. This last sentence is in the present tense, but I was not talking about my current experience. I was talking in vivid terms about the person who is "in the flesh" rather than in the Spirit.
But Paul pleads for us to read on.
"Those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom. 8:8).
This is a somewhat difficult passage for us to get our minds around. Did Paul not write these words while he was in his body? The flesh for Paul must have something to do with our "mortal bodies" or else it is a strange word to use. We can think of the flesh for Paul as our bodies under the power of sin. To be under the power of sin for Paul primarily meant that we found ourselves helpless against tempation, we could not help but give into it and sin.
To be freed from the power of sin is thus to do the right, to "fulfill the righteous requirement of the law" (Rom. 8:4). Paul and other New Testament authors sum up the essence of the law as loving of our neighbors and enemies (e.g., Matt. 5:44, 48; 22:34-40; Rom. 13:8-10; James 2:8). Or in another place, Paul tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23).
In contrast the kinds of things that a Christian can be victorious over include: "sexual immorality, uncleanness, indecency, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, strife, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, divisiveness, factionalism, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things that are similar to these" (Gal. 5:19-21). Paul calls these the deeds of the flesh, and strongly affirms that if a person will "walk by the Spirit and you will never follow through with the desire of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16).
We find similar passages elsewhere in the New Testament that make it clear that a Christian should be victorious over temptation and not sin intentionally:
"No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to humanity. And God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are capable. But He will make with the temptation a way of escape so you are able to bear it" (1 Corinthians 10:13).
"Everyone who has been born of God does not practice sin, because God's seed remains in him. And he is not able to be sinning because he has been born of God" (1 John 3:9).
The New Testament authors thus taught that the norm for a Christian was to beat any temptation to sin that comes your way. Many debates have arisen over the particulars of this claim. Some have simply reinterpreted the words to mean something else--surely Paul could not have meant such a thing. Others have systematized and internalized Paul's words in ways that take them well beyond anything he was thinking. While we expect Christian thinkers to expand and re-appropriate the New Testament's teaching in our categories, we should remember the simple aspects of the New Testament's way of thinking.
Thus these authors were not talking about feelings or, really, even about attitudes or orientations as we conceptualize them. We have become very introspective in modern culture, and we think a lot about things that go on in our heads that never express themselves in concrete action or even become clear intentions. Feelings in themselves are neither good or bad; they just are. It's what we do with them that relates to sin--and whether they are moving in a certain direction over time.
But the power of sin for Paul referred to concrete action or concrete intention. He would not recognize our debates about whether God eradicates or suppresses a fleshly, carnal nature inside us. If we are victorious over sin, then we are freed from sin in his mind.
To be sure, we can sin intentionally and concretely in our heads as well. Thus the Sermon on the Mount indicts not just the person who has an affair, but the person who plans one out in his or her head. But Jesus was not likely referring to passing thoughts or feelings. The ancient mind just wasn't wired to focus in on such detail about our internal eddies of thought and emotion. As one contemporary proverb says, "You can't keep a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from making a nest in your hair."
Therefore, in theory, all Christians should be consistently victorious over temptation and should not sin intentionally and willfully.
Christians today often talk about when they got "saved." What they mean is when they "signed up" for salvation.
Romans 10:9 gives us a simple overview of how we can reserve our salvation on the Day of Judgment:
"If you confess with your mouth 'Jesus is Lord,' and have faith in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
The apostle Paul argued both with his fellow Jews and even some other Christians about how a person might be considered right with God. Some of his Jewish brothers thought that they had inherited acceptance with God because of God's relationship with Israel in the Old Testament. Paul disagreed:
"All [that is, both Jew and Gentile] have sinned and are lacking the glory of God [intended for humanity]."
Paul had been very diligent at keeping the Jewish law (cf. Phil. 3:6), so when he found out even he was not right with God, he concluded that no one could be right with God apart from Christ:
"We reckon that a person is considered right with God on the basis of faith apart from keeping the Jewish law" (Rom. 3:28).
This faith is a trust in what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. God considers those right with God "who have faith in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over because of our transgressions and was raised because of our justification" (Rom. 4:24-26).
Justification is a legal term that has to do with us being considered acceptable to God. If we think of a court scene, it is being acquitted of sin and being found "not guilty." God "justifies" us, declares us right with Him, if we trust in what he has done through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ. Further, we accept Jesus as the Lord of all, as we saw above in Romans 10:9.
Our faith in God and Christ thus brings about our justification:
"Therefore, since we have been justified on the basis of faith we have peace with God" (Rom. 5:1).
Acts 2:38 also speaks of repentance and baptism as a part of being reconciled to God:
"Repent and let each of you be baptized on the basis of the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
In this response of Peter to the Jewish crowds in Jerusalem, Acts gives us some other important pieces to the puzzle of signing up for salvation. We must turn toward God and away from those aspects of our lives that have been contrary to Him. Water baptism represents the cleansing of our sins and God's forgiveness.
But the most essential component of all in coming to Christ is God's part. After God justifies us on the basis of our faith in Him, His Holy Spirit enters our life and makes us officially His: "you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Paul says on this topic that "if someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not of Him" (Rom. 8:9). God is "the one who has sealed us [in ownership] and has given us the guaranteeing down payment of the Holy Spirit in our hearts" (2 Cor. 1:22). The Holy Spirit inside a Christian thus is the tell-tale sign of God's ownership of us. Spirit is the stuff of heaven, and the Holy Spirit inside us is a foretaste of glory divine.
Acts tells us that receiving the Holy Spirit involves a cleansing of the heart on the basis of faith (Acts 15:9). 2 Thessalonians 2:13 speaks of God choosing the Thessalonian church "for salvation by the sanctification of the Spirit and by trust in the truth." Sanctification means that something becomes holy--it comes to belong to God. You don't treat lightly something that belongs to a god.
The term holiness has as much of a feel to it as a definition. It is the godness or holiness of God that led the prophet Isaiah to fall on his face in Isaiah 6. It was the godness or holiness of God that led Israel to put to death any animal that happened to touch the mountain where God was speaking to Moses in Exodus 19. When 1 Peter 1:16 says "Be holy, because I am holy," it means to live in a manner that is worthy of the One to whom you belong.
If we think of sin as something that makes us dirty, the sanctification we experience when we become a Christian is like a cleansing, as we saw in Acts 15:9 above. Hebrews 9:14 tells us of the cleansing of our spirits that takes place as the sacrifice of Christ sanctifies and cleanses us of our past sins.
We can tie all these images together:
1. We "sign up" for salvation by placing our faith in what God has done for us in Christ, including Christ's sacrificial death and his victorious resurrection. By acknowledging Christ's resurrection we acknowledge him as Lord. In response, God justifies us and considers us right with Him, acquitted of our sins.
2. We must repent or turn from our sins if this faith in God is to be authentic.
3. We will be baptized in water as a demonstration of the cleansing God does inside us.
4. God will cleanse our "inside" by sending His Holy Spirit in our hearts. This sanctifies us or makes us God's possession.
As we will see, it also empowers us!
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
So in the most literal sense of salvation, we have not been saved yet, for the wrath of God has not yet come upon the world. Nevertheless, we can be saved from the power of sin even in this world.
In a very real and objective sense, salvation is already accomplished, for Christ has already atoned for sins. His sacrifice cannot be undone. Salvation is a "done deal." It will take place for the creation and those who are "in him."
Hebrews 10:14 captures this truth majestically:
"With one offering he has perfected forever those who become sanctified."
We must be very careful as we read this verse to hear it on Hebrews' terms and not on the terms of our current Christian traditions. In particular, Hebrews thinks of human "perfection" and "sanctification" (making holy, making God's) in reference to the initial cleansing event when a person appropriates Christ's sacrifice, things that happen when you first become a Christian (cf. Heb. 9:13-14; 10:1-2). More about these things to come.
Our interest at this point is the fact that Christ has already done it. Hebrews words this verse in a way that says the act that perfects and sanctifies us is already completed. The offering it mentions is the death of Jesus, his sacrifice for sins. Romans 3:25 puts it in this way:
"God in His faithfulness offered Jesus as an atoning sacrifice through His blood."
The idea of a sacrifice is somewhat foreign to us today, but it was part of daily life throughout the ancient world. To keep the gods from getting angry, ancient peoples offered them animals both to appease their potential anger and as a kind of substitute for themselves.
Does God really require blood sacrifices? It is common in many Christian circles today to say that because justice is intrinsic to God's nature, someone has to pay for the sins against Him that people have committed.
On the one hand, there is good biblical evidence that God has set up things this way:
"Nearly everything is cleansed by blood according to the Law, and apart from the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Heb. 9:22).
Yet God could probably declare forgiveness by a divine order if He wanted to do so. The Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant say nothing of someone having to pay. Those who represent God in these parables simply forgive by their command.
God thus chooses sacrifice because it teaches us about justice and about the judgment that awaits those who do not ultimately submit to His rule (Rom. 2:25-26). At the same time it demonstrates His great love for us in that God is willing to substitute His own Son for our reconciliation to Him (Rom. 5:8). For the first readers of the Bible, the idea of sacrifice and atonement was something they could understand and identify with immediately.
But with Christ, all sacrifice of this sort is now at an end. With one offering, atonement is accomplished. No amount of action or work on our part could secure what Christ did for us on the cross. It is strictly God's gracious willingness to count Christ's faithful death as atonement that effects our salvation:
"By grace you have been saved through your trust [in God], and this is not something of your instigation. It is the gift of God, not on the basis of your actions, so that no one can boast [about it]" (Eph. 2:8-9).
Ephesians' wording is careful--you are now in a saved state because you have trusted in what God has done through Christ. Although salvation is technically still a future event (cf. Eph. 1:13-14), your faith has secured your reservation. It's a done deal.
As Christians, we do not have to fear the future wrath of God, because Christ has atoned for sins. "We will be saved from wrath through his blood" (Rom. 5:9). As we will see, we are also freed from the power of sin as well through Christ:
"In his death, he died once and for all to sin; in his life, he lives to God. So also you also must reckon yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:10-11).
Salvation is a done deal. All we need to do is sign up for it.
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
1. What are we saved from?
Before we can talk about what the New Testament means by salvation, we must figure out what we are being saved from. If I were to ask most Christians to answer this question, I suspect the first answer they would give is “sin.” Salvation is when we are saved from our sins.
But what does that mean? Are my sins out to get me? Are they lurking just around the corner waiting to jump out at me? In a sense they are! But that is not usually what a person means when he or she speaks of being saved from sins.
What we more likely mean is that we want to be saved from the consequences of our sins. In at least one respect, our world today can identify with the idea that certain actions bring about horrible consequences. Someone has an affair and a marriage falls apart. We are startled to find our children with judgmental or hateful attitudes we have modeled in front of them. You do something in a moment of rage with consequences you never foresaw or would have wanted.
The Bible places actions like these into the context of our relationship with God and calls them sins. 1 John 5:17 has perhaps the simplest definition of sin in the Bible: “all wrongdoing is sin.” It is not hard to figure out what wrongdoing is in relation to others. In general, it is anything that is hurtful or harmful in some way. Such “sins” against others can be intentional or unintentional. It is particularly hurtful if I intentionally ignore my wife’s birthday. But I have still wronged her if I forget it unintentionally.
This last example also reflects the fact that I can both sin against others by things I do and by things I don’t do. We might call the first wrong a sin of commission--it is something I do. The second is a sin of omission--it is something I do not do.
Further, groups can sin, even beyond the actions of individuals. If I had been a German in Nazi Germany, I would feel some sense of guilt for the Holocaust, even if I had opposed Hitler and had not been a Nazi. How could we have sinned against God and humanity in this way? We can thus distinguish between individual sins and corporate sins. This particular kind of sin is difficult for us to identify with, given individualistic Western culture. Nevertheless, we must at least reckon with it as a part of biblical culture (e.g., 2 Kings 23:26-27; Josh. 7:24-25).
Once again, the Bible places these different types of wrongdoing into the context of our relationship with God and calls them sin. The Bible mentions all these types of sin. Here two examples:
"It is sin if someone knows to do good and does not do it" (James 4:17). James refers here to an individual, intentional sin of omission.
"But into the second room the high priest enters only once a year, and he does not enter without blood to offer on behalf of himself and the sins that the people have committed in ignorance" (Hebrews 9:7). Hebrews here refers both to individual and corporate sins that Israel had committed in ignorance.
But the worst sins of all are those that by their nature do not acknowledge God as God. I believe that most of these sins come from the fact that we do not even take God into account in our lives--a horrible thing when you reflect that God is the one who owns this world. Would we treat lightly or ignore someone who had the power to prosper or destroy us? Christianity believes that God is interested in how we honor or dishonor Him. While the Bible portrays Him as loving to extremes unheard of on earth, it also teaches He ultimately will destroy those who do not recognize His authority over the universe.
We find both positive and negative examples of what serving and sinning against God look like. Here are two examples:
"Everything you do--whether in word or in action--do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, while giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Col. 3:17). Here is a positive example of how we can properly serve God--by factoring Christ into everything we do.
On the other hand: "Whatever is not [done] on the basis of faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23). Paul here is talking about instances where Christians disagree on what is right or wrong. While you can be convincedly wrongly, Paul teaches that what is most important is that you act in good faith toward God.
So what might it mean then to be saved from our sins? There are two principal ways in which God saves us from our sins through Christ.
1. God can save us from the power of sin over our lives today in this world. We will be talking about this possibility later in our short account.
2. God will literally save us from His wrath on the Day of Judgment.
Most of the New Testament thinks of salvation in these future terms. Romans 1:18 points out that there is a day of wrath yet to come:
"The wrath of God from heaven is revealed against all ungodliness and wrongdoing of people who fight against the truth by their wrongdoing."
But the good news about Jesus Christ is that "God has not appointed us for wrath but to obtain salvation through our Lord, Jesus Christ" (1 Thess. 5:9). "Therefore, since we have now been deemed right with God by Jesus' blood, how much more will we be saved through him from wrath" (Rom. 5:9).
The New Testament has other ways of formulating salvation. For example, Luke and Acts focus on the restoration of God's people when they speak of coming salvation. However, our discussion will focus primarily on the matter of eternal salvation and will center itself in Paul's writings.
Sunday, May 22, 2005
If you want the Schenck summary, here's what I got out of it.
1. From Chris Bounds I learned that as long as we are to the "left" of the Keswicks, we're okay.
I mean "left" on his chart. If you don't know Bounds, his charts are to die for as a teacher. The rest of us watch his office closely when he is about to print some of them, then we all run in and photocopy them secretly before he comes to pick them up. Sometimes I wonder if he just lets them linger in the copy room to rub it in our faces--look what a better teacher I am than you all :>)
Then we secretly take them to our offices and study them. I have a special pile under my side desk for them. I study them so I can sound like I actually know what I'm talking about when I see Chris. "So Chris, I've been thinking a lot about Apollonarianism lately. Just how much of a heresy do you think it is?"
By the way, did I mention that he left for Russia today. So by the time he returns, this entry will be buried well beyond anything he's likely to read ;>)
Keswickians believe that we can be completely victorious over willful sin, but they believe it is a never ending struggle with our flesh. While we can be victorious over sin acts, we will never be free from our bent to sinning.
Bounds suggests that this position is not truly acceptable for an heir of Wesley. He suggests that a "Wesleyan" must believe that we can be free from the power of sin as well. Here he distinguished Phoebe Palmer's "shorter way" from what he called a "middle way" and what some of Palmer's day called a "longer way."
Palmer had a kind of "name it, claim it" approach to entire sanctification. Have it today. Wesley was sometimes more optimistic, sometimes less about when a person might have the experience. Bounds coined the phrase "middle way" of Wesley on his good days--the idea that you might have to wait some time after fully giving yourself to God before sanctification. The longer was is the idea that it might be just before death for most.
I could summarize Bounds' position as 1) definitely in this life and 2) sooner rather than later.
2. I personally culled from a couple other papers the idea that we need to take fully into account things like sins of omission, unintentional sins, and corporate sins/sanctification. These weren't main points of anyone or even main points of discussion, but it's my culling down of a bunch of stuff.
You can imagine that many things were said that were slightly off topic. Church membership is an important issue, but not exactly the topic of discussion. Next symposium they'll do ecclesiology. Isn't church membership what ecclesiology means?
There was a fine opening paper that left puzzled looks on the faces of many. Some wondered if he had simply reused an old paper that wasn't on topic, since he was supposed to talk about sin. What they didn't know is that they had pushed his buttons in the way they had assigned the topic, and he was doing it the "right" way.
He's a part of the trendy Trinitarian approach to theology that is all the rage. You can't start with humanity or the problem of sin, you have to start with God and the relationships between the Trinity. I've heard this approach used even with regard to husband-wife relationships--equal but with different roles. I just haven't decided yet whether my wife is the son or the Holy Spirit. Or maybe in some strange Freudian way I'm the son and she's the father?
On the other hand, I'll be using the word "capacious" a lot more than I was before.
3. Finally, a prominent pastor gave a helpful paper that suggested we should target the local church as the beach head of our Normandy invasion to reinfuse the church with holiness and holiness teaching. I agree.
He also argued that local pastors should become a Christian equivalent to Buddhist monks. I might note that he is probably the closest thing the Wesleyan Church has to a Buddhist monk :>) It will be a little more difficult for pastors without his personality and gifts, not to mention without a staff to free the pastor up for the requisite extended hours of prayer, spiritual discipline, and sermon preparation.
On the lighter side, I learned that pastors should be holy men. He is the first line of defense even though he is continually interrupted. He has to think on the run, shaped by the things he runs into. Several of us always tease about the way this pastor tends to tell everything from a guy's perspective. This one paragraph had fifteen "he's" in it :)
One funny moment was at a different point in the conference when the same pastor said we needed to write books not just for the universities but for the guy in the fourth row with his arm around some girl. I happened to be sitting next to a woman at the time and looked over to see a Cheshire grin on her face. He'd done it again.
"Of course, the girl might be able to read too," she said in low tones.
Well, no offence to any. If you were worried about the Wesleyan Church, worried that no one cared about holiness any more, worried that we didn't have anyone with a brain in our midst, don't worry... the future looks bright!
Final footnote: Mel Dieter is great. He was gracious enough to give us what he said would probably be his last major agreement to speak. He gave us precious memories that I hope someone is writing down.
Thursday, May 19, 2005
Last year I wrote a manuscript in a week to enlist in the annual June 15 deadline for the Westminster John Knox Presidential Award, a 10,000 dollar award for a book contract. Last year I submitted Who Decides What the Bible Means? I've mentioned it before. I think it currently sits in some abandoned pile at Abingdon in a morphed form. I haven't forged any contacts there so I'm not hopeful. Frankly, for all I know the letter fell out of some plane at 30,000 feet and has been sitting in a swamp somewhere since late January.
In the meantime, it's time to try to spin out something again. I have some other pressing commitments that will probably keep me from making this year's deadline. Last year I overnighted the manuscript on special arrangement with the Marion Post Office at 5:30pm the day before the deadline :>) What was the hurry, alas!
I probably have too many commitments to get something done by the 15th, although four weeks is more than enough time to write a book :>) In any case, I'm not going to blog the whole thing anyway, just a few starter excerpts. At least that's the plan.
In the meantime, my usual blockhead commentary on things I know nothing about will continue. I probably won't get around to it, but I thought about an entry today on the women in the military issue in the news. Here's my suggestion: Let's let any individual woman do anything that individual woman can do and any individual man do anything that individual man can do. I know it's complex and a stretch, but that's my suggestion.
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
It's all about power. Shall I complain that the Democrats are stopping the nominations? I don't know; it's built into the system. Shall I complain if the Republicans nuke the option? I don't know; it's built into the system. What bugs me as usual is the pious hypocrisy of individuals from both parties who know full well they'd do exactly the same thing if the shoe was on the other foot. Or maybe they all live in the usual political lala-land of self-deception.
Part of the problem is our post-modern acknowledgement that there really is no such thing as some Spock-like judge that makes decisions purely on the basis of some alleged "Constitution." Of course I could give out stupidhead awards to all the talking heads who are pretending that "their side" just interprets the Constitution and isn't idealogically affected.
And as usual, I don't feel like little old powerless me knows whether these judges are psychos or not. I am concerned if this Texas woman believes 1 Tim. 2:12 means women should not have authority over a man today--except as a judge of course. The UN appointee at least seems psycho, but I know that smear campaigns are very good at what they do. But who knows what these people would really be like?
I don't. Long live the surrealism and numb detachment of political observation...
Monday, May 16, 2005
I personally think flushing Qurans down the toilet is a bad policy. You know, ticks a bunch of people off that are already ticked off at us. I'm sure it would be tempting for a non-Muslim interrogator or guard to do at Guantanamo. After all, you might be thinking this book stood behind mass murder. Or maybe you would want to show a fundamentalist Muslim that their god doesn't care about them.
But it's a bad idea and a bad policy no matter what you think of the Quran. It disrespects a lot of peace loving Muslims who interpret the Quran to teach peace with others--people we want to be friends with. Frankly, I don't think Bush would agree with such actions (now Rumsfeld, I don't know...).
Did it happen? I don't know. I can certainly believe it happened. No one has come anywhere close to proving that it didn't happen. And Newsweek actually did send the article to the Defense department for pre-correction, but the Pentagon didn't mention the desecration of Quran stuff in their response.
As usual, what infuriates me is the hypocrisy among the talking heads, as if Newsweek is the one responsible for the bad image we have among the Muslim world. That's right. The Muslim world was fine with our invasion of Iraq, Abu Graib and all that stuff. But this Newsweek article? After it, all their good will is down the drain! Absolutely unbelievable.
Did Newsweek mess up? I bet they did. Could they have done a Dan Rather and not retracted the article? I suspect that, unlike him, they could have gotten away with not retracting it. It's a he said she said.
But my hunch is they did the honorable thing and retracted the article. Were they covering themselves? Probably that too. Of course it is also possible that they actually wanted to allay some of the world consequences of the article. And of course, someone might have been breathing down their neck.
By the way, the people rioting in Afghanistan are Karzai opposition who hated us anyway and are using the article as an excuse to foment opposition to Karzai. They didn't belong to the "Friends of the U.S. of A Society" until they got their Newsweek in the mail.
What now infuriates me is the talking heads--Scarborough, Fox News and Friends, the woman opposite Ron Reagan on MSNBC in the afternoons, who now speak of how Newsweek represents the "liberal elite" who just don't get it, are hurting our reputation with Muslims by printing lies that have no support in reality. These things seem a tad bit overstated and, hmm, just a little opportunistic and skewed. Or, maybe, they know they're overstating things, but just trying to help our image in the Muslim world. How helpful and global minded of them!
Maybe these things didn't happen. I hope they didn't. But I don't think anyone who thinks they might have is a liberal elite who doesn't get it.
In the end, it is good for the news people to be more circumspect in the evidence behind their stories. You shouldn't publish because you can believe something--not when the consequences are this big. That the media will be more careful in dotting their i's and crossing their t's is a good thing.
As for blogs, this remains the place for venting and feelings... Warning: I am not double checking my sources
Thursday, May 12, 2005
Her breakthrough came with the popular understanding of Romans 7. She came to believe that what was important was that she wanted to let go of hatred toward her mother, not that she was always able to "do the good I want to do." From then on she saw herself as another Christian who was "forgetting those things behind and reaching out to those things ahead, I pursue toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:13-14--she didn't actually mention this verse--I'm adding to the story).
Now I don't know her heart then and I don't know the rest of the story, whether she ever felt like she was able to forgive her mother. But I'm going to give her the benefit of the doubt that she really did want to forgive her mother but found it impossible to control her anger. In what follows I am not so much addressing her story as using what little I know of her story to discuss the question of sin in the life of a believer.
First I'd like to play the "modern" card in relation to 1 John 3:15. The original connotations of the verse had concrete associations with a specific "heretical" group that had split with John's community. They had withheld help and support from John's community when they had it to give (cf. 1 John 3:17). I would thus make two important distinctions between what 1 John was talking about and the situation of this woman:
1. 1 John is not talking about feelings. It is talking about concrete actions that the group could have done to help when they chose not to. If this woman felt serious anger toward her mother, but forced herself to do concretely what she believed was appropriate in relation to her mother, I believe she kept the command to love.
Further, I don't think this woman was a "murderer" in John's sense if she let her tongue slip at some point for which she then asked forgiveness. I don't think she was a "murderer" in John's sense if she didn't return phone calls for a week or two. I don't think she was a murderer in John's sense if she didn't visit for a while because she didn't want to see her mother. Did she sin? Maybe. But I don't think these are quite the sins of murder 1 John has in mind.
On the other hand, if a person would continue to refuse to ask forgiveness, or continue to refuse to answer phone calls out of hate and continue to ignore the person out of spite for a prolonged period of time, if you were to harbor resentment in your heart for years without doing anything about it, then I'm prepared to consider you a murderer in accordance with 1 John 3:17. The Bible gives no excuse to such a person. Such a person does not really even want to forgive or be reconciled. This person continues to sin wilfully after receiving a knowledge of the truth (co-opting the language of Hebrews 10:26 for a different context). If it persists, it seems to me there is a sin unto death in the making.
2. I don't think 1 John is addressing what might be a process of coming to forgive someone. I don't want to say that God can't or doesn't instantaneously enable people to forgive or do amazing things they could never do in their own power. But sometimes humans take time to heal, and I don't think that 1 John is talking about such a process either. In my opinion, the sin 1 John pictures is not the sin of a moment. It is a trajectory, an ongoing orientation involving concrete actions.
I have gotten off track a little. My above discussion turned somewhat into a question of when sin might reach such a pitch that it severs a person's relationship with God and Christ. But this whole series is not about how much you can sin. It's about how little a person might sin through God's power.
By the way, I hate the interpretation of Philippians 3 I mentioned above. In context, the things Paul is forgetting and leaving behind are not his failures, but things he might have considered gain from a human perspective (e.g., Phil. 3:7). Indeed, one of the things Paul is leaving behind is the fact that "according to the righteousness that is in the Law, [I was] blameless" (Phil. 3:6). Oops, there goes the false but all too prevalent misconception that Paul thought he was a horrible sinner before he came to Christ. Try the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 if you want to know what Paul thought about himself before he came to Christ.
Similarly, if people would pay even the slightest attention to what Paul has been talking about in the context, it is the resurrection that Paul has not yet attained (see 3:11, the verse right before). Paul has not been perfected in this sense--he has not yet been resurrected. He is not saying "I'm not perfect, just forgiven."
What is he pursuing to obtain? Again, it's the "upward call" (3:14), yet another reference to resurrection. In 3:15, he now plays on the words to say, "As many of us therefore [who are] perfect, think this way."
In short, this passage has nothing to do with the easy, "I'm a failure but God loves me" Zeitgeist of your neighborhood Christian bookstore. He's talking about qualifying for the resurrection because he remained faithful (see 1 Cor. 9:27).
But back to our subject. In the previous entries I have tried to sketch out the theory of victory over sin. We saw that John saw sin as incapatible with the very essence of who a Christian is. God seed is in you, so sin isn't what we should expect to see in your lifestyle. Similarly, Paul told us that Christians do not live "according to the flesh" and that they are not "enslaved to sin." "Those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom. 8:8).
Paul is not speaking in these passages of something he expects to happen to you in a second experience after you become a Christian. Take the following verses: "You are not in flesh, but in Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. And if someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person is not of him" (Rom. 8:9-10). In theory, all Christians are supposed to be free from the slavery of sin and living a life victorious over sin. In theory, no one who is a Christian is supposed to be "in the flesh."
Here is where we find the disconnect between theory and practice. In the end, Romans 7 would capture well the feeling of a lot of Christians out there. If all Christians were free from sin in practice, then Paul would not have to say, "Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires" (Rom. 6:12). Despite the theory, we nevertheless frequently find Christians giving in to their flesh.
Indeed, Paul places the problem Corinthians in this category: "I was not able to speak to you as spiritual, but as individuals made of flesh, as babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, for you were not yet able [to handle it]. But even now you are not able [to handle it], for you are still fleshly. For when strife and discord are among you, are you not fleshly and walking on a human level?" (1 Cor. 3:1-3).
Now I grew up with preaching that systematized these words. You start off the "natural man" of 1 Corinthians 2:14. Then you become a Christian, but as a baby Christian you are the "carnal man," the person in the flesh. Finally, at entire sanctification, you become the "spiritual man."
Paul gives us no such rigid system here. This is a classic pre-modern interpretation that imposes its traditional definitions on the text. The contrast between what the KJV called the natural man and the spiritual man in 2:14 is a distinction that probably came from the Corinthians themselves. They are calling themselves spiritual in contrast to people like Paul, whom they are calling "soulish" (the word behind the KJV's natural man). Paul then takes their terms and applies his own categories, namely, the contrast between the spiritual person and the fleshly or carnal person. In other words, Paul is not presenting a three stage progression. He is countering their two category system (soulish versus spiritual) with his own two category system (carnal versus spiritual).
Nevetheless, if we don't take these terms so rigidly, we have something like the preaching I grew up with. While in theory, you would expect all Christians to be spiritual rather than fleshly, we unfortunately find some Christians who are immature, Christian babies. These are "carnal" or "fleshly" Christians over whom sin still has power. The goal is of course to end this oxymoronic state of "carnal Christians," for Christians to "become what they are."
More on this idea in a moment. But first, we should ask whether the book of Acts entails exactly such an experience where one goes from being carnal to spiritual. We note right off the bat that Acts never uses these categories in this way. But the holiness tradition after Wesley, under the influence of Phoebe Palmer and the "John Fletcher" branch of Wesley's heirs, institutionalized a moment of "entire sanctification" in conjunction with the spirit fillings of the book of Acts. I can scarcely go too much farther before I discuss the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" in Acts.
We are at a difficult point today with regard to this way of viewing entire sanctification. You will hardly find any New Testament scholar who reads the spirit fillings of Acts in this way, even at institutions from the holiness tradition. You won't find anyone espousing this view who wasn't taught it by someone else. In other words, no one would come to this conclusion on the basis of the book of Acts itself--those who see it in Acts come to the text with this interpretation already in hand.
In the world of Luke-Acts, the Day of Pentecost is the arrival of the Spirit promised in Luke 3:16. In Luke-Acts, no one has received the Holy Spirit yet before Pentecost, for this is the very arrival of the Spirit in the Christian sense, the very fulfillment of the prophecy made by John the Baptist.
In Acts 19:1-7, Paul does not consider the water baptism of John sufficient to make a person a "Christian." He has certain individuals rebaptized in the name of Jesus even though they were already baptized by John. It is only then that they receive the Holy Spirit. These individuals are baptized in the name of Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit in one foul swoop.
Similarly, the Roman soldiers of Acts 10 have never believed on Christ before they receive the Holy Spirit in Acts 10. Indeed, they receive the Holy Spirit before they are baptized as Christians. We must again see them receiving the Spirit and becoming a Christian as associated experiences.
The Samaritans of Acts 8 are the only ones in Acts where we have the Spirit coming significantly after baptism, and Acts seems to treat the situation as unusual (cf. Acts 8:14-17). The disciples themselves have to go up to Samaria so they can receive the Holy Spirit.
We therefore are on flimsy ground to consider the disciples to be Christians already on the Day of Pentecost, even though they were baptized by John. According to Paul in his writings (e.g., Rom. 8:9; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5), a person cannot be a Christian without the Holy Spirit. In that sense, no one can technically be called a Christian until the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes for the first time in this way (unless you want to count Jesus' own baptism).
Some might want to bring in John here (John 20:22) and say that the disciples had received the initial coming of the Holy Spirit already. This is of course a pre-modern argument that doesn't read each gospel on its own terms. But if I have to play the pre-modern game, the text of John doesn't say that they actually received the Holy Spirit at that moment. I personally believe that this is a kind of symbolic allusion to Pentecost and that Jesus "breathing" on them does indeed symbolize them receiving the Spirit of Christ. Comparing John with the other gospels shows that it is kind of like the "New Living Translation" of Jesus, so we should not be surprised that John presents Pentecost somewhat allusively.
The key and programmatic verse on this subject in Acts is of course Acts 2:38: "Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." The first part is obviously about becoming a Christian, and the last part says nothing like "and after a while, after you die to self, you will have the experience of entire sanctification." The most natural way of reading the verse is to see all these items in association with becoming a Christian: 1) repentance, 2) baptism, 3) receiving the Holy Spirit.
In short, you will only find entire sanctification in any of these verses if you come to the text with it in hand. The term "the fulness of the Spirit" is a nice one that I actually like (more in a moment), but it is not a biblical term. Acts uses phrases like "receiving" the Spirit, the "baptism" of the Spirit, being "filled" with the Spirit interchangably.
So in what way can we speak of entire sanctification experientially? Let me start by recapping some of the conclusions I've already reached in this process:
1. The New Testament consistently considers sin incompatible with the nature of a Christian. In theory, a Christian should not sin or be under the flesh.
2. In practice, we often find Christians for whom #1 is not the case, even though it should be.
While we are now speaking logically and experientially, we can suggest that many Christians may find themselves at a point in their life where they sense they need to move to the next level in their spiritual pilgrimage. We know that despite the fact that Paul was not speaking of a Christian, many identify with his comment that "the good I want to do I don't do." Many Christians find themselves to struggle with matters of the flesh.
It is at these points that the language we have used in our tradition, while not exactly biblical, still makes sense.
Entire Sanctification: Of course every aspect of our lives has to be consigned to the realm of the holy. Everything in our lives needs to belong to our God. If you refuse to surrender everything to God, there will be a point where a "sin unto death" stands around the corner. God demands everything. If you don't eventually surrender, you have exposed the crucified Christ to public disgrace. God will not stand for it.
It makes sense to come to a point of commitment where you surrender everything to God. Logically, such surrender takes place at a point in time, even if you aren't aware of the exact moment. Wesley used the image of death. There is a time when you know a person is alive and a point when you know someone is dead. The exact moment of transition may be indiscernable.
Of course once we have said this, we recognize that new things come into our lives that have to be surrendered. Old issues that we had surrendered can resurface. Life is complicated.
Fulness of the Holy Spirit: While Acts only uses the image of being "filled" with the Holy Spirit, the image of being completely full--"the fulness"--works. If you are only half God's, then how could you be "full" of His Spirit? This language highlights something that our sense of "complete consecration" doesn't, namely, that ultimately being under the power of the Spirit is something that requires God's action. It is not something we can simply do by act of our will.
It is at this point that we can return to Paul's imagery of becoming a slave to righteousness and becoming free from the law of sin and death. I don't think Paul is setting down a process here, but he is giving us the goal. Whatever it might mean truly to be under the power of God's Spirit to where a person can fulfill the righteous requirement of the law--it must be something like what our tradition has called entire sanctification. And if the fulfilment of the law is love, then it must have looked something like what John Wesley called perfect love.
I entitled this series, "Why I believe in victory over sin" because that is what I think it all comes down to. I believe that a Christian can live consistently victorious over temptation. I believe that a Christian can be "perfect" in the sense of consistently "acting" both in thought and mind in accordance to that which you know to be the right or to avoid that which you know to be the wrong.
I further believe that God will change our attitudes as well. I believe that we can become more and more loving as time goes by in feeling as well as action. I believe that even our feelings and spontaneous reactions can become ever more Christ-like. The current pessimistic view of sin in the life of believer simply isn't biblical--and it doesn't show much confidence in the power of God either.
I believe in victory over temptation and sin.
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
Although Paul can say that "those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom. 8:8), it is clear enough that there is a connection between physical flesh and Paul's use of this word. Otherwise, why would Paul use it? There is an overlap on some level between our mortal bodies, our flesh, and our "members" as Paul talks about them. On the other hand, there is a point in Paul's argument where flesh becomes a metaphor for "bodies under the power of sin," and of this a person can be free.
As far as I can tell, the idea of a sinful nature is an Augustinian invention. And in holiness circles it eventually gave rise to questions over whether the sinful nature could be "eradicated" or whether it was only "suppressed" in an experience we call "entire sanctification." If indeed the whole "nature" discussion is slightly misleading, then it may very well be that this entire discussion is a bit of a rabbit trail.
Sin for Paul was more a power than a nature. It may work on my members and on my physical flesh, but Paul can also talk about it in distinction from my members and my flesh.
Let's hone in on what Paul understood "the flesh" to be, remembering that God inspired him to speak within the categories of his own ancient worldview. To give an example, we should not be surprised or troubled that Paul could speak of being caught up to the "third heaven," as if you went straight up through three layers of sky to God (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2). After all, that's the way many Jews in Paul's day pictured the universe. Why wouldn't God speak to Paul in the categories he understood?
Similarly, we should not be surprised that the truth of Paul's message comes to us in the garp of not a little ancient psychology. It is as inappropriate to build a precise human psychology off of Paul as it is to contruct a precise picture of the cosmos from his words. After all, Paul's imagery of human psychology is different from Genesis and other parts of the Bible that come from other periods of history when even different pictures of human psychology were in play. For example, "soul" in Genesis refers to the entirety of a living being (including the sea creatures of Genesis 1). These were not the points of inspiration God was making but the "clothing" in which He was revealing His message to people with particular worldviews, meeting them where they were at in their own categories.
The starting point for understanding what Paul means by "the flesh" is clearly our physical bodies. A careful examination of the comments Paul makes throughout his writings reflects a sense that what we think of as the physical world--including our physical bodies--is subject to the powers of sin. Paul thus says in Romans 8:20:
"For the creation was subjected to futility, not willfully but in hope, because of the One subjecting it. Because even the creation itself will be freed from the slavery of corruption to the freedom of the glory of the children of God."
Part of the subjection of the creation to the slavery of corruption is the subjection of the elements of the world to the power of sin. Paul alludes to this power sin has over the elements in Galatians 4:3-5:
"We, when we were infants, had been enslaved under the elements of the world. But when the fulness of time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those under the Law, in order that we might receive the adoption."
Again, I do not fully understand what Paul is thinking here. But he connects the power of sin by way of the Law to the physical nature of the universe, the elements of the world. The antidote is the Spirit. Paul continues:
"But because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts crying, 'Abba,' [which means] Father" (Gal. 4:6)
As a side note, Paul is not talking about a second work of grace here. The most fundamental use of Spirit for Paul is in the very entrance into sonship. As he says in Romans 8:9: "If someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this one is not of him." One of the most unfortunate misunderstandings I had as a child was my impression that we first receive the Holy Spirit at entire sanctification. This of course is not what the Wesleyan Church actually teaches, since the Wesleyan Church teaches that we initially receive the Holy Spirit at the time of "initial sanctification" when we first come to Christ.
But it seems to me that the holiness tradition has historically focused so much on our concept of the "fulness" of the Spirit in entire sanctification that we sometimes fail to hear the way Paul talks about the Spirit. Paul sees the Holy Spirit as the very threshhold of becoming a Christian, the "seal" of God's ownership (2 Cor. 1:22) and the downpayment and guarantee of our heavenly destiny (2 Cor. 5:5). This is one aspect of our teaching that I think has tended to be somewhat out of biblical focus.
If my body is subject to the power of sin through the commandments of the Law, the Holy Spirit is the "stuff of heaven" inside of me that frees me from this power and enslaves me to righteousness. This is a kind of "sanctification," as 2 Thessalonians 2:13 speaks of how God chose the Thessalonians for salvation "by the sanctification of the Spirit and by faith in the truth" (I should note that Paul is talking about the Thessalonian church collectively here).
Paul can use sanctification language not only in reference to the event of coming to Christ, as in this verse, but he can speak of the carnal, fleshly Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:2) and even of non-Christian spouses who are married to believers (1 Cor. 7:14) as "sanctified." If we remain true to the biblical text, we will have to find a way to define sanctification so that it accommodates passages like these.
Sanctification refers primarily to becoming associated with a god and thus becoming holy, dedicated and belonging to a deity. The temple prostitutes of pagan gods were thus considered holy to those gods. The term has as much of a "feel" to it as a logical meaning. I think of something that is radioactive and that you approach it with caution. Or think of how careful you would be around a bully or abusive person's stuff. There is an aura around it that makes you careful and cautious.
How much more so with God! The holiness of God led Isaiah to fall on his face in Isaiah 6. The holiness of Mt. Sinai meant that animals that wandered onto it had to be stoned. When we are in association with the Holy Spirit, there is a God-ness about us that means something, not least a freedom from the power that is in conflict with the Spirit, namely, the power of sin.
The sanctification of an unbelieving spouse or of the children of such a marriage is thus more than some banal influence on them. It is a "spiritual zone" around the believer that actually makes it more likely that the spouse and children will come to Christ and that they will be less under the power of sin--even if they are not saved in the end (1 Cor. 7:14).
The Corinthians, as carnal as they are, are still in the "spiritual zone" that is the church at Corinth. They are the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16). There is an uncleanness that is contagious as well, and Paul commands the man sleeping with his step-mother be cast out of the church at delivered back to the world, where Satan is in control (1 Cor. 5:5). There his flesh will again come under the power of Satan. But Paul hopes that his spirit might turn around and eventually be saved as a result.
Paul can also speak of a kind of "entire sanctification" when he prays that the Thessalonians' whole spirit, soul, and body might be sanctified (1 Thess. 5:23). Of course the "you" is plural here. Paul is not presenting some individualistic or standardized experience in this verse.
But I think it is legitimate for us to connect the dots as John Wesley did. These passages do not seem to institutionalize a definite, instantaneous experience subsequent to coming to faith. But they connect sanctification to being possessed of God's Spirit and they imply that such a person is not a slave to sin. In the next entry we'll talk about how this sets us up to urge Christians toward the sanctification of their entire being, in connection with not being in the flesh. We can still preach entire sanctification as the logical conclusion of Paul's theology even if he did not formulate it precisely in the terms our tradition has used in the past.
But before moving on to consider how this theology might play itself out in Christian experience today, I must finish discussing how Paul views flesh.
It is clear that a person's literal flesh for Paul is that part of us that is most susceptible to the power of sin and Satan. The law is also the power of sin as it seems to exacerbate the human tendency to sin (1 Cor. 15:56).
By contrast, the Spirit is the antidote to the flesh. The law of the Spirit sets us free from the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2). Through the Spirit we can fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law (Rom. 8:4), which is love (Rom. 13:10). Such a person is led by the Spirit, not by the flesh (Gal. 5:16; Rom. 8:9). We can even say, somewhat metaphorically, that such a person is no longer "in the flesh," for those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom. 8:8).
Clearly a person's ability to live above sin and tempation is linked to the presence of the Spirit in their lives. At the same time, we will always have our mortal bodies with us as well until the resurrection. In that sense, the "flesh" is only as far away as our bodies, just as righteousness is only as far away as the Holy Spirit. Again, there is great potential for something like our doctrine of entire sanctification in these observations.
Of course we might use different imagery if we were to express these truths in our current worldview. We at least think we know a great deal about the brain, for example. While desires may not be limited to chemical reactions in my brain, no one today could deny that such biochemical processes are a major part of desires and choices. A colleague of mine in the psychology department tells me that it might be possible to stimulate certain parts of the frontal lobe to where a person would feel they were experiencing God. He does not deny that God actually interacts with us, only that there is a physical dimension to religious experiences in our brains.
I am willing to say that when God's Spirit takes hold of us, He actually changes the structure of our minds physically. These are not areas of my expertise, so I'll leave these musings to Christian doctors and psychologists.
My point is biblical. Paul believes that the Holy Spirit empowers us to be victorious over sin and temptation. The default human state is to be "in the flesh," a situation in which a person cannot do the good even if they want to do it. In the next entry I want to discuss what kind of a theology of experience we might build out of these building blocks from Paul.
Monday, May 09, 2005
And while many are proud to say that they attend "non-denominational" churches, these churches are really specimens of a Baptistified American Christian tradition. They are not Catholic; they are not Methodist; they are a Baptist base with a few modifications from other traditions. I would strongly disagree with the false impression that they are free of the denominational divides over theology from earlier days. They are simply a congregational "denomination" whose connections are cultural and theological rather than structural. The Message as a "translation" and The Purpose Driven Life as a catechism give us a lovely snapshot of the status quo in the non-denominational denomination of which I speak. David and John Drury have a great unpublished article on The Purpose Driven Life as the current catechism of American evangelical Christianity (see www.drurywriting.com/david).
By the way, I had to laugh recently after reading a quote from the Message. I thought "That's an interesting verse. Where is that in the Bible?" It was a verse from Ephesians and what was funny is that I had just taught a course on Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Frankly, I think Paul would have the same reaction to the Message--That's interesting, who said that? It is the most culturally driven translation I know of.
I might add as a footnote that we and other groups have had some influence on the Baptist tradition as well. Most Baptists believe in free will and in the possibility of knowing you are "saved." These are not natural Baptist elements--they are foreign elements that actually remove the philosophical foundations of what they now call "eternal security," something distinct from the original "perseverence of the saints." These changes reflect the influence of Arminian traditions on the Baptist tradition. Similarly, I wonder if the Lutheran influence in relation to the faith/works debate has led to the general sense that "all sins are the same" and "I'm not perfect just forgiven."
It is this last part of the "Christian bookstore meltdown" that I want to address. I find even Wesleyan pastors who base their understanding of sin in the life of a believer on Romans 7:15: "What I want to do I don't do, but what I hate, that I do." I believe the reason this sentiment has won the day in American Christianity is because it resonates with our experience to the very core. This verse is how most American Christians feel. I want to do the right thing, but it just seems like I'm always doing exactly the opposite of what I want to do. I just always feel like a failure at doing the things that please God.
Now I personally don't feel that way about myself really. And I don't say that because I want to be the poster child for moral victory. I'm telling you this because what I did at the end of the last paragraph is exactly what Paul does in Romans 7:7-25--he is putting himself in the shoes of the person under the Law who wants to keep the Law but is unable because of the power of sin. He is not talking about his own current struggle to be victorious over sin or about some ongoing defeatism in the Christian life over sin. But in our pre-modern glory, our tendency is to read verses in isolation from their context as bumper stickers and memory verses. To do so in this case would be to misunderstand Paul, indeed to make the text say the opposite of the point Paul was actually trying to make.
This is an atrocious misreading of Paul!!! It requires us to rip these words from a sustained argument Paul is making against being a slave to sin and in explanation of the role the Law used to play before the coming of Christ. It results in reading Paul's words in a way diametrically opposed to his actual argument. Whether we can live up to Paul's theology is a different question, but what Paul was saying in this regard is overwhelmingly clear in the overall context of Romans 6-8.
To understand the section 7:7-25, we must go back to Romans 6 and even before. Paul's style in Romans is to make a point and then ask questions about that point either to bolster his point or to make sure his audience does not misunderstand him or draw the wrong conclusions from the point. In this case, Paul has made the comment that "where sin was abundant, grace was superabundant" (5:20). Paul knew what people were accusing him of. They were saying he taught, "Let us do evil things so that good things will come" (3:8).
Paul heads this objection off at the pass. "What will we say, therefore? Should we sin so that grace might be abundant? God forbid. How will we who have died to sin still live in it?" (6:1-2). Paul dedicates the rest of chapters 6 and 7 to this issue and the matter of where the Jewish Law plays into it all. From this comment alone we can see what Paul's position on this issue is. There is no ambiguity. Those who have died to sin should not continue to sin. If you conclude that Paul sees sin as the norm of a Christian's life, you have a lot of explaining to do.
I have been amazed at how difficult it is for some to accept that this is in fact what Paul is saying. I have had online students explore the contrast in Romans 6 between being a slave to sin and being a slave to righteousness. I inevitably have several who will conclude something like, "While Paul seems to say in these verses that a Christian is no longer a slave to sin, we know from Romans 7:7ff that he can't really mean this." Poppycock. If we are to conclude differently, we must do it in theology or experience class. Paul himself will have none of it. "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free [past tense, something that should already have happened] from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:1).
Again, Paul's meaning in Romans 6 is not ambiguous in the slightest:
"For when you were [past tense] slaves of sin, you were free to righteousness... But now [present] that you have been freed [past tense] from sin and enslaved to God [past tense] you have [present tense] the fruit unto holiness, and [in] the end [you will have] eternal life" (Rom. 6:20, 22).
Paul is clearly talking about actions. He uses the word "fruit" in this passage in reference to how you live (cf. the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians). In 6:12 he has clearly connected the discussion to lifestyle when he says, "Do not let sin rule in your mortal body with the result that you obey its desires." In short, this chapter is no Lutheran "legal fiction" where God considers us righteous even though we are really still sinners through and through. This passage is about the rule of forces in a person's manner of living. The person enslaved to sin presents their members "to sin as instruments of unrighteousness" (6:13). The person enslaved to God presents their members "to God as instruments of righteousness."
There is not the slightest ambiguity in Paul's thought here. Christians should not be slaves to sin and thereby producing unrighteousness in their lives. Christians should be slaves to righteousness and producing a holy fruit in their lives. If you think Paul sees sin as the norm of a Christian's life, you have a lot of explaining to do.
Chapter 7 continues this theme, this time discussing the role of the Law in the equation. This was a sore point because Paul seemed to be bucking the Old Testament when he told people they were not under the Jewish Law. He seemed to be throwing away the very covenant between God and Israel that stood at the heart of the OT. This was one of the main reasons Paul wrote Romans, to assure the Roman Christians that he in fact believed that God remained righteous both in relation to Israel and the world: "I am not ashamed of the gospel... in it the righteousness of God is revealed..." (Rom. 1:16-17).
The place of the Law in Paul's theology is a difficult issue for me and many others to nail down. I feel like Luther's attempt to see it strictly in legal terms--a standard that God simply doesn't use any more--was a noble failure. In contrast, in some way I don't fully understand, Paul saw the law as a catalyst for sin's power. As he says in 1 Corinthians 15:56, "Sin is the sting of death, and the Law is the power of sin." I don't quite know how it all works, but not to be "under the law" for Paul means that in some way sin no longer has power over you the way it did before (cf. Rom. 6:14). It is not just a matter of legality. For Paul it involves a very real freedom from the power of sin that had been exacerbated by the Law.
Paul begins Romans 7 with the claim that people are only under the law as long as they are alive. Since we have died with Christ, we are no longer under the Law. But the verses of most interest to us are Romans 7:5-6, which repeat the same things Paul has already said in Romans 6:
"For when we were [past tense] in the flesh, the passions of sins through the Law were working [past tense] in our members, with the result that we bore fruit to death.
"But now [present] we have been set free from the law [past tense] by which we were being held [past tense], having died, with the result that we serve in newness of Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter"
Again, Paul is talking about actions, not about some theological fiction. We (including Paul) were in the flesh, and the power of sin worked through the Law in some way that led to sinful actions. But now that we are not under the Law, sin does not hold this power over our members, and we can now serve in newness of Spirit. Once again, if you think Paul sees sin as the norm of a Christian's life, you have a lot of explaining to do.
These verses are key to understanding Romans 7:7-25, for this passage expands on the concept of the first verse: "When we were in the flesh, the passions of sins through the Law were working in our members, with the result that we bore fruit to death." Paul answers two questions.
Question 1: "Is the Law sin?" (7:7). Paul, are you saying that the Law is actually evil? No. Paul explains that the law itself "is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good" (7:12). Rather sin took [past tense] opportunity through the commandment to bring about all kinds of desires (7:8).
As a footnote, I'm taking Paul slightly out of context in the way I'm presenting his thought here. Paul believed that he and the Romans lived at the turning of the ages, in the fulness of time (Gal. 4:4-5). There was a sense in which the world ceased to be "under the Law" when Christ came in the fulness of time. We might want to factor this element into our equation in the next entry.
Question 2: "Did the good [the Law] become [past tense] death to me?" (7:13). No. "But sin, in order that it might appear as sin, was working death through the good [the Law] in order that sin might become incredibly sinful through the commandment" (7:13). We note again that this entire discussion has taken place in the past tense. Paul is speaking of what was true of a Jew in particular ("those who know the Law" 7:1) before Christ.
We now enter the debated zone, 7:14-24.
"For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, having been sold under sin" (7:14).
It is true that Paul was in flesh when he wrote these words, for he was in his body. But Paul cannot mean that he is currently "sold under sin" unless everything he has said up to this point was a lie, a farse.
To be "sold under sin" is an equivalent phrase to being a "slave to sin." Paul has clearly identified this state to the period before a person comes to Christ. Let's review:
"When you were slaves of sin... But now since you have been freed from sin..." (6:20, 22). This verse clearly locates being sold under sin as a condition prior to Christianity.
"When we were in the flesh, the passions of sins used to work in our members bearing fruit to death, but now we are released from the Law..." (7:5-6). Again, this verse clearly locates being in the flesh to the time before we died with Christ.
How about the verse right before 7:14: "Did the good [the Law] become death to me?" Again, Paul is talking about something true of their past.
Let's move forward and look to the end of Paul's argument, after he has finished the verses of 7:14-24: "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you [past tense] from the law of sin and death..." (8:2).
I give up if you still think Paul is talking about his current experience after such clear indicators from the context. Anyone who still wants to see 7:14 as a statement of Paul's current experience clearly doesn't care about what Paul was actually trying to say. They're only interested in reinforcing what they already believe.
Paul's statement in 7:14, as well as in 7:25, is a description of the default human state: "sold under sin." Before Christ, a Jew might have wanted to keep the Jewish law, but because the Spirit was not in force, they would have been unable to do so. Such a person might have said something like 7:25: "With my mind I serve the Law of God, but with my flesh the Law of sin." Since Paul goes on in 8:2 to say we are free from the law of sin and death, 7:25 cannot be a statement of Paul's current experience or the default state of a Christian. Paul is speaking of the person without the Spirit who wants to keep the Jewish Law but is unable to do so because of their flesh, something 7:5-6 and 8:8 tell us Christians are not "in."
Such a person might say something like 7:15: "I do not practice what I want, but I do what I hate." The reason is exactly what Paul has been saying throughout this whole section. Sin is taking opportunity through the commandment (e.g., 7:8, 11). Remember that he was speaking past tense then. Also here he is putting himself into that person's shoes: "I see a different law in my members, striving against the Law of my mind and warring against me by the Law of sin which is in my members" (7:23).
Again, Paul has already spoken several times of this working in my members in the past tense (e.g., 7:5). I am so tired of the response, "But Paul is speaking in the present tense." Yes, but it is a beginner's perspective on language to conclude that the present tense always means present time. I used the present tense above to make a theological point that was not true of my current experience. Take one joke introduction, "A man walks up to you and says..." No one thinks the speaker is talking about something that is happening right then. This is not a good argument at all, especially if you pay any attention at all to Paul's train of thought everywhere in this unit!
Notice the fevered pitch he reaches in his dramatic portrayal of the person who wants to keep the Law but is a slave to sin: "A wretched man am I! Who will rescue me from the body of this death?"
So many stop here. Paul is begging you today to go on to the resolution: "Thanks be to God! Through Jesus Christ our Lord [I am freed from the body of this death]."
Romans 8 begins with the victory song over the accomplishment of the "impossibility" of Romans 7:14-24: "There is therefore now no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus [the person in 7:14-24 was not in Christ Jesus], for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death [that we were just talking about]." The festivities continue: "The impossibility of the Law in that it was weak because of the flesh... God condemned this sin in the flesh" (8:3).
In fact, now "the righteous requirement of the Law may be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh, but according to Spirit" (8:4). Walking is the Jewish way of talking about ethics--how you live. This is no theological fiction where the Christian is like Luther's dictum: "At the same time sinner and righteous as long as you're always repenting." Hogwash! Paul's meaning is not ambigous in the slightest about the appropriateness of sin in the life of a believer. In the end, "those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (8:8).
So what is Paul's position on sin in the life of a believer. It really isn't that hard of a question. He answered it way back in Romans 6:15: "Should we sin, because we are not under Law but under grace? No, what are you crazy?" (the last line's a Schenck paraphrase).
Now I know that we must take experience into account and after I have spelled out what Paul has said here, we still have to work out a practical theology of sin. But the theory seems pretty clear. I remain dumbfounded at the prevailing popular interpretation of Romans 7 with all its defeatism.
In short, Paul has no theology that expects sin to typify the life of a believer. In the next entry, we'll discuss what we might do today with Paul's concept of flesh, especially in view of the "sin nature" arguments of later centuries...