Sunday, February 15, 2015

S8. The power of the Spirit breaks the power of Sin.

This is the eighth post in a unit on salvation in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first section had to do with God and Creation, and I have also finished units on Christology and Atonement.
The power of the Spirit breaks the power of Sin.

1. "Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ... and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God" (Rom. 5:1-2). By his grace, God has initiated the possibility that we can be reconciled to him. He sent his Son to die on the cross for sins. He sought us out in his prevenient grace when we were not looking for him.

He brought us to the possibility of repentance and faith. Then when we put our faith in the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, We trusted in his faithful death. God gave us the Holy Spirit as a down payment of a glory yet to come, a guarantee of our coming inheritance, a seal of his ownership of us. He forgave us of past sins. He justified us, putting us in a right relationship with him. He adopted us as his children.

He purified us of our uncleanness. He sanctified us through his Spirit, setting us apart as his own. He regenerated us to new life. He made a new creation. We were born again.

We are now "in Christ," just as Christ is in us. We have been crucified with Christ. Now we live in the life of the risen Christ. We are at peace with God. We have hope of the resurrection and finally receiving the glory God originally intended for humanity to have in the creation.

2. Paul's opponents in the early church did not make a distinction between those parts of the Jewish Law that were "moral" and those that might be considered "ceremonial." In fact, Paul himself did not explicitly divide up the Law in this way. However, Paul did seem to distinguish between parts of the Jewish Law that were specifically for Jews and parts that were more universal in scope. These parts correspond roughly to the later Christian distinction between the "ceremonial" and "moral" parts of the Law. [1]

So for Paul's opponents, he seemed to be encouraging sin when he told Gentile believers that they were not bound by "works of Law." He records one of the rumors about him. He is accused of saying, "Let us do evil so that good may come" (Rom. 3:8). Romans 6-8 is more or less a defense against this charge.

"What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?" (Rom. 6:1-2). Here Paul is not talking about the parts of the Law that are specifically for Jews but what we might call today the "moral" parts of the Law, the universal parts. When we were raised with Christ, we were raised to "newness of life" (Rom. 6:4).

Accordingly, we must not "let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions" (Rom. 6:12). Since Paul talks about not obeying Sin, he clearly is not talking about some legal situation. That is, he is not saying that God considers us to be righteous because of Jesus, even though we are not really living righteously. Paul is clearly talking about how we live, a real change in our lives.

"Just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification" (Rom. 6:19). Again, Paul is talking about real life consequences that come from the Spirit inside us. Romans 12:1-2 draws out the ethical implications of the entire first eleven chapters of Romans: "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice... Do not be conformed to this world."

3. The Holy Spirit thus empowers a Christian to live a life that is not characterized by sin. "Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them" (1 John 3:9). That is not to say that it is impossible for believers to sin (1 John 2:1). Indeed, much of 1 Corinthians is directed at Corinthians who continue to sin even though they should not. "I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ... for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?" (1 Cor. 3:1, 3).

However, sinning and giving into temptation should not be the norm for a Christian. "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength" (1 Cor. 10:13).

It is popular to see Romans 7:14-25 as the ongoing struggle of a believer with temptation and sin. However, the context in Romans 6 and 8, not to mention the first part of Romans 7, make it clear that Paul is not talking about the Christian in these verses but about a person who wants to keep the moral part of the Law but does not yet have the power of the Spirit to do so. Romans 8 gives the conclusion: "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death" (8:2).

4. John Wesley systematized these scattered dynamics of the New Testament into what he considered to be the normal storyline of a Christian, what he and others called the ordo salutis, the "order of salvation." God's prevenient grace leads to his convicting grace. Conviction is when the Holy Spirit convinces you that you need God's forgiveness. When we then repent and put our faith in Christ, we experience God's justifying grace. He then purifies us of sin and imparts true righteousness to us by his sanctifying grace. [2]

The Wesleyan tradition has historically distinguished between initial sanctification, progressive sanctification, and entire sanctification. While sanctification is a biblical term, these gradations are based upon the logical implications of the biblical text. That is to say, these are not exactly biblical terms themselves.

Initial Sanctification
Sanctification in the New Testament is when a person is purified from the stain of sin and set apart as God's. In theology, however, sanctification refers to the actual impartation of righteousness. At conversion, Wesley taught, a person is empowered to be victorious over Sin and temptation. A person will likely continue to struggle with temptation, Wesley taught, but they should largely be victorious over it. "Initial" sanctification thus refers to this initial cleansing from the sin acts of the past and the power in our lives by the Spirit to overcome the power of Sin. [3]

The power of Sin is the default force in this world that pulls humanity toward sin. Wesley, following Calvin and Augustine, thought of the power of Sin in terms of a sin nature inside us, the default tendency of humanity to commit acts of sin because of a nature we have inherited from Adam. In a previous article, we argued that Paul thought of this dynamic more as a power over the creation than nature inside us.

Although Wesley formulated his ideas in his own theological categories, we can see his idea of initial sanctification as a logical extension of the biblical text. A Christian may struggle with temptation after he or she receives the Spirit. But God has forgiven them of past sin acts. God has cleansed them of the stain of past sins. God gives them the power to live a life in which Sin does not rule over their actions.

Progressive Sanctification
Wesley believed that a Christian would continue to grow in righteousness. If a believer continues to struggle in various areas when they first believe, over time they should fall into temptation less and less. The person should continue to grow.

We saw in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 above that some believers remained "in the flesh" even after they became Christians. They were like babies and needed to grow up. Some of the New Testament is dedicated to this strange problem. How can a person continue to sin after they have God's Spirit within them.

Wesley thus was playing out logically and systematically what the biblical text says here and there about the need for believers to become more and more victorious over temptation as they progress through the Christian life. By "progressive sanctification," Wesley referred to the continued growth of a believer after conversion and the fact that it should become easier and easier to fight temptations to sin the longer a person is in Christ.

Entire Sanctification
This process of sanctification, Wesley believed, should climax in a moment of "entire" sanctification. This moment in an individual's salvation story is the one that requires the most logical and experiential construction beyond what the biblical text. Wesley himself referred to this moment in the life of a believer as achieving Christian perfection, drawing on passages like Matthew 5:48 and Hebrews 6:1. [3]

The wording of "entire" sanctification comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:23: "May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." Paul here of course was speaking informally. He was not speaking of a systematic doctrine or of a crisis experience in this verse. He was speaking, first, to the entire community more than to each person as an individual. He was speaking of his hope that there would be no sin at all among them--that any sin would be removed--as well as that the community would remain spotless until the point of Christ's return.

But Wesley and the Wesleyan tradition systematized these elements. Wesley believed that a Christian would come to another moment of crisis, even after conversion. A person would experience God's convicting grace again, this time of the fact that the power of Sin still had some power in one's life, even if it was not often victorious. A person would be aware of the sin nature within. This would lead to repentance and faith again, this time to experience a moment of entire sanctification. Wesley characterized this state as one of perfect love, of 1) loving God with all one's heart, mind, soul, and strength and 2) loving our neighbor as oneself (e.g., Matt. 22:34-40).

While there is no systematic statement like Wesley's in the Bible, we can see that the components are there and that we can construct such an event logically and experientially. We regularly find Christians who are still "fleshly" or carnal in the manner of 1 Corinthians 3:1-3. They should not have sin in their lives. They should not struggle so much with the power of Sin, but they do.

Believers often come to a point in their walk with Christ where they realize the existence of undiscovered sin or unsubmitted aspects of our lives. Wesley more than anyone else in Christian history draws our attention to the need for us to surrender ourselves completely to God. True, we will not always know every bit of ourselves. True, our lives are always changing. New areas to submit will always arise.

But Wesley prompts us to ask, "Have I given everything to God that I know to give? Am I willing to do anything the Lord would call me to do? Will I sign over the deed to the property of my life, beyond any individual room in the house? Will I give God the whole house of my life? Will I commit to give God every knew part of my life that I discover?"

This level of commitment usually comes down to a final decision. There will often be one final area of hold out, one final part of our lives that is harder to surrender completely to God than the others. For this reason, more than any, the moment of final surrender is usually a crisis moment, an event. We cannot logically be completely sanctified, completely God's, unless we are completely surrendered. [5]

Wesleyans thus speak of complete surrender and consecration of ourselves to God as our part in entire sanctification (although even that is empowered by the Spirit). Then God responds with full empowerment, full sanctification. How, after all, can we be fully empowered by the Spirit if we are not fully surrendered?

5. In 1739, Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, wrote the words to the hymn, "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing." One of the verses begins by saying, "He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free." Charles was not actually talking about entire sanctification in this verse but about what he and John believed should be true of every Christian.

When we become a Christian and receive the Holy Spirit, God breaks the power of Sin over our lives. The lives of Christians from that point on should not be typified by acts of sin. Rather, we should walk in a newness of life. The more of our lives we surrender to God, the more empowered for righteousness we will be.

And when we surrender ourselves fully to God, as much as we know to do, then we are wholly God's. Then it should cease to be a struggle to love God and to love our neighbor. It should become easy to do the good we know to do. We should be able to love others with delight and not only with effort.

The power of the Spirit breaks the power of Sin.

Next Sunday S9: The dead in Christ will rise.

[1] The sacrificial parts of the Jewish Law seem to fall into a third category for Hebrews, namely, parts of the Jewish Law that were fulfilled in Christ. Meanwhile, the civil law of Israel had much to do with its Ancient Near Eastern context and so was very specific to its today, although we can still discern universal principles in it.

[2] Wesley's classic sermon in this regard is "The Scripture Way of Salvation."

[3] In general, I am capitalizing the word Sin when it refers to the power of Sin rather than individual sin acts.

[4] Unfortunately, neither of these verses will bear the load Wesley wanted them to bear. Most versions rightly translate Hebrews 6:1 as "maturity" rather than "perfection." Meanwhile, Matthew 5:48 is talking more informally of loving everyone rather than just our neighbors--going the whole way and being "complete" in our love. Wesley took informal comments and made them into systematic formulae.

[5] John Fletcher was the first person in the Methodist tradition to equate this crisis moment with the Spirit-fillings of Acts. Wesley, however, did not formulate Christian perfection in terms of Acts, even if there is some evidence that he was favorable toward Fletcher's use of Acts. However, almost no contemporary biblical scholar in any tradition would now interpret Acts in that way. See the previous article on the Spirit in conversion.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

"The Holy Spirit thus empowers a Christian to live a life that is not characterized by sin." - Thank God!