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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Untangling Romans 7


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I have some thoughts to contribute to the interminable discussion of Romans 7:14-25. Of course, I would like to bring it to a satisfactory termination, but that would be naïve. Anyway, here goes. I think many commentators are asking the wrong questions: Is Paul describing a saved man or an unsaved man who is merely convicted by the law? If he is describing a saved man, is this the normal, life-long condition of a Christian, or should Christians experience a second work of grace that moves them out of the struggles of Romans 7 into the freedom of Romans 8? Let’s set those questions aside and look at the text.
The passage is not describing a conflict between the flesh and the Holy Spirit, such as we see in Galatians 5:16-17 or in Romans 8:5-13. In Romans 7:14-25, the conflict is between “my flesh” on the one hand, and the “inner man” or “the law of my mind” on the other. The wretched “I” is caught between these two forces. It is unhelpful to describe these two forces as “two natures” when “nature” is not adequately identified, so I won’t use those terms.
Though Paul uses the term “flesh” in several different ways, here he seems to mean our uncontrolled, but natural human desires, the things people want because of the way God made us—things like food, sex, approval from others, and the enjoyment of beauty. When those desires are not properly controlled, they become demanding. All they can say is “I want! I want! I want!” As Augustine noted, all sin is a twisting or distortion of legitimate desires. The flesh is human desire out of control—coveting things that are good in themselves, but wanting them in the wrong way, in the wrong measure, or in the wrong time.
What is the “law of my mind” or the “inner man”? I suggest that these phrases describe the conscience, the inner law which God has implanted in all men.
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them (Romans 2:14-15).
As Jonathan Edwards clearly demonstrates in The Nature of True Virtue, unsaved people can genuinely approve of the whole law of God. Conscience and a sense of the secondary beauty of justice are sufficient for this. Therefore, an unsaved man can “joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man” (Romans 7:22), as he contemplates how fitting and right God’s law is. However, since the unsaved man does not love God for the beauty of His holiness, his natural approval of the law of God is not truly virtuous. Ultimately, in its rebellion against God, the flesh is hostile to God. The flesh says, “I want! I want! I want!” and God answers, “Thou shalt not.”
   If the unsaved man can approve of God’s law, then, even more can the saved man joyfully concur with it. Therefore, the inner conflict of Romans 7 is heightened for the man whose conscience has been further enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Still, the conflict of Romans 7 is not directly between the flesh and the Spirit, but between the flesh and the more sensitive conscience of the man in Christ.
So, what is Paul saying in Romans 7? He is saying that the inner law, the conscience, is not strong enough to subdue the unruly desires of the flesh. This is true both for the Christian man and for the unsaved man whose conscience approves of God’s law. The unsaved man has no further resources above his conscience. Those who belong to Christ, however, have the indwelling Holy Spirit. By the Spirit they are able progressively to put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13). (The words “putting to death” are a progressive present.)
Perhaps it will help if I paraphrase Romans 7:14-24 in Freudian terms. The flesh is the id with its demanding desires. The “law of my mind” is the super ego. The “I” is the ego caught between the urgent demands of the id and the finger-wagging disapproval of the super-ego. There is no escape from this tension apart from the gospel of Christ. Those who are justified by faith no longer need to fear condemnation (Romans 8:1). In addition, they are now able to obey the law in a new way as the walk according to the Spirit (Romans 8:4). The ego cannot win its battle with the id by strengthening the super-ego, but only by turning to and relying on the Holy Spirit.
What is the bottom line? To the unsaved man who is torn apart by his guilt and his moral weakness, Romans 7 says, “O wretched man, you cannot win this battle on your own. You are trapped between your distorted, sinful desires and the law of God, which you know is right and just. Come to Christ! He will remove your condemnation, and He will give you His Holy Spirit to help and strengthen you.”
To the pastor this passage says, “Do not think you can make your congregation holy by pounding them down with the law, hoping to strengthen their guilty consciences. Most of them already feel guilty enough and a guilty conscience cannot subdue the flesh. Point them to their freedom from guilt in Christ and to the power of the indwelling Spirit. Teach them to walk in the Spirit and you (and they) will do well.”
To the struggling Christian this passage says, “Do not think of your inner conflict as a struggle between your old nature and your new nature. (Those terms are vague and are not found in the Greek New Testament.) Think of your inner conflict as warfare between your twisted human desires and your conscience, which has been enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Then turn to the Holy Spirit and ask Him to help you put to death the deeds of the body which come from these distorted desires.”


Monday, February 6, 2017

Jesus, the Son of God

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of the Son of God. What does the Bible mean when it refers to Him by that title? In ancient times, and still today some have given “Son of God” a meaning never taught by any major branch of the Christian church.

The Bible does not teach that Jesus was an ordinary man who was adopted by God; nor that He was merely a man in whom the Christ-Spirit dwelt; nor that God the Father, in an immortal physical body, had sex with Mary; nor that the Son came into existence from the Father at some time in the distant past; nor that He is the preeminent Son among many similar sons of God.

All of these aberrations have been firmly denied by the Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and all the major Protestant churches. Only when clergy depart from the founding documents of their faith do they forsake the common confession of the universal Church.

When the Bible and the creeds call Jesus the Son of God, they are confessing that He is fully God, equal in power, wisdom, love, holiness, and glory to God the Father. He is God, the Son, who has an eternal relationship with the Father that is the pattern for our time-bound relationship with our earthly fathers.

The Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-2, 14).

The eternal Word was God, and was with God, and remained God when He took on our humanity in the womb of Mary. All of His DNA was human, and it came from Mary. There was no divine DNA as we see in the demi-gods of Greek mythology. The Holy Spirit fashioned the humanity of Jesus in the womb of Mary, from the stuff of Mary, for the eternal Son of God to inhabit. When Mary asked how she, a virgin, could have a baby, “The angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God’” (Luke 1:35).

The whole Trinity was active in the miracle of the incarnation—the Father exerting His power, the Holy Spirit preparing the body of Jesus, and the Son joining Himself to the human embryo growing in Mary’s womb. (By the way, the Trinity, though mysterious, is not a contradictory doctrine when properly stated, but that would entail another essay.)

Why is it important that Jesus was (and is) fully God and fully human? The answer is simple. If He were not a genuine human being, He could not have died to save human beings. He stood in our place and took our punishment. An ox could not have done that nor even an angel.


On the other hand, if He had only been a man, He might have died for the sins of one other man, but not for a multitude of sinners. If He had been a mere man, He would have been crushed by our sins, never to rise again. As the infinite God, He was able to bear up under the load of our sins and then to rise up again in glory. As a man, He could die for us. As God, He can lift us up to God. This is the meaning of Christmas.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Matthew Vines' Video

In 2012 Matthew Vines, then only twenty-one years old, produced a remarkable YouTube video in which he attempted to provide a biblical defense of loving, faithful, gay marriage.

There are a number of commendable features of this presentation. First, Vines apparently accepts the authority of Scripture, and he attempts to base his conclusions on a careful interaction with the biblical texts. Second, while this is an emotionally charged issue, he maintains a calm demeanor. Third, his appeal at the end of the presentation is passionate without becoming maudlin.

Nevertheless, his handling of Scripture is fundamentally flawed. Rather than going point by point through the texts he examines, I want to begin with his misrepresentation of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. I’ll start with Paul’s final letter to his young apprentice Timothy (Star Wars verbal parallel noted).

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

The sacred writings Timothy learned as a child from his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5) were, of course the books of the Old Testament. The New Testament did not exist when Timothy was a child. Jesus and the authors of the New Testament constantly pointed back to the Old Testament as (1) a testimony of Christ to come, and (2) a guide for living in a manner pleasing to God. Even “love your neighbor as yourself,” which many people assume Jesus must have invented, comes from the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18). New Testament ethics is based squarely on the Old Testament.

There are, of course, many commands in the Old Testament that do not apply to believers today—for example wearing clothes with mixed fabric or boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. The issue, therefore, is how to determine which commandments are permanently valid. In order to answer this question, we must keep in mind the three kinds of commandments included in the Mosaic Covenant.

Ø  Moral Law. Commandments that are permanently valid because they are based on God’s character and on the image of God in human beings (what we might call created human nature).
Ø  Ceremonial Law. Commandments relating to the Old Testament sacrificial system and commandments designed to keep ancient Israel separate from the surrounding culture. We also include here the Sabbath commandment which was the sign of the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 31:13-17).
Ø  Civil Law. This aspect of the law prescribes penalties for infractions of the Moral Law and the Ceremonial Law. The Civil Law was specifically designed for Israel living in the land of Palestine under a theocratic government.

The Mosaic Law as a Covenant given to Israel has indeed passed away since it is fulfilled in Christ. This is the argument of Hebrews 7-10. Notice (and this is important)—the author bases his argument for the passing of the Old Covenant on the Old Testament itself. The apostles did not do away with the Mosaic Covenant on their own authority. So what remains?

Ø  The New Testament specifically sets aside the sacrificial system of the Old Covenant (Hebrews 7-10); circumcision (Acts 15; Galatians 2:1-10); the Sabbath and other holy days, and dietary laws (Colossians 2:16-23; 1 Timothy 4:1-5).
Ø  The civil penalties of the Old Covenant are completely ignored in the New Testament. Jesus and the apostles never applied the Civil Law of the Jewish state to the church.
Ø  The provisions of the Moral Law, however, are frequently and firmly reiterated in the New Testament. So how do we know which provisions of the Old Covenant are permanent? We look at the New Testament.

With all of this in view, it simply will not do for Vines to say that since we no longer stone disobedient children, we are no longer to regard the prohibition of homosexuality as permanent. Stoning the incorrigibly rebellious child was a penalty of the Civil Law under the Mosaic Covenant. The Civil Law of the Jews is no longer in force, but disobedience to parents is still a sin, since it violates the permanent Moral Law of God (Romans 1:30).

Which brings me to Romans 1. Vines spends quite a bit of time trying to undermine the plain sense of this passage.
For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper (Romans 1:26-28).

Vines’ argument rests on two key foundations. First, ancient peoples did not understand sexual orientation as we do—that some people, by nature have an attraction to the same sex. Therefore, the ancients could only think of same-sex relationships as an excess of the normal sexual drive, like promiscuity. Second, the people Paul condemned were acting contrary to their own personal nature. They were doing what was unnatural for themselves, since their natural desire was for the opposite sex. I’ll take the second issue first.

Paul was clearly not referring to sexual relations contrary to a person’s own individual nature. Paul’s argument in Romans 1 and 2 is that all people have the permanent Moral Law of God impressed on their hearts. They are able to suppress this law so that they no longer feel its force, but that only increases their guilt.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:18-22).

Those who do not have the written Law, the Mosaic Law, nevertheless know God’s Law since it is written on their hearts.

For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus (Romans 2:12-16).

When Paul writes that men and women exchanged the natural sexual partner for what was unnatural, he clearly means that they were going against God’s created nature for men and women, not that they were going against their own sexual orientation. Furthermore, unnatural sexual relations are listed along with all sorts of other activities that Vines would recognize as sinful: being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful (Romans 1:29-31). I suspect, by the way, that some rapacious hedge fund managers will end up in a far deeper pit of hell that some gays in life-long committed relationships. We oughtn’t to single out gays as hell-bound when all human beings are headed that direction apart from the saving grace of Christ.

Now I return to the other pillar of Vines’ interpretation of Romans 1. There is no evidence at all that Paul was basing his condemnation of same-sex relations on a supposed Greco-Roman notion of an excess of sexual desire. The proper context for Paul’s understanding of the Moral Law is the Old Testament. He really believed, as he later wrote to Timothy, that the Scriptures teach us how to live in a manner pleasing to God.

Homosexual and lesbian relationships were not strongly condemned in the Greco-Roman world. In Plato’s Symposium one of the speakers praises homosexuality as heavenly love. Rather than defending it as an outlet for excessive passion, he describes how to make a virtuous choice when choosing a lover. One of the other speakers may be mildly mocking him, but the dialogue has no outright condemnation of same-sex relations.

Jesus had no need to condemn homosexuality because the Jews already knew it was wrong (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13). Paul had to address it in clear and forceful language because it was condoned rather than condemned in Greco-Roman culture.

Now I need to address the issue of human thriving, which formed another major part of Vines’ argument. He noted from Matthew 7 that a good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit. Therefore, he said, good teaching doesn’t push people down into low self-esteem and despair. Furthermore, from Genesis 2, we know that is not good for people to be alone, but depriving gays of the right to marry forces them to be alone. God created some people gay, therefore God must want them to find companionship and happiness in gay relationships. To tell gay people that they are broken crushes their spirits and goes against the way God has made them.

Unfortunately, many children in Sunday school learn that since God made them, He likes them just the way they are. This false teaching is a radical denial of the doctrine of original sin. When God made Adam and Eve, He was starting with unfallen stuff. He pronounced them and the rest of creation “very good.” Now, however, He is starting with broken stuff. All of us are born broken. What we ought to be telling children is they were made by God in His image, but because of sin His image in us is broken. God loves us even though we are broken, and He wants to fix us. That is why He sent His Son Jesus to die for us.

Jesus begins to fix us when we are born again, but the work will not be finished until we see Him face to face at the resurrection. All of us carry around baggage that keeps us from experiencing perfect happiness. So we have some healing now, and we experience true joy in the Lord, but perfect healing and perfect happiness must wait for that future day. Some gay people may be able to have a satisfying marriage with a person of the opposite sex, but many will not. Nevertheless, they can please the Lord by living chastely, and they can have healthy relationships with people of both sexes.

It is a mistake to start with the notion that God wants me to be happy. The problem is that we do not know how to be truly happy. People very frequently make choices, in an effort to be happy, that produce exactly the opposite result. According to Jesus, true happiness (blessedness) is an outgrowth of a certain kind of character. The beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) include, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (v. 8). The way to be happy is to seek to be holy. That is God’s way. Seek holiness first and you will find true happiness. Seek happiness first, and you will lose everything. “For he who wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

I want to close with one final, sobering observation. After condemning homosexual and lesbian relationships along with a host of other sins, the apostle Paul concludes, “and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them” (Romans 1:32). This ought to make you cautious about endorsing a gay lifestyle. Love your gay friends. Be kind to them. Listen to their heart-felt anguish, and sympathize with them, but I beg you not to endorse their rebellion against God.

What all people need is the gospel of Christ, winsomely explained and lovingly lived. In our interactions with gay people, as with all people, we ought to focus on the death and resurrection of Christ, the generosity of God, and the promise of happiness through holiness. And yes, we need to speak about their sin, fully conscious that we also are sinners of the deepest dye. When our friends and family insist on clinging to their sins instead of turning to the Savior, we ought to weep rather than self-righteously condemning them.

May God give us the grace to love sinners like ourselves into the kingdom of God.