Friday, September 25, 2020

Dead to Sin

 I've written about this so many times that I'm afraid anything I write here will merely be a repeat of something I've said before. But perhaps it's worth going over again, and perhaps we might find something new and worthy of our time.

Having grown up very evangelical, it was a turning point in my life when I discovered Romans 6:1–11. For the first time, I realized that Christianity is not about my efforts to please God. The Christian life begins not with "Do!" but with "Done!" And that's not just a statement about justification or redemption – Colossians 2:6 tells us we are to walk with Christ in the same way we received Him. Both are by grace, through faith. Both are resting in what God says about His Son.

The first mention of "salvation" in scripture is Genesis 49:18, "I wait for thy salvation".  We next see it in Exodus 14:13, "stand still and see the salvation of Jehovah."  Exodus 14 goes on to describe what salvation looks like: "Thus Jehovah saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the sea-shore" (Exodus 14:30–31).

I know I've said this too many times, but it bears repeating here. We tend to see words like "salvation," "redemption," and "justification" as synonyms; they are not. They are very closely related, but they don't at all mean the same thing. These words describe very different things. Sometimes they occur very closely together (sometimes they do not), but they're still very distinct things.

Exodus 14 teaches us two very important facts about salvation:

  1. it is God's work – we need to "stand still" to see it (Exodus 14:13)
  2. it results in our seeing the enemy dead (Exodus 14:30) 

Romans 6 invites us to see the enemy – our own fallen and lost selves – lying dead. There isn't merely some psychological trick the scripture plays on us, it's an act of faith. When I accept what God has said as the truth, I that is faith. Romans 6 doesn't make any sense except as an act of faith. God has said I have died with Christ, therefore it must be true.

Now, Romans 6 doesn't teach annihilation – it's not that I have ceased to exist. But it does teach that that man I was has died. I was once a lost sinner, but having died with Christ, I am not that man any more. And having been raised with Him from the dead (Colossians 3:1), I am now in a place to walk in newness of life. 

And notice, it doesn't say sin has died. It says I have died.

But it's of the first importance (or, as J. N. Darby would say, "of the last importance") that we do what Romans 6:1–11 invites us to do, what the Israelites did in Exodus 14:30. We need to pause and look at the dead enemy. Churches are full of people who are trying to walk in the newness of life, who haven't ever really believed or accepted that their old life has ended, that they have died with Christ. They haven't looked at the bodies on the shore.

And this is the problem I have with so many evangelicals when they start to discuss baptism: they make it out to be an act by which we promise to walk in newness of life. That's not it at all! It's not that we promise something to God, but that we are accepting what He has already done for us. Urging people who have never accepted that they have died with Christ to live in newness of life doesn't result in godliness, it results in hypocrisy.

Let me just add here, that our having died with Christ doesn't empower us. It frees us, but it doesn't empower us. It's the Holy Spirit that empowers us, and He's not the subject of Romans 6, but Romans 8. Having died with Christ, we are now in a place to walk in newness of life. But we find that being in that position isn't actually enough: we need the power of the Holy Spirit. But that's perhaps a subject for another time.

At one point, I applied Romans 6 to various sins. I might have thought to myself, "Remember, you have died to anger," or "you have died to lust." I don't believe that's what Romans 6 is teaching at all. It's talking about sin, not sins. And it's not even talking sin in the most abstract sense, although I thought that for a while too. The context of Romans 6 – the discussion that starts in Romans 6:1 and ends in Romans 8:17 – leads me to believe it's talking about the sin that dwells in me (Romans 7:17). 

But again, it's not that sin has died. Indeed, Romans 8:3–4 indicates that sin, having been condemned, is still very active. But I have died. I have died with Christ, and so I am free from sin (Romans 6:7, NASB). Not from its presence (at least not yet, Romans 8:23), but from its power.

We are, indeed, called to newness of life (Romans 6:4). But we get into trouble when we try and skip steps, and trying to walk in newness of life without recognizing our death with Christ, is definitely skipping a step.

The result of our having died with Christ is glorifying God in our bodies (Romans 6:12–14). This is unique to Christianity. We await the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23, Philippians 3:20–21) when the Son of God comes from Heaven to make them like His. But we're not just supposed to sit here and wait. We're to glorify God now, in fallen bodies. We're to live out in this creation a life that really belongs in the next (2 Peter 3:13).  That doesn't mean we don't hope for the new heavens and new earth, and it doesn't mean we just write this one off. We glorify God here and now, patiently waiting for His time to bring us into the new one. Keeping both of these things in focus, erring neither to the right hand nor to the left, is very difficult for me.

So seeing myself as having died to sin isn't an excuse for inaction in this world. But it's necessary to glorify God here and now.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Dead to the Law (reprise)

 J. N. Darby wrote an article titled, "The Sabbath: or, Is the law dead, or am I?". That's a good question to contemplate.

To be blunt, a lot of dispensationalists get this one wrong. We tend to think the Law was "for then", not "for now". But that's not what Scripture actually teaches. Scripture teaches not that the Law came to an end, but that our death with Christ has made us dead to it. This perspective is important if we want to understand what the Epistles (particularly the Pauline Epistles) teach.

Romans 7:5–8 is careful to tell us two things that almost appear to be opposites. First, when we attempt to keep the Law, we will find that it merely empowers the sin that lives in us (Romans 7:18–23 reiterates this point). Many Christians talk about the Law curbing our tendency to sin, but the Epistles tell us just the opposite: the Law makes it easier for us to sin!

The second lesson in Romans 7:5–8 is that while the Law provides a point of attack for the sin that lives in us, the problem is not that the Law is bad. On the contrary, the Law is holy and just and good (Romans 7:12). How does something that is holy and just and good have such a terrible effect on us?

The answer is in Romans 3:20, "by the Law is knowledge of sin." The Law was given to reveal sin (not, as J. N. Darby points out, sins). The Law does exactly what it was designed to do: it reveals our own sinfulness to us. It's working exactly as designed when it shows us to be sinners. This is why 1 Timothy 1:8–11 asserts that the Law isn't for righteous men, but unrighteous ones. The whole point of it is to reveal unrighteousness.

It is not the Law that has died, but I that have died. The problem isn't that the Law is bad, but that I am. And if I insist on putting myself under it, it will do exactly what God gave it to do: it will reveal that I am a sinner.

So what should I do? I need to accept what God has said: I have died with Christ. In that death, I have been put in a place where the Law has nothing to say to me. I have been separated from it as completely as I have been separated from sin. I have died to both, and I am to see myself in that light. My self-image is supposed to be "one that has died with Christ." That death removes me from sin, and from the Law.

Scripture doesn't teach that sin has died, but that I have died. Scripture doesn't teach that the Law has died, but that I have died. The disruption is on my side.

The Law is still as much in effect as it ever was.  And it still works: it still shows fallen men and women to be sinners. We don't believe that the Law has been abolished, but that we have been separated from it by the death of Christ, so that we can be fruitful towards God (Romans 7:4).

Friday, September 11, 2020

Dead to the Law

 I was reading a book whose authors contend that Christians being "not under law, but under grace" (Romans 6:14–15) and their being "dead to the law" (Romans 7:4–6) shouldn't be taken to mean that Christians aren't under obligation to the Law. Their explanation is that "not under law" means not justified by keeping the law.

This view isn't as uncommon as we might expect, so it's worth thinking over.

Galatians 4:3–5 asserts that Christ came to "redeem those under law". So we can confidently say that at least some people are (or were) "under law". If we are to take these authors' view of what it means to be "under law", then we have to conclude that Galatians 4:3–5 teaches there are those who are justified by works. That's an odd statement in light of Galatians 3:10–12, Romans 3:19–20, etc.

What the epistles explicitly teach is that God has only ever justified sinners on the basis of faith (Romans 1:17, 4:1–15). God has never justified on the basis of works – not based on the Law of Moses or any other law. Justification is by faith, only and always. This is the clear teaching of the first four chapters of Romans, as well as the epistle to the Galatians.

So what does it mean to be "under the law"? Romans and Galatians both make it clear that the function of the Law was to reveal sin (not, as Darby points out, sins). In fact, Galatians makes the astonishing statement that it would have been unrighteous of God to add the Law as a condition to a promise He had made to Abraham 400 years earlier (Galatians 3:15–26). We can't make a promise, then add caveats and conditions long after the fact. So we conclude that the Law has nothing – nothing! – to do with justification in God's sight, nor even with the promised blessing to Abraham.

So the Law was only ever a "rule of life", never a means of justification.

And at this point, the entire argument falls apart. If the Law was never more than a rule of life, then it cannot be said that those "under the Law" were under it as more than a rule of life. Nor can it be said that those "not under Law" are under it as a rule of life, but not as a means of justification. That's absurd.

It's striking that Romans 7:4–6 describes our relationship to the Law in the same terms that Romans 6:11 uses to describe our relationship to sin. The Christian lives as separately from the Law as he does from sin.

Now, I realize there are more nuanced views that I've sort of glossed over here. But it seems to me that the Epistles clearly and unequivocally teach that the believer is, indeed, dead to the Law and under no obligation to it. That doesn't mean the believer is to live lawlessly, not at all! But it falls far short of what Scripture teaches to suggest that the Law has any authority at all over the believer.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Exclusive and Inclusive

The Lord appears to make two opposite claims in Mark 9 and Matthew 12. In Matthew 12:30, He says, "he that is not with me is against me." In Mark 9:39–40, He says, "he who is not against us is for us." We might describe the former as an exclusive statement, and the latter as an inclusive statement. It's worth thinking about these two statements.

It seems to me the difference between those two statements is the pronoun: when the Lord makes an exclusive statement, He uses the pronoun "me"; when He makes the inclusive statement, He uses the pronoun "us". In other words, when the issue is Christ Himself ("me"), then we can't be too exclusive. If you're not for Christ, then you are against Him, period. But when the issue is Christ and His followers ("us"), then we need to be inclusive. If you're not actively against them, then you are for them.

It seems to me there are two errors we might fall into here. The "liberal" error is to make an inclusive statement about Christ Himself, misquoting Matthew 12:30 as "he who is not against me is for me." The opposite error is to make the exclusive statement about a group, misquoting Mark 9:40 as, "he who is not with us is against us."

If we make an exclusive statement about a group, then we end up in some difficulty. We end up making loyalty to a group to be virtually the same as loyalty to Christ. And I know people who have had to deal with this: people who have been accused of defecting from the truth because they started to meet with a different group of Christians. Now, I may have problems with some of the fellowship decisions people around me have made, but to accuse someone of leaving Christ! I just don't see how someone who truly fears God wouldn't be terrified to say something like that.

On the other hand, if we make an inclusive statement about Christ Himself, then we're really denying the Gospel, aren't we? The Christian life centers on Christ. J. N. Darby wrote a paper called "Bethesdaism, or Indifference to Christ." I can't recall much about the article, but that title has haunted me for many years. What a description! How could a believer be indifferent to Christ?

Sadly, it happens. Sadly, it's a lot easier than we might think. I have found myself pretty close to indifferent to Christ many times, when I've let other things get in the way. It's all too easy for us to allow ourselves to find something that comes between us and the Lord.

But the point is, making an inclusive statement about Christ Himself (not about Christ and His followers) is really the first step to syncretism.

One of my daughters' friends was telling us that he was at some sort of interfaith event at a college, and there was a panel taking questions. He asked if each panel participant could briefly explain how their beliefs were divine, as opposed to being merely moral philosophies. In other words, is your faith really about God? Or is it just a moral code?

It seems to me that evangelicalism has reached a point where it's much more a moral code than a religion. When I was growing up, it was common to hear Christians claiming, "Christianity isn't a religion, it's a relationship." I'm afraid even "religion" would be an improvement for many at this point. It's remarkable how popular a Christ-optional Christianity is.

We're called to fellowship with the Father and with the Son (1 John 1:1–3). There is implicit morality there, but it's not really a moral code. Indeed, James 2:21–26 holds up Abraham (who was on the verge of killing his son as a sacrifice) and Rahab (who committed treason) as examples of faith. The moral code that comes from loving and fearing God might well be something the world around us finds incomprehensible, or even reprehensible.

But that's really the point: we're not called to a moral code, we're called to a Person.

So I'm trying hard to remember that when it's about Christ alone, I need to be exclusive. When it's about Christ and His followers, I need to be inclusive.