Wednesday, February 27, 2013

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 - The Unrighteous Will Not Inherit the Kingdom of God

Dear J--,

The passage that you have asked me to explain (1 Cor. 6:9-11) is one which I used to quote frequently and fondly as a non-Christian. In fact, it may have been the most important verse to me as a non-Christian. God mercifully brought me to the place of understanding His grace when I was 21, but before that I was zealous for God without knowledge, seeking to establish my own righteousness, and open air preaching in my hometown and across the United States a message that I thought was God's gospel. This passage was actually the one I would preach on the most. It seemed so clear to me: the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. Those who do such things will not inherit God's kingdom. I would preach against sin (against the sins listed in this passage by name) and would tell people to turn from their sins if they wanted to be saved. That is the simple logic of this passage, isn't it? If you do these things you won't be saved, so you had better not do them. I would preach that Jesus died on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven. He was necessary: because of His atonement we can be saved if we turn from our sins. If He hadn't died no amount of turning from our sins would help us. This is because of our stained past record. Something had to be done about the sins we had already committed. Through the blood of Christ God can forgive us of our past sins if we turn from our sins today and stop being unrighteous in the present. If we happen to sin again in the future, we just needed to repent of it and then the blood of Christ will cleanse us afresh. The trick was to die cleansed and righteous. In this way we can inherit the kingdom of God. I was convinced that this was the faithful interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, taking in all of its parts, and that I was not going to be "deceived" by those who said you could sin and still be saved. My preaching was on the authority of the New Testament, from none other than the apostle Paul himself.

I knew that Paul's writings (particularly Romans and Galatians) were chiefly used to defend the idea of "righteousness through faith without works" by others, but I believed that 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 proved that the idea of "salvation by grace without works" was a misinterpretation of Paul. Of course I had to do something with those writings of Paul that spoke about grace without works, but based on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 I took those writings with a grain of salt, believing that Paul was just speaking about the ceremonial works of the law which we didn't need to do to be saved, since Christ fulfilled them all (the Substance fulfilled the shadows). I couldn't accept that Paul meant even good moral works. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 sealed, for me, my interpretation. I would not be deceived.

But, God be praised, I was delivered from my deception. God allowed me to take an honest look at myself in the light of my own preaching and I saw that if what I was preaching was true, then I was an unrighteous man headed for, not the kingdom of God, but hell. If what I believed about 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 was true, that Paul is saying that we must be righteous by our own moral works in order to inherit the kingdom of God, then I had no hope. Yet even in my spiritual agony I still believed my interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 was true. I felt that I was excluded from the kingdom of God, but surely there were Christians in this world who were succeeding and doing it. I was just not one of them. Notice how my eyes were on the righteousnesses of myself and others, and not on Christ. Christ was in the background. He had done His part, for which I was thankful. But He could not do anything more for me at this point (besides aiding as an incentive), because it was now I who needed to turn from my sins in order to make His atonement effective in my life. But would I do it? Would I turn from my sins and work righteousness before God? I felt myself to be helpless. I felt myself to be a slave to sin, unable to overcome sin, just like in Romans 7. I had failed. I had failed to utilize this opportunity that God through Christ had so freely and graciously given to the world of sinners. I knew I was doomed.

This was the horrendous place that my na├»ve interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 had landed me. It was in this dark place that God revealed the true meaning of the cross of Christ to me, shattered my phony Christianity and introduced me to the glorious truth of the gospel of His Son. Righteousness through faith apart from works! Here's how I described my conversion elsewhere:

Then one night, as I was laying in bed, feeling the full weight of my guilt upon me, the first line of the song "In Christ Alone" passed through my mind. "In Christ alone, my hope is found." It very gently but suddenly dawned on me that in all reality my soul's hope had never really been in Christ, but in myself, and that I had always hoped that I was worthy enough to receive eternal life. Another revelation suddenly swept over me: Christ had died for me while I was a sinner... He loved me even though He knew exactly what kind of person I was, and how unworthy I was. I had always professed that I was a sinner, but when I finally realized how bad a sinner I was I despaired that God loved me. That night I realized that God loved me, a bad sinner, and the cross was proof of that. I had never seen this before, even though I had believed in the fact that Christ had died on the cross for my sins; but I had never truly understood the real meaning of that fact, and what it revealed about God's attitude toward me. That night it was as if the Father gently spoke to me, saying: "Eli, you've been begging me to have mercy on you for weeks and weeks, and you've been doing this... because you don't even know who I am. For if you really knew me, you wouldn't need to beg."

Suddenly I realized what Christianity is all about. Christianity is not about trying to make God merciful. It is not about convincing God that He should forgive and you and give you eternal life. It is not about trying to be worthy of the blood of Christ. Christianity is about believing that God is merciful and forgiving, made known to us through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins. This is the good news that we are called to believe, and by believing in Him we find rest.

Without any effort, this wonderful news displaced my shame and guilt, and the great burden that was putting pressure on my chest immediately lifted. As the truth of God's grace came in, the fear of hell went out, and I knew I was forgiven. God's forgiving heart toward me was revealed to me from the fact that Christ died for me. I trusted in it and found peace. God counted me as righteous that very night, not because I was a good person, but because Christ had died for my sins, and I trusted in His grace revealed to me through His only begotten Son. This is the good news! "Therefore being justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 5:1)
My conversion radically changed the way I understand the Bible and Paul's writings. I now understand that there is no such thing as righteousness before God that is not moral perfection, and therefore, there is no such thing as righteousness for us except through faith in Jesus Christ. Righteousness cannot come through our moral works. Only through trusting in the cross of Christ, where our sins were dealt with and once and for all time, can we stand righteous before God. By sending Jesus, God was not giving the world a priceless opportunity to turn from their sins so that they may inherit the kingdom. God was taking care of the world's unrighteousness problem through the saving death of Jesus Christ completely. Whoever puts their trust in Christ is accounted righteous before God apart from any good works that they do, and despite any bad works which they commit, because of His cross. Christ and His work become the focus of Christianity, not ourselves. Righteousness through faith apart from works is the great revelation of the gospel, which in turn reveals the great saving love of God toward sinners. Diminish righteousness through faith and you diminish the glory of God. Introduce the need to do anything other than trust in Christ to be saved, and you overturn Christianity and make it all about ourselves once again.

So then, in the light of righteousness through faith, how are we to understand 1 Corinthians 6:9-11? Notice I said, "in the light of righteousness through faith." I am no longer approaching Romans and Galatians (and the entire Bible) armed with 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. I am approaching 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 armed with Romans and Galatians (and the entire Bible) in order to ascertain its true interpretation so as not to be deceived. The passage starts this way: "Do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?" and ends this way: "But you are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God." Any interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 that interprets it in any way contrary to righteousness through faith is false, and those who believe such interpretations are deceived. The lesson we learn from the entire Bible is that there is no righteousness for us other than the perfect righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. If there were, Christ died for nothing.

What this means is that we cannot interpret 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 in an overly simplified way. To use it as a proof-text (as I did) to say that if any person (including a Christian) commits sin they are excluded from the kingdom of God is out of the question. There is another way to interpret this passage. This one is simplistic and antithetical to the gospel; and it is no use to say that Paul means that those who "make a practice of" or "live in habitual" sin will not inherit the kingdom of God. That, too, is just as contrary to the gospel, because it likewise makes entrance into the kingdom based upon your moral doing or not doing. Such an interpretation just modifies the size and scope of the moral "doing."

What if we were to say, "This passage is all about evidences of salvation. Those who do these things show that they aren't really righteous through faith, and therefore they won't inherit the kingdom of God, because they aren't believing in Christ." There are two major problems with this view. One, how and where do we draw the line which tells us how much sinning may be permitted before a person is evidently not a believer or not? One sin? Five in a month? A certain kind of sinning (ex. without remorse)? I submit that it is impossible and unrealistic to draw any line. One sin is sufficient to trouble a man's conscience. Also, if we go down this road (as many do), we ultimately just end up making excuses for sin. "I looked with lust, but I'm not an adulterer. Besides, I haven't done it in a while!" If the kingdom of God is barred to adulterers and coveters, we should know right away that excuses are going to flow. Two, Paul does not say in this passage that those who don't believe in Christ will not inherit the kingdom of God, but that "fornicators" and "drunkards" and "extortioners" will not inherit the kingdom of God. It is to these that the kingdom of God is barred. So it is in Revelation 22:15: "Outside are the dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and whoever loves and makes a lie." John does not say "Outside are those who don't believe in Jesus." Even though that is certainly true, that is not the point. It is sin that keeps you out of the kingdom. These passage are not here to tell us about evidences but are here to show us plainly what keeps men out of the kingdom. Unrighteousness because of sin. Now how does this fit with Christianity? Isn't it true that "the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus pardon receives?"

I am not saying that we are not to read the passage plainly. I am saying that we are to read it plainly; and we are to put it into context. The questions we must ask about it are: "Why is the passage here?" "What goes before it and after it?" "What purpose does this passage serve in the flow of the apostle's thought?" I believe that many take 1 Corinthians out of context, and their interpretations prove it.

The passage exists in a discussion Paul is having regarding fornication in the Corinthian church (starting in 5:1 and ending in 6:20). It has been reported to Paul that fornication is taking place among the Christians, of a kind that is unheard of among non-believers! The entire section is about what the Corinthian Christians should do about it and why, and what they should think about fornication and why. Addressing the immediate problem, Paul gives them his judgment (5:3): he tells the saints at Corinth that they should remove the person who has committed the fornication from their midst (5:5). He had already given them those instructions before in another letter: "I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then you must needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such a one, no not to eat." (5:9-11) This list sounds just like the list in 6:9-11. The purpose of Paul's judgment is not to get rid of wicked people out of the church, but to get rid of wicked and hurtful practices out of the church. Paul then proceeds to talk about judgment (5:12-6:8). We are not to think that he is moving on to a new subject when he speaks about judging. On the contrary, Paul is upset that the Corinthian Christians are not wise enough to have judged this problem with the fornicator in their midst. Paul gave his judgment (5:3), but he would have preferred it if they had judged the situation themselves (6:2-5). "I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? No, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren?" (6:5) The Corinthians were so dull that they didn't do anything about the fornicator, but were rather puffed up. They also would not judge each other in other matters, but would take their problems to secular judges (6:6-7). So we see that "judging" here has to do with deciding what to do (drawing verdicts) when issues arise. It is something good to do, which God wants Christians to be able to do. We should have wise men in our churches who can make decisions when issues arise. So Paul was upset with the Corinthians, not only that they didn't have the wisdom to judge this matter of fornication in their midst, but lots of other issues as well.

This is the preceding context of 6:9-11. From 6:9 unto 6:20 Paul begins to instruct the Corinthians, not about the immediate problem of the fornicator in their midst, but about fornication in general: what they should think about it and why. Since they showed that they were unwise and unable to judge this matter of the fornicator, Paul is going to "wise-them-up". He proceeds to explain to them why fornication is something Christians should not partake in. Here are his reasons: 1) because fornication is sin, which bars the unrighteous out of the kingdom of God, and you don't belong to that group (6:9-11), 2) because fornication is not expedient (6:12), 3) because the body is for the Lord, not for fornication (6:13), 4) because your bodies are the members of Christ, and should not be joined with harlots (6:15-17), 5) because fornication is a sin against your own body (6:18), 6) because your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and you are not your own, but are bought by a price, therefore you should glorify God with your body (6:19-20). This, then, is the context of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.

Notice the many reasons Paul gives for avoiding fornication. If, as is often said of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, fornication will keep anyone out of the kingdom of God, wouldn't that be enough of a reason to avoid it? "Don't fornicate, you will go to hell." Good enough for me! However, Paul is not threatening the Christians at all in 6:9-11, and he goes on to give plenty of wise reasons why Christians should not fornicate: God didn't make your body for that... you are hurting yourself and making life difficult for everyone... most importantly, you are bought with a price, therefore glorify God with your body. These are not threats at all. Rather, these are positive encouragements for Christians, Christians who are bought by the blood of Christ, and who have the promise of resurrection from the dead. "And God has both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by His own power." (6:14) Paul is telling Christians who "are washed, sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God" (6:11) to not fornicate. It should be obvious that these blood-bought saints who are righteous through faith are being taught wisdom from the apostle Paul about to how to live their lives, and are not being threatened with hell if they sin.

Therefore, like in Ephesians 5:1-10 and Colossians 3:1-11, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is an exhortation for Christians not to sin (and it is only one reason, not the only reason), because it is for sin's sake that the unbelieving, unrighteous world is going to perish. God has revealed His wrath against sin. Men will go to hell for sin. Christians who know this should therefore not partake in sin, not as a threat, not because they will lose their salvation, but because they are saved and should live as the children of light (which is what they are). We, who know God, should not live like those who don't. We know what pleases God and what doesn't. We know that Christ died for our sins, and that without Christ we would perish on account of our sins. Therefore we should not sin. The unrighteous will indeed not inherit the kingdom of God because of their sins, but we are not unrighteous if we have believed in Jesus Christ. We are washed, sanctified and justified. We should not therefore be a partaker in those sins which Christ died for, and which will send unbelievers to perdition. This is a fitting way to instruct the unwise Corinthians. "Don't you guys know that unrighteous people will perish eternally because of fornication and the like? You should therefore not do these things, and be judges of such matters!"

This interpretation is perfectly in keeping with the context, is exegetically sound, and is in complete harmony with the gospel of grace as well as the rest of the Scriptural exhortations to holy living. Our Christian lives should be lived in full assurance of faith, not motivated by fear but by love and a sound mind. We should be fixing our eyes on Christ and His great salvation rather than on ourselves and our works for peace. Where we are looking is where our hope lies.

So that is how I now understand 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. My previous interpretation landed me in a world of trouble. It perverted the gospel and blinded my eyes from seeing Christ. I was a preacher of works-righteousness, guiding people down a dead-end street toward a ditch that I myself was preparing to fall into. It brought nothing but darkness, bad fruit and despair. I praise God for rescuing me from deception, and opening my eyes to see the righteousness that He has provided for vile sinners through faith in His Son. There is no other hope! There is nothing else that sets men free from condemnation, bringing life and joy and peace, except the one true gospel of grace. Since understanding grace, my life has completely changed in almost every way.

May God guide us in His truth and help us understand all things through the lens of His Son's finished work at Calvary. "For I determined not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." (1 Cor. 2:2)

With love, your brother,

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

No Longer a Slave to Sin

Hello J----, thank you for your email. From Fredericton, eh? My old stomping grounds! Glad to get in touch with you.

It may sound somewhat cliche, like something out of an AA program, but the first thing is indeed coming to the knowledge that you are unable to free yourself from sin's dominion. This is the whole point of the latter part of Romans 7: Paul explains how the human attempt to obey God causes us to discover that we are unable to do what we know is good; that we are slaves; that we are in need of redemption from outside of ourselves. It sounds like from your email that you are probably feeling that way. I know that place. It is a bad place and a good place to be: bad because you feel like garbage, and perhaps "wretched" (literally, exhausted from hard labor), but good because it is the place where something new can begin. As long as you think it is all about your willpower and effort, that you are able to do it if you just tried harder, you will not look away from yourself to Christ. The purpose of the law is to crush and ultimately kill us, so that our life will be from Christ and not from ourselves. These last words can either be religious gobbily-gook (so often said by Christians but without any meaning) or a real experience based upon a real and substantial meaning. There is nothing unreal about Christianity. We must never use words without meaning.

If we were to read Romans chapter 7 quickly, without stopping to explore all the details, and just ask ourselves, from a bird's eye perspective: what is Paul talking about? What's the main subject in view? I think many of us would be surprised at how quickly we could answer that question. Paul is talking about living under law. That is his subject at the beginning of the chapter (7:1-6) and that is the theme he explores throughout the rest of the chapter. In fact, the rest of chapter 7 is simply an explanation of a few shocking statements he had just made concerning the relationship between law and sin. In answering the objection of 6:1 ("if it's all about grace and we don't have to keep the commandments, will we not continue in sin?"), Paul flips the objectors argument on its head. He declares that - contrary to what we may think - it is not the law that prevents us from sinning, but it is actually the law that is the cause of our sinning. Likewise, it is not grace that will cause us to sin, it is actually grace that will enable us not to sin. "For sin shall not have dominion over you, because you are not under law, but under grace." (Rom. 6:14) The radicalness of this cannot be underestimated. He has turned the most common objection to the gospel upside down. Their supposed knock-down argument has now been turned against them. The law will not help you. Rules will not help you. Restraints will not help you. Only grace, the free gift of God's acceptance and forgiveness through Christ, will (not only save you, but) help you overcome the dominion of sin. 

In chapter 7 he puts it this way: "Wherefore, my brethren, you have become dead to the law by the body of Christ, that you should be married to another, even to Him who is raised from the dead, so that we should bring forth fruits unto God." (7:4) Dead to the law... so that we may bring forth fruit unto God. "For when we were in the flesh, the passions of sins, which were aroused by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death." (7:5) Here Paul makes the shocking statement that sin comes about because of the law. He spends the remainder of the chapter illustrating this truth. It is not that the law is sin (7:7) but that it reveals the sin that dwells within me. The commandment comes, but its coming awakens the sin within and stirs up rebellion. This sin is inoperative without the commandment (7:9). The commandment does not create sin, but reveals it within me; even more than that, it is the very reason that sin awakens. I know the commandment is good and I want to obey it, but I am not strong enough to simply choose to overcome the sin that is within me. I am a slave to sin. What this means is not that I am absolved from guilt, but that I have discovered my true nature. The law is spiritual, just and good (7:12, 14). Only God is by nature spiritual, just and good. I am not God. I am not good. It is no use talking about whether Romans 7 describes a man before or after conversion. That is missing the entire point. It is the inevitable experience of a man under law: any man, at any time, under the demands of a law that only God Himself can withstand. This is why Christians can relate to it and why religious non-Christians can too. Unless we see this we will miss the point. It is a shocking declaration that Paul is making: it is the law that causes us to sin (whether before or after conversion), revealing the sin that dwells within us.

Paul could not be breaking from his past Judaic way of thinking - nor the religious way of thinking current in all ages - more. Men without understanding see law as the way to resist sin, bear fruit unto God, and attain life. Obedience! That is the way to please God and get the blessings, they say. Obedience, moment by moment; that is the way to deal with the sin in your life (I am using the word "obedience" in the worst sense; the popular, not the correct, way. The popular use of obedience focuses on your will as the linchpin: "Just do it"; "In the moment of temptation it all comes down to your choice"). This way of thinking is manifested in the way people respond to sin in others. When people see sin in others, they typically don't think: "Oh, that sin is a symptom of a deeper problem"; they just think: "Hey, he sinned. He isn't a very good person. He isn't being obedient." Therefore the typical reaction is to withdraw from that sinner and to go find people who are serious about obeying God. But if sin is symptomatic, the right reaction would be to draw near and help that person ("restore such a one in the spirit of meekness"). Paul is showing us that sin is symptomatic. We sin or don't sin based upon something that goes before our choice, something that determines what we will choose. Philosophers of old (ex. Aristotle), and psychologists today are aware of this. Even some theologians (ex. Jonathan Edwards) recognized that our will (choosing) is not independent, but that our will (what we choose) is dependent. But dependent on what? Here is the answer that everybody, including Paul, gives: your mind. More specifically, what you are thinking; the object of your thoughts. In the context of Romans 6-8, it is whether your mind is set on law or on grace.

It is amazing how important the place of the mind is in the New Testament, and yet how little most Christians pay attention to this. "Be not conformed to the pattern of this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." (Rom. 12:2) That's another summary of Paul's teaching on living the Christian life. "Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Rom. 6:11) The word "reckon" is critical. It means "to consider, to deem", having to do with the mind. According to Paul, this is the practical key to the Christian life. "For to be fleshly minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace." (Rom. 8:6) This is the meaning of "walking in the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4). A dear friend of mine who attended Bible college for several years told me about his deep frustration with this phrase "walk in the Spirit". His professors always told him that this is the key to the Christian life - to walk in the Spirit - but they never explained what it meant to do that. He lived a defeated life, and he didn't know what the key meant. If you ask Christians, "what does walking in the Spirit mean", you will commonly be met with an equally ambiguous phrase: "It means to live by the Spirit"; "It means to obey the Spirit"; "It means to be governed by the Spirit"; "It means living your life with reference to the Spirit". What do all these wonderful phrases mean? What is the Spirit? This most often just breaks down to mean: "Choose to do what is right and not what is wrong when the choice arises." The Spirit is like your second conscience, telling you what you should and shouldn't do, and you are walking in the Spirit when you are obeying it. J----, does this at all ring a bell? Yet how can that possibly be Paul's meaning in Romans 7-8, when he has just been describing his inability to choose to do what he knows is right? How then can the answer be: "Just do it?" I think we have missed something terribly.

The meaning of "walking in the Spirit" (or "according to the Spirit" or "after the Spirit"; these are the same thing) in 8:4 is supplied in the next verse: "For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh, and they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit." (8:5) So it is a matter of the mind being set on "the things" of the Spirit. What are you thinking about today? What do you set your mind on when you get up in the morning? Where does your mind drift throughout the afternoon? What are you thinking about at the dinner table, and when you lie down at night (does this sound like Deuteronomy 6:6-12?)? What's on your mind? To Paul, there are two different "things" that can be on your mind: the things of the flesh or the things of the Spirit. "Flesh" and "Spirit"? These two terms require explanation; what do they mean?

Paul's language comes from the Old Testament. The flesh/Spirit theme is an unspeakably important theme throughout the entire Old Testament, pervading almost every page. It has to do with ability and power: man's power vs. God's power, or, to be more specific, the power of anything other than God vs. the power of God, and which one you are trusting in. Think about Cain and Abel; Abraham, Sarah and Hagar; Joshua and Caleb at the border of Canaan; Gideon; David and Goliath; Hezekiah and the armies of Sennacherib; Nebuchadnezzar eating grass... these all highlight the theme of trusting in what man can do vs. what God can do. The specific terms which embody this theme do not have to be used to understand what is going on. In the later history of Israel the terms "flesh" and "Spirit" came to embody this theme (see Ps. 44:3, 5-8, Deut. 8:10-11, 14, 17-18, Ps. 56:1-4, Ex. 15:1-2, 6, Is. 13:1, 3, Jer. 17:5, 7, 2 Chron. 32:7-8, Zech. 4:6 to see this transition. Notice the very significant word "arm". Then see also Is. 51:9-11, 53:1, 1 Cor. 1:18, 23-31, Luke 1:51, Rom. 1:16). The language and concepts of the New Testament are rooted in the Old Testament. When this theme of trusting in man's power vs. God's power is applied to the gospel, it translates into trusting your own works to obtain salvation vs. trusting in Christ alone. When I am trusting in Christ alone, I am, like Abraham or like Abel, trusting in God's ability and not my own. The Spirit is God's power = God's saving work through Jesus on the cross. It is therefore the Spirit that we are trusting in when we trust in Jesus. The flesh is our power = trying to earn God's salvation through our own efforts under the law. When I am trusting in my own obedience to the law I am therefore trusting in the flesh.

However, you don't even need to go outside of Romans to see this. Paul describes "flesh" as living under law in Rom. 7:4-6, and he describes the Spirit as the work of Christ on the cross in Rom. 8:2-4. "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death, for [here comes the explanation of what was just said] what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did, by sending His own Son [to die]... so that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us." (8:2-4) We, by our own works, could not obtain righteousness (that is the weakness of the flesh, our power), but God worked through Christ to obtain it for us (that is the law of the Spirit, God's power). Christ therefore is the power of God unto salvation. This is the Spirit. Obviously when Paul tells us about the flesh and the Spirit in 8:5 he already expects us to understand what he means by those terms based upon how he has been using them. Unless we understand them we cannot live a victorious Christian life, since Paul is basing everything upon them.

Paul's discussion of the Christian life in Romans 6-8, we will notice, has absolutely nothing to do with a changed nature. It has everything to do with a changed mind. Romans 6:6 is not talking about a nature change, but about our dying and rising with Christ through our unification with Him by faith. Jesus Christ actually died and rose, but through faith in Him I am united to Him so that God considers (God's mind!) me to be dead and risen also. This is precisely Paul's point from 6:3-11. Then in 6:11 he gives us the whole key to the Christian life: "Likewise reckon yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God in Jesus Christ our Lord." He has just said that Christ died unto sin and lives unto God. Since you are united to Him, you are to consider yourselves to be dead to sin and alive unto God also. What is true of Jesus is true of you (remember Ephesians 2:6?). Paul is not telling you to make it happen; he is not telling you to die with Christ. He is telling you that this is true of you if you have trusted in Christ, and therefore you should set your mind on it. Reckon it to be so, since it is so. In other words, "think the way God does about yourself." Have the mind of God concerning yourself; that is, set your mind on the truth. I cannot stress enough that, to Paul, this is the key (Rom. 12:2, Gal. 2:19-20). It is by having this mind that we shall walk in victory.

Why does this mind give us victory over sin? The answer is (basically) twofold:

1) because by not thinking that I am under law (that is, thinking about what I need to do, what the commandment is requiring of me, in order to be right with God) sin remains inoperative. If the law stirs up sin, as Paul has clearly shown, then by removing the believer from the law sin is therefore not stirred up. It is not that we have a new nature. If that were the case this whole discussion of law would be pointless. Many Christians talk in a way that is the exact opposite of what Paul is saying: they say "God gives a new nature so that now we don't rebel against the law and can obey it." Well, if that were the case, why do Christians still sin, and why didn't Paul just say that? Why did he rather say, "You have become dead to the law... so that you can bear fruit unto God"? Why would Paul be telling us that we are no longer under law, and that this is the secret to the Christian life? No, what is new for the Christian is that he is no longer under the law thanks to the death and resurrection of Jesus; and it is this that changes everything. We are not only forgiven of our sins. We are freed from the law. God does not forgive us of our sins only to leave us in the same situation that we were in previously, with the exception that He gives us a new nature that obeys the law. This is not to be found in Paul. Rather, through the death of Christ we are not only forgiven but are in a new situation which allows for the possibility to walk in newness of life. What is that new situation? A new nature? No, rather: "Sin shall not have dominion over us (why?), because we are not under law but under grace." (6:14)

2) because by thinking about how I am under grace of God, I am thereby stirred up to love and good deeds. This is precisely Paul's point throughout all of his letters, and not the least being Romans. Why we do good deeds and why we don't do sinful deeds must have everything to do with love, or else it is worthless (1 Cor. 13:1-3, Gal. 5:6). It is never automatic (Rom. 6:12). It is never due to a mystical nature. It is eminently a matter of the mind. Everywhere that Paul talks about the Christian doing good works it is always so realistic, always appealing to common sense and reason, always appealing to the love of God that has been demonstrated toward us through Christ (Eph. 4:32, 5:1-2, Col. 3:13, Titus 3:3-8). Paul does not want us to be robots; he wants us to respond relationally to the love of God. He wants what we do to have its source there (if it's not from there, where is it from? Everything other source is spiritually worthless). Our lives should be lived in love for God because of God's great love for us. Take a look, for example, at Romans 6:19-21, 12:1-2ff, 13:11-14, 14:4, 13-23, 15:1-7, 27 and notice how Paul reasons about good deeds. It's not about a magical Spirit pulling our strings as if we were puppets. Paul appeals, argues, reasons, persuades, points out the beauty of, draws parallels... he is seeking to develop our moral sense. "We ought too..." "This is right"... "This is appropriate"... "How much more should we..." These are the thoughts that flow from a heart filled with love for God due to a vision of the love of God. This is how God wants you to live, J----. He wants you to live from a mind and heart filled with truth. Christians tend to get distracted from the real thing. They get preoccupied with seeking a magical sanctification that bypasses the relational world that God created.

Just as the law stirred up rebellion, grace stirs up thankfulness, wonder and praise. In Romans chapter 8 Paul is essentially just pointing with his finger to the love and grace of God, so that his readers can look and be transformed. He's putting into practice what he is talking about: "Set your mind on the truth of who you are in Christ" Paul says, and then he goes on to say: "There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!" (8:1); "You have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption whereby we cry 'Abba, Father!'" (8:15); "And if children, then heirs; heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ!" (8:17); "For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us!" (8:18); "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, and are called according to His purpose!" (8:28); "What shall we say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?" (8:31); "Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God who justifies!" (8:33); "For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!" (8:38-39). If we Christians aren't moved by these things, don't you think there's a problem? The fact that we let these things fly over our heads, and then seek to be transformed by some mystical experience, shows just how out of touch we are with reality and the Scriptures. These are the things that are to move us! His great saving love is what we are to be compelled by. The problem is that we are not listening to the truth; we are not grasping the transforming truth of the grace of God.

Both of these points (freedom from the law, and the grace of God) are huge things to explore further another time. I want to share with you my own experience, briefly, with these things. I know what it is like to experience Romans 7, and I know what it is like to live in the truths of Romans 8... Romans 7 stinks royally; Romans 8 is life and peace. But sanctification is not a one-time event when things change once and for all from Romans 7 to Romans 8, but rather something that depends upon a daily, and even moment by moment, consideration of truth. Just like in the Old Testament, the New Testament is also all about remembering. This may sound familiar, but here's the thing: many Christians are not even aware that the mind, and not the will, is the issue; and even for those who have figured out that it is about the mind, many aren't sure what they are suppose to set their minds on. You have already won half the battle of the Christian life once you have discovered that sanctification has to do with the mind and not the will, and that the object of our thoughts should be grace and not law. Once you know these things, it's only a matter of practice.

Think of it like a man who has been in prison for 35 years and is finally set free. He walks out of that prison a free man, but his mind is still gripped by the way prison works. He needs to learn to live like a free man. He isn't used to it, so he keeps thinking he has to ask permission for everything that he does, and wonders if he is allowed to go to certain places and eat certain things. It may take some time for him to become comfortable living free. Many ex-prisoners feel so much more comfortable in prison that they end up going back.

So it is with people when they become Christians. Before we were Christians we were under law. It was all about what we had to do to be right with God, and it wasn't about living as a response to love, but was about living out of fear or compulsion. When we become Christians we are still so used to hearing the voice of law. We aren't used to thinking of God as gracious, nor of ourselves as free from condemnation. We need to learn how to live as free men and women under grace. We need to learn to live lives that respond to God's love. It isn't natural, it isn't what we are familiar with.

This is the Christian life. A person is not living a sanctified life just because he does not get drunk or fornicate. It's not just about your actions. Rules can affect people's actions. It is about love. A sanctified person is one who is responding to God's love revealed in the gospel, and is living, not by rules but by love. A sanctified person is one who has joy and peace in believing the gospel. The amazing thing is that this joy and peace is not dependent upon your behavior, but comes the moment you realize the truth of who you are in Christ.

I am by no means saying that I don't sin. I sin everyday lots of times. But I know why I sin. I sin because I forget about the truth that I am delivered from the law of sin and death, and I forget that I am so greatly loved by God and that I have been given the most glorious hope and future. When I remember these things, when I set my mind on the truth, sin loses its control over me. The truth doesn't stir me to rebel, it stirs me to love in action. I don't have to sin, and the reason is not because I am strong and can choose not to, but because the cross of Christ has freed me from the law and the love of God displayed there compels me; it fills me with joy, peace and strength that I do not possess of myself. My new ability to not sin is not because of my own power, but because of the power of God. As Christians, when we are living under grace, and bearing the fruits of the Spirit, we can with total confidence say, "It is the power of God at work in me, and not myself."

In this way we are no longer slaves to sin, and don't have to let sin reign within us (Rom. 6:12). Isn't that just amazing? It amazes me. The newness of life that we can now walk in is one of joy and peace. We don't need to beat ourselves up over our sins; Christ was punished for them so that we don't have to be. Whenever I sin, I simply thank God that He has forgiven me and holds nothing against me. Where sin abounds grace much more abounds, and therefore my sinning is often turned into a time of praise. I find myself sinning less and less when I am thinking this way. We don't sin less when we are focusing on what we are not permitted to do, but when we are focusing on the great love of God. He has received us! He has thrown our sins behind His back! He has covered us with the robe of righteousness! We are blameless in His sight! Our old man is crucified with Christ and is gone! We are new creations in Christ! These are the things we should be encouraging each other about. It is a wonder how little we as Christians think and talk like this... is it a wonder that we live such miserable sub-New Testament lives? We are not enjoying the life that we truly possess. We are not realizing the truth about who we are.

Life is good in Jesus Christ, J----. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. You will find rest for your soul. If you find yourself struggling with sin, let me encourage you with the gospel. If you have put your trust in Christ, God does not hold any sin against you. You are free from the law. Your relationship with God is not based on whether you sin or not. You are complete in Christ. God is always rejoicing over you with singing, and sees no spot or blemish on you. You don't have to stop sinning. You will not be condemned or rejected or unloved. You don't need to listen to the voice of the law which tells you that you need to stop sinning to be on God's good side. Listen to the voice that is speaking from the cross: "I love you. I died for you when you were a sinner. Your righteousness is of me." You will find that as you learn to listen to the truth of grace, and learn to resist the devil's voice of condemnation, that you will start to not feel like a slave who cannot stop sinning. If you are going to stop sinning, let it be because you want to. Lacking the desire to stop? Think about God and what He has done for you. Don't beat yourself up when you fail. You will fail many times since it is not overnight that you will have learned to walk in grace. Learn to rejoice in the Lord daily. Learn to thank Him. Learn to set your mind on your hope and your future. Learn to revel in His amazing love. You will discover the truth of Romans 6:14.

Let me end this email with a prayer from the apostle Paul. "May you know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge, that you might be filled with all the fullness of God." (Eph. 3:19)

Your brother in Christ,