New Testament Thoughts on Sin and Believers
I grew up in the
You hardly hear preaching like that anymore, even in the
With the approach of a Wesleyan meeting on the subject of salvation this month, I thought I would blog some of my thoughts on our doctrine in this regard. I’m viewing this blog as a kind of “amicus brief,” a friendly word from an interested but outside party. I am only one biblical scholar, but I have some views I’d at least like to be considered in discussion, particularly before someone might modify any current position. I love my Baptist brothers and sisters, but it would be a shame for us to “give in” on some things where our understanding of the Bible is actually more accurate than theirs.
I can honestly say that I do not know of a single verse in the entirety of the New Testament that teaches a Christian cannot help but sin intentionally. I want to stake my claims against the prevailing, “we can’t help but sin” sentiment in American Christianity today. But there is also the matter of Christian experience. We find that Paul has a particular standard he sets as the expected and ideal. But we also find that his churches sometimes failed to reach that standard. I want to be practical. There is an element of “becoming what you are” to the matter of sin in the life of a believer.
1 John, Sin, and Believers
To me, 1 John provides the best snapshot of the subject of sin in the New Testament. It is a virtual treasure trove of “memory verses” on the topic.
Definitions of Sin
For example, 1 John gives us two definitions of sin:
1. “All sin is unrighteousness” (1 John 5:17).
2. “Sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4).
While it seems a little difficult at first to know what these verses really mean specifically, I especially like the NIV translation of 5:17: “All wrongdoing is sin.”
Classic Calvinist Texts
John has several classic Calvinist verses:
1. “If we should say we do not have sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8).
2. “They went out from us, but they were not from us. For if they were [truly] from us, they would have remained with us. But [they left] so it might be shown that they were not [truly] from us” (2:19)
The first one is the most classic text of all to justify that Christians cannot help but sin all the time, and that the Wesleyan tradition is deceiving itself if it claims a person can have victory over sin. The second text is a classic text in defense of a certain position on eternal security. The idea is that if a person commits mass murder after claiming to become a Christian, you can be sure that person was never really a Christian in the first place.
A Classic Wesleyan Text
1 John also has a classic “Wesleyan” verse:
“Everyone who has been born of God does not practice sin, because His seed remains in him. And he is not able to be sinning, because he has been born of God” (3:9)
The person from the Wesleyan tradition responds to the Calvinist. Wait a second, there must be something wrong with your interpretation of 1 John 1:8 if John can go on to say something like this verse. This verse clearly says that sin doesn’t fit with being born of God. God places His “seed” in you and that should make all the difference.
Honorable Mention to a Roman Catholic Verse
So that no one is left out, we might finally mention a Roman Catholic verse:
“If someone should see his brother sinning a sin not to death, he will ask and will give him live, to those who are sinning not to death. There is a sin to death. I’m not saying you should ask about that one. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is a sin that isn’t to death” (5:16-17).
The Roman Catholic Church builds its distinction between “mortal” and “venial” sins from this verse. Mortal sins are the ones that can’t be forgiven—they invalidate your baptism. Venial sins are in contrast sins that are open for forgiveness.
What I mean by a pre-modern reading of the Bible is a reading that is largely unaware of the difference between how the text appears to me and how it might appear to others—particularly the original audiences. If we read the text only as God’s word to me, without realizing how differently the original audiences might have understood these words, we do not really understand how to read the words of the Bible in context. Similarly, the person that reads the words of the Bible strictly as “timeless” truths usually does not perceive the contextual nature of the original meaning.
Now, on the one hand, this is the very stuff of what a Scripture is. Scriptures seem to involve by their very nature the “broadening” of meaning well beyond its original parameters. On the other hand, reading the Bible this way automatically means I am not reading its words completely in context. In the case of 1 John, John’s words were written to a specific Christian community with a specific history. For example, the verse we mentioned above, 1 John 2:19, tells us that this church had recently undergone a split of sorts and a group had left fellowship with the church.
So when I read these words as universal truths about sin, I
am changing their meaning slightly from what John originally intended the words
to mean. Now I don’t want you to think this way of reading is necessarily the
wrong way to read the words. What I mainly want to point out is that it is a different way of reading the words than
reading them for what they originally meant. Reading them only for what they
originally meant is the “modern” way of reading them. In the end, I think
ideally we should be able to read them in both ways: reading the words both as
God’s message to us while also being aware that when we read them in that way,
we are taking the words differently from what God inspired John to say to some
As I said, the very nature of a Scripture is to loosen the meaning from its original moorings and universalize them somewhat. The words take on a more timeless quality. Too be sure, not all the words in the Bible do this as well as others. For example, “Greet the brothers with a holy kiss” doesn’t universalize nearly as well as “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It was at these points that the ancient church—as well as ancient Jews like Paul—downshifted into allegory and metaphorical meanings.
I wish us to take a brief pilgrimage from our pre-modern readings of 1 John to a contextual understanding and then return to a reflective understanding of these words as Scripture. As good pre-moderns, our tendency is to read these verses in isolation and “define” them with the “dictionary” of our tradition. For each of the traditions I mention above, some of these verses are “naughty” verses—verses that don’t fit as easily into a person’s paradigm. 1 John 1:8 is a “naughty verse” for us Wesleyans. 1 John 3:9 is naughty for Calvinists. And 1 John 5:16 seems naughty for Protestants.
Enter coping mechanisms. To explain 1 John 5:16, a Calvinist might argue that some sins are just so bad that God brings about your physical death, even though your spirit will still be saved. I’m not sure what a Calvinist would do with 3:9. The NIV translates it as “continue to sin,” which is a fair rendition of the present tense of the Greek. Actually even Wesleyans would have a problem with the idea that it is completely impossible for a Christian to sin, so that translation works for everyone.
As a Wesleyan, I cope with 1 John 1:8 by watching the wording and the tenses carefully. 1 John 1:8 does not read “If we say that we do not practice sin, we deceive ourselves.” Indeed, if it did it would flatly contradict 3:9. What it says is that “If we say that we do not have sin…” In this sense it basically anticipates what John will say in 1 John 1:10: “If we should say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.”
The perfect tense in Greek has the sense of something that was completed in the past. “I have been married seven years.” The act of getting married is something that has been done for eight years. To say that we “have sinned” using the Greek perfect tense (1:10) is thus to say we sinned in the past and the results of that sin—the need for cleansing—have continued to the present. Thus when John says that everyone “has” sin, he is saying that all have sinned and have need of forgiveness. He is not making a statement about our current acts of sin but about the results of past acts of sin. So to say that we don’t have sin here is to say that we have we have never sinned. 1 John 1:8 and 10 are thus John’s equivalent to Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and are lacking the glory of God.”
Over the years I have come to a certain peace on my understanding of 1 John 5:16, although I am not absolutely sure about what it meant. On the whole it seems to me that John is saying some sins knock you out of the kingdom immediately and some don’t. Of course I grew up with a “one sin you’re out” approach. John doesn’t seem to see it quite so rigidly. All sin no doubt damages our relationship with God. But not all sins sever the relationship instantly. On the other hand, some sins do. With regard to return to Christ, I have faith in the belief early settled in the 200’s that a person whose relationship with Christ has been severed can repent and return to Christ. I can relate this somewhat theologically to the belief that the Holy Spirit leads us to repentance. So if you are truly repentant, then you have not committed some “unpardonable sin.”
The “Modernist” Reading: 1 John in Context
When I begin to read 1 John in its historical context, I read the whole book, rather than a few isolated memory verses. I had long found 1 John somewhat vague in its statements. I now feel pretty good about what I think John was trying to say, but I will acknowledge up front that it involves some “reconstruction” on my part. In other words, the meaning of 1 John was clear enough to its original audiences. But since I am only listening in on their conversation, I am missing a great deal of the puzzle. While reading the text of 1 John alone out of context is dangerous because it can come to mean almost anything, even reading it in context is a little unstable in its meaning—we just don’t have complete information.
The “they left us” verse in 2:19 unlocks 1 John for me. Some group had left John’s community. What did they believe? I think 1 John says enough for us to identify them as “Gnostics” of a sort. They didn’t believe that Jesus had come “in the flesh” (2). They believed that Jesus came “by water” at his baptism, but not that he died “by blood” on the cross (5:6). They saw no need for Jesus as an atoning sacrifice for their sins (2:2). In a manner of speaking, they did not see a need for forgiveness for sins through Christ (1:8, 10) and thus rejected Jesus as Messiah (2:22). They were thus “antichrists,” opposed to God’s work through Jesus (2:18, 22). 1 John 2:19 is thus not some absolute statement about eternal security. It relates to a group that never truly believed in Jesus. They may have worshipped with John’s community for a while, but they did not truly belong.
As with Paul, reading 1 John in this way reveals a certain danger in absolutizing and universalizing his words. Many of these comments are addressed at a particular situation. Space forbids me from going on more about my thoughts on the community. My basic point here is that some words in the Bible were never meant to be universal in scope. Some of the things Paul says in one context he would not have said in a different one.
To give an example from Paul’s writings, I suspect that Paul tells the Corinthians in part not to take each other to court because he knows that the group taking the others to court is wrong in everyway, enacting unrighteousness through pagan power structures. On the other hand, I am not convinced that Paul would have put things the same way if those taking others to court had been ensuring that righteousness would take place. Herein are the dangers of pre-modern interpretation, universalizing contextual words in ways that can in some cases actually reinforce ungodly ends. In this case, I suspect that sin is almost always involved somewhere when a Christian takes another Christian to court.
Reading 1 John Reflectively as Scripture
With some sense of what the original meaning might be, we
can now return to what 1 John might mean for us as Scripture. To reach this
meaning, we need a bit of Wesley’s Quadrilateral to bring us from then to now.
I submit the following theology of sin from 1 John:
1. There is no person who does not need Christ’s atonement.
All have sinned, and anyone who says they do not have sin deceives themselves. This dictum has the support of Christian history and is the agreed position of Christians everywhere today.
2. But sin is incompatible with the fundamental character of a Christian.
God’s seed and word in us stands in direct conflict with a lifestyle of sinning. Sin should not be typical of a Christian.
Here I face an uphill battle when it comes to the majority view in current Christendom. The Wesleyan tradition reflects the position of only a small portion of the church in its belief that God can provide victory over sin. Nevertheless, this is the biblical position and one that I feel represents the right conception of God as One who is able to empower believers. The pessimistic view that God gives up on us in relation to sin seems somehow to undersell God. On these warrants I stand with my tradition in laying a prophetic stake on this issue. 1 John, and as we will see the rest of the New Testament, does not in any way encourage or assume that sin will be a part of a believer’s life, particularly in terms of concrete, intentional wrongdoing.
1 John in particular formulates sin in terms of love and hate. In its original context, these words had overtones of the Gnostics who had left the community and had shown hatred for their brothers and sisters. 1 John calls them murderers (3:15), something reflected in their refusal to help their brothers and sisters in need even though they had the resources to do so (3:17). However, as Scripture, we can formulate the “touchstone” of sin in relation to acts of love (4:7-8).
I say acts because I believe 1 John and indeed the New Testament authors thought of love really in concrete terms rather than in terms of feelings. I do not think John was thinking of being perfect in love in terms of our feelings. But I think a person can be by John’s standard perfect in concrete love—in always doing that which is loving when a choice to love or not to love presents itself. I am including “mental acts” here as well, for the Sermon on the Mount makes it clear that we can act sinfully with our minds as well as with our bodies. I don’t mean the kind of introspective spiral that we Westerners are particularly good at, but concrete acts of the mind. We have had feelings and those feelings come to a choice in our minds.
3. It is possible to “die” as a result of your sin.
I suspect that the New Testament authors generally assumed that a person who had truly come to Christ was in for life. However, extreme cases required them to see that a person could “sin unto death” and thereby lose their reservation for salvation on the Day of Judgment.
4. We have a good lawyer.
1 John expresses the fact that all have sinned (1:8, 10) and that sin is fundamentally incompatible with the character of a Christian (3:9). But I think 1 John 2:1 pretty much sums the whole thing up for John:
“My children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if someone should sin, we have an advocate with the Father: Jesus Christ the Righteous One.”
To be sure, John probably has concrete actions in mind here. I’m writing these things so that you won’t be deceived by this heretical group and sin by leaving us or withdrawing your support from us. But if you have gone astray in these ways or have dabbled with leaving the community, God will forgive you. I am writing these things so that you will have fellowship with us (1:3). After all, we are presenting to you things that we have seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears (1:1-2).
So all have sinned in the past, but it would be inappropriate to continue sinning now as Christians. Sin in the life of a Christian can actually lead to death. But if you sin, we have a go-between named Jesus. He died as an atoning sacrifice for sins (2:2).
Paul, Sin, and Believers
With regard to the subject at hand, the part of 1 John that is most relevant is 3:9: John’s comment that the person who has been born of God is not able to continue to sin. I have taken this as a statement that sees sin as antithetical to the very “nature” of what it means to be a Christian. For John, it is certainly possible for a Christian to sin, but sin is something that needs forgiveness and some sins knock you right out of fellowship with God. John wrote so that his audience would not sin in the ways they were tempted, revealing sin’s negative nature. Finally, love of the brothers is the antithesis of sin in 1 John.
What a radical statement 1 John 3:9 seems, that the person born of God cannot continue to sin! Doesn’t this flatly contradict what the apostle Paul has to say on this subject? God forbid! In reality, this position is the same one that Paul himself takes in his letters.
I begin with mention of 1 Corinthians 10:13, a memory verse for a Wesleyan child:
Temptation has not taken you except that which is human. But God is faithful who does not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but He will also make an escape with the temptation, so that you are able to bear it.
So what exactly was Paul talking about when he wrote these words in 1 Corinthians 10:13? It was in a discussion of eating meat sacrificed to idols, of idolatry, of sexual immorality, and of the grumbling of the Israelites in the desert. All of these were issues for the Corinthian church.
Again, Paul is not thinking of “micro-intention” in this passage. He is discussing things like going to a pagan temple or having sex with a prostitute. No Christian group should have any doubt but that God can provide victory over any temptation to do anything like these. Were some Corinthians tempted to visit prostitutes or sleep with their step mothers (1 Cor. 5 and 6)? There was no excuse for them. God is a God who makes it possible to overcome such temptations. Were some Corinthians tempted to attend public meetings at pagan temples to advance their careers in civic life? God had you covered even if this temptation was almost unbearable. In short, Paul believed that sin on this level was completely avoidable through the empowerment of God.
We might further note for the record that Paul also says something akin to John’s “sin unto death.” In 1 Corinthians 9:27 Paul says, “But I subjugate my body and I lead it into servitude lest somehow after I have preached to others, I myself might become unworthy.” At this point many of my Lutheran and Calvinist friends protest the deal about “works.” You make this verse sound as if certain human “works” are necessary to be found worthy on the Day of Judgment. This isn’t the time to discuss it, but I don’t think Paul would know what you’re talking about. As a Jew he just did not formulate the distinction the way some Protestants have. If he did, then what could he possibly mean when he commends the Thessalonians for their “work of faith” (1 Thess. 1:3)? As I say sometimes when my interpretations are criticized for being incoherent on something like this, “Talk to Paul about it. I’m just telling you what he said.”
As a lead in to our next entry on Paul, I want to mention Galatians 5:16:
“Walk by the Spirit and you will never fulfill the desire of the flesh.”
Here’s a sticky wicket for the person who thinks Paul saw the Christian life as constant failure in relation to “the good I want to do.” On the contrary, Paul here uses the “subjunctive of emphatic negation,” involving not just one, but two “nots.” By the way, in English two nots make a yes. In Greek they only increase the “not-iness.”
So Paul does not say, the Spirit might enable you to resist the flesh. Paul does not even say casually, the Spirit often enables you to resist the flesh. Paul says that Spirit and flesh are opposing forces over which the Spirit can always win.
What was he talking about in context? He was trying to head off the abuse of his theology at the pass. Much of Galatians targets a community that is in danger of “becoming enslaved” to the Jewish law unnecessarily. They are Gentiles, and Paul believes they are endangering their reception of God’s grace by turning to the Jewish law for justification—“you have been nullified from Christ, you who are being justified in the Law, you have fallen from grace.”
I personally think that Paul had recently been burned by the Corinthians in his “not under law” teaching. “Hey, Paul,” the Corinthians said, “we’re so not under the Law—we have a guy here who’s sleeping with his step-mother! Aren’t we spiritual?” Paul was horrified. How can you be proud of something like that? No, don’t let your freedom in Christ become an opportunity for the flesh (Gal. 5:13). It is in this context that these words of Paul appear.
So what are the desires of the flesh that Christians can have victory over? Paul gives us a list in 5:19-21: “sexual immorality, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hostilities, strife, jealousy, angers, quarrels, divisiveness, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and similar things...” Can a Christian have victory over the “flesh” and the sins it leads to because of its desires? Yes, Paul insists a Christian can and will.
Again, the tendency of the Western conscience is to make some of these hyper-introspective (e.g. envy or jealousy). Given what we think we understand about ancient Mediterranean personality (of course we could be wrong) these would relate much more to concrete intentions rather than passing thoughts or even periods of certain feelings. A Christian can be completely victorious—by the power of the Spirit—over both concrete acts of sexual immorality and concrete intentions toward sexual immorality. A person can consistently resist the urge to act or formulate concrete intentions regarding jealousy, anger, or envy.
This would not mean that a person will necessarily become free of jealous thoughts or feelings from time to time, although I personally believe such things should decrease exponentially as one’s Christian life progresses. As a childhood proverb goes, “You can’t stop a bird from flying overhead, but you can keep it from making a nest in your hair.” But in theory, all Christians—not just some entirely sanctified subset—should be consistently victorious over concrete actions of the sort we have mentioned. Of course we know that the ideal often isn’t the real, something we must eventually factor into the equation.
Paul and Romans 7
Martin Marty wrote several decades ago of the “Baptistification”
of American Christianity.
This trend and melting of Christianity into a generally Baptist ethos continues
today. Marty’s Christianity Today
article focused particularly on the move away from infant baptism in American
even in churches that historically baptized infants. I would add to this list
churches such as our own (the Wesleyan) that find increasing grass roots
opposition to women in ministry, not to mention the general sense in
And while many are proud to say that they attend “non-denominational”
churches, these churches are really specimens of a Baptistified American
Christian tradition. They are not Catholic; they are not Methodist; they are a
Baptist base with a few modifications from other traditions. I would strongly
disagree with the false impression that they are free of the denominational
divides over theology from earlier days. They are simply a congregational “denomination”
whose connections are cultural and theological rather than structural. The Message as a “translation” and The Purpose Driven Life as a catechism give
us a lovely snapshot of the status quo in the non-denominational denomination
of which I speak. David and
I might add as a footnote that we and other groups have had some influence on the Baptist tradition as well. Most Baptists believe in free will and in the possibility of knowing you are “saved.” These are not natural Baptist elements—they are foreign elements that actually remove the philosophical foundations of what they now call “eternal security,” something distinct from the original “perseverance of the saints.” These changes reflect the influence of Arminian traditions on the Baptist tradition. Similarly, I wonder if the Lutheran influence in relation to the faith/works debate has led to the general sense that “all sins are the same” and “I’m not perfect just forgiven.”
It is this last part of the “Christian bookstore meltdown” that I want to address. I find even Wesleyan pastors who base their understanding of sin in the life of a believer on Romans 7:15: “What I want to do I don’t do, but what I hate, that I do.” I believe the reason this sentiment has won the day in American Christianity is because it resonates with our experience to the very core. This verse is how most American Christians feel. I want to do the right thing, but it just seems like I’m always doing exactly the opposite of what I want to do. I just always feel like a failure at doing the things that please God.
Now I personally don’t feel that way about myself really. And I don’t say that because I want to be the poster child for moral victory. I’m telling you this because what I did at the end of the last paragraph is exactly what Paul does in Romans 7:7-25—he is putting himself in the shoes of the person under the Law who wants to keep the Law but is unable because of the power of sin. He is not talking about his own current struggle to be victorious over sin or about some ongoing defeatism in the Christian life over sin. The problem is again our tendency is to read verses in isolation from their context as bumper stickers and memory verses. To do so in this case would be to misunderstand Paul, indeed to make the text say the opposite of the point Paul was actually trying to make.
This is an atrocious misreading of Paul, despite its prevalence! It requires us to rip these words from a sustained argument Paul is making against being a slave to sin and in explanation of the role the Law used to play before the coming of Christ. It results in reading Paul’s words in a way diametrically opposed to his actual argument. Whether we can live up to Paul’s theology is a different question, but what Paul was saying in this regard is overwhelmingly clear in the overall context of Romans 6-8.
To understand the section 7:7-25, we must go back to Romans 6 and even before. Paul’s style in Romans is to make a point and then ask questions about that point either to bolster his point or to make sure his audience does not misunderstand him or draw the wrong conclusions from the point. In this case, Paul has made the comment that “where sin was abundant, grace was superabundant” (5:20). Paul knew what people were accusing him of. They were saying he taught, “Let us do evil things so that good things will come” (3:8).
Paul heads this objection off at the pass. “What will we say, therefore? Should we sin so that grace might be abundant? God forbid. How will we who have died to sin still live in it?” (6:1-2). Paul dedicates the rest of chapters 6 and 7 to this issue and the matter of where the Jewish Law plays into it all. From this comment alone we can see what Paul’s position on this issue is. There is no ambiguity. Those who have died to sin should not continue to sin. If you conclude that Paul sees sin as the norm of a Christian’s life, you have a lot of explaining to do.
I have been amazed at how difficult it is for some to accept that this is in fact what Paul is saying. I have had online students explore the contrast in Romans 6 between being a slave to sin and being a slave to righteousness. I inevitably have several who will conclude something like, “While Paul seems to say in these verses that a Christian is no longer a slave to sin, we know from Romans 7:7ff that he can’t really mean this.” Poppycock. If we are to conclude differently, we must do it in theology or experience class. Paul himself will have none of it. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free [past tense, something that should already have happened] from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1).
Again, Paul’s meaning in Romans 6 does not seem ambiguous in the slightest:
“For when you were [past tense] slaves of sin, you were free to righteousness... But now [present] that you have been freed [past tense] from sin and enslaved to God [past tense] you have [present tense] the fruit unto holiness, and [in] the end [you will have] eternal life” (Rom. 6:20, 22).
Paul is clearly talking about actions. He uses the word “fruit” in this passage in reference to how you live (cf. the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians). In 6:12 he has clearly connected the discussion to lifestyle when he says, “Do not let sin rule in your mortal body with the result that you obey its desires.”
In short, this chapter is no Lutheran “legal fiction” where God considers us righteous even though we are really still sinners through and through. This passage is about the rule of forces in a person’s manner of living. The person enslaved to sin presents their members “to sin as instruments of unrighteousness” (6:13). The person enslaved to God presents their members “to God as instruments of righteousness.”
These comments do not seem ambiguous in the slightest. Christians should not be slaves to sin and thereby producing unrighteousness in their lives. Christians should be slaves to righteousness and producing a holy fruit in their lives. If you think Paul sees sin as the norm of a Christian’s life, you have a lot of explaining to do.
Chapter 7 continues this theme, this time discussing the
role of the Law in the equation. This was a sore point because Paul seemed to
be bucking the Old Testament when he told people they were not under the Jewish
Law. He seemed to be throwing away the very covenant between God and
The place of the Law in Paul’s theology is a difficult issue for me and many others to nail down. I feel like Luther’s attempt to see it strictly in legal terms—a standard that God simply doesn’t use any more—was a noble failure. In contrast, in some way I don’t fully understand, Paul saw the law as a catalyst for sin’s power. As he says in 1 Corinthians 15:56, “Sin is the sting of death, and the Law is the power of sin.” I don’t quite know how it all works, but not to be “under the law” for Paul means that in some way sin no longer has power over you the way it did before (cf. Rom. 6:14). It is not just a matter of legality. For Paul it involves a very real freedom from the power of sin that had been exacerbated by the Law.
Paul begins Romans 7 with the claim that people are only under the law as long as they are alive. Since we have died with Christ, we are no longer under the Law. But the verses of most interest to us are Romans 7:5-6, which repeat the same things Paul has already said in Romans 6:
“For when we were [past tense] in the flesh, the passions of sins through the Law were working [past tense] in our members, with the result that we bore fruit to death.
“But now [present] we have been set free from the law [past tense] by which we were being held [past tense], having died, with the result that we serve in newness of Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.”
Again, Paul is talking about actions, not about some theological fiction. We (Paul and the Romans) were in the flesh, and the power of sin worked through the Law in some way that led to sinful actions. But now that we are not under the Law, sin does not hold this power over our members, and we can now serve in newness of Spirit. Once again, if you think Paul sees sin as the norm of a Christian’s life, you have a lot of explaining to do.
These verses are key to understanding Romans 7:7-25, for this passage expands on the concept of the first verse: “When we were in the flesh, the passions of sins through the Law were working in our members, with the result that we bore fruit to death.” Paul answers two questions.
Question 1: “Is the Law sin?” (7:7).
Paul, are you saying that the Law is actually evil? No. Paul explains that the law itself “is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good” (7:12). Rather sin took [past tense] opportunity through the commandment to bring about all kinds of desires (7:8).
As a footnote, I’m taking Paul slightly out of context in the way I’m presenting his thought here. Paul believed that he and the Romans lived at the turning of the ages, in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4-5). There was a sense in which the world ceased to be “under the Law” when Christ came in the fullness of time.
Question 2: “Did the good [the Law] become [past tense] death to me?” (7:13).
No. “But sin, in order that it might appear as sin, was working death through the good [the Law] in order that sin might become incredibly sinful through the commandment” (7:13). We note again that this entire discussion has taken place in the past tense. Paul is speaking of what was true of a Jew in particular (“those who know the Law” 7:1) before Christ.
We now enter the debated zone, 7:14-24: “For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, having been sold under sin” (7:14). It is true that Paul was in flesh when he wrote these words, for he was in his body. But Paul cannot mean that he is currently “sold under sin” unless everything he has said up to this point was a lie, a farce.
To be “sold under sin” is an equivalent phrase to being a “slave to sin.” Paul has clearly identified this state to the period before a person comes to Christ. Let’s review:
1. “When you were slaves of sin... But now since you have been freed from sin...” (6:20, 22). This verse clearly locates being sold under sin as a condition prior to Christianity.
2. “When we were in the flesh, the passions of sins used to work in our members bearing fruit to death, but now we are released from the Law...” (7:5-6). Again, this verse clearly locates being in the flesh to the time before we died with Christ.
3. How about the verse right before 7:14: “Did the good [the Law] become death to me?” Again, Paul is talking about something true of their past.
4. Let’s move forward and look to the end of Paul’s argument, after he has finished the verses of 7:14-24: “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you [past tense] from the law of sin and death...” (8:2).
It is clear from the timing of these statements that Paul is not talking about his current experience. Paul’s statement in 7:14, as well as in 7:25, is a description of the default human state: “sold under sin.” Before Christ, a Jew might have wanted to keep the Jewish law, but because the Spirit was not in force, they would have been unable to do so. Such a person might have said something like 7:25: “With my mind I serve the Law of God, but with my flesh the Law of sin.” Since Paul goes on in 8:2 to say we are free from the law of sin and death, 7:25 cannot be a statement of Paul’s current experience or the default state of a Christian. Paul is speaking of the person without the Spirit who wants to keep the Jewish Law but is unable to do so because of their flesh, something 7:5-6 and 8:8 tell us Christians are not “in.”
Such a person might say something like 7:15: “I do not practice what I want, but I do what I hate.” The reason is exactly what Paul has been saying throughout this whole section. Sin is taking opportunity through the commandment (e.g., 7:8, 11). Remember that he was speaking past tense then. Also here he is putting himself into that person’s shoes: “I see a different law in my members, striving against the Law of my mind and warring against me by the Law of sin which is in my members” (7:23).
Again, Paul has already spoken several times of this working in my members in the past tense (e.g., 7:5). There remains only one argument in favor of the popular reading: “But Paul is speaking in the present tense.” Yes, but it is a beginner’s perspective on language to think that the present tense always means present time. I used the present tense above to make a theological point that was not true of my current experience. Take one joke introduction, “A man walks up to you and says...” No one thinks the speaker is talking about something that is happening right then. This is not a good argument when you consider Paul’s train of thought everywhere in this unit!
Notice the fevered pitch he reaches in his dramatic portrayal of the person who wants to keep the Law but is a slave to sin: “A wretched man am I! Who will rescue me from the body of this death?”
So many stop here. Paul is begging you today to go on to the resolution: “Thanks be to God! Through Jesus Christ our Lord [I am freed from the body of this death].”
Romans 8 begins with the victory song over the accomplishment of the “impossibility” of Romans 7:14-24: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus [the person in 7:14-24 was not in Christ Jesus], for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death [that we were just talking about].” The festivities continue: “The impossibility of the Law in that it was weak because of the flesh... God condemned this sin in the flesh” (8:3).
In fact, now “the righteous requirement of the Law may be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh, but according to Spirit” (8:4). Walking is the Jewish way of talking about ethics—how you live. This is no theological fiction where the Christian is like Luther’s dictum: “At the same time sinner and righteous as long as you’re always repenting.” Hogwash! Paul’s meaning is not ambiguous in the slightest about the appropriateness of sin in the life of a believer. In the end, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:8).
So what is Paul’s position on sin in the life of a believer? It really isn’t that hard of a question. He answered it way back in Romans 6:15: “Should we sin, because we are not under Law but under grace? No, what are you crazy?” (the last line’s a Schenck paraphrase).
Now to move to practice we will have to take experience into account. After I have spelled out what Paul has said here, we still have to work out a practical theology of sin. But the theory seems pretty clear. I remain dumbfounded at the prevailing popular interpretation of Romans 7 with all its defeatism. In short, Paul has no theology that expects sin to typify the life of a believer.
Paul and the Flesh
You may have noticed that I have consistently translated as “flesh” what the NIV translates as “sinful nature.” In my opinion, this move on the part of the NIV can perpetuate misunderstandings.
Although Paul can say that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8), it is clear enough that there is a connection between physical flesh and Paul’s use of this word. Otherwise, why would Paul use it? There is an overlap on some level between our mortal bodies, our flesh, and our “members” as Paul talks about them. On the other hand, there is a point in Paul’s argument where flesh becomes a metaphor for “bodies under the power of sin,” and of this a person can be free.
As far as I can tell, the idea of a sinful nature is an Augustinian invention. And in holiness circles it eventually gave rise to questions over whether the sinful nature could be “eradicated” or whether it was only “suppressed” in an experience we call “entire sanctification.” If indeed the whole “nature” discussion is slightly misleading, then it may very well be that this entire discussion is a bit of a rabbit trail.
Sin for Paul was more a power than a nature. It may work on my members and on my physical flesh, but Paul can also talk about it in distinction from my members and my flesh.
Let’s hone in on what Paul understood “the flesh” to be, remembering that God inspired him to speak within the categories of his own ancient worldview. To give an example, we should not be surprised or troubled that Paul could speak of being caught up to the “third heaven,” as if you went straight up through three layers of sky to God (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2). After all, that’s the way many Jews in Paul’s day pictured the universe. Why wouldn’t God speak to Paul in the categories he understood?
Similarly, we should not be surprised that the truth of Paul’s message comes to us in the garb of not a little ancient psychology. It is as inappropriate to build a precise human psychology off of Paul as it is to construct a precise picture of the cosmos from his words. After all, Paul’s imagery of human psychology is different from Genesis and other parts of the Bible that come from other periods of history when even different pictures of human psychology were in play. For example, “soul” in Genesis refers to the entirety of a living being (including the sea creatures of Genesis 1). These were not the points of inspiration God was making but the “clothing” in which He was revealing His message to people with particular worldviews, meeting them where they were at in their own categories.
The starting point for understanding what Paul means by “the flesh” is clearly our physical bodies. A careful examination of the comments Paul makes throughout his writings reflects a sense that what we think of as the physical world—including our physical bodies—is subject to the powers of sin. Paul thus says in Romans 8:20:
“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willfully but in hope, because of the One subjecting it. Because even the creation itself will be freed from the slavery of corruption to the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
Part of the subjection of the creation to the slavery of corruption is the subjection of the elements of the world to the power of sin. Paul alludes to this power sin has over the elements in Galatians 4:3-5:
“We, when we were infants, had been enslaved under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those under the Law, in order that we might receive the adoption.”
Again, I do not fully understand what Paul is thinking here. But he connects the power of sin by way of the Law to the physical nature of the universe, the elements of the world. The antidote is the Spirit. Paul continues:
“But because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts crying, ‘Abba,’ [which means] Father” (Gal. 4:6).
As a side note, we might remind ourselves that this entrance of the Spirit into human hearts is not about a second work of grace here. The most fundamental use of Spirit for Paul is in the very entrance into sonship. As he says in Romans 8:9: “If someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this one is not of him.” One of the most unfortunate misunderstandings I had as a child was my impression that we first receive the Holy Spirit at entire sanctification. This of course is not what the Wesleyan Church actually teaches, since the Wesleyan Church teaches that we initially receive the Holy Spirit at the time of “initial sanctification” when we first come to Christ.
But it seems to me that the holiness tradition has historically focused so much on our concept of the “fullness” of the Spirit in entire sanctification that we have often failed to hear the way Paul talks about the Spirit. Paul sees the Holy Spirit as the very threshold of becoming a Christian, the “seal” of God’s ownership (2 Cor. 1:22) and the down payment and guarantee of our heavenly destiny (2 Cor. 5:5). This is one aspect of our teaching that I think has tended to be somewhat out of biblical focus.
If my body is subject to the power of sin through the commandments of the Law, the Holy Spirit is the “stuff of heaven” inside of me that frees me from this power and enslaves me to righteousness. This is a kind of “sanctification,” as 2 Thessalonians 2:13 speaks of how God chose the Thessalonians for salvation “by the sanctification of the Spirit and by faith in the truth.” I should note that Paul is talking about the Thessalonian church as a whole here, even though I am applying it individually as well.
Paul can use sanctification language not only in reference to the event of coming to Christ, as in this verse, but he can speak of the carnal, fleshly Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:2) and even of non-Christian spouses who are married to believers (1 Cor. 7:14) as “sanctified.” If we remain true to the biblical text, we will have to find a way to define sanctification so that it accommodates passages like these.
Sanctification refers primarily to becoming associated with a god and thus becoming holy, dedicated and belonging to a deity. The temple prostitutes of pagan gods were thus considered holy to those gods. The term has as much of a “feel” to it as a logical meaning. I think of something that is radioactive and that you approach it with caution. Or think of how careful you would be around a bully or abusive person’s stuff. There is an aura around it that makes you careful and cautious.
How much more so with God! The holiness of God led Isaiah to
fall on his face in Isaiah 6. The holiness of
The sanctification of an unbelieving spouse or of the
children of such a marriage is thus more than some banal influence on them. It
is a “spiritual zone” around the believer that actually makes it more likely
that the spouse and children will come to Christ and that they will be less
under the power of sin—even if they are not saved in the end (1 Cor. 7:14). The Corinthians, as carnal as they are, are
still in the “spiritual zone” that is the church at
Paul can also speak of a kind of “entire sanctification” when he prays that the Thessalonians’ whole spirit, soul, and body might be sanctified (1 Thess. 5:23). Of course the “you” is plural here. Paul is not strictly presenting some individualistic or standardized experience in this verse. But I think it is legitimate for us to connect the dots as John Wesley did. These passages do not seem to institutionalize a definite, instantaneous experience subsequent to coming to faith. But they connect sanctification to being possessed of God’s Spirit and they imply that such a person is not a slave to sin. This fact sets us up to urge Christians toward the sanctification of their entire being, in connection with not being in the flesh. We can still preach entire sanctification as the logical conclusion of Paul’s theology even if he did not formulate it precisely in the terms our tradition has used in the past.
But before moving on to consider how this theology might play itself out in Christian experience today, we should finish discussing how Paul views flesh. It is clear that a person’s literal flesh for Paul is that part of us that is most susceptible to the power of sin and Satan. The law is also the power of sin as it seems to exacerbate the human tendency to sin (1 Cor. 15:56).
By contrast, the Spirit is the antidote to the flesh. The
law of the Spirit sets us free from the law of sin and death (
Clearly a person’s ability to live above sin and temptation is linked to the presence of the Spirit in their lives. At the same time, we will always have our mortal bodies with us as well until the resurrection. In that sense, the “flesh” is only as far away as our bodies, just as righteousness is only as far away as the Holy Spirit. Again, there is great potential for something like our doctrine of entire sanctification in these observations.
Of course we might use different imagery if we were to express these truths in our current worldview. We at least think we know a great deal about the brain, for example. While desires may not be limited to chemical reactions in my brain, no one today could deny that such biochemical processes are a major part of desires and choices. A colleague of mine in the psychology department tells me that it might be possible to stimulate certain parts of the frontal lobe to where a person would feel they were experiencing God. He does not deny that God actually interacts with us, only that there is a physical dimension to religious experiences in our brains.
I am willing to say that when God’s Spirit takes hold of us, He actually changes the structure of our minds physically. These are not areas of my expertise, so I’ll leave these musings to Christian doctors and psychologists. My point is biblical. Paul believes that the Holy Spirit empowers us to be victorious over sin and temptation. The default human state is to be “in the flesh,” a situation in which a person cannot do the good even if they want to do it. This theory should inform what kind of a theology of experience we might build out of these building blocks from Paul.
The Bible and Christian Experience
Right after I wrote on Romans 7 above, I ironically heard the testimony of someone who for a while did not believe she could be a Christian because of anger she had toward her mother. 1 John 3:15 says that “everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him.” She concluded that she would have to be a good pagan, since she couldn’t let go of hatred toward her mother.
Her breakthrough came with the popular understanding of Romans 7. She came to believe that what was important was that she wanted to let go of hatred toward her mother, not that she was always able to “do the good I want to do.” From then on she saw herself as another Christian who was “forgetting those things behind and reaching out to those things ahead, I pursue toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14—she didn’t actually mention this verse—I’m adding to the story).
Now I don’t know her heart then and I don’t know the rest of the story, whether she ever felt like she was able to forgive her mother. But I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt that she really did want to forgive her mother but found it impossible to control her anger. In what follows I am not so much addressing her story as using what little I know of her story to discuss the question of sin in the life of a believer.
First I’d like to play the “modern” card in relation to 1 John 3:15. The original connotations of the verse had concrete associations with a specific “heretical” group that had split with John’s community. They had withheld help and support from John’s community when they had it to give (cf. 1 John 3:17). I would thus make two important distinctions between what 1 John was talking about and the situation of this woman:
1. 1 John is not talking about feelings.
It is talking about concrete actions that the group could have done to help when they chose not to. If this woman felt serious anger toward her mother, but forced herself to do concretely what she believed was appropriate in relation to her mother, I believe she kept the command to love.
Further, I don’t think this woman was a “murderer” in John’s sense if she let her tongue slip at some point for which she then asked forgiveness. I don’t think she was a “murderer” in John’s sense if she didn’t return phone calls for a week or two. I don’t think she was a murderer in John’s sense if she didn’t visit for a while because she didn’t want to see her mother. Did she sin if she did these things? I think so. But I don’t think these are quite the sins of murder 1 John has in mind.
On the other hand, if a person would continue to refuse to ask forgiveness, or continue to refuse to answer phone calls out of hate and continue to ignore the person out of spite for a prolonged period of time, if you were to harbor resentment in your heart for years without doing anything about it, then I’m prepared to consider you a murderer in accordance with 1 John 3:17. The Bible gives no excuse to such a person. Such a person does not really even want to forgive or be reconciled. This person continues to sin willfully after receiving a knowledge of the truth (co-opting the language of Hebrews 10:26 for a different context). If it persists, it seems to me there is a sin unto death in the making.
2. I don’t think 1 John is addressing what might be a process of coming to forgive someone.
I don’t want to say that God can’t or doesn’t instantaneously enable people to forgive or do amazing things they could never do in their own power. But sometimes humans take time to heal, and I don’t think that 1 John is talking about such a process either. In my opinion, the sin 1 John pictures is not the sin of a moment. It is a trajectory, an ongoing orientation involving concrete actions.
I have gotten off track a little. My above discussion turned somewhat into a question of when sin might reach such a pitch that it severs a person’s relationship with God and Christ. But this whole series is not about how much you can sin. It’s about how little a person might sin through God’s power.
This point of the discussion seems a good place to discuss the popular interpretation of Philippians 3 that I allude to above. Let us clarify what that passage is about before proceeding.
[I want] to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I might reach the resurrection of the dead. Not that I have already received [it] or have already been perfected. But I pursue [it] if even I might take hold upon that which I was taken hold of by Christ.
Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold [of it]. But one thing [I do]: forgetting the things behind and reaching out to the things ahead, I pursue in accordance with the goal toward the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus.
Therefore, as many as are perfect [mature], let us think this [way]. And if you are thinking something different, God will also reveal this [fact] to you. However, let us walk up to [the level] we have already attained.
In context, the things Paul is forgetting and leaving behind are not his failures, but things he might have considered gain from a human perspective (e.g., Phil. 3:7). Indeed, one of the things Paul is leaving behind is the fact that “according to the righteousness that is in the Law, [I was] blameless” (Phil. 3:6). There goes the false but all too prevalent misconception that Paul thought he was a horrible sinner before he came to Christ. In contrast, the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 probably gives us a better picture of what Paul thought about himself before he came to Christ.
Similarly, if we pay attention to what Paul has been talking about in the context, it is the resurrection that Paul has not yet attained. Since Paul doesn’t tell us what the “it” is that he has not attained in 3:12, we have to look to the previous verse to get the context (3:11). We see that it is the resurrection that Paul has not yet attained. And thus this is the sense in which Paul has not been perfected—he has not yet been resurrected. He is not saying “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”
What is he pursuing to obtain in 3:14? Again, it’s the “upward call” (3:14), yet another reference to resurrection. In 3:15, he now plays on the words to say, “As many of us therefore [who are] perfect [meaning, mature], think this way.” This passage has nothing to do with the easy, “I’m a failure but God loves me” Zeitgeist of your neighborhood Christian bookstore. He’s talking about qualifying for the resurrection because he remains faithful (see 1 Cor. 9:27).
To be sure, there is an element of “growth in grace” in these verses. But you’ll note that the attitude is not to excuse failure in what we have already attained. The attitude is one of victory toward what we have attained in growth, to walk in accordance to where we are. But the goal and the meaning of perfection in 3:12 looks to the resurrection. Paul’s point is not that he is not morally perfect, but that his resurrection is not fully assured unless he endures to the end.
The Practice of Freedom from Sin
In the previous entries I have tried to sketch out the theory of victory over sin. We saw that
John saw sin as incompatible with the very essence of who a Christian is. God
seed is in you, so sin isn’t what we should expect to see in your lifestyle.
Similarly, Paul told us that Christians do not live “according to the flesh”
and that they are not “enslaved to sin.” “Those who are in the flesh cannot
please God” (
Paul is not speaking in these passages of something he
expects to happen to you in a second
experience after you become a Christian. Take the following verses: “You are not in flesh, but in Spirit, if indeed the
Spirit of God dwells in you. And if someone does not have the Spirit of Christ,
this person is not of him” (
Here is where we find a disconnect between theory and practice. In the end, Romans 7 would capture well the feeling of a lot of Christians out there. If all Christians were free from sin in practice, then Paul would not have to say, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires” (Rom. 6:12). Despite the theory, we nevertheless frequently find Christians giving in to their flesh.
Indeed, Paul places the problem Corinthians in this category: “I was not able to speak to you as spiritual, but as individuals made of flesh, as babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, for you were not yet able [to handle it]. But even now you are not able [to handle it], for you are still fleshly. For when strife and discord are among you, are you not fleshly and walking on a human level?” (1 Cor. 3:1-3). I grew up with preaching that systematized these words. You start off the “natural man” of 1 Corinthians 2:14. Then you become a Christian, but as a baby Christian you are the “carnal man,” the person in the flesh. Finally, at entire sanctification, you become the “spiritual man.”
Paul gives us no such rigid system here. This is a good example of the fact that we are only listening to one side to a conversation. It is very possible that the contrast between what the KJV called the “natural man” and the “spiritual man” in 2:14 is a distinction that came from the Corinthians themselves. They are calling themselves spiritual in contrast to people like Paul, whom they are calling “soulish” (the word behind the KJV’s natural man). Paul then takes their terms and applies his own categories, namely, the contrast between the spiritual person and the fleshly or carnal person. In other words, Paul is not presenting a three stage progression. He is countering their two category system (soulish versus spiritual) with his own two category system (carnal versus spiritual).
Nevertheless, if we don’t take these terms so rigidly, we have something like the preaching I grew up with. While in theory, you would expect all Christians to be spiritual rather than fleshly, we unfortunately find some Christians who are immature, Christian babies. These are “carnal” or “fleshly” Christians over whom sin still has power. The goal is of course to end this oxymoronic state of “carnal Christians,” for Christians to “become what they are.”
The Spirit Fillings of Acts
Before we go further, we should ask whether the book of Acts entails exactly such an experience where one goes from being carnal to spiritual. We note right off the bat that Acts never uses these categories in this way. But the holiness tradition after Wesley, under the influence of Phoebe Palmer and the “John Fletcher” branch of Wesley’s heirs, institutionalized a moment of “entire sanctification” in conjunction with the spirit fillings of the book of Acts. I can scarcely go too much farther before I discuss the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” in Acts.
We are at a difficult point today with regard to this way of viewing entire sanctification. You will hardly find any New Testament scholar who reads the spirit fillings of Acts in this way, even at institutions from the holiness tradition. You won’t find anyone espousing this view who wasn’t taught it by someone else. In other words, I don’t think you would come to this conclusion on the basis of the book of Acts itself—those who see it in Acts come to the text with this interpretation already in hand.
In the world of Luke-Acts, the Day of Pentecost is the arrival of the Spirit promised in Luke 3:16. In Luke-Acts, no one has received the Holy Spirit yet before Pentecost, for this is the very arrival of the Spirit in the Christian sense, the very fulfillment of the prophecy made by John the Baptist.
In Acts 19:1-7, Paul does not consider the water baptism of John sufficient to make a person a “Christian.” He has certain individuals re-baptized in the name of Jesus even though they were already baptized by John. It is only then that they receive the Holy Spirit. These individuals are baptized in the name of Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit in one foul swoop.
Similarly, the Roman soldiers of Acts 10 have never believed on Christ before they receive the Holy Spirit in Acts 10. Indeed, they receive the Holy Spirit before they are baptized as Christians. We must again see them receiving the Spirit and becoming a Christian as associated experiences.
The Samaritans of Acts 8 are the only ones in Acts
where we have the Spirit coming significantly after baptism, and Acts seems to
treat the situation as unusual (cf. Acts 8:14-17). The disciples themselves have to go up
We therefore are on flimsy ground to consider the disciples to be Christians already on the Day of Pentecost, even though they were baptized by John. According to Paul in his writings (e.g., Rom. 8:9; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5), a person cannot be a Christian without the Holy Spirit. In that sense, no one can technically be called a Christian until the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes for the first time in this way (unless you want to count Jesus’ own baptism).
Some might want to bring in John here (John 20:22) and say that the disciples had received the initial coming of the Holy Spirit already. In my opinion, this move is a pre-modern argument that doesn’t read each gospel on its own terms. If I have to interpret on those terms, the text of John doesn’t say that they actually received the Holy Spirit at that moment. In context, however, I personally believe that this is a kind of symbolic allusion to Pentecost and that Jesus “breathing” on them does indeed symbolize them receiving the Spirit of Christ. Comparing John with the other gospels shows that it is kind of like the “New Living Translation” of Jesus, so we should not be surprised that John presents Pentecost somewhat allusively.
The key and programmatic verse on this subject in Acts is of course Acts 2:38: “Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The first part is obviously about becoming a Christian, and the last part says nothing like “and after a while, after you die to self, you will have the experience of entire sanctification.” The most natural way of reading the verse is to see all these items in association with becoming a Christian: 1) repentance, 2) baptism, 3) receiving the Holy Spirit.
In short, I don’t think you will only find entire sanctification in any of these verses unless you come to the text with it in hand. The term “the fullness of the Spirit” is a nice one that I actually like (more in a moment), but it is not a biblical term. Acts uses phrases like “receiving” the Spirit, the “baptism” of the Spirit, being “filled” with the Spirit interchangeably.
Reclaiming Our Heritage
So in what way can we speak of entire sanctification experientially? Let me start by recapping some of the conclusions I’ve already reached in this process:
1. The New Testament consistently considers sin incompatible with the nature of a Christian. In theory, a Christian should not sin or be under the flesh.
2. In practice, we often find Christians for whom #1 is not the case, even though it should be.
While we are now speaking logically and experientially, we can suggest that many Christians may find themselves at a point in their life where they sense they need to move to the next level in their spiritual pilgrimage. We know that despite the fact that Paul was not speaking of a Christian, many identify with his comment that “the good I want to do I don’t do.” Many Christians find themselves to struggle with matters of the flesh. It is at these points that the language we have used in our tradition, while not exactly biblical, still makes sense. While in theory all Christians could be victorious over sin from the very moment they become Christians, most apparently do not. Most seem to struggle with victory over sin and come to some sort of subsequent moment of deeper commitment.
Of course every aspect of our lives has to be consigned to the realm of the holy. Everything in our lives needs to belong to our God. If you refuse to surrender everything to God, there will be a point where a “sin unto death” stands around the corner. God demands everything. If you don’t eventually surrender, you have exposed the crucified Christ to public disgrace. God will not stand for it.
It makes sense to come to a point of commitment where you surrender everything to God. Logically, such surrender takes place at a point in time, even if you aren’t aware of the exact moment. Wesley used the image of death. There is a time when you know a person is alive and a point when you know someone is dead. The exact moment of transition may be indiscernible. In other cases, the moment may be quite definite.
Of course, once we have said this, we recognize that new things come into our lives that have to be surrendered. Old issues that we had surrendered can resurface. Life is complicated.
Fullness of the Holy Spirit
While Acts only uses the image of being “filled” with the Holy Spirit, the image of being completely full—“the fullness”—works. If you are only half God’s, then how could you be “full” of His Spirit? This language highlights something that our sense of “complete consecration” doesn’t, namely, that ultimately being under the power of the Spirit is something that requires God’s action. It is not something we can simply do by act of our will.
It is at this point that we can return to Paul’s imagery of becoming a slave to righteousness and becoming free from the law of sin and death. I don’t think Paul was defining a process here, but he was giving us the goal. Whatever it might mean truly to be under the power of God’s Spirit to where a person can fulfill the righteous requirement of the law, it must be something like what our tradition has called entire sanctification. And if the fulfillment of the law is love, then it must have looked something like what John Wesley called perfect love.
When I first blogged this series, I entitled it “Why I believe in victory over sin” because that is what I think it all comes down to. I believe that a Christian can live consistently victorious over temptation. I believe that a Christian can be “perfect” in the sense of consistently “acting” both in thought and mind in accordance to that which you know to be the right or to avoid that which you know to be the wrong.
I further believe that God can and does change our attitudes as well. I believe that we can become more and more loving as time goes by in feeling as well as action. I believe that even our feelings and spontaneous reactions can become ever more Christ-like. The current pessimistic view of sin in the life of believer simply isn’t biblical. And it doesn’t show much confidence in the power of God either.
As I reflect on my own struggles as a child, I expended a great deal of anguish and effort to be entirely sanctified. I myself can testify to having a Phoebe Palmer type experience of peace over the issue after a tortured quest. I feel I had things way out of perspective then. I was not really struggling with victory over temptation at that time but with whether or not I could put on my resume that I had been entirely sanctified. I think you’ll agree that this isn’t what Paul or the New Testament had in mind. It seems likely that most Christians reach a point where they have to surrender all and “be filled” in a new and more powerful way. But what we should be pursuing is victory over sin and temptation rather than an experience for its own sake. We only want the experience so that we can be victorious over sin. Perhaps these are the immaturities of my own youth.
The main point is that we can indeed be victorious over temptation and sin! This is the treasure of our tradition. It is a truth about which we should be proud (in a humble way J). It is something we should stand up for and defend as God’s own truth. We should not give in to the American meltdown taking place, but take a prophetic role in the church on the power of God over sin in the life of a believer.