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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Circumcision: Can I get that gift wrapped?

Once something has been cut off is it dead or alive? We'll come back to that question later.

There is a fundamental problem with everyone, wouldn't you agree? We are not just genetically deficient, we are morally flawed. We want things that are harmful to ourselves and others. We want things we cannot have. That's why most of us have painful relationships. We express our brokenness in different ways but we're all basically corrupted on the inside. (Don't worry, this post is going to get a lot better, and I'll explain the circumcision gift wrapping, just stick with it.)

Humans are not basically "good" as it's popular to believe. Anyone holding this view doesn't have kids and doesn't watch the news. Some people find comfort in their self-destructiveness and find ways to justify it. Others try hard to perform well and cover it up, to appear good. Unfortunately, neither strategy works. From day one, everyone has a self-centred heart -- everyone! Not to say we can't do good things, we just default to self-centredness, which we can agree is not just less than best but plain wrong.

This is a hard reality to face. No one likes to be told that trying to be good is a waste of time. Somehow we know we should be good but we keep choosing our personal needs over others. We keep trying to position ourselves above or ahead. We continue to insist that we are more important than the guy next to us and we know best. We'd prefer someone else to lose their happiness rather than us. All self-centredness is basically a deception about ourselves, the truth is that the value of our life does not out weigh the value of someone elses. The human heart is therefore naturally deceiving (see Jeremiah 17:9). The Bible refers to this condition as the "sinful nature".

The question I want to answer is not, how do I change my nature (because the answer is through following Jesus), but what nature does a Christian have? 

When you become a follower of Christ are you a sinner saved by grace (a sinner-saint) or a saint completely free from the sinful nature?

It was Martin Luther, the great reformer, who proposed the concept of Simul iustus et peccator "At the same time righteous and a sinner". This view is based on verses like Galatians 5:17 (NIV) "For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want." And Romans 7:17 (NASB) "So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me." 

This "sinner-saint" view is commonly held. At first hearing it portrays great humility but is not as freeing as one might think and can even become an excuse for sin. It can give some a wrong sense of lowliness and cause a constant repentance for "being a sinner". I disagree with the "sinner saved by grace mentality". Scripture declares that Christians were once sinners, and are now saints, saved only by the grace of God. Even the Corinthian church are referred to as saints!

Let's explore some scriptures that clarify this issue.

Colossians 2:11-12 (NIV) "In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead."

When a dude is circumcised he doesn't keep the foreskin and carry it around with him for future use -- it's dead and therefore useless. Doctors don't usually offer gift wrapping services for circumcision. In the same way, when we are spiritually circumcised in the death and burial of Christ, we can't keep the sinful nature around any longer for future use -- it's totally gone.

2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV) "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" 

The "old" is the sinful nature. The old and the new don't coexist. It's fairly straightforward. If they did Christians would be hybrid creations not new creations. 

The most compelling arguments come from the book of Romans. Simple reflection on these verses reveals the nature of a Christian. Paul writes:
  • Romans 6:2 (NASB) "How shall we who died to sin still live in it?"
  • Romans 6:6 (NIV) "For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin"
  • Romans 6:7 (NIV) " ... anyone who has died has been freed from sin."
  • Romans 6:11 (NIV) "In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus."
  • Romans 6:12 (NIV) "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires."
  • Romans 6:14 (NIV) "For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace."
  • Romans 6:18 (NIV) "You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness."
The confusion for some comes in chapter 7 of Romans were Paul seems to say the exact opposite of what he just wrote in Romans 6.
  • Romans 7:14 (NASB) "For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin."
  • Romans 7:18 (NASB) "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not."
  • Romans 7:19 (NASB) "For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want."
  • Romans 7:24 (NASB) "Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?"
The weight of the words used above don't sound like Paul is simply aware of an internal sinner-saint struggle, they are more serious and contrasting than that. Saying that he is in bondage to sin, nothing good dwells in him, he practices evil he doesn't want and that he is a wretched man are not in keeping with the theme of the book and other New Testament writings. These don't give room for a duality of human natures. There's no ying and yang in Romans 7. It's 100% bad!

For example, If nothing good dwells in him why does he so confidently urge others to imitate him? How can he claim such joy and peace if he constantly does things he hates? It is interesting to note that no other passage in the New Testament reflects what Paul appears to be saying here. Peter actually says in 2 Peter 1:3 (NASB) "His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness". Also, 1 John 3:6 (NIV) "No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him." 

In 1 Corinthians 4:4 Paul says that he is "conscious of nothing against himself." Ugh!? How can he be wretched and in bondage to sin and yet confident of no wrong doing? In 1 Corinthians 6:12 (NIV) he says "I will not be mastered by anything." How can someone so confident of being unmastered by sin in 1 Corinthians and Romans 6, be so helpless and bound in evil practices in Romans 7? It just doesn't make sense! 

The most satisfying way to understand Romans 7 is that Paul is referring to an experience before becoming a Christian. Theologians like Gordon Fee, Douglas Moo and Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones hold to this interpretation. This understanding makes sense of the contrasts in Romans 6 & 7 and nullifies the sinner-saint concept which actually never appears in scripture. 

What about other contradictory scriptures?

In light of this interpretation of the Bible how do we reconcile Galatians 5:16-17 (NIV) "So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want."

The translators of the NIV normally render the Greek word sarx as "sinful nature", but it can also be understood as "flesh". When you see that the word "sarx" has many meanings you realize there is room for a different interpretation. It doesn't always mean sinful nature. W.E. Vines expository dictionary of bible words lists 14 different meanings. The scripture here is likely encouraging us to not live with our body in control over our spirit, but the other way around. This makes sense because verse 24 says "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires." This is not talking about the body, but sinful nature. The Bible says the sinner is dead! No sinner-saints exist in the Bible.

Why do Christians still sin?

Personally, I don't want to sin. I want to do the right thing. I know I do because whenever I have willfully sinned I regret it and pray that I'll never repeat it. This lines up with what the scripture tells me about my new nature in Christ. But we still live in a frail body with the real option of sin around us. Temptations come not from the inside, like they did when the sinful nature was alive, but from the outside. Sin now tries to activate itself in the works of my body rather than in the state of my heart.

Some argue that the sins of a Christian prove that the sinful nature is still there. They are deceived into thinking that the absence of a sinful nature would make them impervious to sinful choices. It didn't work that way for Adam and Eve. They didn't have a sinful nature yet they sinned -- majorly. This sheds a whole new light on the temptations of Jesus. He didn't have a sinful nature. It means that the temptation of sin was real for him. It means that temptation can always be overcome. Now that our sinful nature is gone we are more like Christ.

The article Do Christians Still Have a Sin Nature? by Dr. Bill Gillham puts it nicely:
Romans 7:20 speaks of the power of indwelling sin (not the sin nature) working in man to produce undesirable (sinful) behavior. The power of sin simply deceives the Christian by masquerading as the old man, suggesting (deceiving) to the will that a choice be made to perform according to the old self-serving patterns programmed in previously. This is referred to as "walking after the flesh." Satan could never deceive a Christian with a direct approach as a "little man in red underwear." He must disguise himself if he is to have any hope of victory. There is one way and one way only to accomplish this deception and that is to masquerade in the thought life of the Christian posing as his unique version of the old man! The naive Christian will believe he, himself, is generating the unchristian suggestion and thus direct his defensive efforts against the wrong foe...what he perceives to be a darker side of himself!

Christians are not some type of heaven-hell-hybrids or sinner-saints. Christians are saints by the grace of God. Christians do not have a sinful nature, they cannot have a sinful nature. This means that all temptations can be overcome as they are not from our hearts. This view places more responsibility on the Christian to live according to their new nature. The two-nature view (sinner-saint) gives a Christian a reason to excuse sin as something they cannot always help. In fact, sin is something a Christian can always help because its not driven from their heart. There is no sin a Christian cannot overcome! 

This study will be incredibly beneficial for church planting in Chicago. This is such a foundational doctrine which causes people to understand the depths of grace. Christians are not lowly people who have to drag their sin to the cross everyday. They are completely free to live a new life under a new master and to go with the impulses of the new heart God has given them.


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