Thoughts on the “Romans 7 Christian”

The following is an excerpt on a book I am writing on reading passages of Scripture theologically. Title TBD. This is the conclusion of a chapter on Romans 7:14-25.

[Note: I believe that Paul, in these verses, is describing his life as a believer (not a pre-Christian experience) and thus is describing our reality as believers in Christ. While others have taken a different view of this passage, it doesn’t change the fact that believers continue to struggle with sin throughout the course of their lives until they go to be with Jesus.]

The theology of this passage is immensely practical. Who among us has not dealt with the frustrations and guilt feelings of ongoing sin?

There is a dynamic that happens to believers that as we grow, we tend to see our own sin more clearly, leading to the kind of inner dialog we see in Romans 7:14-25. Here’s how it happens:

  1. As we grow closer to the Lord, we see more and more distinctly the holiness of God.
  2. In comparison, we become more and more aware of our sinfulness.
  3. As life goes on and this dynamic continues, the gap between the holiness of God and our actual experience grows.*

The irony in this is that as we grow, we may feel more sinful. We are not actually; we were simply not as aware of our sinfulness in our earlier walk with Christ. Let’s get real here; let’s talk in specifics.

For example, let’s say that Jeff struggles with an addiction to pornography and habitual masturbation. He knows it to be wrong, and he sincerely hates his sin and wants to forsake it. His self-talk is full of Romans 7: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Now suppose that in time, through knowing that his old self was crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6), considering himself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:11), Jeff begins to no longer present his members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness but presents himself to God (Rom. 6:13). He stops letting sin reign in his mortal body and no longer obeys the passions of the flesh in this matter (Rom. 6:12). Jeff puts away pornography from his life and stops the habit of masturbation. Victory!

Jeff might at this point think that the battle is over. This was a big deal for him. And let’s not minimize this victory. Anyone who has experienced an addiction knows how exceedingly difficult it is to overcome. So Jeff praises God and thanks Jesus for the victory he has seen in his life. However,

If Romans 7 describes the normal Christian life of the believer [and I believe it does], a life-long war with indwelling sin, Jeff needs to be aware of two things. First, without diligence, he may fall right back into the same patterns of sin. Many, many believers have given testimony to this happening. Jeff will never be “done” with this temptation. Second, Jeff will now begin to see other sins in his life, because he will continue to grow in his knowledge of the holiness of God.

Where the teachers of old thought that they were OK if they didn’t commit adultery, Jesus raised the bar and said that if you look with lust at a woman you have broken the law against adultery (Matthew 5: 27-28). Jeff may think he’s done with this because he has put away the very outward sins of pornography and masturbation, but having put those away, he may still find that his real sin was lust occurring in his mind, and he has more work to do.

How often does this happen to each of us? We put away outbursts of anger (yelling, screaming, cursing, fighting), only to find that we still must battle against the inward sins of grumbling, complaining, anger that is internalized. We stop gossiping and creating division, and discover that there are still the sins of self-comparison and self-righteousness that we now must fight.

This is why we will never “leave Romans 7.” We become more and more aware of the depth of our sin even as we overcome and achieve victories. The only reason to leave Romans 7 is to encounter the present comfort and future deliverance described in Romans 8. But our reality is still one of warfare, the flesh against the Spirit. The “Romans 7 Christian” is not a defeated Christian; she is a fighting Christian. A fight that will continue until we see Jesus! Brothers and sisters, let us never give up that fight.

*Thune, Robert H. and Walker, Will. The Gospel-Centered Life, New Growth Press, 2011. pp. 12-14.

The State of Theology

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The word “evangelical” used to mean something. It distinguished those churches who believe in the authority of Scripture and the gospel of salvation by grace apart from works from churches that don’t, notably the mainstream denominations like the Presbyterian Church, USA and the United Methodist Church.

Where mainstream Christianity tends to be more pluralistic in its beliefs, and more meritorious in its salvation message, evangelicalism has stood for salvation by grace and the Bible as God’s inerrant Word. But there has been a drift among evangelicals.

Earlier in 2020, Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay research partnered to create “The State of Theology” survey, asking what Americans believe about God, salvation, ethics, and the Bible. Some of the responses, particularly from so-called evangelicals, are shocking.

Among evangelicals (those who claim to be Christians):

46% agree that God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

56% agree that Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God. This was shockingly a higher percentage than the general population.

32% agree that Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.

47% agree that everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.

23% agree that the Bible, like all sacred writings, contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true.

31% agree that God will always reward true faith with material blessings in this life.

While 80% agree that God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works, but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ, 15% of evangelicals disagreed with this statement. This is the sine qua non, the essential condition for being “evangelical.” In other words, if you can’t affirm salvation by grace apart from works, don’t call yourself an “evangelical.”

In Ephesians 4:14, Paul describes Christian maturity as no longer being “children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

Doctrinal stability and surety are not a matter of nerdy interest; they are a matter of life and death. I’m not speaking of minor doctrinal issues about which we may legitimately disagree but not disfellowship. There are winds of doctrine that would shipwreck souls to eternal destruction. Some of these “ill winds” include

  • Denial of the eternal deity of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man
  • Acceptance of extra-biblical revelation that renders the Bible insufficient for life and truth
  • Denial of the sinfulness of sin and the wretchedness of our state
  • Denial of Jesus as the only way of salvation
  • Drift from salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from works
  • Emphasis on material blessings as the “stuff” of Christianity, rather than forgiveness of sins, fulfilling our mission, and citizenship in heaven

These are “human cunning and deceitful schemes” (v. 14), because they can deceive someone into thinking they are saved when they are not.

The answer to this doctrinal drift is to become immersed in the Bible and in the historic doctrines and creeds of the Christian Church. One learns to recognize error by becoming better acquainted with authentic truth. May this be so!

J.I. Packer, 1926-2020

J.I. Packer, an English-Canadian evangelical theologian, died today. His clarity of writing was unsurpassed. Knowing God is perhaps his best-known work and was required reading for one of my theology classes. My copy, now over 40 years old is pictured here.

As I said, it was required reading for a class, but because there weren’t any specified reading assignments, many of us blew it off during the spring semester, hoping that the prof wouldn’t remember it. Alas, at the end of the term, he reminded us of the requirement, and many of us (including me) had to sign pledge cards that we would complete the reading over the summer. This I did, and it became one of the enduring titles I’ve read in my lifetime. It’s a Top 5 book of all time for me.

Two chapters in particular left a lasting impression on me. “The Heart of the Gospel” crystalized my understanding of the biblical concept of propitiation and its necessity to having a correct understanding of the atoning work of Christ.

“God’s Wisdom and Ours” highlighted for me the role of suffering in the life of a believer and how the wisdom of God is not necessarily understanding the why of a given trial, but trusting in God’s sovereign plan for our lives.

And speaking of the sovereignty of God, his Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is indispensible for answering objections to the doctrines of sovereign grace.

His voice will be missed, but hopefully never silenced in the Church.

Sovereignty on the back end needs sovereignty on the front end

What follows is part of an ongoing series of articles that discuss places in Scripture where the sovereign plan and working of God are clearly seen to intersect with time.  Rather than trying to fit these descriptions into a pre-determined theological understanding, I aim to let these revealed descriptions stand for themselves. See other posts in this series here and here.

A number of us were conversing, and someone noted that God had worked some good things in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. I asked, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, if it also wasn’t true that God had worked to bring the pandemic. As usual, they rolled their eyes and sighed at my theological intrusion. “The same God who has worked good from the pandemic is the same God who could have prevented it, but didn’t,” said I.

We often look at various disasters as bad things, and something about our mindset will not allow us to attribute those to the divine Hand of Providence. We recoil at saying that God brings disaster. But the Bible does not. Amos 3:6 says, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” Such directness is hard for us, who may want to soften the blow by affirming that God may “allow” such disaster but not actively cause it.

We tend to speak in terms of God doing good things, and allowing bad things, all the while retaining for ourselves the right to define what’s good and what’s bad. We even take a promise such as Romans 8:28 (“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”) to mean something like, “here’s this bad thing, and God turns it into good.” Kind of a lemons-lemonade dynamic.

Again, this is not the biblical perspective. One of the greatest examples of a biblical understanding is found in the life of Joseph, whom his brothers planned to murder, sold into slavery instead, and then years later were rescued from starvation by this very brother. In the end, they worried that Joseph, now Pharaoh’s #2 in Egypt, would exact vengeance on them for past wrongs. Instead Joseph said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). Not, “you meant evil, God turned it to good.” But, “you meant evil, God meant good.” Equal agency. In fact, I would say that God was the primary agent. The God who orchestrated Joseph’s rise to power in order to save people from famine could have ordained that there was no famine to be saved from.

All this to say that God is sovereign over and ordains all that comes to pass (Ephesians 1:11). The greatest sin ever perpetrated in human history was the crucifixion of Jesus, “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men,” yet the Bible is clear that he was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). It would be completely unbiblical to say that God only “allowed” the crucifixion of Jesus, and then turned it into something good.

We love the promises and provision of God in the midst of trials, but the sovereign care that comes in trial has been there all along, even over the occurance of the trial. If God is to work all things for good for his people, it is necessary that he be sovereign over all things. Sovereignty on the back end requires sovereignty on the front end.* May we affirm this; may we trust this.

*This is an expression that I’m pretty sure I heard from John Piper. I cannot locate the source.

John MacArthur on COVID-19, church closures, NT Wright, God’s sovereignty in pestilence

There is a fair amount of posturing and hysteria online these days. As usual, pastor John MacArthur has a biblical, measured response (originally posted 4/23/20) on the issues facing the Church and Christians in these days. Fair warning – there is a small tipping of his pre-Tribulational views. If you don’t buy into that, don’t let that keep you from this excellent analysis. The first 15 minutes or so covers the questions surrounding the closing of churches on the recommendation/mandate of the State. Theological and pastoral.

Thinking Biblically About the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Interview with John MacArthur

Embrace mystery: thoughts on Ephesians 1:3-14

The following is a portion of a chapter I have written on Ephesians 1:3-14. It is a part of a book I am writing: Framework: Passages That Teach Theology (working title).

There is mystery in these verses; embrace it! Whenever I discuss the issue of the sovereignty of God with other believers, invariably objections are raised. If God has predestined us for salvation, then what about free will? Why should we share the gospel? Why should I even pray? These are all good questions, but I urge you to pump the brakes a little on those questions and simply meditate on the truths that are plainly stated. “The words speak of a mystery, but words could not be plainer.”

All too often, believers look at a passage like this and immediately go in to denial-mode. “Since I know this is true, then that can’t mean…” And what ends up happening in our thoughts is that the truths about God we see plainly stated are mitigated and softened. And before you know it, we’ve created a mental picture of God that we can be comfortable with but is a distortion of what the Bible reveals.

The closer we come to truths about God, the more mystery there is. We will not be able to “figure it out.” If you can’t reconcile God’s sovereignty with mankind’s being held responsible for their sins, then you’re in a good place! Don’t try to reconcile two irreconcilable truths. Embrace the mystery.

Five Intelligible Words to Instruct

I was reading in 1 Corinthians 14 the other day, and I came to Paul’s words comparing and contrasting speaking in tongues vis a vis speaking in prophecy, one being unintelligible and the other being understandable and therefore edifying to the church. In verse 19, he says, “Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand in a tongue.”

Now, I know that Paul is speaking in hyperbole in order to make the point of his preference for prophecy, but my literal mind questioned, “What could you possibly say in 5 words that could instruct?” And my mind answered, “Challenge accepted!”

So, I began to list some 5-word sentences/phrases that are rich in doctrinal truth and teaching, some directly from Scripture and others inferred from the Bible. Any of these would make for some great self-talk or preaching-the-gospel-to-yourself talk.

May these 5 words spur you on to deeper thinking and talk.

In the beginning God created. (Gen. 1:1)

The Lord is my shepherd. (Ps. 23:1)

God sovereignly saves believing sinners. (Eph. 2:1-10)

In all ways acknowledge him. (Prov. 3:6)

All things work for good. (Rom. 8:28) This cannot stand alone, without the surrounding context to show for whom all things work for good – namely, “those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Without those qualifiers, this would be sentimentalism.

I am crucified with Christ. (Gal. 2:20)

God so loved the world. (John 3:16)

There is now no condemnation. (Rom. 8:1)

We have peace with God. (Rom.5:1)

He chose us in Christ. (Eph. 1:4)

He predestined us for adoption. (Eph. 1:5)

Put off your old self. (Eph. 4:22)

We groan as we wait. (Rom. 8:23)

Maybe 5 words is all you need. For all the volumes of books and blogs, 5 words can say much.

What are some truths you can express in only 5 words?

Thoughts on the Sovereign Sender

What follows is part of an ongoing series of articles that discuss places in Scripture where the sovereign plan and working of God are clearly seen to intersect with time.  Rather than trying to fit these descriptions into a pre-determined theological understanding, I aim to let these revealed descriptions stand for themselves. See other articles in this series here.

When we discuss the sovereignty of God in salvation, an objection is usually quickly raised. “If God has determined who will be saved, why should we bother to evangelize and preach the gospel, if it’s going to happen anyway?” Such a question, while understandable, exhibits a deficient knowledge of both the Bible’s teaching and the doctrine of sovereignty itself.

As the 1689 London Baptist Confession states, “As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so He hath, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto.” (Chapter 3, “Of God’s Decree,” paragraph 6, emphasis added) God has ordained that he will save the elect by the preaching of the gospel, and not apart from it. We read in Romans 10: 14-15a, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?”

Paul final question in that series takes the sovereign work of God back to the very sending of the messenger. We don’t often ponder this, that the Sovereign Lord is working not only in the calling and saving of the elect, but also in the sending of those through whom the gospel is proclaimed.

When Jesus saw the crowds that his preaching and healing were drawing, he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37) I’ve often found this fascinating. Why didn’t Jesus just say that the workers are few, so GO! Why did he instruct them to pray for the Lord of the harvest to SEND workers? As I considered this recently, it became clear to me that the emphasis here is that God is the Sovereign Lord of the harvest, and this includes not only the reaping of elect souls but also the very sending of the messengers.

Paul echoes these thoughts in 1 Corinthians 3:5: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.” The Sovereign Lord has not only chosen his elect but also assigned those through whom the Word is preached.

This is an amazing truth and so necessary for our thinking. It is only in this way – that God is sovereign over every step in the chain of redemption – that we can maintain the glory going to Christ. If we only understand the ends being foreordained but not the means, then we rob God of his glory. And God will not share his glory with another. (Isaiah 42:8)

So ponder these truths. Praise the Sovereign Sender, who in his grace appointed the preachers, the parents, the Sunday School teachers, the youth pastors, the friends who would boldly proclaim the gospel to you and reap the harvest.

Question: Who in your life was instrumental in bringing the gospel to you? Have you thanked them? Have you thanked God for them?

A set of good books

After many years of wanting this set, I was finally able to pull together used hardcovers from Amazon. I can’t tell you how much of an influence Francis A. Schaeffer was/is to me. Perusing these texts affirms their relevance even today. So much of his vocabulary has entered my own. “the God who is there,” “infinite-personal God,” “the mannishness of man,” “upper-story,” “space-time Fall,” “abnormal world.” So many others. The first piece I read of his long ago was the little booklet, “Two Contents, Two Realities.” This awakened in me a love for philosophical thinking that hasn’t quit. A giant in the 2nd half of the 20th Century, most evangelical believers have little idea of the debt we owe to this saint.

Have you read Schaeffer? What are your favorite books? Which concepts influenced you?