The pull of extremes
The church has a constant struggle to maintain a sound perspective on the truths of Scripture in opposition to extreme positions which distort its truth. This applies in all areas of doctrine, but finds particular expression today in the doctrine of the way and order of salvation. On the one hand, there is a danger of fatalism and automatism: accepting the existence and power of sin as an unchangeable reality in the Christian life. On the other hand lies the danger of perfectionism in its various forms: promoting the possibility of perfection in some form in this life and on this side of the grave.
The prevailing force of a life-choking fatalism was common among the more so-called experiential branches of Reformed life in the early part of this century, and still lives among the more radical of these groups today. If the minister had to admonish someone about a specific sin, say the sin against the seventh commandment, the person would say: this was the old Adam. The implication was clear: this was a sin that you really could not prevent. These things happen because we still have an “old Adam,” and that seems to be some powerful force we have to live with, but all too often cannot do much about.
A related danger in Reformed circles is called automatism. Automatism reflects a casual and superficial acceptance of the teaching and ministry of the church, without a worked out awareness of its meaning. People live under the assumption that just by being in the church and sharing its sacraments, one is saved. In this variant, a good deal of prominence can also be given to the “old Adam.” A real change of life is not the most crucial factor of faith in this point of view. The most important factor of faith is that you are baptized and regularly attend church.
On the other side of these extremes we face the danger of perfectionism. Given the growing avalanche of evangelical literature that makes up our reading and study schedules, I would guess that we face an equally prominent danger here. The accent in much of this literature falls on the experience of salvation, holiness and the presence of God. While there may not be an overt defence of a second blessing over and above the gift of faith and the work of the ministry of the church, that is, the working of the Spirit in granting special gifts, there is a strong focus on sanctification, daily renewal, and the marks of holiness in the Christian life.
Some authors give this new birth a considerable and even exaggerated focus. 1The old nature is pictured as being dead and buried. The new nature then becomes the only nature the Christian has to deal with. To be sure, there may be lapses because of remaining imperfections. But the overriding presence of the new nature means that now the Christian is in a position that he is able not to sin, indeed, not to sin at all, even if only for short time periods. Thus from being “not able not to sin,” (after the fall) he now becomes “able not to sin” and this becomes an essential step to the last state that comes with the perfection: “not able to sin.”
Simple formulae are sometimes helpful, but they also easily open the door to misunderstandings. Let’s have a closer look at the letter of the apostle Paul to the Romans to see what is meant by the death of the old nature, the rising of the new, and what implication this has for the Christian life.
Dying to sin in Christ
In Romans 6:5ff Paul clearly speaks of the old nature as that which has died, (past tense). The inference is that the gospel did bring about a change in the life of the believers in Rome. Through faith in Christ, they renounced the world and its pleasures and became followers and citizens of a heavenly kingdom. Paul highlights the moment of baptism. Having made their confession of faith, the believers were baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. As believers they were buried with Christ by baptism into death, and were raised with Him to walk in newness of life.
Now the flow of the argument in Romans 6 seems to indicate that the death to sin is clearly a past event, since all the words used by Paul fall in the past tense. 2 In verse 5 Paul speaks of the believers as “having been united with him (Christ) in a death like his,” – pointing to a past action.3 And in verse 6 he says that “our old self that was crucified with him (Christ)” – a past event. In verse 8 he says: “If we have died with Christ” – again referring to the past. And the conclusion of the passage drives home these past tenses: we must consider ourselves dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus. All the weight seems to fall on past actions, with the result that the old nature is done and over with.
However, a number of things must be remembered here. First, being “dead to sin” (verse 11) and stating that the one who “has died is freed from sin” (verse 7) means that the sting of sin, that is, the punishment of the law is no longer applied to us. It does not mean that we automatically stop sinning, or even that we can begin to stop all sinning in this life. It means that the curse of sin is taken away from us through Christ, and that the debt owing because of sin has been paid for us by Christ. His “dying to sin” is really the payment for sin which puts an end to sin’s power, that is, sin’s right to exact further payment and retribution from us. 4
Secondly, we should not think of this past action as completed in the sense of being finished in our lives. To be sure, in Christ the payment for sin is complete, and in Him we may find ourselves before God in a state of innocence through faith in His blood. That is what is sealed to us in baptism! But in the life of the believer the death of the old nature is something that must be effected day by day. That which has been sealed in Christ comes to fruition in the life of His child in a gradual process, through daily appropriation of His promises by faith.
Thirdly, there is a real beginning of sanctification in the life of the believer, and the past tenses mentioned above point to this beginning. They are strictly past tenses only in the sense that they point to what Christ has done for us on the cross in paying our debt, and in acquiring a perfect and complete salvation for us through His death and resurrection. However, these tenses are not complete (i.e. in the past) when it comes to the application of Christ’s blessings in our lives. Here Christ makes a perfect beginning through His Spirit; yet it remains a beginning.5 What begins as a perfect work is incomplete in this sense that it must be brought to completion through daily repentance and renewal, a completion which only becomes manifest at the day of Christ’s return.
That is why the apostle couples to his past tenses a number of future tenses as well. In verse 5 he says that we shall certainly “be united with him (Christ) in a resurrection like his.” This begins in this life, but only comes to its culmination at the day of Christ’s return, when all the saints will be made conformable in their bodies to His glorious body. And in verse 8 Paul says: “...we know we will also live with him (Christ)” – again referring to a future reality, which begins in the life of the believer today, in this life.
Therefore we should not think that we now are in a position that we are “able not to sin” in the sense of being able not to sin at all. To be sure, as Paul says, (verse 14) “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” But what does he mean? He means that the force of the curse with its deadening impact on the conscience and its instilling of fear, guilt and dread is gone. The bondage of sin, our slavery to its power of punishment and exaction has been taken away! And by virtue of that fact, we must expend every effort to crucify the old nature, resist sin, and live godly lives.
Let’s not deny real progress in the Christian life. But let no one say: sin no longer has dominion over us, therefore we are able not to sin at all – even if we often fail to reach this goal. For then we assert more than is permissible, and so can cause untold harm among many who have an abiding struggle with remaining sins and weaknesses. We are in danger of creating two levels of Christians, the successful and the failures. We do have the power to resist sin, and resistance will have its good effect. But resisters are in the battle, and do not presume to suggest that the battle is over. We must still deal with an old nature every day! Yet we can do so with confidence because the sure hope and assurance of victory is given to us in Christ’s work on our behalf.
A confirmation of this position is given in the next chapter, Romans 7. Some of those who suggest that Paul’s meaning in Romans 6 is that the old nature no longer exists find a novel way of reading this chapter, too. They suggest that the apostle who speaks in Romans 7:22ff is the apostle before his conversion, or at an elementary (lower) stage of his conversion. 6 Thus the struggle that Paul alludes to represents his struggle before conversion, rather than after it. Once one is renewed fully in the Spirit, the whole sense of conflict as pictured by Paul is regarded as a thing of the past.
Paul’s position in Romans 7 is that he still has an ongoing struggle with sin, see verse 14ff. The power of the old nature is such that it continually rises up as an unending fountain of evil thoughts and desires. His intention is also not to totally dissociate himself from this fountain, as if it is only “another self,” the old Adam, so that he too might have said: “Oh well, that is just my old Adam, not really me.” It is the old Adam indeed, but he feels it close to his heart and life! It is a daily grief for him! He says: “I do not understand my own actions, (15). For I do not do what I want but I do the very thing I hate.” Then he paints a picture of struggle which is vivid and raging at that. There is no indication that the old nature has died and been buried, or that it no longer exists as a ruinous fountain in his life. On the contrary! He must contend with it every day, and he even admits that he is carnal, sold under sin, (7:14).
Here we have a frank admission that also in the state of regeneration and grace we are still not able not stop sin’s power entirely from working its damage in our lives. To be sure, we can resist sin, and we will even have times when sin’s power is held in check, and we experience spiritual growth and a weakening of sin’s hold. But one can never say: now I am in a position that I am able not to sin at all.
In point of fact it is just not possible, and we should not develop a mentality coloured by a methodism and moralism that suggests it is possible to live entirely without sin in this life. This does not accord with Paul’s own cry in Romans 7:24: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” His plaintive cry represents the appeal of a man lost in himself! To be sure, there is progress in Christian living. But there will always be abiding weaknesses, and the body of flesh will not cease its incessant manifestations of evil and pollution until the day we die.7 What in principle is promised and administered to us in baptism solely of grace finds its full fruit and completion only at the end of our life on earth.
All this is not meant to put us in a state of discouragement or distress concerning our position before God. To be sure, when we look to ourselves we can sometimes despair of the progress we make! All too often it seems to be more regress than progress! But the dangers of both the extremes mentioned above have a common root: that we look more to ourselves than to Christ who has promised His blessings to us. Looking to Christ helps us escape the pull of false dilemmas!
In Christ, we can avoid fatalism and automatism. There is a change in the Christian life, and despite disappointments, and an increasing knowledge of our sinful nature, there is progress in sanctification. It is not a partial change, or a haphazard start on the track of a new obedience. It is a genuine beginning, which includes in Christ the death of the old nature and the birth of the new.
At the same time, we avoid the danger of perfectionism. Even in our best moments life is clouded by the ongoing presence of the old nature which must be put to death daily. Yet we can be victorious in Christ, by appropriating His victory every day, through faith. In Him we share in principle (legally) what we hope to gain in fullness (actually) at the last day.
Faith’s rule is simple: We need to look to Christ! We always need to come back to the means of grace instituted in the church, and use them with a living and sincere faith. Only then can we grow as members in Christ and so as members of one another. Then even in the deepest struggle we can say with the apostle: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verse 25). In Him there is always progress, because He leads all things to the advance of His grace and glory in the lives of His children.