Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Adults-Only Sanctification

We have seen that Romans 7 fleshes out what Paul means by "under the law" in 6:14 -- to be under the law is to be under the jurisdiction of the Mosaic legislation, with its curse sanctions for disobedience. This situation exacerbates the dominion of sin since the law only has the power to command, and not the power to renew the heart.

What does it mean, then, to be "under grace"?

As would be expected, Paul describes life under grace in Romans 8. If life "under the law" referred to existence under the Old Covenant, then life "under grace" refers to existence under the New Covenant of which Christ, not Moses, is the Mediator.

If the Old Covenant was characterized by Torah (law), the New Covenant is characterized by Pneuma (Spirit). The third Person of the Godhead is altogether absent from Romans 7:14-25, yet he appears 19 times in Romans 8. What accounts for this?

The so-called contrast between flesh and Spirit (big S) is not simply an anthropological one, as if these two categories denote the good and bad parts of the believer. Rather, the contrast between these two concepts (and between Romans 7 and 8 specifically) is redemptive-historical. The Holy Spirit, whose proper domain is the glory of heaven, has intruded into this present age and been shed forth upon the Church by the risen Christ. The new aeon has dawned in Jesus' resurrection, which constituted him a "life-giving Spirit" (I Cor. 15:45). The subsequent gift of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost signified the in-breaking into this age of the resurrection-power of the age to come. As Paul put it in Ephesians 1:19-20, God works in us powerfully "according to the working of his mighty power which he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead."

The people of God, therefore, are no longer underage heirs who, differing little from slaves, must be under constant watch by the babysitter of the law. Rather, as full-grown adults we have been given the Spirit of the risen Christ, who functions as a foretaste of heaven and guarantee of our future and final Sabbath rest (Gal. 4:1-7).

In the light of these things, what manner of persons ought we to be?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Postmortem Remarriage

The traditional interpretation of Romans 7:14ff argues that Paul's description of the spiritual impotence of the "wretched man" is the normative experience of all believers because of indwelling sin.

But this cannot be the case (our present struggles notwithstanding).

Compare 6:14, which we've been considering, to 7:14. In the former verse, the apostle tells us that those under the dominion of grace are not in bondage to sin. In the latter verse, however, he describes the experience of a person who is "carnal," and who is "sold as a slave to sin." To make matters worse, in 8:7 he categorically denies that the "carnal" mind, which is "hostile to God," can submit to God's law. But this is precisely what the "carnal" man does in 7:22 -- he "delights in the law of God in his inner being" (albeit without much practical success).

The answer to the question, "Is Romans 7 describing a regenerate or an unregenerate person?" must, therefore, be No.

Given the historical and covenantal interpretation of "under [the] law" offered in previous posts, we must conclude that the existential differences between the person described in Romans 7 and Romans 8 cannot be attributed to an existential experience, be it a Wesleyan "second blessing" or anything else.

Rather, the difference between the saint of chapter 7 and the saint of chapter 8 is redemptive-historical, as the text itself clearly states. The believer described in chapter 7 "serves" God, but does so "in the old way of the letter" rather than in the "new way of the Spirit" (7:6). In other words, the saint in Romans 7 is under the dominion of sin because he is under the dominion of the Mosaic law (cf. 6:14).

But as Romans 8 demonstrates, the New Covenant saint has died to the law and been "married to another." When Torah gave way to Pneuma on the day of Pentecost, impotence was eclipsed by power, bondage matured into sonship, and letter was swallowed by Spirit.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Nomos: Sin's Subtle Accomplice

Having determined that Paul's phrase "under the law" in Romans 6:14 is describing the condition of being under the dominion of the law of Moses in particular (rather than under God's condemnation more generally), we must now ask the obvious question, "What is the connection that Paul clearly draws between between the Mosaic law's jurisdiction and the dominion of sin?"

The answer is found, not surprisingly, in the works principle that stands at the core of the Mosaic law: "Do this and live" (Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12). Paul sums this up succinctly in I Corinthians 15:56b: "The power of sin," he insisted, "is the law."

Regardless of whatever else we may deduce concerning the condition of the Old Testament saint, the fact remains that he labored under a covenant that threatened a curse for his disobedience, and that threat hung like a dark cloud over all his service to God. The effect of this was not only to make Israel more aware of their sin by now making it transgression, it also exacerbated the sin problem. While the principle of sin had inhered in Adam's fallen race from his rebellion onward, it was the subsequent giving of the law that gave power to the native lusts of God's fallen creatures.

This, obviously, hindered the degree of santification possible under the Old Covenant economy.

Just ask the wretched man of Romans 7.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Law, Grace, and the Historia Salutis

"For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law, but under grace."

When a simple investigation of the handful of times Paul uses the phrase hypo nomon ("under [the] law") is undertaken, it becomes clear that the apostle is using "law" not in some abstract, a-historical sense, but in a concrete, historical one.

In other words, "the law," in Paul, is more a matter of the historia salutis (redemption historically accomplished) than the ordo salutis (redemption individually applied). Or to put it more simply, the entrance of the law is an historical phenomenon (like the incarnation), not an existential one (like conversion).

Consider what is said of "the law" in the immediately preceding context (Rom. 5:13-14, 20). There was a period of time that the apostle designates as "until the law" and "when there is no law" which spanned "from Adam to Moses." When we compare this with Galatians 3:17-25, where Paul argues that the law "came" 430 years after the Abrahamic promise, and remained in effect "until Christ came," the historical (covenantal) nature of law couldn't be more obvious.

The phrase"under the law," then, does not describe the condition of any person until he or she trusts Christ. Rather, it describes the historical state of those Israelites who lived between Moses and Christ, and under the Old Covenant.

But why does Paul draw the connection between the dominion of the Mosaic law and the dominion of sin?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

"Under the Law" - An Existential Condition?

"For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law, but under grace."

A correct understanding Romans 6:14 is both the key that unlocks the larger pericope of chapters 6-8, as well as being crucial for for grasping the dynamic of New Covenant sanctification. So let's dive in....

We'll kick off our discussion with a consideration of Paul's phrase hypo nomon ("under [the] law"). What does he mean by this?

A common interpretation of "under the law" is that the apostle is describing the condition of any person, irrespective of his or her historical context, who lives under the condemnation of God due to his or her violation of God's moral will. Calvin writes:

"Hence, not to be under the law means... that we are no longer subject to the law, as requiring perfect righteousness, and pronouncing death on all who deviate from it in any part.... For how much soever we may be harrassed by the stings of sin, it cannot yet overcome us, for we are able to conquer it by the Spirit of God; and then, being under grace, we are freed from the rigorous requirements of the law."

The condition of being "under the law," in other words, is an existential one that plagues any and all who are devoid of grace.

To determine whether or not this is a correct interpretation of hypo nomon we must take a look at the other instances in which Paul used this phrase. It'll only take a minute, so I'd ask you to actually look them up. There is one in I Corinthians (9:20) and five in Galatians (3:23; 4:4-5, 21; 5:18).

In the light of these passages, can "under [the] law" be understood existentially and a-historically?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

New Covenant Sanctification

I'd like to start a discussion about the life of the believer under the New Covenant, the length of which will partly be determined by the amount of interest and feedback it receives.

One of the most important -- and most misunderstood -- passages dealing with this theme is Romans 6:14, where Paul says, "Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law, but under grace."

In the next few posts I'd like to unpack this statement, addressing such issues as what the apostle means by his under law/under grace distinction (Is it existential? Is it redemptive historical?), as well as the connection in Paul's mind between the dominion of the law and the dominion of sin. And of course, no discussion about sanctification would be complete without tackling the question of the identity of the "wretched man" in Romans 7.

Other issues that may arise include the validity of the law/gospel distinction insofar as it is propounded by contemporary Lutheranism and the nature of the New Covenant's "newness."

Feel free to weigh in....

Sunday, May 14, 2006

WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It)

The title of this post is taken from the text of a huge billboard that was erected in Times Square in December, 1969. Underneath these words it simply said "Happy Christmas from John and Yoko."

War is a divisive issue, and there is tension concerning it not only in the minds of believers, but in the Bible itself. God told his Old Testament people to utterly destroy their enemies, down to the last man, woman, and child, but Jesus says to turn the other cheek. Peter says we are to submit to every human institution, including the government, but the government itself allows non-participation in war for "conscientious objectors."

What are we, as citizens of both the civil and spiritual kingdoms, to think about an issue like war? If you were drafted, would you go? Would it depend on the merits of the individual war, or would your answer be one of principle regardless of the popularity or perceived legitimacy of the war you were asked to fight?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

How to be Missional and Countercultural

Well, I've spent (more than) enough time describing what the Church is not to do under the guise of contextualization, but lest I fall prey to Moody's quip ("I like the way I do evangelism more than the way you don't do it") I will do my best to describe what a missional church would look like under a two kingdoms rubric.

First, I draw a distinction between being missional and being contextual. "Missional" is a mindset that believers should have at all times. The goal of missional churches is to send, not necessarily to attract. "Contextual," on the other hand, seems to describe the tone and ethos of the actual worship service rather than the behavior of the saints Monday through Saturday.

But here's where a two kingdoms paradigm comes into play: During corporate worship on the Lord's day, we are no longer American, Asian, black, white, rich, poor, barbarian, Scythian, bond, or free. In other words, it is our unique folk culture that we are to unabashedly display in public worship, with all its ancient and countercultural glory. Our "context" for worship, therefore, is Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem, and our primary concern is not pleasing the culture, but pleasing Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant, whose blood speaks better things than that of Abel (Heb. 12:22-24).

So when God, through his minister, calls the saints heavenward to worship, the purpose of the remainder of the gathering is just that: for the saints to worship. But when the service culminates with God, through his minister, commissioning his people to go forth in his Name and with his blessing, these redeemed people, having just experienced the Lord's calling, cleansing, consecration, and communion, are now to go out into all the world and make disciples of all nations.

So our missional calling does not mean that we adapt divine worship to the presuppositions, trends, and tastes of this passing age. What it does mean, however, is that we cease trying to attract people to church with our pandering and programs and start living our most holy faith before the eyes of a watching world.

This is the kind of mission I am excited about, for it is this, and not cultural mimicry, that will compel postmodern cynics to ask us a reason for the hope that lies within us.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Form and Content, Medium and Message

Marshall McLuhan has famously stated that "the medium is the message." This means that it is not only the content of what we say that speaks to people, but the form which our message takes screams every bit as loudly.

As social critic Ken Myers has written, "The assumption that all forms are neutral is not itself a neutral assumption." In other words, the idea that as long as the message of the Bible is preached, it makes little difference what types of media are used to convey that message, is a uniquely post-Enlightenment position with which hardly anyone in the first 1500 years of Church history would have agreed.

I could provide an obvious example involving, say, "Fairest Lord Jesus" sung to the tune of "I Stab People" by the Insane Clown Posse, but for the sake of bringing the point a little closer to home, take the issue of informal dress (of which most informal churches are quick to assure us when we visit their websites). It is undeniable that there is a connection between the anti-authoritarian assumptions of post-sixties Americans and the resistance of many of today's evangelicals to dress as nicely for church as they do for work. In the "wardrobe wars," it seems, God can't hold a candle to Mammon.

A better example could be provided from Paul's argument to the Corinthians that their desire for the Christian message to be presented with such power and eloquence that it would seem impressive in the eyes of men is utterly inconsistent with the nature of that message. If the gospel is all about the weakness and foolishness of the cross, then to present it in glitzy packaging is rather inconsistent. Like trying to hold water in a sieve or communicate the Pythagorean Theorem using smoke signals, the content simply can't be conveyed using that form.

Is it possible that, in our insistence upon the supposed neutrality of the media which carry our message, we have allowed our cultural convictions to shape our conventions, thus rendering our churches expressions of our cultural disorder, rather than remedies for it?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Intelligibility or Familiarity?

A frequent objection from the missional crowd (by the way, who says they get to co-opt that word?) is that Reformed or traditional worship is "unintelligible" to non-believers.

Let's pause here and examine this charge for a moment.

Imagine the following scenario during a worship service: The pastor says something like, "Let us pray together and confess our sins and shortcomings to God," then everyone prays, and then the pastor says, "God is a loving and forigiving God, and if you confessed your sins to him, he forgives you for Jesus' sake."

For the life of me, I can't figure out what is so unintelligible about this! Assuming the non-Christians present actually speak English and have come across the words pray, sin, and God at some point in their lives, then I must conclude that they can at least figure out what's happening all around them: Christians sin, God doesn't like it, but when they confess it, he forgives them because he loves them.

Is it familiar to them? Certainly not! But unfamiliarity is not the same as unintelligibility.

But when you stop to think about it, Christian worship is unfamiliar to everyone before they become Christians (just like the culture of Bangkok is unfamiliar upon one's first visit). As with the entire Christian life, the longer we walk with Jesus and worship him, the more comfortable and familiar we become with him, his people, his Word, and his worship.

After all, if creating a church experience that is completely familiar to the non-believer is our goal, we'll have to ask ourselves, "But if our church is no different from what they get in the world, why would they bother to show up?"

Enter the Xboxes, the velcro walls, and whatever else will entertain the religious consumers.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Gimme That Ol' Time, Middle Eastern, Reformed Religion!

There are a couple objections on the part of the "contextualizers" that I'd like to address briefly in this post and the next.

The first is that churches with "traditional worship" (a phrase I hate) are simply replacing worship that would be relevant in this culture with worship that was relevant in the culture of Calvin's Geneva 500 years ago.

This is simply false.

As anyone who has studied the history of Christian worship will testify, in no sense whatsoever were the Reformers trying to reinvent the worship wheel. Rather, they were interested in going back to the earliest sources they could find in order to separate primitive Christian worship from its medieval Roman Catholic distortions and aberrations. As liturgical scholar Hughes Old has ably demonstrated in his Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, the services in all the sixteenth-century Reformed churches were every bit as ancient to those people as they seem to us today. Reformed worship, therefore, is not white, Genevan, or Northern European.

In fact, the early church in the book of Acts worshiped according to the pattern of the Jewish synagogues, which was characterized by set patterns, liturgy, readings, and prayers. This means that the worship of Reformed churches in North America today is not only similar to that of Geneva, but to that of the early church fathers, the apostles, and the people of God during Old Testament times.

If you ask me, that's pretty good company....

Monday, May 01, 2006

Pop Culture, Folk Culture

What do the advocates of "contextualization" mean exactly by that term?

Yeah, yeah, I know: We're supposed to communicate in terms that the culture can actually understand. But everyone agrees with that (at least in theory). Beyond the obvious, though, what should churches do in order to be contextual?

It is here that a crucial distinction comes into play: pop vs. folk culture.

Many seem to presuppose that pop culture sets the terms of the discussion, and then the Christian church must conform. So, since Boomers in our culture want a relaxed worship experience in which they can hear Beach Boys style music surrounded by people in leis and hula skirts, we should give them that. After all, as long as the message is good, the form it takes doesn't matter, right? Welcome to Margaritaville Community Church!

But pop culture is a pretty recent concept (until the invention of analog tape and the subsequent ability to mass-market and mass-produce it, pop culture didn't have a leg to stand on).

Christianity, however, has always been a folk culture. We are a "peculiar people" with a calendar, language, and history that are unique and distinct from the world's (with some overlap, of course). So rather than asking, "How many X-Boxes will our children's ministry need to have a large, successful church?" we should be asking, "What, according to the Bible's folk culture, should our children's ministry look like?"

When we ask the right question, we find (to our contemporary culture's horror) that it is biblical for kids to worship together with their parents from as early an age possible, and that dividing the body of Christ by age or musical tastes is an incredibly American thing to do.

But isn't insisting that families forget their own personal tastes and worship together "irrelevant" in today's society?

Maybe. But when a society's popular culture is out of accord with the Bible's folk culture, it is the former, and not the latter, that is the truly irrelevant one.