A Faith That Works is an examination of the gospel as the tangible power of God to save. Many Christians would be hard pressed to articulate exactly in what way the gospel had affected them. The absence of demonstrable change has become so prevalent that we’ve actually found a biblical basis to explain it. This excerpt from what may or may not be chapter 2 of the book dismantles that basis to make way for the legitimate work of God.
I can think of no better evidence to support my case that the gospel of the western church has been rendered inert through mishandling than the prevalence of the belief that Paul meant to describe the normal Christian life in Romans 7. I can’t count the number of times a Christian has told me something like, “Yeah, we’re forgiven by grace but we’re still going to sin every day. I know I’m not as strong as Paul and he had things he couldn’t get over either. Just look at Romans 7.”
Really? Is that the best that the power of God can do? If faith in Christ left Paul “dead” and “wretched,” then what in the “H-E-double-hockey-sticks” did it do for him!?
Far from commiserating with faltering disciples, Paul wrote Romans 7 to depict the state of existence that the gospel saved him from. Through his attempts to conform to an external standard of righteousness, he became as “dead in transgressions and sins” as the pagan recipients of the Ephesian letter had been.
Compare the description from Ephesians 2:1-3 of their pre Christian state with his condition described in Romans 7:
● Paul and the Ephesians had both been dead in sin.
○ “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” (Eph. 2:1)
○ “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” (Rom. 7:9-10)
● Paul and the Ephesians had both been in bondage to evil desires.
○ “…in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” (Eph. 2:2-3a)
○ “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:14-15)
● Paul and the Ephesians both had natures that were hostile to God.
○ “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:3b)
○ “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19)
If we agree that Ephesians 2:1-3 describes the lost state and then say that Romans 7 describes the common Christian experience, then we imply that the gospel produces no significant practical results. If we’ve come to identify a Romans 7 experience as the result of the gospel, then it’s no wonder there’s so little difference between the lives of Christians and nonbelievers. No wonder so few churchgoers evangelize. No wonder so many kids raised in church leave the faith.
When discussing morality and ethics, atheists are wont to say that they are actually more moral than theists because they do what is right because it is right, not out of fear of punishment or hope for a reward. While I will grant that higher morality transcends personal interest, I take exception with anyone, atheist or Christian, who depicts Christian morality in terms of rules enforced through threat or bribe.
The New Testament presents but one rule to govern the lives of Christ’s constituents. The various biblical writers express it in different ways. Here is my favorite expression of the one rule:
“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:15-16 NIV)
The problem with the “right for the sake of right” ethical formula is that it requires every adherent to be “right.” Sadly, we’re not all right. Many of us are very broken. Sitting here right now I can’t think of anyone who has done wrong because it is wrong. That being the case, how on earth could we ever expect that humans would ever on a large scale do what is right because it is right?
Since we can’t count on others to do right, we’ll need to limit human behaviors through laws enforced by duly appointed officials. Which means that people will do right because they fear punishment. On an interpersonal level, we’ll need social norms and societal approval or censure to bring people into conformity. In other words, humans will do what is acceptable in order to be accepted and not rejected – in order to gain reward or avoid punishment.
Who can deny that these forces inhibit genuine individual liberty? Given this complex set of incentives, who can claim high morality? I submit that only genuine Christians are truly free and therefore truly moral. They have been remade in the image of God demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christ ,doing and being have become one. We have become whole. Our behavior is driven by our inner life. When human laws or expectation coincide with right we transcend those motives. When they conflict, we defy them. Followers of Christ observe the one rule, “the new creation.”
The Bible warns against unbelief but not against atheism per se. How could the writers of the Scriptures have warned against atheism? There weren’t any atheists. I’ve heard commentators on a local Christian radio station aim Psalm 14:1 (“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”) at atheists. Of course the implication becomes, “Atheists are fools.” However, should you have met the 10th century B.C.E. Jewish citizen to which the psalmist referred, he would have confessed to a belief in the existence of God. The psalmist was not saying that avowed atheists are fools. He was saying that fools secretly (in their hearts) suppress their awareness of God.
So who are the fools? The rest of Psalm 14 describes these religious unbelievers as those who elevate themselves by pushing others down. Such people by their actions deny God as their source. They may claim to believe that God exists, but they do not trust him to supply them with security, sustenance or self-worth. They maneuver and manipulate to get for themselves what others have or might acquire. Such people pray and attend religious services but they do not expect God to respond to their petitions. Instead, they engage in these activities to further establish their superiority.
As a case in point, consider Jesus’ very telling question addressed to the religious elite of his day, “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44 NIV) These men who stood at the peak of the religious establishment of their day were unbelievers according to Jesus. From their lofty perch they congratulated each other on their moral superiority and derided everyone else. They traded genuine engagement with the Basis of their being for the illusion of relative worth. Rather than find the favor of God, they fed on the “failures” of those whom they defamed. “They devour my people as though eating bread; they never call on the LORD.” (Ps. 14:4b NIV)
Faith, real faith, is a foreign concept. People will seek any alternative to humble reliance on God. Each alternative counterfeits the genuine treasure of our existence. The most dangerous counterfeits most closely resemble the genuine article. Those who accept religious achievement as heavenly currency are among the most desperately deceived. Beware religious unbelief.