"Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace." (Rom 6:12-14)
Theologians make a distinction between justification and sanctification. This can be a little confusing because the distinction can be subtle and it isn't immediately obvious why they would make such a distinction. Justification is "declaring just or righteous" while sanctification is making something consecrated and set apart for God's use. As I said, the difference is subtle. All Christian theologians will agree that justification is an act of imputation. In other words, we don't do anything to merit God's declaration that we are just. It is a free gift to all who believe on Jesus. It must be that way since we cannot earn that righteousness due to the corruption of sin. God must intervene and provide us a measure of grace. Otherwise, we are forever stuck in our sinful condition. There's not really much to argue about justification. If you don't claim we are saved by the blood of Jesus, it's difficult to see how you can be called "Christian" in any sense. So, because of our faith, God's grace removes the curse of death brought on by sin. OK. Now what?
The "Now what" part has to do with sanctification. God doesn't impute righteousness to us so that we can then go on the way we have been going on. It isn't enough to simply forgive sin in man. If you stop there, nothing has really changed and it's only a matter of time before sin comes again. Beyond that, God has a good reason for removing the curse of sin. We are forgiven sin so that we may then be consecrated to His purposes. In other words, we are justified so that we can be sanctified. There isn't much argument over justification and not much argument over the desire of God for our sanctification either. There is, however, a big difference of opinion on how sanctification takes place. How you understand sanctification determines how you will interpret the life of a Christian. It acts as an a priori premise, or frame of reference, for Bible interpretation. Much of the confusion, contention and disagreements among believers come from differences in these a priori assumptions.
In addition, many of the doctrines people argue over involve terms that are vague and often left undefined. If two people start arguing without a common frame of reference and a common understanding of the terms used, they can never reach a common understanding. Take the word "grace" for example. In the epistles of Paul it is a translation of a word meaning "grace, kindness, mercy, goodwill." That's a vague definition since it doesn't tell you'what favor or kindness is being done. Most believers come to a conversion through a realization of their need to be forgiven their sins. Thus, they interpret grace as "forgiveness of sin." Since that is the favor we desperately need, that's how we define it. (It is very much a "me centered" view of things.) But that leaves open the question of "now what?" Now that I have been forgiven, how do I live my life in response? And, if grace is forgiveness for sin, then what happens if I sin after I have received that grace?
This is the crux of the argument over sanctification. If we say grace is forgiveness, then to respect that grace we better change our behavior. Right? Thus, we are told, come to church so you can be taught the proper behavior for a believer and so someone can check up on you to make sure you are doing it right. That creates yet another set of problems. First, what are the right rules of behavior? Each Christian denomination or sect seems to have its own interpretation and each claims its doctrines are derived from the Bible. In other words, from the a priori premise that believers need to know the proper rules of behavior, they then turn Bible study into a search for the right rules of behavior. Out of this comes the multitude of opinions on proper form of worship, clothes to wear, songs to sing, words to say, food to eat, etc. Since each denomination is deriving its claims from the Bible, it seems that either the Bible is full of confusion, or somebody has to be right and somebody else has to be wrong. Not just slightly wrong, but terribly, horribly, heretically, morally and dangerously wrong! That's how wars get started.
Defining grace as forgiveness of sin also creates a significant problem in how to deal with recurring sin in a believer. Do we lose our salvation if we sin after Baptism? And how do you get rid of the guilt? Even worse, if grace is just forgiveness for sin, and God will always forgiveme if I ask, then why do I need to worry about my behavior at all? The more I sin, the more grace I get! That's exactly the problem Paul faced in Romans chapter six. Apparently, some first century believers were thinking of grace simply in terms of forgiveness and ran into this same conflict. Paul makes it clear in the next verse that he is aware of the problem: "What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid." (Rom 6:15) Well, if Paul was aware of the confusion, don't you think he had an answer that would solve this conflict? Of course he did. Unfortunately, Paul's answer has been repeatedly misunderstood or outright ignored for most of almost two thousand years. Before looking at Paul's answer, it's useful to go back and look at some history to understand where and how things went wrong. If we don't understand what went wrong, we are likely to repeat the same mistake.
The solution the Catholic Church came up with during theMiddle Ages in Europe was "sacraments." The Catholic dogma starts with a premise that salvation comes through the Church. It is the Church that baptizes, teaches and corrects. You are to learn your catechism, follow the proper moral behavior and remain in the Church. To deal with the problem of failures, you have the confession, penance, and communion. It's a nice package that wraps up everything very neatly. Unfortunately, it contains the seeds of its own destruction. That type of system of sacraments requires total obedience to the Church, which means, priests, bishops and Popes. It didn't take all that long before corrupt men stepped into those positions of authority and started using them for political and economic gain. By the late middle ages, they had invented the practice of the sale of indulgences. It's very rational, actually. If you need penance for your sins, then why not pay the penance up front so that you can then go have some fun? The sale of indulgences became a kind of final straw for men like Martin Luther and John Calvin. They spoke out, and then broke away from the Catholic Church. "It's reformation time," they said.
Luther, Calvin and the other reformers found their insights by returning to the writings of Paul. Unfortunately, those that followed after these brilliant thinkers didn't quite live up to the standards they set. Before long they run into the same problems. If it's sola fide and sola gratia then why bother with moral teaching at all? Almost from the start, the antinomians started distorting the message and causing problems. In addition, once you remove the absolute authority of the Church, a whole range of ideas start popping up. Luther had to deal with Agricola; Calvin had to deal with Severetus. Calvin's progeny got into a big dispute over free will that continues to this day. Then there is the question of the proper role between Church and State. If the Catholic Church has absolute moral authority, then there is no question of who is in charge. The Reformers, on the other hand, had to split authority with the civil authorities and that in itself leads to disputes. That's always the danger in preaching faith and grace it seems. Corrupt men corrupt the message, and in the end the Protestants had to come up with a whole new set of creeds, rules of worship and behavior and church organization.
Over time, the ideas of the Reformation get boiled down into slogans and catch-phrases. "Once saved always saved" -- "We are under Grace not law" -- "Faith not works" -- are yelled on one side and then answered back with other slogans -- "Grace is not license to sin" - "The Law has not been put away" -- "Faith without works is dead" -- back and forth, back and forth without any apparent resolution. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it seems we have come full circle and are back to the same problems of the past. Is it grace and faith alone, or is there a God-given set of laws and form of worship we need to observe? Do we need to return to the Jewish "roots" and keep Saturday Sabbath along with the feast days of the Torah? What good works are required of the believer? Now we even have something equivalent to the sale of indulgences in the preaching of the "prosperity gospel." Maybe it's reformation time, again?
Before we go off trying to reinvent Christianity, I think it's a good idea to go back to where this all starts. If the Reformers found something important in Paul's writings it is quite possible we can find the answer there, too.
The first thing I would suggest is to get rid of the slogans. Arguing with or against a slogan is ridiculous. The slogan is just a mnemonic device that should call to mind a complete understanding. Most of thetime, people interpret the slogan based on their a priori assumptions about sanctification without ever stating what those assumptions are or even defining what the terms mean. How will you ever gain understanding that way? What's worse, many of these slogans are fragments of Bible verses taken completely out of context. If you don't understand the context, you will never understand the meaning of the verse. It's not Bible study to cherry pick verses that seem to prove a foregone conclusion. There's a thing called hermeneutics that seems to be rarely practiced (or practiced poorly) by most saints these days. For some odd reason, people think you can read a fragment from a four-hundred year old translation of a thousands year old text and the meaning will just popout without any trouble at all. Silly, don't you think?
As tiresome and boring as it may be, it's important to look at the definitions of the words, in the original language if possible, before claiming to have understanding. Words are interesting things. They shift and change with time and often words will have several meanings and varying connotations as a result. You better define the words before you try and interpret the text, in other words. Start with this one: under. The Greek word is "hupo" and any lexicon will tell one of the meanings is this:
Hupo (b) denoting submission or subjection to authority, rule, command, power under (LU 7.8; GA 3.25); (c) denoting subjection or bondage to a moral force, such as sin (GA 3.22), law (GA 4.5), judgment (JA5.12) under the control of, subject to;
When Paul says we are under something, he is talking about some type of submission to authority. If grace is treated as only forgiveness, then this statement of Paul doesn't make any sense. You can't submit to the authority of forgiveness. It should also make it clear that Paul is not talking about living without any authority at all. He is making a distinction betweentwo types of authority: the authority of law and the authority of grace. So, whatever Paul means by grace it has to be something you submit yourself to as an authority for your actions. That should make it clear that Paul is in no way saying that you can receive grace and then just go do what you want. You are still under some authority. Whatever that authority of grace is, it is separate from the authority of law. So, we better find out what it is if we ever want to understand what Paul is talking about.
Read all of Romans chapters five through eight and it should become apparent. Paul consistently draws a distinction between the flesh and the spirit. There is a man of flesh under control of a carnal nature. There is also a spiritual man under control of a spiritual nature. The two do not mix. That's the point here in chapter six. The carnal nature is put to death in Christ. The spiritual nature is born out of the resurrection. We are no longer servants to sin when the sinful nature is dead. Thus, the carnal spirit in man must be driven to the cross to die along with Jesus. That is the purpose of the law and the reason to preach the moral law. The moral law given by God is the final death blow to the carnal nature. The carnal nature is that nature, that mind, which seeks self-serving, self-preserving, and self-gratifying action. Everything of the carnal mind is done to serve self. It is in rebellion to God, will not submit to His will and as a result, will forever end in sin. Even moral action and attempt at good works is driven by the same self-serving attitude. Men don't want to die to self, so they invent various schemes of religion and good works to try to get right with God while keeping the self alive. It just doesn't work that way. The moral law will always condemn the carnal nature.
Paul is expressing exactly what Jesus said: "Take up your cross and follow me." The independent self, separated from God, serving its own lusts, must be destroyed. In its place, a new spirit is then born. This is what Jesus said, isn't it? "You must be born again," is what He told Nicodemus. And that is what Paul is saying here. The old nature must die and a new nature born. That new nature is the inner man of spirit that comes from above, from God Himself. That's the grace that Paul is talking about. It is the deposit of a new spirit in us when we fully submit to God's control. We are under grace when it is the Holy Spirit controlling us rather than our carnal desires. Simple, isn't it?
`Nor do they put new wine into old skins, and if not--the skins burst, and the wine doth run out, and the skins are destroyed, but they put new wine into new skins, and both are preserved together.' (Mat 9:17)
That's another way to express the same idea. The old wineskin of the carnal nature is discarded because it cannot hold the new wine of the Holy Spirit.
Now it should be obvious why the new man in Christ is "not under law." There is no need to have an external, constraining, condemning rule to control the Holy Spirit. To think otherwise is to claim that the guidance of the Holy Spirit will lead you into sin! Never! So long as you remain in submission (under) that guidance, no other guidance is needed. That is the pattern that Jesus gave us:
Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things. (Joh 8:28)
I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you.(Joh 16:12-14)
It is the spirit of Christ in us that has the power to overcome sin. Likewise, it is His spirit in us, not our will, which bears fruit. There is no need to obsess or worry over good works, fruit of the spirit, etc., so long as we submit to that spirit and remain with it. His spirit will manifest itself through us. Our only possible failure is to drawback into our own carnal ways out of fear. That is where many fall away back into sin. The fear of losing their position in this world causes them to submit to the desires of the flesh instead of the Holy Spirit.
This is the "now what" of the Gospel. We must find ways to condemn and eliminate the carnal mind and its corrupt action while at the same time building up the work of the Holy Spirit. It does no good to simply say, "Get rid of sin." We can't do it by our will power. It does no good and does not build up the spirit in us to say, "You must modify your behavior according to the rules I give you." And, how is it going to increase the Holy Spirit in us to just come up with yet another church structure or form of worship? There is one thing and one thing only that will open the heart to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit: faith. We cannot generate that new spirit in us by our efforts any more than we can pay the price of our sin by our efforts. Our efforts, our will, must be directed into faith. When the temptations of the flesh begin to draw us away from God, the response should be, "I need more faith." I need more trust, more reliance, on God and less on myself. I must, in other words, die to self and live in Christ so that I will always be under grace.
For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not theSpirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (Rom 8:6-10)