Saint, Sinner, or Something Else?

“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.”
— Romans 7:18

That’s quite a somber admission from a saint. In fact, it flat out contradicts our typical notions about what saints are like. We might think that, if a saint had made that statement, it would come out more like this:

“For I know that God dwells in me, whose will I love and do.”

As it is, Paul’s discussion of law, sin, and flesh in the second half of Romans 7 has long been a quandary for Christian theologians. Few want to read Paul’s statements there as the confessions of a chronic sinner. Some dismiss the idea that Paul described his own experience as a Christian there. They take the tortuous picture he paints to describe the conflicted state of a typical soul who doesn’t believe that he was set free from sin, but labors under the delusion of bondage to sin and “law.” The quest for the correct interpretation is far from over.

As with all great literature, the correct understanding of a Bible text is the one that you accept, the one that is meaningful to you. Of course it is–that’s why you decide to accept it. Given that the Bible purports to inform us about a powerful God, a correct understanding should be likewise powerful. Bible literalists get God’s half of the power equation right, but they overlook the human half. In every place, in every age, although God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, we are not. Our minds and our needs are not the same as those of Abraham, Jesus, medieval saints, or centuries old fundamentalists. Understandings  that empowered people even decades ago won’t necessarily empower us now.

If an interpretation of Bible text doesn’t help us experience the kind of life that Jesus promised, it is impotent to us, no matter how much expert theological thought was invested in declaring it “correct.” Orthodoxy is about empowering organizations, not individuals. By the time a doctrine achieves orthodox status, its spiritual shelf-life expired long before. Jesus recommended new wine and living waters.

Romans 7, especially verses 14-25, is a watershed. Paul’s confessional goes too far for comfort. Nothing good–nothing at all? The doing of the good was not? “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.” This was Paul the Apostle, the saint, the same one who worked miracles, had visions, and wrote to the Colossians, “I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” How could he confess such powerlessness?

Maybe it wasn’t his own confession; that’s how some resolve the discomfort. Another view is rather shallow but comforting: Paul was also human, after all. In spite of his virtue and might as an apostle, he wanted the Romans to know that he still identified with their nitty-gritty, novice struggles. He hadn’t forgotten what it was like. Yet another view resolves discomfort by qualification: the sin that Paul wrote about was unconscious. Consciously, he served only the law of God, but unconsciously–with his flesh–he served the law of sin. According to this view, Paul reflected after the fact and saw his imperfections, lacks, and unintentional transgressions. Since he was unconscious of them at the time, he did not do them. The next time he would be more aware and act accordingly. Sainthood preserved.

A crucial element is missing from each of these views: a discernable path. Each view assumes that Paul had already traversed a path and attained a kind of life that we as yet have not. If so, how did he do it? What did it require? What was it like? It isn’t hard to tell when someone has actually experienced what they talk about. They can tell you how it felt.

What if that’s exactly what Paul did in the last half of Romans 7? What if he described how it feels to live as a follower of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit–not how it feels to be a struggling beginner or a stereotypical soul laboring under the delusion of bondage to sin and law, but what it’s like to be a saint? We would rather our saints were angelic, free from chronic internal turmoil, living on a plane as foreign to us as it is divine. After all, chronic internal turmoil is precisely what we want to escape from. We long for an existence that’s radically different from the mundane, corrupted one we know, which is one reason most of us don’t expect it until we get to “the other side.” After reading Paul’s description here on face value, without dodging it, we might well ask, “Is this as good as it gets?”

Paul’s conclusion to the matter doesn’t seem to help much, either. (No one is quite sure why, in the 13th Century, Archbishop Stephen Langton decided to break a chapter right before a sentence that started with “Therefore…” but that’s what he left us.)

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
— Romans 7:25 – 8:1

Paul would sound resigned if not for his jubilant gratitude. His conclusion seems far less than we’d expect from the power of God working in a saint’s obedient heart.

The idea that Paul settled for serving God merely with his mind while serving sin with his flesh might seem like a formula for licentiousness. It could serve (and has) as license for those who do not truly “want to do good,” do not “joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man,” do not hate the evil they practice, and do not feel like crying, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” Paul wasn’t looking for license or to excuse the evil that he practiced. Nor did he deny that it was evil. Nor did he deny that he practiced it. If we love and hate the same things that Paul did, we likely aren’t interested in license or excuses, either.

Resolving our discomfort with Romans 7 through interpretations that make it less relevant to us probably isn’t a good idea. Discomfort actually signals that we need to pay attention. Eliminating its source doesn’t necessarily mean that we learned anything, especially not if dismissal or denial was involved.

What if Paul meant exactly what a face value reading of Romans 7 indicates? What if serving the law of God with our minds while serving the law of sin with our flesh is exactly what it means to be “in Christ Jesus?”


About Millard J. Melnyk

Motley past, promising future exploring an open, potent understanding of mutuality, individual dignity and personal power through trust. DEAUTHORITARIANIZE EVERYTHING!
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25 Responses to Saint, Sinner, or Something Else?

  1. Shers says:

    Let me start by apologising that I’m not good at these Christian dissertations because immediately I start groaning. Why? Because of the obvious. IMO, Paul is talking about desire to live as a sentient being in a body driven by animalistic desires to not only survive but to win the battle – or at least have the upper-hand – and procreate. This explosive cocktail of infinite encased in finite will always be at odds, and has been throughout the centuries. It is my belief, as both a scholar and spiritual leader, Paul is addressing these issues directly. He may appear dramatic in his discourse. Perhaps this is because of his attempt to reach into the gut of unmasked emotion and present it to us. And he doesn’t do this to kowtow and lay out his faults before us but, rather, to admit that he is one with us – not below or above anybody else. And like a good rhetorician, he drives home with the promise of what it means to be Christian, which is the hope that, despite who we are and what we’re made of, we are always on sound footing with God because of our love through Christ.

  2. Shers, sorry to make you groan. Or maybe not! 😉

    I don’t think that anyone denies that being human is to “live as a sentient being in a body driven by animalistic desires to not only survive but to win the battle” or the like. Turmoil, like I said. All you mentioned is well taken, but doesn’t address the question I closed the article with. In fact, what if the turmoil/battle that Paul described was also Jesus’ experience? I’m trying to push the limits of our typical notions of saintliness and holiness. Would Jesus stop being who we hold him to be if he said the same things that Paul wrote?

    PS. I think you read the article before I was quite done with it. Thanks for the prompt response, though! I usually post, then final edit on the blog. I should probably wait to “publish” it, but I see things in the online format that I tend to miss in Word format. Go figure… 🙂

  3. VISTO says:

    Dang, i just typed up a paragraph and somehow was rerouted to FB. I will be more to the point here.

    I am reminded of cognitive dissonance, or the presence of two opposing realities in the same space, which I feel is a consistent theme throughout the Bible for me, one reality that will eventually oppose the other and overcome it. I have a life verse that applies to my name VISTO (Vicotrious In Struggles To Overcome)- 1 John 5: 4-5 : “for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” This essay you have written and this verse to me express similar truths, it is by faith in Christ that we are justified and that we overcome the tension and the opposing nature of living in this world and in our own “finite” vessels… That faith, to me, is something that transforms our perspective on what justified means to become something deeper and more resilient. I say “more” as to contrast it to the lack of resilience we have when we judge our walk based on whether our performance matches what we think is “saintly” or “angelic”, which I think can miss the mark, as it applies our justification via our works instead of via what Christ has done. Just some thoughts on my end, thanks for sharing Millard! Now I will copy this to make sure I don’t lose my thoughts again 🙂

    • Thanks Tony! What Paul wrote becomes more nitty-gritty and practical for me as I let go of self-justification issues and look at the effect that I have on people from their POVs. My good intentions don’t guarantee quality of experience on the other side, even at my most “angelic” (haha!) The fact that Paul does NOT indicate that the dissonance eventually gets “overcome” is one reason this passage so strikes me.

      In verse 25, he says that the conflict is ongoing. He resolves the dissonance by an existential choice to identify with his “mind” (conscious, deliberate, intentional self?) which serves the law of God while he continues serving the law of sin with his flesh. There is therefore no condemnation, NOT because he “overcame” or repressed the flesh, but because he divorced himself from it, even while it continued serving sin and there was evidence to prove it. Isn’t that what he says there?

      • Tony says:

        That’s good! I see how overcoming isn’t really on me to “dO” other than to decide which side I’m on n let God do His thing despite my flesh

        • Tony, I think it’s definitely on us to do things. The problem a lot of Christians have with the onus to “do something” amounts to anticipating the futility of doing anything. Certain strains of Christian teaching reinforce this sense of futility. The same people don’t have a problem with “doing something” when they are sure it will succeed. When James wrote that “faith without works is dead,” I don’t think he referred to dead works. What about living works? Should we direct our efforts solely toward the benefit of others, or should we devote some of that effort towards being personally transformed so that our love for others actually grows and our ability to express it increases?

          In a nutshell, many Christians want to be like Jesus but don’t have confidence that they can change to become like him “by their own efforts.” Instead, God has to do something inexplicable to make it happen. The His power vs. my power thing is a false dichotomy that depends on old, dysfunctional understandings about our “nature” and our inability to address the problem of changing.

          Paul wrote about sanctification and transformation. He didn’t see them as impossibilities that God had to overcome for us, but told the Philippians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” How could effort IN the power of the Holy Spirit not produce results? Who wouldn’t want to attempt that? I think the real problem is that we haven’t been taught what “in the power of the Holy Spirit” is really is about. God’s power isn’t magic. Miracles aren’t magic. The path of transformation that lies behind us is explicable.

          Most of the information about internalizing Jesus’ teachings was likely shared person-to-person or in small groups and not recorded. Today, we have records that survived, most of which were historical, promotional, and doctrinal. On the other hand, we’ve been fire-hosed with never-ending volumes of teachings created by institutions that for centuries have had their priorities backwards: “the faith” as their number one priority, themselves–faith’s champions–as priority #2, church property (along with enough warm bodies to fill it) as priority #3, with the life experience of the faithful coming in second last, just ahead of unbelievers. In some ways, unbelievers get more attention, being wooed and courted on the time and dime of believers.

          The leaders and prophets of church industry aren’t going to teach us how to become like Jesus, if they even know how, because that would encourage our independent relationships with God. Leaders of industry don’t want to be cut out of a lucrative loop. We have to figure it out for ourselves and find others who have done likewise.

  4. Matt says:

    While I prefer to read the Pauline letters from a literary perspective that accepts paradox and discomfort, I do not see Romans 7 as an anomaly. Paul’s points are fairly clear:

    Context! Context! Context!

    (1) Paul’s community has been set free from Sin (Romans 6).

    (2) If one is wed to the law, then one is bound to it. This binding is broken by death, death of Jesus (7:1-3).

    (3) Paul’s community (at least the Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism) is no longer bound to the law, the law which aroused the passions of sins when it was in the realm of the flesh (7:4-5).

    (4) Paul’s community (at least the Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism) is released from the law, dead to it, no longer captive to it (7:5).

    (5) A new “law” functions in Paul’s community: the law of Spirit of life (Rom 8:1-2), where there is no condemnation (because there is no law). Paul’s community now functions in this realm of the Spirit, against which there is no law.

    (6) A community member can go back to the law, set his/her mind on the flesh and law, which means plugging back into the realm of the flesh. What happens? He/she sets the mind on the realm of the flesh and is subject to death. This is the experience Romans 7:7-25 is demonstrating.

    So Romans 7:7-25 is a demonstration of someone setting his/her mind on the realm of the flesh and not the Spirit. It is remaining in an unhealthy marriage that was absolved (7:1-3). Realm of the flesh + law = death. Realm of the Spirit + law of love = life.

    Here is where the paradox is found: Romans 7 is an argument against lawfulness for the sake of lawlessness.


    • Hey Matt, thanks for your response! Sorry this is so long. Hope you’ll bear with me. I’m struggling to put my finger on the crux of our disagreement…

      I largely agree with your points. What I don’t get is how those points lead to the exclusivity implied by, “So Romans 7:7-25 is a demonstration of someone setting his/her mind on the realm of the flesh and not the Spirit.”

      My primary interest is to experience and express the kind of life Jesus and the Apostles described and were examples of. I find Romans 7 to be intensely personal, relevant, and helpful toward that end. So, you can understand why I’m skeptical of a reading that claims the passage exemplifies thinking contradictory to that same interest.

      Maybe the crux of our differences is a difference in perspectives. I think that the turmoil Paul described is the experience of someone in the process of realizing what it means to be “in Christ Jesus.” So, it begins (especially in verse 14) from the perspective of someone setting his/her mind on the flesh and ends up with the perspective of someone setting his/her mind on the spirit. However, although the perspective on the experience shifts from an external POV to an internal POV, the experience remains the same. Rom. 7 through verse 24 describes a mental journey that led to Rom 7:25 – 8:2. You seem to see the entire passage as the experience of someone whose mind was set on the flesh and bound to the law.

      In other words, you seem to hold that there are two kinds of experience–in the realm of flesh or in the realm of spirit–with two corresponding views–a mind set on the flesh and a mind set on the spirit. Paul’s teachings don’t necessitate that idea, though, and I have never found compelling evidence that supports it, although I’ve heard plenty of claims to the effect. People I admire behave differently because they found ways to respond to common experiences in uncommon ways, usually from radically different perspectives than we typically adopt. Everything that we’re learning from neuroscience and psychology indicates that differences in quality of life experience arise from our responses to experience–especially our “narratives,” how we interpret our experiences–not from the experiences per se, let alone from experiencing them in different realms. Paul seems to describe a similar situation in Rom. 7: different views/minds/perspectives/interpretations about a common experience, not different kinds of experience.

      I think Paul’s genius involves a specific shift of priorities at a very pragmatic level, away from evidence of sin demonstrated externally by the flesh and toward internal, spiritual “evidence” that he served God with his mind. He showed that what he knew internally trumped what could be judged externally. In order to know who we truly are and who we truly serve, we need to choose a spiritual perspective, which is what he did in verse 25. He didn’t change his behavior in order to establish who he was, he only changed what he identified with.

      Paul starts in verse 14 with the quandary, describes it through verse 24, hinting more than once at his eventual conclusion in verse 25. The difference between Paul and a person whose mind was set on the flesh didn’t consist of different behavior but different beliefs about their behavior. He described a choice between what is true in the spirit and what seems true according to the flesh. Which trumps which? His reliance on intangibles in defiance of tangibles was radical.

      I like your paradox. Lawfulness for the sake of lawlessness fits with Jesus’ picture of those he’ll tell “I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness,” in spite of the incredible things they will claim to have done.


  5. Shers says:

    I can’t speak for Jesus, as he didn’t say the same things Paul wrote. How could he? He was God in the flesh, though this flesh is born to die. So, what are you trying to explore, exactly? That Jesus was human too? Well, that part of him, at least, was. We all know that. Did he feel as a human then? Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t he? And yet we with the Spirit so strong in us that we are different. Those of us coming later to the fold have known and felt this markedly. And when/if we’ve experienced a backsliding into the old ways we might have even felt as if it groaned. So, therefore, I believe, YES, Jesus most certainly felt ALL that we humans felt and are feeling because he was human too. But His Spirit was the key to the difference – why we Christians are ultimately different – and that encompasses even times when we are not at our best and/or living through personal dark nights of the soul. But mine with age have become less and less. As you’ve mentioned elsewhere, we are no longer struggling as we have in our youth, as newer Christians. Perhaps we don’t experience instant miracles, or even the closeness we did back then. Yet, we are seasoned and rooted more deeply. Thus, we bend flexibly but don’t crack in the wind of change that is continuing in our present economic state when ‘the hearts of men begin to fail them’ and so many despair of their future. Without faith, life to me is such a hopeless state, regardless, a vanity of vanities.

    • Haha, Shers!

      Well, we have no idea what Jesus’ experience was from the time his folks found him disputing with the Rabbis in the Temple until he started his ministry, so how can we say one way or another?

      I’m trying to explore the possibility that Jesus’ experience was much like Paul’s and much like ours, which is why he was tempted “in all ways like we are.” It would give relevance to the idea that he created “a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh.” In other words, the way that Jesus found to think and live–his perspectives, beliefs, priorities, values, choices, and resultant behavior–is our way out of the messes of our minds and lives, which is why he called himself “the way.” His way went through his flesh. Maybe our way goes through ours.

      I think that many Christians have felt the spirit, as have many believing non-Christians. I haven’t found many Christians who think very differently than non-Christians outside religious settings. In North America, anyway, just watch the “love, joy, peace, and patience” evacuate from a Christian when faced with serious harm to their financial well-being, especially if it’s due to maliciousness from another Christian! Christians here trust money pretty much like anyone else does, and some far more, e.g., “prosperity gospel” adherents. Once finances are in order, they can afford to be Christlike.

      Ever notice that most Christian teaching leaves Jesus’ mind pretty much like a black box? It’s all wonderful and beautiful in there, of course, but as to his logic, his struggles, his temptations, what it was like to figure out the truth, how he faced and dealt with fear, lust, rage, superiority, etc., you hear next to nothing. It’s like we think he had a magical mind that magically figured out how to live a magical life. It’s all a mystery. So how can we claim with Paul that “we have the mind of Christ” if we have nary a clue what was in it? What was it like for Jesus? What did it feel like? What was temptation like? Why was he in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane? Why did he treat the Syrophoenician woman like trash, implying she was just a dog like other Gentiles? Was he racist or was he testing her or both? Why are we so sure that his anger was righteous when he drove out the money changers from the Temple? Or did he also notice that self-righteousness was involved?

      If he “came in the likeness of sinful flesh,” was “made like His brethren in all things,” and “condemned sin in the flesh,” then there must have been self-righteousness in him, and a whole bunch of other stuff. If not, what kind of “sin” did he “condemn in the flesh?” If Christians even try to answer that question, maybe they think that by living an absolutely pure, holy life, Jesus condemned sin in everyone else’s flesh. What if that’s not the case? What if his temptations were exactly like ours and the sin he condemned was in his flesh? That runs against the grain of conventional ideas about Jesus, but so also does much of the Bible.

      When it comes to understanding what went on in Jesus mind, most people seem to give up before they even try. I’m not satisfied with conventional beliefs about him, because they haven’t helped me live like him. Thus the exploration. 🙂

  6. Shers says:

    I’m rushing here as I’m supposed to be doing something else, and I see a sentence I wrote as unclear but can’t fix it because there’s no edit mode. The sentence: “And yet we with the Spirit so strong in us that we are different” should read: ‘And yet we too with the Spirit dwelling so strongly within us know that we are different, as well.’

  7. Matt says:

    Millard – I am wondering about your statement: “You seem to hold that there are two kinds of experience–in the realm of flesh or in the realm of spirit–with two corresponding views–a mind set on the flesh and a mind set on the spirit. Paul’s teachings don’t necessitate that idea, though, and I have never found compelling evidence that supports it.” It is not just I who seems to hold this. What evidence have you considered? From his letters? Which letters? From scholars? How do you explain the dualism in Romans 8:2-15? Galatians 5:13-25? How do you confront this evidence? Have you considered Pauline Theologies by Fizmyer, or Dunn, or Bekker? Paul is pulling from the symbolic world of apocalyptic Judaism, where such a dualism would have been grasped by his audience (mid-east texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Zoroastrianism affirms a two realm theology). Yes, he has his own variation, but to deny it outright based on an argument from silence does not give us much to work with.

    • Hey Matt, OK I’ve got some time now…

      To your first post:

      About evidence for/against dualism, I consider the things you mentioned as arguments or explanations, not evidence (i.e., other writings of Paul, scholars, Judeo or Zoroastrian theories, etc.) I didn’t argue that Paul did not understand it that way or that his audience did not. I didn’t argue that what he wrote excludes or contradicts dualism, but that it doesn’t NECESSITATE dualism. Given what little I know about that period, I’m sure that dualistic thinking was very much in vogue. That fact alone doesn’t constitute evidence for dualism to my way of thinking.

      I simplistically construe evidence as direct experience of or an artifact from a space-time event. Our explanations, theories, etc., about events and evidence are stories. Evidence is pretty durable apart from degenerative forces, while stories tend to change over time apart from efforts to maintain them. Altering evidence usually constitutes falsehood or deception. Altering our stories is what we naturally do as we learn. Evidence of spiritual realities tends to be very subjective, as all human experience tends to be. Given the evidence I’m aware of, including what little evidence there is for the “supernatural” or things like miracles, I find no compelling reason to believe that the nature of things involves dualism. Maybe Paul would have disagreed, and I could be well be shown wrong; but if I am, it will be because of something real that forces me to accept dualism, not just tons of argument. I haven’t found anything like that yet.

      Natural/supernatural, holy/profane, physical/spiritual, are convenient conceptual dualisms we use to think and talk about things. I find it telling and suspicious that, at any point in time, the demarcation between two sides of a supposed dualism tends to match then-current knowledge limitations pretty closely. Yesterday’s magic becomes tomorrow’s science.

      Actually, I find the fact that we keep coming up with dualisms suspicious of itself. Why not three-fold reality, or four? I suspect the human penchant for binary thinking is the basic reason–black/white, either/or, on/off, is/isn’t, etc. We just haven’t evolved enough to handle more complexity than that. We could create spectacularly fast, low-energy computers by using light and fiber optics instead of electrical states and silicon chips, basing logic on gradations of the electro-magnetic spectrum instead of binary 0/1. Maybe fuzzy logicians would know what to do with them. The rest of us need either/or. Our logic systems continue to be predominantly binary.

      So, I’m not denying Paul’s dualism, if that’s how he thought, based on an argument from silence. I’m saying that I find no support for dualism other than that a whole lot of people seem stuck on it.

  8. Matt says:

    What is Paul saying (against the backdrop of what he could have said)? He could have said that “my flesh” in 7:25, but there is no personal pronoun there in Greek. That is the problem I have with claims on “face value” readings. They are not really so. They are dependent on translations and interpretations of others. I read, “and with sarki (flesh) the law of sin.” Why didn’t he put the pronoun there? What does he mean by flesh? What would a first century apocalyptic Jew mean?
    What does he mean by law of sin? Is he talking about the Torah? A principle? And what about the genitive construction “of”? Is it the sin that comes from law? Is it sin’s law? Is it sinful law? Is it law under possession of sin?

    On Romans 8:3: if Paul wanted to say that Jesus came to fight sin in his own sinful flesh, the the option was there. But he did not say that. He said “the likeness of flesh of sin.” Why likeness? What does likeness mean (homoiomati). Why didn’t he just say came of flesh of sin? And why did he not say sinful flesh? He said flesh of sin? What is meant by this genitive construction? It can be sinful flesh, but there are many other options. If he wanted to make it less ambiguous, he could have put an adjective “sinful” there. But he odes not. Instead, he has two nouns: “flesh of sin.” Does he mean flesh under the possession of sin (sin’s flesh)? Why is it ambiguous?

    • Hey, to your second post, this one is pretty long, but I hope you trudge through it! 🙂

      So if I get you correctly, according to the Greek it says:

      “So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with flesh the law of sin.”

      Does the same hold true for the personal pronoun in “with my mind”? Should it actually read:

      “So then, on the one hand I myself with mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with flesh the law of sin.” ??

      Regardless, I don’t see that it makes a material difference to what I’m suggesting. Like you gave examples of, if I serve “with mind” or “with flesh” it has to be my mind and flesh, others’ mind(s) and flesh(es), or abstract or generalized notions of “mind” and “flesh.” The important point to me isn’t what those things are or even who they belong to, (although I’ll have to think about that a bit,) but Paul’s personal choice to identify with “mind” serving the law of God, while divorcing himself from “flesh” that served the law of sin. His “Thanks be to God!” seems to be his reaction to finally settling the question of who he truly was. Identity assertion might be the quintessential spiritual act, like God’s “I AM” to Moses.

      I wrote about this to my boys recently. I didn’t want to get into the problem of what “sin” is and muddy my point, so I simply replaced “sin” with the word “shit.” Some of my boys are undecided on the question of God, so I didn’t want to assume anything on that point, either. I replaced “God” with “Good.” Even atheists hold to a concept of good. Rom. 7:14-8:1 turns into an interesting read that way. 😉

      Your last paragraph is very interesting. I don’t have answers. Do you have some? I’d love to hear them.

      “Sinful flesh” is actually weaker than “flesh of sin.” Sinful flesh is flesh characterized to some degree by sin. That leaves the possibility open that “sinful” doesn’t apply 100%, i.e., that some of the flesh remains unmarred by sin. “Flesh of sin” would give ownership and characterization of “flesh” to “sin,” which jives with other extreme statements Paul made, e.g., “sin would become utterly sinful” and “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” These and your related questions about sin and law are all good ones. Answers to them would be cool, but I don’t think they would change my point about identification choice.

      Your “likeness” comments are also great. Using “likeness” clearly indicates some kind of difference between Jesus’ flesh and our flesh, just like you rhetorically pointed out. But before it allows for difference by implication, it EXPLICITLY states similarity. That’s what we should emphasize. The paradoxical core of Jesus’ very existence and mission–no matter how we cut the incarnation–is close divine contact with humans. How close? Very close. So, at this point, the best I can make of it is that Jesus’ flesh was VERY similar to our flesh, although not exactly alike. The differences are secondary to me. It puzzles me that they get so much attention.

      I like stressing the similarity for several reasons:

      1. Most people invest considerable energy to downplay certain similarities. Some get excited when I stress them. They especially don’t like the possibility that sin had anything to do with Jesus’ flesh. Their reactions are interesting. I want to understand what seems reaction-worthy. I suspect that too much similarity between his flesh and our flesh challenges their notion of Jesus’ holiness, one which often removes him so far from our experience that we need ministers, priests, saints, and Mother Mary just to help us relate to him.

      2. Other relevant N.T. statements strongly stress Jesus’ similarity to us, particularly when it comes to sin and temptation, both squarely within the flesh’s domain.

      3. If Jesus didn’t condemn sin in his own flesh, then where did it happen, and why was it so important that he came in flesh at all, to the point that John twice states that denying that Jesus came in flesh originates from the “spirit of antichrist?”

      4. If Jesus’ flesh was absolutely divorced from sin and the possibility of sin, what about Heb 4:15? “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.”

      I don’t know of a text that says that Jesus “fought” sin, although Heb. mentions our “striving against sin,” and Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane could be interpreted that way. On the other hand, his temptations by the devil don’t depict much struggle or internal conflict.

      However we construe Jesus’ flesh, if we come to the conclusion that he was tempted DIFFERENTLY than we are, two things happen:

      First, we’re off the hook that would require us to follow him in that respect. If he was tempted just like we are and found a way AS A HUMAN to remain free from sin, it raises the possibility that he devised/discovered/created/inaugurated a “way” of dealing with temptation and sin that we can practice.

      Second, it skips all the good parts. What good is a Jesus who was like us in some respects, but not in our most problematic respects, which would also be the most helpful and “saving” respects? If Jesus the human overcame temptation, the potential exists for us to experience freedom from sin experientially, specifically, not merely by divine decree or “spiritually” or “in heavenly places” or anywhere but here and now in US. Real, nitty-gritty transformation. What’s wrong with that?

      I don’t like it when customer service reps morph my problem into a different one that they know how to solve. Morphing Jesus by minimizing his “likeness of flesh of sin” in order to preserve notions of haloed holiness and other-worldly divinity seems less than optimally redemptive.

      That’s pretty much what I see, though: Christian faith that conclusively settles the eternal disposition question, but remains very iffy on the quality-of-life-here-and-now question. Christians spend their lives assured of heaven, but living here arguably not much better–and often worse–than moral, conscientious atheists, with the occasional answered prayer to spice things up.

      If God is powerful enough to save us from the eternal consequences of sin, why wouldn’t God be powerful enough to save us here and now from a chronic cycle of screwing up, praying for mercy, grace, and forgiveness, and trying to keep faith for next time? Would we need weekly spiritual injections if we experienced the power of God all through the week? Why can’t God transform us into powerfully remarkable creatures of faith, love, and goodness? Maybe God can, but we just lost our way.

      The most problematic aspect of any faith is internalization. Spiritual disciplines, rituals, and the many strange things that humans do to make divine contact have a pretty simple objective: experience something. Experience IS internalization. Most of the internalization wisdom of the early church was probably verbal and is lost to us. I think we need to rediscover it instead of settling for explanations that alleviate the need for it.

      I’m not implying that’s what you’re doing, Matt, don’t misunderstand. I’m just frustrated that for all the tomes of theology that have come and gone, we don’t have more info on good internalization methods–not just how to have divine experiences after hours, days, or months of disciplined, esoteric, ritualistic practices or within specially constructed (and usually EXPENSIVE–St. Peter’s? Forget about it!) settings, but how to change the way we think and feel so that awareness of the divine becomes natural; i.e., the divine nature Peter stated we can “partake of.”

      Damn, got carried away. Gotta get some dinner… 😉

  9. Matt says:

    Thanks for your response:

    -Amen to “how to change the way we think and feel so that awareness of the divine becomes natural.” I think scholarship (now that it is being set free from religious institutional pressure) is providing all kinds of avenues for exploring this afresh. I am just frustrated because it is not reaching laypeople (hence, the Facebook rant).

    There is an excellent book on first century religious experience written by a NT scholar and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar (Klaus Berger, Religious Experience and Identity in the New Testament). I have read it a couple times and have tried to link it with cognitive psych and the 12 steps program. Would love to hear what you think about it and how you would link it with present spirituality:

    -I like how you work with “flesh of sin.”

    -The reason I do not like “my flesh” is because flesh in Paul’s writings does not mean an individual;s body or skin or flesh and bone or physicality. His use is quite apocalyptic and corporate. I have a good article on this from the Theological Dictionary of the NT if you want to read it. Flesh appears to be a way of being apart from God, a way of being that holds us captive, a life force that holds us captive. The best modern metaphor I can find for how Paul uses sarx/flesh is the Matrix. So flesh is more of a corporate entity/force that we all experience together than a physical body.



    • Cool, thanks Matt. And thanks for the reference to Berger’s book. I’ll get a copy and let you know how it strikes me.

      Interesting comments about flesh and The Matrix, too. I’d like to talk about that. It lends itself to something I’ve been groping for, which has to do with our entrenched views that prioritize material (flesh) over spiritual/essential/meaningful, which is the crux of idolatry, as far as I can see. The connection back to “my flesh” might be the innate, physically-oriented affinity we share with material stuff. It excites us, attracts us, etc., physically and primally. Allowing those attractions/excitements to overrule more important concerns or even get them backwards seems to be what Paul was working against. Cypher’s steak wouldn’t have helped to tempt him back inside if his mouth (his flesh) couldn’t taste it, even though it was all in his mind. 😉

      • I found a preview of Berger’s book while I’m waiting for my copy. I got part of Chapter 1 and most of Chapter 2 (thanks Google.) Very interesting. I like his treatment of identity and personhood. Much to ponder there. His claim that freedom to Paul was “freedom from” ala a Dylanesque “ya gotta serve somebody” struck me. Is that a current consensus?

        So far, I’m impressed that someone has actually tried to do the work required to answer the simple question I’ve asked since I started reading the Bible: How did they think differently than we do? That sets up the possibility of asking which way of thinking is better, or that maybe we should look for option C.

        As I read, though, yet another pesky question recurred to me.

        Why is there such a glaring dearth of New Testament-quality writings from MODERN perspectives that DIRECTLY relate New Testament-quality experience to modern ways of thinking?

        Lacking that, Christians are forced to take massive U turns to speculate on the mindsets behind 2,000-year-old writings in order to get a fix on how contemporary thinking might compare to that of another age, just to figure out if they got a 2,000-year-old message right. Why instead don’t Christians have CURRENT information resulting from 2,000 years of experience-based development and improvement on those ancient texts? I have to believe that New Testament-quality experience would get big press if it still happened, so either it must be lacking or it’s being suppressed and ignored.

        I wonder if our current dearth of truly powerful Christian words and deeds is the ultimate legacy of canonization, thanks to the ecclesiastical schmucks who left us stuck with it. We can’t compare “apples to apples” with Paul because we ain’t got no bananas.

  10. Matt says:

    P.S. I take responsibility for the “not reaching laypeople” comment. I need to try harder.

  11. Caleb says:

    Millard, I really enjoyed reading this post. I think you did a nice job of brining out the difficulties of that text and how it might implicate us depending upon the interpretation. The following quote resonated with me:

    “If an interpretation of Bible text doesn’t help us experience the kind of life that Jesus promised, it is impotent to us, no matter how much expert theological thought was invested in declaring it “correct.””

    I view the scripture as being alive. (Hebrews 4:12-13) We should not study the bible as one studies a fossil. The person that studies a fossil might glean much information but he does not have the opportunity to be transformed. But if that same person encounters a live dinosaur, studying would take on an altogether different form. In this case the subject being studied is actively communicating and how one approaches the task of studying would not only affect the substance of what’s learned but also likely produce significant transformation on the part of the student as a result of what’s learned. In my example this might be as simple as being eaten by a hungry dinosaur. Probably not the desired transformation, but one nonetheless. But what if friendship were established between man and beast? That’s a leap in knowledge that the study of dead things cannot produce.

    I’ve gotta run, but thanks again for sharing this, and I look forward to reading more!


  12. Thanks Caleb. Like I mentioned in my comment to Tony, the understanding shared by the early church about internalizing Jesus’ teachings is largely lost to us. Practical information about how to be transformed by the renewing of our minds has been neglected by Christian writers or relegated to myths and practices that seem like little more than spiritual alchemy.

    I like your analogy. Let me take it a step further. Scripture itself isn’t living. Until we grasp something, it’s just words on a page, like a letter. I regard scriptures (not just Biblical, either) like letters from people who experienced God. The value of their writings goes back to the value of the experiences that prompted the writing. We can’t really learn from them without having our own experiences with God.

    That’s one reason I’m amazed that Christians put so much stock in theology and theological schools. Most of the discussions that go on in Christian circles amounts to incredibly convoluted he-said-she-said (mostly “he”) about a guy (God) who is standing right there next to you and could answer for himself.

  13. Matt says:

    Thanks Millard and Caleb. I am glad you are enjoying Berger’s book. I want to just write a brief defense of subtle accusations about the University that I find both in Fundamentalism and those who take it on (usually former ones). I find anti-intellectual tendencies in both.

    There is an anti-scholarship tendency that I find both in orthodoxy and those who take it on. @ Caleb and Millard. Without biblical scholarship, you would not even be able to quote Hebrews 4:12-13 or even discuss these issues. You would not even have “fossils.” You would have shards of unreadable rock. Look at the bible manuscripts online. Read them. Tell me that they are living and what is being said. What is God saying to you? Unless you can read Greek, find the words that are all stuck together, read manuscripts, decide which manuscript (there are multiple ones), etc., then the word is not living. It is made “living” by the scholarship you are questioning, that is, unless you learn Greek, Aramaic, Greco-Roman context, etc., which is the option I prefer everyone to take.

    I am not a theologian. I am not equipped to speak for them. But I can speak for the University and biblical studies. I think you are giving into broad assumptions and generalizations about those who prepare the study tools for you, or those who are willing to give you access to the earliest documents and languages so you don’t have to depend so much on others for reading ancient texts. If it is the mind that is at work (and not the text), I would suggest the problem with words not jumping out at our experience is not the text’s fault (or those or prepare it), but the minds in front of the text.

    • Matt, thanks, both for your thoughts and a little heat. We need it.

      Please make a distinction in any anti-scholarship or anti-University sentiment you get from me, between: 1) criticism for scholarship, the hard work it involves, and the valuable understandings it yields (NONE here!) and 2) criticism for pursuing that scholarship against a relative dearth of data (PLENTY here!)

      Biblical texts supposedly deal with ultimate questions and ultimate realities which should be relevant and evident today, not just 2,000+ years ago. We need the scholarship that is being done, as you aptly point out, AND (being a both-and kind of guy) we need something else that is glaringly absent: scholarship on contemporary EXPERIENCE with these issues (maybe even with God!), that interprets it for contemporary people in contemporary terms, like Paul did in his day. Instead, we have millennia-old, hierarchical, ecclesiastical organizations that absconded the seat of Christ and insist that God went mute about the 3rd century, so as to keep those pesky “heretics” in their places–in the fire one way or the other, baby! We do have the Karen Armstrongs of the world, but much of their work amounts to a (marvelous–I think) mash-up of the ancient stuff forming a platform to try to undo the results of said organizations using the ancient stuff to alienate their respective adherents from each other and get them to hate and exterminate each other for fun and profit.

      As far as learning Greek, Aramic, Greco-Roman context (well, that last one is pretty appealing, actually!) I feel like a guy who went to the doctor to get a read on some health literature and got told to go to med school! Really? Can’t the experts come down from the mountain once in a while for us poor valley-dwellers? Maybe we’re tending sheep down here and can’t break away for years at a stretch…

      Seriously, astrophysicists figured it out. Cosmology is dope. It just takes writing a couple of books about the Big Bang and the nature of time, and then you hit the lecture circuit. Wheelchairs and computerized voice synthesizers optional. Even biologists have become gods-are-not-there experts. Are Biblical scholars going to miss out on the gravy train? There’s still a huge niche not being filled: get Biblical scholarship out there so Podunks like me can read and understand it, maybe even figure out how it relates to real life! 😉

      Hmmm… idea #3? At any rate, with the likes of Driscoll out there, telling his quarry–twenty-somethings looking for spiritual homes–that they need to go through Greek boot camp probably isn’t going to shake things up much. On the other hand, it would be REALLY fun to rip him a few new holes with some really tight Biblical scholarship that shows him up for the charlatan he’s turning out to be…

  14. ouija board says:

    If by relativism you mean what it really is – that our ethics are ultimately subjective and not pre-ordained facts – it’s a great idea!

    • Yes, but more than that. Ethics can be subjectively conceived and still amount to rigid “Thou shalt” regimens, especially if the purpose for the ethic is to control self or others.

      Jesus didn’t refer to an ethical system, and his recommendation was antithetical to control. He referred to what we want. Treat others not with respect to (relative to) myself, but relative to how I WANT others to treat me. That’s actually relative to both subject and object at the same time, with the subject’s desire as the crux. It’s a more granular relativity than the broader idea of “subjectivity.”

      What’s more, to the extent that real world factors, e.g., physics, biology, psychology, etc., limit and mold them, any ethics is predetermined (constrained) by those factors, so “preordained” in a sense, don’t you think?

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