Category Archives: Book of Romans Discussion

Anxiety over Judgment is a Type of Judgment

Among Christians, there is a lot of discussion about judgment. There are warnings that individuals are going to be judged for sin, and warnings that countries are about to be judged for sin. In modern times, there has been a shift away from the view of judgment in which God Himself inflicts harm as punishment. Many Christians warning of judgment today have a different view, in which judgment is the loss of God’s help and protection as a result of persistent disobedience.

Some Christians seem to be comfortable with the concept of judgment because they feel assured that they are right with God and are safe. But other Christians feel less secure and worry about judgment. What I will propose in this article is that, many Christians who are worried about future judgment, might already be living in a type of judgment (and have been for a long time), but they don’t recognize it because their minds are thinking about what the future holds.

Let’s look at Romans 8:12-13 – We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

I believe this passage applies in two different ways. Passages like this are often used to say that if you persist in living according to your own desires rather than living for God, then you will experience judgment manifested in either literal death or a figurative type of death such as illness or various crises. And while I think that is a valid interpretation, there is another application of this passage that is not talked about very much.

First off, what does “the flesh” consist of? Since flesh is contrasted with spirit in the passage above, I take it to mean that flesh constitutes all non-spiritual (i.e. biological) aspects of a person. So, a person’s organs, chemistry, and psychology are all part of the flesh. Many commentaries equate living in the flesh with living in sin. That may be a valid interpretation, but I believe it is only half of the story.

So, what is the other half of the story? To understand it, we need to consider the way we feel about ourselves when we do various acts. I believe it is normal to feel good when we do good things, and to feel bad when we do bad things. God made us to be that way; otherwise, there would be no incentive to do what’s right.

But I believe the problem is when we let the presence of that good feeling resulting from good works dictate whether we can feel good about ourselves as a person, or how we feel about our relationship with God. I believe this is a type of living according to the flesh, because our lives revolve around maintaining that positive sensation in our minds.

When we have that positive feeling, we feel good about the future. We think that we’re on the right path and that we’re making progress, so God isn’t going to let misfortune happen to us. In the midst of this bright feeling about ourselves and the future, temptations can be suppressed for a season. That positive feeling can even be a motivation to do good works, because we want that feeling to last.

But even though temptation might be confined to a small corner of one’s brain, it is still alive. Over time, temptation slowly starts reclaiming territory in the back of our minds, but we don’t realize it because the front of our minds are still shining and optimistic. And since we still are not sinning necessarily, there is nothing we have to worry about according to conventional religious logic.

But then there comes a point where, we start to feel the growing presence of temptation. For a while, resisting was a matter of just saying NO to temptation and moving on. But now, it takes more effort to say no, even though we’re still saying it. Our conscience seems to be putting heavier demands on us, and we seem to lack the willpower to meet those demands.

At this point, although we’re still confident that we are living right, and thus feel good about the future, the bright, positive feeling in our minds starts to subside. Then, without that tailwind in our minds, fighting temptation gets really hard. At this point, we may start returning to habits that we thought we had kicked a while back. Or, we might continue to resist those temptations, but lose the motivation to do certain good deeds. Maybe prayer starts to feel burdensome as we lose confidence about our spiritual state.

You see, that good feeling we once had was generated by the flesh in response to the good that we saw ourselves doing. It’s like watching an instrument that gauges your performance and trying to keep the meter rising. This is just as exciting to one’s mind, and just as addicting, as any kind of sensual pleasure.  But we then started living for that positive feeling, and when the feeling slipped out of reach, the drive to continue our progress weakened.

Then we’re worried about judgment again. Now, when people talk about impending judgment upon the nation or individuals, it hits close to home because we’re not so sure what God thinks about us at this point. The bright, positive feeling we once had gets replaced with a sense of dread and anxiety. This dread or anxiety is a type of death, and a form of judgment resulting from living in the flesh during the season when it appeared that everything was going right, morally and spiritually. Furthermore, the anxiety can cause us to fall into habits such as lack of sleep or unhealthy eating habits that can cause health issues or other problems in life. Thus, ironically, by worrying about judgment, Christians can end up facing the same problems in life that they worry are about to come upon others because of sin.

I believe that Christians who are struggling with guilt need to realize that, ultimately, they are right with God regardless of what their performance meter is doing, and they need to let go of the vision of mastering their lives and keeping their meter rising in order to finally become a good Christian who is safe from judgment.

The Apostle Paul wrote that where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20).

But here’s a critical observation. Romans 5:20 is not an experiential reality. Even though it is a true statement, it is never going to “feel” true in our own lives. In other words, committing sin does not cause us to feel an even greater presence of grace.

Some Christians try to test out Romans 5:20 to see if it’s really true. I’m not saying that I recommend doing that. But to satisfy the curiosity, I’ll go ahead and say that it doesn’t bring a feeling of grace or peace. Even though God’s acceptance of someone doesn’t waver as they go through the experiment, what they feel is even more inward angst. Furthermore, testing out this principle actually takes a lot of effort. It makes you feel tired.

On one hand, we need to realize that Romans 5:20 does not fail upon application. If we think it will fail when tested, we go back into performance meter fixation. But when we realize that Romans 5:20 is a robust principle, we find a new motivation for doing what’s right. That motivation comes from the fact that putting grace to the test just causes more tension than it’s worth. This realization comes from the Spirit’s work in us. Likewise, doing good works isn’t about trying to become a good Christian. Rather, it is about wanting to see something uplifting and beneficial coming from our lives.

So, to summarize everything, the key point that I have become convicted of is that, anxiety over judgment is actually a type of judgment. It is the Biblical message of grace that sets people free from this judgment and enables them to become what God has made them to be.

Predestination and Human Will – Examining the Options

In the last post, I gave an overview of my views on Romans 9. I stated that, while Romans 9 does not warrant any sweeping conclusions about predestination, there are reasonable extrapolations that may be drawn at ones discretion. In this post, I want to talk about the different options that I have seen or considered regarding what the concepts of predestination or human will mean. This post will examine the extreme views of predestination, the extreme views of human will, and several possibilities in between. At the end of the article, I will describe which options I believe are compatible with Romans 9 and the Bible in general.

The most extreme view of predestination states that God is in direct control of all events, and that He uses humans and spiritual forces (both good and evil) to bring forth His plans. Under this view, humans’ free will is an illusion; people think and feel as if they are free, but ultimately God is directing them. The idea is that evil plays an integral part of God’s redemptive plans by drawing a contrast with righteousness, causing people to appreciate righteousness more fully. The advantage of this view is that it allows the most literal interpretation of Scriptures that reference predestination or God’s purposes (ex. Rom. 9, Eph. 1:11, Dan. 4:35, Isa. 45:7). Many people, however, are concerned about the implications that this view may carry for the character of God. In particular, there are concerns that this view makes God responsible for evil.

There are views which uphold the idea of predestination, but seek to avoid the problematic implications for God’s character. One such approach is to claim that all events (including human decisions and actions) are produced by a cause or a combination of causes. In other words, decisions and actions are constrained to occur by various factors (such as psychology, physiology, social influences, knowledge, experience, etc.). Under this view, human history is deterministic, meaning that, if you were to rewind history then hit play, the same events would unfold the second time. Furthermore, human history is predictable to an omniscient agent who sees everything happening. History could be seen as a chain reaction designed by God. In this view, God initiated human history, and from there, human decisions and actions unfolded through the principle of cause and effect. Some of these effects involve humans seeking God for help and exercising their spiritual authority as believers to cause other things to happen. Even though this view claims that all decisions and events were designed to occur through cause and effect, it does not claim that God was acting in every situation. The idea of this view is that it upholds the concept of predestination without claiming that every event and decision occurred via God’s power. This view allows room to say that humans, or various spiritual forces, were the direct cause of a given event, and that God’s power was not operating in that situation.

Some people may feel that this view still makes God responsible for evil. I think that you could address these concerns by modifying the view to say that, even though history is deterministic (with all events and decisions formulaically occurring through cause and effect) not every event and decision was designed by God. You could say that God designed some events (such as individuals coming to know Christ), but not all events. You could take this a step further and claim that, even though history is predictable to an omniscient agent, God did not specifically design anything to happen; all He did was get the process started. This view could still uphold the concept of predestination (albeit in a more metaphorical sense), by reasoning that God knew how everything would unfold and decided to let it happen, knowing that righteousness would prevail over evil when all was said and done. Under this view, a given event happened because God initiated history and one thing led to another. However, God did not initiate history in a specific way such that the event would occur, and God’s power only intervenes in the world if humans’ spiritual activity prompts it to. Humans’ decisions to engage in such spiritual activities occurs as a result of various factors.

However, some may find it problematic for a person’s life to be deterministic in any way or form. If so, there is a view which allows which acknowledges that people make actual choices that do not simply result from a confluence of factors. However, there are constraints upon the range of options that a person would select. For example, a person may have some problem that causes him to make foolish decisions in certain situations. Now, the exact decision that he makes is up to his own will – nothing can cause him to make a particular bad decision. However, because of certain psychological or spiritual problems, whatever he chooses in certain situations will be a foolish decision. Under this view, God chooses certain people to come to know Christ in this life, and when they come into the faith, they begin to be liberated from the constraints upon their will and they are given a new nature from which they can make wise decisions and overcome problems.

Lastly, some believe that there cannot be any constraints on the human will, at least where decisions regarding faith are concerned. They believe that for a true relationship between humans and God to exist, an individual must be fully capable of choosing God by his or her own will. The rationale for this view is that it is the only view that truly makes humans responsible for their actions; all of the other views are seen as giving people a way to excuse their bad decisions. Proponents of this view often claim that, with the exception of certain divinely-ordained events, God leaves it up to us to determine the future and what He sees are the different outcomes that would arise from different courses of actions we may choose.

As to where I stand in this debate, I think that both the extreme predestination view and the extreme free will view are difficult to reconcile with Scripture when the whole council of relevant passages are taken into account. Regarding the extreme view of predestination, I do not have a way to decisively refute it from the Bible. However, when people raise Biblical concerns about it damaging the character of God, or taking away human responsibility, I am not able to give a Scriptural response to those concerns that makes a lot of sense. I think that the three middle views of predestination described above work just fine with the Biblical passages on predestination and they enable more discussion from Scripture about the need for human action and accountability. Regarding the strong free will viewpoint, which gives humans the full inherent ability to make decisions regarding faith and to determine the future, I find that I am unable to make this jive with the view of the Book of Romans that I described in the previous post.

So, by writing this article, I want to show how there are different ways to look at the issue of predestination and human will. Many people only know the concept by the two extremes, and I think that it is important to see that there are other options.

Romans 9

Romans Chapter 9 is a much discussed part of the Bible because it is often referenced in debates over predestination versus free will. As a result, some commentators think of Romans 9 as “the predestination chapter,” while others build a counterposition from the chapter to teach free will. But what I came to realize earlier this year is that, there are a lot of insights that can be gained from analyzing how Romans 9 relates to the rest of the epistle. Instead of viewing Romans 9 as a stand-alone exposition, I have come to look at it as part of a message that begins all the way back in Chapter 1.

Here is how I understand the theme of Romans spanning Chapters 1 through 8:

The epistle begins by describing the default fate for everybody. That is, each individual’s life would be judged based on works, and the outcome of that judgment results in either reward or punishment in the coming ages. But, what about the undisciplined folks out there who just can’t get their life in order and would be hopeless if judged on works? Well, in Chapters 3-5, Paul reveals a solution to this problem, namely, justification by faith. But then the question becomes, faith in what? The answer to that comes in Chapters 6-8 where Paul describes how we are justified by Christ’s death and resurrection, and that by believing this to be true of our own lives, we are led by the Spirit into a new way of life.

Well, that sounds nice, but it raises yet another set of questions, such as “Where does this faith come from?” “What does it mean to be led by the Spirit, and what role do we play in that? “What if we’re not believing the right things?” “What if we have doubts? Is the Spirit still working in us?”

So, to answer the question, “What is Romans 9 really talking about?” we should consider how a proposed interpretation answers the questions raised by the preceding chapters.

Paul opens Romans 9 by talking about Israelites who do not believe the Gospel. Paul, coming from a Jewish background himself, was very concerned about this, which sets the framework for the chapter. In particular, Paul sets out to address the question of what Israel’s unbelief means for the promises that God made to the nation.

Paul reasons that “not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants” (Romans 9:6-8).

I think that this concept of “children of the flesh” versus “children of the promise” is a subtle analogy for the theme of “living by the flesh” versus “living by the Spirit” in the preceding chapters. Although Isaac was not Abraham’s only child, Isaac was the only child for whom faith and a special work of God were required for the reproductive process to work. Hold that thought for now, we’ll come back to it a bit later.

Paul proceeds to give another analogy. This time it involves the children of Isaac and Rebecca.

Romans 9:11-13 – “Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, not by works but by his call) she was told, ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.’

God does not hate anybody in the absolute sense. In this passage, love versus hate are relative terms to indicate contrasting relationships. That aside, the idea which “pops out” at me from the passage above is that, the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plans for individuals is attributed to God Himself. Now, granted, sometimes the meaning which immediately pops out at you is not the right meaning. There are times when the broader context conditions what something is supposed to say. Thus, can we trust the “pop out” meaning of the passage above? Or do we need to seek a different interpretation?

Well, the obvious objection to the face value meaning is that it seems unfair. Now, if the face value meaning really was unfair, it seems that Paul would clarify the issue by saying something to the tune of, “Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t saying . . .” However, Paul seems to do the opposite; he responds to the statement by essentially restating his previous point:

Romans 9:14-15: “What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’

And in case his point wasn’t clear enough yet from the analogies, Paul continued, “So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (verse 16).

Paul seemed to think readers would be unconvinced by that conclusion, so he gives yet another analogy that, once again, pretty much restates his previous point.

Romans 9:17-18 –“For the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.

Now, once again, Paul sees what the objection is going to be. He knows that people will think this is unfair. However, he once again declines the opportunity to say, “Well, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mean . . . “ Instead, he simply restates his previous point again.

Romans 9:19-20, “You will say to me then, ‘Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’

I have heard many commentaries which try to explain Romans 9 such that nobody would ask these questions that the Objector is asking. However, I feel like that approach is contrary to Paul’s own handling of the subject matter, and perhaps indicates that the proposed interpretation does not jive with Paul’s message.

Paul wraps up Romans 9, and opens Romans 10, by describing the problem of Israelites trying to become righteous through Law instead of through faith in Christ.

So, looking back over Romans 9, why did Paul get into the theme of God choosing people, when the overarching message of Romans is salvation through faith? Well, I believe that the theme of Romans 9 was meant to correct a possible misunderstanding of salvation through faith. The misunderstanding is that we “manufacture” faith in order to engineer our salvation. In and of ourselves, we do not have the wisdom, or the prudence, or the discipline, to make ourselves believers. The whole process of believing, and exercising our faith, is a process attributed to God. Earlier I mentioned that Paul subtly alluded to the theme of “living according to the flesh” vs “living according to the Spirit” with his analogy of Abraham’s children. Seeing the subsequent writing in Romans 9, it appears that a Spirit-filled life is a work of God as opposed to something we engineer by some means. Now, the mechanism by which God works this process is mysterious, and there are no concrete answers in Scripture. There are reasonable (albeit speculative) answers that I will discuss in the next post, but in this life we’ll never know all the details for sure.

Furthermore, Romans 9 should not be used to make sweeping conclusions about “predestination” of various events. Although there are speculative extrapolations of chapter’s theme which may be drawn at one’s discretion, such extrapolations should not be confused with the core message which is that we are not the engineers of our salvation.

So, the last question I want to address is, “if we do not engineer our salvation, how do we know whether the process of salvation is true of our own lives?” Well, I believe the answer to that comes in Chapter 10, verse 9-13:

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

If you are someone who calls upon the Lord confessing and believing these things, then your life is on a path of salvation, and you have the Spirit of God working in you. That’s the proof.

The principles I describe in this article are the only doctrines that I conclusively draw from Romans 9. There are other speculations that are worth talking about, and I will address those in the next post. However, I think it is important to separate those speculations from what I perceive to be the core message which I just described.

Being Righteous is Being Made Right

The word “righteous” is a religious term that is sometimes hard to understand in a practical sense. When the Bible talks about being made “righteous” through faith, people often get the idea that God accepts them even though they are sinners. Although that view is true, I have come to think that it doesn’t fully describe what being “righteous” means.

The root word of “righteous” is “right.” If you are made “right,” then you are not “wrong,” or “bad.” This gives righteousness a new, fresh meaning. I believe that, knowing you are made right is an integral part of adhering to the following Scripture.

Romans 8:13: “We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

If this verse is read in isolation, the natural response is to say, “Better shape up!” However, that interpretation does not take into account the previous chapter of Romans which shows how the “Better Shape Up!” mentality breaks down.

The key point in Romans 8:13 is that we do not owe anything to the flesh. I’m going to start personifying Flesh by typing it with a capital “F.” Flesh includes your physical attributes as well as your feelings, including how you feel about yourself. Flesh might say to someone, “Look what I just made you do! God is mad at you now. Are you sure that you’re still saved? How can you claim to be a real believer?”

Now, Flesh knows that some Christians will not be fooled by these arguments. However, for such folks, Flesh has a Plan B, which says, “Okay, you’re still a child of God (that is, you are righteous), but you’re a disobedient child. God loves you but you’re hands are dirty. You ought to feel bad about your lifestyle and think about how much you’re offending your Father.”

This “Plan B” argument of Flesh is especially sly because it purports itself to be the proper balance between grace and responsibility, a condition sought by many believers. Furthermore, the religious concept of “righteousness” sometimes leaves a door open to that argument. But here’s the point, if you entertain that argument, you are acting as if you “owe something” to Flesh and are paying your debt by listening to its arguments.
However, if you know that you have been made RIGHT, then you don’t have to listen to the claim that you ought to be ashamed.

Now, because we have a conscience, it is impossible to live without ever feeling guilty of anything. It is in response to our conscience that Flesh makes its argument. We cannot “choose” to avoid feeling any guilt whatsoever. Feelings of guilt may influence us to do what is right as the Spirit leads us (that is one reason why we have a conscience), but we do not owe anything to guilt. When feelings of guilt arise, we are not obligated to let Flesh take control of the situation by entertaining its arguments. Thus, we can avoid being “paralyzed” by guilt to the point where it keeps us from living our lives as a psychologically healthy person would. We do not have to live and act like someone who is struggling with guilt and dreaming of being free someday.

Lastly, I want to consider what it means for Paul to write “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

As believers in Christ, we have the Spirit of God in us (Rom. 8:17). I have come to believe that, the reason many of us do not “feel” the Spirit of God is that some part of our mind is still listening to the argument of Flesh described above. That argument cuts very deep into one’s mind. Even if, in the more conscious parts of our mind, the argument has been refuted, it may still carry an undercurrent effect behind the scenes for a long time. You see, if we let Flesh tell us that our hands are dirty and that we’re disobedient children, we cannot also see ourselves as being filled with the Spirit.

However, whether we see it or not, the Spirit is always doing something inside of us that influences the direction of our lives. After all, God “accomplishes all things according to his council and will” (Eph. 1:11), and it is through believers that He works in the world. However, if our attention to Flesh diminishes, the prominence of the Spirit should increase.

Are Our Future Sins Already Forgiven?

One concept that some types of Christianity teach is that, believers are automatically forgiven of future sins that have not been committed yet. The rationale is that Christ died for all of our sins, and thus, when we receive the gift of forgiveness, we immediately receive forgiveness of every sin that would ever occur in our lives. Although I believe that it is possible to be forgiven of future sins, this traditional reasoning is problematic in my view.

Consider 1st John 1:8-9,

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

This passage indicates that forgiveness is contingent on confessing our sins. There are some Christians whose consciences identify sins as isolated acts that can be counted on their fingers. When their conscience convicts them that they have sinned, they confess the sin and repent. Their conscience assures them that their repentance was genuine and that they are living right aside from the occasional, confessed lapses. Thus, for these people, whether they are forgiven of future sins is irrelevant, and they do not typically worry about that.

However, there are other Christians whose consciences are more obsessive and seems to find ongoing problems in their lives that they cannot meaningfully reverse with their own willpower. How does 1st John 1:8-9 apply to the lives of such people?

I believe that what this latter group needs to understand is the difference between Sin and sins. sins are acts that either break a Biblical rule for behavior, or failures to do what Biblical principles dictate. On the other hand, Sin is a power that can be affecting one’s life even while the person is behaving appropriately – the reason being that Sin is like a background task that subconsciously influences one’s thoughts and feelings in a way that eventually produces acts of sin. In my series titled “Demystifying Spirituality,” I analyze this concept in depth.

In Christ, we have died to Sin (Romans 6). Although most Bible translations do not write Sin with an upper-case “S”, I believe the distinction between Sin and sins is conceptually indicated in Scripture. Because we died to Sin, we are free from Sin (Romans 6:7). An analogy would be a person who dies of a disease. After the person dies, the power of the disease to harm the person has come to an end because there is no more harm that could be done to the person.

But fortunately, that analogy is incomplete. Not only did we die to Sin, we rose to a new life with Christ.

Now, here is the key point. I believe that if we place our faith in this transformation through Christ, we are living in a state of continual confession and repentance that takes place every moment of our lives. We do this by believing in the solution to the source of our sins, namely Sin itself! If you are free from the source, then naturally you are free (and forgiven) from everything that follows from the source, and that includes future sins. You are repenting of your sins because you are declaring that the source which produced them will not dominate your life, for you have died to the life that was a slave to Sin, and you have risen to a new life where Righteousness will ultimately prevail. I recommend saying these things several times a day in order to grow in confidence and assurance.

Contrasts between Romans and Galatians on the Subject of Law

Many Biblical commentators equate the themes of Romans and Galatians and speak of them as if they contain the same message. On the surface, there are similarities, such as justification by faith and salvation through Christ’s finished work rather than works of the Law. However, I think that a close look at both epistles reveals contextual differences which affect the meaning of concepts such as law and grace.

Romans is a comprehensive outline of Paul’s theology. It tackles deep questions involving human nature and shows how Christ’s death and resurrection transforms human nature. Galatians, on the other hand, has a much more specific focus involving a controversy in the early church. The controversy was whether Christians were still required to follow the ceremonial rituals of the Old Testament laws, such as circumcision, dietary rules, cleansing protocols, and observance of special days. Paul’s answer is a resounding no.

Galatians 2:16-17 – And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.

2:19-20: For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.

2:21: I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

At first glance, these passages look like the passages I have been quoting from Romans. However, we need to consider the occasion for which Paul wrote these things. Earlier in Galatians Chapter 2, Paul criticized Cephas (the Apostle Peter) for sometimes eating with Gentiles, but other times refraining if he thought Jews would object. For Paul, this was a serious inconsistency. The point of verses 16-21 quoted above was to explain how, because of Christ’s atonement, the barriers between Jews and Gentiles (and thus the ceremonial regulations upholding those barriers) have been eliminated, and reenacting them in a way that excludes Gentiles denies the fundamental principles of the Gospel. In contrast, when Paul writes about dying to the Law in Romans, his example uses the law against coveting, which is a universal moral principle rather than a Jewish custom. I’ll discuss this more later.

While we are on this subject, Galatians 2 makes it evident that, when the Bible speaks of Christians being “condemned” for various acts, that does not have to mean they lose their salvation. Paul said that Peter was condemned because he would not eat with Gentiles (2:11). Do we really think that Peter had lost his salvation?

Moving on, let’s look at Galatians 3:23-25 – “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.”

The religious laws of the Old Testament were designed to protect the Jews from immoral influences in their surrounding cultures; hence, the Law was a “guard” as Paul writes. However, in the current age, Christians can be led by the Holy Spirit in a way such that they avoid immorality without needing all of the religious regulations of the Old Covenant.

More evidence that Paul is referring to ceremonial customs is in Galatians 4:10, “You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.”

Having said all of these things, Paul spends the last two chapters of Galatians addressing the misunderstanding that freedom from the Law means there are no rules for believers. What he emphasizes is that you are free from the Law so that the Spirit can show you what to do.

Galatians 5:18 – “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.”

To help with discerning whether certain convictions come from the Spirit, Paul lists qualities associated with obedience to the Spirit:

5:22 – “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Paul also lists signs that a person is living according to the flesh rather than the Spirit:

5:19-21 – “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

It seems like a principle that is simple enough – you are justified by faith apart the Law, but after being justified you may either follow the Spirit’s leading and experience life in the Kingdom of God, or follow your selfish desires and experience corruption outside the Kingdom. But there is a complication to this principle. Are we really able to make ourselves do everything we feel convicted in our heart to do? Can we just wake up in the morning, resolve to do whatever our conscience tells us is right, and push ourselves to follow through with it?

I probably don’t need to tell you that the answer is no for many people. But that is beyond the scope of Galatians. This dilemma involves matters of human nature, psychology, and certain aspects of Christ’s finished work which Galatians does not set out to address. I believe Romans is where those themes are taken up. Earlier I mentioned that Romans uses prohibition of coveting as an example of Law. There is something twisted in human nature that makes people have greed for things they don’t own. We can know in our heart what is right and wrong, but nevertheless lack the power to carry it out (Romans 7:18). Romans describes how, through faith in Christ’s finished work, we can experience deliverance from these problems of human nature so that we can actually have the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.

I believe the distinction between Romans and Galatians is critical. Imposing the Romans message upon Galatians could lead to a complete disregard of moral principles. On the other hand, imposing the Galatians message upon Romans results in many contradiction and non-sequiturs.

So, this is my overview on the epistle to the Galatians. I’m interested to know what you think about all of this.

Demystifying Spirituality – Part 3

A concern among many Christians is that people will fail to take the initiative to do what is right and instead sit around waiting for God to get them to do something through a dramatic experience. The often-repeated warning is that God will not force us to do anything, and that He is waiting for us to take action. The idea is that God works in us only when we are also taking action; it is viewed as a cooperative process between us and Him.

So, then, considering my own writings on this blog, am I suggesting that we cannot do anything until God drives us into action? Well, I’m not suggesting that, and in this article, I want to explain why.

I do not believe that we need some sort of “push” or dramatic experience with the Holy Spirit to do something. Rather, I think that what we need is a reorientation of our minds and physiological responses. I am going to cover several more spiritual phrases in this article, such as “surrendering one’s self to God, being “separate from the world,” and being “free from Law.”

I’ll describe an experience that has been true for me, and I think it is true for most people in general. As soon as we wake up in the morning, thoughts enter our minds, which in turn cause feelings based on our physiological make-up as discussed in Part 1 of this series. These feelings influence our actions. Now, at times throughout the day, we may try to bypass these feelings by telling ourselves to act contrary to them. However, success may be limited because, even though we are trying to deny those feelings, we live with perceptions of reality that promote those feelings. Thus, we are denying them and promoting them at the same time, which yields little success.

Jesus said in Matthew 6:22-23: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”

I think this passage refers to the way we interpret what we see with our eyes – the things we tell ourselves based upon our vision.

Thus, I believe that “surrendering ourselves to God” can be seen as becoming willing to see our lives with new vision and to see the world with new vision. This reorientation of our vision is something that we can pray for and believe for. Paul wrote in Ephesians 1:18, as part of a prayer for the church, “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he [God] has called you.”

When we see ourselves and our environment with new eyes, our nerves and impulses can be controlled. Anxieties, temptations, and irrational urges do not go away altogether, but believers have the Spirit of God inside of them which can enable them to control these negative feelings and thoughts so that they do not rule one’s life (Gal. 5:22-23). But a readjustment of one’s vision may be necessary to act upon this inward spiritual power. The Spirit works in us so that we have the ability to act on our own initiative if our vision is oriented correctly. I believe this principle also helps explain the results of being “born again.” Through the new birth, God has given us an opportunity to go through a lifelong reorientation of our consciousness through the Spirit.

Another point I want to mention is being “separate from the world.” Christians have a lot of debate over how different from the secular world we are required to be. There are a list of ways in which I am different from many non-Christians of my demographic. However, I do not use these differences to justify myself. One reason is that, some of these difference are due to traits that I was probably born with. But the other reason is that, I myself am not completely sure what a lifestyle apart from the world entails.

Thus, my outward activity (in contrast to non-Christians) is a secondary factor. For me, being separate from the world is primarily about the perspectives and attitudes that I live with. All of the things I write about on this blog are things that I think about as I go about my daily life. I trust that, by focusing on these things, my lifestyle will adjust if there are any areas where it needs to be adjusted.

The last spiritual concept I want to discuss is being “free from law.” I think that, for many people, understanding freedom from law can be essential to experiencing the reorientation of one’s vision needed to solve problems in life.

Paul wrote in Romans 7:4-5, “You have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God.”

I believe the idea of law is that there are rules which you must measure yourself against to determine whether you can be at peace in your life. Paul also wrote that one’s conscience can serve as the law for one’s self (Rom. 2:14-15). The law demands full conformity (ever heard that “the law is the law?”).

How can law prevent us from reorienting our vision? Well, one reason is that law can keep us from seeing the big picture. Under law, we are condemned by any imperfection that we are conscious of. Thus, under law, our attention is fixated with that imperfection, and we neglect opportunities to “bear fruit” in our lives. Why bother to do good deeds in other areas of life when a single imperfection is going to condemn us anyway?

But there is another reason why law can hold us down; law causes anxiety that can lead to more missteps. Suppose that you have a habit of cussing and your conscience bothers you about it. You get self-absorbed with trying to fix your speech, thinking that you’ll be punished if you don’t, and a lot of tension builds up inside of you. Eventually, you can’t contain yourself anymore so you lose your tempter (without cussing) when somebody ticks you off. In this case, your law-driven obsession with not cussing led to a fruit of the flesh rather than a fruit of the Spirit. If you quit worrying about cussing so much, you could have a better temperament overall.

Yet another reason why we need to understand our freedom from law is that, law gets us hung up on sins in and of themselves, instead of looking at what inward problem caused the sins in the first place. The result is that we feel good about ourselves before we sin (because we’re fine according to the law), but we feel bad about ourselves after the sin occurs. This cycle of feeling good then feeling bad keeps us focused on our own faults rather than focusing on our freedom from sin. If our conscience bothers us about a certain habit in our lives, but we have not yet engaged in the habit today, our current abstinence should not be a reason to feel good about ourselves because it’s only a matter of time until we yield to temptation. To break the habit, we need to see our lives, and the habit itself, with new insights.

Demystifying Spirituality – Part 2

In this post, I want to continue the discussion of what it means that we have “died to sin” as the Book of Romans says.

Romans 6:7 (NRSV) – “Whoever has died is freed from sin.”

In this passage, the Greek word translated “freed” (dikaioō) is translated “justified” in Romans Ch. 3-5. In Chapters 3-5 Paul explains that people are “justified” by faith, apart from works. So, “justified” is obviously an appropriate translation there because it conveys the idea of being accepted by God. However, in Romans 6, most Bible translations began using the word “freed” instead of “justified.” I first became aware that the underlying Greek word was the same when I saw the word “justified” in the Concordant Literal New Testament. Then, I looked up Rom. 6:7 in Strong’s Concordance online and saw that the Greek word translated “freed” was translated “justified” in passages from Chapters 3-5. I believe that the word “freed” is fine given that it conveys a true idea; however, “justified” reveals a different dimension to one’s death to sin that sheds new light on Romans 6 and the epistle as a whole.

Sin has a two-fold effect. One effect is causing problems in one’s life. The other effect is creating a burden of guilt, and causing some form of tension between humans and God. However, if we have died to sin, deactivating our burdensome relationship with it, then we are no longer tied to sin, and it cannot ruin our lives anymore. This explains how we are “justified” from sin by having died to it.

The concepts discussed in this article can also be applied to problems in your life that may not necessarily break Biblical commandments, such as procrastination or overeating. The reason is that the problems inside of you that result in procrastination or overeating probably also result in “real” sins. Thus, rather than debating over whether something was a “sin” or not, we should look inside of us and see whether the cause of the issue is connected to the “body of sin” that Paul wrote about.

Let’s put this in practical terms. Suppose you have a bad habit that you worry is going to hurt you in your future. If you get through the day without engaging in that habit, you feel good about yourself. Things just feel “right,” inside of you. You feel good about the future. However, if you slipped and engaged in the habit, then you feel bad about yourself and your future.

I am going to start typing Sin with a capital S in order to personify it. The goal of Sin is to ruin your life. This is why it is so hard to break bad habits. Even though you know that the habit is bad for you, something inside of you wants to ruin your life. However, if you proclaim to Sin that you have died to it and been released from its power to ruin your life, then you disarming sin and dissipating its energy inside of you. Thus, you are justified from Sin in the sense that, whether or not you engage in the bad habit today, Sin cannot ruin your future. If you declare this to Sin, you can soon begin to experience freedom from its power.

I will give an example of how I exercise this principle in my own life. I probably have a mild case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and for years I struggled with intrusive, blasphemous thoughts, which is a famous symptom of that disorder. I worried that God would only forgive me if I was making my most sincere effort to eliminate those thoughts. However, trying to fight off those thoughts didn’t really solve the problem. What finally got me free from this problem is when I started telling those thoughts that they couldn’t harm my spiritual status; even if they were to bring out all their ammo, it would be to no effect because I’ve died to them and they hold no power over a dead person. When I say these things to intrusive thoughts, they rapidly dissipate.

Another reason we are justified from sin by having died to it is that, our lives do not have to be dominated by guilt or shame. Sometimes people joke about dying of embarrassment. However, where Romans is concerned, we have died to embarrassment. Sin wants to make you feel bad about yourself; however, since you have died to it, it cannot inflict guilt or shame. Can you embarrass a dead person? Can a dead person be guilty of anything?

I am not denying that there is an afterlife where a person’s experience reflects the kind of life they lived in this world. This goes to illustrate that physical death is really only a shadow of death. To understand the kind of death that occurred to us with Christ, you have to think about going out of existence completely. If you are completely removed from existence, then you cannot be guilty of anything. Imagine a relationship between two entities: A human and Sin. The relationship is such that Sin inflicts the human with guilt or embarrassment. However, if the human goes out of existence, the bond between the human and Sin is broken. Thus, Sin cannot inflict the person with guilt or embarrassment anymore.

Now, in your own life, it is impossible to avoid feeling guilt and embarrassment at times. The reason is that you have a conscience and a sense of dignity that are bothered when you do something wrong. These feelings are not going to go away simply because you believe something. However, you can tell these feelings that they are not going to ruin your day. These feelings will either get you to do something you are convicted of, or they will eventually subside, but they do not have to bog you down to the point that you are paralyzed by them. You do not owe anything to guilt and shame. These feelings may cause you to do good (that’s one reason why God gives people a conscience), but deliberately entertaining these feelings does not do yourself or God any favors because you have died to these feelings. So, freedom from guilt and shame are another reason why, because you have died to Sin, you are justified from Sin.

Thus, I think that the Greek word dikaioō in Romans 6 could be rightfully translated “justified.” Translating it “justified” would clear up some confusion surrounding Paul’s gospel. As mentioned earlier, almost all Bible translations have phrases like “justified by faith, apart from works” in Romans 3-5. However, Romans 6-8 are important because they show us the basis upon which we are justified apart from works. When we realize that we have died to sin and risen to a new life, and believe this truth as the ultimate reality for our own lives, it starts to become an experiential reality. And God, knowing our destiny to which this process leads, goes ahead and declares us to be justified apart from our present works because He knows the direction our life is headed.

Demystifying Spirituality – Part 1

I want to start a series of posts in which we look at highly spiritual terminology in the Bible, particular phrases such as “dying to sin,” being “born again,” having a “renewed mind,” and being “separate from the world.”

Now, might be thinking, “This is going to be heavy and serious.” Well, I don’t think it has to be. In fact, I think it will be an enjoyable series because I will show how you can relate these phrases to your everyday life. If you are not someone who says these phrases a lot, you may think that Christians who frequently use them are somehow more “holy” or devout than you are. However, I don’t believe we have to think of people that way. In past times, I separated this spiritual terminology from my day to day, secular activities. However, that changed about a year ago as my personal life evolved and I started looking at certain Scriptures more closely. Now, I can relax and think about “dying to sin” while playing games. I am going to share with you how I do this, and you can decide for yourself if it is right to think similarly.

Romans 6:5-7: “For if we have been united with him [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin.”

All right, let’s think about this. First, consider what it means to be “alive” to something, versus being “dead” to something. Here’s an example: Some people have food allergies. A certain food will prompt a specific part of a particular person’s immune system to overreact, causing adverse activity in that person’s body. When I was young, I was allergic to eggs. My immune system was “alive” to eggs. Eggs would provoke, or “tempt,” my immune system. Then, my immune system would “sin” by reacting adversely, causing a rash. However, by the age of 9, my immune system “died” to eggs. I was no longer allergic.

Now, let’s look at our own lives. If we sin, it is because something provokes us and we fail to react appropriately; either we get agitated and do something bad, or we get intimidated and freeze, failing to do the things we should. Suppose you’re someone who hates the sound of nails on chalkboard. Somebody does that just to annoy you, and it makes you lose your temper.

You lose your temper as a reflex of sorts because your nerves are “alive” to the sound of nails on chalkboard, and your vocal chords become “slaves” to your nerves. But now, suppose a physiologist claims he can fix your reflex to that noise. He gives you a potion that makes you completely unconscious for three days. During that time, people set up a chalkboard next to you and scratch their nails on it day in and day out to see if they can make you lose your temper. But you never do. You have died to that reflex, or to that “sin”. Your brain is not listening to it; your nervous system is not reacting to it; your vocal chords are not reacting to it. The whole “body of sin” that used to trigger that reflex has been deactivated. While you are unconscious, the potion is working on your brain and nervous system. When you return to consciousness, you still don’t like to hear nails on chalkboard, but you can choose to control your temper because the potion adjusted the internal workings inside of you.

I find it significant that Paul used the phrase “body of sin.” I believe that, in many cases, the cause of sin is not our intellect, but rather, it is in our physiological systems. I think that factors such as the nervous system, brain chemicals, hormones, and reflexes, respond to what we see and hear in a way that leads to sin. This is why motivational tactics to change our behavior often fail; the problem is not rooted in the part of our brain where we motivate ourselves. The problem is rooted in our physiological systems that produce sensations in response to what our consciousness perceives. Thus, overcoming sin requires a physiological adjustment, not just mental motivation. And this physiological adjustment is something that happens through the Spirit. Look at Romans 8:11:

“He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Notice that the Spirit injects life into your body. I believe that living according to the Spirit, or being filled with the Spirit, involves the Spirit working in your physiology so that you respond to situations differently.

So, how do we actually experience this transformation in our own lives? Many of us are still dealing with physiological problems that cause sinful reactions. The deliverance from these problems described in Romans is something that has to be accepted in faith, given that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). So, how can we have faith in this reorientation of our bodies and minds when we see and feel things to the contrary in our day-to-day lives? The next few post will examine that.

Some Thoughts on National Morality

I finished the series of posts on what being a real Christian means, and I feel that a good follow-up topic would be a subject of much discussion among Evangelicals today, which is whether the United States as a whole is turning away from Biblical morality and will face various crises as a result. Now, before we start, I should mention that this is not a political essay or a commentary on current events.

I think that Romans Chapters 1 and 2 have a lot of relevance to the subject of national morality. Here’s Romans 1: 28-32:

“And since they [Gentile pagans] did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.”

Sound familiar? You have probably heard of many people and places in the U.S. today where those characteristics are found. Preachers may cite Hollywood, social liberals, public schools, college fraternities, and so on. Basically, it’s the so-called worldly people. But at the opening of Romans 2, Paul turns the tables against the churchgoing culture:

2:1-4: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?”

I think that passage is supposed to make Christians say, “Huh? How can you say I do the same things as ___? When was the last time you saw me in a sexy music video? I’ve never committed murder. I’ve never said anything blasphemous about God; I don’t even use His name in exclamatory outbursts. You think I’m proud and boastful? I’m not the one with expensive cars or clothes. And envy? Good grief, I’m still happy with my flip phone!”

Well, the problem with those self-justifications is that Biblical morality, especially in the New Testament, goes beyond outwards acts. Furthermore, many passages challenge Christians to ask themselves whether their lifestyle indicates that they are true believers in the first place as there are both sins of commission and sins of omission (James 4:13-17, 1 John 3:17). I do acknowledge that there are Christian who genuinely live out Biblical morality, both internally and externally. If your conscience testifies that you are at least sincerely trying to live according to Scripture in every aspect of life (Rom. 2:15), then what I am about to say does not apply to you.

Paul wrote in Romans 2 that “in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself . . . do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?”

As for me, my conscience does not assure me that, if the nation were to fall because of its deeds, that I would be spared because of my deeds. I’m a rather introspective person, and I have seen things within myself that do not go over too well with certain Scriptures. Although my sins of commission may not be too long, my sins of omission is probably a longer list. This is why, I personally cannot say that the country will decline because of its deeds. If I say that, I am predicting the same fate for myself. This is not a matter of national unity. If I say that some guy in New Zealand will lose God’s protection because of sins in his life, I’m saying that I myself will lose God’s protection.

Now, if you’ve read the Bible carefully and your conscience tells you that you really are living as the Bible instructs, then you have truly overcome the world, and you have the right to say anything you want about it. You can count on God’s blessing regardless of what happens around you. Some of you out there have reached this point. But what about people like myself, and probably many of you as well, who are not so sure that we make the cut? Is our fate tied to the United States? Well, I believe it doesn’t have to be that way, and there is a special message in the Book of Romans for such people, which is what I wrote about in my “Being a Real Christian” series.

When we come to realize how Christ died and rose again not only as a substitutionary atonement but also to set us free from sin’s control over our lives, and we ask God to help us experience this freedom, it is like God sets us apart from the world and starts a special process in us. Sometimes, intermediate steps involve having certain problems when other people aren’t (Hebrews 12:6-8). But, it’s all about helping us learn deeper truths about life and becoming what we were made to be. And at this point, our future is not tied to any nation.

So, then, if I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist regarding nation affairs, is there a framework to pray for the country? I believe there is, although I do not pray with complete faith that any temporal event will happen or not happen. After all, 2 Corinthians 4:4 refers to Satan as the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4), which I take to mean that neither myself nor God can directly force a change in circumstances in a way that bypasses human correspondence. So, I instead pray with faith that, in some way, there will be individuals who experience God’s redemptive processes and come to know the freedom that they can experience in Christ. I do also pray about temporal events as God’s guidance can sometimes influence people in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-3), but my faith is not hinged on any course of events.

Thus, my focus is on individuals rather than the abstract concept of a nation. I want for individuals to be able to gain new insights on life and the Christian faith, so that some people who previously rejected Christianity may see it with new lenses, and that some people who are already believers may gain a deeper perspective that will help them in life, and that regardless of what national events occur, God’s work in these ways will be carried out for certain people. Although I cannot know what will happen to the “nation,” I do know that every day there are people who come into the Christian faith, and Christians who gain new insights from resources made available by preachers and authors, and I pray that this work of God will continue moving forward. As Christ himself said (Matt. 7:7), “search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”