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How Far Can We Follow Jesus? Part 4
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In Part 3 of this series, I concluded that New Testament teaching and usage offer no basis for describing born-again, obedient Christians as “sinners”. On the contrary, the New Testament affirms that the Lord offers all true Christians everything they need to overcome temptation and live godly lives (1 Co 10.13; 2 Pe 1.3).
Those who cling to the label of “sinner” often appeal to 1 Jn 1.8 and Rom 7.14-25 for support. How, they ask, can these verses not describe our current condition before God? 1 Jn 1.8 is quite easily explained. Its use of the aorist (a past tense) in the repeated phrase “if we say” (1 Jn 1.6,8) suggests John may have been describing various initial (but continuing) responses to the gospel in those verses. If so, the hypothetical listeners described in 1 Jn 1.8 had yet to reach 1 Jn 1.9. This leaves us with one major passage to explore.
Let me start by pointing out that Rom 7.14-25 uses the present tense, the active voice, and the indicative mood to make its points about the clash between the “flesh” and the “spirit”. This combination of tense, voice, and mood normally describes either actions which have continued into the present from the past; or past actions the effects of which have lasted into the present. It's probably the strongest argument in favour of a “two natures” understanding of the passage. However, there are also a number of arguments against it.
Firstly, the NT Greek word for “nature” doesn't occur anywhere in the Greek text of Rom 7.14-25. Those who translate “flesh” as “sinful nature” in these verses are projecting their own theological assumptions on to the text. Clearly, the text so translated cannot then serve as supporting evidence for the favoured doctrine (which it often unwittingly does in our churches). That would be circular reasoning.
Secondly, is it helpful to project the concept of “nature” on to Rom 7.14-25, if we're not even theologically sure what a “nature” is? The Church only concluded that Jesus Christ has two natures after constructing and following a careful chain of reasoning: namely, that God and human beings differ fundamentally from each other in terms of identity and functionality; and that Jesus didn't stop being God when He was born into the world as a baby boy, and later grew up to become a man.
Thirdly, no other Bible passage supports the idea that human beings ever have multiple human natures. For instance, Paul wrote that before he and his Ephesian fellow believers became Christians, “we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2.3). True, Christians are “partakers of the divine nature” as a result of the Holy Spirit living within us (2 Pe 1.4); but this is probably about humans sharing Divine blessings, rather than the mystical absorption of Christians “into God”, or the wholesale change of Christians into mini-gods.
Finally, the Church Fathers (our earliest recorded Church teachers outside the New Testament) almost uniformly opposed the idea that Rom 7.14-25 describe normal Christian life. Most thought Paul was outlining the dilemma from which Christ has freed His followers (Rom 8.1-4; Rom 8.9). These early Church teachers lived much closer than we do in time, space, and culture to the New Testament writers. Many of them also spoke a form of NT Greek as their first or second language. Their grammatical understanding of a given NT passage is important. In Part 5, I'll offer you my understanding of Rom 7.14-25.
© 2014 by Christopher Bevis. A Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England, a Christian for many years, and an avid reader for even longer, Christopher is a UK-based writer who has long-standing friends and contacts in the USA. He's thinking of setting up his own web site to give busy subscribers a time-saving, affordable chance to profit from his extensive Christian library. Send him a message if you'd be interested in signing up. He can be contacted for matters relating to Christian writing via the Faithwriters.com website.
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