The error that a real Christian can be a carnal ChristianQuite often - though not always – connected with the teaching of victorious living is the view that it is possible to be a real born-again Christian and still be a carnal Christian. On the one hand “Victorious living” exagge-rates what can be achieved in the life of sanctification here on earth due to its superficial view on sin.
On the other side – and that is connected with the same superficial view of sin – it is defended that you can be a true Christian without living a godly and holy life. Here you see the theory of the so-called carnal Christian. A carnal Christian is a Christian who has received by faith Christ’s forgiveness but is not a disciple of Christ yet.
The theory of the carnal Christian is a complete mis-understanding of 1 Corinthians 3. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 Paul states: ‘And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.’
The problem with the people in Corinth was that they thought they were very spiritual. The result, among others was a party spirit. They were adherents of what you can call a form of “Victorious living”. That is preci-sely the reason that Paul makes clear to them that they are carnal. A truly spiritual Christian realizes his own weaknesses and only glories in the cross of Christ.
Jesus said in the sermon on the mount: ‘Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21). At the one side we must say the a true believer only can glory in the cross of Christ and not in what he did, does or hopes to do for Christ. At the other side the mark of a true believer is that he bears fruit.
It is not possible to be a believer in Christ and not a disciple or follower of Christ. In the New Testament the mark of a nominal Christian is that he professes faith in Christ without following him. Although paying lip service to Christ as Saviour he disobeys the command of Christ: ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.’ (Matthew 16:24-25).
It is true that a real believer can decay in grace. But when a person defends his decay in grace with the theory of the carnal Christian, we must be afraid that he has no grace at all. One of the primary characteristics of the Christian faith, if it is a living faith, is that it is accom-panied by a heartfelt repentance. Repentance without faith is nothing more than legalism and faith without repentance is nothing more than presumption.
We can say that according to the defenders of the victorious in the first stage of Christian life there is faith without repentance or justification without sanctification and in the second stage newness of life and sancti-fication without faith in the forgiveness of sins and justification. But here on earth justification and sancti-fication, faith and newness of life always accompany each other.
I add now another observation. More than once I have noticed that adherents of victorious living who present themselves as believers that live a life of completely victory over all known sin, lack even quite fundamental elements of practical godliness. They see no signi-ficance in sanctifying the Lord’s Day. They watch all kind of dvd’s.
Mentioning this last thing I call to your attention that in the Early Church a Christian was expected not to visit the theatre any longer because every kind of stage performance was considered irreconcilable with the professing of being a believer. That living Christianity is also expressed in the way you dress yourselves seems not to come into the minds of most of the adherents of victorious living.
So only be neglecting the law the claim can be made that it is possible a life of completely victory. When we follow the path of Reformers and Puritans we always will complain in this about ourselves (not about the Lord!) but at the same time live a life of practical holiness; a holiness that far surpasses the so called holiness of victorious believers.
O that this may be true in our lives and that we living a holy live remain humble. For the greatest mark of holiness is humbleness. And even to know that you are humble is a danger. For the moment you begin to realise you humbleness you already have become proud.
The teaching of Romans 6Paul the apostle who so clearly taught that we are saved by grace alone, at the same time made it clear that anyone united by faith to Christ is a new creature or new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). A born again Chris-tian is fundamentally different, and not only in degree, from a person who is not born again. A Christian is a man who is no longer who he once was. A very important chapter in Paul’s letters, in this connection, is Romans 6.
In Romans 5 Paul has argued that we are righteous in the sight of God without any works. We are justified or accounted righteous in the sight of God by faith and faith alone. May we then draw from this the conclusion that we can continue in sin that grace may abound? The apostle rejects this conclusion vehemently. ‘By no means’ he says. This is a typical expression of Paul.
In Romans 3:8 the apostle already condemned this view: ‘Let us do evil that good may come?”—as some people slanderously charge us with saying - whose damnation is just.” When we are saved from sin and when our sins are freely forgiven we have also died to sin. It is impossible to receive grace and not have the desire to honour and glorify God. A Christian has died to sin and therefore he cannot live in sin. True faith that Christ died for you is always connected to being crucified with Christ.
In order to make plain that it is impossible to live in sin when one has died to sin the apostle points in Romans 6:3 to the ordinance of baptism; the ordinance that seals our incorporation into Christ and into his church. When we are baptized we are baptized in the death of Christ.
Baptism is not only a seal of forgiveness of sin, but also of the renewal of life. When we are incorporated into Christ we are a new creation. Our old man is symbolically buried with Christ in baptism. Christ is resurrected from the dead.
Therefore, they who belong to Christ and have died in Christ, walk in newness of life. In Romans 6:5 he makes it clear that when we walk here on earth in newness of life we will at once, when Christ comes back, be resurrected with him. Just as we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection. (Romans 6:5). The one cannot be without the other.
It is impossible to have been planted together in the likeness of Christ’s death and not to have a share in his glory. But the reverse is also true. When we have not been planted together in the likeness of Christ’s death it is impossible to have a share in his glory. Holiness is essential for the Christian life.
In Romans 6:6-10 Paul writes that our old man, our sinful self, has been crucified with Christ in order that the body of sin should be destroyed. The foundation of the crucifixion of the old man was laid on Calvary.
In a certain sense we can say that all who belong to Christ were crucified there. But at the same time we must say that the work of Christ only becomes a personal reality for us when we are called from darkness to light. When the love of God is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit we are actually delivered from the bondage of sin.
We are no longer what we were until that moment. From now on not sin but Christ is our Master. We want to serve him. Having died with Christ and serving him, we may be sure that on the last day we will be resurrected with him in glory. Christ has already been resurrected from the dead. Death has no more dominion over him. As the representative of all who belong to him, he has conquered death and now lives unto God.
In verse 11 the emphasis shifts from the indicative (what God has done) to the imperative (what God commands). The apostle reminds the Romans of the great things done in their lives. The fact that they have died with Christ must characterize their lives.
The fact that sin is not the master of Christians anymore does not mean that sin is no longer a present reality in their lives. As long as we live we must fight against the presence of sin in our lives. Here on earth there will never come a moment that we can stop with this fight and struggle. We must present the members of our body as instruments for righteousness.
Although sin is a present reality in the life of believers while they live, they ought not obey sin. Sin ought not to be obeyed as a master. We must realise that the law cannot give power to fight against sin but that grace is our master. Grace gives us strength to obey God’s commands; a strength the law itself can never give us since the fall of man.
When I summarize the teaching of Romans 6, I must say that a Christian is a person who belongs to Christ. He has died with Christ who died for him and that is the reason that he cannot live in sin. Christ is his master. He wants to obey him and so he fights against sin as a present reality in his life. He knows that this present reality is not a lawful reality, but that by abiding in Christ he wants to bear fruit for him.
The error that a Christian can be free from temptations about his own imperfectionsThe teach of “Victorious living” is wrong in its sug-gestion that it is possible to be a living Christian and not lead a holy life. A person who does not want to lead a holy life is on the broad road to hell. “Victorious living” is also wrong in its view that when you still complain about your sin it is a sign that your faith is weak and imperfect. But that is not true. Look at the Psalms.
I will just quote a few of them. ‘If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?’ (Psalm 130:3). ‘And enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.’ (Psalm 143:2). Psalm 119:16 "I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant; for I do not forget thy commandments." (Psalm 119:176).
The New Testament believer knows of the coming of Christ in the flesh but just as the Old Testament believer he lives a life of faith and of hope. He is still in the flesh. So the complaints of the Psalmist are also his complaints. And finally Psalm 19:12 ‘Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults’ (Psalm 19:12). There are faults that are hidden from others. But there are also faults we do not realise ourselves. By growing in grace we see faults that were once hidden from us. For example selfishness in our most holy acts and desires.
A famous argument from the side of the defenders of “Victorious living” is that this applies to the Old Testament. But that argument is totally invalid. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit we are ‘speaking to ourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in our heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Ephesians 5:19-20).
It is not impossible and even quite likely that psalms and hymns and spiritual songs are three terms to characterize the Old Testament Psalms. In the Hebrew Bible the book of Psalms is called the book of hymns and the Psalms are the songs given by the Holy Spirit. In any case it is sure that the New Testament believer, although knowing of the coming of Christ in the flesh and his sitting at the right hand of God, like the Old Testament believer, lives a life of faith and of hope. He is still in the flesh. So the complaints of the Psalmist are also his complaints. We must emphasise the spiritual unity between the Old Testament and New Testament.
How do we understand Romans 7:14-25?In this connection we return to Paul’s letter to the Romans and now the second half of Romans 7 versus 14-26, which is a very fundamental passage. Mis-understanding the teaching revealed in this passage leads to a serious misunderstanding of the nature of the Christian faith.
The question is, does Paul speak here as a believer or as unbeliever? And when we are sure that Paul speaks here as a believer, does he then speak as an inexperienced believer or a mature believer? Is this the language of a believer decaying in grace or of a believer full of the Holy Spirit?
Augustine, the greatest church father, as a young believer thought that Paul was speaking as an unbeliever in Romans 7. He thought that the struggle described by Paul was the struggle between the conscience that advises us to live a civil life, and the flesh that tells us that we can follow our passions. But Augustine more and more began to realise that Paul speaks here about his struggle as a believer.
That is the only way to explain the present tense he uses here. Look again at answer 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism: ‘my conscience accuses me, that I have grossly transgressed against all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil.’
When Paul speaks of the fact that he is carnal, sold, under sin, he means that he has to struggle with all kinds of fleshly desires. Even our most holy works are stained with sin; in glorifying God we seek also our own glory, our own name.
Paul speaks in the second half of Romans 7 as a believer and not as a believer decaying in grace as is clear from Romans 7:22. An unbeliever can never say, what Paul said there: ‘For I delight in the law of God after the inward man.’ The natural man can try to fulfill the law as the rich young ruler did. (Luke 18:18v), but a genuine delight in the law of God is a fruit of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. See Psalm 1 and 119. And even more clear is the fact that only a believer can say: ‘I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.’ (Romans 7:25).
How can a believer say that he is carnal, sold under sin? In Romans 7:15 Paul gives the answer. As a believer he has a deep desire to live according to God’s law, but he sees and feels that he does things which he does not allow. In fact he cannot understand what he does. His actions are frequently in contradiction with his deepest desires as a believer. More than once he does what he hates. He does not condemn the law, but he condemns himself. So he says in Romans 7:16: ‘If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.’
In Romans 7:17 Paul makes a distinction between his own person and the sin that lives in him. As a born again believer Paul’s deepest desire is to glorify God, but Paul feels and sees that although he is born again sin, still lives in him. That gives him heartfelt sorrow.
As a born again believer he is daily confronted with an inward struggle: the struggle between his own sinful flesh and the Holy Spirit who has regenerated him. Romans 7:14-25 is in fact an elaboration of what Paul wrote to the Galatians in chapter 5:17: ‘For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.’
The struggle between the Holy Spirit who renews us and our own sinful flesh is characteristic of a the life of the believer here on earth. It is not only the portion of a beginning believer or a believer decaying in grace. This latter view has been defended more than once. According to this position the sorrow and struggle described in Romans 7:14v. is the struggle of the believer only when he does not live the life of faith and does not in faith look unto Jesus.
But what must we do then with the statements in Romans 7:22 and 25? ‘For I delight in the law of God after the inward man’ (Romans 7:22). ‘I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind, I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.’ (Romans 7:25). This is not the language of a believer decaying in grace.
Romans 7:14-5 and the structure of Paul’s messageRomans 7:14-25 understood as the struggle of a believer, and I emphasize the believer who really lives the life of faith, is in accordance with the structure of the whole message of Paul. That structure we can describe with the words ‘already’ and ‘not yet’. A believer is united to Christ. He is buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so he also should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4).
A believer is risen with Christ and therefore seeks those things which are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1).
Again, when we are born again, we receive a new nature, but our former sinful nature is not completely eradicated. Upon regeneration, our sinful nature receives a deadly blow, but it will only exhale its last breath when we die. Then we are finally delivered from our body of sin.
The connection between Romans 7 and 8There is a deep connection between the teaching of Paul in Romans 7 and Romans 8. In Romans 8 we find the same struggle as in Romans 7. In Romans 8:23 Paul says: ‘And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.’ It is a sign of the first-fruits of the Spirit that we groan in ourselves.
But what about the view that the struggle of Romans 7:14-25 is the struggle of an inexperienced and immature believer? The defenders of “Victorious living” see a great difference between Romans 7 and Romans 8. According to this view in Romans 7:14-25 we hear the inexperienced believer crying: ‘O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ (Romans 7:24).
In Romans 8 we have the language of faith that does not know of this struggle: ‘There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.’ (Romans 8:1). I already pointed out that Romans 8 also speaks about the struggle of the believer and conversely in Romans 7 the triumph of the believer is stated: ‘I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.’ (Romans 7:25).
In Romans 7 Paul speaks about the struggle of the believer from the viewpoint of the law and in Romans 8 from the viewpoint of the Holy Spirit and the first-fruits of the Spirit. It is true that a believer has been delivered from the curse of the law. He is not under the dominion of the law but under the dominion of grace (Romans 6:14).
Although a believer is delivered from the law as a way of life, the law remains for him a standard of his conduct. Christ came not to destroy but to fulfil the law. The standard of the gospel is not in contradiction to the standard of the law. A Christian knows the law as the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). In 1 Corinthians 9:21 Paul states: ‘To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law.’
Confronted with what God does demand of him, a Christian must acknowledge that he has only a small beginning of what God actually wants to see in him. That explains the struggle and sorrow formulated in both Romans 7 and Romans 8. That is also one of the main reasons that a Christian longs for the second coming of Christ. Then and only then he will be delivered of the body of death.
Complaint and joy connected togetherIn this life a heartfelt sorrow over sin and a heartfelt joy in God through Christ (Heidelberg Catechism questions and answers 89 and 90) are the essential components of the life of repentance that starts when we are united to Christ in our effectual calling. “Victorious living” in most cases creates superficial Christians glorying in what they themselves have attained.
In some cases it makes men depressed, when you realise that although you have close fellowship with God you are still a sinner, even in your most holy acts and desires. O, what is the biblical message then comforting and liberating!
I again quote the Heidelberg Catechism and now in what it says about the forgiveness of sins. In answer 56 we read: That God, for the sake of Christ's satisfaction will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long; but will graciously impute to me the righteousness of Christ, that I may never be condemned before the tribunal of God.
On his deathbed Kohlbrugge said to some young people who came to him to say farewell before he died: ‘My children hold fast to the plain teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism.’ I give everyone of you the same advice.