Jer. 29:11 – A Divine Promise or Throw Pillow Platitude?

11045285_10206341845972268_2878046351773918372_nRecently, I heard a sermon in church on the story of Esther, the central thrust of which was to point out the variety of ways in which Yahweh so providentially ordered her circumstances so as to turn her rather desperate situation into one of victory and deliverance. As far as it goes, this point was well taken. But toward the end of the sermon the pastor, in attempting to bridge the gap between Esther’s context and his modern audience, quoted the infamous Jer. 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope“). He then informed the congregation that he believed that Mordecai in all likelihood would’ve brought to mind this truth (or something like it) to Esther as he gave her council in and through her desperate situation. And furthermore, like Esther, those of us in the congregation could apply this promise for ourselves in our desperate situations.

On the contrary, such a claim, though so ubiquitous and oft repeated, is completely mistaken for a variety reasons:

The context of Jeremiah 29 is about the pending judgment that the southern kingdom of Judah was about to succumb to and God’s promise that after this exile and captivity the people of Israel would be restored in the land from where they were exiled, in fulfillment of the promise made to them in the Mosaic Covenant (Deut. 30:1-5). In Esther’s case, she was living in Persia during the reign of Xerxes and indeed would have been one of the exiles referred to in the passage. However, Jer. 29:11 does not have anything to do with God’s plan for saving or redeeming individual persons from their calamities and life circumstances, and thus cannot be immediately applicable to Esther’s case (i.e. If Esther had not been selected and remained in the harem her whole life and died at an early age, the promise would still be valid to Israel as a nation).

But if it does not apply to Esther, it certainly is not directly applicable to us either. The “you” being referred to is not a generalized second person designation that can refer to anyone you like. The “you” is the same group mentioned in Jer. 29:4, i.e. “all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” In other words, the “plans for welfare” being referred to are clearly speaking of God’s intention for restoring the people of Israel to the land from which they currently sojourn (again in fulfillment of the Mosaic Covenant), meaning that his promise is not something that we can claim for ourselves any more than the promise made a little further on in Jer. 29:17  “behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten” (why doesn’t anyone ever put this on a graduation card?). This is a special promise that God is making to particular members of a particular group who were obliged to uphold the parameters of a particular covenant. People in the church today are not among these members nor this group nor are they obliged to uphold the statutes of this covenant.

One might argue that we can make the same application from other passages (i.e., a right sermon wrong passage kind of situation), but even then the prospects are dubious. There is a good reason why prosperity teachers love to quote Jer. 29:11, i.e., they have correctly identified that the context of Jer. 29 is primarily material blessing. Israel is being ousted from their land, severed of their family ties, dispossessed of their wealth, and divested of their livelihoods, all in fulfillment of God’s promised curse identified in Deut. 28-29. It’s true that all believers do have a future and a hope when they enter into the eternal state and perfect justice is enacted. But God has not guaranteed in the slightest that if his people are exiled from their land or become slaves or find themselves the victims of gross injustice that we or our progeny after us should expect to be ultimately restored in the same way Israel is being guaranteed in Jer. 29.

As believers we should take the teaching of the word of God very seriously. We all know that there is a temptation, and anyone who preaches regularly has felt it, to take verses out of context because they prima facie seem like they support the message that we want to preach. Preachers especially should to be held to a higher standard. Too often messages are built by first deciding what theme is to be taught on, and then look for scripture to support it. It should be the other way around: the sermon chiefly needs to flow out of whatever scripture happens to be theme of the teaching. Many people in the pews approach the Bible as a quasi-mystical, egocentric self-help book, and we do them no favors by quoting passages like Jer. 29:11 in isolation of the hermeneutical considerations necessary to handle it correctly. There are important truths in Jeremiah that should be learned and assimilated by believers, however, these are too often lost and never fully grasped because the preacher would rather repeat simplistic slogans rather than exegete and proclaim the word of God in it’s fullness. Unless and until preachers take this responsibility seriously Christians will continue to insert this passage on graduation cards and throw pillows, ignorantly attempting to claim a promise for themselves that God never issued.

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Why Christianity is a Religion, and Not (Merely) a Relationship!

jesusbillboardDuring the first week of my introduction to philosophy classes, I make my students fill out a short questionnaire in which they are to describe their personal views on a variety of issues pertinent to the class, e.g., how do they come to make moral decisions, how does one know when they know something, and what do they take to be ultimate about reality? Obviously since religion is relevant to answering such questions I also ask them to state what role religious beliefs play in their own lives. Generally I get a variety of responses, but one type of response that I can always count on are students who tell me that they are some kind of Christian, but that to them Christianity is not a “religion” but a “relationship with God.” Beyond my class it has become almost cliché to hear among Christians, especially youth, omitting the term ‘religion’ from their vocabulary when describing their viewpoints on God or anything spiritual. The word “religion” is seen as a pejorative term associated with traditional worship styles (like singing hymns), legalism (like going to church), and law-keeping (like not having sex before marriage). It harkens back to something ancient (like before the 60s) when most groups and denominations had clerics who wore funny hats and robes, and when people were held accountable for committing sin by going to confession. “Religion” so defined is seen as antithetical to modern more “authentic” forms of piety, which have now moved beyond such dry and wooden conventions in favor of cultivating “personal relationships with God.”

So entrenched is this slogan in the minds of some that even in my survey of world religions class, I’ve had students tell me that they were surprised that Christianity would even be covered because, after all, it’s “not a religion!” Such naiveté is understandable given the fact that this platitude is echoed from pulpits, in christian music lyrics, and youth meetings all over the country with such ubiquity and regularity that indoctrination is rendered all but certain. In this post, I intend to demonstrate the rather trivial, but evidently not fully appreciated, fact that Christianity is a religion and exemplifies the same broad characteristics as every other major religion on the planet.

The world ‘religion’ is a notoriously slippery term. Etymologically it derives from the latin word religio, which itself had a fairly broad semantic range in classical latin. Cicero, for example, connects religio to the term relegere meaning to “treat carefully,” i.e., the careful treatment of those things pertaining to the gods. Augustine however takes religio to denote a “reconnection (religentes) to God made necessary through “neglect.” Lactantius uses the word in the sense of “binding oneself” (relegati) to God through acts of piety. All convey important aspects that are a part of modern definitions of religion. Within the domain of religious studies, the term is generally classified in one of two ways: (1) substantive definitions, and (2) functional definitions. A substantive definition is one that defines religion in terms of the specific contents of belief held among adherents. E.B. Taylor supplies a paradigm example where he writes that a religion essentially involves “belief in spiritual beings.” This is fairly general and able to accommodate a wide range of beliefs and ideas. Though it’s not overly clear what Taylor means by “spiritual” nor even if such a definition is adequate to explain traditionally non-theistic belief systems, such as Buddhism. By contrast then, functional definitions of religion speak of it in terms what a religion does for people, either psychologically, sociologically, or perhaps even spiritually. Consider the words of the famed sociologist Emile Durkheim:

Religion is “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them”

This definition de-emphasizes the contents of religious belief in favor of what religions are there to do. In this case religions unite persons together into a community for the purpose of expressing themselves individually and corporately in ways appropriate to sacred (uncommon) things. This would describe fairly well the type of things that religious believers do. If however, Taylor’s definition might be guilty of creating false negatives (e.g., Buddhism), Durkheim’s definition might be guilty of producing false positives. One could very easily think of groups and organizations that function in a very similar way to that described here (e.g., the NRA, ACLU, PETA, etc.). The truth about religion likely encompasses both aspects of the functional and the substantive forms. In general then, scholars of religion have identified a set of criteria that seem to account for most of what is identified as religion today, although there may be exceptions in individual cases:

(1) Religions involve a belief system of some kind, i.e., beliefs that fit together into an interpretation of the universe and human beings – in short, a worldview. Such beliefs usually are there to provide answers to the basic set of existential questions, i.e., those questions identified by Paul Tillich as being of “ultimate concern,” the answers of which provide a framework for understanding the meaning and purpose of one’s life as well as what must be done in order to realize that purpose: (1) Where did I come from? (2) What kind of thing am I (3) What should I do? and (4) Where am I going?

(2) This worldview is shared and expressed by other members of a community. An individual with a novel worldview does not (as of yet) constitute a religion. Individuals in the community rely on others to sustain and reinforce commitment to that worldview.

(3) There are what are known as central myths, which are (roughly) stories that function to explain how the world and humankind has assumed their present form. Myths may arise as a) truthful depictions or embellished or ideological accounts of historical events, as b) an allegory for or personification of natural phenomena, or as c) an explanation of ritual or tradition.

(4) There are ceremonies, traditions, and rituals (sometimes referred to as cultic practices) that express the beliefs of the group or commemorate (often through annual, weekly, or daily repetitions) the central myths affirmed by the group.

(5) There is a subjective understanding or higher plane of experience sought as a good in itself and not a means to some other good extrinsic to itself (e.g., liberation, inner peace, contentment, etc.)

(6) Often material elements (e.g., incense, flowers, music, clothing, food, architecture.) accompany traditional observances or rituals, are used a means to facilitate higher states of consciousness, or even in the adornment or veneration of sacred objects.

(7) There is a distinction between the sacred and profane. Some objects, beings, behaviors, spaces, or times must be set aside and treated unlike that used for other more common purposes of life.

What then do modern Christians mean when they attempt to distinguish their faith from other “religions” when they call it a “relationship.” Do they mean that do not have any beliefs or a worldview, or a set of answers to the basic existential questions? Clearly not. Christianity (or at least orthodox Christianity) affirms the existence of a God with a well-defined structure and set of properties. They affirm that Jesus is the Son of God who became incarnate to provide atonement for sins. They affirm that God created the world and everything in it, that the universe is ordered to his divine purpose, and that God is the paradigm of moral perfection and issues commands that exemplify his moral perfections.

Do they mean that Christianity is not to be practiced within the context of a community that exists to serve and facilitate fidelity to the shared worldview of the group? Clearly not. Jesus told Peter that he was going to build a church (i.e., an assembly or a group) here on earth. This group is later in Paul’s letters called the “body of Christ” among whom gifts are bestowed for the “edification and building up of the body.”

Do they mean that there are no central myths within Christianity? The answer again is obviously no. The creation story in Genesis 1 serves to explain the origins of creation in general, and in particular, human beings, who are said to be made in the image of God and given their purpose to rule over creation. In Genesis 2 the story explains why there is gender complementarity within the sexes and how a marriage involves bringing together both halves of the sexual spectrum into a “one flesh” union. The resurrection of Jesus is a story that explains why Christian celebrate easter, and the institution of the Lord’s Supper on the night he was betrayed, explains why Christians break bread on Sunday morning.

Do they mean that Christianity possesses no traditions or rituals? Although many in the church might attempt to characterize themselves as “non-traditional,” that would be a complete myth in the colloquial sense! If your church meets on Sunday morning, Saturday night, or at any other regular interval during the week, then this is a tradition. If your church takes communion, incorporates musical performances, baptizes converts, and has someone get up and teach to the group, then these are traditions. If you or your church celebrates Easter, Christmas, or observes lent, then you are participating in a tradition.

Do they mean that they do not seek to have any inward transformation or seek any higher plane of experience? This claim should be certainly rejected by those who in the modern church who see no other purpose for church services than to create and exalt “worship experiences” as the highest form of piety. One need only recite the lyrics of contemporary praise music to make the point: “I want to see you lord,” “I want to hear you,” “draw me close to you,” I want to “feel your holy presence living inside me” “fill me with your love.” Again many Christians will be surprised to know that such “worship experiences,” are not unique to Christianity [the reason why they will be surprised is because many either explicitly or tacitly believe that it is precisely in this way that they take their “relationship with god” to be unique from other religions, i.e., Christians are able to relate by way of inward communion directly with God (i.e., heart knowledge), where as those who practice other “religions” cannot or do not] In reality, every other major religion on the planet has in place mechanisms that are designed to bring the worshipper into subjective communion with the transcendent. In Hinduism it’s called reaching “samadhi” or “moksha,” in Buddhism it’s is called comprehending the “dharma” or reaching “nirvana,” in Sufi Islam it’s called absorbing “barakah.” There is nothing about relating to the divine through direct inward communion or experience that is unique to Christianity.

Do they mean that there are no material elements that facilitate higher planes of experience or accompany traditions or rituals? Again, this can’t be the case. If your church has a cross hung anywhere in the building, uses bread and wine for the Eucharist, or water for baptism, instruments to make music, decorations for Easter or Christmas, candles for advent, works of art on the wall, or a stage and/or a pulpit with chairs and pews facing it, then your religion incorporates material elements.

And lastly, do they mean that Christians do not draw any distinction between the sacred and profane? The answer is simple: if you believe that God is holy and you are not, then you do in fact draw this distinction. If you believe that the standards of conduct and behavior should be different in a church, than at a football game or rock concert, then you affirm this distinction. If you believe that human beings have an intrinsic dignity that must be respected because they are made in the image of God, i.e., you believe in the sanctity of life, then you draw this distinction.  If you believe that your baptismal font should only be used for baptisms, you’ve put aside Sunday mornings each week to come to church, you believe that marriage is a unique union between a husband and wife that should be permanent, monogamous, and exclusive, then you affirm this distinction.

All this is to say is that Christianity, contrary to popular opinion, is in fact a religion and is not substantively or functionally different than any other religion in terms of the broad features of religion itself. Christianity is different than other religions, not in virtue of the fact that it possesses some fundamental quality (relationship with God) that other religions lack, but because it affirms a distinct worldview, believes in a unique God, has different traditions, tells different stories, lays down different ethical standards, and proposes an alternative path to salvation. All major religions are attempting to connect to and relate with the divine in some way. Where they differ is on the nature of the ultimate reality itself and therefore which religious expressions will facilitate understanding of and union with that reality.

In a future post I will demonstrate that this caricature of Christianity is even actually unhelpful, harmful, and can be and often is motivated by a crude antinomian and post-modern impulse that is deeply subversive of true Christian discipleship.

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Alleged Oldest Fragment of the Gospel of Mark Found on Mummy Mask

papyrus-fragment-taken-this-ancient-egyptian-mummy-mask-could-well-be-oldest-copy-gospel-knownThe news and inter-webs are abuzz over the recent details coming out about the alleged discovery of the oldest fragment of the gospel of Mark on record. Craig Evans, a New Testament scholar and professor at Acadia Divinity School, along with a team of still as of yet, undisclosed individuals in recent weeks are leaking progressively more details about the precise nature of the fragment and how it was discovered.

This is not news for those who have had their ears attuned to the world of NT scholarship, especially to those who heard the debate between Dan Wallace and Bart Ehrman in 2012, when Wallace leaked the existence of the fragment and forthcoming publication of the details with Brill Publishers. Through the deconstruction of a funeral mask overlaid on a 2000 year old egyptian mummy, Evans and his team were able to mine out various ancient texts from the mask including various greek texts, receipts, letters, and of course a fragment believed to be from the gospel of Mark. The initial word, though still as of yet unconfirmed, is that this fragment of Mark dates to about 90 AD, i.e., a full 100 years earlier than the pervious earliest fragment P45 (called this because it is the 45th Papyrus [hence “P”] manuscript to be catalogued), which dates to around the year 200 AD. The discovery, if substantiated, would be one of the most important manuscript discoveries in recent memory, for it would be the first and only fragment of any New Testament text from the first century, existing merely 20-30 years after Mark was written, meaning that this text was likely copied and circulated during the time when the original (or “earliest available form” if you like) of the text of Mark still existed.

As more information is released however, some important questions have been raised. Bart Ehrman in recent days on his blog has begun to deride Evans and his team because they likely deconstructed this mummy mask to mine out these documents illicitly for “apologetical” reasons in “disregard for the sanctity of surviving antiquities.” He further suggested that this practice will create a huge market among antiquities dealers to deconstruct more masks in order to look for valuable documents, effectively destroying pieces of egyptian history.

I think Ehrman’s accusations of impropriety and motive mongering are premature at best, especially since no one has actually seen or studied the fragment or how Evans’ team handled the artifacts in question. But he does raise some interesting questions:

Should these masks be destroyed in order to find documents from the past? One could very easily see that such a treasure trove of potential information would be valuable to a wide range of scholars, not just new testament scholars, but also Graeco-Roman historians, Egyptologists, and textual critics of all strips. What if some of the masks contained fragments from ancient classical works, say by Aristotle or Plato, thought to be lost to the distant past? Evans contends that the deconstruction in this case was permissible because the mummy was not a “museum-quality piece.” But are the documents that these masks preserve more valuable than the mummy itself? In looking for information about history, should we be willing to destroy important artifacts from the past to do so? Specifically to the Christian believer, apologist, or scholar, should we be so eager to find evidence for the early dating and authorship of NT texts, that we sacrifice the integrity of culturally significant artifacts of other people groups of the past to do so? In this case, Evans will likely win the argument because of the monumental and valuable nature of the discovery, but Ehrman worries that this sets a bad precedent, because likely the next mummy mask destroyed will not have a fragment from Mark or anything really worth preserving, and in the process, an important and valuable piece of the ancient Egyptian legacy is destroyed.

What do you think?

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Discerning the Spirits: A Response to “The Spirit Said…”

Holy-Spirit-Dove-smallAlthough rhetorically very powerful, the recent piece written “The Spirit Said…” by our friend Shawn Wicks, I contend misses the mark on both a logical and exegetical basis. Now some will disagree with me before they even bother to consider my objections, especially in light of the fact that Shawn also decided to include some encouraging devotional content along side his analysis of the Acts passages. My aim is not to minimize the value of reading scripture devotionally, however if the devotional encouragement is predicated on a faulty interpretation, then we run the risk of being encouraged to do the wrong thing. So the discussion must indeed come back to, what does scripture explicitly teach on this issue? More specifically, two central questions must be answered if the inner voice view can be demonstrated to be a Biblical motif:

(a) What does it mean to be led by the Spirit in scripture?

(b) How should Christians expect, as a matter of their daily and normative experience, to be communicated with and spoken to by the Holy Spirit?

Let’s now see how Shawn answers these questions in inverse order:

In paragraphs 1 and 2, attention is drawn to the fact that the phrase “the Spirit said…” is an often repeated motif in the book of Acts (Acts 8:29, 10:19, 11:12, 13:2, 21:11; cf. 16:6-7, 19:21, 20:22-23). All throughout Acts, the Spirit communicates, usually through some sort of clear, though I would contend often unexpected and unsought, apparent, and miraculous (though not always) means to the apostles, leaders, and early disciples of the apostles. When God speaks, often times the means is explicitly identified (e.g., angels – Acts 8:26-29, 10:22, 12:7, visions or trances – 9:10, 10:11, 16:10, 18:9, prophetic utterances – 21:4, 21:11etc.), but other times the means is not (e.g., Acts 13:2-4, Acts 15:28, Acts 16:6, and maybe Acts 21:4 but this is likely another prophetic word). The point was made further that since Luke only had a limited space to write his account, that means that “its content was limited to the most significant and relevant details and other “less essential” items were omitted.” Of both these points I am in complete agreement with. However, it is then illicitly inferred that on this basis “Luke clearly wants to communicate something to his audience about [the] role and function of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer.” His argument may be broken down in the following way:

(1) The Spirit speaks often in Acts

(2) Acts only includes the most important information

(3) Acts is trying to teach it’s audience (and by that I think he also means us today) about how the Holy Spirit will communicate both with them and us.

Both premises are true, unfortunately they do not imply the conclusion, even remotely. The easiest way to see how is that this argument commits a basic fallacy well known to philosophers (perhaps not to theologians) called the is/ought fallacy, i.e., just because something is referred to or mentioned (e.g., in scripture), that does not mean that there is a moral imperative or normative expectation that the thing trying to teach. Just because something is the case, it does not follow that it ought to be case. To illustrate, let’s use an example pertinent to the current topic. In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit is still present and would from time to time empower and fill various individuals for some work or service (e.g., Saul, David, Ezekiel, etc.). However, it would be an illicit inference to argue that the mere fact that the Holy Spirit empowered some, entails (in the absence of clear didactic instruction) that the ancient Israelites should expect that God will empower all in this way. The same point can be made with many other examples (the conquest of Canaan and polygamy also comes to mind).

The bottom line is that this inference assumes (without argument) that there was nothing unique or special going on in the book of Acts, such that God could have a provisional and limited purpose for doing something special then that may not be as important or relevant now. And not only is this an assumption, it’s quite obviously a false assumption. The book of Acts is an obviously dispensationally (I use that term loosely) unique period in the origin and development of the church (e.g., the holy spirit falls on the disciples at Pentecost, 3000 souls were added after one sermon, people are being healed by merely being eclipsed by Peter’s shadow, Stephen at his stoning has a vision of the apocalyptic son of man, Saul is radically converted and commissioned to bring the gospel to the gentiles, the holy spirit is given to the Samaritans, the holy spirit is given to the Gentiles, Peter has a vision of the intended unity that exists now between Jew and Gentile in the church, the Jerusalem council must judge whether gentile believers are obligated to the keep Jewish law etc.) These rather sublime and grandiose events are particular to that formative period in the church for the purpose of laying “the foundation” (Eph. 2:20) of the church and opening up the pathways that now allow the apostles and others to preach the universal gospel “to the ends of the earth.”

As a further but less salient point, we must also remind ourselves that Acts is not a book of didactic instruction, but it belongs in the narrative genre which means that the primary purpose is to describe the events as they unfold, not necessarily to provide normative models for the church (although it does, can, and should do that to). 

Objection: So are you saying that Acts has nothing to teach us today about God, the Church, Christian living, or the Holy Spirit? May it never be! When one interprets narrative prose, one must respect the genre of the text under examination. The function of Acts is not to provide clear commands to perform or not perform some act, like many of the epistles do overtly. There is principled wisdom and teaching that may be mined from acts, especially from the sermons that are recorded throughout. All this is to say, that even if (1) and (2) are true in the aforementioned argument, the conclusion does follow because it makes several faulty assumptions. Shawn has not answered question (b) above.

Let’s now go to his attempt to answer question (a). Here, it is conceded that (contrary to the impression one gets as one looks at the myriad of references cited) there are actually relatively few instances where the method by which God speaks to someone is undisclosed. Of course, it would be a faulty argument indeed to say that the relative frequency of a command, teaching, or event by itself shows us how important or crucial the teaching is (Revisionist readings of the Biblical teaching on homosexuality commit the same error). The argument is not, look how few times Acts refers to the Spirit speaking, therefore, this information is unimportant and not relevant to us today. That is not my argument.

Here’s what Shawn’s main and only argument was, “when Luke writes, “the Spirit said” with no further descriptors, we are left with basically two options. He either spoke audibly or inaudibly. Any other option falls short for they fail to explain adequately the very specific and personal nature of the Spirit’s words. Since Luke takes pains to present the Holy Spirit as an indwelling, immaterial presence, it seems obvious to me that we should conclude the Holy Spirit probably spoke inaudibly.”

First, it needs to be pointed out that this is merely an argument from silence (as I predicted would happen in my original post). The passages cited (Acts 13:2-4, Acts 15:28, Acts 16:6), do not state here (nor anywhere else in scripture) that the Holy Spirit communicated the information inaudibly through some sort of innate sense or feeling. At worst we need to remain agnostic about the method of communication, and at best we should base our exegesis on what we DO know not based on what we DON’T know, i.e., that Acts identifies explicitly various means and methods God uses to communicate to people (angels, dreams, visions, prophetic utterances, etc.). So when we come to a passage like those mentioned, plain reason and sound exegesis demand that we default to what scripture explicitly mentions in the context instead of importing a non-biblical category, i.e., the holy spirit normatively communicates to believers through inaudible internal promptings (which is no where mentioned or hinted at in Acts).

But what about the so-called argument from indwelling? Does not that entail that believers have a direct hotline to the Holy Spirit and will be led immediately through His indwelling presence via the elicitation and solicitation of feelings, urgings, or leadings? This forms the crux of Shawn’s argument and may be broken down in following way:

(1) There are instances in Acts where the Holy Spirit speaks with no information as to how the speaking took place.

(2) The method of speaking then can either be audible or inaudible

(3) The Holy Spirit in Acts is portrayed to be an immanent indwelling presence

(4) Therefore, the Holy Spirit probably spoke directly through some inaudible means in Acts

First, what needs to be pointed out is that the language in (3) being used to describe the Holy Spirit is not being derived from Acts itself, but is being imported into the interpretation from other texts. What Shawn calls an intimate (itself a non-biblical descriptor), immanent, indwelling presence of the Spirit, Luke uses the language of being filled or full. The concept of the indwelling of the Spirit largely is being derived from Paul’s letters (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19, 2 Cor. 6:16, 2 Tim. 1:14 etc.). Of course, it is not being argued that there is no connection between being filled and being indwelt, but these are not identical ministries of the Spirit. This is an illicit equivocation on Shawn’s part. Fillings come and go (Eph. 5:18, Acts 4:8, 31, 7:55 etc.), but the indwelling presence of the Spirit is something fixed and permanent. Thus, it is appropriate to draw attention to the fact that a conceptual scheme that is absent from Acts now needs to be imported into it to explain what’s going on.

Second, let’s grant for the sake of argument the equivocation is true (fillings and indwellings are identical). Now it must be asked, does the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit mean that the Spirit will normativity communicate his will (apart from scripture, sound council based on scripture, or some other miraculous intervention) directly to the minds of individuals? But why think that? 1 Cor. 2:11 is cited as an example of how God speaks “inaudibly.” Here’s what it says:

For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.

First, and most importantly, the passage not about how the Spirit speaks to human beings. This is a declaration of the Spirit’s omniscience. However, Shawn says “When we pray this way [What way?], we very much expect God to “hear” our prayers. In return, we can expect the Holy Spirit to speak to us in much the same way. This view seems to be corroborated by the natural flow and reading of these texts [which texts?].”

The argument that is being made is that since we can pray to God in an inaudible way, and God can hear our inaudible prayers, then we should expect to “hear” God through an inaudible means. This conclusion simply does not follow. Should we also expect that if we pray audibly to God, that God will communicate to us through an audible way (a booming voice or a still small voice, but a voice nonetheless)? I could also write out a prayer on a sheet of paper and presumably God will know what I have written, does this mean that I should expect to receive a letter in the mail in return from God? God is under no compulsion to communicate with us in a certain way simply because I decided to reach out to him in that way. Perhaps you are someone struggling with the prospect of divorce. You cry out to God in your mind and he hears you. But maybe what God wants is after you pray, to consult the god-breathed scriptures and educate yourself about what God has actually SAID about divorce!

The bottom line is, there is no passage in the NT where one of the functions of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is thought to provide believers with immediate tailor made instructions brought on through urgings, promptings, feelings, for how they ought to live their lives.

The only Acts passage that Shawn tries to resolve is Acts 15:28 (though I provided comments on the Acts 13 and 16 passages earlier on my blog which were not responded to). The first thing to note is that this passage, contrary to supporting the thesis, actually is not directly relevant to it, i.e., it is not one of the “Spirit spoke…” passages at all, in fact the Spirit does not say anything the passage. Shawn rejects the interpretation that the Spirit is speaking through the collective wisdom of leaders stating that it seems “rather underwhelming.” Personally I find the argument from being underwhelmed unpersuasive. Here was the reasoning I gave on the blog:

“It [the passage] says “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials:” (Acts 15:28)? First, one needs to note that prior to this verse, the leaders in the Jerusalem church attempted to resolve the theological problem through a debate, discussion, reference to the Scriptures, as well as the miracles that God himself had performed. When they come to the conclusion of this debate, they write, “For it seems good to us having become of one mind,” and then a couple of sentences later they add, “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and us.” The point is clear, the Holy Spirit is not the chief communicative agent in this passage, i.e., he does not download a clear and decisive ruling directly into the minds of the apostles, otherwise, why the debate? In context, the passage is referring to a joint decision made through the agency of the corporate leadership of the church, which is then attributed to the Spirit.”

Personally I don’t see anything underwhelming about God working through the corporate wisdom of the leaders in the local church (And I’ll end with a devotional as well). The providential control that our almighty and sovereign God has in order to equip and train wise leaders is not something that is underwhelming to me. It’s something we as Christians can take refuge in, that just as God has ordained certain nations to exist and have the authority they do, God has ordained the leadership of churches to make wise, biblical, and morally upright decisions. The existence of and objectives of the church can never be thwarted, and God will see to it that His church will continue to endure and continuously raise up leaders ready to carry out his will and preach his gospel. 

So far as I can see, then, neither questions (a) nor (b) have been answered.

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“The Spirit Said…”

By Shawn Wicks, Th.M.

Martin Hengel in his study of Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity gives his readers a vivid view of what publishing must have been like in the time of the New Testament.  Unlike today where printing presses copy thousands of books with ease and speed, and individuals are able to produce hundreds of pages through word-processing software, desktop printers, and readily available paper, in the ancient world the publishing of just one scroll was costly and labor intensive. And since Christian communities of antiquity were poor, and, unlike their contemporaries, did not have expansive libraries at their disposal, it is no surprise that the gospel of Luke and Acts each work out to be exactly one scroll in length.  This means Luke’s account of the life of Christ and the history of the early church was limited not so much by information but rather by pragmatic factors.  This also means its content was limited to the most significant and relevant details and other “less essential” items were omitted.

Why is this significant? This means Luke’s choices of characters, events and even ‘minor’ details, were all made with painstaking care and one can rest in the knowledge then, that if Luke wrote it down, it was not just filler; and that whatever he included was of vital interest to his record. Even more so, if Luke ever repeats a matter, whatever he is communicating must have pronounced value. Furthermore, if Luke repeats information in a formulaic way, he is probably communicating a familiar experience within the early church.  This is why the simple phrase, “The Spirit said…” and its derivatives should not be easily dismissed or overlooked (Acts 8:29, 10:19, 11:12, 13:2, 21:11; cf. 16:6-7, 19:21, 20:22-23).  Luke clearly wants to communicate something to his audience about role and function of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer.

Luke’s clearly stated purpose in writing his two volume work (Luke-Acts) is so that his audience “may have certainty” about the respective ministries of Jesus and the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:4; cf. Acts 1:1-8).  It is in this context that Luke mentions facts like angels speaking (Luke 1:13,18,28,30,34, 2:10, 24:4-7; Acts 5:19, 8:26, 10:3,12:8), dreams or visions being given (Luke 1:22; Acts 9:10-12, 11:5, 16:9-10, 18:9), and the prophetic wisdom of the prophetic Scripture (Acts 4:25; 13:47; 15:15-17; 28:25-28).  So when we read the phrase, “The Spirit said…” we know what this does not mean: that an angel spoke, or a dream/vision was given, or some Scripture was being applied; for when these events occur, Luke is more than willing and ready to give us these details (see Acts 8:26-40; 10:17-23; 16:6-9 where this point is clearly demonstrated).

So, what does Luke mean when he records the historical fact that “the Spirit said” something to someone (or to several people)?  Well, to answer this question, we must begin with Luke’s understanding of the Holy Spirit.  For Luke, the Holy Spirit is first and foremost a Person.  He is a free agent of power and communication; he is the author of (OT) Scripture.  Second, the Holy Spirit is immaterial and omnipresent and fills believers with His presence in a special way (Luke 1:15,41,67; 4:1; Acts 2:4; 4:8,31; 6:5; 7:55; 9:17; 11:24; 13:9,52).  Finally, for Luke, the Holy Spirit is intimately involved in the lives of believers.  As Jesus dwelt in the flesh and lived with his disciples, so the Holy Spirit indwells and lives within every believer.  He leads, guides, and directs believers in their thoughts, words, and actions.

So, when Luke writes, “the Spirit said” with no further descriptors, we are left with basically two options. He either spoke audibly or inaudibly. Any other option falls short for they fail to explain adequately the very specific and personal nature of the Spirit’s words.  Since Luke takes pains to present the Holy Spirit as an indwelling, immaterial presence, it seems obvious to me that we should conclude the Holy Spirit probably spoke inaudibly.  How does one speak inaudibly?  Through the inner person (heart, spirit), that is, through thoughts, convictions, and impulses (cf. 1 Cor 2:11).  When we pray this way, we very much expect God to “hear” our prayers.  In return, we can expect the Holy Spirit to speak to us in much the same way.  This view seems to be corroborated by the natural flow and reading of these texts.

Of course, there are those who oppose this view.  They typically respond in one of two ways:

First, they appeal to Acts 15:28 as an example of the Holy Spirit speaking through the collective wisdom of leaders.  This seems rather underwhelming, for the phrase “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit” is probably a direct reference to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit onto the Gentiles (Acts 15:8), or at minimum the Scripture quoted by James (15:16-17).  In any regard, it is of note that the Holy Spirit is distinguished from (or among) the council leadership (“to the Holy Spirit and to us”).

Second, they appeal to the fact that these “rare” occurrences are sparse and hardly support anything normative.  And while I might be persuaded to agree with this conclusion, is this not the type of intimate, personal fellowship with the Spirit expressly stated and inferred throughout the New Testament (Mk 13:11; John 14:17, 15:26, 20:22; Rom 8:15; 1Co 12:13; 2Co 13:14; Phil 2:1, 3:3; Gal 4:6, 5:16-25; Eph 2:18, 3:16, 4:30, 5:18, 6:18; 1Th 1:5; 1Ti 4:1; 2Ti 1:14; 1Pe 4:14)?  To say God rarely speaks this way or only to specially gifted people is a failure to understand what Luke is trying to communicate in His two-volume work, namely, that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on every believer and is an important, active, and continual participant in their lives.  To be a “Christian” is to be a “little anointed one” (cf. Acts 11:26; 1Pe 4:16)!

So, it is, we can and should expect the Holy Spirit to speak to us personally.  He will call some of us into the ministry and some us to be missionaries (even to specific places and people); He will compel us to share the gospel with a specific person at a specific time.  He will also warn us and convict us of sin.  He will assure us of our salvation.  He will drive believers to pray for others and even spontaneously give them words to say when they don’t know what to say.  He will reveal things that otherwise would be impossible to know and expose issues in a person’s heart that he or she may not even know that are there.  He will teach us about the things freely given to us by God.  He can communicate these things in many different ways, and while this most often comes through the sure foundation of His Word and applying wisdom, it can and should come through His indwelling presence on occasion as well.

In truth, I suspect many believers have heard from and have followed the Holy Spirit without ever being aware of it.  How?  They have errantly confused their own thoughts and desires with His thoughts and desires.  Pure thoughts, that lead us to serve him and have no specificmoral obligation deriving from Scripture or wisdom, I would suggest, are almost always communicated to us from the Holy Spirit.  For when a missionary hears the Lord call Him to a specific people group and invests his life to bringing them the love of Jesus (despite all of his own inadequacies), it does such a disservice to call this merely a “wise” or a “spiritually expedient” decision.  The truth is, they were called— specifically called by God through His Holy Spirit.  He spoke to them and they responded.  Praise the Lord!

Shawn Wicks is an elder and full-time commended minister of the gospel at Westminster Bible Chapel, an assembly of believers in the Plymouth Brethren tradition, located in Orange Country, CA. He received is M. Div. and Th. M at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, CA.

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Led by the Spirit: The Meaning of Galatians 5

In the previous post, graciously contributed by my friend and brother in Christ, Shawn Wicks, there was provided a beautiful summary of the major works and activities of the Holy Spirit as presented in the New Testament (a crash course in Pneumatology if you will), most of which I am in firm agreement with. I agree with the proposition that the Holy Spirit regenerates (allowing us to be born again and transforming us into new creations), baptizes, convicts, inspires, empowers, moves, illuminates, and indwells the believer in a meaningful sense. Further, I agree that the Holy Spirit urges, convicts, and prompts us (in a sense, though not in the same sense I think Shawn perhaps thinks He does). In this post I will construct what I take the central argument to be and where it goes off the rails.

First, it needs to be pointed out, that on a purely logical basis, it makes no difference how many Bible passages are referenced if they do not the speak to the central issue at hand, i.e., as Shawn pointed out “what does it mean to be led by the Spirit?” Let me clarify further (insofar as Shawn is responding to what I have previously written – if he is not then my comment does not apply), the issue is specifically, what mechanisms does the Spirit use to communicate his will to believers, and what should believers expect from the Spirit as a matter of their normative experience today. This is significant because one can, in an erudite fashion (which I believe Shawn has) bring together and spin a very detailed systematic web of passages that deal with the Spirit’s various activities. However, just because there are a multiplicity of references (and Greek words!) does not entail that they have much if anything to do with the central issue (and in point of fact in this case, they don’t!). In fact, Furthermore, it can and will be demonstrated in future posts, if anything, a survey of the semantic range of ἄγω definitively supports my position rather provide any obvious counter-examples to it.

Second, the crux of the argument seems to be the following (In my formulation, I am also supplying details that were mentioned outside of his post in our facebook conversation):

(1) The NT teaches that all believers should be “led by the Spirit.”

(2) “led by the Spirit” means, “listening” for a specific prompting, urging, or feeling, whereby the Holy Spirit reveals to individual believers tailor-made instructions for how they should live their lives (Specifically the claim is that there are ways for individual believers to “hear,” “discern,” and “detect” the voice of God that are epistemically independent of, though not in conflict with, scripture or godly instruction based on the principles of scripture or natural reason)

(C) All believers should be “listening” for a specific prompting, urging, feeling, whereby the Holy Spirit reveals to them tailor-made instructions for how they should live their lives.

There is no doubt about premise (1). The controversial premise is obviously (2). Let’s take a look.

The most glaring problem with the argument is that there is an equivocation fallacy being committed between (1) and (2), i.e., the word “led” is being used in two different ways in each premise. Again the question is not, should we be led the Spirit, but how does the spirit lead? Gal. 5:18 and Rom. 8:14 unequivocally do NOT just (if at all) mean waiting for internal, inaudible, promptings or feelings generated by the Spirit which dictate how specific believers ought to live their lives. It must be recognized that the concept of leading is much bigger and comprehensive than that. The Spirit “leads” in many ways and through many means in scripture (though not all are normative for believers) as I’ve pointed out in previous posts (e.g., dreams, the scriptures, angels, visions, trances, godly council and the list goes on).

Consider for example Gal. 5:18: most of what Shawn said is correct concerning the occasion and purpose for the writing of Galatians and the immediate application these verses had for those early Christians in responding to the Judaizers. However, if one simply reads Gal. 5:16-26, the meaning of “led” is quite clear. Before we delve into it, as a side point, I would contend that the Greek renderings do not make a significant difference as to how the word is being used this context. This is an important point that I know Shawn knows, but others reading may not. Simply giving the semantic range or lexical definition of a word in the original language is not by itself sufficient to tell one how a word is being used in a given context, flow of thought, or argument. Now to Galatians:

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. 19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another.

The first thing is to note that “led,” “walk,” “not carry out,” “crucified” and “live” are functionally equivalent terms, that is, they are either being described as the means that one undertakes to achieve some goal or end, or just are the end itself. In this case, “walking” according to the spirit is the means one undertakes to get to the end, i.e., being “led” by the spirit. Further, the words “spirit” and “flesh” are being put up as antithetical concepts to one another. The word “flesh” here represents sinful desires that are the cause of impure living, while the “spirit” represents holy desires that lead to virtuous (Godly) living. Thus, the apostle is encouraging us both negatively to crucify, not carry out, not practice the deeds of the flesh, and positively to live and walk according to the spirit, thus causing you to be “led by the Spirit.”

Now, here’s the obvious and crucial question that needs to be answered, what does it mean to live, walk, and be led by the Spirit in this context? Clearly, it means that we as believers should not “practice” the deeds of the flesh and we should “practice” the deeds of the spirit. The text says nothing about receiving internal private revelations, promptings, or urgings. This is nowhere given as the means the apostle is prescribing that must be used to be properly “led by the Spirit.” It’s saying, to summarize, don’t sin and do good (i.e., practice the deeds of the spirit which I, Paul, have identified for you). Those who do this, are being led by the Spirit, and those who don’t, are not.

In reality, it may be actually misleading (though I’m not settled on this) to assume that the use of “πνεῦμα (pneuma) in this context is referring to the Spirit, as in the Holy Spirit, rather than something more like spiritual, eternal, godly, holy etc. Its very difficult to see how in context being led by the Spirit has anything directly and immediately to do with the Holy Spirit at all, i.e., WE are exhorted to “not become boastful,” to not “practice such things” to “crucify the flesh.” These are not actions undertaken by the Spirit, but by the person who would desire to “walk” in step with the Spirit. In fact, there is no reference to the Spirit communicating to believers about anything in this passage, much less communicating through private, inaudible urgings or feelings, it is nowhere part of the argument Paul is making. (I am aware that my Calvinist brethren will say that this paragraph sounds completely synergistic…well, so be it!)

One last point, if “led by the spirit,” means only what Shawn says it means, i.e., an “inward moving of the Person of the Holy Spirit,” then we are left with a dilemma in the text, which I’ll call “The Inner Prompters Dilemma.”

Should we (1) assume that living according to the flesh (in contrast to those led by the spirit) is referring to persons who simply ignore such inner promptings or leadings, but who could be responsive to correction from scripture, godly council, etc.? That would seem to be entailed by Shawn’s interpretation. Or (2) if “led by the Spirit” in this context refers to all of the means God uses to inform and convict believers (e.g., scripture, dreams, gifts, etc.) then why should we think that inner promptings should be included among those means? If “led by the Spirit” is a comprehensive and general statement of all the means God uses, then the passage cannot be used to justify the practice of waiting and listening for inner promptings without begging the question. An independent argument would need to be made.

In closing, Gal. 5:18 and Rom. 8:14 (which I dealt with in an earlier post and as far I can tell, was not in any way refuted by anything Shawn wrote – the inner prompter’s dilemma also applies to that passage) do not support the practice of waiting for private individual inaudible revelations from God. My bottom line: I think Shawn has put forth premises of an argument based on fairly sound exegesis, but then draws conclusions based on isogetical considerations (reading things into the text and making assumptions that are not there).

In a future post I will deal with his argument from indwelling as well.

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Led By the Spirit: Lexical Analysis of ἄγω from Galatians 5:18 and Romans 8:14

By Shawn Wicks, Th. M.                                                                10614207_10203892327085260_8460539130172445695_n

The Christian concept of being “led by the Spirit” is a mildly controversial issue in the contemporary church.  The question is not if believers are led by the Spirit (Rom 8:14; Gal 5:18), but rather what does it mean to be led by the Spirit?  So then, if there is to be any fruitful discussion on the topic, it must begin with a proper lexical analysis of ἄγω. Once this has been done, the word can be better understood contextually.

Most of the 67 occurrences of ἄγω are in the Lukan-Pauline corpus (13 in Luke, 26 in Acts; 7 in Pauline epistles).  The basic meaning of ἄγω is lead, in the sense of to pull, prod, urge, move, bring, or carry along. It is used to refer to the action of pulling or prodding animals (Matt 21:2, 7; Luke 19:30; Acts 8:32 [quoting Isa 53:7]; used fig. in John 10:16 of a shepherd leading his sheep; it is used to refer to the action of bringing the sick or injured somewhere (Luke 4:40; 10:34; Luke 18:40; cf. John 9:13). Embedded in the meaning ofἄγω, therefore, is some degree of prompting, urging, or compulsion, whether through outright force (Mark 13:11; Luke 22:54; John 7:45, 18:28; Acts 6:12, 21:34, 22:5) or simple persuasion (Acts 5:26, 11:26; Rom 2:4; 1Co 12:2).  When used in a context of a person’s spirituality or morality, ἄγω refers to being urged, moved, or compelled by one’s convictions, desires, or passions, that is, by one’s inner impulses (e.g., Rom 2:4; 1Th 1:5; 2Ti 3:6; cf. 1Co 12:2).

Of great significance, then, is the fact that Luke describes Jesus, the Son of God, as being “led” by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness (Luke 4:1), for Paul, likewise, describes believers, as sons of God, as being “led” by the Spirit (Rom 8:14; Gal 5:18). This corresponds with Paul’s teaching that the most distinguishing and significant mark of a believer is the inward dwelling and presence of the Spirit (Rom 8:9-11; 1Co 3:16, 6:19; 2Co 6:16; Gal 4:6; Eph 5:18; 2Ti 1:14 ), by which believers are identified as sons of God (Rom 8:9b,15; Gal. 4:6-7).

For Paul, the promise of the indwelling Spirit given to those who believe (have faith) stands in deep contrast to being imprisoned or enslaved by “the Scripture” and “law” (Gal 3:22-23; cf. Gal 3:14; 2Co 3:5-6) and “elementary principles of the world” (4:3,6).  Thus, Paul warns believers not to submit to the law or any rules or regulations, and instead, to remain free (5:1).  For the Galatians this meant not being circumcised (5:2-12).  Of course, for Paul, freedom did not mean that believers should do whatever they desire or want; it was an opportunity for believers as free sons not to serve the desires of the flesh (and bite and devour each other), but instead to love and serve others instead (5:13-15).  In other words, believers are truly free and are not under the law; however, their freedom is given not that they should use it to enslave themselves again (cf. Gal 3:21), but in order to love God and love their neighbors as themselves (ironically, in doing this, they fulfill the whole law). Notice that Paul is very careful with his words in v.14.  He is not saying in contradiction to the rest of his letter that a believer should try to fulfill the law through loving others, but rather that the law is fulfilled when they love their neighbor (cf. 6:2).

The question is, then, how does one love his neighbor if not by trying to keep the law?

It is in this context then that Paul instructs Christians to “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16; Rom 8:13), for in doing so they “will not gratify the desires of the flesh (ἐπιθυμίαν σαρκὸς).”  What is the flesh?  In a redemptive and eschatological sense, the flesh is the part of a person that has not been redeemed yet, though it will be (Rom 7:24-25; 8:11).  It is the part where sin still dwells (8:3).  The NIV goes too far in substituting “sinful nature” for “flesh,” for it is best to think of the flesh as simply the weak, unredeemed part of man (for the flesh is not evil in and of itself).

Here, we also must remember the occasion of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Paul was addressing a situation where there was a movement to judaize others (Gal 2:4,16; 3:2,5,10,21).  This seems to have led to pressure for Gentiles to become circumcised (2:12; 5:2-12; 6:12-13). Now if we ask which work of the law could most aptly be called a “work of the flesh” (cf. 5:19), surely it is circumcision.  Circumcision, according to Philo, symbolized “the excision of pleasure and all passions” (Migr. 92).  In fact it would be quite natural for a Gentile to assume (or fear) that circumcision of an adult male would do more than just “symbolize” the quenching of passion, they would assume it would in some measure actually bring it about.

Thus, the Galatians were being taught (deceived) that in order to have victory over the flesh, and become righteous in their daily lives, they needed to be circumcised.  By contrast, Paul was arguing that walking by the Spirit and following His lead is the only effective way to experience victory over the flesh (human weakness) in this life, which he refers to as “circumcision of the heart” (Rom 2:25-29).  To be “uncircumcised of heart and ears” means to be stubborn and stiff-necked to the point of resisting the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51; cf. Deut 10:16, 30:6; Jer 4:4).

In the next verse (5:17a), Paul explains how walking in the Spirit will keep someone from gratifying their flesh.  He explains that there is now within believers an internal conflict— a war of desires, for the flesh and Spirit have competing and contrasting desires, longings, and wants, and either can keep the believer from doing what He wants (5:17b). Paul does not mean to imply that we are some helpless bystander; he actually means the opposite.  He means that, as believers, we are truly free (cf. Rom 7:25-8:2), and now can choose what impulses we want to obey: the longings of the flesh or the longings of the Spirit, both which now dwell within us (Rom 8:12-17; Gal 5:17).

Paul then reminds believers that “if you are led (i.e., pulled, prodded, moved, carried along) by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”  In other words, if a believer has the indwelling Spirit directing his life, he is no longer obligated to obey the law; his obedience is to the leading and moving of the indwelling Holy Spirit.  And this is the only way a person can truly experience victory over the weakness of his flesh which results in various sins (5:19-24).  Following the Spirit by responding to His leadings will result in “love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; against such things there is no law.”  Thus, it is vital for believers to “keep in step (στοιχῶμεν) with the Spirit” (5:25) and not the law (which relies on human effort).  This, of course, leaves the believer very little to boast about since he is utterly, completely dependent on the indwelling Spirit for His sanctification (cf. 2Co 3:5-6). This helps explain Paul’s exhortation to “not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (5:26), for following the law, and not the Spirit, results in boasting and jealousy (6:13-14; cf. Rom 3:27-31).

So, in summary, Paul clearly understood victorious Christian living in terms of yielding to the inward moving of the Person of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit, of course, will lead believers to cling to promises (not laws), rely on faith (not works), submit to others (not lord it over them), forgive and restore others (not condemn them), and so on.  We know this because this is what the Holy Spirit has revealed through the prophets and the apostles.  He did this in order to keep us from being deceived by false or lying spirits which seek to impersonate and imitate Him and tempt us to return to slavery, that is, slavery to the law, flesh, sin, and the fear of death.  Remember, the law was given only until the coming of the promised Spirit, who now takes residence in all those who put their faith in Christ (Gal 3:14, 23-29).

Finally, it is worth noting that Paul concludes his letter with a final exhortation: “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything, but a new creation” (Gal 6:15). “A new creation” is to be associated with the Spirit, baptism, and being born again (Gal 4:28-29; Titus 3:5; 2 Cor 5:17; Rom 6:4; cf. John 3:5-8).  While it is possible Paul is referring to the eschatological new creation (Rom 8:19-22;cf. Rev 21:1), this seems unlikely and hardly helps make sense of Paul’s final words, in which he invokes peace and mercy upon all those who walk by the following rule: keeping the law (by being circumcised, et al.) does not have any value; the only thing that is of value is being a new creation in the Holy Spirit, for those who are “circumcised of heart” are the true Israel of God, “for a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Rom 2:29, 9:6; Gal 3:7-9; cf. Luke 19:9; John 8:33).

Shawn Wicks is an elder and full-time commended minister of the gospel at Westminster Bible Chapel, an assembly of believers in the Plymouth Brethren tradition, located in Orange Country, CA. He received is M. Div. and Th. M at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, CA.

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