Saturday, July 10, 2010

Perfect Present

The "Spiritual Secret" of Greg Boyd

By Pastor Larry DeBruyn


"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." 1 John 1:8, KJV



On the cover of Gregory A. Boyd’s recently published book, Present Perfect: Finding God in the Now, this endorsement appears:

“Discover a spiritual secret that is as simple as it is profound. Highly recommended.”

—Brian D. McLaren
author, speaker, and activist[1]

One “spiritual secret” in Boyd’s book may be discovered in a footnote to the second chapter, Finding Home.[2] The secret is: “We no longer have a ‘sinful nature’.” Wow! Assuming the author is writing about Christians, the author asserts they no longer have a sinful nature (i.e., nature equals the essential properties of a thing). In other words, our nature is “perfect now”! Within the Christian psyche there no longer resides an inner disposition to sin, a “sinful nature.” Possessing inner immunity against sinning, Christians can conduct their lives in the present perfect. As with Roman Catholics Brother Lawrence (c. 1614-1691) and Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751), and the evangelical Frank Laubach (1884-1970), there is no inner barrier that hinders Christians from contemplating God 24/7. They can sense God’s presence in everything they do throughout every minute of the day, which is what Boyd’s book is all about.[3]

Present Perfect
At the base of the contemplative experience lies the assertion, “We no longer have a “sin nature.” The assumption becomes necessary because Scripture states that sin is a barrier between people and God. The prophet Isaiah stated: “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2, KJV). Granted, what the prophet denounces in this instance are specific acts of sin, but these sins stemmed out of a sin nature. The prophet Habakkuk also said to the Lord: “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Habakkuk 1:13). So to insure there’s no roadblock to contemplating God, the existence of a sin nature within Christians must be denied, something Boyd’s statement does.

He argues that in the Bible the “flesh” is not sinful. Boyd writes: “Exegetically, neither ‘sinful’ nor ‘nature’ is contained in, or suggested by, the word sarx (which means ‘flesh’).”[4] In syllogistic fashion, his logic might be constructed as follows:

  • Christians possess a fleshly body and psyche.
  • But “the flesh” is not sinful.
  • Therefore, Christians do not possess a sin nature.

Regarding Boyd’s secret, there’s a bit of truth to his argument. Jesus “was made flesh,” yet His being so constituted did not mean Jesus was a sinner. Such a deduction would contradict Scripture’s clear testimony that His nature was uniquely otherwise (Compare John 1:14 to 2 Corinthians 5:21 and 1 John 3:5.).

So Boyd defines “the flesh” to be that grand illusion/idolatry of the mind in which humans believe they can live their lives independent from God, and in pursuit of that illusion, they rewind their minds to the past (to their former “the glory days”), or fast forward to the future (to their hope for a better life). But whether in their mind games Christians go backward or forward, their focus upon the past or the future distracts them from contemplating God in the present. As such, Christians most often miss out on the moment they are in, the perfect “now.”

On this point there’s truth. Carpe diem! (Latin, meaning “Seize the day,” or “Enjoy the present.”) Scripture does admonish believers: “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16; Compare Colossians 4:5.). But it must be asked, does Boyd’s way of defining “the flesh” (sarx) to be the absence of a “sinful nature” fit the spiritual template of Scripture? “Yes” (as we have seen) but “No” (as will be pointed out).


Present Imperfect

Our World—a Battle Ground
Admittedly, we live in an imperfect environment (The world around us is not present perfect!), and the reality in which we live, even after regeneration, involves something the Bible calls the flesh. Upon our flesh-body God has placed a curse (Genesis 3:16-19; Romans 8:18-22). Paul stated that we have “the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9, KJV). The sentence of death hangs over us. Our flesh will die (See Genesis 2:17.). So if our flesh is going to die—and it is—there must be something sinful about it, for Paul wrote that “as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin . . . so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12). Yet “flesh” in Scripture carries more than the material meaning of “body.” It also carries about it a spiritual meaning that is associated with “sin.”

Paul’s Soul—Battling the Flesh
Just because fleshliness does not equate to sinfulness, Christians are not thereby exonerated from possessing a sin nature, for as Paul wrote of his life after conversion, “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin” (Romans 7:14). Whatever else might be deduced from the apostle’s words, the close proximity of “flesh” to “sin” must be reckoned with. Though theologians debate whether in this text Paul is describing the struggle of his life before or after conversion, seven times the apostle employs the present tense (“I am”) to describe his spiritual condition; once in verse 14, three times in verse 15, twice in verse 20, and again in verse 24 where he states, “Wretched man that I am!” In that Paul wrote Romans after he became a Christian, it’s difficult to infer that he’s describing his state before he became a Christian, unless “am” doesn’t mean “am.” Taken at face value, Paul’s auto-biography describes a disposition of heart toward flesh/sin that remained current within his soul even after his conversion-regeneration. This connection causes one theologian to conclude that, “Though the flesh is not innately evil, it is weak and thus cannot prevent sin or produce righteousness, which require God’s power . . .”[5] Ferguson writes: “In a word [the flesh] is human nature dominated by sin.”[6] Seemingly, the flesh connects with sins as a magnet attracts iron particles.

It therefore, becomes an existential leap to conclude that because a Christian’s flesh is not necessarily sinful, that he/she does not possess a sin nature. Even when they become evident amongst professing Christians, one must question from whence “deeds of the flesh” derive (Galatians 5:16-24). Opposite from the “fruit of the Spirit,” such “deeds” cannot arise out of a neutral nature possessing a holistic disposition bent towards doing only good. True, though sin shall not reign in the life of a believer (Romans 6:12-14), it is nevertheless real within the life of any believer. The apostle’s description of his inner life will not allow it to be determined to be otherwise. Though no longer dominant, something remains within us that does not comport itself with a life godliness. If Paul’s testimony of his inner struggle at the end of Romans 7 means anything, it means this. The reality of Paul’s spiritual autobiography is at odds with individuals who make claim to have arrived to an inner state of being that ever contemplates God.

John’s Congregation—Battling False Teaching
Let it also be stated that the proposition—we no longer have a sinful nature—is not without New Testament precedent. In his first letter, the Apostle John marks it out as an assertion made by false teachers (Compare 2 Peter 2:1 ff.). In the introduction of his first letter, Pastor John notes three affirmations made by the false teachers (1 John 1:5-10). Marked out by the conditional clause “If we say . . .,” they are: one, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (verse 6); two, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (verse 8); and three, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (verse 10). For purpose of evaluating any assertion that we no longer have a sin nature, John’s second statement becomes relevant.

As the verb occurs in the present tense, the statement made by the false teachers can be translated: We do not have sin.[7] Burge cites Brooke’s comments that in this claim (1 John 1:8), “sin is described as a quality, ‘an active principle in us’.”[8] Thus, one mark of false teaching is that it denies a sin nature continues to reside in a Christian’s life. Contrasting to the third assertion where sin consists of sinful acts (If we say that we have not sinned . . .), the preceding statement (If we say that we have no sin . . .) refers to an inner disposition to sin which remains in the Christian and without a reckoning of it via confession, ongoing fellowship with God is hindered.[9] The statement that “we no longer have a sinful nature” may be compared to the false teaching rebuked by John. Later in his letter, John will tell his readers that deliverance from the present corruption of things lies in the future, a time frame with which “finding God in the now” is not compatible.

Future Perfect
To his readers, Pastor John informed them that deliverance from the body-flesh was “not yet.” He wrote: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). At the future moment when our visage meets His, we will be delivered from the body of this flesh. This redemption is future (See Romans 8:23; Philippians 3:20-21.). Of this coming moment, Paul wrote: “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then [we] also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:4, NASB). According to the Apostle, our present is not perfect. It’s future! But according to Boyd’s secret, such a future expectation of God’s future deliverance deters contemplation of Him in “the now.” Go figure.

Why Deny?
Reading Boyd’s book causes me to question why he denies Christians possess a sin nature. My thought is that continued possession of a sinful nature presents an obstacle to a claim to be in a state of constantly contemplating God. In a word, the two states cannot coexist in one’s soul for the lower nature, given its magnetism, will nullify the higher. Purgation must therefore precede contemplation and to that end, it might prove helpful, at least in theory, to deny that Christians possess a sin nature that attracts sins.

But Jesus told the Pharisees, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I said therefore to you, that you shall die in your sins” (John 8:23-24). The Pharisees had taken Jesus’ statement to mean that for reason of their sin they could not go where He was going (“Where I am going, you cannot come,” John 8:22). They would not be able to climb a contemplative ladder to the ideal world for reason of the corruption that resided in them in the real world. To live in a “present perfect,” persons cannot contemporaneously indulge the flesh below as they attempt to contemplate the God above. Corruption deflates contemplation. Perfection cannot absorb imperfection.

Thus in their scheme of spirituality, in one way or another, contemplatives are forced to deny the sin nature. It cannot be allowed that the flesh below is a barrier to contemplating God above. Yet about such a supposition B.B. Warfield (1851-1921) wrote:

The issue which mysticism [contemplation] creates is thus just the issue of Christianity. The question which it raises is, whether we need, whether we have, a provision in the blood of Christ for our sins; or whether we, each of us, possess within ourselves all that can be required for time and for eternity.[10]

Any denial of a sin nature affirms the “self” and the “self” neither wants nor needs a Savior! Of this denial of a sin nature, Robert S. Candlish (1806-1873), once a minister in Scotland’s Free Church, exposed the denial of sin as follows:

In its subtlest form, it is a kind of mysticism more akin to the visionary cast of ancient and oriental musing . . . Look at yonder weakened and etherealized recluse, who has been grasping at . . . the means of extricating himself out of the dark bondage of carnal and worldly pollution, and soaring aloft into the light of pure spiritual freedom and repose. . . . By labored imitation of Christ, or by a kind of forced absorption into Christ, considered simply as the perfect model or ideal, his soul, emancipated from its bodily shackles and its earthly entanglements, is to reach a height of serene illumination which no bodily or earthly stain can dim.[11]


Conclusion
Back in his day, the Puritan commentator Matthew Henry (1662-1714) insightfully remarked about the Christian life. His words are relevant to those within the Christian tradition who suppose that Christians have no sin nature. In summarizing the inner life of the Christian journey to eternity, Henry wrote:

The Christian religion is the religion of sinners, of such as have sinned, and in whom sin in some measure still dwells. The Christian life is a life of continued repentance, humiliation for and mortification of sin, of continual faith in, thankfulness for, and love to the Redeemer, and hopeful joyful expectation of a day of glorious redemption, in which the believer shall be fully and finally acquitted, and sin abolished for ever.[12]

When confronted by the righteousness of the law, true believers are moved into a deep consciousness like that experienced by Paul when he contemplated the acute conflict going on within him between his flesh and the Spirit. He knew that ultimate deliverance from this conflict would only come upon the event of his glorification in heaven for he knew “that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption” (1 Corinthians 15:50).



ENDNOTES
[1] Gregory A. Boyd, Present Perfect: Finding God in the Now (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010).
[2] Ibid. 164, Footnote 2.
[3] The book is littered with sidebar quotes taken from the writings of Lawrence, de Caussade, and Laubach.
[4] Boyd is not alone in his assertion that “the flesh” is not necessarily sinful. Deasley writes: “The flesh is not evil; it simply is not the sphere of salvation, which rather is that of the Spirit.” See A.R.G. Deasley, “Flesh,” Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, Walter A. Elwell, Editor (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000) 260. But just because “the flesh” is not necessarily evil does exempt humanity, including Christians, from possessing a sinful inner disposition. Because they perceive they have such a disposition may account for why some religious devotees flagellate themselves. Because some religious devotees rightly associate their body-flesh with sin (matter is evil and spirit is good), they assume that the best way to get rid of their sin nature is to beat it out! And if successful, the purgation help them to remove an obstacle to their contemplation of the divine.
[5] Henry W. Holloman, “Flesh,” Kregel Dictionary of the Bible and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2005) 154.
[6] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989) 157.
[7] Gary M. Burge, The Letters of John: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996) 81.
[8] Ibid. Burge quotes A.E. Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles: The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark, 1912) 17.
[9] The perfect tense (verse 10, “we have not sinned”) envisions committing acts of sin as compared to the present tense (verse 8, “we have no sin”) which designates an inner propensity to sin. Wallace remarks: “On the analogy with other constructions where ech? [have] governs an abstract noun . . . it indicates that a state is involved, which in the case of hamartía [sin] would refer to a state of sin.” See, The NET Bible: The New English Translation (Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C., 2003) 2236, Study Note 7. Burge remarks: To have sin “likely refers to a quality of personhood, an active principle at work in someone’s life. It is a disposition of heart that lives in rebellion and constantly exhibits evil deeds . . .” See Burge, Letters of John, 81.
[10] B. B. Warfield, “Mysticism and Christianity,” The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Volume 9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003) 666.
[11] Robert S. Candlish, Commentary on 1 John (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1979) 55.
[12] Matthew Henry, “An Exposition with Practical Observations of the First Epistle of John,” Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Volume VI (New York, NY: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1706) Chapter I, Verses 8-10, I.1.


Used with permission. Original article posted HERE. Pastor Larry DeBruyn is the author of several important books, the latest of which is UNSHACKLED: Breaking Away from Seductive Spirituality, available HERE. Visit Pastor Larry DeBruyn's new website for other archived articles like this: http://guardinghisflock.com