Completed by the Spirit, Part 1: Five Propositions

This is the first part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I presented at a New Covenant Theology think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.

Ed Trefzger
Ed Trefzger
For the apostle Paul, the Mosaic law – or any external commands not grounded in the indicative of the Spirit of God given to dwell in the believer – is antithetical to our growth in holiness; rather it is the Holy Spirit who is transforming the believer from “one degree of glory to another,’ (2 Corinthians 3:18). Paul´s teaching on the inability of the law to effectively combat sin in the life of the Christian has been distorted by many, resulting in an improper focus on law that continues to enslave believers in sin.[1] Perhaps Paul´s exasperated exclamation and rhetorical questions to the “foolish’ Galatians is summary enough of Paul´s view of the law:

[2] Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? [3] Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? [4] Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? [5] Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— [6] just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’? (Galatians 3:2–6)

“Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?’ That antithesis – the Spirit and the flesh – draws the battle lines for Paul between those who would have believers continuing as slaves to sin instead of living as slaves to Christ and reaping the fruit of the Spirit. It is, as Paul tells the Thessalonians, the will of God that they – that we – be sanctified, “because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth’ (2 Thessalonians 2:13). God did not choose believers to be sanctified by the law; God did not choose believers to be sanctified by their own actions, behavior modification or self-help techniques; God chose believers to be sanctified by the Spirit of Christ via the gospel of Christ.
For the believer, there is an initial positional sanctification: we have been set apart as holy by God at our regeneration. There is also a final sanctification, or glorification: we will be holy and blameless and spotless. “And I am sure of this,’ Paul writes, “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1:6). But what comes between? Thomas Schreiner describes the tension between these two states and the believer´s existence between these two states:

Believers are already in the realm of the holy, but on the last day, they will be transformed so that they are without sin. Paul does not explain how this transformation will occur; though it seems that it will take place when Christ returns. … A tension emerges in Paul´s thought. One the one hand, it seems that the eschatological completion of holiness cannot be sundered from progress in holiness in this life; on the other hand, Paul recognizes that the work of holiness will not be accomplished in this life. He uses a future tense to assure them that God will sanctify them completely. … The already–not yet dimension of Paul´s eschatology provides the most satisfactory solution. Believers are in the process of sanctification now, but they are not yet perfect. They long for the day when God´s promise of perfecting them in holiness will be consummated.[2]

Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes that “process of sanctification now’ in this way:

So then, I suggest to you that this will do as a good definition of sanctification: it is ‘that gracious and continuous operation of the Holy Spirit by which He delivers the justified sinner from the pollution of sin, renews his whole nature in the image of God and enables him to perform good works.´ Let me make that clear: ‘It is that gracious and continuous operation of the Holy Spirit by which He delivers the justified sinner´—the one who is already justified—‘from the pollution of sin´—not from the guilt any longer, that has happened. Justification has taken care of that. He is declared just and righteous, the guilt has been dealt with. Now we are concerned more about the power and the pollution of sin—‘renews his whole nature in the image of God and enables him to perform good works.´[3]

Thus for the purposes of this series of articles, we shall use the term “sanctification’ in the sense of a growth in holiness: what has traditionally been called “progressive sanctification.’[4] However, because of the use of and the association with the term “progressive sanctification’ with those who would also advocate the “third use of the law’ as part of that growth, we will not use that term here, but instead will use “sanctification’ – and its Greek “hagiasmos” – as interchangeable with a “growth in holiness,’ recognizing that this is the most common use of the term in the New Testament.[5]
With that eschatological trajectory in mind – our final complete holiness – we will focus on the sanctification – the growth in holiness – that should be the life story of all Christians, a life story that requires a fervent belief in the gospel and a trust in the Spirit for that sanctification. It is God who justifies and God who glorifies (Romans 8:30) and most assuredly, it is God who sanctifies by His Spirit  (2 Thessalonians 2:13).
To show how Paul views this growth in holiness – this ongoing work of sanctification before that final glorification – this series will look at five propositions of Paul´s theology. First, is that the law cannot cope with sin. Second, the love that is intrinsic to God and which flows only from God – the love brought by the indwelling Holy Spirit – fulfills the law. Third, that it is the Spirit that produces fruit in the believer while the law in our remaining sinful flesh can produce only that which it has power to produce: sin. Fourth, that sanctification results from our union with Christ, exhorted by what it means to be Christ-like. Fifth, that while Paul gives us imperatives, commands and exhortations, they are not themselves laws and are not given as laws or in the category of law, because they are imperatives that are only achieved by the indicative of our reliance upon Christ and our position in Christ.
To summarize, the battle for our sanctification is between the Spirit and the flesh. It is not – and cannot – be the law battling against our sinful flesh. Using the law to combat sin pours gasoline upon the sinful passions of the flesh, a flesh we will inhabit until the day we meet Christ face to face and be raised like Him. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his’ (Romans 6:5).
That eschatological, glorified state is where we´ll begin next time.
Up and Coming: Completed by the Spirit, Part 2: A Resurrection Like His
[1] This is a reference to the “third use of the law,’ the belief that the “Moral Law’ or the Decalogue remains a “perfect rule of righteousness’ for the believer, such as is stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith and its later derivative, the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith.

[2] Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 374–5.
[3] David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God the Holy Spirit: Great Doctrines of the Bible (Great Doctrines of the Bible Series, Vol 2)
(Wheaton, Ill.: Crossways Books, 1997). 195.
[4] For example, Robert L. Reymond in A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Second Edition)
(Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1998) defines progressive sanctification as one “understood negatively in terms of putting to death the deeds of the flesh which still remain in him and positively in terms of growth in all saving graces.’ (p. 768–769). Reymond then goes on for 12 more pages defending the use of the Decalogue as the as “the moral law of God, which Christians are to obey.’
Similarly, the Westminster Confession of Faith quite sweetly posits that “They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ´s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened, in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord’ (XIII/i). Yet that same confession describes asserts that the law “doth forever bind all’ (XIX/v), the words of Paul in Scripture notwithstanding.
[5] William D. Mounce says of hagiasmos that the word, “is generally used in the NT the moral sense, referring to the process (or the final result of that process) of making pure or holy. It is like a growing fruit that results in eternal life.’ Mounce´s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006). 338.

Caution: Handle God’s Possessions with Care

1 Corinthians 8:11-13

We will be finishing up 1 Corinthians 8 this morning. It will be helpful for us to do a bit of recap before jumping into the text. I will remind you of five things.
1. In Corinthians 8 Paul is addressing the issue of eating meat which has been sacrificed to idols (see 8:1, 4).
2. There are two different camps in the Corinthian church; the strong and the weak. The strong feel full liberty to eat meat sacrificed to idols while the weak do not. The strong can eat such idol meat with a good conscience because they understand that there is only one God and that idols are nothing in the world (8:4). The weak, on the other hand, are those who have recently converted out of idolatry (8:7). Because they have recently converted out of idolatry they are still in the process of adjusting to the basic, fundamental truths of Christianity. They weak cannot eat meat sacrificed to idols with a good conscience because, being new to the Christian faith, although they have embraced Christian truth, they have yet to understand the full implications of Christian truth.
3. Paul agrees with the strong theologically (vss. 4-6). However, he rebukes the strong for not being willing to give up the right of eating idol meat for the sake of their recently converted, vulnerable brothers and sisters in the faith.
4. Paul’s greatest concern is that these newly converted brothers and sisters will fall back into idolatry by mindlessly imitating their spiritual mentors (the strong). The weaker brothers have always and only eaten meat sacrificed to idols as an act of worship to whatever idol the meat was sacrificed to. They do not know how to distinguish between eating idol meat and worshipping idols. What the strong do with knowledge, the weak will do ignorantly (vs. 10). Paul’s concern is not that the weak will feel uncomfortable by the actions of the strong. His concern, rather, is that the weak will literally fall back into idolatry by ignorantly following the example of the strong. What the strong eat as a simple meal the weak will eat as an act of idolatrous worship.
5. Paul’s basic instruction is directed to the strong. His admonition is to patiently and lovingly set aside eating meat sacrificed to idols for the sake of the spiritual well-being of the weak in Corinth.

In this message we will be focusing primarily on vss. 11-13. In these 3 verses Paul underscores the seriousness of his instruction. The actions of the strong are not small or inconsequential. Ultimately, Paul communicates that the strong are in sin. They are running roughshod over those who are vulnerable to the pull of idolatry without a concern for how it will ultimately affect their spiritual wellbeing. This to Paul is sin as we will see in vs. 11. That is, those who are carelessly pursuing what is rightfully theirs to do the detriment of their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ are in rebellion against God. Paul agrees with them theologically. However, he calls them to flat out repentance in vss. 11-13. Their problem is that the knowledge of God’s word has produced in them arrogance and apathy instead of humility and love. Turn with me, then, to the passage and consider with me the seriousness of selfishly clinging to rights regardless of how it affects the people of God.
The Worth of God’s People (8:11)
In an attempt to demonstrate for the ‘strong’ in the Corinthian church the seriousness of their arrogant and selfish pursuit of rights, Paul identifies the worth of the people of God. He wants the ‘strong’ to know exactly who it is that they are tripping up. Look at vs. 11 with me.
11 Then the weak person, the brother for whom Christ died, is ruined by your knowledge.
Do you see what Paul does here in vs. 11? He clarifies for the strong exactly who the weak are. He wants them to understand that the weak are not to be regarded as useless. No! The weak first of all are their brethren. They are co-heirs with Christ. They have been adopted into the same family. But he wants them to understand something even more important. He wants the strong to see that the weak are those “for whom Christ died.” The weak are not just God’s image bearers; they are God’s blood bought image bearers! Do you see how serious this is? The strong are treating God’s blood-bought possessions as if they were dispensable. They are handling them without care. So Paul reminds the strong of who the weak are so that they might see the seriousness of their actions.
Kristal and I watch the Antiques Roadshow on a regular basis. A few weeks ago we watched an episode where a middle aged lady brought in a rough looking wooden bowl. Now I am not sure of all of the details of the story (because I only saw it once and the details escape me), but I will do my best to give the basic jist of the story. The woman who brought the bowl in said that it was given to her by her grandmother who had apparently grew up in Germany. She told the expert appraiser that she had only kept it around because it was the only thing she had left to remind her of her grandmother. The appraiser asked her where she had put the bowl. She chuckled and said that it sat on top of her t.v. at home—it was used for the purpose of holding dvd’s and other odds and ends. The appraiser told her that it might be best to put it elsewhere. In classic Antiques Roadshow fashion he began to tell her the details about the bowl. Apparently it was made in Germany in the early 19th century. He explained that it was carved by one of the most infamous woodcarvers in Germany. To the surprise of the woman who brought it in the appraiser said that he would conservatively estimate that the bowl would sell at auction for at least $100,000! Immediately the woman said, “Wow! I guess I will no longer haphazardly throw dvd’s in it!” Once you know the true value of a possession, you treat it with a greater amount of care.
Paul is here putting a value on the weaker brother. He wants the strong in the church to understand that they are messing with God’s valuable possessions. If God were to hold His own form of the Antiques Roadshow for the purpose of valuing His people, each of us would wear a price tag that read, “Invaluable: Bought with the blood of Jesus”. You don’t haphazardly throw dvd’s and odds and ends in a $100,000 bowl. In the same way, you do not carelessly handle the people of God, regardless of where they are at theologically. Why? Because they are invaluable. It is sad and embarrassing that we are more careful with our cars and houses and dishes than we are with God’s blood-bought children. Turn with me to 1 Peter 1:18-19 to see the true value of the people of God.
18 For you know that you were redeemed from your empty way of life inherited from the fathers, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.
Your brothers and sisters in Christ were bought with the blood of Jesus. He spilled His blood to purchase a people for God from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation (Revelation 5:9-10). Notice how Peter speaks of the blood of Jesus. He contrasts it with the most valuable things on this earth. God hasn’t redeemed us with chincy precious medals. No, He redeemed us, purchased us, with the infinitely valuable blood of Jesus.
You have to understand that in emphasizing to the Corinthians the true value of the weaker brethren, Paul is making a statement. He identifies them as those for whom Christ died. Do you see how gross and sick the strong are? Jesus, being equal with the Father, became a man and died a gruesome, painful, and shameful death on a cross. He bore the infinite wrath of God. All of the righteous anger and holy indignation of God the Father was pointed at the sinless Jesus who hung on the cross for you and I. Jesus took the full penalty of our sin. Do you get it? Jesus gave His life under the full strength of God’s wrath for our weaker brethren and the strong are not even willing to change their diet![2] Jesus died for your brothers and sisters—He gave His all. This is embarrassing isn’t it? We cling to and hold on to our puny little rights at the expense of the spiritual wellbeing of our brothers and sisters in Christ when Jesus endured the shame and pain of the cross and infinite wrath of God as an innocent sufferer for their salvation. See what Paul says about Jesus’ self-giving spirit in 2 Corinthians 8:9.
9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: Though He was rich, for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty you might become rich.
I know that I reference this passage on a regular basis. I cannot help but revisit it and revisit it and revisit it. It certainly does put us in our place. Jesus set aside infinite riches for you. He assumed the posture of a slave and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). He set aside what was rightfully His for the sake of our good. How shaming is it that we would not be willing to give up our favorite music or our wardrobe or our diet or our hip and trendy styles for the sake of our struggling brethren. How much do we value each other? Do we value each other enough to give up our rights?
Sinning Against Christ (8:12)
In vs. 12 Paul identifies the careless and selfish actions of the strong as being nothing less than sin.
12 Now when you sin like this against the brothers and wound their weak conscience, you are sinning against Christ.
Paul does not see the actions of the strong as merely evidencing a lack of wisdom. Paul comes right out and calls it for what it is. The arrogance and selfishness of the strong that is leading to the real spiritual ruin of the weak is nothing less than hardhearted rebellion against Jesus Himself. You will notice that he first speaks of it as a “sin… against the brothers.” But he doesn’t stop there. Although this certainly is a sin against the weaker brothers, Paul ultimately identifies this as a sin against Jesus Christ Himself—‘you are sinning against Christ.’ To sin against the people of God is to sin against Jesus Himself. Why? For a few reasons. First, because all sin is ultimately against God. After all, if you steal a man’s car, although you are taking something that does belong to him, you are not ultimately breaking that man’s law; you are breaking God’s law. This is why after sinning against Uriah the Hittite by sleeping with his wife and directly plotting his murder, David prays the following to God in Psalm 51:4:
“Against You—You alone—I have sinned and done this evil in Your sight. So You are right when You pass sentence; You are blameless when You judge.
David understood that his actions against Uriah were ultimately an affront not against Uriah but against God. This does not mean that he didn’t sin against Uriah, but it certainly does mean that his sin was not ultimately against Uriah. David understood that he was not accountable ultimately to Uriah—he was not going to have to answer before the judgment seat of Uriah, but before the judgment seat of God. Second, sins specifically against the people of God are ultimately against Jesus because God’s people are God’s possession. Do you remember what Paul said earlier about God’s people? Turn with me to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.
19b You are not your own, 20 for you were bought at a price.
If Jesus died for you, you are God’s property. Jesus gave His life to purchase you, therefore you are His. To sin against the people of God, then, is to sin against God Himself because the people of God are His goods. For the strong to selfishly and arrogantly wound the conscience of the weak is for the strong to assault God’s blood-bought servants. Lastly, to sin against the people of God is to sin against Jesus Himself because Jesus is one with His people (see John 15:5-7; 1 John 3:24; 4:13-16). This is why Jesus is referred to as the head of the church and we as His body (Ephesians 5:22-33). This reality is most clearly evident in Acts 9:1-6.
1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He went to the high priest 2 and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he traveled and was nearing Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly flashed around him. 4 Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ 5 ‘Who are You, Lord?’ he said. 6 ‘I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting’…
So Paul is running around the ancient world imprisoning the people of God. While on his way to wreak more havoc on the people of God, Jesus strikes him with blindness and says to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting the church’. No! Actually He doesn’t charge Paul with persecuting the church. Jesus charges Paul with persecuting Jesus Himself. How can He make this logical leap? Well, it isn’t a logical leap. Jesus is, after all, one with His people. To persecute them is to persecute Him. Let me put it this way; how you treat the people of God is how you treat God Himself. I don’t have to ask you whether you prize Jesus or not, I just need to see how you prize His people. I don’t need to ask you whether you are passionate for God, I just need to observe how passionately you serve and love His people. He is one with those He came to save.
Paul rebukes the strong not ultimately for selfishly and arrogantly causing the spiritual ruin of the weak. Paul rebukes the strong for beating Christ Himself. The strong are in sin. Certainly, they are theologically correct to see that meat sacrificed to idols is not inherently sinful. However, they have sinned against Christ by having no regard for His body.
Drastic Measures (8:13)
In vs. 13 Paul demonstrates the length which we willing should go to protect our brothers and sister in Christ from falling into gross and heinous sin.
13 Therefore, if food causes my brother to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother to fall.
In this last verse Paul is using hyperbole—he is speaking in extremes to make a clear point. All throughout 1 Corinthians 8 Paul has been addressing the issue of meat sacrificed to idols. Here Paul seems to almost change subjects. You would think that he would have said, ‘Therefore, if food causes my brother to fall, I will never again eat meat sacrificed to idols…’ But he doesn’t say that. He doesn’t say that he will merely give up eating meat sacrificed to idols. Rather, he states that he will go to the extreme and give up meat altogether. Not only will he give up idol meat, he will become an all-out vegetarian! He is saying that there is no limit to how willing he is to accommodate a weaker, vulnerable brother. Paul, like Jesus, did not cling to his rights at the expense of the wellbeing of his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. He was more than willing to do whatever it might take to make sure that the pursuit of his rights did not become a stumbling block to his fellow blood-bought brothers and sisters in Christ.
Let me give you a similar situation. Suppose someone were to approach me about the fact that I wear jeans when I preach. They give me sufficient reason to believe that me wearing jeans in the pulpit is leading them into all sorts of real heinous sin and rebellion. Paul would respond like such; “Brother, if me wearing jeans in the pulpit is the cause of your spiritual ruin as I am convinced it is, not only will I not wear jeans in the pulpit ever again, I will not wear pants at all (not that I will preach in my undies)—I will go to the extreme of preaching in a kilt for the rest of my days. If it means the preservation of your soul, I will go against any and every cultural norm to make sure that I am not in any way leading you into sin.
How willing are you to dispense with your rights for the sake of the well-being of your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ? This, to Paul, is an issue of obedience. This is why Paul says;
Romans 15:1 Now we who are strong have an obligation to bear the weaknesses of those without strength, and not to please ourselves.
If you love your rights more than the people of God, you are in sin. If you protect your rights more than you protect the well-being of your brothers and sisters in Christ you are in sin. Bottom line. It is essential that we be willing to set aside any right that we may have for the sake of our fellow siblings in the faith. Some may feel that this is a slippery slope: ‘Once we accommodate one weak brother, where will we stop? Pretty soon everyone in the church is going to be sporting their weak conscience to get their own way.’ This is not true. This is not a slippery slope. If we merely take the necessary biblical steps to distinguish between a genuine struggling, weaker, vulnerable brother and super-spiritual legalists who want to inflict God’s people with their own agendas and preferences, adopting Paul’s attitude toward those who are truly weak will never enslave the church or make her ineffective with the Gospel. But the church must learn to discern the difference.
I have decided that it would be counter-productive to give a parallel modern day situation to 1 Corinthians 8. Why? Because I think we need to approach this with an open mind. The principle which Paul lays forth, and ultimately the spirit of 1 Corinthians 8 is that we need to be willing to give up whatever may cause a brother to fall into gross and heinous error. I don’t want us to start categorizing what would constitute a 1 Corinthians 8 situation and what would not. The point that Paul clearly lays forth is that we must be willing to forgo what is rightfully ours, no matter how petty or puny or insignificant it may seem, for the sake of our fellow blood-bought brethren.
We must keep the cross at the center of all that we do. If the cross loses its place of first importance in the church we will lose both our ability to value the true worth of God’s people (bought with the blood of Jesus) and we will lose site of the radical standard of love which He has called us to. The cross is not just the basis of our hope, it is the center of our calling. We are called to both embrace the crucified Christ and to follow Him as our example. Behold the great salvation that Christ has won for you on the cross! Our calling is to receive the love of Christ and then to bend out that same self-sacrificial love and grace to our fellow brothers and sisters. If we keep the person and cross work of Jesus at the center of all that we do, we will understand that the standard is radical, because the standard is to “accept one another, just as the Messiah also accepted you, to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).
Paul shifts the focus of the strong to the cross so that they might adopt this very same perspective (in vs. 10). And I can promise you one thing, you will never be called to lay down your rights for your fellow brothers and sisters more than Christ laid down His rights for you. How can this be the case? Because His rights are truly His rights. He deserves every right that He has while our rights are gifts of grace. Not only that, but God will never call you to, as a sinless person, take the infinite wrath of God in the place of depraved rebels who have transgressed your own law. The standard that God has given us is radical. And yet God has called us to a sub-bunny hill version of what He has done for us. This is not to say that you can be lax about fulfilling the law of Christ. Rather, it should cause you see the standard that God has set for you with the understanding that He has done infinitely more for you than you could ever do for your brethren. You will never love another like Jesus has loved you.
[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman HCSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.
[2] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 378.