A Review and Response
Over the course of the past weeks and months, I have had many opportunities to discuss my dear friend Charles Leiter’s book, Justification and Regeneration. This is a book that clearly presents what it means to be a new creation in Christ and it has helped me and many others. It is also a book that has raised some questions regarding a few of the topics on which it touches. Some bloggers who have reviewed the book have found it helpful and have encouraged its distribution (Pitchford and Challies). Others have offered both affirmations and concerns (Schreiner and Brand). I have found the reviews, both positive and negative, spurring me on to search the Scriptures. I have spent hours this week looking at biblical words and biblical texts trying to be Berean about Charles Leiter’s book. My fellow Pastor Ben Hedrick has spent similar hours searching historical, biblical, and systematic theologies on the issues raised by Leiter. All in all, the iron of concerned criticism has sharpened the iron of our hearts and minds throughout this process. For all who are eager to think clearly about the Scriptures I thank God for your help in this process.
Since many of the sheep I pastor and many of the sheep in the city I love are thinking about this book, I thought it would be helpful for me to write out some of my thoughts on the book and on the conversation that has surrounded it. So here are my thoughts.
I love the book!
In Justification and Regeneration Charles Leiter lays out an extensive study of two of the most glorious doctrines in the whole of Scripture. I have been helped in my understanding of the miracle of the New Birth because of the book’s Scripture saturated simplicity. My favorite part of the book, and really the central burden of the book, is to show that at the core of their being the Christian is new. I was encouraged to see that Chad Brand (who has some concerns about the book) was supportive of this central thrust even where it is somewhat controversial. He writes:
At several points the author asserts doctrinal beliefs that are quite controversial. At some of those points I am in agreement with him. In chapter nine he gives his view that the Christian has a new nature of righteousness, and only a nature of righteousness. In other words, the Christian does not have two natures, one of sin and another of righteousness. I agree completely! Christians are “good trees” (Matt 7:15-20). A few years ago the Christian rock group Petra recorded a song called “Jekyll and Hyde” in which they portrayed the Christian life as something like that fictional character. While intuitively we may feel that way sometimes, that is not exactly what Scripture teaches. Leiter also contends that since we have been saved, we are no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit, and we can never again be in the flesh. That is exactly what the Apostle Paul teaches in Romans 8:1-11, and I concur. The author also believes that regenerate persons will be in the process of growing in grace and in obedience to the Lord, and, generally speaking, I think that is correct.
The essential newness of the believer is the main thrust of this book and I affirm and delight in that central thrust! It is why, along with Tim Challies I would say, “Charles Leiter has done us a great service with this book. I know of no better, more accessible study of these two great truths.”
More on the Flesh!
Perhaps the part of Leiter’s book that has been critiqued the most is his view of the flesh. When describing the flesh Leiter writes, “The flesh is the unredeemed physical body viewed as the place where sin still tries to assert itself” (85). I fear Leiter’s definition risks communicating that sin is in the actual flesh and blood of our bodies. I am not sure that is exactly what he is going for since he clearly speaks of the flesh as part of our personalities and he speaks of sin trying to reign in our bodies (as opposed to sin being resident in our bodies). None the less, I would prefer a definition for flesh along the lines of “the flesh is a spiritual principle desiring evil seeking to reign in the body.” I am not sure my definition is perfect either (I spoke to one New Testament scholar this week who said he had been discussing how to define the flesh for the last 20-30 years!). However, I do like my definition since it highlights the mystery of sin. It is a ‘spiritual principle’ and not something material. I also like that it highlights the desires of the flesh which are something every Christian experiences (Gal. 5:16ff). Furthermore it highlights that sin is tied to the body.
Many people begin to suspect gnosticism or an unhealthy dualism when you start talking about the flesh being linked to the body. But, I do not know how to how to talk about the flesh without mentioning the body. Listen to the Apostle Paul. Although he everywhere affirms the goodness of the body, He none the less speaks in the following ways,
“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” (Romans 6:6–7 ESV) Do you notice what the death of the old man accomplishes? It brings to nothing ‘the body of sin’. Sin no longer reigns in the body when a new man is brought to life!
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” (Romans 6:12 ESV). What an interesting way to speak of sinful passions! They are ‘its passions’–the passions of the mortal body.
“but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” (Romans 7:23–25 ESV) Where does the law of sin dwell? What does Paul want to be delivered from? With what does Paul serve the law of sin?
“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:13 ESV) How do you stop living according to the flesh? Does it have anything to do with putting to death the misdeeds of the body?
My questions here are not meant to answer these questions for you, but to encourage you to really wrestle with the actual words of Paul!
I will not pretend to give the last word on “the flesh” in this little blog post. Instead, I will offer a challenge that flows from a pastoral heart: Perhaps the saddest thing I have seen as I have engaged in this conversation is that I have heard more about what Leiter believes, or what I might believe, or what others believe, than actual Berean wrestling with the text (Patrick Schreiner is however an excellent exception!). Before you listen to any charges of gnosticism, dualism, or of Leiter’s “unscholarly simplicity”, I encourage you to wrestle with the above texts. Perhaps as you do you will feel the issue is not as simple as you first thought and you may even find some sympathy for the words of John Murray who said “the apostle (Paul) thought of sin and sanctification as associated with the body” (John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, Eerdmans, 220).
Another charge the book sometimes receives is that it teaches perfectionism. This is honestly an unfair charge since Leiter makes it explicitly clear that, “According to the Bible, there is no man who does not sin.” And “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” Also “For we all stumble in many ways.” and lastly “In keeping with this reality, the Lord Jesus taught his disciples to pray daily, ‘Forgive us our sins’” (167). Any man who teaches that we sin daily is not a Christian perfectionist.
None the less the charge comes up and I want to offer two reasons why I think it does. First, I think at times Leiter emphasizes the newness of a believer in a confusing way. Chad Brand picks up on this when he comments,
Leiter writes, ‘The Christian is free from the law as an external rule that contradicts his real nature and desires’ (p. 118). He goes on, ‘The righteous man has no need for such external restrictions, since he is restrained by his own holy nature’ (p. 119). For Leiter, the law is internal, written on the heart. And as a result, as we grow in grace, we will have little need for the external law, whether found in the OT or the NT. Really! The Apostle Paul did not concur, since many of his writings contain explicit and sustained expositions of the moral implications of the gospel.
I am uncomfortable with the way Leiter speaks about external commands. I think when he speaks like this he is trying to bring out the fact that the believer has the law written on the heart (Hebrews 8). Leiter is also trying to reflect some of the glorious reality of 1 Thessalonians 4:9 (ESV) which says, “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another”. It is important to bring out the often neglected reality of the glorious internal spiritual desires of the believer (Gal. 5:16). None the less there is no New Testament warrant for doing it at the expense of Biblical commands. As anyone who has ever heard me preach knows, I believe that believers young and old need the explicit commands of the scripture, “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
The second reason that I think Leiter is sometimes charged with Christian Perfectionism is that our generation has an under-realized sense of the goodness of the believer. I believe our generation of believers (at least in the circles I run in) are far more comfortable speaking about the evil that remains in a believer (and it does) than about the good that has been created. Now don’t get me wrong–I am not blaming all the misconceptions that come from this book on the reader. What I am saying is that many a Christian has described themselves as a vile, wretched, wicked man without anyone charging them with an unbalanced view of the Christian life. Rarely do I hear Christians say, that guy, “is a good man full of the Holy Spirit” or, “that Church is full of all goodness” (Acts 11:24, Rom. 15:14). Most believers consider it ‘authentic‘ and ‘transparent‘ when a brother or a sister says, ‘I am a worm and everything I do has twisted motives‘ but we get squimish when we hear a believer say, “I serve the Lord with all humility” and “I am sure I have a clean conscience and I desire to do what is right in everything I do” (Acts 20:19, Hebrews 13:18). We think people who talk like mature Christians in the Bible are self deceived and we think people who go on and on about their wickedness are mature. This is not Biblical.
Don’t get me wrong. I still sin. I pastor sinners. I can and do at times pursue things from twisted motives. But I do think our generation is so imbalanced that we easily tolerate under-realized views of the Christian’s newness and we are sensitive to over-realized views of the Christian’s goodness. I hope we can all grow to be more balanced in this regard.
How do you counsel?
Some have felt that the influence of this book on some of our Pastors would make it so that we cannot counsel/minister with other Pastors or Professors in Louisville. This could not be further from the truth. Over the years our Pastors have learned from and enjoyed counseling alongside local Pastors and Pastor/Professors from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. We love to learn from other men and have had great experiences ministering side by side with them in counseling situations. It is truly a joy to minister in a city with so many godly men and we do not think the teachings of this book have hindered our ability to learn from and counsel with the wonderful godly men we have the blessing of pastoring with in the city of Louisville.
In conclusion let me say it is good to be sharpened. The recent conversation about this book has helped my thinking about Christ’s work in me and in all believers. I thank God that Charles Leiter wrote this book and also for the men and women who are seeking to understand it. I hope that if any members of Immanuel still have questions they will feel great liberty to come talk to their Pastors about it. I hope that all involved in this conversation will know that we celebrate being on the same team with them in the gospel and that we want to continue the process of ‘speaking the truth in love’ with one another until we all grow into a mature understanding of all the Lord has done for us and in us. I also want those from Immanuel who have enjoyed this book to know that even though I have some qualifications, like Dane Ortlund, “I’m glad I read the book and would commend it to others for use in the local church.”
To comment on this review please do so at the home of the author’s original post.
CMC Editor: For a free PDF of this excellent work follow this link.