Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Sinless Perfection of the Saint

I thought the doctrine of sinless perfection was passé until my son told me about an individual whom he communicated with via facebook, who claimed not to sin. The claimant was a professing Christian and the idea was quite simple; since she was a saint, she doesn’t sin.

A saint is one who is holy according to the strict meaning of the NT word, ho hagios, literally, the holy (one, thing, etc.). When used to refer to the believer, it is more or less a technical term, but the basic meaning is not absent; the believer is holy. This holiness is something that he pursues now (Pursue...holiness, without which no one will see the Lord, Heb 12:14) and it is the destiny to which he is called.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, Eph 1:3,4

For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness, 1 Thess 4:7

It is difficult to see how one can claim perfection in this life in the light of what the Scripture says about the matter. One verse that might be construed to teach sinless perfection is 1 John 3:6, Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.

“Is it not clear?” the perfectionist would argue. “The one who knows him does not sin. The implication then, if you sin, you do not know him. If you know him, you do not sin. And, if you do not sin, it can only be so because you cannot sin.”

Such an interpretation can only come by ignoring the context of what John has written elsewhere in the letter (1:8-10, which we will look at). But even the language of the verse itself prohibits such a teaching. In the first part of the verse, John writes, Whoever abides in Him does not sin. The present tense of the verb 'to sin' has inherently the idea of sin as occurring in a continuous manner; it is a way of life; the sinner here is one who habitually sins, not one who from time to time commits sin. A better translation of the verse would be, Whoever abides in Him is not sinning.

This is even more pronounced in the latter part of the verse which may be translated, Each sinning one (or, Each sinning person) has not seen him nor has he known him. The stress again is on the continued, persistent activity of sinning. One who habitually and persistently sins, whose life-style is one of constant sinning, has not seen Christ or come to know him. Such a one does not abide in Christ (harking back to the parable of the vine and the branches, John 15 - except the branch remains vitally united to the vine it will wither and die and no longer bear fruit).

The one who is in Christ does not sin as a way of life, though this does not preclude sinning occasionally. By occasion, we mean that when the life of the believer is taken as a whole, the sin is an exception, not the rule. The Christian may sin grievously, perhaps even for an extended time (such as David’s adultery and murder in which there was no repentance for possibly a year). This occasional, non-characteristic sinning is precisely what John emphasizes in 1:8, 10.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 1:8
If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. 1:10

At first glance, one might think John is more or less repeating in verse ten what he writes in verse eight. But there is a distinct and important difference.

Verse eight uses the noun hamartian (sin) without the article, i.e., the article 'the' is absent. A general rule in Greek grammar is that when the article does accompany the noun (the word, the sky, the sin), a specific instance of the noun is in mind. If John had written, If we say that we have not the sin, he would have had a particular sin that both he and his readers were aware of. An example of how the article denotes specific sins is Hebrews 2:17.

Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

But John does not use the article in verse eight. The absence of the article is called the anarthrous form of the noun, and this construction is often used to denote the character and nature of something, rather than a specific instance of it. In our text, it refers to the character or quality of sin (i.e., sinfulness) rather than specific acts or deeds of sin (e.g., lying, stealing, lusting, etc.). It should be taken to read, “If we say that we do not have a nature of sin...,” or perhaps, “If we say that we do not have sinfulness...” John is making the point that none of us as Christians can claim to be without a natural bent to sin. Sin, as part of our nature, is at work in us.

The conditional clause in verse ten uses the perfect indicative, If we say that we have not sinned (oukh hemartekamen). The perfect indicative means that the sin has taken place in the past and is a completed action. Whatever may have resulted from such sin continues in the present. John is referring to the past of those to whom he is writing, and we may take that to mean their past as a believer, not their past before they were a believer. A freer translation that catches the nuance of the tense and context would be, If we say that hitherto we have not sinned in our past Christian life, we are making Him a liar, and his word is not in us.

The perfectionist might say that since the sin referred to in verse ten is in the past, it is not descriptive of the present state of the individual, that is, he is no longer in a state of sinning. But the reference to our past sin in verse ten is on the heels of what the apostle says in verse nine, If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Those whom John exhorts to confess their sins are those who remain in Christ (3:6), whom the world does not know because it does not know Christ (3:1), who are born of God in which the seed of God remains in them (3:9), who have passed from death to life (3:14), who keep his commandment and do those things that are pleasing to God (3:22), who find the commandments of God not to be burdensome (5:3). Specifically, he is exhorting believers, saints, to confess their sins with the assurance they will be cleansed.

These three verses (1:8-10) taken together confirm the following truths: (a) believers have a nature to sin, 1:8, (b) believers not only have the inclination to sin, but in fact have sinned, (1:10), (c) believers are assured that if they confess their sins (a humble acknowledgment of them produced by a loathing of them and a desire to depart from them), God is just to forgive and cleanse them of their sins (through the blood of Christ).

How can the believer be construed to be without sin if he still has the nature to sin, has actually committed sin (in his past as a Christian), and is assured of forgiveness of sin (as a Christian) through confession? He cannot. Paul identifies the moment when our whole body, soul, and spirit are made perfect - the day when Christ comes again:

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thess 5:23.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

November CSFF Blog Tour, Day 3

The Skin Map, by Stephen R. Lawhead

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Skin Map for review on the November, 2010 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

What is it about speculative fiction that is so attractive? I do not mean to be presumptuous; it is a matter of taste, and there are many who unfortunately (for them, that is) are not the least enticed by it. But it has to do with the imagination, I think. We imagine things every day, but they are usually mundane things. Fantasy and science fiction, by definition, are not mundane. For the Chrisitan writer, these are naturally laden with the ability to convey biblical truths. To me, fantasy is better suited for that task because of its imagery and other-worldly characters. The Skin Map, which is science fiction, has its fascination as well.

A long, long time ago, when I was a boy, I had some recurring dreams that were so powerful they ring clear even today. There was one in which I had superman’s ability to fly, cape and all. Interesting that I did not have his strength; in fact, in my dream I wasn’t concerned at all about doing feats of strength. It was the flying. I flew over cities and mountains and lakes, zoomed down and zig-zagged through housing developments. I even entered huge bodies of water several hundred feet deep, very reminiscent of Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire (the movie) in which the Triwizard Champions were required to retrieve their friends from the lake. They all had to come up with ingenious ways to breath under water. In my dream, I could breathe under water as naturally as out, an ability I had no idea superman was capable of.

Another dream was in the 1960’s, when the space program was just getting underway. John Glenn had recently completed his three orbits. I was an astronaut in a mercury capsule, sitting atop an Atlas 109-D rocket. A panoramic array of zillions of controls and lights surrounded me, and I knew exactly what they did and how to use them. The Atlas lifted off, and I rocketed toward the heavens flipping switches, pushing buttons, and reading gauges all the while. Sadly, the dream ended or I awoke before I ever entered orbit.

Flying like superman and speeding into space like John Glen.

That is quite peculiar. I don’t care for heights, in spite of the fact I made it through the US Army’s airborne school at Fort Benning Georgia.

The ability to jump from one place and time to another surpasses the world of my boyhood dreams. But a world of ley lines and time travel has its mysteries and dangers.

Let’s assume I find a ley line and am thrust back to Wittenberg Castle on October 31, 1517, just in time to catch Martin Luther leaving after posting his Ninety-Five Theses. Through several gestures and miming efforts, which amuse him immensely, he invites me to a tavern, and over a tankard I am able to convince him of the existence of ley lines and time travel. Being the choleric fellow he is, he agrees to come with me ‘for the ride.’ We find the ley line, feel the tingle, I point to the sky (Luther mimics me) and, poof, we are gone. But there’s a problem which I have overlooked. I can go forward to my future, but what can he do. My past is his future, and according to the laws of time travel, one can only travel back in his time, not forward. I end up in the middle of the Battle of Gettysburg and Luther, well, who knows. Have I destroyed him since I made him do what was impossible for him to do? Not to mention I have probably caused the Reformation to stall before it has even started.

Let’s go further back, to the first century AD. I tumble into a meadow a few yards from the Appian Way to find a small cohort of Roman Soldiers (all of whom have a good laugh at my ungraceful arrival) and an unassuming fellow who goes by the name of Paul. Could it be? It is. It is the apostle himself, on his way to Rome, under guard. I follow along and after a little over eleven stadia, I catch the eye of the apostle who gains permission for me to accompany him. Now to make this easy, I’ll say that for some extraordinary reason my Greek from seminary, and Hebrew from language school while in the Air Force (yes, I was in two branches of the military - had to go through basic training twice) come fluently to my mind and tongue, and we are able to converse. After some time I tell Paul who I really am and where I come from. Surprisingly, he believes me. I offer to break him out of jail in Rome so that we could make the jump to another land and another time - imagine what that could do for the gospel! He declines and asks me if I have ever read his second letter to the Corinthians. I am puzzled so he begins to explain...

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago -- whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows -- such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man -- whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows -- how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
2 Cor 12:2-4

Sheepishly, I said I understood and bade good day. As the jumble and clatter of the soldiers and horses grew dim, I thought back on his words, and the passage from 2 Corinthians. Ley lines and time travel are child’s play and their mysteries and dangers are nothing to be feared.

I thought of John’s marvelous statement,

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. 1 John 3:2

Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians,

So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. 1 Cor 15:42-44

A spiritual body - an oxymoron? Perhaps, though an oxymoron is defined as a contradiction of words, implying that a ‘spiritual body’ would be self-negating; if it’s spiritual, then its not physical, and vice versa. Yet Paul is quite clear, our resurrected body will be a physical-spiritual body. This implies that physics as we know it now will be history (literally). Our bodies will be physically spiritual and spiritually physical. We’ll be able to appear and disappear at will, just as Christ did the day he challenged Thomas not to doubt and when the eyes of the two on the Emmaus Road were opened.

Our new existence would make ley lines obsolete, if they were real, of course. The most marvelous thing about our new existence is that it will be one of sinlessness. No more inner struggle with indwelling sin. No more fits of anger and jealousy, no more thoughtless words and malicious attitudes. Only the full blossoming of the fruit of the Spirit every second of every day.

I’d be the first in line (after checking if it’s okay with my family) to be superman or an astronaut or a ley jumper; but it all pales in light of what awaits us in the new heaven and earth:

But as it is written: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him." 1 Cor 2:9

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us...made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. Eph 2:4-7

Stephen R. Lawhead's Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
The Skin Map on Amazon

Monday, November 1, 2010

November 2010 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2: The Skin Map

November 2010 CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2

The Skin Map, by Stephen R. Lawhead

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for kindly providing a copy of The Skin Map for review on the November, 2010 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour.

As a writer of Christian fantasy, it is my concern to write precisely that, Christian fantasy. Christian fantasy is only ‘Christian’ if it centers on and flows out of the gospel. The gospel is the good news that the Second Person of the Trinity became man and through his death and resurrection accomplished the redemption of his people who were chosen before the foundation of the world. This redemption is a salvation of the sinner from his sin and sinfulness; it is forgiveness accompanied by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to his account on which basis God judicially declares him just; it is sanctification, a steady forward growth in holiness and separation from a sinful life-style through the work of God’s Spirit in the heart; it is glorification, the final, permanent transformation of the saint into the likeness of the glorified Christ, physically and spiritually, in which it is no longer possible to sin and in which service and love to God is without flaw. This is the gospel, and a fantasy that is proffered as Christian fantasy is not faithful to its namesake if it does not clearly convey these truths.

This does not mean that a Christian writer is bound to write his fiction or fantasy in this way in order to be a faithful and God-glorifying writer. However, whether writing for mere entertainment in which the salient truths of the gospel are absent, or whether writing to reveal those magnificent truths, the Christian must always work under the dictum that he is to glorify God in all that he does. He does this by consciously writing as an image-bearer in which he crafts a world and story that does not violate God’s holy commandments; he does not write a story that panders to and glorifies sinful philosophy and behavior; rather, just the opposite.

Is it necessary that the whole spectrum of gospel truth be included to earn the classification of Christian? I would say no for two reasons: (1) There is enough in any one of these articles of truth to occupy a single novel, perhaps even a series. Granted, it would be difficult to focus on only one truth without implying at least one or more of the others. But even if that were possible, so long as the singular truth that is present is clear and undiluted, it makes the story distinctively Christian. (2) There is so much in the collective set of these articles, it would be difficult to have them all presented exhaustively except in a series of such epic proportions, it would take the lifetime of the author to complete.

Where does The Skin Map fit? It is entertaining, to be sure. However, the gospel is absent and as such, disqualifies it as ‘Christian.’ I say this because there is no mention of the bad news that must become painfully obvious before the good news will make any sense - and that bad news is the sinfulness of man, which merits God’s wrath. This does not ignore the characterization of Lord Burleigh as very evil. Pagans and Christians alike assess Lord Burleigh’s actions as wrong because each has a non-relative standard of right and wrong in mind, though only the Christian can articulate that standard with any degree of accuracy and authority. Lord Burleigh does represent the evil in the Good-versus-Evil dilemma of human experience, a dilemma which cannot help but enter in and become a regulative factor of any fiction. But Lord Burleigh’s behavior is not explained as the inevitable result of a man who, like all of us, is dead in trespasses and sins, has a heart in rebellion against God, and would destroy God if he could.

The character of Lord Burleigh does have its value. It reminds the reader that there is evil and that it is a problem. On the other hand, it runs the danger of the reader superficially observing, “That fiend, how could he be so despicable!” The truth is, and only the Christian knows this, we all could be so despicable, and merely characterizing that evil does not articulate the truth that “there is none good, no, not one.” Hence, for such reasons as this, The Skin Map is not Christian fiction.

I want to be fair, however. The Skin Map is book one in the Bright Empires series. The series as a whole may prove to be very Christian even though one or more of the books in the series would not be classified as such.

The Skin Map does have its characters who make statements that have profound theological implications. The reader encounters this first when Kit and his great grandfather Cosimo come into the lecture hall where Lord Henry is in the final stages of an address. The lecture reveals much about the storyline itself, and it contains a pronouncement that makes us wonder what the theological foundations of Lord Henry are. I am going to quote at some length to provide ample context (and mood which though less important is written so well, I don’t want to leave it out; it may even encourage you to buy the book):

    Kit glanced up to see that they had come to stand before a large and imposing grey stone building with a wide flight of steps leading up to a set of brassbound doors; two oily black torches fluttered on either side of the entrance. They ascended the stone steps and entered a grand vestibule with a sweeping, carved oak staircase leading to a balustraded balcony. Doors opened off the vestibule in three directions; Cosimo chose the one in the centre and, laying a finger to his lips as a caution for Kit to keep silent, quietly opened the door and slipped in.
    Kit followed and found himself at the back of a handsome and very old-fashioned lecture theatre filled row upon row with bewhiskered men formally attired in sober black gowns and plain white neck bands. The room was lit by the lambent glow of innumerable candles in sconces and massive brass chandeliers suspended from the ceiling. By Kit’s rough estimate there must have been upwards of two hundred men in the audience, and their attention was wholly directed to the platform at the front, where a very tall, lean man in a long black gown and black silk skullcap was speaking. Below a trim, spade-shaped red beard erupted a veritable fountain of intricate lace. The great silver buckles on his high-topped black shoes glimmered in the light from the row of candles along the front of the stage; his pristine white stockings were perfectly tight and straight, and he was holding forth in a dramatic, stentorian voice.
    “What language is he speaking?” whispered Kit after listening a few moments and failing to make heads or tails of what the energetic fellow was saying. “German?”
    “English,” hissed Cosimo. “Just let it wash over you.” He raised his finger to his lips once more and slipped into an empty chair, pulling Kit down beside him. The room was warm and hazy with the fug of candle smoke and body heat.
    Kit listened to the flow of the speech and, with a considerable amount of concentration, began to pick out, first, individual words, then separate phrases. A little more effort and he was able to piece together whole sentences. The fellow seemed to be banging on about some sort of new theory of energy, or something - but in the most convoluted and stilted manner possible.
    “You will appreciate, my lords and gentlemen all, that there remain many unanswered queries in the diverse, but nevertheless intimately related, fields of natural mechanics and animal magnetism. The subtle energies of our earthly home are even now beginning to surrender secrets long held and jealously guarded. We in our present generation stand on the cusp of a new and glorious dawn when mastery of these energies lies fully within our grasp as secret yields to inquiry, which yields to experimentation, which leads to verification and duplication, which, in the final course, leads to knowledge.”
    He paused to allow a polite smattering of applause to ripple through the auditorium.
    “In conclusion, I beg the indulgence of this body in allowing me to reiterate the central premise of my lecture this evening, to wit: that an expedition shall be made to undertake the experiment outlined in your hearing this evening. The experiment will commence as soon as an expeditionary force numbering not fewer than five, nor more than eight, Royal Members in good standing has been selected and proper arrangements can be made for travel, lodging, and matters attending. Therefore, it is with the greatest anticipation that I look forward to addressing this august assembly once again in the near future to divulge the results of the aforementioned experiment.”
    There were shouts of “Hear! Hear!”
    The lecturer took a few steps toward the other side of the stage and resumed. “My friends, esteemed colleagues, noble patrons, and honored guests, I leave you with this: when next you turn your eyes to the vast reaches of heaven, gentlemen, you would be well advised to remember that not only is it far more magnificent than the human mind can fathom, it is far more subtle. All the universe is permeated, upheld, knit together, conjoined, encompassed, and contained by the Elemental Ether, which we recognise as an all-pervading, responsive intelligent field of energy, eternal and inexhaustible, which is nothing less than the ground of our being, and the wellspring of our existence - that which in ages past and present men have been pleased to call God.” (pp. 53-56)
Is Sir Henry a panentheist? Is he a believer in the Force? Whatever he is, this statement does not place him in the category of a biblical theist. I do not know what Lawhead has in mind here; what kind of God is the One in whom his characters live, and move, and have their being? Is this a tenet that is foundational to all that will take place in the Bright Empires series? If so, though it is entertaining, it is based on a non-biblical theism.

The question then is, can a Christian write this way in good conscience? What are the factors that would make a story ethically wrong to publish and propagate?

I think so long as a story’s purpose is not to promote a non-Christian epistemological and ontological philosophy, though it may be heavily laced with such philosophy, it is not wrong. Though a fiction or fantasy takes place in a world that is non-biblical, that does not mean that it is by definition wrong. So long as it is clear that the intent of the story is not to promote such a world-view, it is not a dishonor to God. Such tales whose sole purpose is to entertain likewise reflect the creativity of man as image-bearer of God, and the entertainment itself may be viewed as a gift from God for his people to enjoy.

That’s how I take The Skin Map, a gift for our enjoyment produced through the exceptional imagination, creativity, and excellent writing of Stephen R. Lawhead.

Stephen R. Lawhead's Web Page
List of CSFF Blog Tour Participants
The Skin Map on Amazon