Christian Advantage? (1)
If you’re in Christ, says Paul, you are a “new creature” (creation)—2 Corinthians 5:17.
I long wondered what he meant by that. I know what I was taught it meant when I was very young and at one and the same time I wished it were true and, as it worked out, was glad it wasn’t true.
I was taught that before you became a Christian you wanted to sin and enjoyed sinning but that when you became Christ’s you would no longer want that or feel that way. Before I became a Christian I knew I had wanted to sin and that often I enjoyed it and I supposed in light of what I was taught that when I became a Christian that would no longer be the case.
I do remember that in the first days of life in Christ I was buoyant with the excitement of being his and carried away by the wind of that lovely emotion (as I recall it) I was strong and had only one thought—to please him and not grieve him. Once I became used to the idea that I was Christ's I found myself returning to “normal” with all the old weaknesses showing and I distinctly felt the backward call of an old environment.
As you can imagine this upset me greatly. If you're in Christ, “old things have passed away and all things have become new.” This wasn’t my inner experience for I discovered that “old things” had not passed away and “all things” had not become new; I was as much a sinner now that I was in Christ as I was before I entered into union with him. This appeared to mean, of course, that I was not in Christ because if I was in Christ I wouldn’t sin or want to sin, the “old things” of sin would have passed away and my desires would all be new. I didn’t want to leave Christ—I didn’t dare—but on and off for a long time I wondered if I had truly given myself to him.
I wrestled with explanations for this and when I spoke about it to experienced believers I discovered that they had as much difficulty with the matter as I had—they too continued to sin even while they continued to take the text to be a description of our new inner moral world when we entered Jesus.
What made matters worse, there were popular authors who expounded the “normal Christian life” as virtual sinlessness though even in those books and from those who promoted them there was always talk of struggle and wrestling against sin. But if old things no longer existed and all things had become new why should there be struggle or wrestling?—that question was never really dealt with. Yes, the point was “talked about” but it was never truly dealt with and when I pressed some for answers, their use of Paul’s claim, “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20) became vague and shifty.But what were we to do with such a text? Every now and then when I dared to think seriously about the way it was commonly understood, it brought me only anguish and the near certainty that I wasn’t in Christ because if I had been crucified with Christ in the way they meant it, sin couldn’t appeal to me. The truth was, sin appealed to me very much—I wasn’t dead to it in the sense they were saying and, as it turned out when I pursued them, neither were they!
In light of my own inner experience, in light of the experience of everyone I knew, even those who promoted the popular view of the “normal Christian life” and in light of too many other plain biblical texts I surrendered the view they were offering. I simply couldn't live with it but what was I to do with such texts? When you're baptized into the death of the blessed Lord Jesus “you are dead to sin” (Romans 6:2-11) didn’t mean, can't mean that as far as sin’s appeal is concerned the Christian might as well be a corpse. To be "in Christ" doesn't mean, can't mean that "old things"—including our sinfulness (our susceptibility to sin) as well as our sinful behavior—have passed away and "all things" have become new. That would mean more than that we no longer do sinful things, it would mean we are no longer sinfully weak and susceptible to sin—all things would not be new otherwise.
I came to believe that one can be a Christian, can walk in the light, and still be in need of forgiveness for we continue to be sinfully weak and continue to sin even while we struggle against it (compare 1 John 1:7-9, Romans 6:12, many other texts like them and the entire tone and structure of the NT’s exhortations).
I no longer believed that Paul taught that being a new creation in Jesus meant a person would no longer sin or want to sin or that he would only and always want and do what was right. I no longer believed that when Romans 6 says that those who are baptized into Christ are dead to sin that it means that sin couldn’t appeal to them. The above difficulty was resolved when I stopped believing what was obviously untrue to life and scripture, but what truth was to take its place?
Does God leave Christians unaided in the brawl against sin? Do Christians receive no power from the Spirit of God to resist temptation to sin? Does nothing change?