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Why Foreign Missions? 20p: A Gospel of Transforming Power

Why Foreign Missions? 20p: A Gospel of Transforming Power

Paul speaks of the Gospel as the ‘power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith’ (Rom. 1.16).  Why is it that Paul does not say that the Gospel is the 'forgiveness of God for salvation'—why the ‘power of God for salvation'?  This question is relevant not only for understanding Paul's Gospel; it is also a most relevant question for our day as well.

There is an inadequate Evangelical theology that narrows the Biblical understanding of both sin and redemption.  On the one hand, it understands sin in terms of behaviour and actions and not also in terms of thoughts, the heart, passions, dispositions, and orientations.  The Anglican confession of sin correctly presses our understanding of sin to include more than behaviour:

We acknowledge and repent of our many sins and offenses,
which we have committed by thought, word, and deed,
against your divine majesty,
provoking most justly your righteous anger against us.

The alternative understanding of sin that sees sin mostly or totally in terms of behaviours and practices distinguishes ‘homosexual practice’ from ‘homosexual orientation’ or ‘same-sex attraction’. It suggests that the practice alone is sinful, whereas orientation or attraction is—while perhaps a product of the fall (like a physical ailment)—not sinful.   

On the other hand, when it comes to redemption, this theological view places a primary emphasis on forgiveness in its understanding of the work of Christ on the cross.  Jesus’ death for us on the cross is understood as a forgiving grace—for which there are ample Biblical texts—but not also as a transforming grace.  The atonement is not typically seen as transformational on this view, and sanctification, too, is understood as partial and gradual.  This may or may not be so; the point of this post is not about the relationship between justification and sanctification.  The point is rather that the Christian life is seen essentially in terms of God’s judgement regarding and view of the believer and not very much in terms of living in the transforming power of God.

This narrower understanding of sin and grace has a very practical consequence.  Until now, sexually related sins in focus in the average Evangelical congregation had to do mostly with behaviours such as premarital sex, adultery, and abortion.  The recent issue of homosexuality raises the question, ‘Is only homosexual practice sinful, or is homosexual orientation itself also to be understood as sinful?’  Denny Burk has recently raised this question, arguing that orientation itself should be understood as sinful.[1]  I have argued several related points in a forthcoming book: (1) antiquity offered several views regarding sexual orientation (contrary to those who think 'orientation' is a modern discovery); (2) Paul understood homosexuality in terms of both behaviour and orientation; and (3) Paul expressed a view regarding sinful orientations and the transforming power of God.[2]  Some pastors and ethicists, on the other hand, have settled on the view that homosexual behaviour or practice alone is sinful, telling persons who say that they are attracted to the same sex to avoid acting out their desires.  They offer little hope or incentive for an actual change in orientation.

A Deeper Understanding of Sin and Redemption

Jesus spoke of sin not in terms of actions alone but also and especially in terms of the heart.  This was, in fact, a distinguishing characteristic of his ethics over against that of the Pharisees.  Jesus said,

Matthew 5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

In the antitheses that follow (Matthew 5.21-48), Jesus pushes his hearers’ understanding of ethics beyond such actions as murder, adultery, divorce, swearing falsely, and retaliation to an ethic of the heart.  On another occasion, Jesus rejected the Pharisees’ understanding of what was clean and unclean precisely because it focussed on the external instead of the human heart.  He said,

Mark 7:20-23  "It is what comes out of a person that defiles.  21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder,  22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

Like Jesus (and others), Paul could, indeed, discuss sin in terms of actions.  A sin list such as Romans 1.29-32 (Paul’s longest) has such a focus:

Romans 1:29-32   29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips,  30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents,  31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  32 They know God's decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die-- yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.

However, one of Paul’s primary contributions to Christian ethics is in his understanding of sin as a power behind whatever behaviours result.  He uses the word ‘flesh’ to speak of life lived apart from God and according to one’s own inclinations.  He says,

Romans 7:5 While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.

What is needed is not only forgiveness to cover our sins but a power from God to overcome the power of sin.  Paul sees the work of Christ to be far more than forgiveness—a term that he actually does not use for the work of Christ outside Ephesians (1.7; 4.32) and Colossians (1.14; 3.13).  He sees the work of Christ as a power that overcame the power of sin.  As he says in the next verse after that quoted above,

Romans 7:6  But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

Telling people that they are likely to continue in an orientation that God condemns for whatever reason and that they should just avoid acting out that orientation is really to offer a half-Gospel to them.  It is thought that this half-Gospel is pastorally better because it eases the guilt of one’s wrongful orientation and only calls on the person to avoid sinful behaviours out of that orientation.  But which is really the pastoral disaster?  Is it not the one that fails to believe that there is power in the cross and power in the Spirit to live the righteous life?  Paul speaks of being set free from slavery to sin and says that we are now slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6.18).  He does not understand this as a slavery so that one cannot do anything other than righteousness but as slavery in the sense that we now belong to righteousness.  Thus he says that we must present our members to righteousness for sanctification (Rom. 6.19).  Being free from slavery to sin, we are now slaves to another master, living righteous lives unto God.

Paul’s primary point in Romans 6-8 is that the power at work in us is able to overcome the power of sin.  Paul first argues that the Law is powerless to accomplish this in us; in fact, it becomes a tool used by the power of sin at work in us (Rom. 7.7-25).  He then argues that the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit fulfill the just requirement of the law within us.  He says, 

Romans 8:2-4   For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.  3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,  4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Indeed, Romans 1.16-12.2 is a long theological argument about how we move from the depraved mind (Rom. 1.28) to the transformed mind (Rom. 12.2).  Paul briefly describes how homosexual orientation arises at the beginning of this argument:

Romans 1:22-27   22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools;  23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.  24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves,  25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.  26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural,  27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

Then he concludes that women and men are beholden to a depraved mind:

Romans 1:28  And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.

The work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, however, accomplish a transformation.  God’s grace (‘the mercies of God,’ Rom. 12.1) is not just a forgiving grace; it is also a transforming grace.  Paul says at the conclusion of his theological argument,

Romans 12:1-2  I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.

 The Old Testament Basis for This Teaching: The New Covenant

The Gospel says so much more than that we get out of hell free despite our sins—our behaviours.  The Old Testament basis for the New Testament’s understanding of redemption is the story of Israel’s exile, captivity, and redemption by God.  Israel does not get out of exile in Babylon despite its sin; God promises also to deal with their sinful orientation.  The Gospel is about God doing a work in the heart to change us, the people of God ‘exiled’ from God’s presence because of our sin.  God not only forgives us but transforms us.  Redemption is not merely a buying back of an enslaved people; it is also transformation of the heart.  Each of the three major prophets express this explicitly in their description of God’s new covenant with his people:

Isaiah 59:20-21   20 And he will come to Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the LORD.  21 And as for me, this is my covenant with them, says the LORD: my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children's children, says the LORD, from now on and forever.

Jeremiah 31:31-34   31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.  33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Ezekiel 36:25-27   25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.  26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.

These passages are essential for understanding New Testament teaching on salvation.  Salvation is pictured as redemption from exile.  The Israelites went into exile because of their sins.  God does not just let them out of exile by his grace.  His grace is greater than that.  It is a power to transform.  It is the grace of redemption, of the Spirit, of a changed heart.  It is a cleansing and a new obedience.  This is transforming grace.  It is living in the resurrection power of Jesus Christ:

Romans 8:11   If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.


Paul’s ‘Full Gospel’, as Seen in Colossians

The ‘from sinful behaviour to forgiveness’ theology understands the cross as a payment of a debt, leaving any transformation of the sinner to a theology of sanctification.  We might cite a passage from Colossians to affirm this, although it is only half the Gospel:

Colossians 2:13-14  And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses,  14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.

Yet Paul also sees the cross as a power that overcomes other powers.  In the next verse, he says:

Colossians 2:15  He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

The cosmic triumph of God on the cross also extends to the person who comes to Christ, for he or she breaks free from these powers:

Colossians 2:20  If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations,…

This means a transformed life here and now even as we await our life with Christ when he returns:

Colossians 3:1-4  So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,  3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

In Ephesians—a more general epistle that is based on Colossians—Paul prays for believers regarding the ‘power at work within them’:

Ephesians 3:20-21  Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,  21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.


Three Transformational Metaphors in Paul

Three times Paul uses similar language that seems to be part of early Christian worship in regard to the meaning of salvation.  Salvation is pictured as someone asleep—a euphemism for death—and waking up—a euphemism for resurrection.  It is also pictured as coming out of darkness or the night to the light.  And it is pictured as putting on the armor of God.  In one of Paul’s earliest epistles, we encounter these metaphors:

1 Thessalonians 5:5-8 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.

We also find these metaphors in Romans,

Romans 13:11-14  11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;  12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;  13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.  14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

In this passage, Paul’s metaphor of waking up from the night continues with the metaphor of dressing: putting on the armor of light.  We find these metaphors a third time in Ephesians, and in verse 14 we get the hint that Paul is actually basing his exhortation on an early Christian hymn.  He says,

Ephesians 5:11-14  11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly;  13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible,  14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."

The metaphor of dressing appears earlier in Eph. 4.24—to clothe ourselves with the new person—but the metaphor of dressing in the armor of God also appears in Ephesians, in Eph. 6.11-17.  Thus 1 Thes. 5.5-8; Rom. 13.11-14; and Eph. 5.11-14; 6.11-17 carry parallel imagery for salvation as transformative (waking from sleep, leaving darkness for the light, and putting on God’s armor).

Such metaphors offer far more than a ‘from sinful behaviour to forgiveness’ theology.  They understand the plight to be deeper than behaviour and the solution to be greater than forgiveness.  They are part of a ‘from depravity to transformation’ Gospel.  The hope we have in Christ is not an initial dressing of our wounds of sin in triage until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ but of a healing of the sinful heart, an empowering of the Spirit, a transformation of the mind, and living under the Lordship of the resurrected and exalted Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

The ‘Good News’—the Gospel—in the preaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul was about the coming of both God’s forgiveness and transforming power in Jesus Christ and the Spirit.  As such, it offered a solution not only to past sins but to the power of sin, not just for sinful behaviours but also for sinful orientations.  This is not to offer a triumphal Gospel as though it is impossible to sin anymore (cf. Gal. 6.1), but it is to offer a Gospel that is more than just forgiveness for sins.  As we have seen, the Gospel is about a ‘power at work within us’ (Eph. 3.20).  It is the ‘power of salvation’ that Paul sets out to explain in Romans (cf. Rom. 1.16). The Gospel is, therefore, about both a forgiving grace and a transforming grace.  In our day, we need to recapture this full Gospel.  God is preparing us for Christ’s coming, like a bride being made ready to meet her groom (Eph. 5.25-27).  Thus, to this end, we might pray for one another (for there is power in prayer) with Paul,

2 Thessalonians 1:11-12   11 To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith,  12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.



[1] See Denny Burk, “Is Homosexual Orientation Sinful?” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 58:1 (March 2015): 95-115.  In conclusion, he asks, ‘Is same-sex orientation sinful?  Insofar as same-sex orientation designates the experience of sexual desire for a person of the same sex, yes, it is sinful.  Insofar as same-sex orientation indicates emotional/romantic attractions that brim with erotic possibility, yes, those attractions too are sinful.  Insofar as sexual orientation designates an identity, yes, that identity too is a sinful fiction that contradicts God’s purposes for his creation’ (p. 114).  He further says, ‘Sin is not merely what we do.  It is also who we are.  As so many of our confessions have it, we are sinners by nature and by choice’ (p. 114).  See online: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/58/58-1/JETS_58-1_95-115_Burk.pdf (accessed 4 April, 2015).
[2] See S. Donald Fortson, III and R. G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Pub., forthcoming, 2016).