Change of Perspective

Romans 6, twittered, is: God sees in you someone you don’t, but should!

Paul wants us to shift perspective, to see ourselves as God sees us, to walk in heavenly moccasins. Let me illustrate:

In 1999, Hungarian art historian Gergely Barki sat with his family around Christmas time, watching Disney’s Stuart Little. What he saw in the background of one of the film’s scenes was the art historian’s dream Christmas present: “Sleeping Lady with Black Vase,” by Róbert Béreny, a Hungarian painter.[1] He knew that in the chaos of World War II, the painting had disappeared. But he also knew that the painting still existed since he had seen a black and white photograph of it. It took Barki two years to nail down the story. The picture had undergone an incognito odyssey and ended up in California, in the bedroom of some assistant Hollywood set designer. The one who, when working on the set to Stuart Little, hung it on the wall of Stuart Little’s new family home. On Christmas 1999, it came full circle when Barki, as he later told, almost dropped his daughter from his lap, leaping at the sight of the painting.[2]

The argument in Romans 6 is triggered by a question: “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?”[3] (v. 1), a logical objection to Paul’s previous statement that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (5:20). Logical, according to Paul (v. 19), only in the sense of trying a human perspective on heavenly matters (Adam and Christ, Ch. 5). Logical within the framework of human endeavors.

Human Endeavors

All usurpation of Paul’s train of thought by human contingency leads to either perfectionism or frustration. The latter, because reading Paul’s message bottom-up will prompt us to just shake our heads at such questionable notions as being “dead to sin,” when it’s obvious that we aren’t. Our reality doesn’t even start to measure up to this ideal. The former is perfectionism, the ghost haunting Adventism in recurring surges. It is cloaked in the veil of orthodoxy, yet it is another human endeavor, whether molded as process (sanctification), promoted as Last Generation Theology (or Harvest Theology), or forwarded as a sophisticated but helpless attempt at labelling justification with tags like “imputed” or “imparted”.

Paul’s answer to all of this, in short, is: Jesus Christ. “Don’t you know …?” (v. 2). With yet new imagery and wording Paul does nothing else but retell the gospel story, the historical/universal event of Jesus Christ crucified, buried, and risen. The baptismal event of which Paul reminds his audience serves as liturgical re-enactment of that story. Baptism welded the story of Jesus and us into one solid piece, whether you want to call it sanctification, participation or unio mystica.

If we use Genesis 3 as a springboard, then sin is belief in the possibility of human endeavors.[4] Being graced, justified, rectified, means that sin is no longer the defining characteristic of our new being. Through grace, God doesn’t remember us as sinners, says Karl Barth.[5] So, if this is the way God sees us, then all other competing ways of seeing ourselves and our ventures have spun out of the ballpark. If we allow this shift of perspective to influence our lives, all attempts at human possibilities, the strength of the will, the victory over sin, will only leave the stale taste of paradise lost on our palates. Paul puts it as strong as he can: me genoito! By no means! Never! Or more oxymoronic: hell, no!

To cut back to the illustration above: Where others saw Stuart Little, Barki saw a lost piece of art. Where we see sin and sins, God sees people having died to it, all sin being ripped bare of the illusion of necessity. This is the picture, the chef d’oeuvre of Christ in us, and it is hammered in by use of word-creations, since new perspectives need new words to frame them.

Lost in Translation

In December 1521, Luther started working on a German translation of the New Testament while being confined to the austerity of the Wartburg. Though he finished the New Testament in just a few weeks, it would take him and his team until 1534 to complete the entire bible. Luther’s translation, the German Protestant default text to this day, was a linguistic masterpiece. Otherwise history’s hot gales would have let it wither away like so many other translations before his.[6] In his attempt to use understandable language, Luther often recurred to neologisms, creations of new words.[7] Guess who he learned from? Paul. In Romans 6 (and other places) Paul creates new word-combinations which hitherto were unknown, yet understandable. He did this by simply hitching the preposition “with” (sun) to verbs like dying, being buried, risen, glorified, etc. Unfortunately, this fact gets lost in translation, because to make it intelligible in English, “ole King James” had to tear them “asunder”, which makes an odd “buried with him”, where what happens should sound like: withburied, withdied, withrisen.[8] We can hardly grasp how hearers tuned in to the Greek of the time would have listened up.

All these creations were triggered by Paul’s use of the phrase “with Christ”[9]. While there are several learned theories as to where Paul got the “with Christ” idea from, the most probable is that Paul taps into the language of mystery cults that stressed some form of divine participation through ritual/liturgy/mystery (sun thew/theois).[10] They are however not parallels but cheeky borrowings which underwent significant change of meaning in the way Paul crafts his argument. By molding the alleged divine participation (of the mystery cults) into a story, a historical context (that’s why he uses action-words = verbs), Paul flattens the divine-human participation horizontally, the defining center and acting agent being Jesus Christ. This form of de-mystification makes the gospel of Jesus Christ available to all who can follow a plot (starting with kids). With Christ, he hammers in, something happened to us.

It Happened to Us

Another observation is in place. Adventism’s love-hate relationship to speculations about sinless perfection feed on radical individualism, couched in dos and don’ts: Ethical imperatives ride the gravy train of angst and self-improvement. The language used by Paul, however, is always in the plural: in verses 1–10 Paul uses the first-person plural (we/us). From verse 11 on he switches to the second-person plural: you.

The use of the communal voice (us/we/you) is no happenstance or mere rhetorical device. Paul deals in communities, not so much in individual performance. He writes to a whole church. His message – to start living the way God sees you (pl., umeis, v. 11) – will depend on the quality of togetherness engendered by living “as if.” The church, the community of the saints, is thus an eschatological community, not a bunch of navel-gazing individualists obsessed with self-improvement. A community exemplifying the Schema-Israel (hear! love! tell! Deut 6:4-6) or in Johannine language: be recognized by the love you show to one another (John 13:35). To consider oneself dead in sin is looking backwards to the cross, upwards to Jesus, and onward to the consummation; but not inward!

How To

What then can we hope? Will we enter the heavenly gates with sinless perfection, ready-made? Will we have complete victory over sin? Or will we be entering fighting over perfection (yes! no! yes! no!)? Will the last generation be Exhibit A to the universe? Or are we doomed to throw our hands in the air in frustration, saying: Wretched that I am! (7,24)? Well, let’s settle with a cliffhanger and check back in the next two weeks … hang in!

[2]For more on this story, see here.

[3]Most commentators hold this as a rhetorical question for the sake of Paul’s argument. Recent research sees the letter to the Romans prompted by real contention, however, namely hostile counter-missionaries of the Galatian brand. For discussion, see S. Tonstad. The Letter to the Romans. Paul among the Ecologists, (The Earth Bible Commentary. Sheffield Phoenix Press 2016), 54ff)

[4]Karl Barth: Sin ... is the confusion of man and God … by which man seeks to justify, confirm or fortify himself. Translation mine; K. Barth. Der Römerbrief. (1922), 19. Auflage, S. 184.

[7]Some examples in German are: ausposaunen; Lückenbüßer; Lästermaul; Lockvogel; Machtwort; Denkzettel; anfahren; Fallstrick; friedfertig; Langmut; Richtschnur; nacheifern u.v.m.

[8]Withsuffered (Rom 8:17); withburied (Rom 6:4; Col 2:12); withglorified (Rom 8:17); withmorphed (Rom 8:29; Phil 3:21); withinherit (Rom 8:17); withgrown (Rom 6:5); withcrucified (Gal 2:19); withrisen (Col 2:12, Eph 2:6); withenlivened (Eph 2:5; Col 2:13); withlive (Rom 6:8: 2 Tim 2:11); withinvested (Eph 2:6); withdied (2 Tim 2:11); withreign (2 Tim 2:12).

[9]A formula Paul uses repeatedly: 1 Thess 4:14, 17; 5:10; 2 Co 4:14; 13:4; Rom 6:8; 8:32; Phil 1,:23; Col 2:13, 20; 3:3, 4.

[10]Kuss, Otto, Der Römerbrief (Regensburg: Friedrich Pustet, 1957), 375ff.

Dennis Meier has served the churches of Hamburg as a pastor since 1995. Since 2013, he has been the president of the Hansa Conference, covering the most northern territory of Germany.

Image Credit: The History Blog

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8386
1 Like

Adventism carries The Wesley holy club several steps beyond into never never land. If true Christ need not have died only lived a perfect life as an example for us. Yes we are to walk humbly with God as anyone would rescued from debtors prison. Remember we carry the name Christian only by adoption.

2 Likes

I look forward to “hanging in” but I suggest there is one thing we need to think seriously about first. There is no water in Romans 6. Water baptism is but a public celebration of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. God Himself told John the Baptist that “The one on whom you see the Spirit descend and rest is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.” Romans 6 is the experience of baptism of the Holy Spirit.

It’s not for us to explain how the Holy Spirit works but Paul is clear, we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism. This union could only happen by the power of the Holy Spirit baptism. We have been baptised into Christ’s death. Christ’s death was at Calvary. There we died in Christ. We were buried with Him. We rose with Him and He now shares His resurrected life with us. Fact: we died in Christ on the cross. We also know that our old self was crucified with Him. Today, we are seated with Christ in heavenly places. How much better can it get?

We have died and we have been freed from sin. We don’t have to throw up our hands in frustration. God in Christ has reconciled the world to Himself and He does not hold our sins against us. He keeps no record of sin because Christ became sin for us on the cross. He has dealt with sin. He doesn’t hide our sins under a robe. We are not called to be the last generation Exhibit A to the universe. Christ revealed God to the universe. What more can mere mortals contribute, even redeemed mortals?

Can I suggest that the problem lies in a limited understanding of what actually happens when a person is born again. For too many Christians this seems to mean that we still battle our sinful, fallen human nature that we inherited from Adam but we now have the help of the Holy Spirit to give us the victory.

Ephesians 4:22-24 tells a different story. There has been a new creation. The new self is now in the likeness of God created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.The Holy Spirit has created in us a new spiritual nature, a new heart where the Holy Spirit works and dwells. It is a heart of righteousness and holiness of the truth. How much plainer can it be? To do this, He removed the old fallen sinful nature that we inherited from Adam. Adam’s death was a spiritual death. He lost the heart, his spiritual nature, his true identity that was created in the likeness of God when he rejected God. Self replaced God.

No, I’m not a last generation perfectionist, neither do I throw my hands up in frustration at my failures. I do recognise that sin still lurks in the flesh but God in Christ has dealt with that as well. I also recognise that my true identity in Christ comes from the new heart He has created in me. I am not identified as a sinner because of the flesh that I battle every day. Paul would call us all saints, sons and daughters of God, accepted in the Beloved. Christ dealt with our sins and He writes His righteousness into our innermost heart of hearts because that is where He dwells. Not I but Christ lives in me.

Maybe we need to stop obsessing about sin and law and how well we are doing and put our focus on Jesus Christ, His grace and His righteousness. Then there is everything that Christ has accomplished for us and in us and the realisation that we are now sons and daughters of God, accepted in the Beloved. God has begun a good work in us. He will finish it in His way. He is the author and finisher of our faith. We can trust Him.

4 Likes

FWIW … Personally, I find it helpful to place these SS lessons, the discussion that ensues, and my/our situation in the context of:

  1. MY reality - in need of a Redeemer/Savior
  2. MY remedy - found only in Jesus Christ my/our Lord
  3. MY response - loving service in the context of an enabling Holy Spirit Guide.
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Which rather negates the whole aspect of “worm theology” that is perpetuated in such song lyrics as:

Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sov’reign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

and

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!

It’s like if we grovel enough before a holy God then maybe, just maybe, he’ll behold our self flagellation and count it to us as righteousness.

When you stand back and look at it in light of Jesus and how he sees us vs. how we see our selves it becomes rather blinding in its clarity, as pointed out by this author, that such theology is ultimately misguided.

If God, through the ministry of Jesus Christ sees us as possessing inestimable value, to the point of a Godly sacrifice, then would we not see our selves as the same worth? No, we are neither worms nor wretches, but children of the King because he bought us and made us his own.

Adventists have consistently focused on sin (when not focusing on Roman Catholics or Daniel and Revelation). Sin. Always sin. Overcoming sin. Having our sins forgiven. The unpardonable sin. I guess if you concentrate on a target long enough you’re going to hit it, and in this case we manage to hit sin every time.

Seems to me the better pursuit would be to focus on relationship. We were wounded in relationship and it’s only in relationship that we’ll find healing. Our relationship with our Creator, whatever it turns out to look like, should be our primary goal, followed closely by our relationship with our fellow man.

Didn’t Jesus say something about that?

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Thanks for all that love I feel from you.

4 Likes

This article seems to be some obscure digression from the lesson (OVERCOMING SIN) or ROM 6 chapter

Several years ago, at the SDA church I usually attend, the guest speaker was an SDA seminary professor…who spoke on the overcoming/perfection topic.

He said we can not stop sinning , only subdue it.
Basically his theme was that we can SIN LESS but not be SINLESS.
He also mentioned that this is the MAJORITY opinion in the SDA denomination.

A former SDA pastor at the same church is of the same position.
The current pastor has yet responded to my request for his position.

I quadruple dare/challenge Ted Wilson or any SDA survey group to survey to see what is the majority opinion on this issue.

Evidently we can overcome sin …some of the time, maybe most of the time but NEVER ALL OF THE TIME

Well John, at least you are participating on the Sabbath school site even if it with the typical popular Adventist subjective, ambiguous “relationship” comeback

Ditto for you Ray.

Now consider: Why are Adventists supposedly obsessed with sin? Why are there 8 likes to your posts?

Am I the SDA conference president or the SS teachers & pastors at every church which caused this obsession? Did I put the title for this lesson as “Overcoming Sin”?

By the way, both of you digressed to processes instead of goals. This is the typical approach mentioned in Romans 10 “gainsay” I will have to deal with it in Sabbath school today.

People usually avoid goals by responding with processes and/or personal subjective evaluations. Then they use the Rom 7 excuse of Paul’s bipolar experience.

My love is demonstrated in my post. Many just ignore or are apathetic. That is how they show their lack of compassion.
Even though most of my exposure is from the SDA denomination, I have considerable experience associating with other denominations. Because of this I can sense the institutional dialog. I hear it every week where SS attenders parrot the same clichés and obscure bible verses in reaction to certain issues. Much of this is because most do not read the bible. They just expose themselves to shallow ,superficial teaching from pulpits & SS teachers.

Way to go Frank,

Transitioning from digressions to opening wide the focus.

Relationships with people and/or Jesus are all over the map. Relationship is such an ambiguous and subjective word.

Sin goes deeper than sinful acts. We can, through self-discipline, get rid of possibly most sinful actions (we’re aware of) and still be sinful. It’s that sin, which we cannot will away.

At creation, God gave us free choice, knowing, of course, what that choice was going to be; and provided for it himself, as the second Adam. Once we identify with Christ and the grace he has given, we are imbued with His Spirit and begin changing our perspective. Given eternity, we might then become totally sinless, but the “three score ten” happens and perfection eludes us. (Romans 7). Enter Romans 8 - “there is now no condemnation”.

OK, I will add, (for those who will undoubtedly come back with protests against “once saved always saved”), AS LONG AS OUR PERSPECTIVE IS DIRECTED BY THE GRACE OF GOD.

For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. Romans 8:5.

3 Likes

A change of perspective? YES!

My son (who has made a study of fetal pain) and I are in the middle of a text conversation. This weekend he attended a conference in New York, and he texted me a picture of him standing between Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers.

I texted back that the symbolism of that picture was mind-blowing. He said, “How so?” and I responded with a quote from the Wikipedia entry on “the hard problem” in consciousness studies.

Some philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett and Peter Hacker oppose the idea that there is a “hard problem”…

In contrast with Chalmers, he argues that consciousness is not a fundamental feature of the universe and instead will be fully explained by natural phenomena.

My son said the breakfast conversation this morning was around the pesky problem of panpsychism, and when it will go away.

I suggested it will never go away.

That their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ; In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. --Colossians 2

Simply a metaphor? I think not.

Romans 6 is Paul’s answer to objections raised by his opponents to his gospel of righteousness by faith…objections that Paul’s stance on grace, faith, and being counted right with God, totally separate from the Law/Torah, leads to sin. The two questions in the chapter, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase,” and, " Shall we sin because we are no longer under Law/Torah but under grace," are both met by him with an emphatic no. Both are total distortions and misunderstandings of his gospel.

In answer to this, Paul then lays out indicatives and imperatives throughout the chapter. The indicatives focus on the status and state of believers who have been baptized into Christ. They have been crucified with him, they will live with him in the future, they used to be slaves to sin, but have been set free from sin and have become slaves of righteousness, and slaves to God. This takes off from Chapter 5, that speaks of believers being justified by faith, at peace with God, reconciled to him, having free access into his presence, standing in grace before him, and standing in the assurance of eschatological salvation, even in the midst of suffering, because he lives… as the one who has already conquered sin and death. This is the new covenant status that Paul applies equally to Jews and Gentiles, that is totally separate from the covenant of Law/Torah. IOW, Paul is saying, we are all equally accepted and welcomed into the kingdom of God, all equally loved by God, no matter who we are, because of our faith in him and what he has faithfully done for us in Jesus.

It is on this basis that Paul then tells the believers to live, counting themselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus, to not let sin reign any longer in their mortal bodies, to no longer offer themselves to sin, but to God as those who have already been brought from death to life, etc. Essentially, Paul is exhorting them to continually authenticate what they already are and will be in Christ. To continually and newly offer themselves to the Lord, the one to whom they already belong.

Fleshing this out through the entire letter certainly takes us into the realm of community, and not a hyper-individualized and internalized focus on overcoming all ones known and unknown faults and sins. Chapter 12 renews the idea of offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God, linking this to the following ideas of mutual service and spiritual gifts. Chapter 13 then follows with the statement that we are to have no outstanding debt to anyone regarding anything except to love, because love is the fulfillment of the Law. To read Chapter 6 in this light is to see that Paul’s overriding concern is to establish a believing community that cares for one another, and is united in loving service to one another. This is what being alive to God and dead to sin is all about. It moves us past our parochial concerns, selfish prejudices, and individualized agendas, into the type of self giving love that is the hallmark of the kingdom of God, and of his Son.

For one to say that individually overcoming sin is the goal, while casting aspersions on this type of relational love as a side process or as a personal subjective evaluation, is to advertise that one doesn’t even understand the thrust of Paul’s gospel in general, or Romans in particular.

Thanks…

Frank

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