N.T. Wright’s Galatians– Part Thirty Nine

N.T. Wright’s Galatians– Part Thirty Nine August 14, 2021

Q. Sometimes I just don’t understand why some people are ministers in the church, because they don’t actually believe in the possibility of a person experiencing moral change in their lives by the grace of God. It is clear to me that Paul definitely does believe in this, but he doesn’t think such a conversion or change eliminates the tension between flesh and Spirit that is the tension in the Christian life. Outwardly, as Paul says elsewhere, we are wasting away, we have fallen flesh, but inwardly we are being renewed day by day. I was pleased to see you make some distinctions between what is being described in Rom. 7.7-25 and what is described here in Gal. 5. Here it is perfectly clear Paul is talking about Christians who have received the Spirit into their lives. The Spirit is nowhere mentioned in Rom. 7.7-25 because it is describing a pre-Christian condition, from a Christian point of view. But Paul’s concern for the Galatians is that they could go back to slavery if they embrace the Mosaic covenant and its law. Paul believes not only in a change of belief and ideas in his converts but a moral change which should lead to a change in behavior. But such behavior is not automatic. It requires conscious effort to live or walk in the Spirit. Why do you think so many ministers have given up hope of people really changing by God’s grace? I am thinking for example of all the recent retrenchments in various churches in regard to the issue of sexual ethics and human sexuality.

A. Yes I agree. I think part of the problem is that in popular culture the old argument of A. J. Ayer (in Language, Truth and Logic) for ‘emotive ethics’ has won the day, now diverging into forms of existentialism where ‘authenticity’ and ‘spontaneity’ are seen as the all-important things over against ‘rules’. (Actually, the ‘emotivist’ stuff has now infected epistemology [“telling my truth”] and ontology [“self-identifying as a potted plant”].) So then in church people have imagined that Paul’s talk about ‘being led by the Spirit’ and so being ‘not under law’ means that if you’re a Christian you will automatically want to do what the Spirit wants, and will be able to do so spontaneously and without, as you say, moral effort (‘crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires’). Any attempt to say otherwise is met with ‘but we believe in grace not law’ i.e. in spontaneity not rules. This is a MAJOR problem of our time. I have tried to address it in After You Believe (whose original title was Virtue Reborn but my USA publisher said ‘Nobody in America buys books with the word ‘virtue’ in the title – which rather makes the point).

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