Paul’s Spiritual Vision 4

Paul’s Spiritual Vision 4 December 21, 2011

Rodney Reeves’ new book, Spirituality according to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ, probes a singularly important topic in all religions, including Christianity:

The temptation to live as a legalist or to live as a libertine. To turn the moral life into law or to justify most anything.

Some are tempted to one or the other, those on both sides are judgmental of others, and the temptation to pursue a life with God in either direction never seems to go away.

Where are you seeing legalisms today? where are you seeing libertinism?

Reeves’ big point? Neither is the way Paul envisioned the Christian life, and that is why FF Bruce famously said — he said it to me personally one day but I’ve heard others quote the same from his lips — that Paul would roll over in his grave if he saw how modern Christians use his letters as a new form of law. And many would also say the way libertines use Paul’s freedom statements to justify anything they want to do.

A gospel shaped life, however, puts to death a life of legalism as well as a life of libertinism. The cross kills both.

The two things Paul blames for sin in this world are — get this — the flesh and the law of Moses. The law, Paul says, was a cruel taskmaster (Galatians 3:23-24). Thus Reeves: “law and righteousness were mutually exclusive” (74). Righteousness comes from Christ, through the Christ, via resurrection, in the Spirit. Faith in Christ was the point of no return (to the law). So what is Paul’s solution?

Life in the Spirit — it angers the legalist, it warms the heart of the libertine, and the former and the latter need to awaken to the holiness-creating and love-creating power of the Spirit.

Why is saying “Just live in the Spirit” seem to so many as inadequate? What would happen if “live in the Spirit” became our central moral theme?

The Law did not and cannot create this holiness or love. Reeves examines this extensively. And it all leads to an even more extensive discussion of how to read Romans 7, and he opts for the view that the “I” of Romans 7 is both autobiographical (Paul’s experience under the law, both pre- and post-Christ) as well as biographical (the story of everyone).

His overall theory is that the cross — death — brings death to the law and life in the Spirit. It is both: the cross murder the law and it creates the gift of the Spirit. The only thing we need to live the Christian life is the Spirit (82). Paul was facing godless pagans and he told them they had to live in the Spirit; he was facing former law-observant Jews and he told them they too were to live in the Spirit.

How do we know if we are living in the Spirit? The fruit of the Spirit. Service for others. Self-sacrifice, self-denial for the good of others.

My favorite in this chp: “All legalists believe they’re doing the work of God. The question remains: are they walking in the Spirit?” (86). I create one after him: “All libertines believe they’re living in the freedom. The remains: are they walking in the Spirit?

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  • Love the post, and the balance. In my life I’ve struggled to find the balance. The best help to guide me to living in the Spirit, and not under the law, has been the “law of love” found in Rom. 13:8-10.

    I think it’s hard for legalists to embrace the idea of “living in the Spirit” because it’s hard to control people who are truly living in the Spirit (especially as described in Heb. 8:10&11), and it also demonstrates to me that they actually lack faith that there is a Spirit who can guide people without their obeying someone else’s interpretation of a law. Legalists tend to default to “I have come to fulfill the law,” which I think can mean two entirely different things.

  • RJS

    Just live in the Spirit is hard … Because it means restructuring, or allowing ourselves to be restructured such that the fruit of the Spirit are central, such that service for others, self-sacrifice, self-denial for the good of others, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control are not ideals aspired to but the controlling narrative.

    One cannot fall into legalism or liberitinism if these are the focus.

  • Rick

    RJS #2-

    “if these are the focus”

    But should they be the focus? Are they the “controlling narrative”? Or is abiding in Christ, focusing on Him (the Trinity) the focus and narrative?

    Perhaps the fruit is an indicator of our health, but should they be the focus?

  • Susan N.

    Thought-provoking — ties in nicely with the adjoining post on ‘Gossip.’

    Living by the Spirit, practically-speaking, also depends on listening to the Counselor’s voice in discerning what is loving, peaceable, patient, kind, etc., in a given action. A willingness to yield to that voice is also necessary.

    This came to mind: The Law says, “Keep the sabbath holy [by refraining from ‘work’ on that day dedicated solely to worshiping the Lord.]” But Jesus, being God incarnate, broke the law by working on the sabbath (healing the man’s withered hand). His disciples, likewise, broke the law by gathering wheat on the sabbath. What does that tell you?

    The Law seems so much concerned with loving God, and avoiding offense of His holiness, while the fruit of the Spirit will reveal our ability (or disability) for loving others well.

    RJS, I think you are right: we can fall short of loving God *and* others well if we become either rigidly legalistic *or* libertine in our faith practices.

  • Geoff

    I couldn’t agree more that a stronger focus needs to be given to Paul’s words like in Galatians 5:16 that in focusing on walking in the Spirit we won’t carry out the desires of our flesh. Too many try to live in religion and self motivation.

    However to say “all we need is the Spirit” demeans what is said to Timothy about the necessity we have for the scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17) wouldn’t you think?

  • Rick

    Geoff #5-

    “However to say “all we need is the Spirit” demeans what is said to Timothy about the necessity we have for the scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17) wouldn’t you think?”

    I don’t know if we can divide the two, since Scripture is something the Spirit uses.

  • Tim


    I know you hate to get these direct questions, but…

    Could you illustrate using the case of homosexuality how we would follow the above advice?

    I don’t see just “living in the spirit” as giving answers as to whether or not same-sex committed relationships are sinful. Of course, it would inform that we should be compassionate and understanding. But how that compassion and understanding is expressed can often be in part determined by whether or not we see homosexuality as sinful.

    Now, some short passages from Paul’s letters do give the impression that he thought it was in fact sinful. I don’t feel it’s a slam dunk case as some do, but I do think the case is stronger than many others admit. But of course, we also see societal attitudes and stigmas in certain passages of the Bible that we now see as culturally relevant, and for the most part incidental to Bible’s message. So are Paul’s statements regarding homosexuality perhaps more reflective of Paul’s own attitudes as a human product of his culture than of God’s authoritative word on the matter?

    How do we answer these questions? Or should there be some humility on our part as fallible interpreters of Scripture, such that we should extend some respect and consideration for those who arrive at different views?

    And perhaps most central to the topic above, how does legalism fit in here?

  • DRT

    Wow, I see this differently. To me, getting rid of the rules and legalism does not make it easier, it makes it considerably more difficult. We are not given a *good enough* standard, instead we are told to be perfect.

    If we are given laws then our obligation is to live up to the laws, that is the idea of Torah showing sin. But without the laws the standard is continuing to strive and race and reach and all of that. It is open ended.

  • DRT

    Tim, I would like to use your homosexual situation and Scot’s other post today about the definition of sin (but in the context of gossip).

    When I start to think about whether I am sinning or not all I need to do is look at what I am doing at this very moment. I am consuming a bunch of power that is contributing to global warming that is disproportionately effecting the poor and I am, I just ate a bacon and egg and cheese muffin that is waaaay missing the mark in taking care of the temple of my body and etc etc.

    I am constantly sinning, but none of that is written in the legalistic law.

    I would contend that the homosexuality issue would have an obvious solution if we were not committing so many societal sins in the construction of our economy and country. We have engrained sin into our lives at such a deep level that I have a difficult time believing that someone’s honest sexual preference can even come close to comparing with what we are doing.

    I think, at best, the homosexuality issue is a case of removing the plank from our collective eye before even considering whether there is a splinter in that eye.

  • Tim


    While you may be eating bacon and producing carbon emissions, there are aspects I’m sure of your life that wouldn’t so much be seen as sin but rather blessings from God. Some consider the opportunity to enter into a committed romantic relationship with a life-long partner as a blessing from God – one that caries significant spiritual significance and joy. How do you deal with a son or daughter that aspires to such a blessing if given their sexual orientation they see that as being with a same-sex partner? How do you respond to that? Do you encourage them into chastity and giving up that romantic dream? Do you leave them to manage that situation on their own, and privately deal with it as if they were just unhealthily eating bacon or producing carbon emissions – a sin that just is drowned in a sea of other sins for which we are all guilty? Or would you consider it a blessing with them when their special day comes for which you can genuinely be grateful and give thanks to God?

  • T

    I say this as one who believes the Spirit to be grossly neglected and underestimated in the West: the post rightly points to life in the Spirit as a life that is trusting both Christ’s cross as the judgment on the old human way of life (for legalist and libertine and beyond), and his resurrection to new life as our destiny. Jesus own death has made the claim that all the former ways of life deserve death, and God has judged them. Jesus’ own life is a vindication of his own Spirit empowered and Father led life, for his own righteousness and our gift and path.

    So “life in the Spirit” is life that accepts the significance of Jesus story in terms of its judgment on all the old ways of life, and its calling to all to his way of life.

  • Bill

    Living in the Spirit is messy – a reality that institutional religion eschews, preferring uniformity over unity in the Spirit. Christians function as if still under the old covenant – trusting in themselves to be righteous enough for God – effectively denying Christ. We seem to prefer to teach folks what the Spirit expects ‘as a rule’, rather than to teach them to listen to the Spirit themselves – trusting the Spirit to be the Guide Jesus said he would be. The law as a guide was replaced by the Spirit as a moment by moment guide. Why would we want a rule when we can have God?

  • Susan N.

    Tim (#7) said: “How do we answer these questions? Or should there be some humility on our part as fallible interpreters of Scripture, such that we should extend some respect and consideration for those who arrive at different views?

    And perhaps most central to the topic above, how does legalism fit in here?”

    Maybe life in the Spirit is openness to the Spirit’s conviction and leading for ourselves, and less judgment of how others are doing?

    I don’t think it’s only fallible interpretation of scripture that factors into our fitness to judge; it’s our imperfect obedience to living by the Spirit.

    My teen daughter was questioning the human tendency to judge in a recent conversation with a friend. My daughter maintains that only God is able to judge rightly. He alone knows the heart.

    My husband picked up a saying that, unfortunately, has some truth to it. Many Christians practice a “grace for me, justice for you” way of dealing with others.

    Compassion and mercy…Lord Jesus, may we be more like you. Help us (e.g., Please save us from ourselves!)

  • TJJ

    Excellent post and very challenging questions. I think most contemporary Christians have little idea of what Paul was teaching on this point and live little of it, out of ignorance and misunderstanding. We need so much more teaching on this!

  • DRT

    Tim, [sorry to post and run earlier], I would consider my gay child to blessed with the knowledge of their heart and that is a difficult thing to ascertain.

    Thanks for pointing that out.

    I was more addressing it with a hypothetical, even if I thought it was a sin, though it did not come out that way. As a parent of teens, all I could possibly hope for them is that they find someone with whom they can be happy and loved.

    I wholly support gay marriage.

  • DRT

    …but I have to confess, I have a gay sibling.

  • Joe Canner

    DRT #16: That does have a big impact on one’s outlook, doesn’t it? When someone you love is “living in sin” and yet also loving her partner, her child, her God, and her neighbors (literal and figurative), it kind of messes up those boxes we like to put people in.

  • Love the thoughts here. So edifying. Yes, we need to learn to live in the Spirit through Jesus.

  • Jan I

    Susan N.@4

    “But Jesus, being God incarnate, broke the law by working on the sabbath (healing the man’s withered hand). His disciples, likewise, broke the law by gathering wheat on the sabbath. What does that tell you?”

    Did he break the Torah or the man-made interpretations and supplements to the law? If Christ, the fullfilment of law and perfect lamb indeed did break Gods commandements, would not that be game over for His atoning sacrifice and our salvation?