Justification and Regeneration | Reviewed

March 19, 2013 — 15 Comments

A00002_main__15222.1300406645.1280.1280This past weekend Pastor Charles Leiter came to preach at Immanuel Baptist Church in Louisville.

Leiter is a godly man whose love for the Church, Christ, the Word, and the lost are evident.

He had a Saturday morning discussion of a book he has written called “Justification and Regeneration” (free PDF of it here).

I have heard a wide range of opinions about this book. Some have noted how it has been greatly influential in their perception of their new identity in Christ. Others have said it is a dangerous book that should be avoided.

My hope is that this review will provide some clarifications, while also affirming a good emphasis of the book.

But a few words before I begin. I will avoid the debate on Romans 7. The passage is so disputed, very little is accomplished by working through it. Other reviews I have found did not critique the book very much, although Ortlund hinted that he would agree with my reservations. (Tim Challies, Nathan Pitchford,  and Dane Ortlund)

Finally, I am open to sharpening on this issue. I would love to be challenged as I think through these topics. By no means am saying I have the final word on this. I do hope you find this helpful.

Summary

The book is mainly about regeneration. The first three chapters are on sin as man’s ultimate problem, the holiness of God and how men can get right with God, and then justification and its characteristics. The rest of the book is about regeneration. He divides the chapters with biblical descriptions of the “newness” of regeneration: a new creation, new man, new heart, new birth, and a new nature. The Bible also describes it as a crucifixion and resurrection. He then describes the change of realms: from flesh to Spirit, from earth to heaven, from sin to righteousness, from law to grace, from Adam to Christ.

The book is very accessible and clear on topics that can easily lose readers because of their depth. The chapters are short, and the titles well suited to each chapter, making it an easy read.

Our New Identity

Positively, this book is a good corrective to easy believism, carnal Christianity, and defeatist mindsets in Christian circles.

Leiter rightly saw people claiming to be Christians without a changed life and went to the Scriptures and saw that when someone is converted they are “new.” They cannot continue to live in sin for Christians have been crucified with Christ. Christians cannot live a life with no growth, for growth shows life. And Christians are alive in Christ Jesus.

In addition Leiter helpfully responds to Christian who think sin has defeated them. He gives them hope by pointing to who they are now in Christ Jesus. The Spirit now lives in them, they have a new heart, and a new nature so they can fight their sin with confidence that God will give them victory.

All this provides a needed emphasis on our new identity in Christ. Christians have for too long been introspective, considering themselves as wretched and worthless, a form of “worm Christianity.” But in the New Testament, the emphasis seems to be on the new identity we have in Christ. Paul never writes to the “wretches” in Corinth, but the saints in Corinth. Even if one thinks (unlike Leiter) that there is still a struggle between the old man and the new man, they must admit that the emphasis lies on our newness and not on our former manner of life.

These are all helpful correctives presented in an accessible way.

Concerns

Although I will spend most of my time on critiques and clarifications, this is not because I think the book is largely in error. I would happily give this book to another Christian although I would mention that my views differ slightly from Leiter’s on the complexity of the issue.

These concerns can be categorized under three different critiques that all feed into one another. I think if the first block is pulled from the base, then the rest of critiques naturally fall into place.

Flesh

This first critique is on his view of the flesh (σὰρξ). Leiter says the following about the flesh.

  • The flesh is the unredeemed physical body viewed as the place where sin still tries to assert itself. (85)
  • The flesh is “our body of sin” (Rom 6:6), the body of death (7:24), mortal body (6:12). Sins can actually be spoken of as deeds of the body (8:13).
  • The mortal body is where sin still tries to reign. (85)
  • The flesh is not who we really are; it is only superficial and a temporary aspect of our total personality and is doomed to pass away. (85)
  • The flesh does not represent who the Christian really is. (59)

Flesh can and regularly does mean the physical body. But it means more as well. The term probably began with this specific meaning. But various extensions (as with most terms) caused it to have fresh meanings that are connected with the original meaning, but distinct from it. Louw and Nida give no less than eight distinctive meanings to flesh.[1] Anthony Thiselton says the word is a “polymorphous concept” and its meaning is very much context dependent.

Doug Moo agrees in his article on translating σὰρξ, giving five different categories for Paul’s use of the term.[2]

  1. the material that covers the bones of a human or animal body (1 Cor 15:39)
  2. the human body as a whole (1 Cor 7:1)
  3. the human being generally (1 Cor 1:28-29)
  4. human state or condition (1 Cor 10:18) / in distinction from God = neutral
  5. human condition in its fallenness (Gal 5:16-17) / in contrast to God = ethical

Flesh, when put opposite to Spirit can signify sinful nature (Gal 5:19; 6:8). Therefore the term is not only external but also internal. It stands not only for our unredeemed physical body, but our unredeemed nature. Moo says, “this sense of sarx is quite common in Paul (anywhere from 25 to 30 occurrences, depending on how one interprets several notoriously difficult texts).”[3] Leiter seems aware of this view but rejects it. He comments on this view in Romans 8:8-9 saying “the NIV replaces ‘flesh’ with ‘controlled by the sinful nature.’ Here Biblical translation has given way to theological fancy.” (91) Leiter has made the mistake of seeing a word used one way in context and then transferring this meaning to every other occurrence (illegitimate totality transfer).

This view is not only problematic contextually, but the implications are also concerning.

First it comes close to a Gnostic understanding of our being. Separating body from soul is not something that the Scriptures seem to condone. We are a complex mixture of the two.

Second, this view gives does not rightly explain some of the works of the flesh. Paul in Galatians 5 speaks of idolatry, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, and envy. These things are not just part of physical body but stem from our heart and mind.

Third, this view of the flesh does not adequately explain Jesus’ statement in Mark 7:21. Jesus says, “For from within, out of the heart of a man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery etc.” I asked him about this verse and he asserted that this verse is speaking of non-Christians. But this really does not answer the question. Jesus, even if he speaking to/of non-Christians, is making a statement about human nature.

Where does evil then come from in a Christian? I would say it comes from the heart, and Leiter would say the flesh. But we are again back at our starting point, the definition of flesh. Flesh does not just mean our physical substance but can also be a nature term. Therefore if one sees the flexibility with which Paul uses the term flesh, then the heart is still where this evil comes from. Paul describes it as our flesh, even our fleshly desires, which are opposed to the Spirit.

There is more that could be said on this point, but in summary, I think Leiter has wrongly defined the flesh by externalizing it in every occurrence and separating it from who we are in a way the Scriptures do not.

Over-Realized Anthropology

If this piece is pulled, then the whole edifice needs re-working. For Leiter poses a slightly over-realized anthropology in regards to our new nature. This point must be nuanced for what he affirms is not wrong, it is how he affirms it, and what he denies. He is right to point to verses that suggest this is a done deal. “The old has passed away, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17-18). We have “laid aside the old self and put on the new self” (Col 3:9-11). The Christian is really and genuinely a new person.

But he emphatically denies that the Christian is both an old man and new man. He says,

  • “don’t be convinced you are both good and evil.” (58)
  • “The Christian is no longer a sinner, but a saint.” (72)
  • The Bible never represents our old man as alive – whether kicking and struggling on the cross or hiding somewhere within us. The old man is dead, buried, gone forever. “I have been crucified with Christ, it is I who no longer lives.” (84)

But if my understanding flesh is correct then it is more complex than this. The flesh is crucified, but we still struggle against it. We are new, but sinful desires still overtake us. Whether it is best to describe this as the old man as alive or not can be debated. But Ephesians 4:22 does command us, “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life…and to put on the new self.” Paul says there is still a real struggle with the old man.

Therefore to say that Christians are no longer evil but good should give us pause. Historically the dominant view has been opposed to what Leiter is writing. Luther said the Christian is “simul iustus et peccator” (simultaneously a sinner and saint). Calvin agreed, as did Augustine.

And although it can be a helpful corrective, it does not take a wide view of the Scriptures. Consider the situations Paul is writing to. The saints in the Corinth are suing one another, arguing, having sex with the temple prostitutes, and living ascetic lives contrary to scripture. The Galatians are on the verge of abandoning the Gospel. The Thessalonians are waiting for the coming of the Lord and not working. These saints are really new but they still struggle mightily with sin.

Additionally it should give us pause because it does not do justice to most Christian experience. Throughout history Christians have fallen in various ways. Leiter does not deny this, but is he explaining our experience adequately?

Unintended Consequences

Finally, this emphasis could lead to a devaluing of the cross (although it does not have to). The counseling imperative in this book is “become who you are.” And this is right and good, and found in the Scriptures. However, there could be cases where a Christian struggling with sin is simply told “become who you are” and is not told to run to the cross where all these sins are paid for.  “Become who you are” means nothing without placing it in the backdrop of the cross. A counselor’s default advice should be focused on the focal point of Scripture, the cross. Grace compels people.

With the former advice, struggling sensitive Christians could start to convince themselves that they are not believers at all. Ironically, the reaction to defeatist Christianity could produce defeatist Christianity. Admittedly, Leiter never advocates any of this, never devalues the cross, and that is not his intention. However when analyzing a work we must be attuned to unintended consequences and implications that may follow.

Summary

Leiter challenged me when I read the book. I too noticed how little the NT speaks of the old man. He is right that the emphasis is on our new identity in Christ. But I think he has misunderstood the flesh, and consequently has presented a reality within our hearts that is too neat, and not as complex as the Scriptures convey.

This book has been helpful to many Christians and I do not want to take that away from them. But there are edges in the book that need the smoothing of Scripture.



[1] J.P. Louw and E.A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on semantic Domains (New York: UBS, 1988), 94, 102, 105, 106, 112, 262, 322, 587.

[2] Douglas Moo, “‘Flesh’ in Romans: A Challenge for the Translator,” in The Challenge of Bible Translation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 366.

[3] Ibid., 367.

Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

15 responses to Justification and Regeneration | Reviewed

  1. Patrick,

    Thanks for this review. It is a gracious and helpful critique.

    Brian

  2. Paul Stubblefield March 19, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Patrick,

    I found this very helpful. I really enjoyed Leiter’s book,and it was helpful for me in many ways. I too would gladly hand it out another person. Your review was helpful in helping me see why I did have some reservations. The implications of Leiter’s understanding of the flesh is huge in pastoral counseling. I would give this book out to someone wanting to understand justification and regeration . I would be hesitant to refer to some of Leiter’s teaching in counseling situations .

  3. P,

    Your brief study on the word “flesh” is quite helpful. You and I have talked on these issues at length, so no need to rehash them here. While I will say that Leiter’s teaching on justification was incredibly helpful and heart-warming, the things that you have here posited as concerns related to his view of the new birth are, in my estimation, right on target.

    The only thing that I would add, which you certainly know, is that while Paul emphasizes our new identity in Christ, he often does this by calling us to remember our old state (so Eph 2.1-3, 10-13, for example). In other words, his emphasis is not a call to forget but to be mindful from where God has redeemed us in Christ. The wonder of the new birth underscored by such a remembrance. By grace, we are able to will what God has revealed to be His will–something we were not able or willing to do prior to the onset of this regenerating grace.

    I rejoice in God and am thankful to Him for you, your family, and your labors in the vineyard of the Lord Jesus,

    B

  4. Patrick,

    Hey, brother. I’ve been thinking on these things for a while. I’ve seen both the positive and negative results of improper thinking about my identity in Christ. The tendency to over-realize the new man can strongly influence Christian disciplines. I saw a leaning towards passivity, because ‘thinking’ on the new man blurred the line between justification and sanctification ( run the race/ fight the fight). I share that to simply personalize my comments.

    I am interested in hearing your thoughts on advocacy. What correlation would you see between here and 1 John 2:1-2? I see a concurrent advocacy on the behalf of believers who are then encouraged to abide (verb meno I think) in Christ (1 John 2:28) even if they do sin. How do you handle the tension there in light of this critique?

  5. Hey Brother,
    This conversation brings back fond memories of IBC (and Brian’s blog). I, too, appreciate your analysis of “flesh.” And I am very helped by this call to not over-simplify the Christian’s battle with sin. Couple thoughts: 1) I cannot speak for Leiter, but I do think that the way the NT describes the “flesh”, regardless of context, is that it is no longer the identity of the Christian (things like Rom 6.12-13). I don’t know that internal vs. external needs to be the debate. I think it has more to do (which I find helpful in counseling) with “who am I?” Even “simultaneously sinner and saint” can mean that “I am a saint who sins.” 2) Regarding Eph 4, it seems possible that “to put off the old self” is what the Christian was taught in the past (v20). We should tell unbelievers “Christ died and rose again. Repent and believe. Put off the old self and put on the new.” I don’t know that Paul’s instruction is to keep telling believers what we might have told them at conversion when it comes to progressive sanctification.

  6. Great review. Thanks, bro!

  7. Charles

    I am not entirely sure what you are getting at but it does relate in the sense that when we do sin we run to Christ. This is not opposed to “becoming who we are” but it seems to be the general push of the NT.

  8. Thank you for taking the time to think and write on this brother.
    I often wonder how I can articulate what I am thinking, and then I read your blog and it’s like, “Oh, that is how you say it!”.

    An area I am curious about is the effect Leiter’s view that evil is not from the heart has or can have on the doctrine of repentance in the life of a believer.

    • Glen

      Good question. I am not entirely how Leiter would respond but I see where you are aiming. Are we repenting for our flesh, our external body?

      This does not seem to make sense but maybe I am missing something.

  9. Thanks, Patrick. I agree with you and have also have concerns about the effect on counselees– though overall I really appreciate Leiter (both sermons & writing).

  10. Patrick,

    I am grateful for the gentle and peaceable tone with which you address Leiter’s book. I agre with much of what you have said. Please allow me to address one point, that is, translating “flesh” (Greek sarx) as “sinful nature” in the context of flesh vs. Spirit. I agree with you that defining the word “flesh” as merely external is problematic (although in practice, Leiter teaches that the flesh has an impact on the heart and mind of a Christian). But to regard “the flesh” as another “nature” within a Christian also seems to me to lead in an unbiblical direction.

    You are certainly correct that “flesh” means various things in the Bible. And you are also correct that Christians struggle with the “flesh,” as a power that actively opposes the Spirit. The question, however, is whether Paul is talking about a “sinful nature” residing withing a Christian when he contrasts flesh and Spirit, for example, in Romans 7-8 or Galatians 5.

    In your blog, you write: “Flesh, when put opposite to Spirit signifies sinful nature.” The point in question in this section of your essay is whether “flesh” has an internal component. But defining flesh as “sinful nature,” goes too far in my opinion. Just prior to making this assertion, you appeal to Douglas Moo’s various definitions of “flesh.” But Douglas Moo is critical of the translation “sinful nature” for Greek sarx and his overall treatment of Spirit vs. flesh runs in a different direction than your reference to him might imply. In his commentary on Romans, Moo defines flesh, as opposed to Spirit as follows: “Flesh and Spirit stand over against each other not as parts of a person (an anthropological dualism), nor even as impulses or powers within a person, but as the powers, or dominating features, of the two ‘realms’ of salvation history. ‘To walk according to the flesh,’ then, is to have one’s life determined and directed by the values of ‘his world,’ of the world in rebellion against God. It is a lifestyle that is purely ‘human’ in its orientation. To ‘walk according to the Spirit,’ on the other hand, is to live under the control, and according to the values of the ‘new age,’ created and dominated by God’s Spirit as his eschatological gift” (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 485). Elsewhere, in a footnote to his discussion of flesh and Spirit in relation to Romans 7:5, he writes: “‘Flesh,’ in this sense, is not part of the person, nor even exactly an impulse or ‘nature’ within the person — for this reason the NIV translation ‘sinful nature’ for sarx throughout Rom. 7-8 is very misleading — but a ‘power sphere’ in which a person lives” (Romans, p. 418, note 51).

    I had concluded that “sinful nature” was an unfortunate translation long before I ever heard that Charles Leiter said it, because the term implies that man has two “natures” — one that is righteous and one that is sinful, living within him simultaneously. Many others besides Douglas Moo and Charles Leiter agree with my assessment. Certainly, a Christian struggles against the influence of the flesh, but he is no longer ruled by it. Are there seasons in a Christian’s life where sin seems to be dominating? Certainly. But is this the perpetual, long-term state of a Christian? I think the New Testament indicates that being under a new “governing power” — that is, the Spirit — leads to a measure of consistent victory. The best analogy I have heard is this. Before coming to Christ, I was under the government of the evil world system The “powers” that ruled me — the legislature, the judicial branch, etc. — were all hostile to God and arrayed against him. But when God saved me, he transferred me into a new kingdom, with new governing powers. I am no longer under the old powers and they no longer dominate my life. But they still engage in guerrilla warfare against the new government, and I often am caught up in the guerrilla war.

    Blessings,
    Andy McClurg
    Pastor, Immanuel Baptist Church

    • Thanks Andy. I was under the impression that Moo rejected “sinful nature” for consistency rather than the meaning. I am fine to abandon “nature” although it seems to be a semantic debate.

      I don’t agree that flesh is not part of a person. And if it is part of a person, and not only external, then things are more complex than Leiter portrays.

  11. Jason Dellinger October 29, 2017 at 6:19 pm

    After service last Sunday, I was introduced to the concepts of this book and some of the further views of NCT. Today, I received a copy of the book to borrow. After reading it, I arrived at much of the same concern that just finished reading here.
    I find it troubling to state the flesh is both an aspect of the personality and the unredeemed physical body. The latter is material, the former isn’t. The phsical body isn’t identified as the ultimate fountain head of ‘thoughts, emotions, and will.’ Scripture locates these in the spiritual organs of our being (e.g. heart, mind, kidneys). Christ teaches this (heart) is well from which sin, in its various forms, springs. The Lord doesn’t assign habitation to the physical body. While Pastor Leitor says this applies only to the unredeemed, he doesn’t offer sin’s place residence within the redeemed. Traditional Christian thought would agree that sin finds an outlet through the physical body, but not apart from thoughts, emotions, and will. Although Edwards captured the human reality so well, namely, that we choose according to our strongest inclination or desire at any given moment; the human experience reveals quite clearly that actions are preceded by motives. This follows on the heels of every criminal investigation. Some are so obvious, that any further inquiry isn’t necessary. The issue with Pastor Leiter position is that we have the material operating apart from the immaterial, actions apart from intelligence, affections, determination; unless, seemingly, we attribute these to the physical body. If we do this, then, we still end up with two very different sources for thoughts, feelings, and decisions. Moreover, we have entirely redeemed, and now pure (perhaps, even perfect) aspect(s) of our being (or, personality), at times, defeated by to an aspect that isn’t.
    To be somewhat fair, Pastor Leiter does acknowledge when Scripture teaches that sin executes activity through the physical body, it says it’s I/we/us that commit the sin. I have a difficult time not only seeing how an entirely pure redeemed aspect(s) of our being (or, personality) can be overcome by (just) one that isn’t, but also, how would that pure aspect of our being retain that state; how would it remain undefiled, and thus, not require another act of the Spirit’s application of redemption (i.e. make it pure again).
    The grammar in Ephesians clearly shows a present active ongoing endeavor on the redeemed’s part. The physical body isn’t. It’s equally true that we can’t remove it. Rather, it’s who we used to be, which was expressed through our physical bodies, that we put off. The physical body continues to be an outlet for sin, if we allow it to do so; if we walk according to the flesh, instead of the Spirit (not spirit). Yet, the physical body alone isn’t a prospective sphere of opertion: the thoughts, emotions, and will aren’t any less susceptible, and antecedent to sin carried out through the physical body.

  12. Thanks for the review. This was quite helpful.

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