This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
- the material that covers the bones of a human or animal body (1 Cor 15:39)
- the human body as a whole (1 Cor 7:1)
- the human being generally (1 Cor 1:28-29)
- human state or condition (1 Cor 10:18) / in distinction from God = neutral
- 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).” 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.
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?
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.
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.
 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.
 Douglas Moo, “‘Flesh’ in Romans: A Challenge for the Translator,” in The Challenge of Bible Translation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 366.
 Ibid., 367.