December 11, 2019

Richard Beck on Weakness and the Spirit

Self-Portrait – Disintegration. Photo by Cyril Rana at Flickr

Note from CM: Thanks to Richard Beck for his series on Paul and the Law at his blog, Experimental Theology. Here is a tremendously insightful post on Paul’s concept of “the flesh” that opens the door, in my view, for a much richer, deeper, and broader understanding of salvation.

• • •

Richard Beck on Weakness and the Spirit

In my post yesterday regarding Paul’s observations concerning Law and Sin a critical piece was missing: the flesh.

Specifically, according to Paul Sin seizes opportunity through the Law because of the weakness of the flesh. As Paul writes in Romans 8.6-7:

For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.

In Chapter 7 Paul gives a vivid description about how the flesh is unable, under the power of Sin, to obey God’s Law:

Romans 7.14-15, 18
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.

Notice the key theme: Incapacity.  The flesh does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot. I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.

The deep issue for Paul is human incapacity and weakness, our congenital inability to carry out God’s good, righteous and holy commands.

To be clear, Paul isn’t preaching “total depravity.” In the picture Paul is painting we both know and desire to do the right things. Deep down, we are good people. The problem is that we’re too weak to be the good people we desire to be. The issue isn’t wickedness, but weakness.

Overcoming this incapacity, then, is the main point of salvation. And according to Paul, our fleshly incapacity is overcome by the power of the Spirit: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8.13)

What’s interesting here is how this reading of Paul isn’t new or modern. This is the primary way the church fathers understood salvation. Specifically, salvation is less about the forgiveness of sin than the Spirit healing human weakness.

For example, Athanasius describes in On the Incarnation how Adam’s sin returned humanity to a mortal, animal existence. In the Garden, when we had communion with God, we had been protected from death and corruption: “Because of the Word present in them, even natural corruption did not come near them.” But after the Fall, we fell into a weakened mortal state: “When this happened, human beings died and corruption thenceforth prevailed against them.” Under the sway of death, sin began to dominate human existence the whole affair tipping toward madness, violence, and darkness. The Image of God began slipping away from us: “For these reasons, then, with death holding greater sway and corruption remaining fast against human beings, the race of humans was perishing, and the human being, made rational and in the image, was disappearing, and the work made by God was being obliterated.”

The human being was disappearing. That was the problem. The Image of God in us was being slowly obliterated.

So as we see in Athanasius, the issue isn’t really about our need for God to forgive our sins. The problem was that, separated from God’s life, the entire human project was falling into darkness and chaos. The human being was disappearing, leaving only beasts upon the earth. Sure, God needs to forgive us. But God needs to do something more drastic and dramatic to keep the cosmos from tipping over into death and dissolution, to save and secure the Image of God that was fading from the world.

And God does this more dramatic and drastic thing by reuniting God’s divine nature with human flesh through the Incarnation. In the Incarnation God permanently marks human flesh with His Image. More, through the resurrection of Incarnated flesh, humans were given power over death and corruption.

The key idea here for Athanasius, and for Paul in Romans, is that salvation is fundamentally about power, a power human flesh lacks when separated from God’s divine life. And for Paul, it’s the gift of the Spirit that gives us this power. The Spirit is our tether, our umbilical cord, to God’s life.

So for Paul, the gospel message isn’t primarily about “the forgiveness of sins.” The Good News is fundamentally about reunion and participation in the Divine Life, the power of the Spirit to overcome our weakness and incapacity in the face of Sin and Death:

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Comments

  1. “In the picture Paul is painting we both know and desire to do the right things. Deep down, we are good people. The problem is that we’re too weak to be the good people we desire to be. The issue isn’t wickedness, but weakness.”

    Eh. Human “weakness” doesn’t explain our dark impulses, our coldness to God, or Rwanda. IMO, we are both weak AND depraved, and need both healing AND forgiveness.

    • Robert F says

      Although I wouldn’t use the word depraved (too much baggage, and not necessitated by New Testament language regarding our condition), I basically agree.

      • In my opinion, there is something you are both missing. Something which a lot of evangelical theology misses as well. That is the fact that sin is not only something that characterizes the human condition, but that sin with a capital S is a great power that exercises dominion over humankind in this world. It is capital S sin that has human beings under its power and sway. It is capital S sin that takes advantage of our human weakness and produces the most ghastly examples of human behavior. Sin and evil and corruption use human beings and it is not all sourced in us.

        • Beck’s article goes on to describe this in vivid detail. The power of Sin that humans opened the door to threatened nothing less than the dissolution of God’s creation.

          • Given the state of nature and the environment, civilization, and things in general… Beck may not be wrong. 🙁

        • I would actually agree. But just because it is not *all* sourced in us does not mean that there isn’t *a* source in us. All of us, in point of fact.

          • I don’t think Beck would disagree, Eeyore. In fact, I think this is exactly what is being talked about when he says, “Under the sway of death, sin began to dominate human existence the whole affair tipping toward madness, violence, and darkness….The human being was disappearing. That was the problem. The Image of God in us was being slowly obliterated.”

            Our very humanity, because of our weakness and mortality, has become corrupted and continues to be corrupted so that we are losing the very divine image with which God created us.

            What excites me is that this leads to a much more profound understanding of salvation: “So for Paul, the gospel message isn’t primarily about “the forgiveness of sins.” The Good News is fundamentally about reunion and participation in the Divine Life, the power of the Spirit to overcome our weakness and incapacity in the face of Sin and Death.”

            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              The human being was disappearing. That was the problem. The Image of God in us was being slowly obliterated.”

              What this brought to mind was:
              1) Silicon Valley Zillionares looking forward to uploading their consciousness into the Cloud at the Singularity and living forever in Virtual Reality as a string of ones and zeros.
              2) Planet Zuckerberg, where Everyone is Connected into one big Social Media Gestalt Massmind, Computers! Computers! Computers! Computers! Computers! (I’m Old School lit-SF. Wasn’t a Massmind considered a BAD thing?)

            • Dana Ames says

              Ch Mike, this is nothing other than EOrthodox theology.

              Dana

              • Yep. And this post is a good example of why people as different as Luther and John Wesley and so many of us on the post-evangelical journey have found it stimulating and refreshing.

                • Dana Ames says

                  I think Wesley read the Greek Fathers, but don’t know what he thought of them. I’m not sure that Luther would have seen them and EO differently than he saw the Roman Catholic Church.

                  EO doesn’t look at people as “both sinners and justified”, and we would never look at people as “snow-covered dung”. Human beings are not the same thing as our sin.

                  I tried simply integrating the “stimulating and refreshing” aspects of Orthodoxy into my Christianity. That worked for a while… until it didn’t. I realized I had to take Orthodoxy as the whole cloth it is, because over time I found myself woven into it. One day I went and knocked on the door.

                  Dana

                  • David Cornwell says

                    I have a book somewhere that is a collection of essays written by EO theologians and Methodist theologians discussing the relationship of Wesleyan theology to that of the Greek Fathers, etc. It is in my garage and hasn’t been unpacked yet from my move a couple of years ago. I think it is this book: “Orthodox and Wesleyan Spirituality.”

                    The following is the foreword
                    :
                    “What can be learned about Christian faith and life in the original sources and authoritative witnesses of Eastern Orthodoxy and Wesleyan Methodism is boundlessly enlightening and life-giving. We thank God for raising up Christian scholars capable of offering these theological and spiritual treasures.”
                    — Thomas Hopko, from the Foreword

                    https://www.svspress.com/orthodox-and-wesleyan-spirituality/

                    I’m way behind on my theological reading, so decided to read an espionage novel instead.

  2. Robert F says

    Deep down, we are good people.

    Could someone please point the way to this deep down goodness in me? I’ve never been able to locate it, despite years of trying through meditation and probing self-reflection. The rascal inside, on the other hand, is pervasive, and has to be put in check at every turn. That is my experience.

    I think when Paul is talking about our inability to do good though wanting to, he is not talking about the general human condition, but the condition of those who have already professed Christ and still are having trouble walking the straight and narrow. He is offering pastoral encouragement to the community of believers, not those outside the community. I think his view of the general human condition is more pessimistic than his view of the human condition of those already in the community of believers.

    • “Could someone please point the way to this deep down goodness in me? I’ve never been able to locate it, despite years of trying through meditation and probing self-reflection. The rascal inside, on the other hand, is pervasive, and has to be put in check at every turn. That is my experience.”

      Same here, brother.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Then where is the Hope?
        If there’s NO “deep down goodness in me”, in the words of the prophet Hawkeye Pierce, “We may as well all hold hands and walk into a chopper blade.”

        • Robert F says

          Hope may still be found in the goodness of Jesus Christ, and his Spirit working in me. I believe that Paul’s words about the good that we would do is in reference to the Spirit of God working in us as members of the Body of Christ, and how this Spirit is stifled by the part of us that is bent inward and downward. Absent the power of the Spirit and my redemption in Christ, I fall downward and inward forever and ever. I know enough of myself to know that.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Your very comments here betray this reality. I’ve never met either of you, and I have no problems seeing goodness in either of you. The self-reflection itself is evidence of this.

        • Recognition of one’s depravity does not negate one’s depravity. [Would that more of my fellow Calvinists realized that…]

          • Rick Ro. says

            I would counter that at least self-reflection is the BEGINNING of moving toward goodness. I don’t think a truly depraved soul does any self-reflection.

            And yes… I too wish the Calvinists who believe in “TULIP uber alles” would also realize that.

            • Robert F says

              It is possible to know oneself deeply, as deeply as human beings are able to know themselves, and to reject oneself, by extension rejecting God and neighbor. If such knowing rejection of God, neighbor, and self were not possible, it would be obfuscation to talk about evil and sin where only ignorance and incapacity are involved. No real guilt could be attributed to someone on the basis of their acting out of ignorance and incapacity; they are merely mistaken, and why should anyone have to die on a cross to correct ignorance and incapacity? Knowledge would be the key to fixing the problem of being mistaken, even on a cosmic scale; in that case, the Gnostics would likely have a better strategy for fixing the human predicament, since their solution centers on knowledge as the way out of the problem.

        • I was going to write this very thing to both Eeyore and Robert.

        • Robert F says

          Neither of us are saying that no goodness is within us; we are saying that, apart from the work of the Spirit in us, it is not enough goodness to counter that which is bent inward and downward. It is possible to love evil, negation of the good, and destruction of what God has created good; I must insist that I know this personally, because I do.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            Maybe. Yet Human Civilization persists. The lights in many places stay on, in many places people do not fear the police, in many places the water is safe to drink. Clearly something in Humans can work.

            And, no, I give zero zilch nada credit for any of that to The Holy Spirit.

            Some part of something in almost every human being is capable of a degree of action and sacrifice for the collective good.

            • Robert F says

              It is no uncommon that this very ability to act and sacrifice for the good of one collective results in the destruction of another one.

    • Dana Ames says

      Nobody does evil in order to “do evil”, even “the big H”. People do evil things because in our own minds we have a warped view of what is good, and justify and rationalize our evil thoughts and actions so that we believe we are doing or serving good. There’s more than one reason people do this, and most go back to the fear of death/non-existence which enslaves us.

      Dana

      • Robert F says

        Dostoevsky in his parable of the Grand Inquisitor asserted that there exists a Spirit of negation and destruction that may take hold of a human being, and cause that human being to want to spitefully destroy God’s creative work. If doing evil is a real possibility, then it must be possible to adequately know that it is the rejection of good and yet choose it, otherwise what we call evil is really just ignorance, and we should stop using the world evil or calling it sin. If we do not have the choice to knowingly turn away from and reject God, then we are incapable of knowingly willing evil, and we are merely making a mistake due to ignorance — where is the sin?

        • Dana Ames says

          Well, in EO we pray for forgiveness of our sins of word or deed, of knowledge or ignorance… Yes, we make choices, and sometimes we are ignorant, and/or we’re in situations where no choice is a good choice. Yes, we have to be able to reject the good, or else our love would not be freely given. But remember what Christ does to the Grand Inquisitor in the end.

          Dana

  3. David Cornwell says

    “The key idea here for Athanasius, and for Paul in Romans, is that salvation is fundamentally about power, a power human flesh lacks when separated from God’s divine life. And for Paul, it’s the gift of the Spirit that gives us this power. The Spirit is our tether, our umbilical cord, to God’s life.”

    This sounds very near to the Wesleyan idea of sanctification. In theory, it fits very nicely. In the mid-1950s young college students in my alma mater were treated to a daily dose of this doctrine. Adolescents were always guilty of one thing or another, so altar calls were prolific. Later on, in seminary, this had been moderated somewhat, at least by some professors. Like anything else, there are variations within this body of ideas. The problem which presented itself however, when the doctrine was pushed to extremes is this: few who claimed to have reached this state of grace actually exhibited its fruits. Human pride was always lurking at the door. Another problem was the instantaneous nature of the experience. The extreme of this doctrine taught that one’s heart could be made “perfect” through an instantaneous experience of grace. It is called, by one name, “perfect love.” Everyday life in the real world quickly exposed the practical fallacies of the doctrine. The human “condition” seemed to always expose itself, even to those made “perfect in love” in the everyday issues and relationships that are the experience of all of us. However, those who claimed this state of grace usually presented with an extra external dose of piety.

    Some of these things are semantics i.e. the use of certain words that mean one thing to one group of people and something else to another group. And trying to transfer terminology and language from one culturally shaped era to another is also a huge problem.

    Another thing lacking early on was this: I never heard this possibility explained in terms of the incarnation. To my mind, this brings an entirely new and positive facet to be considered.

    • Christiane says

      THIS !

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      In Butterflies in the Belfry, Serpents in the Cellar, J Michael Jones elaborates on the bad side effects of “a daily does of this doctrine” and “the instantaneous nature of the experience”.

    • “And God does this more dramatic and drastic thing by reuniting God’s divine nature with human flesh through the Incarnation. In the Incarnation God permanently marks human flesh with His Image. More, through the resurrection of Incarnated flesh, humans were given power over death and corruption.”

      This is much broader in its definition than most of what I’ve heard before: “the resurrection of Incarnated flesh, humans were given power over death and corruption.” Thus the real power of God, or the Word, who became flesh and dwelt among us and through the resurrection dwells among us.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Which reduces the Culture War mantra of “Christians were given power to Pack the Supreme Court, Stamp Out Homosexuality, and Return Prayer to Schools” to trivial distractions. (I mean, REALLY? When compared to Victory over Death and Corruption?)

      • Dana Ames says

        It’s more than permanently marking human flesh with His Image – he did that when he created humanity in the first place. It that in the Incarnation Christ united the divine nature with human nature. (Remember, “nature” in Eastern/Early Xian thought is simply “that which makes an entity what it is”.) Our nature has not “fallen” – it remains as God created it, but it has become weakened – through enslavement to Sin by means of the fear of death and dissolution (Heb 2), and to our desire to satisfy ourselves from within our own lives and existence.

        Because of the Incarnation – Christ having a human nature as well as a divine one – everything he did redounds to us as well, because he shares our nature. Since he was raised from the dead, his Resurrection redounds to all of us. We no longer need to be held captive by fear of death. That part of what makes us weak has been dealt with. Our lives no longer stop at the grave – we will come out the other side, just as Jesus did. So, we have a basis from which address – and allow the Holy Spirit to address – the other things that still weaken us: to live in trusting loyalty to God (faith), turning to him (“repentance”) sure of his love because he was crucified for us (!) and taking the step that allows the Holy Spirit to work within us: saying “yes” to God, with Thanksgiving.

        How would we try to live if we truly believed death doesn’t have the last word, that we are free from its finality? That even if our body is killed, God’s plan is to return it to us, so that we will ultimately realize the fullness of being human (consisting of both body and soul, partaking in the divine nature)? …. Like Jean Vanier, among others, including St Athanasius, many of them martyrs – witnesses to this reality of what being baptized into Christ’s Resurrection means, especially in terms of the Incarnation.

        Dana

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      “””when the doctrine was pushed to extremes is this: few who claimed to have reached this state of grace actually exhibited its fruits. Human pride was always lurking at the door. “””

      I suspect that the “extreme” of this doctrine which you mention is more a perversion than a true in extremis.

      aside: most in extremis critiques subtly rely on goal post gamesmanship.

      There is a lot in : “””few WHO CLAIMED to have reached””” That is an odd thing for a humble person to assert for themselves.

      “””Human pride was always lurking at the door. “”” of course, always.

      • “here is a lot in : “””few WHO CLAIMED to have reached””” That is an odd thing for a humble person to assert for themselves.”

        Yes. I had a professor who had some kind of disagreement with the college president who was a strong advocate of this doctrine. She was called into his office and was told that he had serious doubts about her claim of “having been made perfect in love” or the experience of entire sanctification. He’d received this experience many years before and therefore thought he was a more perfect judge (my interpretation). She came away from her “sit-down” with the prez with very hurt feelings.

        Years later when I was in seminary (across the street, but a totally different school) the terminology had changed somewhat. Entire sanctification had been replaced with “being filled with the Holy Spirit.” And arguments about how the “baptism of the Spirit” was different from the Spirit’s infilling. Some of the older profs still clung to the older terminology thus a tension that sometimes spilled over into meetings of the trustees.

    • Rick Ro. says

      Excellent post, David.

  4. Rick Ro. says

    –> ” The Good News is fundamentally about reunion and participation in the Divine Life, the power of the Spirit to overcome our weakness and incapacity in the face of Sin and Death:”

    One of the speakers I saw at a Christian conference a couple years back asked the uncomfortable question: “If we all have the Holy Spirit in us, why do we still screw up so much?”

    It occurs to me that “incapacity” and “free will” are more powerful than the Holy Spirit.

    • Either that, or not all that many of us actually *have* the Holy Spirit in us. Neither of which is a comforting thought by any stretch of the imagination…

      • Rick Ro. says

        Agreed. Which brings it all back to: I hope Jesus is who he said he is, and that he’ll do what he said he’d do.

      • Christiane says

        wait a minute:

        the next time you have the sudden impulse to express kindness to someone irrationally, you have to consider Who the source of that prompting might be

        if you ACT on the impulse, you are choosing to do so, but the impulse itself is a form of guidance . . . the kind that leads us around in the darkness so we don’t get lost

        • Rick Ro. says

          Good point, Christiane!!! Thanks for that. And true… there are times when something other than my selfish self displays itself…

        • Yes, that goes back to the nature of grace and its existence in the world. We take note of the car accident or the early death but forget about the millions of accidents that get avoided and the people who survive horrific odds. We are swimming in Grace but rarely recognize it. I think the more we are able to recognize it the more attuned we become to it and the more in love we become with it. (He says after leaving traffic and damning the souls of random bad drivers). What a world.

  5. “So for Paul, the gospel message isn’t primarily about “the forgiveness of sins.” The Good News is fundamentally about reunion and participation in the Divine Life, the power of the Spirit to overcome our weakness and incapacity in the face of Sin and Death”

    I think this statement is a bit off, because you can’t have the reunion and participation in the Divine life without the forgiveness of sins. Evangelicals have often focused so much on the forgiveness that they have neglected the other, but in correcting that we shouldn’t swing the pendulum too far the other way.

    • David Cornwell says

      Sometimes repentance doesn’t come until after conversion.

      • Robert F says

        I think that’s true, but it must come.

      • Christiane says

        ‘coming under conviction’ is a painful, sorrowful process . . . there is no peace and tears flow because of the intensity of the disturbance in one’s heart . . .

        for anyone who has experienced this, they know what cannot be told about it

        for those who haven’t experienced it, live longer and it doesn’t hurt for you to read the Holy Gospel of St. John

        grace will find you, however insulated you are from repentance, sometimes grace overwhelms those defenses but even then, you still are free to say ‘no’ to it, this:

        ““” In spite of the all-powerful strength of God’s merciful hand,
        which touches, enfolds and bends the souls with so many inspirations, calls and attractions,
        the human will remains perfectly FREE, unfettered, and exempt from every form of constraint and necessity.
        Grace is so gracious, and so graciously does it seize our hearts in order to draw them on, that it in no wise impairs the liberty of our will…
        grace has a holy violence, not to violate our liberty but to make it full of love…it presses us but does not oppress our freedom…”
        (Francis DeSales)

        • Christiane says

          10 “Then I will pour out on the house of David and on the residents of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and prayer, and they will look on Me, the One they have pierced.
          They will mourn for Him as one mourns an only child,
          and weep bitterly for Him as one grieves a firstborn son. ”

          (ZECHARIAH 12:10)

    • Rick Ro. says

      –> “…because you can’t have the reunion and participation in the Divine life without the forgiveness of sins.”

      But Jesus–and ONLY Jesus–is the one who does that. This is something that we are incapable of achieving on our own.

      • I agree with you Rick. Was there something in my comment that would indicate otherwise?

        • Rick Ro. says

          I might’ve misinterpreted this part of your post…

          “…but in correcting that we shouldn’t swing the pendulum too far the other way.”

          Sorry!! Blessings, Jon!

  6. Norma Cenva says

    This whole flesh and spirit thing.
    For the most part, just another silly war.
    I signed an armistice long ago.