“Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17, NASB.
I hope that as you read this, you can read with fresh eyes. This is a crazy and revolutionary idea, and quite a twist on the idea of being “born again.’ When we become Christians, we are a NEW CREATURE. There is some part of us that didn’t used to be there, which is different, which is actually new. We have a new self, a self which loves good, a self in which the desire for good is united with virtue. Instead of just cleaning up what is there, God bulldozes it and rebuilds. This new self is based on and integrated somehow with our identity, our central personhood, but it is new and different self, undivided about desire and virtue.
In Romans 6, he speaks of our old self, the “fleshly’ self, as having been killed off, crucified with Christ:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” Romans 6:1-3, NASB.
However, in Romans 6 and 7, he goes on to talk about this old sinful fleshly self as a kind of zombie living dead presence:
“For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish. But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.” Romans 7:19, 20, NASB.
We may be crucified with Christ, baptized into His death, but the old self, the fleshly self which has been ultimately dethroned, continues to lurk around and have its influence. How does this work?
Some older churches have bell towers, in which there is a long rope attached to a simple mechanism that rings the bell when you pull it. For large bells, you pull the rope in a kind of rhythm and get the bell swinging up there until it starts to ring. It will ring for a while until its momentum subsides, and then it quiets back down. I think that our old self, our fleshly self, is like that. It may have been crucified, but we have been living under its influence literally for our entire existence. We have lived since our earliest memories by pulling that rope, we are very familiar with the sound of that bell ringing. Once the old self is dethroned by the new self, it is like we stop pulling that rope. The bell will keep ringing for a while, but soon enough it will stop. The sound of that is like the sound of the white noise of an air conditioner when it goes off. You don’t realize the clamor it is making until suddenly it is strangely quiet. We are used to being fleshly. We are used to having morals imposed upon us, we are used to having our wild and immoral desires squelched. We are babies, aliens almost, to the idea that there is a real part of ourselves that actually wants to do right. We are out of touch with it.
Paul is saying, stop pulling that rope, stop ringing that bell. Let’s be clear, the dynamic of life under the old self is very familiar. It isn’t just that the flesh wants to sin. It is that the flesh wants to sin, and the same flesh is used to living under a moral constraint that thwarts the desire. The mind set on the flesh brings both of these things into play: desire for the forbidden and trust in the warm blanket of moral constraints that tell it “NO!” When we start to think about releasing the desire and trusting our new self to behave virtuously under that desire, we feel very unsafe. It is a new self, an untried self, a self which we have not learned to live with. We are used to the noisy clamor of sinful desire and having morals and principles stamp those desires out. We think that is what life IS. We’re afraid to trust the work of God, that we might really have a new self that loves virtue and can operate from undivided desire.
In Christ, there really is a new self. As we grow in Christ, our mind, our patterns of thought and habits of living, come more and more into harmony with the way the new self operates. We begin to learn to trust its desire for virtue. We begin to warm up to the idea of freedom, the feeling of desire which is unleashed and ends up doing good. We begin to trust that yes, God has actually done a real work, I actually am a new creature. At first, we don’t understand it, we don’t quite believe it. Let’s face it, it is very rarely taught, and much of the modern church’s teachings appeal to the old fleshly self and the need to put a leash on the old dog. The truth is, through simple belief in Christ, we do become new creatures, and the struggle is to stop ringing the bell of the old self, and to begin to trust the new self to guide our mind. The struggle is to set our minds on the things of the spirit, and not on the flesh. This is a very different struggle than the struggle to impose law on the fleshly desire for the forbidden.
I am going to be a bit frank about this now. Very few Christians, especially Christian leaders, seem to have read or considered the essential doctrines spelled out by Paul in Romans 6 through 8 and all the rest of Paul’s writings. However, these same people are very clear that in subtle or bold ways, they do not believe the new self is real, or is capable of winning at virtue. Because there is no real belief in grace, in true forgiveness, there is no freedom as in Romans 7 and 8, to fail because the bell still rings. It is seldom taught that as a Christian, desire can lead you to righteous acts. All of this really strengthens the old self, empowers the old dynamic. It says, go back and ring the old bell, arouse those old desires and then impose moral standards on them to squelch them. Don’t commit adultery, adultery, adultery! Remember and avoid the glories of sin! Sin is awesome and powerful – don’t do it! Week after week after week, the message is, “be a living zombie, a whitewashed tomb, this is the Christian way, this is bearing your cross.” This is why it is so strange to say that the “gospel’ is supposed to be good news. It isn’t good news because it isn’t the gospel. You can feel the awkward tension when an invitation is tacked on to the end of a sermon and very few (if any) respond. It is not good news, it is bad news. Anyone with a shred of intelligence will run screaming out of the building before they will submit to such insanity. The whole message is often completely devoid of grace and trust in the virtue of the new self, and the whole sermon has enthroned the old self so it can be squelched by some “Christian principle.’ This is all, ultimately, just warmed over death.
Well, what should we be preaching about? What should we believe? What should we be saying? If you are a preacher, consider how fearful you are to rethink your message this way! You can’t just preach free love!!! I say, preach truth, preach strong grace. Jesus preached repentance in a way that caused crowds of sinners to flock to Him. Prostitutes followed Him like puppy dogs, and wept and wiped His feet with their grateful tears. Obviously, they felt welcomed and loved by Him, not condemned. To Him, sin is a disease that needs treatment by a doctor, and virtue is not an obligation to be forcefully imposed upon the unwilling. Do you think you are right because of the paltry few conversions in your midst? Preaching to the flesh, preaching in order to squelch the desire of the flesh, preaching the comforting message of principles which address surface behaviors, is not producing real results is it? Paul preached a message of incredibly scandalous grace, Martin Luther came around to it again, and when it is preached, it changes history. You are not smarter than Paul, nor are you more fruitful. Go back and search these scriptures, and preach grace. Tell people that God tremendously loves them. Tell them clearly that Christ’s blood is enough to abundantly forgive them. Tell them this over and over and over, 70 times 7. Lead them to a unified desire for virtue. Encourage them to learn to trust the desire of their new self. Figure out and teach what it means to have a mind set on the Spirit. Don’t sit there and pretend you already do this if you don’t. If you repent of anything, repent of this! You are killing people with your preaching. Ring a new bell, a bell of love and grace and freedom and newness. The weeping sinners will flock to you, I just know it.