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Topic: Common Issues in the Christian Life

Perfectionism Vs. Muddling Through

by Darrel Cline

In at least one place, Jesus said, "Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by [his] fruit" (Matt. 12:33). James appealed to this same basic metaphor when he wrote, "Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet [water] and bitter?" (Jas. 3:11). In both places, the complaint is regarding the mixture of good and evil by people who were being inconsistent. In both places the speakers were taking a phenomenon of nature and applying it to people. And in both places the argument is that the essential nature of a created thing is designed to determine its fruit.

What has this to do with perfectionism and what I have labeled muddling through? To answer, we must ask ourselves a couple of questions. Is the spirit of man, separate from the Spirit of God, able to do good? And, is the Spirit of God in man able to produce evil? If we say that the spirit of man is able to do good apart from the Spirit of God, we fundamentally believe in the inherent goodness of man and, consequentially, the power of man to save himself. We say, "This tree is good." On the other hand, if we say that the Spirit of God can produce evil out of the person(s) He indwells, we fundamentally believe in an evil God Who is not to be trusted with anything of value. We say, "This tree is evil." Therefore, we must answer both questions with an unequivocal "no". Man cannot do good without the power of God, and the Spirit of God cannot produce evil through man.

However, the facts are: 1) Men who are indwelt by the Spirit of God often do evil (why else write the New Testament to Spirit-indwelt people and exhort them to better behavior?), and 2) men who are not indwelt by the Spirit of God often give good gifts to others (Jesus said, on another occasion, "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?" [Mt. 7:11]). Jesus was not contradicting Himself when He said that evil men can give good gifts. There is a significant difference between doing good and giving a good gift. A person can only do good by being good. But a person can give something to another that ends up producing good for that other without the giver being good. An evil man, for evil reasons, can impart food to a hungry person. The food is a good gift; but the giving was not a good act. Acts are judged by both intent and impact. The impact may be good while the intent was evil. Evil men always have compromised motives but that does not make the gifts they give inherently evil.

So, what we have in this world is a mixed up mess. Evil men do things that produce good, and Spirit-indwelt men do evil things. This was precisely what both Jesus and James were lamenting in their appeal to trees and fountains.

But, again, what has this to do with perfectionism and muddling through? It has to do with the question of how believers are to live as temples of the Spirit of God. There are those who teach that a believer cannot do evil (perfectionism), and there are others that teach that a believer cannot ever actually achieve perfection and do good (muddling through). And, depending upon how technical one wants to get, both are accurate to some extent. The apostle Paul said, "If ... I do that which I would not, ... then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me" (Rom. 7:16-17). Then he repeated himself and said, "Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me" (Rom. 7:20). With these two statements Paul makes a clear distinction between himself as a believer who does not sin and sin that is within him that does sin. His words find an echo in John when he wrote, "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God" (1Jo 3:9). Paul also, in another place, said, "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). In other words, Christ lives in me to do the righteousness that I cannot do. Here Paul makes a distinction between himself as a believer and the Christ Who actually provides the living from within. So, it appears that if a person is born of God, he cannot sin because he has become so united with Christ that his actions are actually Christ's, Who cannot sin. But, it also appears that "I do that I would not..." [I do sin], thus producing a mixed up mess, and "I live by the faith of the Son of God...", thus producing a godly lifestyle. So, it is true that a believer does not sin -- sin within him is responsible for that -- and that a believer cannot do righteousness -- Christ within him is responsible for that! Thus, is it legitimate to conclude that believers, in their essential identity, neither sin nor do righteousness? What else can we conclude?

Where are we going with this?

I trust that we are going to the same place Jesus, Paul, James, and John were going -- to a practical way to live while we are involved in this present mixed up mess!

To attempt to get there, let us consider this question: where do the actions of the body actually come from? To answer, we must consider that there is more than one source. At the actual production level, the spirit within the body energizes the body to act. The body without the spirit is incapable of action. All action requires an energizing spirit within (James 2:26 For as the body without the spirit is dead...). The clearest example of this is demon possession as illustrated in the Gospels. In the Gospel accounts of demon possession, unclean spirits so dominate a human body that both speech and behavior is produced by the physical members of the body that is not linked to the human spirit within that body. As soon as the demons are cast out, the members of the body come back under the control of the human spirit and the physical manifestations of the body change to reflect that human spirit. So, at the actual production level, action comes from an inner spirit by way of the physical members of the body. [Another thing we learn from these accounts is that it is possible for multiple spirits to indwell the same physical body (and, perhaps, struggle over who gets to express himself through the body!).]

But, what directs the inner spirit(s) to energize the members of the body? Here is where the wicket gets sticky! In Ephesians 2:2 Paul wrote that the prince of the power of the air is the spirit who is at work in the sons of disobedience. By this, he seems to be saying that there is a union within fallen men (the sons of disobedience) between the inner human spirit and the prince of the power of the air that permits this prince to dominate the human spirit so that the body is also dominated so that it produces actions of disobedience. Now, because the prince of the power of the air is not deity, he is not omnipresent. This means that he is not personally present as a spiritual presence in every son of disobedience, though he is influentially present to a sufficient degree so as to be able to dominate these sons. Thus, the sons of disobedience have an indwelling spirit of their own, but it is subjugated in some way by this nefarious prince. So our question continues to be, what is it that actually directs the inner spirit to sponsor the actions of the body?

The answer is at least suggested by Paul in Romans 7:23. There he writes, "But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members." Here Paul suggests two different sponsors of behavior from within. One he calls a law which wars against the mind and brings him into captivity. The other he calls a law of the mind. He is aligned with the law of the mind to such a degree that when the mind is overwhelmed, he is brought into captivity. Thus, we could almost say, he is the mind. Then what is the law that is in his members that wars against him? This must be his warped human spirit that has been so aligned with the prince of the power of the air that it does his bidding regardless of what the person/mind desires and/or decides. However, we have already argued that the prince is not omnipresent, so how does he control this warped human spirit?

Let's ask how it got warped and see where that takes us. In Genesis, God had warned Adam that if he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die. Though that ultimately happened physically because God blocked him from the Tree of Life that would have kept him physically alive indefinitely, it immediately happened at the level of the spirit.

There seem to be two things involved here. One is the withdrawal of God as Spirit from man. The other is the impact of the fruit of the tree upon man.

Let's consider these apparent consequences to Adam's choice to disobey. That man did not physically cease to function (he did not physically die) at the point of his disobedience indicates that a spirit remained in his body. However, the Spirit of God apparently did withdraw in some sense of the word because the separation of death was decreed "in the day ye eat thereof." We draw this conclusion from the fact that God's promise to man of eternal life is inextricably tied to His promise to pour out His Spirit upon man. Thus, if man died "in the day he ate thereof", the Spirit of God must have withdrawn as a primary root of the man's capacity to produce good out of his body. This left man, as a creature of spirit, without the Spirit, and it yielded a direct incapacity to control the impulses of sin that were now internalized in his body.

Then, on the other hand, the eating of the fruit did something to Adam. What it did we can only surmise. Apparently, eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil imprinted something in Adam that affected his human spirit in such a way that spiritual freedom from sin was humanly impossible from that point forward, and it was such an imprinting that all of Adam's physical progeny afterwards would be born with the same imprinting within them. Thus, in Adam's sin, we all died and came under the dominion of the prince of the power of the air. But, our subjection to him consists in an inherent imprinting that impacts our spirits in two areas. The most important area is that of our values -- what we consider to be important. The other area is that of our beliefs -- what we believe will produce the ability to acquire what we consider to be important. So our wants have been imprinted by evil from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and our beliefs have been imprinted by that same fruit. Thus, the prince of the power of the air dominates humanity by reason of the core values and beliefs that he got imprinted within us by tempting Adam to eat from that tree. And, he reinforces that dominion by what Paul calls "doctrines of demons"...i.e. demonic systems of teaching that appeal to the warped values and reinforce the warped beliefs.

So, having gone around the barn a couple of times, let's get back to the original question: where do the actions of the body come from? First, from the imprinted values. Then from the imprinted beliefs. Then from the indwelling spirit(s) which produce(s) along the lines of those values and beliefs. However, Paul brought another issue in alongside: the issue of the mind. It is not the spirit, nor is it the entity imprinted by sin. But it is, apparently, so dominated by the spirit that it has bought into the imprinted values and beliefs to a large extent.

But, it is at this level that the believer is different. At the point of the new birth, the believer was indwelt by a new spirit -- the Spirit of the omnipresent God. The apostle Paul likens this to a new creation event -- "if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation." Here we must be very careful. Some teach that since man is a new creation, he cannot sin. However, God did not create a new "me". I know this because the "me" that is the new creation is a "forgiven" me -- meaning I have a personal history of sins that needed forgiveness. If God simply created a new person, that new person would be sinlessly new and have no need of forgiveness. If the "old man" that is responsible for my sin is put to death, the person responsible for my sins is dead and there is no need for forgiveness for the newly created new person. So we need to be very careful not to say more than Paul said: we are new creations, but we are not creations out of nothing; we are reconstituted creations with a past that required forgiveness before the Spirit of God could once again become our inner source of godliness. And we yet stand in need of forgiveness on occasion -- which means we yet bear responsibility for sinning.

Now, when this Spirit entered into the body of the believer, He brought a new set of imprinted values and beliefs with Him because, as the Spirit of God, He is Love and Wisdom. In other words, the Spirit of God brought the loves and beliefs of God with Him when He entered our bodies. This seems to be the essence of the "new heart" promise of the New Covenant. And, simultaneously with His coming, He separated us from the warped spirit to which we had been united as if in marriage so that the two were one. This is called the putting to death of the old man.

But, the putting to death was not an elimination of existence. The old man was crucified with Christ. When Christ was crucified, He did not cease to exist; rather, He ceased to function in this physical realm. When He dismissed His spirit, He dismissed His ability to function in this sphere of the material realm. But, His body was still in existence, as was He in the realm of departed spirits. It was this separation of Himself from His body that is called death. So also, when the old man is crucified with Christ, he does not cease to exist; rather, he loses his capacity to function in this material realm. But, his loss of capacity is not absolute. Just as Christ regained His capacity to function in this realm of matter by resurrection, so also the old man can regain his capacity to function in this realm as Paul clearly said in Romans 7:9. In that text, Paul says that sin can "revive"...i.e. "live again", or "come to life again." This exact term is used again in Romans 14:9 in reference to Christ's resurrection return to functional capacity in this realm.

To understand this, we must consider how the old man is "crucified with Christ". It is not a contemporaneous crucifixion. Christ was crucified more than 1900 years before I ever possessed an "old man." The crucifixion of my "old man" with Christ is something that happens contemporaneously with my entrance into the faith that sponsors my new birth. Thus, the death of my old man is a faith-based issue and it can be unseated in me just as it was in Paul according to Romans 7:9. When my faith shifts from my freedom from Law (accomplished because Christ died for me to the Law) to the necessity of obedience (a return to Law), my old man "revives" and takes up again the capacity to produce through my body. So, "when the Law comes" and I yield to its sense of demanding necessity once again through my unbelief in my freedom from it, I become enslaved again to the law of sin in my members. Thus, the crucifixion of my old man occurs when I enter into the realms of faith in the promises of God, and the revival of my old man occurs when I depart from those realms of faith in the promises. While I trust, the old man is incapacitated. When I mistrust, the old man is rejuvenated.

How does this work? The answer is bound up in the issue of the essence of "Law". What is the essence of "Law"? At its roots, "Law" is unmet necessity. [It is not just necessity; it is unmet necessity. We know this because Paul says "the Law worketh wrath" (Rom. 4:14). If Law was simply necessity, it would not automatically bring wrath, but Paul says wrath is an integral aspect of Law.] Then, a necessary corollary to unmet necessity is the prospect of consequence, i.e. "wrath". [It is useless to speak of necessity if there is no consequence for failure.] And, a necessary corollary to the prospect of consequence is the antagonism that exists between the Demander of the Necessity (God) and the one who has failed to meet the necessity (man). It is this automatic and inherent antagonism that drives the law of sin. The only way to keep the law of sin at bay is to eliminate the antagonism. The only way to eliminate the antagonism is to bond together in love. And the only way that bond can be forged is for God to persuade man of His love and for man to be persuaded of that love so that he, in turn, loves God. When I am absolutely persuaded of God's love for me, I am free from any sense of unmet necessity. Even in my failure (when I am most likely to disbelieve in God's love and return to the antagonism of unmet necessity), God loves me. It is this truth -- that God's love for me has released me forever from becoming a victim of unmet necessity (wrath) -- that frees me from the Law; and, in turn, releases me from the law of sin in my members because its capacity to dominate me requires a sense of antagonism in me toward God. Without antagonism from God, I have no basis for antagonism toward God. As long as I trust in His promises regarding His love, sin is dead, dead, dead! But, if I shift back to the Law, sin will live, live, live!

Now, we have been around the barn a couple more times. We need to return to the essence of the death of the old man. This death was a breaking of the marriage union between the warped human spirit and the essential person (held together by a common antagonism toward a judging God) and a joining of a new marriage union between the Spirit of Jesus and the newly regenerated believer (that likewise is held together by a common faith in the wrath-exempt love of the Father).

This leaves us with two residual problems. First there is the reality that the imprinted values and beliefs that the mind formerly shared with the warped human spirit are still resident in the mind...the powerful suggestions of divine antagonism. And, second, the warped spirit is not gone. It continues to be present and continually seeks opportunity to express itself through the body by seducing the mind of the wife of the Lamb to join itself to him through a lack of faith in His abiding love. Thus Paul calls for the renewal of the mind according to the new man (see Romans 12:2 and Colossians 3:10). This renewal is accomplished by the personal presence of a new husband (the Spirit of Christ within) and the presence of a new set of doctrines of Truth by which the mind can be reinstructed and divested of the formerly held values and beliefs. Just as the doctrines of demons are spread abroad in the world, so also are the doctrines of God spread abroad by the exposition of the biblical revelation of truth.

So, now the believer actually has two spirits within one body, and he has a mixed up mind that has formerly been a sharer in a whole set of imprinted values and beliefs that are evil and are driven by a conviction of antagonism. However, the believer, who uses this mind, is now married to Christ Who is willing to share a whole new set of values and beliefs. The believer must make it his/her goal to be faithful to the new Husband so that He can renew the mind by rooting out the old values and beliefs and replacing them with His own. It is not an easy task (the seduction is ever present), but greater is the New Husband within than the nefarious prince who is without. And greater is the New Husband within than the continuing presence within of the fallen spirit from Adam. There is war within and without, but victory comes from the bride's willingness to be faithful to her New Husband by trusting in His love.

Now, to attempt to make this clearer, let us consider the identity issues that are involved. Paul speaks of himself as three different identities. There is the "I" that does not want to do what is contrary to God's Law, that he effectively calls "mind". Then, there is the "I" that does contrary to the wants of the first "I" that he effectively calls the "law of sin". And, there is the "I" that is brought into captivity to the second "I" when the mind is overwhelmed by the second "I" which he essentially identifies as himself. These various identities create a significant level of confusion if we do not keep up with his thinking.

So, let's consider a related truth. In Genesis 2:7 we are told, "And the LORD God formed man [of] the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." Two facts stand out here. The first is that God called what He had formed of the dust of the ground "man". This means that "man" first had an identity as a formed-from-dust body. The second is that after God breathed a spirit of life into this "man" as body, man became a "living soul". This generated another identity. Thus, it is accurate to speak of "man" when considering a body, and it is accurate to speak of "man" when considering the invisible soul. Thus we can say, "That man is dead" when we see a body that has ceased to function, and we can say "That man is no longer with us" even when we are standing beside the coffin. This distinction in identities has been with us for a long time.

However, when we get into Paul's theology, we have to recognize that he draws some fine lines. On the one hand, he accuses the Galatians of having departed from the One Who called them. On the other hand he distances himself from sin by saying "It is no longer I that sin, but sin that dwelleth in me". Are the Galatians not as immune to the charge of sin as Paul? Or does Paul not recognize that "it is no longer the Galatians that sin, but sin that dwelleth in them"? The only way to answer is to keep up with Paul's distinctions. Just as Paul admitted "I do that which I would not", he is able to accuse the Galatians of departure from God. But, just as Paul said "it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me", he recognizes that the Galatians are not fundamentally at fault. What was coming out of the Galatians' bodies in both speech and actions was sin. But what was fundamentally responsible for producing that sin, as Paul taught the Galatians, was what he labeled "the flesh". Thus, even while accusing them of sin he taught them that it was not their essential identity that was producing it. Rather it was a different identity called "the flesh".

Now let us also remember that Paul told the Corinthians that "if any man [be] in Christ, [he is] a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." This indicates that Paul recognized and taught that when a person becomes a believer, he becomes a new creation, a fact that we alluded to earlier. This means that he possesses a new identity. But, when a person becomes a believer, he is still the same physical body he was, and he still possesses "the flesh" as a sponsor of sin through him as a physical entity. So, here again we run into this identity distinction. What we were before Christ took up residence within us was one identity; what we became when Christ took up residence within us is a new identity.

Perhaps we can allude to Paul's marriage metaphor in the opening verses of Romans 7 to help our thinking. Before a young lady is married, she has an identity as a virgin (let's hope!). However, after she is married, she has another identity as a wife. The former identity is gone forever; the current identity is present as long as her husband is alive. Now, a confusion about these identities can create real problems. On the one hand, if she insists upon maintaining her former identity (virgin) once the marriage vows have been given, the marriage is in serious trouble! But, on the other hand, if she refuses to maintain her new identity (wife) and begins to sleep around, the marriage is also in trouble! So, recognition of the particulars of identity are not insignificant issues.

What is the bottom line?

The bottom line is that every believer is a body that is fundamentally nothing more or less than a machine. Every believer also has a sinful imprinting of worthless (what is valuable?) lies (what is true?) upon a perverse heart within him as body. Every believer continues to have a warped human spirit within him, as body, that is inexorably tied to the perverse heart within. And, every believer has come to possess the Spirit of the Living God within him, as body, that brought a new heart with Him when He entered. And, finally, every believer has a mind that has been freed from the old perverse heart/spirit complex and united with the new Spirit/heart complex in a new marriage that has led to a new identity. Therefore, every believer continues to be a complex which contains two distinct assembly lines of production. The one line consists of the abilities to produce evil and the other line consists of the abilities to produce righteousness. The critical factor in determining which assembly line puts its merchandise out through the activities of the body is the mind. Thus, according to Paul's exhortation to the Romans, believers are to deliberately subject their minds to a renewal process which will transform them according to their new identities as the sons of God. Without this renewal, the bodies will produce according to the law of sin within. With this renewal, the Spirit of the indwelling Christ will produce according to the standards of God's righteousness. Nothing is ever gray at its inception. Either the assembly line of sin is producing sin, or the production line of righteousness is producing righteousness. The reason that many people's lives look gray is that there is such a mixture of production at the visible level that onlookers cannot see consistency. It is almost as if the mind, which stands at the heads of the assembly lines, has decided to alternate the outputs of both lines. One thing is allowed out that comes from the old heart/spirit complex and then the next thing allowed to exit is from the new heart/Spirit complex. This creates a mess! Our calling as the children of God is to grow to the point where we develop a consistent pattern of keeping the old line shut down.

How do we do this?

Perhaps there is help from something to which we have already alluded. Paul's exhortations to "set your mind" and "be transformed by the renewing of your mind" both imply that there is a difference between the "I" and the "mind". That's why I wrote earlier, we could almost say he is the mind. It should be apparent that the almost is really just that -- an almost. There has to be an "I" that stands in relation to the mind that allows "me" to determine the focus of "my" "mind". What is this "I"? If it is not the old man; if it is not the law of sin in my members; if it is not the new Man; if it is not the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ; and if it is not the mind, what is it?

Let's see if we can figure it out. First, the commands that tell us to focus our minds on Jesus as the Truth are just that: commands. Contrary to public opinion to the contrary, commands do not imply the inherent ability to obey them. They simply tell us how things work. In other words, the Law (i.e. demands from God) is not regulatory [controlling and guiding man's behavior], but revelatory [simply revealing how the universe of Truth operates]. So, the command to us that we direct our minds properly is not a demand that we can meet of ourselves ["...the good that I would, I do not..."].

However, the doctrine of the grace of God in Scripture is a doctrine in which God declares His performance for man of what He requires of man. Thus, if we are given a command that we can not fulfill of ourselves, the existence of that command from a gracious God implies that there is grace for us to have that command fulfilled in our lives -- if we do not attempt to fulfill it in our own strength! This means that the command to focus our minds upon Jesus, the Truth, comes with grace enough to enable it to happen. But, for it to happen, we must not trust in ourselves. This brings us back to the scenario we sketched earlier when we attached performance-significance to Christ dwelling in us. If we can have the command fulfilled in us, but its fulfillment is not of us, then it must be of the indwelling Christ.

This brings us back to the "I" that stands over the mind to determine its focus. We asked what is this "I"? The answer seems to be the new creation that consists of the union between the essential me and the indwelling Spirit of Christ [we two are one "I"]. This would mean that my mind is not controllable by any identity of the "I" that does not significantly grasp the powerful presence of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, nor is it controllable by any identity of the "I" that does not significantly grasp the will of the essential me that appeals to the powerful indwelling Spirit whenever that essential me is confronted with a command from God to do, or to refrain from doing.

What this seems to boil down to is this: whenever I am consciously aware that the power of the Spirit is in me to do, or refrain from doing, anything that God addresses ["...I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me..."] and I am consciously aware that His power is only mine if I deliberately put the performance of the command at His feet as an impotent "I", the performance of the command is accomplished so that the actual performance is Christ's [...I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me...] but the permission for the performance is mine [...the life which I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God Who loves me...]. Faith, in this case, seems to boil down to an active permission by me for the power to be exercised in my body by Christ.

Does this mean that the command addressed to me to believe [in the sense of to give permission] is something that "I" can do? That depends upon how we identify the "I". On the one hand, the command to believe is simply another example of a command that must be met by the same process as outlined in the preceding paragraph. In other words, since Christ works in me both to will and to do, I can never take credit for anything as being of an isolated "I" [as opposed to the "I" that consists of the union between Him and me]. On the other hand, if by "I" I mean the union that consists of Him and me, I certainly can do that since I can do all things through Christ Who imparts the strength to "me" as a body containing energizing spirits within it.

Therefore, experiencing life seems to consist of an enduring process in which we develop the skill to immediately turn to the indwelling Christ at any time we sense a necessity upon us to do or to refrain from doing [which, technically, means all the time since we are never free from activity as long as our bodies are indwelt by spirit]. To refuse Him permission is to disbelieve. To see Him perform is to live by faith in His gracious love.

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This is article #261.
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