Righteous Sinners, Romans 7, and Sanctification in Marriage: A Review of Dave Harvey's When Sinners Say "I Do"
Dave Harvey. When Sinners Say “I Do”: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage. Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 2007.
This book has thoughtful research and excellent quotes from writers such as Charles Spurgeon; Thomas Watson; Matthew Henry; and John Macarthur, Owen, Newton, Calvin, Edwards, and Wesley. It's also refreshing how this book explains that a biblical mystery is not something that we can never understand, as Roman Catholicism and mystics claim; it is something that God obscured in the Old Testament but reveals or explains in the New. Harvey cites George Knight:
Unbeknownst to the people of Moses' day (it was a "mystery"), marriage was designed by God from the beginning to be a picture or parable of the relationship between Christ and the church. Back when God was planning what marriage would be like, He planned it for this great purpose: it would give a beautiful earthly picture of the relationship that would someday come about between Christ and His church. This was not known to people for many generations, and that is why Paul can call it a "mystery." But now in the New Testament age Paul reveals this mystery, and it is amazing. (qtd. in 27. Italics always in original unless noted otherwise)
Harvey furthermore does a good job of stressing how important it is for believers to solidify a biblical worldview, for no Christian can avoid theology, nor should he want to. "What we believe about God determines the quality of our marriage.... Your theology governs your entire life" (20, 21). Theory always precedes practice. It's great that Harvey emphasizes sound doctrine and the power of the gospel for maintaining a healthy Christian walk and marriage. His treatment of spousal death and difficult situations such as spousal abuse was instructive as well.
Unfortunately, the book has too many imbalances for me to recommend it. A major problem is that Harvey has an inadequate view of regeneration. There are two extremes. The first is instant sanctification, the belief that Christians are instantly perfected at conversion and thus no longer sin, so they don't need to grow in holiness and grace every day of their lives. The problem here is a low view of sin, for believers do still sin, and when sin is not repented of it gets worse and eventually leads to death; and even shows that the person may not be regenerated to begin with. The second extreme is the belief that Christians are forgiven but don't really change after their conversion; they remain wicked sinners in constant rebellion against God. This view undermines the power of God in our lives, and implies that believers never really mature or grow in holiness, even as they get older and learn more about God. It ignores the Bible's clear teaching about believers becoming new creatures, receiving a new nature, and continuously growing in sanctification and holiness till the day they die.
Harvey leans far towards the second extreme:
We are all the worst of sinners, so anything we do that isn't sin is simply the grace of God at work.... As the worst of sinners...I should be primarily suspicious and regularly suspicious of myself!... [M]y heart has a permanent tendency to oppose God and his ways.... You see, your wicked heart and mine are amazingly similar. They both crave vindication. They want to insist that something else made us sin...something outside of us...beyond our control. Aha--our circumstances!" (43, 64, 70)
The apostle Paul, however, affirms the opposite of what Harvey claims in Romans 7. Believers sin--not because of their circumstances--but because the law of sin, something outside of the believer, works through their flesh: "So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.... Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me" (Rom. 7:17-18, 20). Believers still sin--not because their hearts are wicked--but because their unredeemed bodies can be triggered by sensual, sinful temptations. We must therefore “die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31) because we “have crucified the flesh” (Gal. 5:24). Part of the problem is that Harvey doesn't adequately define what a sinner is. This is all I could find:
Now recall that the Bible has a specific way of describing human beings--as sinners.... We are all in this category together. It's hardly an exclusive club. To accept the designation of "sinner" is to acknowledge who I am in relation to God. It also says who I am not: I am not a neutral actor. By my very nature (which is sinful), I am an offense to God's very nature (which is perfectly holy). So the term "sinner," when used in Scripture, clearly implies there is one (at least one) who is sinned against. (41)
But believers are no longer sinners in relation to God; they are given a new "designation"--saints. A sinner--which is a legal term--is judged a criminal in God's eyes for violating the Law of God “in Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22; cf. Rom. 5:12-21) and by personal sins. A saint is a former sinner who has been forgiven by Christ's blood atonement, has a new nature, and is being perfected through the Holy Spirit. A saint also becomes legally adopted into the family of God (see Gal. 4, Heb. 12), hence God is no longer his Judge, but his Father. When a believer sins it is no longer a legal issue, but a family/domestic issue requiring fatherly correction and discipline instead of condemnation and judgment, for Christ has propitiated the wrath of God that was formerly on the believer. Formerly we were unrighteous wrongdoers, "such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6:11).
THE SINFULLY UGLY
It is disappointing, then, that Harvey's most emphatic point throughout the entire book, which is evident in the title itself, is that "by the gospel we understand that, although saved, we remain sinners" (25). I think he stresses this far too much and makes the Bible say what it doesn't, resulting in several doctrinal imbalances. Later Harvey cites 1 Timothy 1:15: "The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost."
Harvey claims Paul "is saying, in effect, 'Look, I know my sin. And what I've seen in my own heart is darker and more awful; it's more proud, selfish, and self-exalting; and it's consistently and regularly in rebellion against God than anything I have glimpsed in the heart of anyone else' " (36). But this sounds like a description of an unregenerate, God-hating sinner! For "whoever says 'I know him' but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:4). How then can a born-again Christian's "heart" be "consistently and regularly in rebellion against God"? Especially when God Himself promises to
sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Eze. 36:25-27)
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col. 2:11-12)
For "even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new" (2 Cor. 5:16-17; cf. Gal. 6:15). And how can God "give you the desires of your heart" (Ps. 37:4) if your heart is perpetually evil, as Harvey claims?
Previously in verses 12-14, Paul writes, "I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." Both before and after verse 15 Paul asserts that he received mercy, and in verse 13 he says that he formerly was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.
1 Timothy 1:15 gave me a hard time. I couldn't understand why Paul would say he is the chief of sinners in the present tense, even though twice in that passage he said he received mercy, past tense. Especially since God also promises that He "will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more" (Jer. 31:34, Heb. 10:17). If God forgives and forgets our sins, why then did Paul call himself the chief of sinners? Then I remembered that "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.... Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.... For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Jas. 4:6, 1 Pet. 5:5, Matt. 5:5, Luke 14:11). Paul therefore was humbling himself. He's saying that without God's grace and Holy Spirit he is the very worst of sinners, "but by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me" (1 Cor. 15:10).
Countless verses negate the notion of I'm-just-a-sinner-saved-by-grace: "but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God" (Rom. 5:8-9). But wait, there's "more than that": "For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation... For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous" (Rom. 5:10-11, 19; bold emphasis always mine). Several other verses clearly distinguish sinners from saints, or the righteous (Psa. 1:5; Prov. 11:31, 13:21-22; Ecc. 9:2, Matt. 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32, 15:7; John 9:31; Rom. 3:7; 1 Pet. 4:18).
Simul justus et peccator, meaning “simultaneously righteous and a sinner,” is a strongly embedded concept in the Reformed tradition in general (see the confessions of eminent believers that A.W. Pink cites in “The Christian in Romans 7,” http://www.chapellibrary.org/book/cirs/christian-in-romans-7,-the) and Lutheranism in particular, which is why I was pleasantly surprised when I saw what John Calvin has to say on the matter:
[F]or as iniquity is abominable to God, so neither can the sinner find grace in his sight, so far as he is and so long as he is regarded as a sinner.... He, on the other hand, is justified who is regarded not as a sinner, but as righteous, and as such stands acquitted at the judgment-seat of God, where all sinners are condemned. As an innocent man, when charged before an impartial judge, who decides according to his innocence, is said to be justified by the judge, as a man is said to be justified by God when, removed from the catalogue of sinners, he has God as the witness and assertor of his righteousness.... [A] man will be justified by faith when, excluded from the righteousness of works, he by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, and clothed in it appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but as righteous.... We must always return to the axioms that the wrath of God lies upon all men so long as they continue sinners....
When the Lord, therefore, admits him to union, he is said to justify him, because he can neither receive him into favor, nor unite him to himself, without changing his condition from that of a sinner into that of a righteous man. We add that this is done by remission of sins. For if those whom the Lord has reconciled to himself are estimated by works, they will still prove to be in reality sinners, while they ought to be pure and free from sin. It is evident therefore, that the only way in which those whom God embraces are made righteous, is by having their pollutions wiped away by the remission of sins.... But if there is a perpetual and irreconcilable repugnance between righteousness and iniquity, so long as we remain sinners we cannot be completely received. Therefore, in order that all ground of offence may be removed, and he may completely reconcile us to himself, he, by means of the expiation set forth in the death of Christ, abolishes all the evil that is in us, so that we, formerly impure and unclean, now appear in his sight just and holy.... [A]fter the Lord has withdrawn the sinner from the abyss of perdition, and set him apart for himself by means of adoption, having begotten him again and formed him to newness of life, he embraces him as a new creature, and bestows the gifts of his Spirit." (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.xi.2, 21; IV.xvii.3, 5)
Calvin rightly recognizes that the Bible uses the term sinner to describe the legal standing of a person in God's court, namely, an unpardoned criminal. Later on, however, he writes:
As God is the fountain of all righteousness, he must necessarily be the enemy and judge of man so long as he is a sinner. Wherefore, the commencement of love is the bestowing of righteousness, as described by Paul: “He has made him to be sin for us who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him,” (2 Cor. 5:21). He intimates, that by the sacrifice of Christ we obtain free justification, and become pleasing to God, though we are by nature the children of wrath, and by sin estranged from him.... But because believers, while encompassed with mortal flesh, are still sinners, and their good works only begun savor of the corruption of the flesh, God cannot be propitious either to their persons or their works, unless he embraces them more in Christ than in themselves. (Institutes IV.xvii.2, 5)
The Bible clearly teaches that we "were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind" (Eph. 2:3). But Calvin seems to mean that believers are still sinners--i.e., believers still sin, not that they are criminals--because we are still "encompassed with mortal flesh," the part of us that has yet to be redeemed. The difference is that a believer is no longer a sinner by nature, not in the same sense that an unforgiven sinner is, because the believer's very nature has been regenerated. So he no longer sins by his new nature, but by the "law of sin that dwells in [his] members" (Rom. 7:23); in other words, by the law of sin working through what's left of his old nature--his body. This is why "those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (Gal. 5:24) by mastering sin (Gen. 4:7), abstaining "from every form of evil" (1 Thess. 5:22), and fasting when necessary (Matt. 6:16 ff.), "for God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness" (1 Thess. 4:7).
The flesh still wars against the Spirit but no longer has dominion over us if we walk by and are led by the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul refers to in Galatians 5 and Romans 7, though Romans 7 primarily refers to Paul’s pre-conversion experience rather than his Christian walk, yet the passage can apply to believers because they still have unredeemed bodies: "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom 7:24-25).
Martin Luther--who supposedly said believers are like snow-covered dung (if anyone finds out where he said that, please let me know)--in his Bondage of the Will wrote:
For if there be nothing by which we are justified but faith only, it is evident that those who are not of faith, are not justified. And if they be not justified, they are sinners. And if they be sinners, they are evil trees and can do nothing but sin and bring forth evil fruit—Wherefore, "Free-will" is nothing but the servant of sin, of death, and of Satan, doing nothing, and being able to do or attempt nothing, but evil! (Sect. 154)
In other words, what we do does not determine who we are; what we do is a reflection of who we already are. But the more an unbeliever sins, the worse he becomes because of the corrosive nature of sin and because "every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit...for what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person" (Matt 7.17, 15.18; cf. 1 Tim. 4). I like how John Robbins puts it in his review of Chuck Colson's Loving God:
You [Colson] write that faith is “not just knowledge, but knowledge acted upon. It is not just belief, but belief lived out--practiced.” This blurring of the distinction between faith and practice is fatal to Christianity, for it makes the conclusion inescapable that we are justified by faith and works. Augustine defined faith as knowledge with assent. So should you. Practice is the result of faith, not part of faith. Faith is the cause; practice is the result. Bonhoeffer’s statement is precise and true: Only he who believes is obedient; only he who is obedient believes. If a person does not believe, he cannot be obedient, no matter how “good” his behavior is; and if a person believes, he will be obedient, as James says. To put it in more technical language, sanctification is a necessary consequence of justification; and justification is a necessary precedent for sanctification. But justification and sanctification are not the same. To confuse them is to be ignorant of the Gospel. (http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=187)
I think Harvey should've defined the term "sinner" more carefully and not apply it so indiscriminately to born-again believers. I understand that he's trying to make Christians realize that they still sin, and that sin can ruin marriages and lives. But claiming that we are wicked sinners who constantly rebel against God seriously undermines what God has already done for us through Christ's finished work on the cross and continues to do for us through his Spirit. Theology is all about making proper distinctions, and Harvey should strive to be as careful as, for example, John Knox was in the Scots Confession:
Chapter 15: The Perfection of the Law and The Imperfection of Man
We confess and acknowledge that the law of God is most just, equal, holy, and perfect, commanding those things which, when perfectly done, can give life and bring man to eternal felicity; but our nature is so corrupt, weak, and imperfect, that we are never able perfectly to fulfill the works of the law. Even after we are reborn, if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth of God is not in us. It is therefore essential for us to lay hold on Christ Jesus, in his righteousness and his atonement, since he is the end and consummation of the Law and since it is by him that we are set at liberty so that the curse of God may not fall upon us, even though we do not fulfill the Law in all points. For as God the Father beholds us in the body of his Son Christ Jesus, he accepts our imperfect obedience as if it were perfect, and covers our works, which are defiled with many stains, with the righteousness of his Son. We do not mean that we are so set at liberty that we owe no obedience to the Law--for we have already acknowledged its place--but we affirm that no man on earth, with the sole exception of Christ Jesus, has given, gives, or shall give in action that obedience to the Law which the Law requires. When we have done all things we must fall down and unfeignedly confess that we are unprofitable servants. Therefore, whoever boasts of the merits of his own works or puts his trust in works of supererogation, boasts of what does not exist, and puts his trust in damnable idolatry. (qtd. in https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/simuliustus.html)
Oddly enough, Harvey also claims that Jesus never got "irritated or bitter or hostile" (71), even though he detested religious hypocrites like the Scribes and Pharisees, cursed and condemned them almost every time he encountered them (John 8, Matt. 23); and even fashioned a whip to beat money-changers out of the temple (John 2) on more than one occasion, according to some commentators (see Chapter 8 of John MacArthur’s The Jesus You Can’t Ignore. The book is an excellent corrective to the popular wimpy and pacifistic portrayals of Jesus). Not to mention that He's coming back "in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (2 Thess. 1:8).
His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. (Rev. 19:12ff.)
Other than that the book was ok. I recommend Tommy Nelson's teachings on marriage and the Song of Solomon (http://dbcmedia.org/), Gary Smalley's If Only He Knew, G. Craige Lewis’ teachings on creation roles and fasting (http://www.exministries.com/sermons/atcp-archive/), and Paul Washer's excellent sermon on Romans 6, “Being What You Are: Having Too Low a View of Regeneration” (http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=428082310290).