If God is really in us in the form of the Holy Spirit, shouldn't it be easy to love one another?
—Margo Shelton, Victorville, California
There are two ways to approach this question. One would be to focus on the issue of love. The other would be to ask why it takes so much effort to live out any Christian moral obligation, whether love, or sexual fidelity, or economic generosity, or racial justice.
Let's place the question within a broader issue—historic Christian thinking about sanctification.
The most pessimistic stance, attributed to some strains of Lutheranism, is that the New Testament promises simply that God declares believers righteous on account of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21-26). In this view, our sinful condition is so profound that little if any actual moral progress can be expected in this life—indeed, the effort to make such progress actually draws us away from a trusting faith in Christ's atoning sacrifice on our behalf.
This view is untenable, however, because it fails to account for the hundreds of moral commands that the Bible does lay upon us, and the apparent expectation that we will at least attempt to obey them.
At the other end of the spectrum lies the Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification. According to this view, a total cleansing of sin from the heart through the Holy Spirit is available to believers (1 Thess. 5:23). As sin is purged from the heart, and the heart is instead filled with the Holy Spirit and love for God, dramatic moral change and real holiness become possible.
Thus some Christians have believed that the change could and should be so far-reaching that it is even possible to speak of moral perfection for the sanctified Christian. I find any use of the word perfection to describe Christian moral potential also untenable.
If in moral terms some Christians have expected too little of believers, and others have expected too much, what should Christians expect of themselves and of other believers?
A clue can be found in a statement that the sober-minded theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once offered. He said that the grace of God comes in two forms to the believer: pardon and power. God's grace comes as pardon in that we wretched sinners are forgiven of our many offenses. We are justified. But God's grace also comes as power for believers to live a new kind of life; that is, we can be sanctified.
The question rightly implies that the Bible does promise access to God's grace as power, and thus, during those times when we see so little evidence of such power in our lives, we are distressed.
But what we must take into account is the New Testament teaching that this power faces competing powers in the world and in ourselves.
The power of the Holy Spirit is indeed an extraordinary power. But in this life, we Christians do not get unhindered access to that power, or better, we struggle to get free of those other powers that limit our access to the full power of the Holy Spirit. In the classic Christian tradition, these other powers have been called the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
The "world" is God's good yet fallen creation, a cosmic and human order badly marred by sinful rebellion and presenting constant temptation, disappointment, and disorder (John 1:10; Rom. 3:19;
1 Cor. 3:19). The "flesh" is fallen human nature enslaved to sin and bent toward disobedience to God (Rom. 7; Gal. 5:16-26). The Devil is a personal being hostile to both God and humankind, and especially bent on seducing and tyrannizing the church (John 8:44; 2 Cor. 11:3-15; Rev. 12:13-17).
Why is it so hard to love? Because the power of the Holy Spirit competes in our very souls against these rebellious forces and sinful desires for our allegiance. The Holy Spirit, who lives in us, creates and then inflames in us a desire to do God's will—but not without opposition.
The good news is that this contest is unequal. God will ultimately prevail in the world, and in the yielded heart and life of the faithful Christian. The bad news is that it is still a contest, a fact we face every time we struggle to do what we know we should. That includes the challenge of loving one another.
David P. Gushee is Graves Associate Professor of Moral Philosophy and senior fellow of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Christian Leadership at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at ChristianBibleStudies.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.
Earlier Good Question columns include:
What do we gain from a bodily resurrection?
What is the difference between the brain and the soul?
How can I reconcile my belief in the inerrancy of Scripture with comments in Bible translations that state that a particular verse is not 'in better manuscripts'?
Is there a biblical principle behind the punishment of those who break the law?
Is it unscriptural for a Christian to be cremated?
Won't heaven's joy be spoiled by our awareness of unsaved loved ones in hell?
Where exactly do "Oneness" Pentecostals stand in relation to orthodoxy?
Do a man and a woman become married after having sex or after exchanging vows?
How Do You Know That You Have Truly Forgiven Someone?
Who Are We to Judge?
Should We File Lawsuits?
Can We Expect God to Forgive Unbelievers Who 'Don't Know What They're Doing'?
Is the Stock Market Good Stewardship?
Is Satan Omnipresent?
Is Suicide Unforgivable?
Was Slavery God's Will?
A Little Wine for the Soul?
Should We All Speak in Tongues?
Did Jesus Really Descend to Hell?
Take, Eat—But How Often?
Is Christmas Pagan?
Are Christians Required to Tithe?
Is Revelation Prophecy or History?
You're Divorced—Can You Remarry?
If Grace Is Irresistible, Why Evangelize?
Does the 'Bible Code' Really Exist?
What's the Unforgivable Sin?
What Bible Version Did Jesus Read?
Did God Die on the Cross?
You Must Be Born Again—But at What Age?
Was the Revolutionary War Justified?
Can the Dead Be Converted?
What Is the Significance of the Shroud of Turin?
Is Hell Forever?
Why Are There Denominations?
Did Paul Baptize for the Dead?
Do Demons Have Zip Codes?
What Is the Gospel of Thomas?
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
More from this Issue
Read These Next
- TrendingChristian and Missionary Alliance Will Ordain WomenMinisters may now use the title “pastor” regardless of gender.
- From the MagazineHow One Family’s Faith Survived Three Generations in the PulpitWith a front-row seat to their parents’ failures and burnout, a long line of pastor’s kids still went into ministry. Why?
- Editor's PickDied: Pat Robertson, Broadcast Pioneer Who Brought Christian TV to the MainstreamWith CBN, “The 700 Club,” Regent, the Christian Coalition, and a run for president, he changed evangelicals’ place in public life.