Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 4: Romans 8:9

Even if you’re not used to studying the Bible, I hope you’ll stick with me for a brief look at a passage that was of critical importance in my journey out of the evangelical church.

Romans 8:5-14: 5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.

13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. 14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.

One thing on which Christians of all persuasions agree is that faith in God will make you a better person — not perfect, but at least better. The passage above explains why: Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (verse 9). That automatically and inevitably puts them in “the realm of the Spirit” (verse 9 again). The Spirit is the king of this realm, “leading” them (14) and “governing” them (6) to live in accordance with his desires (5).

In contrast, those without the Spirit do not belong to Christ (9). They have their mind set on fleshly desires (5), leading to death (6, 13). In fact, they cannot please God (8).

The broader context of this passage is that to simply know the rules of good conduct (the Law of Moses) does not give one the power to be good. That takes an inner work by the Spirit of God, which only Christians experience.

If you have not lived in the evangelical church (let me emphasize that I’m not speaking of more-liberal versions of Christianity), it may be hard to appreciate the full thrust of this. As a group, evangelicals believe that they have both a motivation and a power to be good that is simply absent from the non-Christian world. The motivation is love for God and the power is the Holy Spirit. The fifth point of the National Association of Evangelicals’ Statement of Faith makes this clear:

We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.

But forget about the power. I don’t know how many times I heard that non-believers don’t even have a reason to be good. I even heard that coming out of my own mouth! We attributed any good behavior by non-believers to God’s continual restraint of their human, sinful nature and his common grace. Were he to withdraw his hand, the world would plunge into chaos.

Good Non-Believers

A turning point for me came when I became friends with the man who ran the convenience store down the street. Pravin was from India, where he had been a doctor, and was a devout Hindu. When anyone had come into his clinic without shoes, Pravin knew that person was even poorer than average and he would treat him free of charge. He would even give him some milk for his family. Pravin also told of the time a man had come into the convenience store in the dead of winter, begging for milk for his children. None of the culturally Christian storekeepers on the street had given him anything, but Pravin was glad to do so.

Being a good evangelical, I had been considering how I might share the gospel with Pravin, but as I got to know him I realized that he was already a better person than most of my Christian friends. It seemed ridiculous to tell him he was “destined for a Christless eternity” and needed to repent and be saved.

I had known many fine non-believers during my life. Why hadn’t I felt the same way about them? I’m ashamed to say it took a Hindu who had come from a country where the influence of Christianity was almost non-existent to shake my categories thoroughly enough.

At any rate, I finally learned that non-believers could be just as good as believers.

Struggling Believers

I had also been learning the opposite: believers could act just like I had always imagined non-believers would.

If you’ve been with me through Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series, you’ve seen how I became disillusioned with evangelicals’ dishonesty. It seemed that the more committed someone was to the brand of Christianity I was part of, the less honest he was. Instead of handling facts with integrity, he was likely to twist, misrepresent and ignore them.

And then there was the outward behavior. As an evangelical, I had seen it up-close for nearly 40 years. If I were to catalog all the ways we showed no evidence of being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, I would seem to be claiming that evangelicals are worse than everyone else and that’s not my point. I am only saying that we were no better.

Even when we tried to improve, I could not perceive anything supernatural at work. It seemed to be no easier for an evangelical with a short temper to control it than for anyone else, even if he or she was praying for God’s help. Likewise for lust, sloth, or other sins.

This is not my experience alone. As my pastors used to lament from the pulpit, survey after survey shows that evangelicals do not behave much differently from the rest of the population. The image often used was that society was sliding down-hill and the church was only a little behind. As Ronald Sider wrote in the January, 2005 issue of Christianity Today,

Born-again Christians divorce at about the same rate as everyone else. Self-centered materialism is seducing evangelicals and rapidly destroying our earlier, slightly more generous giving. … Born-again Christians justify and engage in sexual promiscuity (both premarital sex and adultery) at astonishing rates. Racism and perhaps physical abuse of wives seems to be worse in evangelical circles than elsewhere. This is scandalous behavior for people who claim to be born-again by the Holy Spirit and to enjoy the very presence of the Risen Lord in their lives.

Sider saw rays of hope in a 1992 Gallup survey that showed certain “heroic and faithful” Christians did behave better than average, but to cite this as proof of the Spirit’s power would only be to commit the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. Besides, I have a hunch that heroic and faithful secular humanists are exceptional people, too.

Conclusion

I knew and still know some truly wonderful evangelicals. However, my anecdotal experience with evangelicals as a group was that we were no better than anyone else, and had no special power to improve our character even when we wanted to do so.

World-class pollsters such as George Gallup, Jr. and George Barna (both devout Christians, by the way) reached the same conclusion more scientifically.

I was forced to admit that one of the central claims of evangelical Christianity is false. There is no Holy Spirit who indwells and empowers only the born-again.

[Edited to add:] In case I haven’t made this clear already, let me say it again. My point is not the usual whining about Christians being “such hypocrites” so now I will take my toys and go home. This is all about a central proposition of the Christian faith having been proven false.

But what of God? Surely Jehovah is good, and worthy of worship! Maybe, but I had been proven wrong on many other counts. I was now ready to take a fresh look at the character of God as revealed in the Bible. The answer I found drove me, screaming, from the faith. More on that next time. [Edit Dec 13, 2012:] No, there’s been a change in plans. I’m going to highlight some of your comments first.

27 responses to “Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 4: Romans 8:9

  1. The valuable lesson you learned is that we’re all children of God. As for Jehovah, he is of relatively minor importance inasmuch as he’s not truly God.

  2. It seems that you departure was fueled by Christians rather than Christianity (as propositional truth or worldview) – yet that is quite the logical leap. Perhaps Chesterton put it best: “When the world goes wrong, it proves rather that the Church is right. The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.”

    Of course that might be beside the point. More on topic, you keep using the word ‘good'; what does that mean in this context?

    • >> you departure was fueled by Christians rather than Christianity (as propositional truth or worldview)

      I think you missed the point of the post. The proposition was that Christianity (or, more properly, a “relationship with God”) makes people act better. That’s what Romans 8 and other passages teach. The lives of evangelicals, in my view, showed that proposition to be untrue.

      >> what does ‘good’ mean?

      That’s a big topic — much too big for this post. For now, I’ll summarize it as Jesus did: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

      • The overwhelming problem here is a misunderstanding of Christianity; this is evident in your interaction with the shopkeeper. You claim not to have not known how to share the gospel with him because he was already a good person, that this put you at a loss as to why you should tell him he needed to be saved from his sins. If your only idea of sin was ‘being a bad person’, then of course I can see your predicament; but that’s not what sin is. The shopkeeper didn’t need to be saved from being a terrible person, he needed to be saved from his sin, from rejecting the God who created him. If we’re going by the Decalogue he is without a doubt breaking three of the first four commandments, or if you’d prefer to use the words of Christ, he is without a doubt failing to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” which is what Christ commands before saying “and Love your neighbor as yourself.” The vertical aspect is the primary one. Even if the shopkeeper is keeping the latter, he is objectively failing at the former. So why wouldn’t he need the gospel just as much as anybody else – he didn’t even make it past the first commandment, in fact he’s openly breaking it.

        God isn’t going to damn him because he’s a jerk, he’s going to damn him for rejecting his Lord; relative goodness has absolutely nothing to do with whether somebody needs the Gospel, to think otherwise is to misunderstand what the Gospel is. Adam didn’t fall because of anything bad he did to another person. He fell because he disobeyed God – that is what it means to be a bad person, and that alone.

        The key problem here is that you’re claiming “a central proposition of the Christian faith [has] been proven false,” but fail to realize that what you’re criticizing isn’t a proposition of the Christian faith at all, much less a central one. Christ didn’t die to make people good, he died to take away their sins. If your view of what it is to be good rests only on the horizontal scale, then yes, you will see Christianity as deficient – but this is due to a false view of what Christianity is, not an actual failing of the cross.

        Why should the Hindu be admitted into the presence of God (heaven) when he has spent his life in open rejection of God’s very existence?

        Perhaps grace hasn’t made the Christian as nice as you’d like him to be, or as nice as the Hindu who rejects his creator outright; but then you have no idea how bad that Christian would be had he not been given that grace. You see him as uncharitable, or maybe a liar or a cheat; without grace he might have been a vile moral vacuum of a libertine – I know I would be.

        • You raise many valid points, Jeremiah, and I appreciate it. When you asked in your earlier post what I meant by ‘good’ I had a hunch that what you were driving at was that ‘good’ must include worshiping Jehovah. I didn’t want to get into that, so rather than use Jesus’ definition of “#1 love God; #2 love your neighbor as yourself” I chose his other definition (the golden rule). You didn’t let me get away with it! :) That is a good topic for another post, though. I hope I can address it within the next month. Please drop by from time to time. Call me on it if I don’t follow through!

          Meanwhile, I’ll just say this about my Indian friend (and I didn’t get into all this in the post because it was too long already). He actually thought Jesus was divine, although not the “only begotten Son of God”. We in the West would call Hindus polytheists but I learned from Pravin that they consider all their many gods to be manifestations of One God — not unlike the members of the Trinity being different facets of the Godhead. For him, Jesus was already part of the Godhead! So, it got a little more complicated than I had realized. I did not feel that Pravin “rejected God’s very existence” as you put it; I felt that he had a different understanding. Maybe that’s wishy-washy, but I was already feeling the effects of the body blows I’ve described in Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series. ;(

          As for the gospel, believe me, I do realize what the evangelical gospel is and I agree with you that just “being good” is not it. Campus Crusade’s famous Four Spiritual Laws summarize it as well as anything.

          During the time I was getting to know Pravin, reservations about the justice of Hell were already growing in me. How could infinite punishment be appropriate for such an infinitesimal lifetime that includes some sin? Yes, I’ve heard the argument that God himself is infinite so any sin against him is an infinite transgression, but I wasn’t buying that, either. (Material for another post!) It was making less and less sense to me that I would say to anyone, “Unless you ask this God for forgiveness with this understanding of the process, you’ll burn forever.” And that was even more true for someone like Pravin. I know I was not thinking like an evangelical, even though I still was one, but that is how I felt at the time.

          As for whether “the Holy Spirit will indwell you, with the result that you will be a better person” is a central proposition of the evangelical faith, that may be something that your own evangelical church does not emphasize, but I can only say, as I did in the post, that it is one of the handful of doctrines that the National Association of Evangelicals chose to include in the Statement of Faith. To me, that makes it pretty central. YMMV.

          Jeremiah, I have enjoyed our exchange so far and I hope you will continue to visit and comment.

        • Just noticed that I failed to respond to your last paragraph.

          >> …you have no idea how bad that Christian would be had he not been given that grace…

          True, but I was in the church long enough to see how much people changed as they came to faith, and how much their faith enabled them to conquer various besetting sins. There were shining examples of change, of course, but overall the level of transformation I saw was no greater than with people who get involved in other important causes, or follow other religions and philosophies.

          >> without grace he might have been a vile moral vacuum of a libertine – I know I would be.

          That’s exactly how I felt about myself when I was in the faith — that I would be a libertine without it. My non-believing sister told me, “You’re too afraid of yourself.” After I left the faith I discovered she was right. I felt exactly the same inclination to good (yet another subject for a post) as before, except I was also much happier. I have not cheated on my wife; I still love my children; I still want the world to be a better place; I can still be impatient; I am still too task-oriented at the expense of people. Basically, I am the same mix of good and bad that I was before — except, as you pointed out, I score a big fat zero on the “first and greatest commandment.” Oh well, It’s not like I have a choice on that one (yet one more post!).

      • WordPress doesn’t allow me the option of replying to your reply further down, so I’ll do it here.

        As regards the first post: For one, I’d say that the western understanding is more that Hindu are pantheists, and within that pantheism make room for a level of beings they deem gods, but even the gods are subject to the overall system, nor is the goal to become a god. Regardless, this is still an outright rejection of the God of Christianity, and Christ. Recognizing his deity is worthless if he’s not recognized as Trinity (and even less so when your system allows pretty much anybody to technically be ‘part of the deity’). So he’s still breaking three of the first four Commandments, or simply the first commandment of Christ, therefore he still has just as much a need for the Gospel, and just as little reason for getting into heaven.

        As regards the eternity of Hell, I too have heard the rationale regarding the infinite nature of the sin, which is the same rationale that is often used to justify why Christ (God himself) was needed as a sacrifice (infinite God to appease infinite transgression and all that). I personally don’t find this line of reasoning (even if true) particularly helpful, and I can account for all the facts in both cases without it and therefore see no need for it.

        There’s no reason for Hell to be eternal just because God is infinite, that’s beside the point. There’s not even necessarily a reason for Hell to be permanent as a form of punishment. On both those points I would agree with you. The only reason for Hell to be permanent (as far as I can tell is because God’s not going to allow somebody into heaven who is at odds with him, and the individual who has been resigned to hell has shown that they will never turn towards God to give him glory.

        Heaven, in short, is to be in the presence of God and to give him glory. If somebody is in hell (that is, separation from God), they want neither one of those things, therefore why would they ever be admitted from one to the other? They are in hell eternally not because of some metaphysical infinitives of God, or because their sin was so great as to warrant such punishment; they are in hell eternally because they are continuing to sin for eternity. It’s like if you sent your kid to his room and told him he could come out when he decided to behave properly; if he resolves to never behave properly it’s hardly on you if he’s required to stay in there for eternity. Bad analogy, sure, but it makes the point.

        God isn’t to blame for hell being eternal, people are, because the people in hell are in eternal rebellion against him.

        _____________________

        As regards the statement of faith, I reject it as a central tenant of Christianity not necessarily because nobody says it, but because you’re defining ‘good’ differently than Scripture. If I say Christianity will make you a better person, it means something different than when you say it; therefore I reject your rejection of it. ;) Equivocation is the term for it if you want to go the route of logical fallacies.
        _____________________

        As for you leaving the faith, I’m not surprised you didn’t become a rotten person. Again, I’m not positing Christianity as being about being good in that way, and will fully admit that if you’re talking only on the horizontal scale of interpersonal relations, a nonbeliever can be just as good as the next person and the Christian can be just as bad.

        That said, I’d borrow an analogy from Cornelius Van Til and say that you’re doing so by living under a roof or on ground you took from us. Sure, I could say common grace also plays a part, but more to the point are the stolen aspects of Christian morality which are then imposed upon a system which has no support for them. It might result in a decent person by worldly standards, but it’s inconsistent and has no foundation beneath it that doesn’t find itself bound by subjectivism.

    • “The key problem here is that you’re claiming “a central proposition of the Christian faith [has] been proven false,”

      For it to be worth anything to begin with it would need to have been proven true.

  3. One might think that being ‘filled with the Spirit’ would yield such an obvious change that no one could deny the Christian gospel. However, from 30 years of being a faithful Christian I never saw what I would judge as a supernatural change in someone’s life in the long run. Short term there was often joy, optimism and an earnestness in seeking God. In the longer run, once the ‘conversion high’ wore off the individual would fall into the routine of religion or wander away entirely. Sadly, in the cases I observed the person was much the same as before, but with a layer of guilt added to the mix.

    Romans 8 seems to present a falsifiable hypothesis: Do people who claim to be filled with the Spirit actually live lives as described? I would have to say the answer, at least so far, appears to be ‘No’.

  4. You are an exceptionally prolific writer and I enjoy both the quality and the quantity of your work. Bravo sir!

  5. “The key problem here is that you’re claiming “a central proposition of the Christian faith [has] been proven false,” but fail to realize that what you’re criticizing isn’t a proposition of the Christian faith at all, much less a central one. Christ didn’t die to make people good, he died to take away their sins. If your view of what it is to be good rests only on the horizontal scale, then yes, you will see Christianity as deficient – but this is due to a false view of what Christianity is, not an actual failing of the cross.

    Why should the Hindu be admitted into the presence of God (heaven) when he has spent his life in open rejection of God’s very existence?”

    No, the key problem is that the very reason for the death of Jesus is absurd. The “central proposition” (original sin) is the biggest farce that I have ever seen.

    God creates man then condemns them to original sin. Then he impregnates a virgin so that he can be born. Once he’s born he plans to kill himself as a sacrifice to himself to save us from a punishment he condemned us to. Oh but he only has to be dead for 3 days to absolve you of an eternity of punishment that you can earn from being unlucky enough to be born on the wrong continent in the wrong time period.

    Any thinking person would not accept the crimes of someone else, nor would they push the sentence of criminals onto their children. Imagine the uproar if the children of a mass murderer were put into jail because he was assigned multiple life sentences. This is the main thesis of the bible to the trillionth degree. Adam and Eve ate some fruit and now we are all doomed to eternal torment unless we say magic words. It is stupid and has become repugnant to me. I am not broken. You are not broken. We don’t need saving.

    • You’re starting off from a false premise: “God creates man then condemns them to original sin.” If you start off wrongly of course everything that follows is going to sound absurd.

      Though even if you do get the beginning right, if you try to fit Christianities maxims into your own worldview then of course it’s going to seem unreasonable, especially when you attribute things to Christianity which it doesn’t teach. If the premises are accepted, everything fits together. On the other hand the alternative doesn’t even have maxims to accept, much less ones which fit together.

    • You said he ‘condemns them to original sin.’ Unless I’m misunderstanding your statement, you’re implying that God is in some way responsible for that sin – unless you meant that God condemns them *for* original sin, which would be different.

      • I meant it both ways. What other purpose would the tree serve? God made us the way we are and knew what would happen. If I were to put a bunch of kids in a room with a gun I would be at least partially responsible for it.

    • Except we’re not talking about children, but rational adults choosing to disobey, so the analogy doesn’t hold. A child cannot understand the repercussions of their actions, Adam could. God made us free, and left it up to us what to do with that freedom – the tree is the option to disobey.

  6. The lack of the Holy Spirit was a factor when I left evangelicalism. But for me it was disappointment that I never could claim, with total honesty and confidence, that I ever felt touched/encouraged/guided/whatever by something external to myself.

    Were my emotions stirred by manipulative group singing? Sure. Did I ever have a sudden epiphany while I was praying? Yep. However, clearly all of these experiences were easily explained without assuming divine interaction. I started to think of uncomplimentary comparisons between worship services and rain dances. Or between the random chaos of a meditating believer’s stream of consciousness and Ouija boards.

    And then they have the chutzpah to say that someone must FIRST believe in order to sense the Holy Spirit. In other words, all that’s necessary is an extremely heavy dollop of psychological priming…

    • My observation is that the masses generally need some kind of contact with God. Therefore, a totally supranatural God does not play well in Peoria, leading to some people losing their religion. Just an observation.

  7. Pingback: Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 5: Highlighting Your Comments So Far | Path of the Beagle

  8. Pingback: Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 6: The God of the Bible | Path of the Beagle

  9. Pingback: Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 3: Prayer Studies | Path of the Beagle

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  11. There are much better replies to this one, but it is one that I have thought of too, so I am going to comment – for what it’s worth.

    Yes, absolutely there are good people, of all religions, and no religion.

    I do have to disagree with the above posters that all people who are Christian (in name) eventually become just the same as non-Christians though. I do personally know many people who have evidence of lifelong-after-“born again” evidence of the Holy Spirit working to make them more Christ-like. Perfect, absolutely no. But perfection is not something we can hope to obtain in this life.

    Here is where I think of the Parable of the Sower. I’m sure you are familiar. There are the 4 soils where the seeds get sown. The first soil is hard, and the seeds are snatched away. This person never believes. The second soil is rocky, and although the seeds sprout, the sun bakes them and they don’t have roots to withstand, so they wither and die. This person shows interest and may call themself a Christian, and have an emotional experience. They don’t put down roots, and fall away when there is any “persecution” or challenge to their faith. The third soil is good, and the seed sprouts. However, weeds also spring up and choke out the plant. This person is taken over by the day-to-day things of this world, the passions and concerns of this life. Only one soil results in a plant that bears fruit.

    The first 3 soils don’t produce “saved people”. However, they produce a lot of people who may call themselves “Christians”. Yes, the “productive” people of the 3th soil sin. But their individual behavior should show some movement towards being more Christ-like (think, fruit of the Spirit), throughout their entire life. Yes there may be plateaus, but overall, they should progress (individually). I emphasize the individually, because one person / personality may not be as naturally “good” or “nice” by however a society defines these attributes as another. But in their own life it should be apparent that they are a “better” person with the Holy Spirit than without. If they are not, and if that does not endure to death, I would greatly question that person’s salvation. As true belief (in anything), with one’s whole heart, comes out in behavior.

    • Even as a Christian, I never knew what to do with that parable. To me, Jesus was saying that it IS possible to believe and fall away. He was warning his followers to be on their guard. However, my pastors interpreted it as you do.

      In a comment on another post, you seemed to take my word that I was a true Christian at one time, but gave it up. Did I hear you wrong? If so, what evidence would convince you that I once believed, and what evidence would convince you that I no longer do?

  12. Because modern Christians are hypocrites, that means there is no Holy Ghost? No! People are not born sinners and if they do not learn to be like the world, they can still remain good people. Being Christian is not about being good though. The majority of people who claim to have the Spirit/Ghost do not. The truth is actually that there has never been that many people who are actually indwelled with Ghost than the first century AD. NOT that there is no such thing…But nice try. We all make mistakes in our research from time to time.

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