Douglas Campbell, Sin and Its Seriousness
Douglas A. Campbell is Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity
School in Durham, North Carolina. He received his PhD in 1989 from the University of Toronto.
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JMF: In your book, The Deliverance of God, you focus a great deal on Romans 5-8 and the very positive, powerful assurance of salvation that is present in those passages. The question that seems to arise when we talk about the power, the strength, and the assurance of grace, which is most assuredly present, are all these nagging questions about the “but”s — the “but”s syndrome — “when it comes to grace, but….” What are some of those, and how do we work with those?
DC: A lot of people resist a gospel of grace for three reasons. They’re worried about judgment, they’re worried about ethics, and they’re worried about sin. They see those things as connected together. What one runs into here is the inability to step outside of an essentially conditional mentality where people think, “If I can’t threaten you with something, with a negative future state, how can I get you to behave well?”
DC: So [if I stress grace] I’ll be soft on sin, I won’t be doing my ethical job, and I’ll let judgment go, and all these things are held together. While this is the model that is pursued with the best of intentions, I think it’s wrong on all accounts: as an account of judgment, an account of ethics, an account of sin, and about how people behave. Most importantly, it’s wrong about God.
The gospel wants to do things very differently. Perhaps if we talk about that for a little bit, we can come back and see where the fallacies lie in these sorts of protests. The gospel of grace addresses ethics and sin in a radical way. It says to you immediately, you are so sinful that you can contribute nothing to this process. That’s a very strong judgment on your sinfulness and what needs to change, and people sense this. The flipside of the gospel of grace is this very stern word of judgment.
You say to me, “How do I behave, once this gospel of grace arrives? Does it just let me do whatever I want?” “Absolutely not!” (to quote Paul, who says that a lot, especially about this question). You’ve involved in a transformed reality now; you have to cooperate with it as much as you can. You need to throw yourself into this new reality, and it asks that of you. It asks you to respond, at least in the relationships that you’re in. It will take every ounce of willpower and effort that you have, and more, to continue to respond to the Spirit and the presence of Christ in your life.
This is what true freedom is. As we respond in these relationships, we discover what liberty is, what it means to be set free from sin, and the tyranny of death, corruption, and sin, and to be free to live for God as God wants us to live. That’s true freedom, but it’s freedom that you have to be involved with. It’s real freedom. You are doing this. But you’re not choosing to step away from him or choosing not to be involved with him. It’s a relationship that’s given to you that you then need to respond to. It’s the freedom of response and the response of freedom.
This is something that’s hard for us to grasp because it’s a very non-modern, non-Western way of understanding freedom, but if I can put it like this, it’s rather like when a beautiful chord is played on a piano. Certain notes that are in harmonic resonance with this chord will resonate with it, and it’s as if God is playing this chord, and we are free to resonate with what God is doing in our lives and to fit into this magnificent orchestration. If God is not playing this chord, we’re not free, nothing happens, we’re inert. But when that chord is played and when we are struck, when that note is struck, we resonate. That is the freedom of God. We can push back on that and refuse to resonate. We can reject the freedom that God gives us. We can reject the gift that comes to us. But that’s not free, that’s not a choice. The Bible calls it sin, and it’s an irrational decision for slavery. I wouldn’t grace that whole operation with the word freedom.
When the gospel of grace comes to us, it reshapes our understanding of what true human freedom is. As our minds are reshaped and our responses are reshaped, I think we live as we’re meant to live, and we see more clearly why these other ways of approaching ethics and judgment and sin are wrong. You can probably see by now where I’m going with this in terms of having someone protest against the gospel of grace and says it’s soft on sin, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Because when I’m looking at grace, I’m seeing something that treats sin with incredible seriousness. When I’m in this relationship of grace, and I know that God accepts me in Christ, I’m then free to see myself as I really am. I’m free to see the depth of the sin in my life because I’m secure.
JMF: Without fear.
DC: Exactly. I know that I cannot fall out of his loving embrace, and so I can be honest in a way that I cannot be honest in any other situation or system.
JMF: There’s a huge freedom in that. All the burdens are lifted. There are no more pretenses.
DC: The burdens are lifted, but the reality is sometimes slightly horrible, because you begin to go on a journey when you get exposed to depths of sin that you hadn’t even suspected were there. So a confessional quality becomes part of your discipleship — it becomes part of Christian leadership, where the deeper we go with God, the more sense, unfortunately, we have with our own struggle with sin…the more we appreciate the enormous accomplishment of Christ on our behalf, who shared this horrendous situation and didn’t slip into that. It produces a more honest church culture; I hope it produces a slightly more honest culture of discipleship.
There are some lessons about sinfulness that I didn’t even smell a whiff of until I had been a Christian probably 15 or 20 years, then all of a sudden, bam, you’re confronted by something that you do, that’s a pattern of behavior, that it’s been in your life from the get-go, and suddenly God is asking you to address that — an issue like violence. You can’t even see how deeply immersed you are in violence until one day the Holy Spirit puts you in an incident, puts his finger on it, and says okay, it’s time for you to address this now. That is an utterly painful experience, but it’s the sort of repentance that needs to happen in Christian lives. It’s taking sin incredibly seriously in an ongoing way.
If you’re pushing the other kind of model, the one that I’m not so happy with, the more conditional contractual model, you’re protesting against my emphasis on grace and you’re saying well, what about sin? Aren’t you soft on sin? I’m saying no, you’re soft on sin. If you’re approaching the gospel as if sin is something that you learn about and confess before you become a Christian, I think you’re treating sin in a trivial way. You’re approaching sin as if you can understand it without God revealing this stuff to you in an ongoing way—as if you could understand sin without being confronted by the reality of Christ. You’re treating sin as if it’s something you and your sinful situation can deal with yourself so that you can become a Christian.
That trivializes sin. The assumption seems to be that through your good actions, you’ve left it at the door of the church when you walked in and became a Christian. You didn’t leave it at the door of the church — it walked into church with you — unfortunately it comes back to grab you time after time. So I have a deep worry that this fairly conditional contractual approach to the gospel doesn’t treat sin with sufficient seriousness. I find that ironic when I get accused by advocates of that gospel, of being too soft on sin.
I also think that they’re soft on ethics. There’s this belief that human beings have it in them to generate a certain amount of good behavior in order to become a Christian, before they become a Christian. Once you’re a Christian you keep on with the good work. But this is deluded about the depth of sin and the human condition. We cannot generate good behavior and good deeds until God has come down and transformed us and changed us. This is a wildly over-optimistic evaluation of human ability and capacity. These are things that I’ve learned from standing in the tradition of grace, standing in the reality of grace.
JMF: Isn’t there also the idea of being forgiven, to have your past sins removed, and then the concept… now the Spirit will come and help you maintain some level of righteousness, rather than the model you’re talking about.
DC: The false model has this sort of funny two-step pattern where you get sins wiped away and then you step into the church by doing certain things. For example, making a decision of faith…supposedly makes you a Christian. Then the Holy Spirit arrives like the seventh cavalry to help you out when you get into a difficult situation. There’s something a little odd about that.
What really seems to be going on is the Spirit is involved from well before your involvement. Now, from the foundation of the world, the Spirit with Christ has been working toward your and my inclusion in all of this. The Spirit has been working on your journey often when you’re not aware of it, leading you to an understanding of Christ, of the church, of God, of sin. They are all involved together. This is so much more than forgiveness of sins. It is forgiveness of sins, but it’s release from sin.
There’s a little word play that Paul does on the genitive connection [in the Greek grammar]…and you can talk about forgiveness of sins or forgiveness of transgressions, in which the transgressions are the object of the forgiveness. I’m going to forgive those sins over there. But there’s also with the same word a sense of release from sins, which becomes release from sin in Paul’s genitive of separation — we’re getting released out of or away from the sin. This is talking about actually changing us — not wiping away acts, but changing the way we function so we don’t act in that way.
JMF: This transformation has to do with being in Christ in a way that he is our life, he is our righteousness.
DC: Absolutely. There’s a danger that when God comes to us in grace, we then think “okay, so much has been done for me, now it’s over to me to respond” — possibly I’ve been overemphasizing that. There’s a sense in which grace from God doesn’t just come all the way to us—it takes us back as well in Christ. Christ is the one who has walked in the way that we couldn’t walk. It’s as if we’re in a massive snowdrift, helpless, bound there, but Christ is the one who has smashed the furrow through the snow — we walk behind him, he pulls us, he carries us behind him through the snow. God hasn’t just come all the way down to us, he’s also hauling us and Christ all the way back to him. All of our acting and responding, in a way, is an echoing of Jesus’ perfect response for us.
We see this again in Romans 8, where Paul talks about prayer, for example. We struggle, we don’t know what to pray. But then we realize the Spirit is praying in a deeper way than we can pray. Christ is praying for us as well. Christ is continually offering prayer to the Father, the Spirit is offering prayer to the Father (knowing much more about the situation than we do), and we’re entering into that prayer that is being undertaken on our behalf. It is a gift that comes all the way down and comes all the way back. It’s a marvelous thing. We could never dream this up. This is not something that a clever person has thought up. This is an act of God.
JMF: So we’re participating in the prayers of Christ and don’t have to worry about whether our prayers are good enough.
DC: We don’t have to be anxious—we just have to respond to this divine community as doing things on our behalf. All our activity is like that — we’re caught up into worship in Christ, we’re caught up into the behavior of Christ by the Spirit of Christ. We’re caught up in the understanding of Christ, the mind of Christ. The faithfulness of Christ is something we’re caught up in as well. We don’t have to generate this ourselves—God is giving this to us. It’s a gift that’s so much bigger than we realize, and yet Paul knew this. He wrote in Ephesians, “I’m going to pray that you would have power to grasp with all saints the height and the depth and the breadth and the width of the love of Christ which is past all understanding.” He understood that you could fall forever into the love of Christ. That’s a pretty powerful expanse of benevolence, is it not?
JMF: Yeah. So our faith that we have at the time of believing should not be thought of as a work that causes God to change his mind, causes God to look at us in a new way.
DC: No, not at all.
JMF: It isn’t the beginning point of our salvation.
DC: I don’t think so.
JMF: Or even our transformation.
DC: This is where we can get Paul wrong, by turning faith into a deed or a work that accesses the benefits of Christ. It’s like our Visa card — we trot off to the ATM with it and get money out of the account. Without the card, you don’t get any of the good stuff. No. This is a misunderstanding of Paul. For Paul, our faith is something that Christ has as well as us. In us, it’s a fruit of the Spirit. It’s very important, but it’s a sign that we are in Christ in our responding to the Father as Christ himself did.
In a way, faith has many dimensions. It’s correct understanding of what’s going on, which is important. One of the most important elements is that we understand what sort of God we’re involved with — the God of love. It involves unwavering trust, it involves fidelity through suffering. When struggles come, we can be faithful. These are all signs that the Spirit is bearing fruit in our lives and that we’re echoing the character of Christ.
Here I am using this reading of a couple of phrases in Paul that the King James Version got right when it translated them as “the faith of Christ.” Modern translations can seem to emphasize our decision, making the role for faith, unfortunately, changed or reinterpreted, so they became “faith in Christ.” Recently scholars have begun turning back to “the faith of Christ.” Some have begun realizing that this makes better sense of the texts where these phrases occur. I’m persuaded by that; I think they’re right.
JMF: The fact that it’s the fruit of the Spirit…often we’ll hear a sermon or a Bible study or group, and fruit of the Spirit will be listed or read from Galatians and then the admonishment is to start living like this because, after all, this is the fruit of the Spirit, so you need to get more of this in your life. Isn’t that kind of turning around the whole…
DC: That’s missing the point (laughing). It’s not that we’re not involved. God wants a response from us, and we are fully involved in this. But we don’t have to generate this out of our own resources. We’re not thrown back on ourselves. We don’t have to strive to produce these sorts of things as proof that we’re involved in the reality of Christ. We can chill out to a large extent, and attend to the glories of the gospel, respond to it is as best we can, and Christ and the Spirit will do this work through us. There is restfulness and a sense of relaxation about people who are grasped by this truth. Paul would say people grasp this truth because they’re grasped by this truth. This is the hallmark of people who are walking in grace.
JMF: Going back to the title of the book, Deliverance of God… The subhead is, An Apocalyptic Re-Reading of Justification in Paul. Why is it an apocalyptic re-reading of justification in Paul?
DC: What I’m getting at there is that there’s a bad way of reading Paul, a way that I don’t approve of and that gets him wrong. That reading of Paul produces a false model of the gospel, and it springs out of what we could call “Paul’s justification texts.” These are passages where he uses justification words, which in the Greek are using the dikaio name. We could call them as dikaio texts.
In those texts, Paul is doing something interesting with faith and works — works of law over here, faith over there, someone’s been justified or dikaio(ed) and is also the righteousness of God running around. Those are the texts out of which a very conditional contractual understanding of the gospel has been generated, particularly since the second and third generations after the Reformation. I think that is where the damage was done. I don’t think the main Reformers got this wrong. There was a little bit of it going on, but Calvin, Luther, I don’t get the sense when I read them. But later on, second, third generation — certain theological systems were developed in a very conditional, contractual way, and these are the ones that did the damage.
To understand Paul properly, I think we need to eliminate this false dogmatic way of reading Paul. The way we eliminate it from the justification texts is, we grasp they’re all about revelation, particularly when Paul’s talking about faith. That’s what I mean by apocalyptic. Apocalyptic is just a fancy word for revelation, the Greek word for revelation. Apocalypsis is Greek, revelare is the verb in Latin. So what I’m getting at is, there’s nothing conditional or contractual going on in these justification texts. Paul is talking about the disclosure of the good purposes of God through the faithfulness of Christ, which elicits from us a response and an echo of faith as we are involved in him. This is what Paul is talking about in these texts.
We’ve tended to miss that because we’ve taken away the faith of Christ and we’ve taken that faith and made it into an action that we undertake. We’ve made these texts about human beings and about conditions that we can fulfill. But I don’t think that’s what Paul was writing. When he says dikaiosyne theou, the righteousness of God (or even better, the deliverance of God) has been revealed through pistis Christou, he’s talking about the faith of Christ. It’s Jesus’ faithfulness to death on the cross and his resurrection where we see God’s definitive righteous purpose revealed.
When we miss that, we misunderstand and misconstrue all of Paul’s teaching about salvation. It’s a great tragedy that’s gripped a lot of the conservative church… We’re used to saying that the liberal church has messed things up because they dumped the Bible and wandered off. But the conservative church tooth and nail will defend this as the true gospel…and it’s a great tragedy for the church, because what was going on in Paul was the antithesis of this “gospel.” It’s time for us to recover that.
JMF: It seems like the Christian walk is a lot more fun and enjoyable than it’s often made out to be by those who seem to take it seriously…in the sense of being very sober and uptight, unable to enjoy themselves, unable to have fun with other people. It’s not fun, it’s a burden as opposed to a joy, because it’s laced with fear.
DC: I think so. What can be joyful about being flung back on your own resources and asked to satisfy…
JMF: Especially when you have none, so you have to pretend you have some, which leads to judgmentalism and to condemnation and to everything that divides people instead of bringing them together.
DC: And hanging over your head is this fearsome scenario of what’s going to happen at the end of the age, and you’re worried, you don’t have any sense of assurance.
JMF: In the gospel, there is no fear of the judgment.
DC: Love drives out fear. I don’t believe that God wants us to be afraid for a millisecond of anything, except perhaps our own stupidity.
JMF: There’s a solution for that: by trusting, over against our stupidity.
DC: That’s right — trusting what God tells us about ourselves instead of what we perhaps want to believe about ourselves.
JMF: That would take another full interview alone.
JMF: What do you do for recreation, for hobbies?
DC: I have fun. I follow the suggestions of my wife, who is an expert at having fun, and we have cats and dogs, we run, we do Pilates and yoga, we go to the beach, we travel. I spend time with the kids, watch a lot of films, read. We have a terrific life. I feel positively guilty about the amount of enjoyment that I get out of life. But you can’t have fun in your spare time if you’re not having fun at work, often.
JMF: What’s your next project? What project are you involved in that we’ll eventually see?
DC: People are asking me to write a shorter version of Deliverance of God, and I’m hearing those cries, so I think I will. I don’t know that I always explain myself as well as I would like to. The feedback is coming in on the big book. Folk are not grasping the theological issues with as much clarity as I had hoped. So I need to spell those out a little more clearly. I think I’m getting a hold of them more clearly as I talk in situations like this. So a shorter book that shows how to read Romans the right way I think is what I’m going to work on in the next few months.After that I have a very long-running project on the life of Paul, because I’ve always been passionately interested in how he worked as missionary — where he was, what he was visiting, what ships he sailed on…in a concrete gritty way. I’ve visited most of these cities, so I wanted to write a book about that and then collapse. And I should come to you for another suggestion.