II Corinthians 7:1
By: Pastor Tim James (Tim is a futurist not a preterist)
Sunday AM 2/19/06
Several times, over the years, after preaching the Gospel in different places and even occasionally after preaching it here, I have been confronted with this passage by someone who is uncomfortable with the concept of pure grace. One cannot preach grace without, on occasion, being charged with antinomianism. I am always amazed that a person can think this one verse is the standard for all others when just the opposite is true. Many years ago I was in a meeting in which a preacher compared the life of a Christian to walking a tight rope. A tightrope walker needs a long pole for balance so this preacher said the balance pole was righteousness. He went on further to say that on one end was the righteousness of Christ and on the other was our personal righteousness. His implication was that if our personal righteousness was not equal to that of Christ that we would be out of balance and fall off the wire and suffer loss. After he had finished his gospel according to the Cirque de Soliel he ended his tirade with a challenge to anyone who would presume to disagree with him by d-double daring them to preach a message from II Cor. 7:1. “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God”. He firmly believed that this verse supported his “carney hawker”, side-show definition of balanced righteousness before God. He could not account for the fact that the believer is decidedly unbalanced and cannot abide two of anything concerning salvation (one way, truth life…singular, unconfounding)
His error as well as all errors of legalism is to divorce a spiritual admonition such as this from Christ and lay it at the door of human responsibility, capability and merit. Since all the word of God is about Christ, then this passage is likewise about Christ. Every admonition that addresses the life of faith is not centered in faith but in Christ. We are commanded to forgive “as Christ has forgiven us”. We are to love “as Christ has loved us”. We are commanded to give because God has given us Christ and all things with Him”. We are commanded to pray without ceasing because Christ ever lives to make intercession for us.
The translators began a new chapter with this verse. Perhaps they did so to connect it with the verse that follows it, suggesting that “perfecting holiness” is about wronging, corrupting or defrauding no man (v. 2). Certainly these are Gospel imperatives that every believer is to follow (Romans 13: 8-10). Character and conduct do matter (though they don’t count) because they are a revelation of an understanding of how our Lord has treated us. However, the first two words of verse 7 connect it to the previous verses rather than that which follows these words address the promises declared in the last few verses of chapter 6: 17-18). Whatever the meaning of the remainder of verse 1, it is inextricable bonded to, based on and centered in the fact that those who are spoken to have something. They possess and therefore believe the aforementioned promises. They are not looking to gain or progress in any way shape or form concerning the promises; they have them. The word promise is, throughout scripture, linked to Christ and the believer’s faith in Him (II Cor. 1: 20; Gal. 3: 13-14, 26-29). It follows then that the remaining words of admonition are not accomplished in the flesh but rather in the Spirit through believing the promise of God. Verse 1 of chapter 7 is actually the last word of the warning and promise that is contained in chapter 6 and verses 14-18 (read). Our text has to do with and must be viewed in the light of this context, lest we find ourselves sucked into the airless vacuum of legalism.
Cleansing can never be attributed to the power or the will of the flesh. The very words of the passage declare that we are to cleanse ourselves from filthiness of the flesh and spirit. We are not admonished to go to the flesh to cleanse our selves from the filthiness or it. That would be oxymoronic. Cleansing is not a thing we can do at all (Job 9: 30-31; 14:4; Gal. 3: 1-3). Cleansing is God’s work (Ezekiel 36:25; Mal. 3: 1-4; I John 1:7). Everywhere in scripture that the children of God seek cleansing they do so at the door of mercy. The fact that their cry is “cleanse me and I will be clean” declares that they know that cleansing is not something that is possible by their own power or ability. Cleansing was accomplished on Calvary by the blood of Christ. Paul declared this fact to this very church (I Cor. 6: 1; Titus 3; 4-8). Cleansing is spiritual. The flesh is neither quickened nor renewed and cannot be made anything other than what it is. Flesh is flesh and always will be flesh and thus carnal, sensual and earthly minded. The groaning of the Spirit of the child of God is to be finally released from the influence and death of the flesh (Romans 7: 25). To apply to the flesh for perfection of holiness is a kind of sick, necrophilia. It is as absurd as going to the graveyard to gain life. This admonition has to do with the spiritual (Isaiah 26: 3; I Peter 1: 5). There is only one way that our members, which are upon the earth, can be mortified. This mortification is certainly not within the purview of your members which are upon the earth (things above not things upon the earth) since it is those members that are, themselves, to be mortified. One does not apply to the disease, embrace the disease, revisit the disease or become re-infected in order to cure the disease. We are cleansed looking to Christ, our Life, not the flesh, our death. This seems almost mystical and ethereal but is it done in a most singular manner. The old hymn says “Turn your eyes upon Jesus…and the things of earth will grow strangely dim”. This, in a nutshell, is the answer. The believer looks for the appearing of Christ. The believer will be looking for him because the believer has set his affection on Him and not on “things on the earth”. With affection on things above, the natural consequence is that things of the earth are not attended to (Romans 8: 5). The principle of one’s inability to serve two masters applies. The members that are on the earth are mortified by looking for the appearance of Christ (Heb. 9: 28; II Tim. 4: 8). Religion, ever about making the old man better, and applying to the flesh to do so, will never be able to grasp that mortification of our members on the earth is accomplished with a look. Promise suggests hope and we do not hope in our flesh or in anything we can see (Romans 8: 24; II Cor. 4: 18). That, however, as mysterious and wonderful and unlikely as it seems is the only way that the flesh is subdued. It is subdued because it is starved of affection. It is starved of affection because the believer has invested his affection on things above (Hebrews 12: 1-2).
Holiness likewise is not ever attributed to the power and will of the flesh. Holiness is the work of God and is Christ. What holiness have we but Christ? All our righteousness is as filthy menstruous rags, cursed and in need of atonement (Jer. 23: 5-6; 33: 15-16). Christ is our holiness (I Cor. 1: 30). (state of being…holiest…be ye holy). You are as holy as you are very gonna’ be! Christ is our perfection (Coll. 1: 28; 2: 9-10; Heb. 10: 14 compare John 19: 28, 30). Fearing God is also the work of God (Jer. 32: 40). Fear of God, for the believer, is reverence for His holiness and His perfection. Fear of God has to do with worship, love and honor. I know that those who hold that our text is a treatise on progressive sanctification play the fear card as if it refers to punishment or loss. They, themselves, openly avow that they will never attain to perfection, so they live in constant slavish fear of the wrath of God falling on them. The believer operates from an entirely different position. He has the promises, his God dwells in him by the Spirit of Christ and he does what he does not to gain anything or out of fear of loss, but in reverence of what has been accomplished for and in him. Perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord then, plainly, is believing the promises of God, by faith in Christ.
Having said that let’s look again at our text. The admonition is to cleanse ourselves all filthiness of the flesh and the spirit. The word filthiness is an interesting word. It means “an action by which anything is defiled” or doing something that defiles you. We know from the mouth of our dear Savior that defilement does not come from without but from within (Mark 7). This is not a contradiction of the words of our Lord. This defilement (filthiness) comes from a root word that means to pollute or stain. A thing is stained by coming in contact with something of a polluting nature, something nasty. The nasty filthiness that is spoken of here has to do with contact or proximity or association with something. Clearly this filthiness is in opposition to the promises in Christ and to the Christ of the promises. Such language is not foreign to the Gospel (Matt. 15: 12-14; Gal. 1: 6-7; II John 9-11; Jude 23). The believer is not stained by association with sinners like himself. We are commanded to preach the Gospel to every creature, and our Lord set the example for associations, being the friend of publicans and sinners. The believer is however stained, and often polluted, gets his feet dirty in association with false, legalistic religion. The epistles of Galatians and Colossians were written in warning against that very thing and we have examples of that stain in the action of Peter, James and Barnabas at Antioch (Gal. 2: 5). We are to cleanse ourselves from that which would pollute us or spot our garment. This cleansing has to do with the flesh and the spirit. This does not refer to the old man and the new man, or the Spirit and the flesh that are always contrary to one other, or the war that goes on in our members to bring every consideration to the obedience of Christ. This is quite simply, since it has to do with filthy contact, our body and our mind. We are to cleanse ourselves from the filthiness of our bodies and our minds by keeping ourselves from that which would stain us. We are to present our bodies a living sacrifice to God, our members as instruments of righteousness, and mind not the things of the flesh and look not at things one the earth. This, Paul declares, is “perfecting holiness in the fear of God”. This word “perfecting” means to finish or to bring to and end and the word holiness finds in primary meaning in being separate. Perfecting holiness is finishing the matter of separation. To find what this means we have but to apply to the context. Read 6: 14-17. We are not to join hands with those who oppose Christ and His Gospel, and we are not to mind the things that they espouse as necessary for holiness before God. The truth of the matter is that in order to perfect holiness we must reject the holiness that they espouse. Their religion is a polluting stain that we are to neither sidle up to nor entertain in our minds. We are not to be yokefellows with them, fellowship, have communion, be in concord or agree with them. We don’t separate from them by paying attention to them. Paul would not give them an hour of his time. We separate from them by separation to something else (Romans 1: 6). In short, “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness (separation) in the fear of God”.