A Bridge Too Far? Charles Leiter and an Over-Realized Soteriology

In his classic account of the battle of Arnhem in World War II, Cornelius Ryan details that though the Allies won the battle, they extended themselves more than they should have by going one bridge too far in their planning, causing unnecessary loss of life. Charles Leiter has written a helpful book on justification and regeneration, one that fills a gap at the layman's level. This book has many helpful things to say about the relationship between these two aspects of the doctrine of salvation. At the end of the day, however, I am concerned that the book goes too far in its exposition of regeneration, farther than Scripture would allow.

Let me first say some things about the value of the book. It begins by laying out a biblical doctrine of the nature of sin. It depicts human sin as universal, pervasive, irrational, deceitful, hardening, enslaving, debasing, and defiling. It explains that sin is both internal (a bad heart) and external (a bad record). The book then explains in no uncertain terms a Reformation doctrine of justification. Leiter depicts the fact that in justification, God has “put down his gun,” and given us eternal life (p. 41).

Leiter then gives an exposition of the doctrine of regeneration. He shows, rightly, that Scripture uses a variety of metaphors and images to explain what regeneration means. When I teach the doctrine of regeneration in Systematic Theology I lay out the message in very much the same fashion as this author does. Regeneration means that we are new creatures, new men, that we have a new heart, that we have been given a new birth, a new nature. It also means that we have been united with Christ in his crucifixion and his resurrection. Regeneration entails the truth that we are no longer “in the flesh,” rather, we are “in the Spirit.” We are now seated in the heavenly realm in Christ. We are no longer sold under sin, but have the righteousness of Christ. We are no longer under the law, but under grace, and are not now in Adam, but in Christ (pp. 47-130). All of this is true, and is crucial for Christian people to understand.

At several points the author asserts doctrinal beliefs that are quite controversial. At some of those points I am in agreement with him. In chapter nine he gives his view that the Christian has a new nature of righteousness, and only a nature of righteousness. In other words, the Christian does not have two natures, one of sin and another of righteousness. I agree completely! Christians are “good trees” (Matt 7:15-20). A few years ago the Christian rock group Petra recorded a song called “Jekyll and Hyde” in which they portrayed the Christian life as something like that fictional character. While intuitively we may feel that way sometimes, that is not exactly what Scripture teaches. Leiter also contends that since we have been saved, we are no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit, and we can never again be in the flesh. That is exactly what the Apostle Paul teaches in Romans 8:1-11, and I concur. The author also believes that regenerate persons will be in the process of growing in grace and in obedience to the Lord, and, generally speaking, I think that is correct.

So, what's the problem? The problem is not in his exposition of these ideas, but in the inferences he draws from these ideas. I am convinced that Leiter's case is flawed at three basic points: his understanding of “the flesh,” his understanding of the believer's relationship to the law of God, and his failure to examine Scripture texts which counter his main argument.

First of all, what does Scripture mean by “the flesh”? Here is Leiter's definition: “The flesh is the unredeemed physical body viewed as the place where sin still tries to assert itself” (p. 85). In other words, “the flesh” is the body. The soul or spirit has been redeemed, but the body is still a place where sin makes its presence known. This is not a novel idea, but it is not an adequate interpretation of the biblical teaching on “the flesh.” In several places in the book Leiter makes it clear that he is drawing on the work of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. For instance, Lloyd-Jones, in dealing with a passage that addresses “the flesh” in the life of a Christian (Gal 5:17), calls the flesh, “the sensuous part of our nature” (Romans 7:1-8:4), p. 70. Paul reminds the Galatians that they are to walk in the Spirit, and he warns them that they might still walk according to the flesh (Gal 5:16-18). As believers we are not “in” the flesh, but we might still “walk in” the flesh! Paul's language here might be daunting, but it is important to follow the biblical model. The Christian has a new identity in Christ, but he or she also knows what it is like to live in a different way, and that sinful way of life is always luring us back, back to a life that finds its happiness in the pursuit of that which brings momentary pleasure, but which is contrary to God's Word.

The second issue has to do with the role of the law in sanctification, or, as Leiter would put it, in the life of the regenerate. Leiter writes, “The Christian is free from the law as an external rule that contradicts his real nature and desires” (p. 118). He goes on, “The righteous man has no need for such external restrictions, since he is restrained by his own holy nature” (p. 119). For Leiter, the law is internal, written on the heart. And as a result, as we grow in grace, we will have little need for the external law, whether found in the OT or the NT. Really! The Apostle Paul did not concur, since many of his writings contain explicit and sustained expositions of the moral implications of the gospel. In the Reformation Luther generally saw little need for the “third use of the law” (the law as instrument of sanctification), while Calvin believed it was necessary since humans are still subject to self-deceit regarding their walk before God. In a casual reading of Leiter's book one would think of him as more in the Calvin camp than in the Luther camp. Perhaps not.

Third, Leiter fails to examine texts which call his thesis into question. There are many passages which demonstrate that there are real believers who have not progressed in their spiritual walk in the way they should have. The most specific is in 1 Corinthians 5, where a man “has his father's wife.” Paul passes his own judgment to consign the man's flesh to Satan, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. Paul considers the man to be a believer, albeit an inconsistent one. Leiter's theology seems to have no place for such a person, but the Corinthian correspondence is filled with such examples.

This is where it really gets interesting. If one compares Leiter's theology to that of, say, Keswick interpreter Watchman Nee, the parallels are fascinating. In his book The Normal Christian Life, the Chinese Christian leader also argues for a life of almost pristine Christian obedience and devotion. The difference between the two is that Leiter believes such a life is based on genuine regeneration, while Nee argues that it comes after a second experience of grace. Leiter would reject this second blessing, but in his theology the net effect is the same. Something approaching Christian perfectionism is the goal.

I have suggested that Leiter is in some ways closer to Luther than to Calvin. If that is the case, perhaps he should remember another Luther dictum. Luther argued that Christians are “at the same time righteous and sinful.”. We never get beyond the proclivity to sin in this life. Spurgeon once said that the really big repentances come late in the Christian experience. The closer you get to God the more you realize that you are not yet close enough. Of all the problems of the Leiter book, the most egregious is that he seems to believe that texts that speak of the greatness of our salvation can be fully realized in this life. I would call that soteriological triumphalism. Our salvation is “already/not yet.” The fullness of our salvation lies in the future. It can be sweet in this life, but it will be sweeter in the life to come. Leiter has taken us a bridge too far in understanding the nature of salvation in this age. In a sense he has done us a service, but it is also important to recognize that his exposition must not be followed uncritically.


Chad Owen Brand


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