For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.
A Christian's Own Experience
The last time we were together on June 24 we were focusing our attention for the third time on Romans 7:14-25. I gave five arguments that persuade me that the experience of this divided man, who doesn't do what he wants to do (verse 19), is in fact Paul's own experience. He is describing himself at times in his Christian life, and he is describing all of us at times in our Christian life.
Some of you might not be aware that there is quite a dispute even among sound Biblical scholars over whether the description of Paul in this text is Paul before he was a believer, or Paul after he became a believer. Or is it some other non-Christian or pre-Christian experience? The view I am arguing for is that this is Paul's own experience as a believer – and ours.
Just to review, I am not saying that Christians live only in defeat. But I am saying that no Christian lives only in perfect victory over sin. And in those times when we fail to triumph over sin, Romans 7:14-25 shows us the normal way a healthy Christian should respond. We should say:
- I love the law of God (verse 22).
- I hate what I just did (verse 15).
- Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death (verse 24)?
- Thanks be to God! The victory will come through Jesus Christ my Lord (verse 25).
In other words, no Christian wants to live this way – in defeat. No Christian settles to live this way. But if we do live this way for a time, we shouldn't lie about it. No hypocrisy. No posing. No boasted perfectionism. No churchy, pasted smiles or chipper superficiality. God save us from blindness to our own failures and the consequent quickness to judge others. God help us to feel worse about our own shortfalls than the failure of others. God give us the honesty and candor and humility of the apostle Paul in this text!
On vacation I read a book published in 1797 by William Wilberforce, the Christian Member of Parliament in England who spent decades fighting the slave trade. It is called A Practical View of Christianity (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1996, orig. 1797). It is a penetrating and insightful book, especially when you realize that the author was a politician, not a professional theologian.
I mention it because he spoke several times about the experience of Romans 7 and the remaining corruption and depravity that is in every one of us.
For example, in one place he is arguing for a deeper sense of our natural depravity that most of the church in England in the 1790's were insensitive to. He offers as one evidence of it the testimony of every "watchful, diligent, self-denying Christian."
He will tell you, that every day strengthens this conviction; yea, that hourly he sees fresh reason to deplore his want of simplicity in intention, his infirmity of purpose, his low views, his selfish, unworthy desires, his backwardness to set about his duty, his languor and coldness in performing it: that he finds himself obliged continually to confess, that he feels within him two opposite principles, and that 'he cannot do the things that he would' [see Romans 7:19]. (p. 17)
In another place he argues that the "seminal principle" of new life in Christ must grow and bear fruit in a spiritual and moral climate of this world that is highly inhospitable to the fruit of holiness. It's like trying to grow a peach tree in Minnesota. There will be fruit in the Christian life. God will see to that. "But while the servants of Christ continue in this life, glorious as is the issue of their labors, they receive many humiliating memorials of their remaining imperfections, and daily find reason to confess that they cannot do the things that they would [see Romans 7:18-19]" (pp. 81-82).
Balancing Between Pride and Hopelessness
That is the view that most Christians have had of this text for twenty centuries and that is the view I am arguing for. Romans 7:14-25 is Paul's description of true Christian experience. Last time I gave five arguments and I have five more – at least. I don't multiply these arguments mainly to make you good arguers. Good arguers often get big heads and just try to win debates for the sake of ego. I multiply these arguments so that you will know your real condition as a Christian and will walk the precarious line between cocky presumption that you are above sin, and hopeless despair because you never live up to the demand for perfection in this life. My goal is to push you away from pride toward humility, and away from despair toward hope. The biblical realism of Romans 7 is meant to save you from moral pride on one side and immoral hopelessness on the other side. Romans 7 is a great help in balancing on this tightrope.
So let's pick up where we left off on June 24. The fifth argument that shows Paul is talking about real Christian experience came from the life of Peter. We all know he failed miserably by denying Christ three times. He did not do what he wanted to do. And when he was weeping bitterly we may safely assume he was saying something like Romans 7:24, "O wretched man that I am!"
But not all of us may realize that he failed again in the same way years later, as Paul describes it in Galatians 2. This is after seeing the risen Christ, after Pentecost, after being filled repeatedly with the Holy Spirit. The failure was so serious that Paul felt he had to rebuke him in public and then record it in a letter for all the world to read about.
Peter, as a Jew experiencing his freedom in Christ, was eating with Gentiles in Antioch. Then some strict Jewish Christians came from Jerusalem who did not understand Christian liberty. Paul says in Galatians 2:12, "When they came, [Peter] began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision." Notice the sin of fear. It was the same old besetting sin that defeated him at the trial of Jesus. Years later he was still struggling with the same sin. This is what I think Romans 7 is referring to. A great saint, an apostle, being defeated temporarily by sin. So much so, that Paul says the effect was terrible and the very gospel was compromised. Verse 13: "The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy."
So I argued that Paul gives us a good illustration from the life of Peter of what he means by the experience of Romans 7 – not a pre-Christian experience, but a Christian experience of failure: "For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want."
That was argument # 5 from last time. Now let's stay here in Galatians for argument # 6.
6. A Divided You
Argument # 6 is that in Galatians 5:17 Paul uses language very close to Romans 7, but everyone agrees that in Galatians it is a description of Christian experience. He is talking to Christians who have the Holy Spirit and yet who also have another power at work in them. He calls it the flesh. He says in verse 17, "The flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that [now here comes the language of Romans 7] you may not do the things that you please."
Notice this carefully. Paul does not merely talk about Spirit opposing flesh and flesh opposing Spirit – as though we somehow were innocent bystanders watching the battle happen. No, he does the same thing that he does in Romans 7 and talks about a divided you. So at the end of Galatians 5:17 he says, "you do not do the things that you please (i[na mh. a] eva.n qe,lhte tau/ta poih/te)." You want to do one thing. You do another thing. There is a divided will. I think this is the very experience of Romans 7. In Galatians, it is the experience of the Christian person who has the Holy Spirit. So this is argument # 6 that Romans 7 is Christian experience.
7. Sin as a Slave Master
Argument #7 is an attempt to answer the strongest argument against the view that I am defending. I think the strongest argument that Paul is not describing Christian experience here would be the wording of Romans 7:14b, where Paul says, "I am of flesh [or, I am carnal, or fleshly], sold into bondage to sin [literally: sold under sin]." Would Paul really say of a Christian, "I am sold under sin"? The imagery of being "sold" is the imagery of slavery. A slave master seems to have bought him and he is sold. The slave master is sin. Can a Christian ever say, "I am sold under the slave master of sin"?
I admit this is a very good argument. If it weren't for all the other counter-arguments I would be persuaded by it. For example, at least six times in Romans 6 Christians are spoken of as freed from the slave master of sin (verses 6, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22). Verse 18: "Having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness."
It is not impossible that Paul could speak of a Christian as temporarily "sold under sin." Paul doesn't have to be saying that the person who sins moves from being a Christian to being a non-Christian. He may only be saying that in the moment of failure, sin got the upper hand, like a slave master temporarily getting control of a person who is not really his.
Isn't this exactly what Paul warns against in Romans 6:12? He says to Christians, "Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts." In other words, since you are not really slaves of sin and sin will not have dominion over you, therefore act like it. Stay free. Don't give sin any victories as an alien slave master. Don't sell yourself to sin! But the assumption seems to be: We might for a season "let sin reign," that is, give in to the old slave master.
In Galatians 5:1, Paul says something even more striking and helpful in this regard, suggesting that Christians do need to watch out for slavery. He says, "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery." Don't give in to the old ways as Peter did. Why? That would be like going back to slavery. Paul uses the very language of slavery to describe what might happen to the Christian, temporarily, if he is not vigilant. We might for a time "let sin reign" or "submit to a yoke of slavery."
This is what I think Paul is describing in Romans 7:14b when he says, "I am carnal, sold under sin." When he gives in to temptation and does what he does not want to do, he knows that he has temporarily been mastered by sin and he is like a sold slave. So, even though the argument is strong, I don't think it is unanswerable.
How Does This Af fect My Life?
Let's save the remaining arguments for next week and close by asking, "What then should we do? How then should we respond to this condition in living the Christian life?"
- Remember the promise that we are justified by faith apart from works of the law (Romans 3:28) and trust in him who justifies the ungodly (4:5). Christ is our righteousness (Romans 10:4). Receive him; embrace him as your only hope of life before a holy God.
- Remember the promise that we are also sanctified by faith. A life of fruitfulness for the glory of God does not come first and decisively through law-keeping, but through personal union and satisfying fellowship with Christ by faith. Romans 7:4 is one of the most important verses in the whole book of Romans on how to live the Christian life: "Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, [Why? Why dead to the law? Why joined to Christ? Answer:] in order that we might bear fruit for God." You die to the law and are joined to the risen Christ so that you might bear fruit for God. A radically changed life that honors Christ does not come first or decisively through the law. It comes through being joined by faith in an all-satisfying fellowship with Jesus Christ. So get to know him! This is why I wrote Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ. Get to know him. See him. Receive him. Trust him. Enjoy him. Walk with him outside the camp of comfort on the Calvary road of love and sacrifice.
- Remember that there is a world of difference – a difference between heaven and hell – between a soldier who experiences tactical defeats, but keeps fighting on his way to victory, and a soldier who surrenders to the enemy because war is just too painful and the enemy territory just too attractive.
There is a difference between the divided man of Romans 7 and a sellout. Don't sell out. Trust Christ and fight sin.