Saturday, July 30, 2011

Romans 7

To me, Romans 7 is one of the best passages that gives a sobering and realistic portrait of the Christian life. It has comforted me in many times of internal struggle.  Paul describes himself as loving God's Law, serving God's law in his mind, but also battling his flesh, which wants to do evil. He does not do the good he wants to do but does the bad he doesn't want to do. He is a man in conflict.

Some think that Romans 7 is talking about Paul's experience before becoming a believer in Jesus. I read some ridiculous article online, even, that tried to say that if this passage is about Paul as a believer then it would be saying Paul is a "carnal Christian." No.. a "carnal Christian" does not love God's law and battle sin, as Paul describes -he ignores God's law and enjoys his sin. Anyway, I thought it might be helpful for someone if I listed a few of the reasons why I am convinced Paul's words are talking about the believer's experience, using himself as an example.

1. The person Paul describes in these verses is one who wants to do good and hates evil (vv. 15, 16, 19, 20, see below) and who as far as the "inner man" is concerned loves and delights in God's Law (v.22) and serves it in his mind (v. 25b). But this is not how Paul describes unregenerate people (unbelievers) elsewhere. Paul says, for example in Romans 8:7, that the mind of set on the flesh (like an unbeliever) is hostile toward God -it "does not submit to God's law; indeed it cannot."

"15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me." (Romans 7:15-20)
So, if in this section of Romans 7 Paul is saying that when he was an unbeliever he served God's Law with his mind, why would he only a handful of verses later say that the flesh-dominated (unbeliever) mind is hostile to God and unable to submit to or serve God? It would be a contradiction. It makes no sense unless this "conflicted man" section in Romans 7 is talking about him as a believer -believers *are* described as wanting to please God, serving God in their mind, delighting in God's Law, even though they still struggle in sin. Unbelievers are never described this way. Recall how Paul describes unregenerate man in Romans 3 ("no one understands... no one seeks after God... there is no fear of God before their eyes...").

Bible commentator C.E.B. Cranfield notes, "In fact, a struggle as serious as that which is here described can only take place where the Spirit of God is present and active (cf. Gal 5:17)." I have to agree, and if we look at Galatians 5:17 we see a familiar concept. We see the desires of the flesh battling against the desires of the Spirit, to "keep you from doing the things you want to do." Paul urges us to walk by the Spirit. It is clear in this passage in Galatians that he is talking to believers. This battle is only a battle for believers. Unbelievers do not battle their flesh -they walk and live in it only.

2. If we read verses 21 through 25, we see something interesting.

"21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin."
Paul continues to lament his battle within. Finally, he comes to verse 24 and cries out "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me...?" This is a point of climax, one would think. If Paul was really talking about his experience before he believed in Jesus, now is when he would tell us how Jesus saved him and how now he has changed because of the Holy Spirit or something like that. But that isn't what happens. He does say, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord..." He does point to Jesus as the solution and gives thanks for Him, but there is no change that follows. He says, "So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." Hmm... It's the same condition just restated (look at verses 21 and 22). That would be a big letdown if the post-Jesus condition is the same as the pre-Jesus condition, wouldn't it? It doesn't make sense. It only makes sense if we understand this section as Paul talking about his experience as a believer.

3. Getting into some details, Paul says that "in my mind I serve (Greek word douleow) the Law of God" in verse 25. This Greek word is the same word or same basic root word that Paul uses in other places in Romans, namely in his talk of serving and being a "slave" in Romans 6. Paul tells us that before our conversion we were "slaves" or servants (Greek douloi, same root) of sin. But after conversion we are "slaves" (edoulothayte, same root word) of righteousness. It would make no sense to the readers of this letter if Paul later, in chapter seven, was saying that unbelievers were servants of God's Law in their mind. It is clear to me that what Paul is talking about is a man who loves God, loves His law, and wants to serve God's Law (because he is converted) but still battles his flesh.

This, to me, not only makes sense of what Paul is saying in this chapter and in the context of Romans as a whole, but in the experience of the Christian life -both my own experience and how the New Testament depicts believers, even the apostles themselves, in other places. For example, Paul calls himself the "chief of sinners." He does not say, "I was the chief of sinners." It is written in present tense and it is clear in context that he is not speaking hypothetically. He says, "I am (still)..." Also consider chapter two of Paul's letter to the Galatians. This was years after Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit was sent, and Paul talked about how he rebuked Peter for walking out of step with the Gospel. How could a Spirit-indwelt, Jesus-picked apostle walk out of step with the Gospel?! It is because Romans 7 describes even Peter accurately.

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