“Inconceivable!” the bald guy with the cartoon voice keeps shouting. He uses the word over and over to express his shock.
And finally Inigo Montoya – of “… you killed my father, prepare to die” fame – has had enough and utters my favorite line from The Princess Bride: “you keep using that word – I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I mention this because I’ve heard several explanations of the famous Romans 7 passage where Paul says “… the things I want to do, I don’t do. What I don’t want to do I find myself doing,” etc.
And with nearly every explanation I find myself thinking “You keep using that Scripture. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
People like to say “see, Paul struggled the same way we did! His life was an ongoing battle too! Just like ours!” It’s the ultimate “misery loves company” moment for us. We should EXPECT for our lives as Christians to be a tooth and nail fight for shreds of goodness!
… wait, how is this good news? It seems to me that if Paul’s saying “yep, the Christian life is one big, ongoing ying and yang battle against sin and you’ll probably never see much progress” … well that just depresses me.
But I don’t think that’s what Paul’s saying. At all. But seeing that involves backing up a bit.
The book of Romans is a theological progression, meaning each chapter builds on the one before it. So chapters 1-2 are about the universal problem of sin. Chapters 3-4 are about Christ as the solution, and faith being the means of accepting that solution. Then chapters 5-8 flesh out what that means.
So in chapter 5 Paul claims that if all evil entered the world through Adam, how much more VICTORY will come through the New Adam, Jesus Christ. The implication being the power of sin has been broken. Chapter 6 expands on this when it says (v. 1-3) that we can’t continue to sin, because we have DIED to sin! (died … sounds permanent). Paul says in v. 4 that the power that raised Christ from the dead is giving us new life. Our old selves have been crucified (v. 6). We are FREE from the power of sin (v. 7). Christ has BROKEN the power of sin in our life (v. 10). What does this mean? Verse 11 says that each of us “should consider yourselves dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Jesus Christ.”
But is this freedom only over the power of sin in death – isn’t this just a freedom from being separated from God in eternity? No! Verses 12-14 explicitly say we are free to choose goodness NOW.
Paul then in chapter 7 directly addresses his Jewish readers, who have lived under rules and sacrifices and a constant sense of their own inadequacy before God. He explains to these people how Jesus’ sacrifice, and trusting in Him through faith, is superior to the old law. He explains that the law exposes our inadequacy, but leaves us powerless to do anything about them. Paul deliberately highlights the differences between our life in Christ, and the old life under the law.
Which brings us to the aforementioned end of Romans 7. Here’s the entire passage:
14 So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. 15 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. 17 So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
18 And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[a] I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. 20 But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power[b] within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. 24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? 25 Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.
Now here’s my question: based on the previous context, which life is Paul talking about here? Our new life as Christians under the power of Christ? Or the old life under the law? To me, it is glaringly obvious that Paul is talking about life under the law. Which is probably why the verses FOLLOWING this section say this:
24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? 25 Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.
And then in the next chapter Paul goes on an extended smack down against the power of sin, illustrated perfectly in v. 2: “And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death.” And then in v. 11 “The spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living in you.”
And here’s why this matters: because if we are convinced that our lives are just going to be an ongoing war against this fundamental part of who we are – if we say “well Paul was like this, so I will be too” – then that’s exactly what will happen.
But if we get that we have a NEW identity … that we’re dead to sin … that we have a NEW nature that is freed by the power of Christ’s resurrection to do good works … if we KNOW in the core of our beings that we’re free …
… well THAT’S something worth hoping for.