No Longer Slaves

Romans 7:7-25

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

 

13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 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.

 

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.

 

 

So, as we said last week, it is easy to read Paul’s letters and come away feeling as if you don’t really have a clue what he is talking about. And perhaps there is nowhere in his letters where that is more true than in our text today. This is probably the most controversial section of Romans, not because Paul necessarily says anything controversial or scandalous, but because there has always been disagreement within the church over what he means here. So, I’m going to quickly present three possible perspectives on what Paul is saying and then we’re going to dig in and try to come away with some answers for ourselves today. So, first, let’s figure out exactly what is in question here.

 

The first section of this is 7-13. Let’s read that again real quick.

 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

 

13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 

 

So, we really got into what Paul is saying here last week when we looked at verses 1-6. And, while the language may seem tough to crack through, Paul intention here is fairly self-explanatory. It can sound at the beginning of chapter 7 as if Paul is saying that the law that God gave to the people of Israel, things like the 10 commandments, that that law is evil…that it creates sin. But, knowing that was how people would hear what he was saying, he gets to verse 7 and says, “so, am I saying that the law is evil and that it produces sin? No way, that’s not what I’m saying. By no means!” “I’m saying that when I encountered the law, the law showed me what sin is and how sinful I am.” Because we are sinful, when we encounter the law, our tendency is to veer off into rebellion rather than repentance, so, sometimes, you could say that the law produces more sin. But, its not the law’s fault, it’s our fault, because we are sinful. So, Paul’s point is that the law is good and holy, but we are not, so the law can really only condemn us in our sin. It was not the law that brought rebellion to my heart…that was sin. It was not the law that brought death to me, that was sin. The law is simply the measuring rod. It is the arbiter of what is true and good. And, it shows me that I am not. So, you might present all that in a different way if you were putting it in your own words, but hopefully we get what Paul is trying to say here.

 

But, then we get to verse 14 and things get a bit more challenging.

 

14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 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.

 

So, here’s the big question: who is the “I” in this passage? And, there are three potential Biblically faithful answers to that question.

 

Option 1: Paul is talking about his current Christian experience.

Option 2: Paul is talking about his previous experience as someone outside of Christ.  

Option 3: Paul is not talking about himself at all. Instead, in chapters 7 and 8, Paul is speaking metaphorically to describe the process of sanctification.

Option 1 is probably the most dominant perspective on how to read this text. This was the view of St. Augustine, the father of western Christianity, way back in AD 400. In today’s world, this would be the view of someone like John Piper who you’ve maybe heard of. And, here is why I think this view is so compelling to us. We all can empathize with whoever this is because we have all been in that place of not understanding our sin or feeling like we’ve done something that we didn’t want to do. So, when Paul says, I don’t understand my own actions, most of can nod and say, “yeah, I’ve been there.” But, a problem with this view potentially lies in what comes next when Paul seems to describe a desire to do what is right, but the inability to do that thing. That sounds more like a pre-Christian state of being enslaved to sin. Remember, Paul just spent the last chapter (6) teaching us that we need to exchange the master of sin for the master of Christ. So, how does this square with what has come before in Romans? For example, in Chapter 6:12-14, Paul says:

12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Option 2 is also compelling to me. And here are a couple of reasons why:

  1. Context of 7:5-6: Proponents of option 2 believe that Paul is setting up his argument in verses 5 and 6. Verse 5 describes the pre-Christian state with the rest of chapter 7 expounding on verse 5. Verse 6 describes the life in Christ with chapter 8 expounding on this verse.
  2. Lack of the word Spirit: A significant support for option 2 is that Paul is making a distinction of the life outside the Spirit (the way of death) vs. a life in the Spirit (the way of life.) It is important to note that the Spirit is not mentioned at all in the rest of chapter 7 while the Spirit is referenced 19 times in Chapter 8.

So, it can seem as if Paul is describing someone who doesn’t have the Spirit in chapter 7 and then someone who does have the Spirit in chapter 8. And, remember, Paul started chapter 7 by saying, “for I am speaking to those who know the law.” Well, who knows the law? Gentiles? No! Jews. And, there were plenty of Jews who would have said that their delight was in the law of God, but who did not trust Christ and, thus, did not have the Spirit.

The potential problem with this view though, is that it could perhaps lead a person to think they have more ability to control sin than they do. It could lead a person to think that if I can’t totally control sin in my life, well, then maybe I’m not a believer…which is not true. John Piper thinks that Paul is not talking about someone in a total or constant state of defeat, but instead someone who occasionally experiences the defeat of sin.

Finally, option 3 is the notion that Paul is not talking about himself at all, but instead he is describing the process of sanctification over the course of chapters 5-8. In this mode Chapter 7 has to be read within the grand narrative sweep of the book. And it is true that Paul’s thrust in these chapters seems to be in describing sanctification, whereas earlier in the book he was describing justification. It is also true that those who are reading Paul’s writing thoroughly must read in a way that takes into account the whole book and not just snippets.

In option 3 chapter 7 describes a life that we are being saved out of, and chapter 8 describes more of a destination. But, sanctification is a process, and we are all in different stages of development. A problem with this is that it requires us to interpret the word “I” as not being Paul which can create some problem as we read through Romans and encounter the word “I” in other places. For example, when Paul says “I am not ashamed of the gospel” does he mean himself personally or some metaphorical “I”? No, of course, he means himself.

So, as you can hopefully see, there are some good arguments for each of these positions (and I only scratched the surface) and there are some potential problems. So, maybe a bigger question is this: what do we do when we are not sure how to interpret a particular passage? We follow this pattern:

  1. We consider the context. This means we read around the passage in question to gain a greater understanding of the large narrative/point and/or how the passage fits within the scheme of the author’s structure.
  2. We consider other Biblical texts that may be clearer. This is known as the principle of “Scripture interprets Scripture”
  3. We consider how other believers throughout history, such as the early church fathers, interpreted the text.
  4. We consider what a logical interpretation would be. What makes sense based on what we know to be true of God, Christ and the gospel.
  5. We don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

 

Here’s my perspective. In considering the context, it is clear to me that chapter 7 is absolutely linked to chapter 8, and that Paul is presenting two ways of living:

 

  1. The way of the flesh
  2. The way of the spirit

 

And, for Paul, (and this is an undercurrent theme in Romans): “what your mind is set on is key.” Your body, your humanness, or what Paul calls the flesh will always drift toward sin because you were born in sin and you do not have a perfected body. Thus, you’ve had this experience of desiring one thing and yet doing another thing. Eugene Peterson says it this way in The Message:  It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.

 

So, one big thing we can affirm here is this:

 

Christians are not sinless people. We still wrestle with the flesh everyday. And even though we are being sanctified, none of us will reach in this life a state of perfection. This is helpful information for anyone who has ever gotten hurt in a church and wrestles with those wounds. Why did it surprise them that there was sin in the lives of other people? And, the answer is because we often do not live authentically and we do not confess our sins to each other, so we’re able to create a façade that sin doesn’t exist within the church. So, we come into a church and we suspend reality and think, oh, maybe these people are actually what they seem to be and they don’t wrestle with sin. When sin, though, eventually comes to the surface, it can be extremely difficult for people to process if they’ve decided that their faith community doesn’t struggle in any way.

 

Here’s the crux, though: In chapter 8, Paul says, if your mind is set on the flesh, it is the way of death. But, if your mind is set on the Spirit, it is the way of life. If your mind is set on the Spirit, which is Paul’s way of saying, if you are in Christ, it is the way of life not because you suddenly become sinless and earn your way into eternity, but because you are reconciled through Jesus’ death and resurrection. But, if your mind is on the flesh, meaning your faith is not in Christ but in the flesh, it is the way of death. So, look again

14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 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.

 

Paul is not saying that nothing good at all dwells in him; he’s talking about his human flesh. He says that he doesn’t desire evil…which would be the opposite of the mind set on the flesh. So, I think option one is the right interpretation. Paul is describing not being defeated totally by sin, but the occasional sin that pops up because the flesh is fallen. But, the beautiful news of the gospel are the first words of Chapter 8, where we will pick up next week. There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For those whose minds are set on the Spirit and not the flesh. Do you still sin, yes? But, you are no longer condemned in your sin through Christ!

 

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