Sunday, August 06, 2006

Struggle with Sin

Continuing with my series of misunderstood Bible passage, it’s time to deal with Romans 7.

The common view is that
Paul is describing his personal struggle with sin. However, there are two opinions about whether this is a normal state of the Christian life (“I knew that deep down inside, Romans 7:14–25 is describing me.”) or a state than is replaced by what is described in chapter 8 (“This moment, therefore, we may be emptied of sin, filled with holiness, and become truly happy.”).

I don’t want to get caught up in this particular battle right now.

I do want to suggest to you that both of these camps have misunderstood what Paul is saying in Romans 7.

Notice what he says before chapter 7:
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin (6:6–7).

For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace

You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness (6:18).
So we can see that Paul clearly considers the life of a believer to be a life that is free from slavery to sin.

So what does Paul mean by this lament in Romans 7:14–24?

The key to understanding this complex and confusing chapter in found in reading Romans 5:20, “The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more,” along with Romans 6:6,
“For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”

Paul’s argument in Romans is that God gave the Law in order to “call out” sin. But this Law did not have the ability to eliminate sin. In fact, it had the effect of increasing sin.
Rather than freeing humans from sin, the Law made their slavery to sin even more obvious.

But this was not a mistake on God’s part. Things must often get very much worse before they can be “fixed.” Ignoring a problem seems less disruptive than facing up to it. But facing the full brunt of a terrible situation often makes the solution more obvious and easier to accept.

Here’s how N. T. Wright explains this passage in a
Bible Review article:
In Romans 7:1-8:11 Paul declares that the renewed people are given the Spirit to do “what the law could not” (Romans 8:3). He argues (through the device of the “I,” speaking of himself as the embodiment of Jewish history) that when the Law was originally given Israel recapitulated the sin of Adam (Romans 7:7-12, looking back to Romans 5:20), that in her continuing life under the Torah Israel finds herself simultaneously desiring the good and unable to avoid the buildup of sin, and that Israel, despite her great vocation, remains “in Adam” (Romans 7:1-6, 13-25). God, however, has dealt with sin and given new life, to those who share the resurrection of Christ through the Spirit (Romans 8:1-11).
Scot McKnight expands on this:
Israel struggled with the Torah to do it, and couldn’t get the job done. (Or, for others: everyone failed to do the Torah.) God sent Christ. Paul is thinking of death: those who are in Christ are those who have died with Christ and his death becomes their death. The condemnation that death is has been dealt with when Christ died on the cross.
Here are a few scattered statements from Wright’s article, “Romans and the Theology of Paul”:
The way through the complex little argument of 7:1-4 is found by reading 5:20 in the light of 6:6 and 6:14f.: Torah binds “you” to Adam; Adam, the “old you,” dies in baptism; “you” are therefore free to belong to another—namely, Christ—without Torah having anything to say about the matter.

The chapter is a defense of Torah against any suggestion that it is identical with “sin” (7:7-12) or that by itself it was the ultimate cause of death (7:13-20).

[T]he Israel that lives under Torah continues to carry
about the mark of sin and death that results from being the child of Adam.
Torah, Paul said in 5:20, came in in order that sin might abound. That is, the divine purpose in the giving of Torah was in order to draw Adam’s trespass to its full height precisely in Israel.

God’s covenant purpose, it seems, is to draw the sin of all the world on to Israel, in order that it may be passed on to the Messiah and there dealt with once and for all.

So we see that Romans 7 is not describing a personal experience of Paul’s. (If you need further evidence, check out Philippians 3:6.) It is rather a description of the predicament of Israel under the Law.

To say that Romans 8 is only talking about the legal standing of a believer in Christ is to emasculate Paul’s argument. On the other hand, to say that “life in the Spirit” is only for some Christians is to completely miss the point of verse 9.

But when we pay close attention to the narrative flow of Paul’s letter, we see that he is making a very specific argument based upon the history of Israel. Even Romans, Paul’s most theological letter, has a story line. We get ourselves into difficulty when we read the Bible as a theology textbook or as a collection of facts and propositions.

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”


Steve Sensenig said...

We get ourselves into difficulty when we read the Bible as a theology textbook or as a collection of facts and propositions.

This sentence speaks volumes. I have been amazed over the past couple of years at how true this statement really is.

I find your thoughts (and those of others quoted here) on Romans 7 to be intriguing, and I will need to mull over this.

I have often felt like chapter 7 couldn't be the ongoing life of the believer because of statements to the contrary in both chapters 6 and 8, but never even thought of the possibility that Paul was speaking of the nation of Israel under the Law and not himself personally. Interesting.

steve :)

Pastor Rod said...


This interpretation comes from N. T. Wright. I only came across it recently. But it is one of those explanations that makes so much sense that it has to be correct. I've always had trouble with both traditional interpretations of Romans 7.

Thanks for stopping by,


Anonymous said...

Don Johnson says

In my understanding, the way of salvation is an active faith in the Biblical Messiah, as he has been revealed to you. This is true in the OT and NT. The Mosaic covenants (law) were added so that people would realize even easier that they cannot make it on their own, they need help, namely Messiah, by making their shortcomings even more obvious.