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Believer or Not, that is the Question…

June 22, 2011

I have struggled for several years with the meaning of Romans 7:15-25.  When Paul speaks of doing what he does not want to do, and not doing what he desires, what is he talking about?  Is he describing his own experience as a believer, desiring to do what is good but hindered by sin?  Or is he speaking of  an unbeliever, who is aware of the law but unable to fulfill it?

Below are my thoughts on the passage and one perspective that I agree with at this point in my life and ministry.  This view may change over time.  May God guard me from heresy.

There are of course two perspectives, one which argues that Paul could not be talking of Himself, or of a fellow believer, as numerous times throughout his writings he states that sin has been put to death in us, Gal 2:20 we have been crucified in Christ, that we no longer live but Christ lives in us.  How can that verse be reconciled with the notion that somehow a believer can be divided against himself, the flesh willing one course and the mind another.

The other perspective views this as a pastoral confession of Paul’s own weakness, that his spirit is willing but his flesh is weak, so to speak.  He knows what he should do, but because his flesh is fallen, and ‘of Adam’, then he often misses the mark and does what he hates.

Both perspectives miss the point of the passage, it would be really convenient, especially when talking to brothers and sisters in Christ, to use this passage to give comfort and say that ‘Paul too, often times struggled and fell short, doing what he hated, and not doing what he loved’.  But if we look at the passage in context it is clearly not about Paul, or a believer.  The passage is centered within the defense of God’s law against antinomianism and redeeming the law’s rightful function in the history of man.

So let’s look at the passage.  Both Martyn Lloyd-Jones and NT Wright advocate that the whole of Romans 7 serves as exposition on Romans 6:14 “for sin will have no dominion over you since you are not under the law but under grace.”

7:1-6 drawing an analogy between the binding nature of the torah and the binding nature of marriage.  Just like the marriage covenant is broken through the death of one party, so too the legal covenant binding us to Adam’s sin is broken by sins death through grace and we are free to ‘marry another.’  However, simply because the law is no longer binding does not make it irrelevant.

7:7-14 Paul describes the substance and function of the law.  It is not sin, as it comes from God and shed light on our iniquity (7); It has been corrupted by sin, and provides great opportunity for sin to occur (8); when the law came it brought with it standards which could not be met and death followed (9)

[NT Wright has a great illustration here, think of Moses arriving with the ten commandments on Mt. Sinai, when the commandments arrive and are given to Israel, the law finds Israel in a state of rebellion and Moses breaks the tablets on the ground symbolically indicating that the covenant the law represented has already been broken, death follows immediately after as those in rebellion were visited by a plague Exodus 32:35.  Israel was alive prior to the law, but when the law arrived, their sin was revealed, and death was their punishment]

7:10-13 So the law, while good, lacks the power to provide life, it only brings opportunity for sin, and death as a result of failure to keep it, nevertheless it is holy, righteous and good.

Now 7:15 and following.  Paul is writing as a believer, reflecting on the state of an unbeliever grappling with sin.  This unbeliever has received the law, and is aware of its demands.  Although it is an extremely attractive option to argue here that Paul is talking about his personal struggle as a believer with sinful flesh, it is really impossible to reconcile that with the scenario he is describing.

The unbeliever’s desire is to follow the law; but as he is in bondage to sin, as he is descended from Adam (5:14); he is unable to do what he desires (7:15).  He agrees that the law is good and should be desired, but sin reigns in him (16).  His talk is good, but his walk is inadequate. (17)  Sin is his master, and so as he is in bondage to sin.  He does what his master dictates and the law then convicts him and death is the result(18).

7:19-24 describe the horrid realization that there is no relief for this man whose mind is set on the law; no matter what his mind desires, sin reigns in his mortal body controlling his actions and imprisoning his being.  He is wretched and forever at war with himself.  He will ultimately meet the fate of all those under the law, striving but never hitting the mark, and paying the price of failure, in death.

The source of common misconception about this passage, in viewing it as a confession of a troubled believer, is rooted in our own misconception of the freedom we have in Christ.   This freedom is outlined in 8:1-13.  We as Christians must come to realize that we have been set free from the law, and its bondage to sin and consequences of condemnation (2).  Christ does what the law weakened by the flesh could not do, He enables us to fulfill the demands of the law, in that He satisfied those demands for us through His sufficient sacrifice (4).  The law no longer condemns us rather Christ, through His atonement, condemns sin in our flesh.

When we are converted, we receive the Spirit of life.  The Spirit reorients our mind, and we should cease to have a “fleshly” mindset (5).  For a mind of flesh, sees only the law and can not see passed it.  There is no room in the law for forgiveness or grace, so the fleshly mind denies these things and is bound up in legalism and condemnation.  Unbelievers are those who are ‘according to the flesh’ (8:5) and like the man in 7:15-25 they are unable to follow God’s Law and they cannot please God (8:8).

As believers, we have the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, so we are not ‘in the flesh’ we have a different mindset (8:9)  We set our mind on things of the Spirit; Christ’s work for us, God’s grace, our freedom from the law of sin and death.

We continue to sin and as a result we experience conviction.  But conviction brought by the Spirit is different than conviction brought by the law.  The law convicts to condemn, the Spirit convicts to correct.  So we struggle with sin putting to death the deeds of the body, helped in our weakness by the Spirit (8:13,26); knowing that we are not righteous because of that struggle.  Our righteousness comes from Christ who died, was raised, and who stands at the right hand of the Father interceding for us (8:34).

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