“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8:1-4
Last week I emphasized how the message of love and salvation that St. Paul preached concerning Jesus the Messiah was new and very odd to his intended audience of new Christians in Rome. Of course there is nothing odd about it to us which is unfortunate because that means we are settled in our biases and we have successfully smoothed over, domesticated the offensive narrative and that is why we will not understand the meaning of Romans without a great deal of work. A clue that we have passed over to the point-of-view of Paul’s original audience will be when we begin to feel some tension and disquiet with the strangeness of this story. Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you odd.” I submit to you that when the strangeness of Romans begins to bother you that may be an indication that the Holy Spirit has broken into what people call their “comfort zone,” and if we stick with Romans and resist just trying to feel better about ourselves the oddness will not go away and it may even begin to rub off on us. But of course all this depends on understanding text.
St. Paul expected Christians to understand what he wrote and he expected Christians to affirm the truth of what he wrote and furthermore he expected Christians to appropriate the meaning of Romans personally and in the Church community. And if we do that we can expect to grow in Christ as a parish, as families and as individuals. On the other hand if we misunderstand what Paul has written and if we don’t even know we have misunderstood him, then we will appropriate error into our lives and that will eventually lead to personal and communal decline and weakening which will lead to more error and more decline and finally disintegration.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by appropriating error. If Romans chapter 7 is in fact a description of the life after baptism into Christ then one must assume that sin is of necessity part of Christian life and if sin is to remain in our lives then we have to make peace with it. If we assume that sin is necessarily a part of our life and we make peace with it we can be sure that sin will wax and eventually dominate our life. But St. Paul teaches no such thing and in fact there is a hairpin turn in his narrative when he goes from chapter 7 to chapter 8.
We have been away from chapter 7 to long for us to feel the massive change of tone with the 1st verse of chapter 8. If you recall the last half chapter 7 presents the image of the unbaptized man and woman as frankly incapable of living an ethical life.
“For the good that I would I do not: but the evil, which I would not, that I do… But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin, which is in my members. O wretched man that I am!” Romans 7: 14,23,24
The speaker says that the law of sin is “in my members” and it wars against the law of the mind. The result is that the person described here is in bondage to sin, or as Paul has put it in verse 14, it depicts the man sold to sin, as in becoming the property of sin. This man or woman is powerless over the force of sin – not only incapable of performing the good, but just as helpless to stop sinning. The most straightforward reading of this text is irreconcilable with everything that Paul has labored to establish about the faith of Jesus in the epistle to the Roman. Therefore the last half of Romans 7 is not to be taken as typical of the Christian experience of his ongoing life in Christ and his labor to please Christ. The early Greek and Latin Church Fathers universally understood Romans 7 to be a description of non-Christian life under the Law and they are correct not because they are Church Fathers but because they did better exegesis than the Reformation theologians. Some of the better exegetes today state that St. Paul uses the “I,” as in “The good that I would, I do not…” in this text as a rhetorical device that stands for everyman or everywoman to show how terminal, just how deadly in every way life is under the Law. But to be fair, St. John Chrysostom as well as his peers held that very position in the 4th and 5th centuries. Paul’s point in chapter 7 is that even if you think you are blameless under the Law all that achievement is an illusion, pure emptiness, and good for nothing which is exactly St. Paul’s estimation of his own life under the Law, a life he asserts that was “blameless under the Law.” Chapter 8 is thus a dramatic reversal:
“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8:1-2
Against the background of natural man’s hopeless slavery to sin, St. Paul told his audience of Christians that they were not natural, but supernatural, baptized into Jesus Christ which means you are in Jesus Christ and you are the beneficiaries not only of the promise God made to Abraham, but you are beneficiaries of the promise God made to Jesus which we understand to be the New Covenant. The upshot of our baptism into Jesus Christ is that we have died to death, died to the sin and died to the law; we are no longer in the old man, no longer in Adam, no longer in the old existence and under the Law, but rather we are in Jesus and we have a new life that is under the influence of the Holy Spirit who is in us. We are in Jesus and Jesus is in his Father; so we are in the Father as well and the Father and the Son are in us through the Holy Spirit. In a little while we will celebrate the Holy Communion in which we will present our collective selves, souls and bodies to God, not as so many individual sacrifices, but as one living sacrifice made “one body with (Christ) that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”
This contrast between the Christian, the supernatural man and the natural man is like a diptych. A diptych is made of two panels held together by hinges each panel depicting a person or some narrative scene. Because they are portable pagan Greeks and Romans in antiquity used diptychs to carry images of loved ones and their city’s gods with them when they traveled. And once the Church of Christ gained prominence she quickly saw a good thing and appropriated diptychs for the worship of the Blessed Trinity. I am suggesting that you think of chapter 7 and chapter 8 – the center of the book – as a diptych; one panel represents the shame and hopelessness of the natural man, while the other panel represents the freedom and potential holiness of the Christian man and woman. The genuine possibility of living an authentic holy life, living as the Children of Light in a darkening world is the total effect that comes through only when Romans 7 & 8 are taken together. One does not get the total picture of the potential of those baptized into Christ otherwise. Imagine the early American Romantic paintings of an artist like Thomas Cole or Fredric Edwin Church with the shadows removed (do that and you get Kincaid) or imagine removing false relation from the work of Tallis or Byrd because it might sound odd to people today and you will get a picture of how distorted the narrative of Romans 8 would be without Romans 7. It is the oddness that will set us free and save our souls. The very point that comes through so profoundly, though it is uncomfortable for Christians to hear is that unlike the unbaptized we are not in bondage to the law of sin. Frankly the Christian does not have to sin.
As I have pointed out before it is perfectly understandable that Christians over the years have found the struggle depicted in Romans 7 resonates with their own experience, but that may have more to do with continuing unbelief and laziness than with anything deeper. Chesterton’s well known saying may be the better explanation:
“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tired.”
In light of that and in light of the fact that what we have seen in chapter 7 is not the normal life of the Christian, but a state of constant failure, a state of slavery to sin, while St. Paul describes the typical, even habitual Christian life beginning with the first verse of chapter 8:
“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.”
Negatively, Christians are free slavery to sin and death, while positively we have a vocation to holy living toward one another and all of creation. But what does it take for us to be holy? A few weeks back I said that it requires first that we stay in touch with aletheia, with truth, but the truth that sets you free will also make you strange. It is not the case that we are at once thinking to ourselves that we are in Christ and our destiny is all tied up with his destiny and the whole wide world and everything in it is actually a result of the love between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; and while I am aware of that, and at the same time, I am fighting temptation to some deliciously sweet sin like anger or gluttony or that suddenly out of the blue I find that I have skidded off the Christian path, through no conscious fault of my own, into some ditch of habitual sin. No it doesn’t happen that way. What happens is that God’s love and all this mysterious and wonderful reality we know in Christ we willfully set aside. God is bracketed. Why do we bracket God? Because the two cannot co-exist. Not for a moment. If we are in Jesus, consciously and intentionally in Jesus, nothing can compete with that reality intellectually, emotionally, creatively, or in any other way that I can’t think imagine.
So here is the very odd truth: we welcome sin into our life, we do not put up a fight, we yield to temptation because we want to – and then we try to excuse ourselves by blaming sin. We behave as though Christ is not the Aletheia of all life, as though he is not rock solid, as though the truth that God is God and that the whole world belong to him is not the truth. This is atheism and this is how atheism functions as opiate. Atheism offers a refuge from the fear of a God who is unmanageable and all-powerful. Atheism is a safe haven of willfulness and selfishness. We float in and out of atheism on a daily basis without taking note of it.
This is a very strange story indeed. Men and women saved from slavery to sin, made children of God, filled with the Holy Spirit and perfectly able to live without sin – they return to sin? Why? I can tell you why. It is because we have to work at being Christians, we are saved by works, made holy by our works as we work to live up to our destiny in Christ – but the problem is that we want it all without works, without effort, without the hard striving and sacrifice. We want holiness to come upon us like some kind of infantile wish fulfillment which is to say we want holiness to just to drop into our laps like ripened strawberries. But that is one thing that will not happen. We are called to be adults and not babies.