“For the good that I would I do not: but the evil, which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: 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! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.”
Romans 7: 19-25
Whose life is Paul describing here? In this passage Paul uses the word law 9 times with at least 3 different kinds of law cited and maybe more than that. He begins with the Mosaic Law, which he states is spiritual, but as he continued to develop the passage, the word law is expanded to mean something like a force or principle, as in the principle of sin and then there is the idea of the law of the mind. The psychology of the person speaking, the “I” in this text, is torn apart from within. 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. This man or woman is powerless over the force of sin – incapable of performing the good and 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.
Last week we saw from the first part of chapter 7 that Paul says that those who have been baptized into Jesus Christ are in fact in Jesus Christ and they are the beneficiaries not only of the promise God made to Abraham, but they are beneficiaries of the promise God made to Jesus which we understand to be the New Covenant. You can see an elaboration of the New Covenant in John 17 in Jesus’ self-consecration as the sacrificial victim for the sins of his wayward creation, by his faith in his Father and for his love of his disciples just before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. 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, 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 the one living sacrifice acknowledging the specific Eucharistic moment when we are made “one body with him that he may dwell in us, and we in him.” That is not a prayer that we may reenact Calvary with Jesus, but rather that we as a holy priesthood at this moment may enter into the virtue, the power of the of Cross of Christ that began on the morning of the first Good Friday and that will never cease to attract and enthrall those who have faith in Jesus. But the fact of the matter is that though we pray for this specific Eucharistic provision, we are already, by virtue of our baptism, one body with Christ, dwelling in him and he dwelling in us. That is our most fundamental state of being, our dwelling in Christ and Christ dwelling in us, and nothing can be as irreconcilable, incompatible to that state of being as the text we have before us today which states:
“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.”
Notice that he doesn’t say there is another law in my members that is warring against Christ who is also in me, but rather, “warring against the law of my mind.” That is warring against the affirmation I have made with my mind, my subjectivity affirming the objective truth that the Law is good. In fact the Apostle doesn’t mention Christ, beginning with verse 7, until he has finished with the allegory and finally draws his conclusion that Jesus is the one who has delivered us from death. Nor does he mention the Holy Spirit after that one reference in verse 6 when he finishes his introductory thought that our life in Christ is under the Spirit not under the Law.
So without beating around the bush what I want to say is that Romans 7:7-25 is not to be taken as typical of the Christian experience of his ongoing life in Christ, that is, in the Church. Permit me to give you a short review of the history of the exegesis of this text. The early Greek and Latin Church Fathers universally understood Romans 7:7-25 to be a description of non-Christian life under the Law. But that changed with Augustine, I think mainly because of his rightful struggle to against Pelagius who asserted the grace of God was not needed to please God. Augustine, reacting to Pelagius, wrongly interpreted this as typical of Christians. The medieval Church simply received Augustine’s view and so did the Reformers with some differences. It was the Pietists, with their emphasis on sanctification and holy living, who were the first to challenge the prevailing view and argued that Paul had to be speaking about the unregenerate, that is unbaptized man, rather than the Christian. The best of what Pietism stands for may be recognized in the work of men like Zinzendorf, Spener, and John Wesley; and later among Anglo Catholics like Newman or Keble or Pusey; and even later in the intentional holy life of Anglo-Catholics like Christina Rossetti. The upshot was, parallel with the desire for intentional godly living more and more scholars attempted to understand the text less from the point-of-view of a personally tormented German monk, and as best they could they attempted to understand it from the point-of-view of a 1st Century converted Pharisaical Jew like St. Paul. That of course is the right course of interpretation, if we care at all about what St. Paul was saying rather than proof texting for this, that or the other theology. Now I don’t mean by this that biblical interpretation followed what we might call a market share, but movements like Pietism certainly challenged prevailing views and that is to the benefit of the whole Church.
So let me summarize the style and meaning of this text: First of all, the use of the “I” is not autobiographical. St. Paul is not saying that in his personal past, while still a loyal Pharisee, he struggled in this manner with the Law of Moses. In fact, as we have already seen, he says in Philippians that when he was a loyal son of the Torah he was flawless:
“…circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law…” Philippians 3:5-6
Nor was he saying that now, even though he had found the Messiah and even though he had been baptized into Jesus, unfortunately his internal life was a mess and he is always sinning and hardly ever doing good even though he knows in his mind what he ought to do and what he ought not to do. That is not what he is saying. How do I know that is not what Paul is saying? Because Paul has taken pains to show that our life in Christ, though at the moment not perfect or sinless, is characteristically a life of peace and ever-growing holiness under the powerful influence of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, what the Pharisees claimed for the Law, the way to achieve an upright life as a son of Abraham will not be achieved by the Law, but through the faith of Jesus Christ.
So what is the “I” all about if it is not Paul himself? Paul did not aim to convey his personal experience as a Pharisee or a Christian to the Romans, but rather his aim was to show the impossibility of life under the Mosaic Law as opposed to the peace and holiness Christians have in Christ. His use of the “I” in this text then is a rhetorical device that stands for everyman or everywoman to show how terminal, just how deadly in every way life is under the Law. Even if you are blameless under the Law all that achievement is an illusion, pure emptiness, good for nothing, dung. But the fact of the matter is that when pressed, life under the Law turns out to be a life, as he puts it, “sold to sin” which means under the dominion of sin and death. But how can the Mosaic Law, which Paul flat out says is holy, actually strengthens and multiplies sin? Because, according to Paul, sin has coopted the Law and turned it against God and his creation. Before the Mosaic Law people sinned, yes. And people died because that is the natural end result of sin. But when the Mosaic Law came Israel recapitulated the sin of Adam over and over, again and again. Paul does not mean that we are innocent until we repeat Adam’s sin. What he means is that our sins are not sins of ignorance, but sins that are named and prohibited in the commandments. And Paul says that in some manner sin seizes the commandment, just as Serpent did with God’s one commandment in the Garden, and uses it against God and against God’s creation. So here is a principle for us to understand: To live under the Mosaic Law, and for that matter any law that promises to be an instrument of salvation, is to recapitulate over and over again the sin of Adam. If one commandment in the Garden was used to bring about the Fall why would you think that increasing the commandments would be the corrective?
It is perfectly understandable that Christians over the years have found the struggle depicted here resonates with their own experience, but that may have more to do with continuing unbelief and laziness than with anything deeper. Chesterton’s well know saying may be the better explanation:
“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tired.”
Well 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, I will close with Paul description of the typical, even habitual Christian life at the beginning of chapter 8: