I am doing a Lenten bible study with folks from church. For Lent we’re studying Romans. It’s been really fruitful, not necessarily because of the curriculum we’ve been issued (we are regularly underwhelmed by it) but because of the folks present.
There are two fairly recent SPU graduates–myself and my friend Joel–along with three older men who have careers or families. Some of them have both. We end up having some great discussions.
Yesterday, we read a part of Romans chapter 7(14-23) that I’ve been familiar with for awhile. Here it is:
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature[d] a slave to the law of sin.
I axed the verse numbers. But in any case there it is. This passage resonates clearly with me as I assume it does with many other people. This is a pretty good representation of my experience in Christian walk. It is commonly interpreted to apply to the life of the believer. The Lutheran confession of sin that I grew up reciting every Sunday featured the following line:
“We confess that we are in bondage to sin, and cannot free ourselves…”
I dunno about you, but I submit that Romans 7 is where Mr.Luther found that line. So, why do I bring it up you ask? Why is this worth mentioning? Because it’s seemingly directly contradicted by the second verse of the following chapter.
In Romans 8:2 St. Paul proceeds to state that:
…through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death.
I want you to think about the last bit in Chapter 7. “A slave to the law of sin” VS chapter 8’s sudden reversal.
Since I first encountered this shift between chapters 7 and 8 I have had beef with the Lutheran confession. Paul clearly states that we’re not in bondage to sin in 8, but then in 7 it seems to indicate otherwise. What are we to do with the resulting tension?
Well, read in the context of the rest of the chapter Paul seems to imply that chapter 7’s appraisal of the struggle with the law/sin is that of a pre-Messiah reality. The life of the orthodox Jewish community seems to be one of serious struggle with the manner in which Mosaic law actually enlightens the faithful Jew to what is sin and the manner in which choosing sinful things is an inherent part of life.
The passage, read in this way, really does serve as a nice transition to chapter 8’s statement of freedom in Christ. We’re not bound by sin any longer through Christ. So, at this point Chapter 7 really does serve to carry Paul’s point well.
However, it does land me/you (I imagine)/Lutheran liturgy in a complicated space.
Firstly, let’s just call it what it is: Martin Luther misinterpreted the passage. I’m sorry, but it’s true. I won’t be able to say that particular confession anymore in good conscience.
Secondly, what exactly are we to do with the fact that chapter 7’s statement on the struggle with sin does resonate so strongly with people who are already in Christ?
It’s clear from the rest of chapter 7 (and Romans as well) that Paul wants us to see ourselves as bound firmly to Christ. Jesus being the only true fulfillment of humanity means that we are all wrapped up in that. Whether we know it or not. We are a part of the communion of the Trinity through Jesus. We actually participate in His fulfilled humanity. It’s vicarious.
So, as Paul will say…We’re dead to sin, but alive in Christ. His baptism, death, and resurrection is representative of all of God’s people. Because He did these things, we have done them with Him. All that said, when we read Romans 7 I don’t think we’re meant to stop there. Lots of people like to take passages out of their context and run away with them (cough cough…Marin Luther).
When we read that passage at the end of Romans 7 with the entirety of Romans 8 something different comes to our attention. Here are both from the NRSV as opposed to the NIV I used earlier. Just a little change-up:
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.* 15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
8There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit* of life in Christ Jesus has set you*free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin,* he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.* 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit* set their minds on the things of the Spirit.* 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit* is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit,* since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit* is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ* from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through* his Spirit that dwells in you.
12 So then, brothers and sisters,* we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba!* Father!’16it is that very Spirit bearing witness* with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in* hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes* for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes* with sighs too deep for words. 27And God,* who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit* intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.*
28 We know that all things work together for good* for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.* 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.* 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So, we’re reading this and at least to me it’s quite encouraging. Paul doesn’t stop at the end of Romans 7 and say, “This is us. Deep sigh.” He moves on. He emphasizes our connection with the Risen Lord through the Holy Spirit and goes even further. We’re encouraged to “by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body”.
This to me implies that while the ultimate reality of our lives in Christ is that of participation in His fully realized humanity. We’re given reconciliation with God through Jesus, but we’re also left with the reality that we have work to do. We’re to put to death the parts of ourselves that don’t lean in the direction that God is leading us (important note is that we’re to do this by the Spirit).
I think we’re to move with Paul from Romans 7 to Romans 8 as we read, but also in life. That we find ourselves in Romans 7 is not the issue. Our sense of movement towards and ownership of Romans 8 is. The book of Romans doesn’t end with chapter 7. It moves on.
Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Nothing at all. That love is dynamic. It moves us. This is what John Wesley talked about when he mentioned sanctification. We’re being moved towards the life that God has for us through the Spirit, we participate in the fullness of that in Christ, and we build habits that put to death things that hold us back. I think that there’s a lot of hope in this.
PS: I didn’t deal with the predestination bits in Chapter 8. That wasn’t really what I was about in this post. I don’t think it really has too much to do with what I was trying to talk about.