How can I be free from sin?

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One of the greatest blessings and greatest challenges of a Christian is that our conscience is re-awakened. This means that we are even more keenly alert to our own sinfulness.  We become more aware of how ugly and destructive lust, hate, greed, selfishness, pride, anger, gossip and slander are. And yet at the same time we are more aware of our own proneness to such things are.  So, if you are wrestling with a particular habit and temptation, wishing you could be free from it but finding that you keep sliding back into that area of sin, you are not alone.  But that’s not what we want to hear. What we are really concerned to know id whether there is hope, a way out. 

Well, if Romans 6-8 is taking us into the area of sanctification, then that’s where we would expect to find help as we seek to grow in godliness and holiness.  So, we will find help in the second half of Romans 7. There are some challenges along the way as we seek to get to grips with the text, not least because there’s been some debate over the years about who Paul has in mind when he writes. Is he:

  • Writing biographically about his own experience before becoming a Christian?
  • Writing biographically about his own experience after becoming a Christian?
  • Personifying Israel as the man under the law and sin?
  • Describing Adam’s experience before and after the Fall?[1]

Each of these has been proposed at various times in history. We’ll explore the options in more detail later but first of all let’s dig in and see what the text actually says.

A look at the Text

V7-8. The hypothetical question set up by the previous six verses is “does this mean that the law itself is sinful?” After all, what we’ve been seeing is that The Law is associated with what it means to live in the real of sin and that salvation frees us from that realm so that in Christ we have died to the Law. Does Paul have a negative view of Torah? By no means! He once again replies. However, what the Law does is draw our attention to what sin is and shows us what it is.  Here, Paul uses the example of coveting, that is to desire what is not yours. I suspect this is a deliberate choice because of the association with covetousness and the awakening of lust and desire. It is not the, that The Law is sin but rather that sin (note how it is personified here) makes use of The Law for its ends. It grabs an opportunity using the commandment to cause me to covet. Sin lies dormant or dead in our lives, inactive and then the commandments cause it to spring to life.

V9-11. Paul then describes his own relationship to sin and the commandment as follows.[2] He says that there was a time when he lived without the law. He was alive and he was innocent concerning the commandment. The result of hearing the commandment was that sin which was dormant, sleeping or dead came alive in him and he died.  The implication is that there can in effect be only one ruler who controls and shapes a life.  If sin is ruling and controlling your life then you are not. In that sense you are dead.

 The purpose of the Law and the specific commandment in view here is to give life. Remember how the promise to the people of Israel was that obeying the law was to choose life and blessing over death and curse. However, the result for Paul is the opposite.  Again, it is not that the Lw itself kills but that sin uses it to kill, to put me to death.

V1213 This reinforces the point that the problem is not with the Law. The Law commends goodness and forbids evil. The commandments themselves are good things. The law is righteous, it is a just requirement. So, it is not that The Law as a good thing does something bad, callusing my spiritual death.  Once again, Paul reiterates that the problem is with sin.  Note also the good purpose even in that.  Sin is shown up for what it truly is in all its ugliness.

V14 Paul now introduces two categories.  The Law is spiritual but I am flesh.  This has been misunderstood at times to distinguish between physical matter and spirit leading to a dualistic or gnostic understanding of nature and matter itself seen as evil. However, this is not what Paul has in mind -w know that from the wider context of his attitude to physical creation and physical resurrection.  Rather, flesh is used to describe human nature/identity in its opposition to God. Indeed, in this immediate context it points to our helpless state of being enslaved, we have been sold to sin. Sin owns us. The Law then properly belongs to the spiritual realm, to God’s kingdom. So, when used as the constitution by the kingdom of sin and Satan it is out of place and there lies the problem. Paul will return to this point in chapter 8.

In V15- 16 Paul utters words that we may well identify with. He says that he doesn’t understand his own behaviour and action. He does the things he doesn’t want to do and he doesn’t do the things he does desire. The fact that he is wrestling with his conscience proves that the Law is right, he agrees with its condemnation of sin.

V17 – 20 So, if he is doing the very things that go against his will, what is happening? Paul says that this is a consequence of what we saw earlier. Sin has taken up residence, putting his will to death so that “sin lives in me.” He is under the control, influence and direction of sin. The consequence then is that he must conclude and confess his own lack of goodness because sin dominates.  Notice that in verse 18 his statement that “no good dwells in me” is qualified by “in the flesh.”  In this case “flesh” could refer to human sinful nature as it does elsewhere, so that Paul is saying “with regards to my sinful nature” or outside of Christ. However, it is also possible as Moo suggests that he is here distinguishing the physical body from the mind “the mind is willing but the flesh is weak.”  Linked to the reference to “members” or body parts we find here too, I am inclined to agree with Moo.[3]

There are echoes of Genesis 4 and God’s warning to Cain that sin crouches at the door in V21. Paul seeks to right but evil is ever lurking to knock him of course from this.  Notice too how Paul describes this as a form of law or rule too.

V22  -23 The conflict is there because of what his own inner being – his true self desires. He longs to please God. He echoes the Psalmist, he finds delight in God’s Word, specifically in the Law. Here he identifies with the blessed and happy man of Psalm 1. Further he identifies with the Psalmist’s description in Psalm 119 of God’s Word as light and lamp. However, if there is a good law at work on his mind, the Law of God then that is in conflict with another law, rule or principle for living, another constitution if you like.  This is the law of sin, or that belongs to and is controlled by sin.  It is at work “in his members” or in effect in his body. This gives us vivid insight into how temptation, especially lust and covetousness works, it isn’t just about an intellectual response but often there is a physical and emotional craving too.

V24 Paul’s reflex response is to cry out. He recognises the horror of this situation, struggling to extricate himself from the ugliness of sin.  Who will rescue him?  What does it mean for him to be delivered from “this body of sin”? This could refer to a desire to be delivered from his mortal body and certainly at times we will feel the longing for glory. However, I take it to be an expression of the desire to be delivered from temptations and desires that overwhelm him due to the weakness of human flesh.

V25. However, he is not without hope and will not give up on hope. Instead the passage finishes with a prayer of thanksgiving. His trust is in Jesus, even if there is this tension within, his mind is captured by Christ for godliness.

Who is talking?

I promised at the start that I would return to the question about who the “I” in Romans 7 is.  Is it,

  • Writing biographically about his own experience before becoming a Christian
  • Writing biographically about his own experience after  becoming a Christian
  • Personifying Israel as the man under the law and sin?
  • Describing Adam’s experience before and after the Fall. 

Different Christian scholars have aligned themselves with each of the positions over the years. For example, Tom Schreiner argues for the first position whilst Douglas Moo holds a combination of Paul describing Israel’s history with Paul writing biographically.[4]  His view then is that Paul is speaking for himself but as one who identifies with his people and their history. That would not be out of character with his understanding that we are incorporated together into Adam and into Christ, in the same way it would be possible for him to see himself as in a sense “in Moses” and “in the Exodus people.”

It is possible that Paul is using the first-person singular as a figurative device to speak for some-one else or even to speak as Israel. Such a literary device is not unknown, although this would be unusual for Paul.[5]  In support of the Adam option, we might note that he is the only person who could truly say that they were alive and without sin prior to the coming of the Law. However, Adam was alert to the specific commandment “don’t eat from the tree…” from the beginning and so it is unlikely that Paul is referring to that command, all the indicators are that he means the Law of Moses which Adam never knew. So, if the use if “I” is a literary device, then it is more likely to point to the people of Israel. However, as I said, this seems to be unusual for Paul and so I believe that he is speaking personally.

But if Paul is speaking personally, then is he speaking about his experience now? Is the experience of conflict between what he wants to do and what he does something that affects him as a believer?  Or is Paul thinking back to the past and what life was like prior to Salvation?

Well both views are not without their challenges. On the one hand Paul says that “nothing good dwells in me.” (v18) and so he is completely unable to do good at all and that would point us to someone who is unregenerate as it appears to describe Total Depravity and the helplessness of being dead in our sins.  On the other hand, Paul also says that “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (v22).  Can an unbeliever say that? Whilst some have suggested that a diligent Jew would delight in the law, I want to contest that.[6] You see for them to delight in the Law has, as I’ve alluded above place them with the Psalmist and so I want to suggest that the one who delights is the one who is finding joy.  So, the devout Jew who lived prior to Christ and delighted in the Law was one who enjoyed and loved God, this suggests faith in the promise and so I would argue that they belong with the pre-Christ believers of Hebrews 11.

How then do we resolve the tension. I think it is by coming back to Paul’s aim here. His aim is not specifically to answer our questions at this point about what we do with the specific tension and struggle we experience with temptation and sin. It’s not that these verses don’t help us do that and it’s not that Paul won’t address that issue but that to get those answers we need to read chapter 7 along with chapter 8. However, at this point he is still answering a previous question.

The exam question is this “was the law a bad thing, did it cause evil and is it then useless?” And what Paul wants to do is to show us at this stage that the Law is not bad, it is a good thing, something to delight in because it shows us the reality and the awfulness of sin. However, the Law cannot save us, it cannot make us right with God, it cannot make us holy.  In chapter 8:3-4, he writes:

“For 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 for sin,[c] he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Paul’s purpose is to show us that God is dealing with the problem of sin and that includes the ongoing struggle we have with temptation but the solution is not through a legalistic approach, not through the Law of Moses but through the Law of the Spirit. To respond to temptation, we need to know that Law of the Spirit and the assurance that there is no condemnation and no separation from those who are in Christ Jesus. If the old mechanism did not work before we were in Christ, then we should not try to return to it now that we are in Christ.

This means that I believe that Paul is talking personally. “I” means “I” if you like. However, if it is biographical and person then that is not in the sense of Paul giving us a chronology. It’s not his intention to say “I was innocent up until my Bar -Mitzvah, then I came under the law and was dead in my sin, now I am a Christian and delight in the Law.” Rather he is driving home the point that the Law brings condemnation to sinful nature and so we need the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.

A Look at ourselves

Where then does this leave us?  How does that help us answer the dilemma I described at the start as we so often identify with Paul’s cry, we feel like the wretched man who cannot do what he wnts to and does what he does not want to.

Well, with the context of Romans 8:1 “There is now no condemnation” and Romans 5:1 “Having been justified, you have peace with God” to help us, I think that there are two crucial applications for us.  The first is that if this is your heart cry, if you genuinely are someone who delights in God’s word and God’s law, who wants to please him then that is evidence of conversion and so your battle with temptation should not rob you of assurance. That is what Satan would want to happen.

However, the passage also shows us that if we want to be godly then there is way through to that by going back to old, failed methods. There is no way through via legalistic law obedience.  How are we going to face temptation, not by trying harder in our own might to keep the commandments but by way of the Holy Spirit.

I think this is particularly helpful as we consider gospel witness in urban contexts. Think about the challenges you encounter on estates and inner city contexts including drug, alcohol, pornography, gaming, self-harm and sexual addiction. We see people coming to faith from messy backgrounds and we are delighted, excited, encourage. But we don’t know what to do with the mess they carry with them.  Further, although their hearts desire is to follow Jesus, those addictions as well as a life time of abuse and trauma mean that their bodies are battered and weak still craving pleasure, satisfaction and safety from those things even though their minds tell them that these things are wrong and harmful.

The temptation we face as pastors, elders, church planters and evangelists is to resort to legalistic rules and control. The temptation they face is to seek hope and help in such things, then to carry an extra burden of guilt when they fail again.  So, if this passage does one thing, it tells us how not to pastor people from messy backgrounds as the struggle with addiction, habits and temptation.

How should we pastor them? Well that’s where Romans 8 comes in! 

[1] See Schreiner, Romans, 360-365 and Moo, Romans, 425-431.

[2] Remember that we will cover who and when exactly he is talking about later.

[3] Moo, Romans, 458-459.

[4] Schreiner, Romans, 365,  Moo, Romans, 431.

[5] See Moo, Romans 427.

[6] Contra Moo, Romans, 461.

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