Very few, if any, Christians in history have ever claimed that by virtue of being a Christian, they had become sinless. Very few, if any, have ever gone through the “Confession and Assurance” portion of the weekly liturgy merely twiddling their thumbs in that they believed that part of the service did not apply seeing as they had no sins to confess anyway. So it is perhaps unsurprising to discover that many people have looked at Romans 7 and seen in it a kind of mirror. Paul here goes on and on, in ever greater spirals of snarled rhetoric, about a spiritual battle being waged within his body. He repeatedly expresses a kind of bafflement as to the whys and wherefores of his own actions. In just seven verses (vss. 15-21) Paul employs some form of the verb “do” no fewer than twenty-one times! That’s three times per verse! It makes for difficult reading but the interpretation of this prolix language is no cinch, either.
The original Greek of this passage features three different verbs meaning “to do” or “to perform.” It is an ongoing discussion among commentators as to whether or not there are any significant differences of meaning among those three verbs. Most translations simply leave that question to one side by translating all three Greek words as simply “to do.” Paul appears to be agonizing over the ways by which human actions routinely fail to line up with God’s expectations as expressed in the law.
In the end, what many people have taken away from this passage is that when it comes to explaining any Christian person’s actions, there is a certain level of powerlessness behind our sinful deeds. We don’t want to do bad things, but sin is at work within us to lure us to them anyway. We do certain things or say certain things and we know they are wrong and we pray it will never happen again, but then it does anyway and we decry our own weakness even as we search for an explanation as to what motivates us again and again to go against even our own best intentions.
Hence, many Christians have looked at Paul’s rhetoric in Romans 7 and have concluded, “Yep, that’s me, too. When Paul talks about not doing the good he wants to do but instead doing the very thing he hates to do, all I can say is ‘Been there, done that.'”
The problem with this line of thinking is that it is by no means clear in Romans 7 that Paul is speaking as a Christian. In fact, a careful look at not just these verses but the ones on either side of this passage seems to indicate that the struggles Paul details in chapter 7 do not describe a Christian person’s battles but rather what life is like before a person becomes filled with the Holy Spirit of God. And if that is the case, then it is wrong to think that Romans 7 can be used to describe a Christian person’s life. So then the question becomes, “What does this passage describe? Furthermore, if this is not the explanation for the sins that Christians commit, then what is the explanation?”
We will take these questions in order, beginning with what Romans 7 is actually talking about. The broad outline of the Book of Romans (later adopted as the outline for also the key Reformed confession of The Heidelberg Catechism) is “Sin, Salvation, Service.” In Romans Paul spends quite a few early chapters going into great detail about the common human predicament of sin. In Romans 1-7 Paul tells the Romans why they, like everyone, are in trouble. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. What’s more, we cannot get out of this predicament on our own–like someone caught in quicksand, the more we on our own struggle to get out, the deeper we sink.
But then beginning in Romans 8 Paul turns the corner with the good news of how God in Christ has gotten us out of sin’s quagmire. If the first part of the book tells us what the problem is, chapter 8 begins to tell us what God’s solution is: a perfect sacrifice made by Jesus. After he tells the Romans about this great gift of grace–a gift so incredible that Paul is able to say eventually that there is now nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus the Lord–Paul concludes the book with the implications this has for the rest of our lives (roughly Romans 12-16). The gift may be free, but still there are fitting ways to respond to it.
So that is the outline and the logical progression of this book: humanity is mired in sin, God has come with a mighty salvation, and so we now dedicate ourselves to serving this God because of how his saving grace has changed us forever. To be honest, the subject divisions in Romans are not quite that neat and tidy but as a way to sum up the overall movement of Paul’s writing here, this sin-salvation-service scheme works pretty well.
But if so, then Romans 7 appears still to be in the sin part, not the salvation portion that begins definitively in chapter 8. It looks as though in chapter 7 Paul is describing what his life was like (and so what anyone’s life would be like) before the grace of God comes. Paul talks a lot about the law in verses 7-14. In and through this sometimes confusing language what Paul seems to be saying is that if you are looking to the law to make you right with God, you are looking in the wrong place. Grabbing hold of the law to save you is like offering a drowning man a glass of water: it just makes matters worse.
Paul seems to have two main reasons for saying this. One, the law has a tendency not only to tell you what you should do in the future but to remind you of what you have already failed to do in the past. It’s the old “carrot and the stick” approach. On the one hand, if you dangle the law before someone, you give him or her something to shoot for. But on the other hand and at the same time, a list of rules clobbers you over the head with the fact that you regularly break those same rules. It’s like a 55 MPH speed limit sign on the highway: you can look to that sign to tell you how to drive but then again, that same sign is what the state trooper will point to when issuing you a speeding ticket. In short, Paul says that the law is mostly bad news, not good news. The law not only challenges, it chastens.
Secondly, however, Paul says something a bit more surprising here: not only does the law reveal to you your failures, it actually (and mysteriously) causes you to sin more! If I tell you, “Now listen up: I order you not to think about a pink elephant,” you are going to find it impossible to resist picturing a pink elephant in your mind. How many children have gotten into trouble in history because their mothers have said things like, “You are absolutely forbidden to look in the top drawer of mommy’s bureau!” No sooner does the average child hear that and he simply has got to take a look! Curiously enough, that seems to be what Paul says here: once a person encounters the law, not only does this person discover what “covetousness” is, he or she finds covetous desires popping up all over the place like mushrooms after a torrential rainfall!
All of that is the immediate backdrop to the better-known words that begin in verse 15. So long as it is just you and the law, you and the rules, the sin that is also already within you will wage an unholy war inside your heart. You can keep on saying to yourself, “Don’t look in that top drawer! Don’t think about that pink elephant! Don’t say that naughty word!” but over and again you will find this desire to be good competing with, and very often being edged out by, a counter-desire to do the opposite anyway. This is, to put it mildly, a most unhappy picture that Paul sketches. The picture keeps getting darker and more dismal verse by verse until finally you encounter the heart-rending cry of verse 24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?!”
Body of death. That terrible phrase alone should clue all of us into the fact that Paul is not talking about the Christian life here. By the end of Romans 8, when Paul’s language crescendos into the glorious cry that “nothing can separate us from the love of God” as well as the joyful words that “we are more than conquerors,” by then it’s pretty clear that this is not a “body of death” that is in view anymore.
Romans 7, all of it, is clearly a description of what life is like before the Spirit of God comes to us, thus making us alive in Christ, making us more than conquerors, making us joyful in the knowledge that even the darkest of all our sins have long since been put away forever. Romans 7 ends with a wretched body of death. Romans 8 ends with the glorious life of victory. What makes the difference is the coming of the Holy Spirit who places us “in Christ” where we are not dead but alive, not guilty but forgiven, not wretched but joyful.
As noted above, the Greek of Romans 7 uses several different verbs meaning “to do.” The one most commonly used here means not just to “do” something but carries with it the ring of “achieving” or “accomplishing” something. When we make salvation into a kind of contest, the outcome of which depends on our own moral achievements, then frustration, a feeling of wretched unworthiness, will result. It’s not the law’s fault, as Paul makes clear here–the law is simply God’s owner’s manual for life in this creation. The law is the reliable, God-given guide for getting along well in this world. The law by itself leads to life and happiness, but when the law collides with sin, it gets twisted.
Did you notice in Romans 7 that “sin” is not so much a description of bad things we do as much as “sin” is treated like an independent power? The way Paul talks about “sin” in this passage, he may as well have been describing something like genetics. Each one of us has his or her own unique DNA sequence. DNA is an entity, a substance inside our bodies and it determines what color eyes we have, whether or not we will tend to be thin or more plump, and maybe even whether or not we are likely to develop certain forms of cancer. Our DNA calls the shots. And here Paul says that there is also something inside people called sin, and it is just as real as DNA and just as capable of calling some shots. And when this reality called “sin” hooks up with the law, sin will turn the law from a source of life into a source of death by making us resist and thwart the divine intentions in the law.
But according to the next chapter that sinful power inside of us gets replaced with the Spirit of God when we become Christians. So to use Romans 7 as an explanation (much less as an excuse) for sinful behavior in the Christian life could be seen as a most dreadful denial of the better Spirit of life that is now within us. Yes, we Christians still struggle with temptation and yes, we still yield to that temptation all-too-often. But the wretched, body-of-death portrait of Romans 7 must not be the Christian’s bottom line.
We are not powerless anymore. We cannot say that we sin inevitably because this powerful reality of sin is calling the shots within our hearts and so, hey, what can we do?! We dare not deny the power of the Spirit within us or the fact that our spiritual address is now “in Christ.” What’s more, if we know and really accept the fact of our being in Christ (where we are forever secure and more than conquerors), then an undue focus on our depravity, our unworthiness, or the guilt we feel short-circuits the joy of Christian living even as it brushes past the wonder of grace. To go around in life beating our breasts and saying to all who will listen, “Wretched person that I am!” denies the glory of Romans 8:1 that there is now no condemnation for us. And if God does not dare to condemn us or any longer see us as wretched, who are we to call ourselves wretched!?
The Christian life is about joy, liberation, willing service, and freedom from every kind of wretchedness and death. The Spirit of Pentecost sets us free from what we read in Romans 7. Let’s not retreat back to this chapter but move forward in the glorious freedom of being children of God!
In John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, we early on meet Jim Casy, a one-time revivalist preacher who eventually gave up his ministry because he could no longer stand the hypocrisy within his own soul. When Casy meets up with Tom Joad, he swiftly unburdens himself by making a serious confession. “Tell you what–I used ta git the people jumpin’ an’ talkin’ in tongues, an’ glory-shoutin’ till they just fell down an’ passed out. An’ I’d baptize to bring ’em to. An’ then–you know what I’d do? I’d take one of them girls out in the grass an’ I’d lay with her. Done it ever’ time. Then I’d feel bad, an’ I’d pray an’ pray, but it didn’t do no good. Come the nex’ time, them an’ me was full of the sperit, I’d do it again. It worried me till I couldn’t get no sleep. Here I’d go to preachin’ and I’d say, ‘By gum, this time I ain’t gonna do it.’ And right while I said it, I knowed I was.”
Who knows whether Steinbeck knew about Romans 7, much less had it in mind, when he wrote this scene. But as this famous New Testament passage has trickled down to the popular level over the centuries, the line “The good that I would do I do not,” has become a kind of slogan for all kinds of Christian folk who reach for a biblical explanation for the sins they commit. But is Pastor Casy an example of what we find in Romans 7 or more the Christian’s ongoing struggle with sin even after he has converted to Christ? If Pastor Casy really is a Christian—and the novel indicates he is—then it is the latter, much though people could read this as an illustration of the pop (but incorrect) understanding of Romans 7.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 9, 2017
Romans 7:15-23a Commentary