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. (Romans 7:14-17)
Paul’s letter to the Jesus followers at Rome addresses a rift between Jewish believers in Jesus and Gentile believers in Jesus. He shows that they are all in the same boat: “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Sin is the brokenness of our relationship with God, and every sinful act reveals the brokenness of that relationship, not only with God, but with each other and even within our own selves. This was the problem for both Jews and Gentiles.
The Jews had the law of Moses and the Gentiles had the law of conscience, yet both suffered from the same problem, the problem of sin management. In Romans 7, Paul shows us how this played out. It is not a pretty picture, but an important one. But before he gets into it, Paul first tells us that we have “died to the law” through the body of Christ (that is, through his death on the cross) so that we may belong to Christ, whom God has raised from the dead (v. 4). Does this mean that the law itself was wrong or sinful? No, not at all. Rather, it was through the law that sin became apparent as the destructive thing it is (v. 7). But it also became an opening for sin to rise up and show its ugly, broken self. Paul then offers an example with the Tenth Commandment: “Do not covet.” It is a very good law, and we should be better people for it. But watch what happens:
But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. (Romans 7:8-11)Call it the “law of unintended consequences.” The law of God was not intended to be an occasion for sin, yet that is what it became because of the darkness of the human heart. Sin, the brokenness of our relationship with God, “seized the opportunity” — notice that Paul emphasizes this by saying it twice — and showed itself out in relationship with others. The problem was not the law of God but sin itself, our own brokenness. And now Paul begins to describe the desperate plight:
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. (Romans 7:14-17)Paul sees a terrible disjointedness at work: wanting to do what is good but not doing it; not wanting to do what is wrong but doing it anyway. Not because the law of God is bad but because of the bondage of our brokenness. Paul speaks of it as being sold into slavery, and it is a terrible bondage. There is no understanding it. Jesus prayed even for those who were crucifying him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Now notice carefully the conclusion he draws at this point, for he will say it again just a few verses later: “It is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.” The brokenness has consumed him and is beyond his control. It is not merely a matter of volition, of choosing good rather than evil. It is, rather, an incomprehensible helplessness he expresses here.
Up to this point in Romans 7, I think, what Paul has had in mind is the Jew in relation to the law of Moses. Perhaps he was drawing from his observation of fellow Jews as well as from his own experience and recognizing the common experience. But now, I believe, he turns his mind to the Gentile, who did not have the law of Moses but had the law of conscience. So he continues further down the rabbit hole to show that the case is no better for them. It’s the same story all over, and Paul comes again to the same conclusion:
For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. 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. (Romans 7:18-20)Neither Jew nor Gentile have the advantage over the other. They are both enslaved by their broken condition and neither law nor conscience are of any benefit in helping them manage it. There is a terrible disconnect between what God created us to be and what our turning away from God did to us.
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 a slave to the law of sin. (Romans 7:21-25)It is a wretched condition he has portrayed for us, one that desperately cries out for deliverance. But the good news of the gospel is that there is deliverance. God does not leave us in this terrible condition but delivers us through the Lord Jesus Christ. “Thanks be to God!” Paul is now ready to talk about this deliverance, which is the substance of Romans 8. But first he recaps the problem in a single sentence: “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”
At this point, I would like to pause a moment. There are many Christians who have believed and taught that what Paul details in Romans 7 describes the Christian life. If that is so, then ours is truly a very sorry lot, a life of frustration and defeat that leaves us as prisoners and slaves. And it demonstrates the problem of sin management. Surely it is not for this sorry slavery that Paul gives thanks to God. Rather, his thanks and praise is for the deliverance we have in Christ.
So now, let’s proceed to the next verse, which is the beginning of Romans 8. The chapter divisions were not in Paul’s original letter but were added many centuries later. On one hand, I am sorry there is a chapter division here because people often tend to put a mental stop at the end of a chapter, and to stop at the end of Romans 7 would leave us hanging. Yet on the other hand, I am glad for the division here because there is a night and day difference between the life Paul describes in Romans 7 and the one he reveals in Romans 8. Romans 8 is the stunningly and unexpectedly gracious solution to the terrible problem detailed in Romans 7.
Let us, then, step over into Romans 8. Because this post is already longer than usual, we will look at only the first two verses for now, but that will be quite enough to make my point:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2)There are a few important things we can observe here. First is the word, “therefore.” If refers us to what has been said previously. Here, it connects us to Paul’s answer to the question, “Who will deliver me from this body that is subject to death?” The answer: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
And now Paul begins to explain that answer: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Whatever the desperately dreadful experience was that Paul described in Romans 7, there is now absolutely no condemnation awaiting us. It was never any condemnation that came from God anyway but was the brokenness of our own turning away from God. When we turned from God, we turned from the source of light and life. All that was left for us then was darkness and death. But in Jesus Christ, we are delivered from that.
Paul takes it further. How is it that there is now no condemnation for us in Christ Jesus? “Because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” In Jesus Christ, we have received the life of the Spirit and are set free from both sin and death.
So now we are not only not condemned but, more than that, we are set free. Apart from Christ, there was imprisonment to the law and slavery to sin. But in and through Christ, we have become dead to the law and are made alive to God — set free to live by the Spirit of Christ.
The Christ life, then, is not a sin management program. Such programs are nothing but chains and checklists and are doomed to failure because they are based on our own ability — and apart from the life and power of God, we are completely helpless. But the stunning revelation that changes everything for us is that the Christ life is Christ himself living in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, revealing Abba Father to us, in us and through us.