Friday, July 16, 2010

The Flesh & the Law

For several months now, there's been an ongoing dialogue, both internal and external, on what Romans 7 is talking about. Romans chapter 7-- I urge you to go read it!- comes after the Apostle Paul has outlined the Gospel fully, starting with us as all condemned, no matter what our background, be it religious, pagan, or just ignorant (chapters 1-3). He explains that Jesus had to die in order to allow God to be both just and forgiving (you can't just let people do awful things and not be punished-- we kick judges like that out of office) (chapter 3-4). And he outlines all the amazing things that are ours in Christ (chap 5). Then in Romans chapter 6, he starts showing how being given a new nature- Christ's nature- makes us able to stop sinning, instead of being bound by it. I grew up thinking that Romans 7 was Paul's autobiography as a Christian, wanting to do what he knew was right, but unable to do so because of his flesh, and then struggling on to get to Romans 8, which is all about the victory we have in Christ and the joy of His Spirit. Then I encountered a new take on the chapter here in Louisville, which said that no Christian would ever be bound like that, and so this chapter must refer to Paul before he was converted.

So I wondered... is Romans 7 about a believer, or about a non-believer? Why does it matter? I cared because I'd always resonated with this struggle (vs. 15-17): "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me." How else do I explain why I so often do what deep down the newest, best, Christ-given part of me hates doing? As a pastor friend of mine said,
The debate about Romans 7 can sometimes be academic, but sometimes has big implications. In my opinion, refusing to see it as applicable to believers "can" lead to some major problems, and an inability to see the renewal dynamics of the Gospel. The process of Law and Gospel, wrestling between unbelief and belief, is, I believe, part of the sanctification process and renewal dynamic of the Christian life, forcing us to live each day in light of Christ. To me, the change in verb tense in the middle of the chapter clearly describes Paul's own present experience. As I said, Romans 7 describes the believer, but doesn't allow the believer to stop there, but pushes you on to ch.8.
The subject came up in conversation with my older, far wiser sister in the faith, Sina. She had recently read Charles Leiter's book, Justification & Regeneration, which treats Romans 7 as describing a non-believer, and had come to embrace that position herself. She found great liberty in viewing herself as now able to defeat sin, and pointing out verses 14 & 17 (in the present tense, so what I thought described Paul as a believer): "I am of the flesh, sold under sin [...] I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out", she asked me: "How could those verses describe a believer? All of chapter 6 has been about believers- us- having VICTORY over sin. How could Paul describe it as binding us, as anything leaving us unable to conquer it-- What about the Holy Spirit that's all over the rest of the book?" She also mentioned how the view of Romans 7 as being a believer had at times made her feel trapped and hopeless, even angry at God for not delivering her (or others she was watching struggling). I knew what she meant, had felt it myself.

So, to sum up the implications: if Romans 7 describes a believer, we run the risk of viewing ourselves as hopelessly bound to sin, powerless to shake it off, even tempted to anger at God. If it describes a non-believer, we run the risk of losing any category for ongoing struggle with sin. Hmmm.

Ryan & I were discussing the issue at home, and when we read the chapter through, we boiled it down to 2 "problem" verses, one for each "side." If it's a believer, how do we explain vv. 14 & 17, as Sina pointed out? "
sold under sin... the desire to do right, with no ability to do it." If it's a non-believer, how do we explain vv 16 & 22? "Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being..." My friend Val asked, "is a non-believer even able to delight in God's law?" Either way, it seems a strained interpretation.

Ryan pointed out that he could see a religious Jew looking at the Law (as in the Old Testament, especially the first 5 books) and seeing its value, and actually delighting in keeping it, without being born again. I can see that interpretation in one sense, but what about the present tense? It seems like Paul's describing himself before he was saved (past tense), then switches to a present-day (saved, apostle) struggle. Saying that the whole chapter describes a non-believer seems to violate the flow of the passage, if you start in chapter 6 and read on through to chapter 8.

Why do I bring this all up? Because another talking-session with Sina, who'd done some more digging, brought a very helpful breakthrough, courtesy of Tom Schreiner, a prof at Southern. What if the point of the passage isn't the "salvation status" of Paul at all? What if the point is rather the effect law has on the flesh-- "flesh" meaning what is natural in each of us? Going back and re-reading the chapter yet again, it seemed like a total "duh!" What if Paul intentionally leaves it murky, so that anyone- saved, not interested, or desperately wishing to be saved- can apply the struggle to himself? When ANY of us encounters law, we have the reaction of sinning more, not less. "For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me." (vv 8-10)

Law only ever produces guilt! Laws are, were, given to show us the boundary, and in the case of God's Law, to show us when we inevitably CROSS that boundary, marking ourselves as transgressors. That's what "transgression" means: crossing the line. We sin because we are sinners-- deep down. One day, those of us Christ has redeemed won't sin, won't be sinners, anymore. Until then, the only thing that can ever give us the courage, the strength, the energy, the joy, even the plain ol' "want to" to do what is right is GRACE, not Law. As Romans 8:3-4 puts it, "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, 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. " Jesus already ultimately fulfilled the Law- perfectly. God looks at that, and for those of us in Jesus, that's all He sees. He looks at me, Christina, and sees perfect Law-keeping, and is pleased. In the down-and-dirty of my life now, I have the same Spirit, the very same One Christ had, and He enables me to obey those same Laws that once only condemned me and made me want to sin even more. I noticed just how absent the Spirit and Grace are in Romans 7... I think that's the point. Anyone who's sitting there, looking at the Law and at himself, will inevitably fall into the hopeless mire of Romans 7. We've gotta look UP! Whoever we are, wherever we are, saved, unsaved, caring, uncaring, we ALL must cry out "Wretched man that I am!! Who will rescue me from this body of death!?? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! ... There is now NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!"

Look to Jesus, not to the Law. If you're trying to knuckle down and duke it out, looking only to the Law as your guide and your judge, good luck. It's about all you have going for you.

1 comment:

Matt Foreman said...

I would say, you got it. I've actually been thinking about James 4 a lot - and the seemingly depressing process of repentance mentioned there. But there is some amazing hope in the passage and some incredible in-the-trenches wisdom about how repentance works. The question at the end of the passage is: if I'm humbled before the Lord, how is he going to exalt me? The answer of Romans 8: he drives me to life in Christ.