About Jesus    Steve Sweetman

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Struggling With Sin  (ch. 7:7-25)


Before we begin this section, let me warn you that much thought is needed in order to understand this passage.  There has been much debate and disagreement over the centuries on how to interpret what Paul is saying in Romans 7.  Although I do not pretend to have all the answers, I do have a position on this chapter.


Another thing to think about is this.  The whole of the Bible is all about man's struggle with sin and God's remedy for this struggle.  Another way to say it is that the Bible is all about the history of humanity in conflict with Deity.  This chapter really shows this to be true.


Paul begins this section in verse 7 with yet another one of his logical questions.  "Is the Law sin?" he asks.  You might think Paul had little respect for the Law after all that he has just said in previous chapters.  It's only logical that someone might think that the Law is sinful.  Paul's answer is, "far from it."  He then proceeds to give another reason for the Law’s existence.  "I would not have known what sin was, except through the Law."  In other words, the Law of Moses taught Paul and us too, what sin is.  For example, it told us that stealing was a sin. 


The Greek word "aphorme" that is translated as "seizing" in verses 8 and 11 in the NIV means "to mount an attack".  This word would have been used when an army was preparing for battle.  When the Law exposes sin in a life, sin mounts an attack.  That is to say, if the Law says don't steel, then the sin of steeling rises up, mounts its attack, and steels in defiance of the Law. 


In verse 8 Paul also says that apart from the Law sin is dead.  This simply means that if you don't know what sin is, then sin won't mount its attack.  If you don't know that steeling is a sin then the sin of steeling won't be aroused because there is no law that says don't steel.  Paul is speaking here in simply human logical terms.  By nature we tend to do what we're told not to do. 


The puzzling question over the centuries is this.  Is Paul talking about himself here, or is he talking about mankind in general?  In verse 9 he says that once I was alive apart from the Law, but when the commandment came sin sprang to life.  Is he talking about himself or is he talking about mankind in general? 


There are a number of ways people have viewed the "I' verses in this chapter.  Some say Paul is speaking figuratively.  The pronoun "I" refers to mankind in general.  Others feel, at least in the first half of this chapter when the verb tense is in the past tense that Paul is speaking of his pre-Christian life.  Then, in the last half of the chapter, when he moves to the present tense he's beginning to speak of his life as a Christian.  My position is simple.  If Paul uses the pronoun "I", then he's talking about himself.  Thos who argue against this say that what Paul says, especially in the second half of the chapter, sound way too sinful to be Paul.  I disagree with that which I will explain as we proceed through the chapter.     


Was Paul ever alive apart from the Law as he states in verse 9?  How should we understand this?  Some suggest that Paul is speaking figuratively about the Jews here.  Prior to the Law being given to Moses Jews were alive apart from the Law, but once again, I believe "I" means "I", as is "I" means Paul.  Let's not get complicated and make this hard to figure out.


The Law of Moses was obviously in existence all through Paul's life.  That's an historical fact.  If Paul was talking about himself here, then I suggest that he is talking about himself as a child.  Even though the law existed, as a child he had little understanding of its existence.  In this aspect he was apart from the Law as a child, when he knew little about the Law.  If "I" refers to Paul, that's your only logical way to view this verse. 


Paul goes on to say in verse 9 that once the commanded came to him, sin rose us and he died.  So, when Paul was old enough to understand what sin was because of his knowledge of the law, sin within him was aroused.  He sinned and as a result of his sin he died.  Freedom apart from law was over.  Knowledge of the law caused him to sin even more, as he has already stated.  At that point, like a heavy wet blanket, death enveloped his life. That's what sin does.  It kills us.  It saps any spiritual life that may exist within us.


In verse 10 Paul says that the very commandment that was meant to bring life to him actually killed him.  It brought death to him.  How could this be?  Well, if the Law said don't steel, and if you didn't steel, your life would be the better for it, but, since we are sinful at the core of who we are, when the Law said don't steel, Paul did steel.  Once you steel, you reap all of the effects of your theft.  If we did not have a sinful nature then the law would not bring such death.  This is why in verse 11 Paul says that once his sinful self heard the Law it mounted its attack and caused him to sin even more. 


Paul says that sin deceived him.  Remember, the first one to sin was Eve as Paul states in 2 Timothy 2:14.   Paul notes that she was deceived.  Both sin and satan are deceptive.  I should point out at this point that Adam was not deceived.  He simply defied the command of God.  He disobeyed.  He wasn't deceived or tricked into eating the forbidden fruit.           


In verse 12 Paul further answers his question he asked in verse 7 concerning whether the Law was sinful.  He says that the Law is holy and righteous.  The Law did make sin increase as seen in Romans 5:20, but that was not because it was unholy.  The Law wasn't at fault.  We are at fault.  Our sinful nature is at fault. 


In verse 13 Paul asks yet another question.  "Did that which is good (the Law) then become death to me?"  Once again his answer is "by no means".  Again, it's not the Law that is sin.  It sin within us that is the problem.


Paul goes on to tell us that through the Law, because of the Law, sin was recognized for what it really is.  The Law was meant to expose sin for what it was even though it knew we would sin even more.  Another reason for the Law stated here is that it made us understand that our sin wasn't a minor problem.  Our sin is utterly sinful.  It's worse than we could ever imagine.  This is how we should view sin, but for the most part in our modern church, we don't see sin as being utterly sinful.   We need to understand sin in the same light as God understands it, and it's not pretty. 


Simply put, sin was in man when there was no Law, but man did not recognize it as being wrong.  The sin still produced death. The Law came along, making it clear that what we were doing was sinful and wrong.  Once sin was exposed within us, it rose up in rage, causing us to sin even more.  At this point we are in bad shape.  Death smothers us like a heavy wet blanket.  Thus with this excess of sin, sin became “utterly sinful”.


Verse 14 begins to present the challenge of the ages.  Paul says that the Law is spiritual but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.  He goes on to say in verses 15 and 16 that the things he should be doing, he doesn’t do, and the things he is doing, he shouldn’t be doing.  Once again there are two camps.  One camp says that Paul is not talking about himself but mankind in general.  They just can't see Paul being, or even thinking of himself as being such a sinner.  On the other hand, those like me, believe that Paul is talking about himself.  We say this because even though God has declared us as being righteous, we are not righteous.  We fight with our human nature.  Many of us just have a hard time acknowledging that.  I've always said that if we have no struggle with sin, then we've given into sin and there is no battle to be fought.  I think there are more Christians who have given into sin than we might think. 


Whatever the case, in verse 16, Paul still concludes that the Law is good.  It's man that is bad.          


In verse 17 Paul says, "As it is it is no longer I, myself that do it, but it is sin living within me."  At this point Paul is separating himself, who is now is in Christ, from his sinful nature.  As Christians we actually have two natures.  We have our old sinful nature and we have our new spiritual nature due to the fact that the Holy Spirit lives within us.  The idea that man, in general, has two natures is something that was commonly understood in to Greek philosophy.  Paul seems to be putting a Christian bent to what these Romans would have understood from their philosophical cultural background. 


You must remember that Paul was speaking from the context of who he was.  He was both Jewish and Greek.  Many Bible teachers believe that Paul had a Jewish mother and a Greek father.  That is why he was a Roman citizen from birth.  Paul was raised in two cultures.  He was raised as a Jew in the Greek city of Tarsus and Tarsus was a very educated city to grow up in.  You'd call it a university town today.  From this perspective, Paul would have naturally spoke and taught from these terms.  For example, his understanding of slavery would have come from this culture.  His understanding of patronage would have also come from this culture.  The point I'm making here is that, like you and I, Paul was a product of his culture.  Even as a Christian, his words were Greek orientated.  I'm a North American.  I don't speak Chinese.  I don't use Chinese illustrations to make my point.  I'm not influenced by Chinese in any way.  When I explain something, I explain it based on who I am as a North American.   Paul spoke and taught from both Jewish and Greek influe           


Again, Paul says in verse 14 that he is a slave to sin.  Let me point out in chapter 6:18 Paul says that he and other Christians are slaves to God.  We had already concluded that we are either slaves to sin or slaves to God.  It's either one or the other.  It doesn’t appear we can be slaves to two masters, but, here Paul says that he is a slave to sin.  Some would say that “I”, meaning Paul before he became a Christian was a slave to sin.  I don't see that being the case because verse 14 is in the present tense, not the past tense.  I believe Paul is talking about himself as he was writing these words.  That being the case, how can Paul say he is a slave to sin when he has already said he was a slave to Christ?  That fact of the matter is that he has just said that it's not he who is sinning.  It's sin within him that is sinning, or, that is a slave to sin. 


Since I believe that Paul views himself as having two natures, it's his sinful nature that is a slave to sin while it's his spiritual nature that is a slave to Christ.  It's my understanding, especially from this chapter, that Paul believes his real self is his spiritual nature, or, he who is in Christ.  His carnal self, he who is in Adam, is not really the real Paul.       


In verse 18 Paul says that there is nothing good that lives within him.  To be consistent with my thinking, I believe he is talking about his sinful self, not his spiritual self.  Paul is speaking about what theologians have called the Depravity of man.  We must believe and understand this point.  We are wicked at the core of who we are.  We are so wicked that we don't know how wicked we really are as stated in Jeremiah 17:9. 


Verse 20 confirms again that it is sin in Paul; his sinful nature, that is doing the sinning.  There is nothing good in that sinful nature.  It is at war with his spiritual nature.  This is what Paul says in Galatians 5:16 through 18.  He tells the Galatians that the flesh wars against the spirit.  Our sinful nature is always in conflict with our spiritual nature.  What he states in Galatians 5 is what he expands on here in Romans 7.     


I believe I can safely say that Paul, who considered his real self as being in Christ, viewed his sinful nature as being foreign to him.  His sinful self was not really him any more because in one sense of the word the sinful nature died with Jesus on the cross.  That being said, his sinful nature still lived, but it lived within him, but, it was no longer him, because, he is now in Christ and not in Adam.        


In verse 21 he introduces a new law into the discussion here in Romans 7.  I call it the law of human nature.  When we want to do good, the evil within us rises in opposition.  This is certainly the case with you and I, and, it was the case with Paul, even though Paul was a real man of God.  Paul still had a human nature to fight.  Paul clarifies this more in verses 22 and 23.  He speaks of his inner being that seeks to do good.  I've called that his spiritual nature.  The law of his sinful man rises in opposition to the law of his mind, his spiritual nature, wages war against him.  This war makes him a prisoner of the law of sin and death.  Paul's use of all these laws might be confusing, but once you think it through, it's not so confusing.  The natural law within him that causes him to sin makes him a prisoner of the law of sin and death.  We've already talked about the law of sin and death.  That law states that when you sin, you die.    


In verse 24 we see that Paul views himself as a wretched man.  This is how we are to view ourselves.  We are wretched, no matter what our society and the modern church tells us.  We are miserable sinners, in need of Jesus.  The word "wretched" is a very strong word, but it is an appropriate word.  Again, I remind you of Jeremiah 17:9 that states we are so sinful that we don't know how sinful we really are.  Our modern Christianity doesn't teach this Biblical truth as it should.  We've adopted the way of the world that states that we aren't as bad as we might think.  We're actually good at heart.  That's not what the Bible says, and that's not how God views those who are not in Christ.  Even though we have been declared righteous by God, our sinful nature is still wretched. 


In light of this wretchedness Paul asks, "Who will rescue me from this body of death".  Body of death is a good way to put it.  Our physical body is all about sin and death.  That's what God told Adam.  The day Adam sinned was the day he died.  His body became a body of death.                     


I can't say for sure but Paul might have had Virgil (a famous Roman poet - BC 70 to 19) in mind when he spoke of "this body of death".  Virgil reports one way that some tortured people during battle was that they'd tie a dead body to a living body, that is face to face, until the living person died.  The living person would remain tied to the dead body until he died.  Virgil, like Paul here, uses the word "wretched" to describe this situation.  So, when Paul said, "who will deliver me from this body of death", it fits what Virgil said about being tied to a dead body.  The Romans might well have pictured this in their minds when Paul used these words.     


Paul answers his question in verse 25.  It's Jesus Christ who rescues him, and all of us, from our body of sin.  In other words, Jesus frees us from this wretched dead body we're entangled with.  Again, I'm not convinced that the modern Christian views his carnal nature in this light.      


Paul also concludes in verse 25 that in his mind he is a slave to God while in his sinful nature he is a slave to sin and death.  Here again we see the two natures of a true born again Christian.  Once again, I suggest that Paul no longer viewed his sinful nature as part of him.  It was something foreign to him yet living within him.


To sum up, there are a few thoughts I would like to add at this point. Paul speaks of us as having two natures which is evident in verses 14 and 21.  One nature is unspiritual, carnal, and sinful, and, something that lives within him but is not part of who he now is.  The other nature is spiritual, seeking the things of God.  There is a great battle that rages between these two natures.  This is how I view this seventh chapter of Romans. 

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