I have long purposed to write on this, though at the risk of offending my Calvinist friends I have not jumped swiftly into it. I think my last post about Jesus Christ’s fulfilment of the Law may be a good intro to the thought.
Romans 7 is generally believed to be Paul’s description of the ‘sinful nature,’ which tends to a certain interpretation of the remaining chapters of the book. Interpreting Romans 7 in this way (as a description of the intrinsic human ‘sinful nature’) is not merely the Calvinist interpretation, it has been historically interpretted that way in the West frequently.
However, I think that in order to interpret it that way, we have to be removed from Paul’s original intent on writing it. In context, Paul is speaking through the book of Romans of the election of the Jews, and Gentiles. In comparing the two, Paul is making the clear distintion (as he always does, and as he wrote a least two books with this as a central theme (Galatians, Hebrews)) that the Old Covenant is past, having been superceded by the era of the Covenant cut by Messiah, Himself.
Paul did not write Romans 7 in the context of seperating from the Church of Rome, he wrote it in the context of the Church of Rome seperating from the Old Covenant lest they fail to put faith in Christ and be cast off with all those who continue in the Law of sin and death.
The basic assumption that Romans 7 speaks of an intrinsic sinful nature is based on a concept earlier introduced about original sin ((specifically, Rom 5:12,17,19)see also, post: Is Sin a Disease, or a Crime? Pt.1, pt.2). However, regardless of your understanding of original sin, the intrinsic language of Romans 7 should be sufficeint to see that Paul is not speaking of the ‘sinful nature,’ rather, he is talking about the effect of the Law on the flesh.
But don’t take my word for it, let’s look at some verse from Romans 7 (emphases, and commentary, mine):
v. 1 – Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth?
4 Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are becoome dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God [i.e. if we live according to fellowship with Christ, we bring forth fruits of righteousness].
5 For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, WHICH WERE BY THE LAW, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.
6 But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.
Now, in such a context – if Paul is speaking not of a sinful nature, but of the effect of the law on the flesh – one might begin to wonder if the law, itself, was the evil thing that causes sin to rise up in us. True to form, Paul immediately jumps into that very point, and corrects the misconception that his context (rightly observed) ha sled us to:
v. 7 – What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.
8 But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin is dead.
Without the Law sin is dead. Let’s explore this a momment: Sin cannot occur unless the law exists; if there is no law, there cannot be a breaking of the law. Sin is the breaking of God’s moral law, but if God had never declared a single commandment then it would be impossible to disobey Him; impossible to sin. Only when a command exists can we obey, or disobey it. Without the law, sin is dead.
v. 9 (Here’s an important one that many Christians ignore in interpretting this passage) – For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came sin revived, and I died.
At the risk of being accused of Palagianism, let’s consider this verse carefully. According to Paul, there was a time in his life that he was alive spiritually – a time in which sin had not rendered him spiritually dead. That comes about as close to a plain-statement that he didn’t bear a ‘sinful nature’ from birth as any other statement implies he did. We’ll see in verse 14 that he was ‘carnal’ all along, and that his ‘carnality’ is what sells him under sin, but only in the light of his revelation of the Law. We all are flesh, and flesh tends to do what it wants, but the flesh gratifying itself is not sin unless it’s in opposition to the law. So, when the commandment comes, and puts restriction on the desires of my flesh, my flesh tends to resist it.
I don’t mean to continue and make a verse by verse commentary, my point is that in Romans 7, Paul gives a detailed description of a person who attempts to live by the Law for righteousness, he evident conclusion being: it is counter-productive. The more rigidly you try to obey the law, the more your flesh resists it, and the more entangled you become in sin. He is not talking about the struggle with a ‘sinful nature’ but the struggle of he flesh with the Law.
We must neither exclude the verses following chapter 7 from the context; the beginning of chapter 8 gives great clarity to chapter 7.
Paul first leads to a final summary of the conflict of the flesh with the Law because our flesh resists the commands of God, but in the spirit we want to please God (7:22 & 23), Paul erupts:
v. 24 – O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
Then he begins to expound the solution: we are no longer bound to the law. Through Jesus Christ those who follow Christ in spirit are justified:
Romans 8:1 – There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, WHO WALK NOT AFTER THE FLESH, BUT AFTER THE SPIRIT. [That is: don’t try to control your flesh with legal commandments, anymore – instead let your inward man [spirit] follow the Spirit of God.]
2 For the law of the Spirit [not the law of the ‘carnal commandment’ (Heb 7:16)] of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:
4 That the righteousness of the law might be filfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
So, let me summarize these thoughts (I could keep Romans 8 cause its so stinkin’ good,): under the Covenant of Christ, we live under an entirely different paradigm. Whereas under the previous dispensation we were ruled by laws that we had to strive to obey – we lived according to an utterly impossible system – yet now in Christ we are elevated to an entirely different reality! For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
Paul continues in chapter 8 to describe the dichotomy between the old dispensation of the law, and the new one of the Spirit:
v. 5 – For they that are after the flesh [those whose religion abides in the carnal commandment, who are concerned with making their flesh obey the law] do mind the things of the flesh [they keep themselves trapped in the carnal realm of the law]; but they that are after the spirit [do mind] the things of the spirit.
6 For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.
Remembering that this is in the context of the effect of the law on the flesh, Paul makes very clear the difference between the dispensation of the law (old covenant) and the dispensation of grace (new covenant). The entire way of thinking on the basis of law is death.
As I mentioned previously, Paul’s content here is very similar to his teaching in Galatians where he was specifically warning Christians against the teachings of certain Messianic Jews who were leading the Galatian church into adherance to the law. Consider these three verses from Galatians:
Gal 5:16-18 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.
17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. [Sounds just like Rom 7, no?]
18 BUT IF YE BE LED OF THE SPIRIT, YE ARE NOT UNDER THE LAW. [!!!!!!!!!]
Right there, in the clear and specific context of living under the, Paul is trying to convey this thought. Are you struggling with sin that you just can’t get over? It’s not an un-defeatable ‘sinful nature,’ it is the carnality of your thinking.
I’ve picked on the Calvinists, I’ll add Catholics (love you all, guys) – instead of obtaining liberty from the carnal way of thinking, our systematic theologies largely just transfer us from an Old Testament, to a new testament law in which we continue to strive and struggle against sin. (Practical interlide:) If you find yourself obsessed with self-berating because you masterbated, take a step back and realize you are striving under law (forgive me if that’s too graphic an illustration, some people struggle with that) – your striving about it will only make the issue worse, and keep you enslaved to your carnal mind. If, instead you repent by looking to Christ and seeeking to please Him, there is grace in your failure, and believe-it-or-not it will help you resist temptation. Taking up any kind of merit based religion traps us in Romans 7 – For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
Rather, if we follow Christ personally, we are no longer striving against sin because we are striving to please God spiritually.
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. [Not those who follow the Law.] (Rom 8:14)
Sequel: Romans 9