April 21, 2010

"That's Exactly how I Feel!"

So there is a big theological debate about Romans 7.14-25. Maybe you’re familiar with the passage. It’s the one where Paul says things like:

For what I am doing I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.

and …

The good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil I do not want.

and, famously …

Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body if this death?

The disagreement is whether Paul wrote these verses about himself, as a Christian … or whether he was, rather, giving voice to the feelings he felt before he came to Christ. In other words, are the longings and struggles of Romans 7.14-25 the cries of a saved man, or an unsaved man?

Both sides have some tick-marks in their column, I suppose. On the one hand, it seems hard to imagine a saved person considering himself (v.14) still “sold into bondage to sin” … especially after the freedom Paul spoke of in the first half of Romans 7! But on the other hand, it is quite difficult to assume that an unsaved man could say (v.22): “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man” … not least because Paul describes the fleshly mindset as actually “unable to subject itself to the law of God” in chapter 8.7.

So you can see why Bible scholars scratch their heads … and come to varying conclusions about what Paul really meant by these twelve emotional verses. And there is not space in this format to tease out all the theological and interpretive arguments in favor of one viewpoint or the other.

But here’s the thing … almost every true Christian that I know, aside from the questions raised above, reads Romans 7.14-25 and says to him or herself: ‘Yep. That sums it up! Romans 7.14-25 is exactly how I feel sometimes!’ Almost every true Christian I know senses this great tug-of-war going on in his or her soul. In fact, if there is no tug-of-war about sin and holiness, then we wonder if a person is a real Christian … or if he realizes how bad sin really is!

So it seems to me that Romans 7.14-25 describes the real Christian experience. We have absolutely, irrevocably, radically changed by Jesus Christ, yes. But something’s still not quite right. The old, sinful nature has been dealt a death blow, to be sure. But, like a dying soldier on the battlefield, the old, sinful man often has just enough energy left to, with his last breaths, strike a crippling blow to an unwatchful opponent! And, oh, how many times we allow ourselves to get too close to that defeated, but still breathing, enemy!

That is the wrestling of the Christian life! That is Romans 7.14-25. That is why, so often, “I do the very thing I do not want to do” – because sin, though defeated and as good as dead, is dying a slow death within my soul; even in me, “the one who wants to do good”. I too often toy with that old man. I too often feel sorry for him. I too often want to sit down beside him and talk about old times … forgetting that he still has a dagger at his waste. And so do you. That’s why Romans 7.14-25 sounds so familiar!

So … thank God that Paul was honest enough to tell us that even he struggled with the continuing influence of sin. We need not despair of our salvation every time we falter! But thank God, even more, that “through Jesus Christ” we don’t have to be nearly as unwatchful and wounded by sin as we sometimes are!

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