In my previous blog, we explored how we have truly been set free in Jesus but also explored some passages of Scripture that need to be reconciled. I want to continue to explore that topic here.
Reconciling Romans 7 & 8
So how do we reconcile these passages? In later half of Romans 7 Paul is employing a rhetorical literary style to better communicate to the reader the real sense of anguish that comes from knowing the requirement of the law, desiring to live it, and yet unable to do so. He was not describing his present state of life. (See also N.T. Wright, The Letter to the Romans, in the NIB Commentary series, C.G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Pillar Commentary Series). Paul is speaking from his pre-conversion perspective as a Jew trying to follow the Law. He is leading the reader to the conclusion that no law can adequately deal with the human condition – no matter how good, how perfect or how ‘spiritual’ that law may be because of the weakness of the flesh.
If it is not the old sinful nature that we are battling against how do we process our experience of sinning and falling short of God’s will? I think Paul foresaw this question and answered it Romans 8. “That the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:4). “… if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body you will live” (8:13). In this present age we have been born again by God’s Spirit, but our body has yet to be redeemed (8.23), and our mind needs renewing (8:6). These are the ongoing sources of unrighteousness, not the presence of the old nature, which is sold into bondage to sin.
If we are in Christ that nature died! We live righteously for God by the power of the Spirit – that is the main point of Chapter 8.
So rather than looking at our struggles against the deeds of the body as a sign of our being slaves to sin, we need to look at it as a need to grow in faith and mature in being led by the Spirit. When Paul writes “Consider yourselves dead to sin” (Romans 6:11) he is not suggesting some type of wishful thinking or espousing the power of positive thinking. He is telling us to believe, to have faith, in the absolute truth of what Jesus has done for us. The righteous will live by faith – we need to have faith that we have been set free from bondage to sin just like we have faith that Jesus’ blood is sufficient to cover our sins. It should not be surprising that this is a battle set squarely in the arena of faith, and not a battle of addressing the flesh by setting regulations that have an appearance of wisdom but don’t actually do any good when it comes to restraining indulgences of our old flesh (Colossians 2:20-23)
Righteousness & Faith
We still identify sin as sin and maintain a need for repentance, but the opposite of sin is not virtue or morality, it is faith - “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). Knowing right from wrong has never been sufficient in order to live righteously – we need the Spirit to write God’s law on our hearts just like He promised (Jeremiah 31:33). Immorality is a consequence of sin – so addressing sin by our own attempts to be better or act better morally is at best cutting off the shoot and leaving the root intact. This kind of thinking is a different gospel than what Paul preached. When we come face to face with our failure we are encouraged by the author of Hebrews in 4:16 to boldly approach the throne of grace. Not just for forgiveness and a clear conscience but also for power and strength to live for God the next time we are tempted. We must be wary of a gospel in which confidence in our ability to improve our virtue (or at least sin less often) through human effort (i.e. the flesh) becomes an idol. That’s right, attempting to establish our own worth is idolatry.
Christianity is not about managing our sin by our own efforts to crucify the flesh, it is about walking in the Spirit. I would go as far as to say that if we fight the battle from the perspective of the flesh using rules and regulations rather than by faith in Jesus’ work that already set us free from slavery to sin then we are indulging our flesh. We may even be sowing into a righteousness apart from faith in the work of Christ. This is just the kind of thinking Paul so adamantly opposed in his letter to the Galatians – it is different gospel. I don’t want to lead anyone into an over-realized eschatology of sinless perfection, but nor do I want to leave someone in an under-realized eschatology that falls short of the whole Gospel, dooming people to a life of feeling powerless in the face of fleshly desires. We must receive the absolute radical nature of the Gospel – we are new creatures – having died and now born again of the Holy Spirit.
Growing in devotion
We started out by considering the often-used analogy between our salvation and the exodus of Israel. How silly would it be for Moses to declare that Yahweh had delivered Israel and then leave them in Egypt continuing to be enslaved? It would be pure nonsense. Israel was delivered from Egypt and slavery so that they might worship God. It is the same for the new covenant believer – we are set free from slavery to sin and made alive to God in order to live lives that worship God. Is unrighteous behavior an issue in the Christian life? Certainly, it also was for Israel after their deliverance! But we must be renewed, growing in maturity, learning to walk by the Spirit and thereby put to death the evil deeds of the body which has yet to be redeemed (Romans 8:13) and the mind which is in a process of renewal (Romans 12:2). Just as with Israel, salvation starts with our deliverance but continues so that we may more fully follow God in devotion and worship.