Friday, July 04, 2008

Romans 7: A New Life in the Spirit

I'm preaching this Sunday on Romans 7. I've had my head and my heart in Romans 6-8 for about 20 years. It is a chapter that thrills me, and gives me so much hope in the face of an ocean of sin.

I really don't pretend to have it all figured out, but here is my take:

The question guiding the chapter is not 'What is the Christian's experience of sin?' (as important as this is). I have read and listened to several sermons this week, and I fear that some have changed the starting point, and therefore have arrived at a different finishing line.

I listened to 3 sermons from Tim Keller (which were brilliant as always). But it troubled me that he used Stevenson's 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' as an illustration of the experience of a Christian in Romans 7. Dr Keller was very close to using the novel an interpretative key to the text. Dr Keller is a brilliant teacher, but I wasn't convinced that it was a great reading of the text.

Paul was directly responding to the question: 'Is the Torah sin?', together with a follow up question: 'Did that which is good (the Torah) bring death to me?"

In other words: "Are you, Paul, saying in your gospel, that the Law is the real problem, since the Law somehow 'arouses sin', and 'increases trespass', and brings death?

I believe that Paul's interlocutor believed that disregarding the Torah was the problem, and the solution was the reestablishment the Law. If the kids aren't obeying the Torah, then we need more Torah schools, the argument might go. And Paul seemed to be showing disregard for the Torah by suggesting that it was not the solution, but in fact, part of the problem.

And Paul's answer to the question 'Is the Law sin?' is simple:

No way, Jose.

The Torah is holy, righteous and good.

So what is the problem then, if disregard for the Torah isn't the problem?

'It was sin', Paul simply says in V13. The Torah, then, is good, but - and here is the key - it is deeply limited in the face of the Tsunami of Sin. The Torah can expose Sin. But to the person 'of the flesh, sold under sin', Paul says 'I do not understand my own actions', and 'I do the very thing I hate', and 'I have the 'desire to do what is right', but not 'the ability to carry it out'. In other words, the overpowering influence of sin in the human heart is the problem that screams out for an answer. Flesh makes a person a 'wretched man.' Israel, with just the Torah, was always and forever overrun by Sin.

And what is the solution for Israel 'sold as a slave to sin', if it is not obedience to the Torah?

In the face of a Tsunami of Sin, the only solution is found in Jesus. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do, and he did it 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.' (Romans 8:1-4)

We need Christ, and new life in the Spirit. Not Law.

Jesus is the solution, Sin is the problem, and yet the Law remains good, righteous and holy.

It was my friend Rob Smith, who first showed me that Romans 7:5-6 are the guiding verses of Romans 7-8.
(Summing up Romans 7:7-25): For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.
(Summing up Romans 8:1-17): But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
So, if you are in Christ, you have been set free. You are not Mr Hyde. And you are certainly not Dr Jekyll. Paul says:
"You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you."
Is it a struggle to live this life? Of course. Is it difficult? No doubt. But you have the opportunity and the resources that those under Torah never had: You have been released to serve in the new way of the Spirit, not in the tragic way of the old way of the written code.




Anonymous said...

Nice post, Justin.
Just to clarify, are you suggesting that this passage refers, not to Paul's present life in Christ, but to his former life as one under the law?
If so, I'm totally with you!

Jim said...


Good stuff. Have been wrestling with 'The Law' and its 'insuffeciency' (is that a word?), while 'The Wife' has been leading studies in Hebrews this year.

Still wrestling and need to read over your post again, but have been loving some good stuff in Hebrews on this subject.


Bumble said...

Since you have been studying Rom. 7 for 20 years, what do you think about Keller's point that the pivotal key for the chapter is to recognize the grammar tenses (that Paul was talking both about his life before conversion and his life after conversion)?

To me, this concept of Christians living with (not living-in) sins and the daily struggles we go through was very helpful (simul justus et peccator).

So, the point of Rom.7 is that we will have a war within, the Torah is exposing how bad it is, but the Spirit will help us move along.


Justin said...

Will respond to all on July 5. Am spending some time with my family.

In the meantime, Bumble -- nice to see you here again after 2 years. You must spend each day searching and following TK all over the net. Keep following Jesus, Bumble.

In the meantime, I have a question for you: If you are in Christ (which I assume you are), are you a slave to sin? Do you serve the law of sin and death, like Paul declares in Romans 7? Are you 'of the flesh'?

These are genuine questions that will help me. Thanks.

Justin said...

So, the point of Rom.7 is that we will have a war within, the Torah is exposing how bad it is, but the Spirit will help us move along.

One more thing while I'm here.

No, this is not the point of Romans 7. You have read that into the text. It is the point if you start with the question: 'what is the Christian's experience of sin?'.

But if you start with the question of the text: 'Is the Law sin?', then you arrive at a different point (Paul's point).

The point of Romans 7 is the the Torah is good, holy and righteous. But it does not rescue any from the overwhelming power and wretchedness of sin. Only Jesus will do that.

That means the the Spirit doesn't merely 'help us move along' in a struggle, but he totally and utterly *saves* us from total and utter defeat.

Therefore, we need to live this life of walking, not according to the flesh, but by walking in the Spirit.

That's just what the text says, right?

Help me to see your point of view.