Saviour of the World|
by E.H. “Jack” Sequeira
No passage in all of Scripture deals with the problem of the principle, or the power, of sin that resides in our sinful nature as does Romans 7, especially the last twelve verses. Ellen White says that, when Adam sinned:
Steps to Christ, Page 17
“But through disobedience, his powers were perverted, and selfishness took the place of love. His nature became so weakened through transgression that it was impossible for him, in his own strength, to resist the power of evil.”
With such a nature, you and I were born. And this nature we still retain as long as we live — even after conversion. Not until the second coming of Jesus will we be delivered from this body dominated by the law of sin and death:
1 Corinthians 15:50-57
I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [KEY PTS.]
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. [KEY PTS.]
Consequently, the greatest enemy to holy living in the Christian life is our own sinful nature that we carry with us all through our earthly life. Does the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ have a solution to this problem? Or must we put up with it until this corruption puts on incorruption? This is the desperate dilemma of every true Christian who is sincerely trying to live a life that is well pleasing to God — but failing miserably. And the apostle Paul gives us a ringing answer: Yes! God has a solution to this problem! He says:
Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Paul cried out as he reviewed his struggles with sin:
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?
Is this desperate cry referring to his preconverted or postconverted state? This has been one of the big questions throughout the history of the Christian church, even to this day. Many, including the famous church father Origen, John Wesley, James Moffatt, and C.H. Dodd, have insisted that Paul is referring here to his preconverted past. Surely, they say, the graphic inner turmoil described in Romans 7:15-24 could not be the experience of the regenerate and mature saint Paul.
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but hat I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. [KEY PTS.]
On the other side of the argument, however, are such prominent Christians as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Anders Nygren, and John Stott, who insist that Paul is here describing his experience as a fully converted man.
Who are we to believe? In this chapter we are going to take an honest look at Romans 7:15-25, because I believe these verses have a very important lesson for all of us who are sincerely trying to live the Christian life. To look at this passage honestly, we must put aside all our preconceived ideas and presuppositions and look at what Paul is saying in the light of those whom he is addressing as well as in the light of the context of the whole chapter.
Paul begins by saying, “I speak to those who know the law”:
Do you not know, brothers and sisters —for I am speaking to those who know the law — that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives?
He is obviously addressing this chapter to the Jewish believers in Rome, many of whom still believed and taught that the law was binding on Christians as a requirement for salvation:
Acts 15:1, 5
Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” ...Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
The apostle argues against this view, explaining in verses 2-6 that God had delivered them from being under the law through their corporate death in the body of Christ. God did this in order that they might serve Him “in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (verse 6).
Following this, Paul goes on in verses 7-13 to vindicate the law as being responsible for neither sin nor death. The law, he says, is “holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (verse 12). But sin has deceived us into thinking we are able to save ourselves by our own good works. Therefore, one of the reasons God gave the law was to open our eyes to the fact that, not only are we sinners, but we are also slaves to sin — to the power of sin in our lives. The law does this by pointing out that sin is more than just sinful acts; the sinful desires we cherish, even though we may not committed the act, are also sin. As Paul realized in his own experience that the law condemned him even for the sinful desires he coveted — whether or not he acted on them — he came to understand his own sinfulness and the impossibility of saving himself by the works of the law (see verses 7-9).
This is the context in which he concludes in verse 14, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” Who is Paul referring to by that personal pronoun “I”? This is the big question. In verses 14-25, Paul repeats this pronoun, “I,” some twenty-five times. Is he referring to himself or to someone else? And if he is referring to himself, is he talking about his situation before his conversion or after his conversion?
Today, modern Biblical research leans toward the idea that Paul is using the pronoun “I” in this passage in a generic sense. In other words, Paul is not necessarily referring to his own experience in these verses, pre- or post-conversion; rather, he is describing the experience of all believers — even after their conversion — who have not yet discovered the exceeding sinfulness of the flesh.
When we take into consideration that this chapter is addressed to Jewish Christians in Rome, and when we honestly look at what the chapter is saying, it becomes clear that Paul is describing here the experience of truly converted, born-again Christians. He is describing believers who honestly and sincerely want to live a life that is pleasing to God, but who are meeting with nothing but failure because of the exceeding sinfulness of the flesh.
Consider the following facts that lead us to such a conclusion:
For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh — though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
2 Corinthians 4:16
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being....
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.
Both Paul’s cry for deliverance, as well as his answer, “I thank God — through Jesus Christ our Lord” (verse 25), are clearly the words of one who has been converted and has come to understand the full power of the gospel.
These facts, I believe, demonstrate that Romans 7:15-25 refers to the desperate struggle against sin that we all face as converted, born-again Christians. But that raises another question: Why is the Christian life so full of frustration? If we are truly converted, why do we have such an inner battle with sin?
The reason we all experience this struggle as Christians is because no change takes place in our sinful human natures at conversion.
Before we are converted, we serve sin both with our sinful natures as well as with our minds:
All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. [KEY PTS.]
But when we experience the new birth, a radical change takes place within our minds; that is what repentance is all about. The word repent comes from two Greek words — meta, meaning “to turn around,” and noia, meaning “the mind.” But although there is a radical change in our minds and our attitude toward sin, this experience does not change the flesh, our human nature, one bit. It still remains sinful — and will remain sinful until the day we die or until Christ returns.
According to Christ, the flesh is unchangeable this side of eternity:
Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
But within this sinful human nature, true Christians have the mind of Christ:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus....
What is the result? The spiritual mind — what Paul refers to as “my inner being” or “the inner man” — and the unconverted and unchangeable flesh are at constant war with each other. The sinful flesh is dominated by the principle of sin, a constant force pulling us towards its selfish desires, similar to the law of gravity that pulls everything towards the center of the earth. For this reason, we are unable, in and of ourselves, to defeat the flesh. This is the experience Paul is describing in Romans 7:15-24.
The will is the driving force of the mind, but it is no match against the “law of sin” (verse 23) residing in our sinful human natures. Why? Because the will is a force, but it is not a law or a principle. By that, I mean it is not a constant force and, therefore, its strength fluctuates. Sometimes our wills are strong, and we can defy the law of sin. But at other times, especially when we are tired or depressed, our wills become weak, and sin takes over, and we cry, “O wretched man [or woman] that I am!” (verse 24).
This is the point Paul is trying to get across in Romans 7:15-25. He says that the law of God is spiritual, but fallen humanity, even after conversion, is unspiritual and totally dominated by sin as the slave is to his master (see verse 14). Then he goes on to prove what he has said by graphically describing the struggle of any Christian who is sincerely trying to live the Christian life in his or her own strength (see verses 15-25).
I call this passage “the great Christian discovery.” Why? Because, when we first come to Christ, our one and only concern is to obtain forgiveness for sins so that we may escape punishment and make it to heaven. We have no idea how exceedingly sinful our flesh is. So the first thing we do, as we become Christians, is to make all kinds of promises and resolutions. Only after repeated failures do we discover what Paul is describing in Romans 7:15-25.
This is how he sums it all up, “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (verse 25). Unfortunately, the phrase “I myself” is a very weak translation of the Greek words ego autos. The word ego itself could be translated by the expression “I myself.” However, by adding the word autos, the apostle is saying, “Left on my own, without the power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, I am totally unable to conquer the sinful flesh.”
You will notice that, while the personal pronoun “I” appears some twenty-five times in Romans 7:14-25, no mention is made of the Holy Spirit. This is because Paul is describing here the experience of a sincere, born-again Christian who has not yet lost all “confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3), and who is therefore trying to live the Christian life in his or her own strength. The result is defeat and frustration.
For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh....
But don’t despair! This discovery, as negative as it may seem, is actually the gateway to victorious Christian living in Christ. Remember that Paul concludes his desperate longing for deliverance with a shout of triumph, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verse 25). He then turns, in the first half of Romans chapter 8, to explain the victorious life in the Spirit. This will be our study in the next chapter.
However, before we do, I would like to draw your attention to one more important truth that all Adventists must take note of. The word “wretched” mentioned in Romans 7:24 appears only twice in all of the Greek New Testament. The first time it is used is in Romans 7:24, where Paul admits “O wretched man that I am!” [or “What a wretched man I am!”]. The second time it appears is in Revelation 3:17 where Christ, the true witness, points out to the Laodicean church that she is unconscious of the fact she is “wretched”:
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
Could the reason for this be that, generally speaking, Adventists have applied Romans 7:15-25 to the experience of Paul before his conversion? By doing this we have missed the whole point and purpose of Romans 7. Only when we recognize with Paul how wretched we are will we be able to join with him and say, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.