Skeptics say the Bible is full of contradictions. A contradiction is “direct opposition between things compared” (Dictionary.com). Do we have one here?
“Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7:13-25).
In 7:13 Paul sums up his 7:7-12 argument. “No, the good law didn’t bring me death,” he insists. “The ‘bad guy’ is sin. I delight in God’s law; but sin captures me and makes me miserable . . . “
Compare 7:13-25 with 6:1-14, and the contradiction slaps you in the face. Here are selected portions . . .
“How can we who died to sin go on living in it? . . . Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life . . . For whoever has died is freed from sin . . . you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus . . . No longer present yourselves to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (6:1-14).
We died to sin. Have been buried so, like Christ, we might walk in newness of life . . .We’re freed from sin . . . We must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God . . . Sin will have no dominion over us since we are under grace!
Again, see what Paul confesses in 7:14-25–he does what he hates . . . sin is working death in him . . . his wrongdoing is because of sin in him . . . he’s captive to the law of sin that indwells him . . . he’s wretched . . . with his flesh he’s a slave to the law of sin! This he finds is his condition, the state of things with himself.
How are we to understand this opposition?
A few (I found only two) think Paul is creating an imaginary “I”. When he writes, “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin”, he uses “I” to represent all humanity descended from Adam.
Possibly, but not probably. Why revert to fictive language (“having the characteristics of fiction”)? Why should we not consider his earlier confession “fictive” too—” . . . if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (7:7)?
That entire text (7:7-25) certainly sounds as if Paul is writing personally of himself.
Many argue that Paul must be referring to himself before faith in Christ. If “sin will have no dominion over you” (6:14) as one justified by faith in Christ, then “I am . . . sold into slavery under sin” (7:14) must be before Christ.
Just as many, however, argue that Paul is referring to himself as a Christian. I agree. As incongruous as it sounds, I believe this is Paul the believer. Here are a few (for me) defining reasons. Then, why this isn’t theological trivia, but practical Christian living.
“I”. When someone writes “I” with present tense verbs, we most naturally understand him to be referring to himself now. Only the startling, apparent contradictory words move us to redefine the obvious “I”.
“Inner Man”. Paul says he delights in God’s law in his inner man. An unregenerate Jew may delight in God’s law (Psalm 1:2), but inner man is definitive Pauline language for the regenerate in whom the Holy Spirit works.
Sanctification Section. Justification of sinners by faith in Christ was Paul’s theme in Romans 1-5. Starting with chapter 6 his theme is sanctification of believers. Thus, slavery to sin is all past tense (see 6:17,20,22; 7:8-11).
Paul Before Christ. How differently from 7:14-25 in two other letters Paul describes himself in relation to the law!
“For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Galatians 1:13,14).
“If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6).
No wretched man under law, captive to sin. He was “advancing in Judaism”. As to God’s law, he was a proud Pharisee. ” . . . as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless”!
So as contradictory as 7:14-25 appears to 6:1-14, I understand Paul to be writing of his experience as a believer, one who “serves in the new way of the Spirit” (7:6).
Why It Matters.
Perfectionism. Even in the 21st century church where sin is generally no “big deal”, we casually tolerate sin, pockets of perfectionism remain. R.C. Sproul writes . . .
Perfectionism teaches that there is a class of Christians who achieve moral perfection in this life. To be sure, credit is given to the Holy Spirit as the agent who brings total victory over sin to the Christian. But there is a kind of elitism in perfectionism, a feeling that those who have achieved perfection are somehow greater than other Christians. The “perfect” ones do not officially—take credit for their state, but smugness and pride have a way of creeping in” ( http://www.ligonier.org/blog/heresy-perfectionism/).
If you belong to a church of perfectionists, you’re either weighted down with hopelessness (because you don’t measure up) or you’re deceiving yourself (that you’re practically sinless when you’re not). Paul rings the death knell to perfectionism.
The Normal Christian Life. It includes, as John Owen (17th century theologian) wrote, “indwelling sin”. That make “the normal Christian life” a war. John Piper wrote, ” . . . we should make war in our own life and know how to understand ourselves and how to respond when we suffer tactical defeats in the war”.
Paul, thank you for your humble honesty. Your confession encourages me. It helps me realize that the Christian life I live isn’t sub-normal. There are absolutely times when I do what I hate, when I feel like a slave to sin. But thank you for teaching me that, while I lose some battles and win others, the outcome is certain. “For sin will have no dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (6:14).