Hello J----, thank you for your email. From Fredericton, eh? My old stomping grounds! Glad to get in touch with you.
It may sound somewhat cliche, like something out of an AA program, but the first thing is indeed coming to the knowledge that you are unable to free yourself from sin's dominion. This is the whole point of the latter part of Romans 7: Paul explains how the human attempt to obey God causes us to discover that we are unable to do what we know is good; that we are slaves; that we are in need of redemption from outside of ourselves. It sounds like from your email that you are probably feeling that way. I know that place. It is a bad place and a good place to be: bad because you feel like garbage, and perhaps "wretched" (literally, exhausted from hard labor), but good because it is the place where something new can begin. As long as you think it is all about your willpower and effort, that you are able to do it if you just tried harder, you will not look away from yourself to Christ. The purpose of the law is to crush and ultimately kill us, so that our life will be from Christ and not from ourselves. These last words can either be religious gobbily-gook (so often said by Christians but without any meaning) or a real experience based upon a real and substantial meaning. There is nothing unreal about Christianity. We must never use words without meaning.
If we were to read Romans chapter 7 quickly, without stopping to explore all the details, and just ask ourselves, from a bird's eye perspective: what is Paul talking about? What's the main subject in view? I think many of us would be surprised at how quickly we could answer that question. Paul is talking about living under law. That is his subject at the beginning of the chapter (7:1-6) and that is the theme he explores throughout the rest of the chapter. In fact, the rest of chapter 7 is simply an explanation of a few shocking statements he had just made concerning the relationship between law and sin. In answering the objection of 6:1 ("if it's all about grace and we don't have to keep the commandments, will we not continue in sin?"), Paul flips the objectors argument on its head. He declares that - contrary to what we may think - it is not the law that prevents us from sinning, but it is actually the law that is the cause of our sinning. Likewise, it is not grace that will cause us to sin, it is actually grace that will enable us not to sin. "For sin shall not have dominion over you, because you are not under law, but under grace." (Rom. 6:14) The radicalness of this cannot be underestimated. He has turned the most common objection to the gospel upside down. Their supposed knock-down argument has now been turned against them. The law will not help you. Rules will not help you. Restraints will not help you. Only grace, the free gift of God's acceptance and forgiveness through Christ, will (not only save you, but) help you overcome the dominion of sin.
In chapter 7 he puts it this way: "Wherefore, my brethren, you have become dead to the law by the body of Christ, that you should be married to another, even to Him who is raised from the dead, so that we should bring forth fruits unto God." (7:4) Dead to the law... so that we may bring forth fruit unto God. "For when we were in the flesh, the passions of sins, which were aroused by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death." (7:5) Here Paul makes the shocking statement that sin comes about because of the law. He spends the remainder of the chapter illustrating this truth. It is not that the law is sin (7:7) but that it reveals the sin that dwells within me. The commandment comes, but its coming awakens the sin within and stirs up rebellion. This sin is inoperative without the commandment (7:9). The commandment does not create sin, but reveals it within me; even more than that, it is the very reason that sin awakens. I know the commandment is good and I want to obey it, but I am not strong enough to simply choose to overcome the sin that is within me. I am a slave to sin. What this means is not that I am absolved from guilt, but that I have discovered my true nature. The law is spiritual, just and good (7:12, 14). Only God is by nature spiritual, just and good. I am not God. I am not good. It is no use talking about whether Romans 7 describes a man before or after conversion. That is missing the entire point. It is the inevitable experience of a man under law: any man, at any time, under the demands of a law that only God Himself can withstand. This is why Christians can relate to it and why religious non-Christians can too. Unless we see this we will miss the point. It is a shocking declaration that Paul is making: it is the law that causes us to sin (whether before or after conversion), revealing the sin that dwells within us.
Paul could not be breaking from his past Judaic way of thinking - nor the religious way of thinking current in all ages - more. Men without understanding see law as the way to resist sin, bear fruit unto God, and attain life. Obedience! That is the way to please God and get the blessings, they say. Obedience, moment by moment; that is the way to deal with the sin in your life (I am using the word "obedience" in the worst sense; the popular, not the correct, way. The popular use of obedience focuses on your will as the linchpin: "Just do it"; "In the moment of temptation it all comes down to your choice"). This way of thinking is manifested in the way people respond to sin in others. When people see sin in others, they typically don't think: "Oh, that sin is a symptom of a deeper problem"; they just think: "Hey, he sinned. He isn't a very good person. He isn't being obedient." Therefore the typical reaction is to withdraw from that sinner and to go find people who are serious about obeying God. But if sin is symptomatic, the right reaction would be to draw near and help that person ("restore such a one in the spirit of meekness"). Paul is showing us that sin is symptomatic. We sin or don't sin based upon something that goes before our choice, something that determines what we will choose. Philosophers of old (ex. Aristotle), and psychologists today are aware of this. Even some theologians (ex. Jonathan Edwards) recognized that our will (choosing) is not independent, but that our will (what we choose) is dependent. But dependent on what? Here is the answer that everybody, including Paul, gives: your mind. More specifically, what you are thinking; the object of your thoughts. In the context of Romans 6-8, it is whether your mind is set on law or on grace.
It is amazing how important the place of the mind is in the New Testament, and yet how little most Christians pay attention to this. "Be not conformed to the pattern of this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." (Rom. 12:2) That's another summary of Paul's teaching on living the Christian life. "Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Rom. 6:11) The word "reckon" is critical. It means "to consider, to deem", having to do with the mind. According to Paul, this is the practical key to the Christian life. "For to be fleshly minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace." (Rom. 8:6) This is the meaning of "walking in the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4). A dear friend of mine who attended Bible college for several years told me about his deep frustration with this phrase "walk in the Spirit". His professors always told him that this is the key to the Christian life - to walk in the Spirit - but they never explained what it meant to do that. He lived a defeated life, and he didn't know what the key meant. If you ask Christians, "what does walking in the Spirit mean", you will commonly be met with an equally ambiguous phrase: "It means to live by the Spirit"; "It means to obey the Spirit"; "It means to be governed by the Spirit"; "It means living your life with reference to the Spirit". What do all these wonderful phrases mean? What is the Spirit? This most often just breaks down to mean: "Choose to do what is right and not what is wrong when the choice arises." The Spirit is like your second conscience, telling you what you should and shouldn't do, and you are walking in the Spirit when you are obeying it. J----, does this at all ring a bell? Yet how can that possibly be Paul's meaning in Romans 7-8, when he has just been describing his inability to choose to do what he knows is right? How then can the answer be: "Just do it?" I think we have missed something terribly.
The meaning of "walking in the Spirit" (or "according to the Spirit" or "after the Spirit"; these are the same thing) in 8:4 is supplied in the next verse: "For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh, and they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit." (8:5) So it is a matter of the mind being set on "the things" of the Spirit. What are you thinking about today? What do you set your mind on when you get up in the morning? Where does your mind drift throughout the afternoon? What are you thinking about at the dinner table, and when you lie down at night (does this sound like Deuteronomy 6:6-12?)? What's on your mind? To Paul, there are two different "things" that can be on your mind: the things of the flesh or the things of the Spirit. "Flesh" and "Spirit"? These two terms require explanation; what do they mean?
Paul's language comes from the Old Testament. The flesh/Spirit theme is an unspeakably important theme throughout the entire Old Testament, pervading almost every page. It has to do with ability and power: man's power vs. God's power, or, to be more specific, the power of anything other than God vs. the power of God, and which one you are trusting in. Think about Cain and Abel; Abraham, Sarah and Hagar; Joshua and Caleb at the border of Canaan; Gideon; David and Goliath; Hezekiah and the armies of Sennacherib; Nebuchadnezzar eating grass... these all highlight the theme of trusting in what man can do vs. what God can do. The specific terms which embody this theme do not have to be used to understand what is going on. In the later history of Israel the terms "flesh" and "Spirit" came to embody this theme (see Ps. 44:3, 5-8, Deut. 8:10-11, 14, 17-18, Ps. 56:1-4, Ex. 15:1-2, 6, Is. 13:1, 3, Jer. 17:5, 7, 2 Chron. 32:7-8, Zech. 4:6 to see this transition. Notice the very significant word "arm". Then see also Is. 51:9-11, 53:1, 1 Cor. 1:18, 23-31, Luke 1:51, Rom. 1:16). The language and concepts of the New Testament are rooted in the Old Testament. When this theme of trusting in man's power vs. God's power is applied to the gospel, it translates into trusting your own works to obtain salvation vs. trusting in Christ alone. When I am trusting in Christ alone, I am, like Abraham or like Abel, trusting in God's ability and not my own. The Spirit is God's power = God's saving work through Jesus on the cross. It is therefore the Spirit that we are trusting in when we trust in Jesus. The flesh is our power = trying to earn God's salvation through our own efforts under the law. When I am trusting in my own obedience to the law I am therefore trusting in the flesh.
However, you don't even need to go outside of Romans to see this. Paul describes "flesh" as living under law in Rom. 7:4-6, and he describes the Spirit as the work of Christ on the cross in Rom. 8:2-4. "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death, for [here comes the explanation of what was just said] what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did, by sending His own Son [to die]... so that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us." (8:2-4) We, by our own works, could not obtain righteousness (that is the weakness of the flesh, our power), but God worked through Christ to obtain it for us (that is the law of the Spirit, God's power). Christ therefore is the power of God unto salvation. This is the Spirit. Obviously when Paul tells us about the flesh and the Spirit in 8:5 he already expects us to understand what he means by those terms based upon how he has been using them. Unless we understand them we cannot live a victorious Christian life, since Paul is basing everything upon them.
Paul's discussion of the Christian life in Romans 6-8, we will notice, has absolutely nothing to do with a changed nature. It has everything to do with a changed mind. Romans 6:6 is not talking about a nature change, but about our dying and rising with Christ through our unification with Him by faith. Jesus Christ actually died and rose, but through faith in Him I am united to Him so that God considers (God's mind!) me to be dead and risen also. This is precisely Paul's point from 6:3-11. Then in 6:11 he gives us the whole key to the Christian life: "Likewise reckon yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God in Jesus Christ our Lord." He has just said that Christ died unto sin and lives unto God. Since you are united to Him, you are to consider yourselves to be dead to sin and alive unto God also. What is true of Jesus is true of you (remember Ephesians 2:6?). Paul is not telling you to make it happen; he is not telling you to die with Christ. He is telling you that this is true of you if you have trusted in Christ, and therefore you should set your mind on it. Reckon it to be so, since it is so. In other words, "think the way God does about yourself." Have the mind of God concerning yourself; that is, set your mind on the truth. I cannot stress enough that, to Paul, this is the key (Rom. 12:2, Gal. 2:19-20). It is by having this mind that we shall walk in victory.
Why does this mind give us victory over sin? The answer is (basically) twofold:
1) because by not thinking about law (that is, what I need to do, what the commandment is requiring of me) sin remains inoperative. If the law stirs up sin, as Paul has clearly shown, then by removing the believer from the law sin is therefore not stirred up. It is not that we have a new nature. If that were the case this whole discussion of law would be pointless. Many Christians talk in a way that is the exact opposite of what Paul is saying: they say "God gives a new nature so that now we don't rebel against the law and can obey it." Well, if that were the case, why do Christians still sin, and why didn't Paul just say that? Why did he rather say, "You have become dead to the law... so that you can bear fruit unto God"? Why would Paul be telling us that we are no longer under law, and that this is the secret to the Christian life? No, what is new for the Christian is that he is no longer under the law thanks to the death and resurrection of Jesus; and it is this that changes everything. We are not only forgiven of our sins. We are freed from the law. God does not forgive us of our sins only to leave us in the same situation that we were in previously, with the exception that He gives us a new nature that obeys the law. This is not to be found in Paul. Rather, through the death of Christ we are not only forgiven but are in a new situation which allows for the possibility to walk in newness of life. What is that new situation? A new nature? No, rather: "Sin shall not have dominion over us (why?), because we are not under law but under grace." (6:14)
2) because by thinking about the grace of God, we are thereby stirred up to love and good deeds. This is precisely Paul's point throughout all of his letters, and not the least being Romans. Why we do good deeds and why we don't do sinful deeds must have everything to do with love, or else it is worthless (1 Cor. 13:1-3, Gal. 5:6). It is never automatic (Rom. 6:12). It is never due to a mystical nature. It is eminently a matter of the mind. Everywhere that Paul talks about the Christian doing good works it is always so realistic, always appealing to common sense and reason, always appealing to the love of God that has been demonstrated toward us through Christ (Eph. 4:32, 5:1-2, Col. 3:13, Titus 3:3-8). Paul does not want us to be robots; he wants us to respond relationally to the love of God. He wants what we do to have its source there (if it's not from there, where is it from? Everything other source is spiritually worthless). Our lives should be lived in love for God because of God's great love for us. Take a look, for example, at Romans 6:19-21, 12:1-2ff, 13:11-14, 14:4, 13-23, 15:1-7, 27 and notice how Paul reasons about good deeds. It's not about a magical Spirit pulling our strings as if we were puppets. Paul appeals, argues, reasons, persuades, points out the beauty of, draws parallels... he is seeking to develop our moral sense. "We ought too..." "This is right"... "This is appropriate"... "How much more should we..." These are the thoughts that flow from a heart filled with love for God due to a vision of the love of God. This is how God wants you to live, J----. He wants you to live from a mind and heart filled with truth. Christians tend to get distracted from the real thing. They get preoccupied with seeking a magical sanctification that bypasses the relational world that God created.
Just as the law stirred up rebellion, grace stirs up thankfulness, wonder and praise. In Romans chapter 8 Paul is essentially just pointing with his finger to the love and grace of God, so that his readers can look and be transformed. He's putting into practice what he is talking about: "Set your mind on the truth of who you are in Christ" Paul says, and then he goes on to say: "There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!" (8:1); "You have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption whereby we cry 'Abba, Father!'" (8:15); "And if children, then heirs; heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ!" (8:17); "For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us!" (8:18); "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, and are called according to His purpose!" (8:28); "What shall we say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?" (8:31); "Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God who justifies!" (8:33); "For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!" (8:38-39). If we Christians aren't moved by these things, don't you think there's a problem? The fact that we let these things fly over our heads, and then seek to be transformed by some mystical experience, shows just how out of touch we are with reality and the Scriptures. These are the things that are to move us! His great saving love is what we are to be compelled by. The problem is that we are not listening to the truth; we are not grasping the transforming truth of the grace of God.
Both of these points (freedom from the law, and the grace of God) are huge things to explore further another time. I want to share with you my own experience, briefly, with these things. I know what it is like to experience Romans 7, and I know what it is like to live in the truths of Romans 8... Romans 7 stinks royally; Romans 8 is life and peace. But sanctification is not a one-time event when things change once and for all from Romans 7 to Romans 8, but rather something that depends upon a daily, and even moment by moment, consideration of truth. Just like in the Old Testament, the New Testament is also all about remembering. This may sound familiar, but here's the thing: many Christians are not even aware that the mind, and not the will, is the issue; and even for those who have figured out that it is about the mind, many aren't sure what they are suppose to set their minds on. You have already won half the battle of the Christian life once you have discovered that sanctification has to do with the mind and not the will, and that the object of our thoughts should be grace and not law. Once you know these things, it's only a matter of practice.
Think of it like a man who has been in prison for 35 years and is finally set free. He walks out of that prison a free man, but his mind is still gripped by the way prison works. He needs to learn to live like a free man. He isn't used to it, so he keeps thinking he has to ask permission for everything that he does, and wonders if he is allowed to go to certain places and eat certain things. It may take some time for him to become comfortable living free. Many ex-prisoners feel so much more comfortable in prison that they end up going back.
So it is with people when they become Christians. Before we were Christians we were under law. It was all about what we had to do to be right with God, and it wasn't about living as a response to love, but was about living out of fear or compulsion. When we become Christians we are still so used to hearing the voice of law. We aren't used to thinking of God as gracious, nor of ourselves as free from condemnation. We need to learn how to live as free men and women under grace. We need to learn to live lives that respond to God's love. It isn't natural, it isn't what we are familiar with.
This is the Christian life. A person is not living a sanctified life just because he does not get drunk or fornicate. It's not just about your actions. Rules can affect people's actions. It is about love. A sanctified person is one who is responding to God's love revealed in the gospel, and is living, not by rules but by love. A sanctified person is one who has joy and peace in believing the gospel. The amazing thing is that this joy and peace is not dependent upon your behavior, but comes the moment you realize the truth of who you are in Christ.
I am by no means saying that I don't sin. I sin everyday lots of times. But I know why I sin. I sin because I forget about the truth that I am delivered from the law of sin and death, and I forget that I am so greatly loved by God and that I have been given the most glorious hope and future. When I remember these things, when I set my mind on the truth, sin loses its control over me. The truth doesn't stir me to rebel, it stirs me to love in action. I don't have to sin, and the reason is not because I am strong and can choose not to, but because the cross of Christ has freed me from the law and the love of God displayed there compels me; it fills me with joy, peace and strength that I do not possess of myself. My new ability to not sin is not because of my own power, but because of the power of God. As Christians, when we are living under grace, and bearing the fruits of the Spirit, we can with total confidence say, "It is the power of God at work in me, and not myself."
In this way we are no longer slaves to sin, and don't have to let sin reign within us (Rom. 6:12). Isn't that just amazing? It amazes me. The newness of life that we can now walk in is one of joy and peace. We don't need to beat ourselves up over our sins; Christ was punished for them so that we don't have to be. Whenever I sin, I simply thank God that He has forgiven me and holds nothing against me. Where sin abounds grace much more abounds, and therefore my sinning is often turned into a time of praise. I find myself sinning less and less when I am thinking this way. We don't sin less when we are focusing on what we are not permitted to do, but when we are focusing on the great love of God. He has received us! He has thrown our sins behind His back! He has covered us with the robe of righteousness! We are blameless in His sight! Our old man is crucified with Christ and is gone! We are a new creations in Christ! These are the things we should be encouraging each other about. It is a wonder how little we as Christians think and talk like this... is it a wonder that we live such miserable sub-New Testament lives? We are not enjoying the life that we truly possess. We are not realizing the truth about who we are.
Life is good in Jesus Christ, J----. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. You will find rest for your soul. If you find yourself struggling with sin, let me encourage you with the gospel. If you have put your trust in Christ, God does not hold any sin against you. You are free from the law. Your relationship with God is not based on whether you sin or not. You are complete in Christ. God is always rejoicing over you with singing, and sees no spot or blemish on you. You don't have to stop sinning. You will not be condemned or rejected or unloved. You don't need to listen to the voice of the law which tells you that you need to stop sinning to be on God's good side. Listen to the voice that is speaking from the cross: "I love you. I died for you when you were a sinner. Your righteousness is of me." You will find that as you learn to listen to the truth of grace, and learn to resist the devil's voice of condemnation, that you will start to not feel like a slave who cannot stop sinning. If you are going to stop sinning, let it be because you want to. Lacking the desire to stop? Think about God and what He has done for you. Don't beat yourself up when you fail. You will fail many times since it is not overnight that you will have learned to walk in grace. Learn to rejoice in the Lord daily. Learn to thank Him. Learn to set your mind on your hope and your future. Learn to revel in His amazing love. You will discover the truth of Romans 6:14.
Let me end this email with a prayer from the apostle Paul. "May you know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge, that you might be filled with all the fullness of God." (Eph. 3:19)
Your brother in Christ,