I haven’t written a blog post on Romans for a few weeks, but I have still been reading Romans a few verses each day. I’ve thought about posts for Romans 6 and 7 but they haven’t seemed quite right.
One of the problems with Romans is that the whole context of any particular section is really important – and the whole context of any particular section is the whole letter. This means that it is easy to go in a wrong direction if you don’t keep the bigger picture in view – just as it is to go in a wrong direction out walking following a compass bearing if you don’t keep on double checking your path.
My thoughts in this post are based around the bigger picture of Romans 6-8. They start from wondering why Paul didn’t just stop after chapter 6, which seems in many ways a clear summary of the Christian life and living out our new life in Jesus.
He describes how we are no longer slaves to sin, but live under a new master. We are no longer subject to death, because we died with Christ, and we have been raised with Christ. As once we were united to Adam in death, we are united to Christ in life. We are utterly secure, and what we do is based on who we are in Christ. Paul goes on to call us to submit all of our lives to our new master, living out the reality of who we are because we are united to Christ.
We could spend a long time unpacking the wonder of Romans 6, the glory of being united to Christ, and the implications for life now of that union. And yet Paul moves from Romans 6 into Romans 7 and a discussion of law. It seems like a step backwards.
There has been much ink spilled over Paul’s discussion of law in chapter 7, and the relationship of that chapter to chapter 8. For me though, I wonder if chapters 6, 7 and 8 describe a particular type of pattern that we often find in the Christian life.
The pattern is this:
Orientation: life is fundamentally OK, and I get how most things work. There may be problems, but most things are clear. My prayers are ordered, thankful, and maybe sometimes even a little smug.
Dis-orientation: something happens, maybe someone dies, or maybe I lose my job, or perhaps I realise that the answers I’ve been told to difficult questions about my faith don’t actual work anymore, or maybe I fall into a pattern of behaviour that I thought was only something ‘other people’ did, or maybe I’m shut up in my own home for weeks on end, and am realising new things about myself that I don’t like. During this time my prayers are anguished, raw and emotional. (In the Psalms, there are a lot of prayers like this – often called lament)
Re-orientation: through the process of questioning and struggle that these times bring it is possible to come back to a place that looks somewhat like the original orientation only from a new angle, with a new perspective on life. Prayers are grateful, even relieved. There is a sense of new possibilities, and a sense of a God who is bigger than I ever realised before, and who is willing to work in ways I never imagined.
Footnote: This pattern is used by Walter Brueggemann in his discussion of the Psalms to describe different types of Psalms, and he in turn got the concepts from a French philosopher Paul Ricoeur who used them to talk about how readers relate to narratives (stories), in a slightly different but similar type of way.
In Romans 6-8 I think this pattern rings true – Romans 7 comes after Romans 6 because the reality of trying to live Romans 6 is that sooner or later we come face to face with the reality of failure. That isn’t because, Paul would be quick to say, there is anything wrong with Romans 6 which describes who we are now in Christ, and how we should live as a result.
The reality of failure comes because sin is still not removed from my flesh, and there is still a law which tells me I don’t measure up. This law, Paul says, is holy, righteous and good – yet all it seems to do is make me want to sin more. Paul speaks of this in vivid autobiographical terms – especially in Romans 7:14-25, yet in terms which have caused commentators lots of confusion.
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[a] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 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. 20 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.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 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. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 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[b] a slave to the law of sin.Romans 7:14-25
At one and the same time he talks of being ‘sold as a slave to sin’ – which seems to indicate he hasn’t yet become a Christian, at least if we take Romans 6 at face value – and yet simultaneously can talk about finding delight in God’s law.
I remember vividly one speaker saying it was ‘obvious’ that Paul was talking about his present experience – which made me very suspicious of the speaker as I’d already managed to read several different perspectives on the chapter already, and I knew that various respected people, even within the evangelical world held and hold different positions.
I think that the difficult in arriving at one settled position on this is because the language of the chapter keeps on driving us in different directions – at least, I find this is how it works for me. As soon as I read one position and think I have it sorted I find I read it again, and become once more unconvinced.
This happened to me fairly recently. In a sermon on Romans 7 the speaker suggested (following one of the main recent evangelical commentators on Romans) that Paul is actually recapitulating Israel’s story and experience of the law. It sounded convincing at the time, I even told him so a few days later. Yet reading Romans again recently it doesn’t feel completely satisfying.
There is something so agonisingly personal about this, that it is hard to remove it from Paul’s present lived experience. It may well be true that Romans 7 contains aspects of Israel’s history – but I don’t think that is all it is. And yet I also can’t settle on this just being about the ongoing struggle with sin in a believer – after all Paul speaks of being ‘sold as a slave to sin’ – and yet has spoken of us as being free from slavery in chapter 6.
It is at this point that I think the language of disorientation helps. There are times for everyone who trusts in Jesus where we know that Romans 6 is true, and yet we feel like we are in Romans 7:14-25 all over again.
Romans 7:14-25 are words that I think describe part of the normal Christian life – yet not all of the normal Christian life. In a sense, they could be described as Paul’s lament over sin. Here is how I think it works – at least in one sense.
These verses describe the reality of the darkness in our hearts so clearly. We are children of God – and yet we can still choose to sin. At times the pull of sin is so strong. We can be enjoying life with God, feeling fulfilled one moment, and yet suddenly the next find that we are experiencing afresh the pull of temptation in one direction or other – and we may well give in.
When that happens, and we come to our senses it is easy to feel that we have failed utterly and gone completely backwards. For me there are periods of time in my life associated with particular temptations and sin, periods of time associated with difficulty in all sorts of areas of life – and when I experience a similar pull today it is easy to think I will end up in the same sort of place.
Yet I think the reason for Romans 7 is it tells us these sort of feelings are part of the normal Christian life. It is normal for us to sometimes be in places of utter confusion. It isn’t the whole story, but it is a part of our stories.
We are fragile, broken creatures, and all sorts of different sorts of temptations will, at different times be horribly appealing. Sometimes it will be our own deliberate fault – but sometimes it will be through ignorance or weakness, and sometimes it will even be through the painful damage that someone else has inflicted on us.
Faced with this weakness I have a choice, and we have a choice. We can choose to hide, to pretend, and keep up a facade. Or we can admit our weakness and our inability, even our depravity and be driven back to dependence on God.
It is as we face this weakness that we are led into Romans 8. Not into a new and victorious higher level where we never struggle with sin again – but rather as we face our weakness we hear once again the resounding victory of the gospel – that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
We are reminded once more of the Spirit at work in us – the Spirit who intercedes for us in our weakness, in our suffering and in our groans. He reassures us that we are indeed children of God, no longer slaves to fear. This is our new identity if we are trusting in Jesus. This is the re-orientation we can come to through the struggle of Romans 7.
And yet we are still, in Romans 8, in a world where we have to put to death our sin, where we are not to gratify the desires of the sinful nature. We are still in a world where we are at war with sin. In such a world we will still go wrong. We will still fail.
Even from the place of re-orientation we can still fall into state of disorientation. Our life is one of ups and downs, ‘the law of undulation’ as CS Lewis refers to it in the Screwtape letters. When we do, I think part of the reason we have a chapter like Romans 7 is that it encourages us that failure is not final.
Being in a place where it feels dark and where we do not know what is going on, and why we are so attracted to certain sins does not mean we have reverted to previous places of confusion. Yes, we will find ourselves in a situation where once more we realise we are not as good as we thought we were. We will sin. We will hurt others. We will be ashamed. We will want to hide. We will wonder how all this fits with the reality of what God has done in the gospel. We will wonder if we can really belong to Jesus after all.
Yet in the midst of the sin and the shame we can with Paul be driven back to Romans 8 and hear afresh that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
And that good news will be all the more wonderful because we will know even more deeply the evil we have been delivered from, and even more fully the goodness of the God who has rescued us, and put his Spirit in us so that we might know more fully how deeply loved we are as God’s children, and how utterly true the words that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus are.
And as we do that listen afresh to the wonder of the end of Romans 8
31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”[a]
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[b] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:31-39