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“No part of Romans has been the object of so much scrutiny or the source of so much misunderstanding as Paul’s discussion of the law in 7:1-25.” Questions abound here, and they’ve been answered through the years in many different ways. Paul (His use of I)–conflict (is he talking about himself pre-conversion/post-conversion if he’s talking about himself at all) -law (sinful? Bad? Good? What does it have to do with us?) Passions. Life in the flesh versus life in the Spirit. What are we to make of all this?
So let us brace ourselves! Let us pray to God for help this morning too as we meditate on God’s word here in Romans 7. As we start here I want to lay down a bit of a foundation for what God has laid on my heart to say. We’ve been looking at how Paul is describing life in Christ; how in Christ we are moved from the realm of sin and death to the realm of Christ. We are freed from slavery or servitude to sin and death that we might become slaves of Christ (and in so doing find freedom). Throughout the letter, Paul has made allusions to “the law” which we have largely been ignoring, apart from saying some weeks ago that before the law came, there was grace and faith (in the story of Abraham). Before the law came, deliverance came for the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (aka “Israel”). We’re talking the big story of salvation/deliverance here. After the people were delivered from slavery in Egypt and passed through the waters of the Red Sea (and you see what’s going on here in terms of the later deliverance that would come through Jesus and us passing through the waters) After this, Moses came down from a mountain with 10 laws (10 commandments, decalogue) which are part of 613 laws known in Hebrew as the mitzvot. The entire law was summed up by Jesus when he was asked which is the greatest commandment of the law. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” The second is like it – “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
Paul has brushed up against the subject of these laws already. In 3:20 the law gives us knowledge of sin. In 5: 20 sin causes trespass to be multiplied, meaning that through the law. our tendency to mess things up or disorder relationships was seen in light of the way in which we transgress (literally step across) God’s laws. Finally, in describing how the follower of Christ moves from the realm of the flesh (simply described as an orientation to the world without reference to God as gracious loving creator) to the realm of the Spirit (life lived in grateful trust in God’s gift of grace in Christ), Paul writes of how the follower of Christ is discharged from the law, and dead to that which held us captive (sin).
The fact that Paul is talking about the law and sin in the same breath leads to the next question, which Paul spends the rest of the chapter answering – “Does this mean that the law is sin?” Is the law in some way bad or evil? Is the law the problem? The law which is summed up “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.” By. No. Means. No matter where we may stand on the questions around this chapter – is Paul writing about himself, is this a description of the Christian struggling with sin? – one of the fundamental truths which Paul illustrates is that in Christ, humanity is delivered from the grip of something from which we were unable to extricate ourselves. Paul is showing that the whole Kingdom of God project is not simply a way for us to achieve a better moral standing; be better people; follow these rules that God lays out in the 10 commandments and we’re good. The Kingdom of God is not simply a moral project. The kingdom project for the follower of Christ means a whole new heart. It means the fulfillment of the promise that God would write his instructions on our hearts. This is where we’re going to end up this morning.
To start though let me say I’m working from the point of view that in using “I,” Paul is talking about the human condition, and inserting himself in the human condition. I’m working from the point of view that when Paul speaks of inner conflict Paul is speaking as a follower of Christ who is looking back from the standpoint of grace to life before we encountered Jesus Christ. “Sold into slavery under sin” which we read in the passage hardly describes the life of the follower of Christ who has been set free from slavery to sin (see 6:18). At the same time, I recognize that echoes of this inner conflict – not doing the good that we want and doing the evil we do not want -reverberate in our lives as followers of Christ.
The law is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good. The law is a gift from God, showing how to live in harmony with God and with one another. At the same time, law cannot be something on which a relationship is founded. Paul uses the example of marriage to describe how the follower of Christ has been discharged from the law. We can use the same example to who how law/regulations/obligations cannot serve as the foundation of a relationship. Spouses have legal obligations toward one another, but merely following legal obligations does not equal love. We can look at the relationship between parents and children in the same way. Parents have a legal obligation toward children, but this cannot provide a loving basis for a relationship. The foundation of God’s relationship with humanity is love. The foundation of our relationship with God is love – which we hear in the summary of the law which Paul echoes when he writes that love is the fulfillment of the law. (13:8)
The law is holy and just and good. Sin takes what is intended to be a good thing and uses it as an ally to bring about disordered relationships, separation from God, death. The law itself provides no power to obey it. The law made sin known in a very sharp way. It is not that there was no sin before the law was given, but that once the law was given, our tendency to mess things up became known as an affront against God. We can think of this in terms of a young child who starts to tease the family cat -pokes the poor cat while it’s trying to sleep (which the cat is trying to do a majority of the time). The cat doesn’t seem to like it. It complains, hisses even. It seems wrong, but the child can’t stop it. The child’s mother tells him “Stop teasing the cat!” What was simply seen vaguely as something wrong becomes a transgression (crossing over) a command that has been given by the one who gave the child life. We found ourselves unable to help ourselves. “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” This is where the idea of disordered desire comes in, whether it’s the neigbhour’s wife, or their field, or their servants, or their oxen and donkeys. It’s one of those sins that goes to the deepest parts of our hearts. It can be hidden, unlike things like theft or murder which are quite apparent. It’s our tendency to live with grasping hands rather than open hands. The pursuit of acquisition. Sin established a beachhead in the law. Sin became an occupying power. “But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all sorts of covetousness.” Knowing that something is wrong can become the only reason we need to do it. Augustine in his Confession wrote of how, when he was a young boy, he and his friends would steal pears from a neighbour’s orchard simply for the sake of stealing them. Mark Twain said that a mule, like a person, will do the opposite of what they’re told “Just for the sake of meanness.” “Sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”
Here’s the conflict. The law is holy and the commandment is holy and just and good. It is righteous – meaning it is all about rightness and living in harmony with our creator God, with one another, and with all that God has created. At the same time it cannot bring about righteousness. It’s been taken over by an occupying force which is using it to its own ends. Someone has compared it to a person ordering the installation of an alarm system in their house. There has been a rash of break-and-enters in the neighbourhood. On the day that workers come to install it, the homeowner is in quarantine situation – can’t leave their bedroom. They ask a neighbour to oversee things. The neighbour gets to see the inner workings of the alarm system, how to prime it, disable it, bypass it. The neighbour starts to get ideas about some break and enters of his own. What was intended for good has been taken over by a force outside of itself, and becomes a vehicle for evil (theft in this case, again reflecting that whole covetousness idea)?
What does all this talk about ancient law and sin have to do with the world? I think there’s a question here that is raised by Paul’s words. What’s going to save the world? Assuming we think the world is in need of saving (and if we don’t I say take a good look around).
Or do we think the world is beyond saving? All of this talk is meaningless so let us eat, drink, and be merry. Have a good time. Which is fine I suppose, if you have the means. Or maybe we’ll be saved by achieving immortality through consciousness uploads – which again is fine I suppose if you have the means. As long as the servers don’t shut down.
Where do we stand on this question of “Who will save us?” as followers of Christ, and what are the implications of our stance? The truth here that Paul is putting forward is one of humanity enslaved by sin. This truth puts in check the proud notion that we have it within ourselves to save ourselves. A new head of state will not save us. Not that there’s anything inherently bad about any of these things – it is more the fact that they fall prey to the same sin which used the law for its own purposes. Will education save us? Will an economic system save us? Will an infusion of money save us? Will nanobots and artificial intelligence save us? Will an institution save us?
Who or what does the world need? Who do I need? Human will alone is not going to do it. “I do not understand my own actions,” writes Paul, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing hate.” This does not mean, for Paul, that anybody is naturally bad or evil. Never let that kind of thinking intrude. How many children are told that there is something wrong with them or that they’re bad kids? There’s nothing wrong with you. “But in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Knowledge is good and the more knowledge the better, generally speaking. Knowledge won’t save. Knowledge of what is right and what is wrong will not save us. “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,” Paul writes, “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.” Here’s how The Message puts it - “It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.”
Something other than the law would be required. We know where this is going! “Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death!” And then this – “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Let us sit with that for a little while. Jesus died for my sins. Jesus died for your sins. Yes. We may respond to this news with something like “How nice” – particularly if we see our sins as peccadillos, usually expressed (silently or not) as we’re driving and frustrated by others. We heard last week about the shattering power of grace. We sang last week – “Death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered.” This is the new situation that Jesus, in his death and resurrection has brought about. The shattering of this power from which we were unable to extricate ourselves. This power that went beyond our wills and our knowledge. This power so insidious that it infects and effects any system, any institution (even the church). Who will save us? Who is it that we need? There’s another song that goes “Give me Jesus/You can have all this world/Give me Jesus.” In the morning when I rise. When I am alone. When I come to die. Give me Jesus. Someone has said, “Without Christ, the law could only inform, but the Spirit would transform.”
A new life. Walking in the Spirit. Walking in newness of life. Life in the Spirit. This is where we’ll go next week. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!