Thursday, August 1, 2013

Romans 7: The Experience of a Christ Follower?

The Big Question:

Is Paul discussing his experience as a disciple
of Christ in Romans 7?

On the heels of using divorce as an illustration of the believer’s freedom from sin, the apostle seeks to show the implications of being under the dominion of sin. In effect, he shows the impossibility of one, who is under sin, to be simultaneously under grace and, by a clear implication, vice-versa. Here he effectively elaborates on statements made in 6:16, 21.

There are no gray areas in Paul’s discussion here; it is either this or that, and if it is this, then it is certainly not that; and if it is that, then it is certainly not this. The apostle does not appeal to either looseness or moderation – there is no “mean way” – but it is to the extreme that he makes his argument. However, that does not mean the point he wishes to make is not factual but rather reinforces it.

Paul first wants it understood that the problem is not the Law but our sinful, unregenerate condition (vss.7,13). In addition, since the problem resides in sin, freedom from sin can only be found through Christ (vss. 24-25a).

With divorce as an illustration (7:1-6), in Rom 7:7-25 Paul elaborates on a point he left off on in 6:25, that sin certainly and inevitably results in death, and recalls his assertion in 6:16, that whomever we obey, that is the one to whom we are enslaved, “either sin resulting in death or obedience resulting in righteousness,” each at the exclusion of the other. Rom 7 obviously speaks of one whose end is death (v.13).

As the consummate pastor, the apostle presents not only the objective implications of his teaching, but the subjective as well (7:7; cf. 6:1; Paul’s theology is always practical, not abstract or esoteric). In ch.7, the apostle Paul is depicting is what clearly one’s experience ought not to be if he has been “baptized into Christ” and “baptized into his death” (6:4).

The thrust of his argument in Rom 7 is this: if one is sinning, such a one is not “under grace,” that is, he is not saved (Rom 6:14).

If it is insisted that Rom 7 explains Paul’s experience as a believer, one would be hard-pressed to explain how this experience is consistent with what the Bible affirms is the true state of one who is “born again”.  For example:, in Rom 7, Paul claims that:
  1. “…sin…produced in me all kinds of wrong desires.”
  2. “…sin became alive and I died…”
  3. “…sin…deceived me and through it I died.”
  4. “…sin…produced death in me…”
  5. “…I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin.”
  6. “…sin lives in me…”
  7. “...nothing good live in me.”
  8. “…I want to do good, but I cannot…”
  9. “…I do the very evil I do not want!”
  10. "…sin…lives in me.”
  11. “…evil is present with me.”
  12. “…captive to the law of sin…” Note that in this verse, if it is understood as the apostle’s experience as a believer, Paul admits he is in a struggle with sin but also admits he losses that struggle because sin consistently and always (the only way to understand it in view of the whole context) overcomes him.
  13. “…I serve the law of sin.”
Gromacki claims that Paul here admitted he was "sold under sin,"and that "sin owned and controlled him; he was its slave." MacArthur agrees saying, "Romans 7 is the classic text describing the believer's struggle with his sinful flesh" and, further, that "Paul acknowledges his own disobedience."  In addition, Lightner affirms that the apostle "often did what he didn't want to do," which is another way of saying that Paul was in the habit of committing sinful acts.

Note that all the verses cited above describe the apostle as not only being in a struggle with sin but it is emphasized as a struggle he loses all the time!  Are we to understand that this is the expected and normal experience of believers, to be “unspiritual and sold into slavery to sin”? Is this what it  means to be under grace?  Is Rom 7, interpreted as a constantly losing struggle against sin, what is means to be a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:21)?

Is this how the apostle Paul views his Christian life, as one sold under sin, often disobeying God?

If one claims that Rom 7 is how Paul describes the experience of one who is  “born again”, how can the apostle sustain his thesis that “just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness” if, while at the same time he lives in the "flesh, sold into bondage to sin"?  Are there other places in the New Testament where the apostle Paul describes his Christian experience as being "owned and controlled" by sin?

On the contrary, Paul makes numerous self-affirmations of his blameless and righteous moral character and conduct.  The apostle claims:
  1. Pursuing a clear conscience, Acts 24:16, cp. 1 Timothy 1:5,19; 3:9.
  2. Maintaining a clear conscience, Acts 23:1; 1 Corinthians 4:4, cp. 1 Timothy 1:5.
  3. Confidence in possessing a conscience that is clear before others, 2 Corinthians 1:12.
  4. He has no fear of being judged by his peers of any wrongdoing because he knows his conscience is clear, 2 Corinthians 4:2.
  5. His conduct before his peers is "pure, right, and without fault," 1 Thessalonians 2:10.
  6. Serving God with a clear conscience, 1 Timothy 1:3.
  7. Others ought to imitate his life, 1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1-2; Philippians 3:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:7,9 (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14; Hebrews 6:12.
  8. He imitates Christ, 1 Corinthians 11:1; "just as I" (NET).  The Greek verb, "imitate", is "always used in exhortation, and always in a continuous tense suggesting constant habit or practice" to teach that "what we have become at conversion we must diligently continue to be thereafter (Vine's Expository Dictionary, p.248-249).

Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a church leader or member challenging Paul's self-estimation of his moral character.

As such, in contrast to the commonly held interpretation that Romans 7 depicts Paul as a "sinning believer", in other places of the New Testament we find Paul asserts his behavior in morally positive terms and, as an authoritative example, boldly commands others in no uncertain terms to imitate him.

What would you think today of a preacher of the Gospel who was always falling into sin standing before the pulpit commanding his congregation, "Imitate me"?

If Romans 7, interpreted as Paul always losing the struggle against sin and often falling into sin, is placed side by side to his claims of having a clear conscience, has he deluded himself into actually believing he is a follower of Messiah when it is sin who is really his master?  Is he then a hypocrite, teaching one thing but living another, to urge others to follow him, expecting others to do what is right while he often falls into sin?

"Recently a leading Calvinistic exponent, Anthony Hoekema, Calvin Seminary professor emeritus, reversed himself and declared that he no longer believes Romans 7 describes a regenerate person. He stated: ‘The mood of frustration and defeat that permeates this section does not comport with the mood of victory in terms of which Paul usually describes the Christian life. The person pictured is still a captive of the law of sin (7:23), whereas the believer described in 6:17-18 is no longer a slave to sin’"

For some of us, it just may be time for us to rethink what it means to be a Christ-follower.

5 comments:

  1. Grace does reign through righteousness, positionally speaking. A true believer is seated in heavenly places with Christ, but his mind and body are still contaminated by a sinful nature. The righteousness of the believer is a once for all declaration, he is then called to pick up his cross and deny his sinful nature so that more of Christ's power and joy can be seen in his life. The flesh is like a default setting, if the believer resists the Holy Spirit he will give in to the power of the flesh. The flesh is hated and despised by his newly minted and justified heart, but due to the believer not loving Christ as he should, he gives in to the demands of the flesh and its sinful ways. The true believer does not fall into these sinful ways so many times as to 'practice sin,' but yields enough so that he must daily come before the Lord with repentance and a needy/broken heart recognizing that apart from Christ he can do nothing. Justification is a once for all act that Paul talks about in Rom. 4-5. hthen describes the ongoing process of sanctification in chs. 6-8. Understanding the believers fight with sin, the world and the devil is crucial. To think there is no struggle against these is not only naive, but is poor exegesis of scripture. Believers are declared saints and are given the holiness of Christ as a gift with their newly minted hearts which love God and hate sin. The battlefield (as Paul beautifully summarizes in Rom. 12:1-2) is in the mind. It is the mind which needs daily renewing, so that the life of the heart can be more fully revealed!

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  2. Pastor Bruce,

    My response is in two parts (I apologize for it being lengthy).

    Part 1.

    What you term a “positional” righteousness (=right standing before God) that exists apart from a subjective (experiential) righteousness (=right living before God) does not seem to be supported by the reading of 1 John as a whole, e.g. 1:6; 2:6; 3:7; 4:4; 5:3-5. The emphasis in 1 John is in overcoming the sinful way of living and he offers no middle ground; his emphasis tolerates no compromise, no excuses. He seems to view divine grace (=empowering) as sufficient to overcome any and all proclivities, orientations, and temptations to sin as attitude and in act.

    What it seems to me you are proposing is that a believer seeking to overcome sin, although empowered by the Spirit of the Living God, is a failure and that always as describes Rom 7 describes it.

    Also, the interpretation you propose suggests that the:
    (a) Bible is not actually stating what it means but means something altogether other than what is stated
    (b) Grace is not sufficient in overcoming sin.
    (c) Argument Paul seeks to make is destroyed because in one place he states that sin is not your master (6:14) and in another, sin is your master (7:14).

    The reasoning offered is too subjective to adequately judge the reality of one’s own or another’s relationship with God. For example, who determines how many times is “so many times”? At what point is too much lying? Two times a day? Two times a week? 2 times a year? Two times a decade? How about murder or rape? If one rapes and murders only two times every ten years, does that constitute not falling into sin “so many times”? Who constitutes what is “enough” yielding in “repentance” to determine sufficiency or genuineness? And who does the measuring?

    Although scholars admit it is difficult to ascertain exactly who or what teachings John was opposing, there is the notion that he argued against something similar to what you argue for: that “the spiritual was divine and good, while the material was created and evil” (FF Bruce).

    That “righteousness” is a mere “declaration” and not also an experience is an idea opposed by 1 John throughout. The whole emphasis of 1 John 1:8-10 is properly understood in the backdrop of and not in isolation from vs.5-7. This forgiveness includes the subjective as well as the objective cleansing from sin (1:9); and one is continually cleansed from sin, not as they commit sin but, as they “walk in the light”, that is, overcome sin and continue to walk in righteousness (1:7). For those who "walk in the light", maybe it is the cleansing of Christ that is the "default setting"!

    John is denying the proposition that one is in no need of cleansing from sin by the blood of Christ; that one can achieve and walk in righteousness through some manner other than by means of the blood of Jesus spilled on the Cross.

    At the same time, John very much advocates, at the least, the possibility of continuing to experience the Christ-life as habit and practice; nevertheless, he may realize this might not necessarily be the experience in all cases of every person at every moment of life. Therefore, he encourages that “if “– not “when” – “anyone sins, we have an Advocate”.

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  3. Response to Pastor Bruce.

    Part 2.

    The "struggle" is against the sins of others (and how they ought to respond), the allurements of the world that seeks to enter our mind and spirit, and the weakness of the flesh as containing the residue of the fallen condition; all elements basically outside the believer, not originating from inside his own mind or heart. The struggle is with sin is a struggle with his own self. I think that is the Biblical emphasis and, accordingly, the Christian experience.

    Thereby and in that sense there is no denial of a “struggle” with sin, nevertheless (whether one sees the warrant in Scripture as I see it or not), there is the denial that such a struggle natural to the Christian experience is identified in Rom 7 (7:5-6).

    What is the “cross” believers are called to pick up? I don’t think it has anything to do with the “sin” problem per se. It does have to do with denying self in terms of saving oneself from discomfort or danger through any other means or agency other than faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Picking up the Cross has particular reference to unfaithfulness, apostasy.

    To deny the Cross and save self has eternal negative consequences. Picking up one’s Cross is not, what you suggest (which is equivalent to the Roman Catholic notion of "struggle"), against sin except it be the sin of apostasy. This seems to me to be the emphasis of the NT regarding "taking up the Cross" (e.g. Matt 10:38-39, cp. vs.32-37; 16:24-25, cp. vs.21-23).

    Yes, believers are called “saints” but not merely because God objectively declares them as such through the faith they have in Jesus, but also because God empowers them in the Spirit to experience that for which reason they are called “saints” (1 Peter 1:24).

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  5. Correction: The first paragraph in part 2 of my response to Pastor Bruce should read...

    "The 'struggle' is against the sins of others (and how they ought to respond), the allurements of the world that seeks to enter our mind and spirit, and the weakness of the flesh as containing the residue of the fallen condition; all elements basically outside the believer, not originating from inside his own mind or heart. The struggle is with sin as a struggle with one's own self, I do not think that is the Biblical emphasis and, accordingly, is not the Christian experience."

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