The fifth Sunday of Eastertide – May 7, 2023
Holy Trinity Church – Tom Mount
Scripture Reading: Romans 7
- Why do we still struggle with sin? The New Testament clearly teaches that we are God’s “new creation” in Christ (2 Cor 5:17; cf. Gal 6:15). So why the do we still sin?
Sin’s penalty, presence and power
First, it is helpful to distinguish between sin’s penalty, presence and power.
- Sin’s penalty was fully satisfied, once and for all, in Jesus Christ through his sacrificial death on the cross (e.g., Heb 7:26-27; Col 2:13-15). Christians are freed from the penalty of sin the moment they place their faith in Jesus Christ.
- Sin’s presence will be done away with definitively in the world to come (e.g., Rev 21:1-4; 22:14-15). Right now, it is a tragic part of our reality. In the world to come, however, it will be eradicated once and for all.
- Sin’s power exerts control over us in proportion to our “connectedness” with God. For those who are disconnected from God (non-Christians) or loosely connected with him (immature or disobedient Christians), sin exerts a powerful force. For those with a solid connection with God (mature, obedient Christians), sin increasingly “loses its grip” the more we “walk in the Spirit” and practice loving submission to the Lord.
Sin’s power: enslaving power vs. residual pull
- For the unbeliever, sin exerts an enslaving power. Despite their best efforts to do good, they are slaves to their sinful thoughts and behaviors.
- For the believer, however, the situation is vastly different. Although once enslaved to sin’s power, that power was broken in Christ. However, they still feel the residual pull of sin and can succumb to its temptation when they are not being vigilant.
- This is because sin’s residue is still present in us. Although Christians are made new in Christ spiritually, we still occupy our old bodies, with brains, memories, neurotransmitters, hormones, and other bodily structures and chemicals conditioned to sin over years of living “in the flesh.”
- These habituated patterns of thought and behavior are encoded in the neural structures of our brains. Changing them takes time. New synaptic connections must be formed as new, godly habits replace old sinful ones. How? This is where the disciplines of Christian life come in. Studying and memorizing scripture, worshipping, praying, fasting, giving, sharing the Gospel, doing good deeds, saying “no” to temptation, nurturing a deep attachment to the Father and Son in the Spirit: all of these activities are instrumental in renewing our minds (Rom 12:2), freeing us from sin and making us more like Christ.
A casual reading…
- Some Christians believe that they will always suffer defeat at the hands of sin based on a faulty, yet unfortunately common, reading of Romans 7:14-25. Some examples:
Verses 14-15: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Verses 18-19: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
Verses 22-24: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (vv.22-24)
- Paul’s use of first-person pronouns and the present tense make it appear, on a casual reading, that the Apostle is describing his present, ongoing relationship with sin. If Paul is indeed describing his present servitude to sin and God’s law, then Christians can hardly hope to fare any better in their own struggles with sin.
A careful reading…
- But a more careful reading of the passage within its larger context (Romans 5-8) shows this is not what Paul is teaching. Paul’s subject matter here is not a Christian’s struggle with sin, but the condemning ministry of God’s law (look at Rom 7:1-13). One of the main purposes of God’s law is to expose the heinousness of our sin and the desperation of our plight while in its grip (cf: Rom 7:7b-9):
“Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.”
- So, in Romans 7:14-25, Paul is using a rhetorical device called the “dramatic present” to describe the effect the law has on someone who has just become awakened to the gravity of the law’s demands and his inability to fulfill those demands. Previously, this person had been “alive apart from the law”: we might call him “fat, dumb and happy”, oblivious to his true condition. But now “the command came, sin came alive and I died.” He is finally awakened to his truly wretched state.
- The person Paul describes in Romans 7:14-25 simply cannot be a Christian living the normal Christian experience. The things ascribed to him are the very things Paul says are not true of believers in Romans 6 and 8.
- This man is “of the flesh” (7:14) but Christians are “not in the flesh but in the Spirit” (8:9).
- This man is a slave to sin (7:14,23,25) but Christians have been freed from sin (6:2,6-7,14,17,22).
- This man is incapable of doing good (7:15,19) but Christians are commanded and empowered to do good (6:13,19).
- This man is a slave to God’s law (7:25b) but Christians “died to the law” and are “released” from it (7:4,6).
- This man is stuck in his old, powerless state (7:19) but Christians “walk in newness of life” (6:4).
- This man lives in obvious condemnation (7:19,24) but for Christians, there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1).
“For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:2).
The Holy Spirit of life silences the condemning voice of the law, which we were once powerless to keep in the flesh. He emancipates us from the enslaving power of sin, freeing us to serve God in righteousness (Rom 6:22). We still must choose to “walk in the Spirit” and not “satisfy the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:16-18). But as we do so, we will experience the shalom, the abundance and fulness of life Jesus promised us in John 10:10.
This week, read through Romans 7 a few times, keeping in mind the information we covered today. Jot down any questions you might have and bring them with you next Sunday, when we will walk through the text together.