Almost every believer who has thumbed through the pages of Paul’s Letter to the Roman Churches has puzzled over Romans 7. Is the “I” that Paul is so self-conscious about in his or her struggle with sin an unknown or hypothetical “I” that transcends any particular historical person who has grappled with his or her sinful tendencies? Is it Paul himself remembering how he had a legalistic struggle under the Mosaic Law and could never quite “will” himself to do right under that antiquated system fulfilled by Christ? Or is it Paul writing to every believer generically, as though every Christian goes through a particular internal, psychological struggle to do what is right before eventually reaching that point where deed corresponds in symmetry with word?
Scholars themselves cannot reach a consensus about who or what Paul is indicating in this passage. Whether it is any of the above possibilities or some fourth alternative may never be known with any precision, but one characteristic of the text stands out to evangelical Christians who have been subject to legalism at some point in their walk with Christ: this chapter portrays a bondage from which Chapter 8 proclaims a release. This is exciting news, indeed! Romans chapter 8 presents the antidote to the sense of defeatism about the pervasiveness of sin in the self and society that chapter 7 depicts so unflinchingly. The inexorability of sin is thwarted in the remedy of Christ in chapter 8. When believers nearly throw up their hands after reading Paul’s poignant words about wanting to go in one direction and so obstinately winding up in the opposite direction, they receive a divine countermanded through the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, as developed in chapter 8.
The New English Bible renders this Pauline narrative compellingly:
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am not: I am unspiritual, the purchased slave of sin. I do not even acknowledge my own actions as mine, for what I do is not what I want to do, but what I detest. But if what I do is against my will, it means that I agree with the law and hold it to be admirable. But as things are, it is no longer I who perform the action, but sin that lodges in me (Rom. 7:14-17; NEB).
Those who have experienced the bondage of legalism, much of it passed off in the name of Christ, understand the internal conflict defined by Paul. Moral laws themselves, no matter how “spiritual” they are, wind up drawing out of human nature something vile and sick. Sincerely trying to obey the moral law for one’s own good or the good of one’s society does not actually yield the type of righteousness that God requires. Ironically, it leads the self or ego into the trap of good works where one’s actions have the opposite effect that one intends.
Yet the solution to the dilemma of chapter 7 is clearly found in chapter 8. There Paul outlines the overcoming of that internal law that gravitates toward legalism and that refuses to see that good works do not save or bring people closer to Christ:
There is therefore no condemnation to them who walk in the flesh after the spirit of Jesus Christ. For the law of the Spirit of life which is in Jesus Christ has made you free from the law of sin and death. For the law was weak through the weakness of the flesh, so God sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin, in order to condemn sin by means of the flesh : That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, for we do not walk after the things of the flesh, but after the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-4; Lamsa Aramaic).
The “law of sin and death” which Paul refers to feeds parasitically upon the legalistic schemes of those who are never quite satisfied with the justifying righteousness of Christ. Those who are trapped in legalism may feel as though there is no way out of the impasse, as though the self is caught in the cycle of producing disobedience when attempting sincere obedience.
Paul’s remedy should be ours. Christ has set us free from legalism to follow the “Spirit of life” which was exemplified by Christ who paid the legalistic debt for us. His freedom, purchased on our behalf, is real and overpowers the tendency to want to keep the moral law as a way of obtaining or maintaining salvation. Only Christ kept perfectly the moral law. In Him, we are free to live and to obey. Since Christ condemned sin, we no longer need to swing the pendulum between trying earnestly to fulfill the moral law and, well, failing to do so. Christ fulfilled that law and is now fulfilling it in us, despite our attempts to go “solo.”
Thus, how precisely Paul is using the “I” pronoun in chapter 7 may never be entirely understood or explained, but that Paul is solving the problem of the self performing righteousness in chapter 7 through the righteousness of Christ and the anointing of that Spirit of life in chapter 8 is beyond dispute. The latter contains so many promises to hang onto including that there is nothing that can possibly separate the believer from the love of Christ (8:35).
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