Paul: The Chief of Sinners? (Pt 3)

Daily Devotional | Day 347

“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin . . . For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me” (Romans 7:14-17, NKJV).

Of all the passages which appear to portray Paul as the chief of sinners, none perhaps is more perplexing than Romans 7:13-25. Like the passage we saw in 1 Timothy, some see the passage in Romans 7 as evidence that Paul (as Apostle and Christian) did struggle with sin(s) in his life. This, in their view, explains why (almost) all Christians struggle with sin. It is further proof, they say, that sin dwells in all of us. In effect, indwelling sin coexists with our born again identity. But does the passage support these assertions? We will examine the passage and find out what Paul is saying.

Let us start by making two observations. First, Paul is describing the experience of a Jew who knows the law. He is not talking about the experience of a Gentile. Although they were not under the law, Gentiles, like all people, did have a conscience (Romans 2:12-16). Therefore they had their own battles with (un)righteousness; but their experience would differ from what Paul is talking about in Romans 7:13-25.

Second, Paul is describing the experience of one who is suffering guilt, condemnation and defeat under the law due to his inability to keep God’s law. But remember, not all those under the law could not keep it. The Scriptures testify that there were some who successfully obeyed God’s law and were morally blameless. For example, the Gospel of Luke has this to say about the soon-to-be parents of John the Baptist, Zachariah and Elizabeth: “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (1:6). This is remarkable.

Now let us look at the things Paul said. Notice that he speaks in the first person, mostly in the present tense. This is one reason some conclude that the passage is a description of the Paul who had been saved by Christ. Keep in mind what we said yesterday about the use of the historical present tense to narrate a past event.

In Romans 7:13-25, Paul acknowledges that the law is good, spiritual and holy (v. 14, 16). The law, therefore, is not to blame for his inability to obey it. The problem lies with the person under the law. Paul describes his status in the strongest of terms, “I am carnal, sold under sin” (v. 14). Essentially, this means he is a slave, bound by the power of sin; and he is ultimately helpless. He makes the same point when he later admits that he is captive to the law of sin which is in his members, i.e. his flesh (v. 23).

Next, Paul tells us how being captive to sin translates into moral choices: “For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (v. 15; 19). Paul is saying that as a result of being enslaved to sin, his moral choices are heavily influenced by the power of sin which binds him. The law has taught him the will of God. But a conflict has developed between knowing what is good and doing it, or knowing what is evil and refraining from it. Unfortunately, in this conflict sin inevitably wins, leading to further guilt and condemnation. Is this part of Paul’s personal experience of Christianity?

We will pause here and continue tomorrow, if the Lord wills. Until then, may the Lord keep you in His mercies. Amen.

For further studyRomans 6:1-23

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