“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:14-25a NIV).
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1 NIV).
The Quality of our Struggle
I think I need to apologize for my last blog on the nature of our struggle as Christians. A few of you might have been blown away. It was a picture of Christian maturity that accepts our suffering for the sake of others, especially for their salvation as the main purpose of our lives as disciples. But this is a blog for new believers and for those wanting to use the Roman Road for the purposes of evangelism.
The problem is that we are now on the other side of the equation. We are no longer talking about evangelism but rather discipleship (or sanctification) and the expectations are high even while the support and help are literally divine. This is God’s purpose for us in this life and we cannot even imagine the kind of significance and meaning that it will give us as we walk in that path with him and our fellow believers. But maybe it’s too much too soon.
Let’s start at the beginning and take a closer look at this famous passage where Paul talks about our struggle as Christians. Romans 7 and 8 go together of course. The question is how to understand the relationship between the two parts. On the one hand, we struggle with sin as Christians but on the other hand, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
But the truth is that this passage has been hotly debated for centuries and there are a number of ways to look at it. Is Romans 7 really talking about Christians or non-Christians? Or perhaps it’s talking about unbelieving Jews who were all tied up in knots by the law. Part of it has to do with Romans 8 as well. That is obviously talking about Christians. No one denies that. So the question is really what the relationship is between Romans 7 and 8. Is Paul stating the problem in Romans 7 and then giving the solution in Romans 8? That seems to be the way most people take it. I think that is true but only when both sides are understood as a necessary part of the Christian walk.
Those that claim Paul is talking about a non-Christian experience in Romans 7 point to phrases such as “sold as a slave to sin” (vs. 14), “I know that nothing good lives in me” (vs.18), and “what a wretched man that I am!” (vs. 24). It doesn’t seem to describe the Christian experience. These people see a big contrast between Romans 7 and Romans 8 and do not believe that this “spiritual misery” is a very good description of what it means to be a Christian.
I have to say from personal experience that a lot of my friends in Bible College lived in “spiritual misery” and learnt to be thankful for it. My cousin is not a Christian and he never felt miserable about his sin a day in his life. The conviction of the Holy Spirit when it points out our sin is a miserable experience but a necessary one.
I have made the claim that without that “spiritual misery and shame” one cannot truly become a Christian. Perhaps I am wrong but I don’t think so. It is only half of the picture, certainly, but an important half. One that we are uncomfortable with, that we often deny, that we always seem to avoid. But that is a big mistake.
When I first became a Christian, I tended to be a perfectionist. I made lists of all of the things I believed God wanted me to do – prayer, Bible reading, evangelism, good works and on and on and on. I could never live up to it of course. Then, in addition, I would make lists of all of the things I was doing wrong and that I could identify as sin in my life. That was an even longer list. Sometimes I would give up in disgust and other times wallow in self-pity. The more I studied the Bible, the more I saw my sin. The more I saw my sin and how weak I was to deal with it or make any significant changes, the more miserable I was. Sounds a bit like Paul, don’t you think.
But I believe that it is a necessary process, especially in our early years as a new believer. If there is no shame, if there is no misery about our sin, why in the world do we think we are Christians. That is a sure sign of the evidence of the Holy Spirit. Once I realized that, I felt better and I was on the road to recovery. But I would never deny that this awareness of sin is an essential part of our Christian experience. Far from it. But is it enough? Not at all. We cannot stay in Romans 7. We must live in the truth of Romans 8 that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
There are generally two groups of Christians in the evangelical world. The Armenians and the Calvinists. Lots of people are in the middle, of course, but these two groups are useful to describe two very common problems in the church today.
On the Armenian side of the debate, the argument is largely that we are only responsible for our conscious sins. What we know about, we have to deal with. The problem with that approach is that it tends to deteriorate into something more like only the sins that “people” know about (not just ourselves). Conscious sin becomes mixed up with public sin and therefore allows a lot of people to pretend that they have their spiritual life together, that they are walking in the Spirit (more on that tomorrow) and that they are living the abundant life. Most of the time that is far from the truth. This common error leads to “spiritual arrogance” and “judgmentalism” against those who aren’t “mature” in the Lord. You know the kind of people I mean.
On the other hand, the Calvinists tend to have a more comprehensive view of sin as not only conscious sin, but also corporate sin (worldliness, in Biblical terms or what I call systematized corporate flesh), and the pollution or corruption of sin that affects even our best efforts to do good in the world. No matter which way we turn, we are confronted by our sin, our selfish motivations, our ego, our need to be recognized as spiritual or good. We are sinful through and through. This was my background. This tends to lead to spiritual misery and self-condemnation.
So, whether we fall into the trap of spiritual arrogance or spiritual misery, in fact both miss the point and both leave you in spiritual bankruptcy. At the same time, they are both essential parts of our process into spiritual maturity.
Still, the path is not linear but circular. It doesn’t just happen once, we don’t just get our heads on straight and then we never have to struggle with it again. No. Not even close. This process of sanctification (ongoing) is very similar to the process of salvation (one time) but begins in a different context and has a different solution. I will explain what I mean as I go along over the next couple of blog posts.
For now, it is important to realize that one thing is to enter into the grace of God through the blood of Christ who is our substitute, our Savior and our Lord. Another thing is to live in that grace, in that “no condemnation” relationship, even though we are polluted with sin beyond what we can even imagine.
Here’s how I look at it. Non-Christians simply don’t struggle with sin, especially in terms of how it affects our relationship with God. My cousin could care less. That’s the truth. Secondly, to say that Christians don’t struggle with sin simply isn’t true. We all do. Even Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10-13, that he “burns” with sin at times. Why hide it? Why pretend that if someone is struggling with sin, he or she is somehow less spiritual than others? No one, and I mean no one, has their act together spiritually just because they have no public sin to confess (or they think they have no conscious sin to deal with). That very arrogance is sin.
Sure Paul uses some tough language in Romans 7, after all, we need to remember that he takes sin and the wrath of God far more seriously than most of us do. But what does he actually say? People have a problem with the words, “sold as a slave to sin” (vs.14). That doesn’t describe a Christian, they claim. After all, Paul himself describes us later as “slaves to righteousness.” You can’t have it both ways. Or can you?
Well, sure you can. That’s the whole point of being declared righteous but not yet being righteous. What some people call “righteous sinners.” But what does Paul mean by “sold as a slave to sin?” For one thing, we still die. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul tells us. We die in the Lord, of course. and having the Holy Spirit within takes the sting of death out but we still, in this body, are a slave to the consequences of our sin. We still have bad habits, sinful habits, sin addictions, a desire to run our own lives our own way without thinking too much about God. A lot of Christians live that hybrid life of peaceful religiosity, not realizing how deadly it is. To deny the reality of sin in the believer’s life is pure folly.
Let’s look at the second objection which is the statement by Paul “I know that nothing good lives in me” (vs. 18). But that is just plain sloppy reading. The context is clear. Even Paul recognizes that what he is saying isn’t true if he has the Holy Spirit within him. That’s not what he says. Look at the whole verse. “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (vs. 18). Pretty important words don’t you think? Paul recognizes that we are in a struggle with our sinful nature as Christians and that struggle is essential to our growth to maturity in Christ.
In fact, I believe that you can apply those words to this entire passage. I base this on Paul’s summary of this whole section which we find in vs. 25b. Paul says, “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”
We are “sold as a slave to sin” in our sinful nature.
“What a wretched man that I am” in my sinful nature.
“There is no good thing in me” in my sinful nature.
And yes, even as a Christian, I still have to live with and put to death my sinful nature. And that is (and should be) a struggle. In fact, without the struggle, we cannot become mature in Christ.
In verse 14 he says “We know that the law is spiritual,” (which is to say that we can only fulfill the law of God from the heart with the power of the Holy Spirit because otherwise the power of sin would enslave us). In fact the very next words are “but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.”
So being sold as a slave to sin is equal to being unspiritual.
But I thought we had the Holy Spirit within us?
We do, as Christians, but that doesn’t mean that we are yet “controlled by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 8:6 NIV). So we could say that “in my sinful nature” (so long as I am not controlled by the Holy Spirit even though I am saved and have the Holy Spirit), I am unspiritual and I am sold as a slave to sin (if I live according to my sinful nature).
So what are you saying? You can have the Holy Spirit in terms of salvation but not be controlled by the Holy Spirit in terms of sanctification?
It is not the normal Christian life, of course, but it is much more common than any of us would like to admit. In Galatians 5:25, Paul tells us, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” The first part is a statement of fact (salvation) but the second is an exhortation (sanctification) for us to do something. Is sanctification (walking by the Spirit) an expected outcome of our salvation (living by the Spirit). Yes, of course. The point is that you can’t get from one to the other without struggle, without putting to death the sinful nature, without denying yourself first. And that is a holy struggle filled with the ministry and grace of the Holy Spirit.
We would do well to think more in terms of ministry than of judgment when faced with righteous sinners who struggle with their sinful nature.
Some people call that “living in the flesh”. That is not quite accurate. The “flesh” for Paul is a life apart from God. It begins with NOT having a relationship with God through Christ and expresses itself in the arrogance of sin (but without misery).
Our situation is actually much worse than that. If I am married but I act like a single man, flirting with the barmaid in the tavern down the street, it is much worse than if I actually was single. Just because I act single doesn’t mean that I am. It is one thing for a single guy to flirt with the barmaid, but an entirely different thing when a married man does it. The same is true with God. If we are “married” to God, but we act like we aren’t, it is far worse than if we were just not believers in the first place. It is treason, betrayal, and as God so often described Israel in the Old Testament, it is adulterous. We aren’t in the “flesh” (acting single because we are single), we are grieving the Holy Spirit (acting single when we are actually married) just like we would be grieving our wives. Welcome to the struggle to become like Christ. It isn’t automatic. It takes work. It takes discipline. It takes faith – above all, it takes faith.
Not everyone would agree of course. They would say that the evidence of the Holy Spirit is that we are controlled by the Holy Spirit expressing a more moral life full of love for one another.
I can’t tell you how deeply I disagree with the idea that the victorious Christian life has to do with morality, or the evidence that we are Christians has to do with specific acts or good deeds or not doing certain things.
The evidence of the Holy Spirit is not merely moral but relational. And therefore it must be real and honest above all. We live with no condemnation. Therefore we can embrace the process and break through to abundant living and anointed ministry.
No, the struggle is real. The struggle is a gift from the Holy Spirit. Being controlled by the Holy Spirit on a relatively consistent basis is maturity in Christ but it is NOT the main (or only) indicator of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer. We cannot achieve the goal without embracing the process. The Holy Spirit brings about that maturity through the struggle precisely because the struggle uncovers our idols and fortresses in the areas of intimacy, stress, relationships and purpose. To deny the process, the struggle, is to create a generation of believers who grieve the Spirit and are not particularly bothered by it. How sad and powerless the church has become by denying the very real ministry of the Holy Spirit through our struggle (and triumph) over sin.
The fake Christianity of the Western church is overwhelming in its religiosity for precisely this reason. Too many people think that being a Christian means that you have your spiritual life together. It is a done deal. You’ve arrived. And since that is what everybody believes and expects, it makes it very difficult to admit that you are struggling, that you are still sinning, that you need help to overcome not judgment and condemnation.
To validate the struggle is to focus on the process. To expect a Spirit controlled lifestyle all the time (even though that consistency is the goal of our maturity in Christ) is to promote hypocrisy, pure and simple.
But I need to say one more thing about spiritual maturity in Christ. It isn’t about morality but about relationship. Real maturity, resurrection maturity, is the ability to be transparent about your struggle and to be courageous enough to bring it to the cross for forgiveness as many times as it takes. True spiritual maturity embraces the struggle while it “makes every effort” to live in the no-condemnation reality of our new relationship with God.
That is the relationship between Romans 7 and 8. It isn’t about the fact that we have the Holy Spirit (salvation) but whether or not we are walking in the Holy Spirit (sanctification) and that is a process that, by definition, we need to be a part of. Otherwise, why in the world would Paul have to spend so much time talking about what we should do, exhorting us, rebuking us, encouraging us. Why bother if it is all automatic? We know it isn’t. We live this strange half-life of a “righteous sinner” learning to become like Christ (or not) and growing in our maturity in Christ (or not) by learning to apply the transforming power of Romans 8 to the daily struggle of Romans 7.
Let me say that again.
We need to learn to apply the transforming power of Romans 8 to the daily struggle of Romans 7. That is the plan. That is God’s strategy for overcoming sin in our lives. For teaching us maturity in Christ. For showing us the power of the cross. It comes from Romans 12:1,2 (which we will talk about in more depth later on). Paul tells us, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able tot est and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
We need to have the attitude, intention and focus of becoming living sacrifices (denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Christ). We do this through the transforming of our mind by the truth of the Word of God accepted in faith and applied to our daily life. And the transforming of our mind has the purpose of helping us to test and approve what the will of God is for our lives. If we know the will of God, we can identify sin. If we know the will of God, we know where the struggle is, we know where our idols are, where our fortresses are.
But what do we do with those idols and fortresses?
We bring the seven truths of Romans 8 to bear on our Romans 7 struggle. Remember that the struggle is specific to a particular temptation, a particular idol, a particular fortress. That is why the struggle is circular and often repetitive because habits are not changed overnight and we have a lot of areas to deal with. We will go back and forth between Romans 7 and Romans 8 all our lives, hopefully getting better and better at taking the seven truths of Romans 8 and applying them to the specific issue at stake in our Romans 7 struggle.
What are those seven truths in Romans 8 that are so powerful?
The first one (and main one) we have already talked about. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). So relax. You don’t have to run. Nobody is chasing you.
Secondly, we have the power of the Holy Spirit available to us in our struggle. In fact, it is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead (Romans 8:11) which is living in you. So you can’t use the excuse that you are powerless. It simply isn’t true.
Thirdly, the Holy Spirit within gives us assurance of our faith (Romans 8:15b, 16) since he testifies to our spirit that we are children of God. The Holy Spirit is our guarantee of salvation (Ephesians 1:14, 2 Corinthians 1:22).
Fourth, Paul tells us that we must learn to suffer as Christ did (Romans 8: 17) and that only through suffering will we share in his glory. Suffering as Christ did is not normally talked about as a hallmark of a spiritual life. But so it is. We suffer our temptations as Christ suffered his temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane. We suffer for the sake of the gospel as Christ suffered for the sake of the gospel (1 Peter 3:17-18). Finally we suffer the sins of others (and the context of the world) as Christ suffered and put up with and forgave the sins of others who mocked him, spit on him, crucified him, betrayed him. When you learn to suffer with Christ, you will share in his glory. His glory is his character, his love, his desire to do the will of his Father.
Fifth, Paul tells us to hope in the future glory that awaits us. In our struggle, our suffering, our putting to death of our sinful natures, we need to keep our eye on the prize, the glory that awaits us. Yes, our struggle is with our own sinful nature which Christ did not. But Christ suffered temptation as well (Hebrews 4:15), not because of his own sin but rather because he didn’t want to “become sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21) and bear the wrath of God (Matthew 26:39). Of course not. He was perfect in his love for his Father. He did it anyway because he knew that obedience was the highest form of love for God because obedience demonstrates our trust (faith) in God and in his intentions for our lives. This is Christ’s glory, this is his character. And we will get there as well.
Sixth, Paul talks about another aspect of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives as we struggle with our sinful natures. He tells us that the Holy Spirit prays for us and does so with groans too deep for words (Romans 8:26). That prayer ministry is mysterious and powerful and we need to remember that it is happening and that it is highly effective. God is paying attention to what we are going through. In addition, as our High Priest, is also praying for us (Hebrews 4:14-15). We are not forgotten. We are not alone. We matter deeply to Him.
Seventh, Paul talks about the fact that nothing, not our temptation, not our sin, not our failure, not our mistakes, or our suffering, can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8: 37,39). This truth goes together with the statement by Paul in Romans 8:28 that all things work together for the good of those who are in Christ Jesus. God is in charge. He has a plan. Your suffering and temptation has purpose.
With these seven truths ingrained in our minds, thought about, meditated on, accepted by faith, focused on, the lies and deceptions of the Devil will find no foothold and we will have everything we need to be more than conquerors (Romans 8:37) through him who loved us.
What all of that means from a practical point of view is that when Christians struggle against their sinful nature, it is a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Yes, there is still something very important that we need to learn about walking with God in the process but the struggle is a holy one and should never be depreciated or despised. Learning to deal with sin is one of the most fruitful struggles we can have. It reveals the idols and fortresses that we still cling to and gives us the courage to give the Lord permission to tear them down as many times as is necessary to rid our lives of their influence. Most people never do the work of sanctification. It is work. Hard work. Consistent work.
The sign of our maturity is not the absence of struggle but the quality of our struggle.
That is why Peter tells us over and over again to “make every effort,” and why Paul exhorts us to “run the race.” If it were automatic or easy, why bother telling us what we should be striving for, working for, sacrificing for. In the struggle we become, we transform, we change. Our maturity in Christ is not merely expressed in our morality but in the quality and honesty of our struggle, in the consistency of applying these seven truths of Romans 8 to our Romans 7 struggle. Our maturity is found in our dedication to the process of confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Our maturity is found in the humility of using the means of grace made possible by the cross of Christ instead of pretending that we don’t need it or that we have already arrived (spiritual arrogance) or that we are hopelessly entangled in sin and there is no way out (spiritual misery).
Without the struggle, or if we deny the struggle, we are simply “arrogant” fools.
Without learning to become more than conquerors in the struggle (over and over again if necessary), we are simply “miserable” fools.
A pox on both those houses. The abundant life is an invitation to live within the reality of daily sin from the power of a life that is no longer under condemnation. It is the power to prioritize the relationship over the morality so that the morality can be changed by the relationship. Which is what love always does. Who can save us from this body of sin? Only Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, thank you for the struggle with sin. I want to be honest about my sin. But I know that you have already forgiven me. I have so much to learn and I want to learn from you. Don’t let me fall into the trap of condemning people who are struggling but rather help them to become more than conquerors. I know now atht it isn’t a one time thing but over and over again until it becomes a habit to live in that power of the cross, that relationship that takes the sting of sin out of my life. Thank you for your ministry to me, Lord. Help me minister that to others as well. In your name I pray. Amen.