“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, 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 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 what “people” know about (not just ourselves), we have to deal with. 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. 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 believers 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? That is, in my sinful nature. 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.” It applies to the entire argument.
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?
Yes, exactly. It is not the normal Christian life of course but it is certainly possible and 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). 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.
What that means from a practical point of view is that when Christians struggle, it is a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Yes, there is still something very important that they need to learn about walking with God 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.
Without the struggle, we are simply “arrogant” fools.
Without learning to become more than conquerors in the struggle (over and over again), 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.