Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Sermon Starters: What's up with Romans 7?

Context: This wasn't really a sermon but an evening presentation of sorts as part of the B. H. and Dorothy Phaup Holiness Emphasis Series at Southern Wesleyan University. In the morning I preached a sermon. This was the evening "lecture" in the new Nicholson-Mitchell Building, which used to be the College church.

What's up with Romans 7?
1. The infamous verses (Romans 7:14-25)
"The Law is spiritual, but I am made of flesh, sold under Sin. I don’t know what I’m doing! I do things I don’t want to do, but what I hate I do! And if I’m doing what I don’t want to do, I [at least] agree that the Law is good. But now I am no longer doing [these things I don’t want to do] but Sin, which is living inside me.

"For I know that good does not live in me—that is in my flesh. For wanting [to do the good] exists in me but doing [the good] does not. For I don’t do the good I want to do but the bad I don’t want to do I do. And if I am doing what I don’t want to do, I am no longer the one doing it but Sin which lives in me.

"I find the rule then for me—the person who wants to do the good—that the bad is what’s present in me. For I delight in the Law in my inner person. But I see a different “law” in my body parts, a law that opposes the Law in my mind and enslaves me with the law of Sin that is in my body parts.

"I am a wretched man! Who will rescue me from this body of death? … Therefore, I myself with my mind serve the Law of God, but with my flesh the Law of Sin."
Notice I intentionally left out a piece--it's the most important piece, IMO. We read these verses in isolation and their meaning seems obvious to us--we just can't help but be spiritual losers. This meaning resonates so much with American Christianity that it seems inconceivable that they would have any other meaning.

But I'm going to try to convince you tonight that this is exactly the opposite of what Paul was saying!

2. The situational context of Romans
  • Romans was written at the end of Paul's third missionary journey from Corinth, right before he went to Jerusalem and was arrested. Here's a conversation he would have with James, Jesus' brother, right after that:
“You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law. They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs” (Acts 21:20-21, NRSV)
  • What we see here is that Paul had a bad reputation among the Christians in Jerusalem. His reputation was that he was teaching Jews to stop keeping the Law.
  • In Romans 3, he addresses this reputation. He effectively denies that he is against the Law.
“If through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not say (as some people slander us by saying that we say), ‘Let us do evil so that good may come’? Their condemnation is deserved!”
  • Paul denies being "pro-sin." He doesn't teach, "Sin boldly that grace may come."
  • I remember a Rugby lad in my time in England with juvenile diabetes. On Friday nights he would give himself a huge shot of insulin and then go drink himself into oblivion.
  • Paul denies that he has this approach to sin--take a Jesus shot and then go sin all you want.
  • In several of his letters (1 Corinthians, Galatians) Paul walks a fine line. On the one hand, we are free in the Lord (Augustine's, "Love God and do what you want"). But if we want to use our freedom to sin, we probably aren't quite in the Lord. Don't use your freedom as an opportunity to sin (Gal. 5:13).
  • So Paul actually affirms that the Law is good:
“Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold law.” (Romans 3:31)

3. The literary context: Romans 6-7
  • So let's look at how Paul is actually arguing that he is against sin in the life of believer in the broader context of Romans 6-8.
“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (6:1-4)
  • Paul does not support sinning. Those in Christ should walk in newness of life.
“Therefore, do not let sin be the boss over your mortal bodies, to make you obey its passions. Stop presenting your body parts to sin as weapons of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your body parts to God as instruments of righteousness.” (6:12-13)

“What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (6:15-16)

“But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18 and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (6:17-18)

That phrase, "thanks be to God" is in the part I omitted from Romans 7:

“Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God! Through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:24-25) It suggests that Paul sees a believer moving beyond being slaves to sin by the power of Jesus Christ.

4. A series of contrasts
This "used to be but now is not) pattern appears over and over in Romans 6-7:
  • “Just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.” 6:19
  • “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness… But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.” (6:20, 22)
  • “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” (7:5-6)
5. Returning to 7:14-25
  • Paul is dramatizing the person who wants to keep the Law but cannot because they are in the flesh. They do not have the Spirit. This person repeatedly fails.
  • The present tense is thus a vivid way of talking about this state, when one is a slave to Sin.
  • The dramatic portrayal climaxes with, "I am a wretched man!" Who will rescue me from this flesh? The answer comes immediately, "Thanks be to God! Through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
6. The person with the Spirit then continues in Romans 8
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do… so that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

What does this look like?
  • Love your neighbor as yourself!
  • “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10)
  • Paul hinted at this person in 2:14-15: "When Gentiles, who do not possess the law by nature, do what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law in themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts."
  • I believe Paul is referring to Gentile Christians who, by the power of the Spirit, love their neighbors as themselves.


Martin LaBar said...

Good analysis. Thanks for the post.

Ken Schenck said...

It's been great seeing old professors and friends!