Nijay K. Gupta
“I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom 7:14–15, 19). 1
Sometimes sin can feel like slavery. We can feel uncomfortable in our own skin. Shouldn’t we know better and do better? Should we throw up our arms and cry, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” like Paul in Romans 7:24?
Some people certainly do that. But is Paul really communicating that Christians are bound to struggle—that we should just acknowledge our weakness and move on? If Romans 7:14–25 reflects Paul’s fight and failure with sin, the rest of the letter doesn’t make much sense.
Romans is often assumed to be a great, systematic theological textbook written by the greatest theologian—Paul. However, while Romans is deep and theologically rich, Paul didn’t typically write for the sake of getting thoughts on paper. He wrote to address issues, in his time, to his struggling (and often fledgling) churches.
Paul dealt with one major issue that addressed the role of the Jewish law, the “Torah” (a Hebrew word for their contractual law with their God, meaning “guidance”). Jews directed their whole lives according to the Torah. When the Messiah came along, many Jewish Christians asked: What do we do when Gentiles (non-Jews) want to join our religion? Do they believe in Jesus and follow the guidelines of the Torah, or do they just accept Jesus?
Some Jewish Christians were insistent about this issue. They could hardly conceive of life apart from obeying the Torah. It was the best way of life. It was given by their loving God and it told them how to fight sin and live prosperously. Why would they not obey the Torah and its regulations?
Paul, though, said that Gentile Christians did not need to follow the Torah. The atoning freedom of Christ and the power of the Spirit were enough for their salvation. Paul was even willing to say that the Torah could become an obsession for Jews. In their attempt to get it all right, they got it all wrong: The Torah was never meant to conquer sin. Sin was simply too strong.
A New Persona
If Paul is not reflecting on his Christian journey and the struggle against sin in Romans 7:14–25, what is he doing? He may have been utilizing a literary technique from the Graeco-Roman world called “speech-in-character” (used, for example, by the Greek philosopher Epictetus). When giving a speech using this technique, one would take on another persona. Here, Paul would not be representing himself but would be acting as a Jew under the Torah without Christ. His point? A Jew should fully recognize that the Torah is not a successful weapon against sin in the end.
Paul may have believed the opposite of what many Christians assume: The “war within”—against sin—is not the “norm” for Christians who know the Lord Jesus Christ and are empowered by the Spirit. It is the “norm” for people without Christ, especially those that presume the Torah is the necessary solution to the problem of sin.
You might say that it’s presumptuous to question what Paul says and argue that he is not talking about his own experience. But let’s listen to Paul. If you read Romans 6 and 8 (which surround the chapter in question), you will see Paul’s wider argument emerge:
“How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (6:2).
“We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (6:6).
Paul seems confident that, while sin and death linger on in the world, those who are united with Christ have the power of God to ward off the attraction of sin. While sin held you captive, it does so no longer: “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (6:12).
Then, Paul boldly proclaims that losing out to sin is a thing of the past. The Torah could not do it in the end, but Christ did: “God has done what the law (Torah), weakened by the flesh, could not do” (8:3).
In Christ Alone
I love the hymn “In Christ Alone” because it captures the heart of Paul’s theology: Whether our hope is salvation or the defeat of sin in our lives, we only need Christ. That is what Romans 6–8, including 7:14–25, is all about.
The next time you read Romans 7:14–25—even if you resonate with the ethical struggles—don’t give in to the idea that you cannot overcome sin. We are called to believe that in God’s strength, we can see victory in the face of any obstacle—even natural disasters and decapitation (8:38–39)!
Paul boldly states, “In all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (8:37). It is not your destiny or fate to lose in the struggle against sin. It is your destiny to be molded into the likeness and image of God’s beloved son (8:29).
1. All biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).↩