In Romans 7, the apostle Paul allows himself to be representative of the human experience in discussing sinful impulses and the difficulty that one has in fighting them. The chapter concludes with his representative experience in overcoming such lusts through Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 7 deals with the concept of indwelling sin, not as Calvinists would attribute to a "sinful nature," but to the free moral agency of man, who is able to choose evil if he desires. This passage shows us how the devil takes advantage of the fleshly penchant for rebelling against authority in self-service. Romans 8 will bring this discussion to a happier conclusion, but the present chapter serves to identify the problem and suggest a few solutions.
"Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband."
Paul begins with an illustration of his point, that as a widowed woman is not called an adulteress when she remarries, so the faithful person is free to be joined to Christ because the law of Moses is also now deceased as an authority in force (Matt. 5:17). We can be wed to Jesus because Moses (his code) is dead. According to verse 5, the making of this union takes us from one part of our life into another; we are transferred from living after the flesh to living after the spirit. No longer is our hope of salvation predicated upon the self-righteous hope that we can be good enough to earn heaven; now our hope of salvation is rooted in the knowledge that we can never be good enough to earn such a reward and we must instead submit to the grace of God which offers mercy to the faithful and diligent (Heb. 11:6). We are in no means bound anymore to the precepts of the law of Moses; our loyalty is strictly to the law of Christ and the Spirit (Heb. 8:13).
The apostle then was concerned that his readers might infer that he was speaking ill of the law, so he begins to show why the law was good and it was he who was responsible when sin resulted (Rom. 7:7-20). The law taught him the difference between good and evil as defined by God, but it also gave the devil the opportunity to exploit the yearnings of the flesh through unlawful means of satisfaction.
The commandment was supposed to bring life by showing men how they could behave justly in every situation; instead men were deceived by the devil to rebel and they did. He describes the endless struggle that we all witness within ourselves, between the yearnings of the flesh and the pure intellect of the sanctified spirit and that sense of guilt that results when righteousness is defeated by the deceptiveness of iniquity.
The additional hazard, he notes, is that every indulgence makes the next easier by poisoning the spirit and searing the conscience against pangs of remorse (Eph. 4:17-19). At the end of the day, however, a new knowledge was also born to the minds of men: they needed divine assistance to deliver them from the cycle of sin and degradation.
Within his faithful spirit dwelt a desire to do right and stand approved, but his fleshly yearnings cried out as well, seeking satisfaction in the simplest and basest way available (Rom. 7:21-25). To a man without faith and grace, it surely is a wretched state in which to live. Paul, once again, allowing himself to represent the human condition, looks back upon that time before he came to the cross, when deliverance seemed impossible, and then he found Jesus.
God has instilled within us certain fleshly needs, which can all be satisfied lawfully (food, contentment and sexuality are among them). The devil, however, has endeavored to exploit those needs by advertising many ways in which they can be satisfied more conveniently than according to God's will. Thus instead of working to provide food for the body, the devil presents the option of living off others or stealing. Instead of seeking peace through entering the covenant with God, the devil promises peace through material gain and earthly obsession. Instead of finding sexual fulfillment within the marriage bond, he advertises pornography, adultery and fornication.
The devil's ambition is like unto the work of Darwinists: to convince us all that we are nothing more than animals, devoid of objective truth or an ultimate morality. He is heard in arguments that young people cannot help themselves when it comes to fornication, and that the thief should be excused or considered a victim, for "There but for the grace of God, go I."
Animals have no eternal spirit, no obligations before God, for they were not made in his spiritual image (Gen. 1:27) and if enough people can be convinced that their closest genetic relative resides in the primate section of the zoo, the devil wins. This truth is reflected in the animal's way of life, which is fraught with what we would label murder, fornication, incest, thievery and parasitism. The devil has long been trying to convince us that we are no different and he has succeeded on many fronts; thus our society becomes a more dangerous place, more like the wild.
The devil is overcome when man compels his spirit to rule his flesh and enter a life of pure self-denial. The need for food is fulfilled within God's truth by people refraining from stealing and laziness and working to provide for themselves and others (2 Thess. 3:10-12 and Eph. 4:28). The search for peace ends in heaven, not on Earth (Phil. 4:6-7) for those who learn that true contentment is not about fleshly self-esteem, but a positive divine estimation. God is glorified when sexual fulfillment is contained within marriage (1 Cor. 7:1-6 and Heb. 13:4).
While all these yearnings of the flesh can be fulfilled with more convenience or adventure outside of God's plan, it is within man's power to temper those desires and contain them within the righteous standard. It is not that God made man with an animalistic tendency to do evil all the time, but that the devil will take every opportunity to tempt the free moral agent to rebel.
Paul's marriage illustration was meant to convince confused Jews that being wed to the new covenant of Christ did not amount to adultery against their obligations to Moses, for that old covenant had been fulfilled and taken out of the way (Heb. 8:13).
He does not mean to speak ill of the dead, but to remind the reader that his loyalty justly belongs to Jesus. Old Testament commands including the Sabbath and animal sacrifice and allowances such as no-fault divorce are done away with (Acts 17:30). We become obligated instead to the covenant of Christ, to keep not animal sacrifice, but personal sacrifice (Rom. 12:1-2) and to refuse every suggestion that some presumption may be permitted (Heb. 12:25-29).
The Old Testament yet provides us a benefit in that it offers examples and illustrations for our consideration; its precepts however are no more in force than any law taken out of effect (Rom. 15:4, 1 Cor. 10:1-11). Our lives are now in the spirit of Christ, producing fruit unto life (Matt. 21:17-22).
I have no doubt that every man has experienced the struggle that Paul describes, a knowledge that we should do right, but a carnal impulse to do wrong instead. Every time we face temptation, the struggle is renewed and the devil seeks to usurp the throne of our hearts. But for Christians, the stakes of this battle and the definitions of victory and defeat should be more clear, so that we can fight more ably (James 1:12-22). "Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls" (James 1:21).
Defeat comes by indulging the impulses of the flesh, blaming someone else for our shortcomings, making hasty decisions, and by self-deception. If we will choose to accept the implanted word and behave as the fruits of Christ's sacrifice, we will seek God's righteousness instead (Matt. 6:33).
The devil is always looking to exploit our weaknesses and vulnerability and we should be on guard not to make it easier for him. We should never "give place to the devil" (Eph. 4:25-27).
Satan deceived Eve by convincing her that the forbidden fruit was pleasant to the eye, good for the flesh and productive of a better life. We are daily bombarded with forbidden fruit in the form of the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life (1 John 2:15-17). The deception, however, is the same as the old proverb that "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush": indulgence today means forfeiting heaven tomorrow. Jesus warned of the deceitfulness of riches (Matt. 13:22); Paul spoke of the hardening deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13) and false teaching (2 Tim. 3:13).
Satan is not the only agent of this deception, though; he often finds a willing accomplice in the deceived (1 Cor. 3:18). Sin indwells men who allow themselves to be deceived and hardened against rebuke, and such always find the second sin much easier than the first, and even easier thereafter. If one wants to accept evil and sin in his life, he will do so and feel fine about it (2 Thess. 2:9-12).
"O wretched man that I am," said Paul in Romans 7:24. He attributed this wretchedness to the realization that his spirit was willing to do good, but his flesh was weakened by temptation. If you are without Christ, a defenseless pawn in Satan's game, it is a wretched existence that leads only to a worse eternity. The chapter closes with a hint that deliverance from this wretched existence is possible and in this lifetime, through the Redeemer.
In next month's installment of Solid Food, Lord willing, we will examine the "Indwelling Spirit" of Romans chapter eight.
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