Square Circles and Carnal Christians Part 1

Scripture: Romans 7:1-25
Some words just don't go together like a square circle or a round triangle. How about the words 'carnal Christian'? Can these two be combined?
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Carnal Christians. The words just don't seem to go together. They sound too much like a square circle or a round triangle. And yet, there are many sincere people who believe this is a truthful characterization of the normal Christian experience. Others, of course, strongly disagree. They say the term is self-contradictory and consists of words without meaning. They even deny the possible existence of any hybrid creature who could be Christian and carnal at the same time.

Actually, the controversy is rooted in something Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans. Right between two of the most triumphant chapters in the Bible, the great apostle penned twenty-five verses which have given rise to all the theological conflict on this subject.

In order to understand properly those cryptic twenty-five verses which make up Romans 7, we must also examine the companion chapters 6 and 8 which, though written by the same author, seem to be in complete contradiction to the chapter in between. The tremendous theme of total victory over sin flows powerfully through Romans 6 and 8, but chapter 7 is like a catalog of frustration and defeat. How could the same man describe such opposite personal experiences within the same few pages of this letter? The question becomes even more significant when we consider that in all his other prolific writings, Paul never repeated, in any form whatsoever, such expressions of hopelessness as he uses in Romans 7. Let us take a closer look.

Can you imagine how these words could ever apply to that spiritual giant who was Paul: "I am carnal, sold under sin," "... bringing me into captivity to the law of sin," "What I hate, that do I," "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Romans 7:14, 23, 15, 24.

What does this miserable, sin-bound creature have in common with the experience described in the preceding chapter? "we ... are dead to sin," "... freed from sin," "Let not sin therefore reign," "Sin shall not have dominion over you," "Shall we sin? God forbid," "Being then made free from sin." Romans 7:2, 7, 12, 14, 15, 18.

And how could Paul himself harmonize his wretched state of Romans 7 with the soaring experience of Spirit-filled victory described in Romans 8? "There is therefore now no condemnation," "... made me free from the law of sin," "... righteousness-fulfilled in us," "... mortify the deeds of the body," "We are the children of God." Romans 8:1, 2, 4, 13, 16.

The crux of the "carnal Christian" argument is brought into view by Paul's bold assertion that "I am carnal, sold under sin." Romans 7:14. Yet he declares in chapter 8, "For to be carnally minded is death," "The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." Romans 8: 6, 7.

Is Paul really saying that he is not a Christian and is the enemy of God? Is he conceding that his life is fleshly and therefore under the sentence of death? Of course not! On the other hand, if Paul is describing his experience after conversion, we must admit that there are irreconcilable differences between chapter 7 and the rest of Paul's writing. In all honesty, we are led to the unavoidable conclusion that Paul is not describing his born-again experience at all in chapter 7. We must reject the entire concept that one can be carnal, condemned to death, at enmity with God, and still be in a saved condition. The wretched man who cries out in despair for deliverance has obviously never been delivered from his sins. Why, then, does Paul portray himself in such a state of hopeless bondage?

Although the picture at this point may be slightly confusing, let me assure you that there is a very clear, convincing reason for Paul writing as he did. When we follow the logic of the prince of apostles, we can understand perfectly why he threw in the material of chapter 7 exactly as he did, and at that precise point in his dissertation.

The Law in Salvation

Please take note that Romans 7 is wholly given to an explanation of the law and its role in the process of salvation. In the preceding chapter Paul explained how justification came through one man upon all the world. Most of the material presented from chapters 1-5 deals with the theology of righteousness by faith, with the chief focus on justification. Then in Romans 6 Paul moves into the area of sanctification and begins to describe the effect of being saved by grace. The entire chapter is taken up with a portrayal of perfect obedience and sin-free living. Over and over he asserts that sin (breaking the law) cannot prevail against the power of God's justifying grace. The consistent, habitual pattern of the child of God will be to reject sin. Obedience to the law will be the fruitage or consequence of all true justification.

But even though holy living and law-keeping will mark the lifestyle of every true Christian, Paul did not want anyone to misunderstand the specific role of the law in the process of salvation. Important as it was, the law had its limitations. It could not cleanse or sanctify. Although it marked out the path of God's perfect will, there was no redeeming grace in the law to justify a single person. Its primary function was to convict, condemn, and create a desire for deliverance. Then, like a schoolmaster, it would conduct the sinner to Jesus for free cleansing and grace.

So what does Paul do at this point? He inserts twenty-five verses which carefully define the function of the law in leading a person to Christ. And by way of illustration, he uses his own experience with the law to show how it affected him when he fell under its influence. He tells, in retrospect, how the law opened his eyes to the real nature of sin within him and "slew" him with its devastating exposé of his gross disobedience.

It is most important to remember that Romans 7 is Paul's description of his reactions to the law before he was converted. This is why he described his bondage to the carnal nature and his utter helplessness in trying to fulfill the requirements of that law. Step by step, he gives a graphic account of his anguish of soul under the prodding convictions of the law.

Many sincere Christians have concluded that Paul really was describing his converted experience in Romans 7, and they comfort themselves that it is quite normal and acceptable to be overcome by sin. They express it this way: "If Paul had no power to do what he knew to be right, surely we cannot be held accountable for disobeying also. After all, it is not us, but sin in us, that is guilty of the wrongdoing. God will not let us be lost as long as we have the desire to do His will, even though we do not 'perform that which is good.'"

If such an interpretation is correct, we are immediately faced with the problem of harmonizing hundreds of other texts which assure us that we should live without sin. Can you see what a serious issue this becomes for every one of us?

Surely it must be apparent to all that such a teaching, if true, would have to be the best news in the world for those who are not willing to crucify the fleshly nature completely. With two memorized texts they could biblically justify any act of disobedience and still feel secure: "I am carnal, sold under sin ... the evil which I would not, that I do ... it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me."

On the other hand, if this interpretation is wrong, it is, without question, one of the most dangerous and reprehensible teachings on Satan's long list of deceptions. The horrible import of teaching people to tolerate that which God hates boggles the mind. If sin really is non-negotiable in His sight, and will never enter into His kingdom, then any doctrine which tries to make it acceptable to God could lead millions to damnation.

The Law Did Not Die

Because this crucial chapter has been twisted to support such a portentous doctrine-we shall take the time to analyze it carefully verse by verse. Not even the smallest question should linger concerning God's attitude toward the practice of sin.

Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law‚) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man. Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. Romans 7:1-6.

Here Paul uses the law of marriage to represent the spiritual relationship with Christ. A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. When he dies, she is free to marry someone else without being called an adulteress. So the sinner is represented as being loosed from one relationship in order to be bound by another. Many people read these verses lightly and assume that Paul is doing away with the Ten Commandments. Not so. Paul is speaking about the sinner in his experience of turning from sin and becoming married to Christ. The law did not die. Paul said, "Ye also are become dead ... that ye should be married to another."

Verse 5 makes it very clear that the sinner had been bound to his sinful nature. "For when we were in the flesh, the motions (passions) of sin did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death." How did he get released from that fleshly nature that wrought death in him? The answer: "Ye ... are become dead ... by the body of Christ." In other words, by accepting the atoning death of Jesus, the carnal mind was destroyed, and "being dead wherein we were held," Paul says we are free to be married to another, even Christ.

Some might question why Paul wrote that we become "dead to the law" by the death of Jesus. But we must understand the context in which this is used. It is obvious from verse 5 that we become dead to what the law condemns in our nature-"the motions of sins, which were by the law." Here Paul introduces the chief function of the law which he will reiterate throughout the chapter. It exposes the works of sin. It brings to light the activities of the flesh. And in doing so it also ratifies the death sentence against all who are breaking it. To be "dead to the law" and to be "delivered from the law ... wherein we were held" means to be delivered from the sins which it condemned in us and from the penalty of death which applied to all who broke the law. Being married to Christ does not deliver us from obeying the law, but it does deliver us from the penalty of death which results from violating it.

What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. Romans 7:7.

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