Square Circles and Carnal Christians Part 2

Scripture: Romans 7:
Is the experience of Paul struggling with sin in Romans 7 something that took place before he was a Christian or after he was a Christian. This is the second part of a broadcast exploring being a slave to sin and being free in Christ.
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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.

Because he had identified the law as the instrument for pointing out sin, Paul now feels it necessary to exonerate the law from any charges of being evil itself. Even though its very nature revealed sin in others, he would defend it throughout the chapter as holy, just, good, and spiritual.

Many modern Christians are making the mistake which Paul strongly warned against. With varying degrees of animosity, they make the law of absolutely no effect in the experience of salvation. Not only do they reject its claims as the perfect blueprint of right living, but they deny its assigned mission to convince of sin. In the most positive language Paul declared earlier in his epistle that there can be no sin without the law: "For where no law is there, is no transgression." Romans 4:15. Now he reinforces that point by recounting his own experience with the Ten Commandments: "I had not known sin, but by the law."

The Law Confronts Paul

Here we find the important transition point in this chapter which holds the real answer to the "carnal Christian" question. For the first time Paul begins to speak of his own personal relationship to the law. But notice that he carries his readers back with him into the past. He speaks of his first encounter with the law. At that time, Paul says, "I had not known sin." In other words, he had not been aware of breaking the law before that moment of spiritual conviction and enlightenment.

As a teacher of the Sanhedrin, no doubt Paul had a vast intellectual knowledge of all the religious laws of Israel, including the Ten Commandments. He prided himself as being flawless in meeting all the legal requirements of those statutes. But all was changed on that day when the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to the superficial nature of his obedience. For the first time he recognized that he was only observing the letter of the law. His empty works of self-justification appeared in their true light.

Paul does not tell us, and neither is it necessary to know, just when this initial conviction began to operate in his life. It is sufficient to say that there was a period of time, whether short or long, when his eyes were opened to what he really should be before God. The law had accomplished its task very well, and he clearly discerned how broad and deep and comprehensive were its principles.

In recalling the agony of his soul during those days of conflict Paul wrote:

But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. Romans 7:8-13.

Paul continues to describe the personal reactions of his Pharisaical nature to that initial conviction of sin. It was absolutely shattering for this famous teacher to be exposed as a transgressor before God. The experience was so intense that he could only compare it to being happily alive without the law, and then suddenly to be crushed to death by the consciousness of his guilt-guilt generated by the revelations of the law.

Paul marvels that something so righteous and good could stir up within him such consciousness of evil. Like a powerful magnifying lens the law had probed the recesses of his legalistic soul, making sin appear "exceeding sinful."

No Power to Obey

Confessing that sin was "working death in me," Paul launched into the famous verses which have been so terribly misapplied to the experience of beleaguered saints.

For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh), dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. Romans 7:14-25.

Some have taken the position that Paul's statement here that the law is spiritual proves that he was a converted man. Yet the rest of the verse plainly declares that he was carnal and sold out to sin. Is it unusual for a sinner to make such an admission about the law? Not at all. I have heard hundreds of unconverted inquirers after truth acknowledge the claims of the Ten Commandments. But believing the truth and consenting to the law is not enough. It must also be obeyed. And Paul knew that.

If anybody could appreciate the necessity of doing the works of the law, it would certainly be Paul. And he did try! The rest of the chapter is replete with his frustrated report of trying and failing, trying and failing. On the basis of these texts thousands of sermons have been preached to explain why we should not be too hung up on perfect obedience. If Paul found it impossible to do good, and constantly did evil instead, why should we get a guilt trip over our failures?

Unfortunately the dispensers of these soothing tranquilizers are not really comparing apples with apples. They are comparing spiritual things with carnal. Let Paul clear up the matter for us quickly. He said, "I am carnal." How did he define the carnal condition? Just eighteen verses down the page he explained it this way: "For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace." Romans 8:6. This is the third time that Paul admits to being under the condemnation of death. In Romans 7:10 he said, "The commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death." In verse 13 he spoke of sin "working death in me." Can anyone accuse the great apostle of being confused about the status of the justified believer? This was his specialty. He understood very clearly that justification and condemnation could not coexist in the same person at the same time. Dozens of times the regenerated Paul declared his freedom from the guilt and condemnation of the law. Only in this chapter where he described his unconverted experience does he ever place himself back under the death sentence.

Convicted But Unconverted

His eyes had been opened. He had been instructed and convicted by the law. He knew what was right and desired to do it, but he had not yet laid hold of the delivering power of Christ. He was miserable. He hated himself, and everything he was doing. "But what I hate, that do I." Romans 7:15. The problem was with the flesh. It was too weak to obey. "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not." Romans 7:18.

Why could Paul not obey in the flesh? Because that expression was used by him repeatedly to describe the unconverted nature. In verse 5 he said, "When we were in the flesh, the motions of sins ... did work in our members." In Romans 8:3 he wrote that the law could not be kept by us because it was "weak through the flesh."

The old carnal power of sin made it impossible to obey. In his mind he was willing, but he described another law "in my members, warring against the law of my mind." That other law was stronger than his good desires and intentions because the rest of the sentence reads, "and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members." Romans 7:23.

How clear it is that the law of sin in his members, or in his flesh, was the unregenerate, carnal nature. It made a perfect slave out of his body, compelling him to do evil things that he hated, and forcing out of him finally that despairing cry, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Romans 7:24.

Here again, for the fourth time, Paul indicates that the penalty of death was residing in his body, or in his flesh, where sin had taken control.

Recently a young seminarian pointed to verse 22 as proof that Paul was converted during this losing battle against sin. "For I delight in the law of God after the inward man." He said no one could delight in the law unless he was born again. But that is not true. In Romans 2:17, 18 Paul was addressing the Jews, and he indicated that even they had an exalted concept of the law, "Behold, thou are called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law." Paul's delight in the law in the inward man merely reveals his total mental acceptance of the principles of the law. He held it in the very highest esteem. He had no problem with believing, or being willing to obey, but without Christ there was no enabling grace to perform that which was good.

Did the apostle ever find the answer to his plaintive cry for help? Did the wretched slave ever obtain freedom? Was he finally loosed from the captivity of the law of sin? Of course he was. Just as soon as he accepted the Lord Jesus his chains fell off, his carnal nature was crucified, and he was set free from sin. Four verses further we read how the miracle happened: "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death."

Who cannot see the dramatic turn-around of the entire situation? How has Paul been set free from the very law of sin which had captured him in Romans 7:23? He answers that question himself: "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord."

This point of conversion in Paul's experience has been acknowledged in the writings of many well-known Bible commentators. Here are three source statements which confirm that Romans 7 describes his unregenerate nature:

The apostle Paul, in relating his experience, presents an important truth concerning the work to be wrought in conversion. He says, "I was alive without the law once"-he felt no condemnation; "but when the commandment came," when the law of God was urged upon his conscience, "sin revived, and I died." Then he saw himself a sinner, condemned by the divine law. SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 1076.

Oh, how many flatter themselves that they have goodness and righteousness, when the true light of God reveals that all their lives they have only lived to please themselves! Their whole conduct is abhorred of God. How many are alive without the law! In their gross darkness they view themselves with complacency; but let the law of God be revealed to their consciences, as it was to Paul, and they would see that they are sold under sin and must die to the carnal mind. Self must be slain. Testimonies, vol. 3, p. 475.

It is impossible for us, of our selves, to escape from the pit of sin in which we are sunken. Our hearts are evil, and we cannot change them ... "The carnal mind is enmity against God." The Saviour said, "Except a man be born from above, ... he cannot see the kingdom of God." ... It is not enough to perceive the loving-kindness of God, to see the benevolence, the fatherly tenderness, of His character ... Paul the apostle saw all this when he exclaimed, "I consent unto the law that it is good." "The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good." But he added, in the bitterness of his soul-anguish and despair, "I am carnal, sold under sin." Romans 7:16, 12, 14. He longed for the purity, the righteousness, to which in himself he was powerless to attain, and cried out, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from this body of death?" Romans 7:24, margin. Such is the cry that has gone up from burdened hearts in all lands and in all ages. To all there is but one answer, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." John 1:29. Steps to Christ, pp. 18, 19.

Serving the Law of Sin

There remains one small perplexity in the wording of Romans 7:25. Some have questioned how Paul could still talk about serving the law of sin in the flesh after apparently being delivered from the flesh in the same text. "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin."

In spite of the awkward phrasing of this verse, there is no contradiction of the main theme. Paul gives a quick, parenthetical answer to his desperate question, "Who shall deliver me?" Then he moves back to complete the point which he was making in verse 23 about being in captivity to the law of sin. The very same sentence structure is found in Revelation 20:4, 5. After describing the first resurrection of good people who would not receive the mark of the beast, John wrote, "But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection."

As everyone recognizes, the "rest of the dead" are the wicked people who arise in the second resurrection, not the first. So the last sentence, about the first resurrection, is actually referring back to those who are described in verse 4-those saints who had not received the mark of the beast. Obviously the first part of verse 5 is thrown in parenthetically, and the final sentence, "This is the first resurrection," completes the thought which was being developed in the previous verse.

In the same way the final sentence of Romans 7:25 is referring back to the theme of verse 23 and is not directly related to the first part of verse 25.

Paul has just reached a climax of logic and pathos in describing his abject condition of condemnation. Verse 23 speaks of his captivity to sin and verse 24 reveals his agony of desire to be free: "WHO SHALL DELIVER ME FROM THE BODY OF THIS DEATH?" Giving a quick, parenthetical answer to his rhetorical question, he encapsulates in one final sentence the basic point he has made throughout the chapter; i.e., his mind wills to serve God, but his flesh forces him to serve sin. "(I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord) so then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin."

Thus closes chapter 7 with its dismal dirge of defeat, but Paul has not made this detour in his epistle without good reason. Now his readers are prepared to appreciate the scope of his transformed experience under grace. It seems to be one of Paul's penchants to illustrate by dramatic contrast the "much more" of grace over sin (Romans 5:20, 21), of justification over condemnation (Romans 5:161, 17), and of the Spirit over the flesh (Romans 8:5). And it is only because of the stark manner of portraying his misery under sin that Paul can now project, by comparison, the glory of Spirit-filled children of God.

The Power of the Will in Victory

There are yet two important points to be made before we leave this troubling chapter 7. Both of them relate to the manner in which we are able to choose the path of total victory over the flesh. Obviously the will is very much involved in this process. Few understand the explosive power of this decision-making part of every individual.

Regardless of the physical frailties or incapacities, God has placed within each human brain the ability to choose one's course of action and direction. This independent, sovereign faculty constitutes the most obvious difference between people and animals. No other creature on earth besides man has been given this responsible power of choice. Monkeys cannot calculate and reason; they move by instinct. Man thinks and chooses.

It is very likely that no other inherent power of mind or body is so deeply rooted as the power of choice. In bestowing this gift the Creator laid upon each person the responsibility for his own salvation. Even though the fallen nature alone has no power to stop sinning, it does have the power to choose to stop sinning. Even the most vile and degraded of men may decide what actions to pursue.

Often the will has been weakened and traumatized by wrong choices and external pressures, but it remains the one human alternative by which deliverance can be initiated. Here it must be emphasized that the desire to make right choices is a result of God's grace acting on the mind. Not everyone is willing to give up the enjoyment of sinful indulgence. This is why some may need to pray, "Lord, make me willing to be willing," or even, "Lord, give me enough faith to believe that you can increase my faith and help my unbelief."

How truly it has been said that our greatest enemy is self. Here is where the most desperate battles are fought in the conquest of sin. It is only when the self-nature surrenders its own way and becomes willing to accept God's way that we are enabled to choose right over wrong. The contest over the control of the will lies at the heart of every victory and every defeat.

It is not a sin to struggle, nor is it wrong to be tempted. Conversion does not remove temptation, but rather makes it possible for the struggle to culminate in victory.

Then there must be a clear perception that my decision and initial action against sin does not in itself obtain the victory. Deliverance is only made possible as divine power responds to my active choice not to sin. How often we limit the Holy One of Israel by refusing to do what He has given us the power to do ourselves in overcoming sin. We have a mind and we have a will. By choosing not to sin and putting that decision into action, the way is instantly opened for God to move against the enemy and secure our deliverance.

Is there a struggle, then, in subduing the flesh and escaping from the authority of sin? Indeed there will be continual conflict in resisting the inherited propensities to disobey. But the encouraging thing is that none of the effort needs to end with defeat. He causes us always to triumph as we exercise the natural weapons of decisive action against the enemy.

I am sure Paul did not intend for us to linger too long in the shrouded paths and lanes of chapter 7. It is a necessary place to pass through, but it is not made for Christian dwelling and living. After the law has shown us our need and escorted us to the cleansing grace of Christ, our relationship with the law changes. No longer is there the clash between what must be done and what cannot be done. Chapter 8 still talks about the law-the same law-but the futile struggle to keep it is finished. The carnal mind, which was not subject to that law, has now been changed into a spiritual mind. As children of Adam we will possess his fallen nature until translation day, but the converted mind no longer is forced to obey the dictates of that fallen nature. The power of the Holy Spirit makes it possible for every one of us to choose not to sin. By daily dying to self and sin, the justified believer is enabled to overpower completely the propensities of his fallen nature and to live a life of total obedience to God. The One who has condemned sin in the flesh now fulfills in us the just requirements of the law, making obedience not only possible but a glorious privilege. Thanks be to God!

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