This week’s text: Romans 7:13-25
When Romans 7 gets chopped up into sections, today’s passage tends to begin at verse 15, but we started at verse 13. There is a set of Biblical scholars that now look at Romans and want to bump the header in your Study Bible back to verse 13. The pattern that Paul is using in this section is to introduce ideas with questions. He poses a question, and then gives his take. Verses 13 and 14 contain a new question, yet what follows is not a logical, reasoned discussion like before, but a personal testimony, so this shift in tone was used to make the break rather than following the previous pattern. Yet, the question is now being raised is, what if Paul is continuing this pattern, is starting a new argument in verse 13, and is simply choosing to answer this question in a new way?
The situation he is describing in chapter 7, not being able to do what he wants and not being able to refrain from doing what he doesn’t want, sounds an awful lot like the false identity Paul was arguing against in chapter 6, doesn’t it? The problem back then was Christians who say that they have no power over sin, when the reality is that the victorious Spirit and power of Christ is inside of them. Now, sure, Paul could be referring to the limitations we face on this side of the resurrection—our habits and patterns or our fallibility and finiteness—but what Paul is describing is a helplessness. It really is. The desperation and despair in his voice and in this testimony simply do not match with the identity he called us to in chapter 6.
So, how do we read chapter 7? Well, if we back up two verses and see the questions there as the beginning of a new argument like the rest of this section has been structured, it gives us a slightly different perspective.
Paul has been answering a series of questions about how we live in relationship with God. He is trying to explain how the problem of sin is solved so that we can live in a restored relationship with God, and he has to walk a fine line. He is trying to argue that it is only through Christ that we are saved. So, the natural next question, especially to a formerly devout Jew like Paul, is to ask what the deal is with the Law then.
These are the questions that set the tone for this section if we begin at verses 13. Did what is good, meaning the Law, bring death to me? Paul’s reply is, “No! But sin found a way to twist the good Law of God.” This next section then perhaps isn’t about Paul’s life as a Christian, but it is a picture of what his life looked like under the Law.
This brings us back to identity. Living out of the wrong identity isn’t the only way to get it wrong. Instead of allowing our identity to drive our values which then determine our behavior, we allow our desired behavior to drive our values which then determine our identity.
We said a few minutes ago that mature Christians recognize their identity as children of God, unconditionally loved and forgiven, and tasked with being the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Well, there is another way to try and be a Christian, and that is to tackle the behaviors first. We think, “Well, I am a Christian now, so I guess I have to start making changes.” But when we start with the behaviors, what are we actually valuing? Whether or not we can do the right things and not do the wrong things. So, our identity follows as one who is or isn’t right with God based solely on the exercise of our will. We also start to see other people that way because if that’s our identity as a Christian, then that’s other Christian’s identity as well. That is how you end up with judgmental, accusatory Christians who tell you what God hates about you rather than what God loves about you.
It is this kind of error that Paul sees in the way he followed the Law and the way that sin twisted the Law for other people. The Law was meant to be an expression of the identity of the people of God. For example, take the Sabbath. Part of our identity is that we are human beings and not human doings. We acknowledge that we are more than what we can produce by our own effort, we are finite and need a day of rest to be made whole, and we value our ultimate dependence on God by obeying him when he tells us to take a day off. So, one day a week, we stop working, we rest, we work on our relationship with God, we work on our relationship with others, and we work on our relationship with ourself.
But what happens if we live Sabbath starting with our behaviors. Well, we would begin by making a list of all the things that could be considered work. There are literally hundreds of things that you couldn’t do on the Sabbath because they might be considered work. One of the most common conflicts Jesus got into with religious leaders in the Bible was over these Sabbath rules. Jesus got in trouble once for healing someone on the Sabbath. If you start with behaviors, this is a clear violation of the Sabbath. But if you start with your identity as a human being and recognize that the Sabbath is about being remade and being made whole, then the instantaneous and miraculous healing the person is actually a behavior in line with the heart of Sabbath.
So, we rejoin Paul, now understanding that this is the testimony of someone who starts with the rules rather than the relationship. The rules themselves are good. The Law is good. God gave it to us for a reason. But when we separate the rules from the relationship, and when we hold onto the details without holding onto the rationale, sin sees the perfect opportunity to twist what was meant to be good into something bad.
The passage climaxes with Paul exclaiming, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” In essence, so if even the good Law can’t save me, what can? The answer, of course, is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Through faith in Christ, we receive the Spirit that defeated the powers of sin and death. Through faith in Christ, we begin a transformation that reconnects us with the right identity and that leads to a life lived out the way God intended.