“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.”
— Romans 7:18
That’s quite a somber admission from a saint. In fact, it flat out contradicts our typical notions about what saints are like. We might think that, if a saint had made that statement, it would come out more like this:
“For I know that God dwells in me, whose will I love and do.”
As it is, Paul’s discussion of law, sin, and flesh in the second half of Romans 7 has long been a quandary for Christian theologians. Few want to read Paul’s statements there as the confessions of a chronic sinner. Some dismiss the idea that Paul described his own experience as a Christian there. They take the tortuous picture he paints to describe the conflicted state of a typical soul who doesn’t believe that he was set free from sin, but labors under the delusion of bondage to sin and “law.” The quest for the correct interpretation is far from over.
As with all great literature, the correct understanding of a Bible text is the one that you accept, the one that is meaningful to you. Of course it is–that’s why you decide to accept it. Given that the Bible purports to inform us about a powerful God, a correct understanding should be likewise powerful. Bible literalists get God’s half of the power equation right, but they overlook the human half. In every place, in every age, although God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, we are not. Our minds and our needs are not the same as those of Abraham, Jesus, medieval saints, or centuries old fundamentalists. Understandings that empowered people even decades ago won’t necessarily empower us now.
If an interpretation of Bible text doesn’t help us experience the kind of life that Jesus promised, it is impotent to us, no matter how much expert theological thought was invested in declaring it “correct.” Orthodoxy is about empowering organizations, not individuals. By the time a doctrine achieves orthodox status, its spiritual shelf-life expired long before. Jesus recommended new wine and living waters.
Romans 7, especially verses 14-25, is a watershed. Paul’s confessional goes too far for comfort. Nothing good–nothing at all? The doing of the good was not? “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.” This was Paul the Apostle, the saint, the same one who worked miracles, had visions, and wrote to the Colossians, “I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” How could he confess such powerlessness?
Maybe it wasn’t his own confession; that’s how some resolve the discomfort. Another view is rather shallow but comforting: Paul was also human, after all. In spite of his virtue and might as an apostle, he wanted the Romans to know that he still identified with their nitty-gritty, novice struggles. He hadn’t forgotten what it was like. Yet another view resolves discomfort by qualification: the sin that Paul wrote about was unconscious. Consciously, he served only the law of God, but unconsciously–with his flesh–he served the law of sin. According to this view, Paul reflected after the fact and saw his imperfections, lacks, and unintentional transgressions. Since he was unconscious of them at the time, he did not do them. The next time he would be more aware and act accordingly. Sainthood preserved.
A crucial element is missing from each of these views: a discernable path. Each view assumes that Paul had already traversed a path and attained a kind of life that we as yet have not. If so, how did he do it? What did it require? What was it like? It isn’t hard to tell when someone has actually experienced what they talk about. They can tell you how it felt.
What if that’s exactly what Paul did in the last half of Romans 7? What if he described how it feels to live as a follower of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit–not how it feels to be a struggling beginner or a stereotypical soul laboring under the delusion of bondage to sin and law, but what it’s like to be a saint? We would rather our saints were angelic, free from chronic internal turmoil, living on a plane as foreign to us as it is divine. After all, chronic internal turmoil is precisely what we want to escape from. We long for an existence that’s radically different from the mundane, corrupted one we know, which is one reason most of us don’t expect it until we get to “the other side.” After reading Paul’s description here on face value, without dodging it, we might well ask, “Is this as good as it gets?”
Paul’s conclusion to the matter doesn’t seem to help much, either. (No one is quite sure why, in the 13th Century, Archbishop Stephen Langton decided to break a chapter right before a sentence that started with “Therefore…” but that’s what he left us.)
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin. Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
— Romans 7:25 – 8:1
Paul would sound resigned if not for his jubilant gratitude. His conclusion seems far less than we’d expect from the power of God working in a saint’s obedient heart.
The idea that Paul settled for serving God merely with his mind while serving sin with his flesh might seem like a formula for licentiousness. It could serve (and has) as license for those who do not truly “want to do good,” do not “joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man,” do not hate the evil they practice, and do not feel like crying, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” Paul wasn’t looking for license or to excuse the evil that he practiced. Nor did he deny that it was evil. Nor did he deny that he practiced it. If we love and hate the same things that Paul did, we likely aren’t interested in license or excuses, either.
Resolving our discomfort with Romans 7 through interpretations that make it less relevant to us probably isn’t a good idea. Discomfort actually signals that we need to pay attention. Eliminating its source doesn’t necessarily mean that we learned anything, especially not if dismissal or denial was involved.
What if Paul meant exactly what a face value reading of Romans 7 indicates? What if serving the law of God with our minds while serving the law of sin with our flesh is exactly what it means to be “in Christ Jesus?”