Everyone know The Police song, De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da? If not, you can have a listen and watch here.
Now Romans 7 is difficult enough just on its own terms. But add in the distraction of Sting belting out one of his great hits, well, it’s simply all over (especially after watching the video!).
Why Romans 7 and The Police?
Romans 7 is that chapter where Paul uses the word do so many times. Yes, that chapter! I count 20 times in vs15-20! There we find the famed words, ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’
Actually, did you know Romans 7 causes difficulty? Not because of The Police, but rather because people have been debating for a very long time whether Paul is describing the normal life of a Christian or non-Christian.
The popular belief today, at least amongst evangelicals, is that Paul is describing a Christian. For starters, it is argued, if Paul says, ‘For in my inner being I delight in God’s law,’ this cannot be reality for an unregenerate, depraved human. Not only that, but what I think happens even more is that we look at our own lives, evaluate our daily living, and concur that vs15 and vs19 speak very truly about us – ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’
Now, while some might loathe the idea of utilising our experience to understand Scripture, I wouldn’t say it’s completely terrible. I’m an advocate of something like the Wesleyan quadrilateral that recognises we have more than Scripture alone in helping us understand God’s revelation. Rather this perspective takes a more holistic approach, identifying a) Scripture, b) tradition (there is such things as good tradition), c) reason (not ‘objective rationalism’) and d) experience as important in grasping the revelation of God.
So, my point is that understanding Scripture is not completely devoid of our human experience and encounter with God and his truth.
Thus, having said that, those 2 well-known verses (Rom 7:15, 19) might parallel something going on in our own lives. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it was given to describe our situation. You see, this banter about whether Paul is describing the Christian or non-Christian life, I think it might just bring us on an adventure of missing the point. Well, I would concede it’s part of the point. But I don’t believe it’s the greater point of Paul in what is our ch.7 (you know Paul didn’t have chapter and verse divides in his letter).
What I think happens is that we gloss over a vital statement. And I suppose we miss the larger context of the letter and the sweeping thought of chs.6-8. So maybe we start there.
What in the world is going on in Rome? For this letter was written to a particular church in Rome.
Paul is writing to a church that is extremely divided. Why?
Some 6 to 8 years before Paul wrote to the church, the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from the area of Italy (see Acts 18:1-2). Thus, the church became strongly Gentile. But the successor to Claudius, emperor Nero, allowed the Jews to make their way back into this area of the Roman empire. So we have a church situation that has become mainly Gentile over a number of years, which means you have a strong group of people mainly disconnected from the Abrahamic faith of Israel. Mix in a strong group of Jews desiring to see their great heritage fall to the wayside and you’ve got a bit of a challenge.
So here is a man with wisdom and pastoral compassion trying to help both Jews and Gentiles. You can sense it right throughout the letter.
But what about the difficulty of Romans 7? How does this fit into the Roman context?
Well, we could work through chs.6 and 8, but let’s come back to that. This is where 7:1 becomes all-important.
Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives?
Who is Paul speaking to?
Jews! Those who know the law.
Yes, Paul does tell us early on in the letter that even those who do not have the Jewish Torah have a law for themselves (see Rom 2:14-15). But, looking at this statement in 7:1, I think it quite clear Paul is speaking to those who know Yahweh’s Torah, as summed up in the Law of Moses.
When you realise that Paul is mainly speaking to Jews, in this little interlude between chs.6 and 8, I believe it opens up the passage quite a lot.
It’s not so much about whether Paul is describing a Christian or non-Christian, though we can talk about that, and I will. Rather it’s primarily about one who is trying to live under the law.
And so I do believe we can ascribe to a Jew, a good Jew in the context of the first century, these words of Paul: For in my inner being I delight in God’s law (7:22).
Paul’s not really caught up in our debates about prevenient or irresistible grace. He is describing a good Jew like himself based right in the tension of the first century as things were strongly evolving into the light of the new covenant in Christ. For someone who delights in the law but tries to live under the reign of the law, that person is going to find herself or himself in quite a pickle. Such a Jew might end up arguing with themselves, like Gollum and Smeagol, as seen here. Such a major internal war!
This is why the preceding words of ch.6 become extremely important. Especially statements like these: For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace (Rom 6:14).
The one joined to Christ has been freed from the reign of both sin and law. Law + sin = a jumbled mixture of problems in a Jew. But living under the reign of grace, as seen and expressed in the faithfulness of Jesus, releases one to ‘serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code’ (Rom 7:6). And Paul reminds us of the delivery that takes place in Jesus Christ (7:24-25). Not only that, but ‘through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death’ (8:2).
‘Ok, then. But what about 7:25, part b,’ one may ask?! It says: So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
Yes, a good Jew will want to be a slave (or obedient) to the torah-law. But that person living in light of their sinful nature, the flesh, will become a slave to the law of sin. It’s reality for Paul, for any Jew. Again, Law + sin = a jumbled mixture of problems in a Jew. This is why Paul could give his list of achievements for being best Jew of the century, but at the same time list his persecution of Christians (see Phil 3:4-6). Living under the reign and lordship of the law is ludicrous, even making one proud of their accomplishments that are contrary to the will of God (and for Paul, that was watching Christians be murdered!). A proper Jew needs releasing from such a view, being drown in the reign of the grace of God in the faithfulness of Jesus.
Now, there is no doubt we could think about the application of ch.7 for us, Gentiles, some 2000 years later. Though let me remark that I don’t think it completely possible to think like a Jew, even more a Jew from some 2000 years ago like Paul. Still, we can consider the ease of making our own law (not in a Rom 2 sense, but from an extreme moralistic framework). And, thus, we try and live an overly controlled life under this law, which really ends up wrecking our own hearts and lives, as well as others’. We have to grapple with the practicalities of living under the reign of law rather than the reign of grace.
But Paul is talking about those who know the law, the Mosaic torah. In this extremely divided Roman church, he is taking time to address his brothers and sisters in the fleshly heritage.
And, so, in a sense, Paul is creating a before and after situation. Jews would have once been driven by their commitment to the precious rule of the law (or maybe they still were). But now it was time to live under the reign of grace, under the new way of the Spirit, under the rule of Christ Jesus. That was the glories of which Paul was proclaiming.
This is what Romans 7 is all about, tucked into the middle of a letter to the church in Rome, tucked in between two very telling chapters, that being chs.6 and 8. I think if we remember this, it will help us continue to understand what God has done for us and in us through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And it will release us to live more and more under the reign of grace, the Jew first and also the Gentile.