Sometimes, the preposition the New Testament uses is the preposition into. We believe into Christ. And this is the fundamental thing that happens to us when we're born again, when we are converted to Christ. Our faith unites us to Him. The Spirit unites us to Him. And in that way, we are bound together. And underneath all that is the fact that in everything Jesus did, He was representing us.
And because He was representing us, everything He has done is really ours. None of these things are what we work up in ourselves. All of these things we draw down from our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
He is everything, that He fills our nothingness. In Romans chapter 7, the apostle Paul says that evil is present in him. Paul frequently speaks of the unregenerate person as being dead in sin in trespasses, as being under sin, as being in bondage to sin. And it certainly sounds as if he's describing himself at least in this portion of the text in terms that he normally uses to describe the unconverted person.
So how can that be? Is Paul converted when he's writing Romans chapter 7? And if so, why does he describe himself as wretched?
That's quite an indictment of himself. Today on Renewing Your Mind, we return to Dr. R.C. Sproul's series, Hard Sayings of the Apostles, and we will explore why we as Christians still struggle with sin.
Here's R.C. As we continue our study of the hard sayings from the Bible, we turn our attention today to a very difficult passage in the book of Romans. We know that Paul's letter to the Romans was clearly the weightiest epistle that he wrote. It's often called his magnum opus, or Paul's brief systematic theology, because here he delves extensively into the whole plan of redemption. And in chapter 7 of Romans, Paul is addressing the church regarding the spiritual warfare that goes on in the life of the Christian, and he speaks in personal terms of an enormous spiritual struggle. And one of the great controversies that arises out of the seventh chapter of Romans is this.
Is Paul speaking of his present experience as a Christian, or is he reflecting on his past life as a pagan and as an unbeliever? This became central to the old perfectionistic controversy in theology and was vital to the debate of whether it is possible for a Christian in this world and in this life to achieve such a level of sanctification as to reach virtual moral perfection. And I realize that of those churches that have embraced different views of holiness, there have been different approaches to this subject and different qualifications of different types of perfectionism and so on. But I'm going to limit my observation here to the ultimate kind of perfectionism that teaches that there is a work of grace available to the Christian by which instantaneously a person can now, through the anointing of the Holy Ghost, become completely and utterly free from sin.
This is a view, of course, that classical theology repudiates and certainly Reformed theology rejects. And I remember having a discussion with a young fellow who was 18 years old in Holland many, many years ago. He was an American who was in Holland as an exchange student, a very wonderful young fellow. And he was a new Christian. He had been a Christian about six months.
But he had experienced what he believed was this work of grace by which he had been rendered perfect. And I was raising questions about that with him and went immediately to Romans 7 to show him that here the apostle speaks of an ongoing struggle against sin in the Christian life. And the student argued, which is commonly the case, that Paul was speaking of his pre-conversion experience. And I tried to convince the student that Paul was speaking in the present tense and not of the past, but was really speaking of a struggle that was going on presently in his life. Now, without going into all of the arguments for that in terms of the text itself, let me just say for the purposes of this illustration that at least at that time and in that moment my arguments persuaded this young fellow that indeed Paul was speaking about his present state. And when he acknowledged that, I thought, well, now we've solved this problem and I can get him to see that he still has some work to do and some sanctification to achieve that he hasn't reached yet in his life. But that was to no avail. He said, well, maybe Paul wasn't sanctified, but I am. And I said, now wait a minute. Are you saying to me that at 18 years old you've been a Christian for less than a year, you've reached a higher level of sanctification and spiritual growth than the apostle Paul had achieved when he wrote the letter to the Romans? And he didn't flinch.
He looked me straight in the eye and said yes. I wasn't quite sure how to argue with that. You know, I had to acknowledge that theoretically it's possible that a six-month-old Christian could theoretically progress beyond the level that Paul had progressed when he wrote Romans, but I didn't think it was very likely. But it's that kind of struggle and controversy that was related to Romans 7, and I'd like to look now at a portion of this chapter to see where the difficulties rest. In verse 13, Paul says, "'Has then what is good become death to me?'"
That is referring to the law. "'Certainly not, but sin, that it might appear sin was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.'"
Now, do you hear what Paul says here about himself? He uses the present tense, and he says, "'I am carnal, sold under sin.'" Now, this text is also used to justify a view of sanctification that allows for the so-called carnal Christian who doesn't bring forth any fruit of righteousness in his life but remains in the flesh, because when we use the word carnal, we mean flesh or fleshy.
You've all eaten chili con carne, which means beans with meat. We know that something that is carnivorous is that which eats meat. So, the word carnal has to do with the flesh, and in biblical categories, the flesh doesn't have specific reference here to the physical body. It has reference to the old lifestyle of fallen sin nature. So, this is one of the reasons why some have come to the conclusion that Paul must be speaking about his previous condition, because he describes himself as being carnal. And that is the normal description that the apostle uses to describe the unregenerate person, the person who is still in their fallen state of nature. And also he adds to it the phrase, "'I am sold under sin.'"
Paul frequently speaks of the unregenerate person as being dead in sin and trespasses, as being under sin, as being in bondage to sin, and it certainly sounds as if he's describing himself, at least in this portion of the text, in terms that he normally uses to describe the unconverted person. But let's read on here in the text. "'But I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice. But what I hate, that I do. If then I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good, but now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me, that is in my flesh, nothing good dwells.
For to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do I do not do, but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. And now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to 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 will deliver me from this body of 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." Now if you were listening to that and following it carefully, you see that Paul is speaking almost like a schizophrenic, isn't he? He speaks of this power of sin that abides in his life, the sin or the flesh that is within him. And as a result of this, he says, that which I would do, I do not do, and that which I would not do, those are the things that I do.
And he experiences this conflict over his actions and his behavior. Let me just add a little parenthesis here for those that are watching for the close work on this passage, that if ever the Apostle Paul fails to tell the truth precisely, it's here. He's speaking in a manner of speaking when he says, the good that I would, I do not do, and that which I would not, that I do. That is to say, I will to do one thing and I don't do it, and I will not to do something else, and I do that. If you take those words just as they are, Paul would not be making a whole lot of sense. But this statement is not an error in Paul's writing.
It's elliptical. There are certain things that are tacitly understood here. Let me explain it. When Paul says, that which I don't want to do, I do, why does he do it? Because he wants to. And why does he say, the things that I would do, I don't do. Why does he not do those things that he would do?
Because he would not do them, because he doesn't want to do them. I mean, what he's talking about is the conflict of desires that are going on in a raging battle within him. We all who are in Christ experience that. If you say to me, R.C., do you want to sin?
Well, I would say, no, of course not. I can't wait to be free from sin. I can't wait to be in heaven to be glorified and never worry about sin again. Well, they say, well, R.C., if you don't want to sin, why do you sin? I say, well, because I want to.
That's the problem. See, I have mixed desires. What I mean when I say I don't want to sin is all things being equal, I don't want to sin.
I would like to be in that state of glorification and imperfection that I have not yet achieved, all things being equal. But the reason why I continue to sin at times is because I still have sinful desires that are in my life. Now, Paul frequently makes a distinction in the New Testament between the old man, that is the unconverted person, and the new man, the new person in Christ who has been quickened by the Holy Ghost, who has been indwelt by the Holy Spirit. But at conversion, when we become new people, when we become quickened by the Holy Ghost, that conversion, that regeneration, that quickening does not immediately annihilate the old sin nature.
Paul makes it clear that sanctification is a lifelong process, that we are to be laboring in fear and trembling to work through these things and to struggle constantly against those sinful impulses that remain after conversion. He gives us the comforting news that in the process of spiritual growth, in our progress of sanctification, that the old man is being put to death day by day, and the new man is growing stronger as we are growing in the Lord. This is one of the great ironies of human life, that as we age as Christians, as we age physically, biologically, we see the signs that the people have hanging in their homes. I get too soon old and too late smart, and we've all said, boy, I wish I knew what I know now back when I was 18 years old.
It could have saved me an awful lot of trouble. But as I also grow old, I long more and more for my resurrected body, because my body is falling apart. My body is decaying. My body doesn't have the vigor, the robustness, the strength, or the health that I enjoyed when I was younger. And that is one of the things that every human being has to struggle with as we age the slow disintegration and decay of the flesh of the outward person.
So what's the good side? Age can't hurt the soul. The longer we are in Christ, the more years of experience we have as Christians, the stronger the soul is becoming.
And so do you see the irony? On the one hand, we're losing something with the loss of our strength and the loss of our physical health, but at the same time, we're gaining something so much more important and so much more valuable with the increase of strength of the new man, of the inner person, of the spiritual nature. Now, if Paul were speaking of his former condition, would he be describing such a warfare? The warfare that he's talking about is not characteristic of the unconverted person. The unconverted person is carnal altogether.
That's all that person is, is flesh. That person does not have the Holy Spirit, does not have any impulse to real righteousness, no driving desire to please Christ or to please God. That comes with conversion. And in the real sense, our lives don't become complicated until we're converted.
That's when the war is declared, and that's when we have to enlist, and we enlist for the duration, and the battle goes on until we are finally ultimately victorious in heaven. Paul says, I find a law that evil is present with me. Again, he's speaking in the present tense. That evil is present with me, comma, the one who wills to do good. Now, the unconverted person has evil present in him who does not will to do good. Now, the Christian has evil present in him or her, while at the same time there is this disposition or inclination or will to do good.
That's the heart of the conflict. Here's where I think the passage settles it once and for all in verse 22, for I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. Yes, I have this sin within me that struggles against my desire to obey God, but he has delight for the inward man that is pleased and desires to obey the law of God.
No unconverted person is in that state. So, Paul must be speaking of his present life. Again, he underlines the contrast and the conflict by saying, 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 will deliver me from this body of death?
I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Now, there's some ambiguity about this phrase, who will deliver me from this body of death. What's he talking about when he talks about this body of death? Some commentators simply think that Paul is referring to his physical body, and he can't wait to be released from his physical body to enter into heaven, which Paul says is better than the existence that we enjoy here, but not as good as it will be when we're in our final state of resurrected bodies. He wants to get rid of this physical body, and I don't blame him, and I can relate to it. I feel like that more and more every day. I'm ready for a new body. Aren't some of you? I'd love to have a new one, not just an organ here or there, but a whole new body.
That would be terrific. But I don't think that's what Paul is talking about. Another suggestion here is that Paul, when he says, O wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death, that he is referring directly to the sin nature of the flesh, and he doesn't mean a literal physical body. Well, I think that's basically true, but not entirely true. I've been persuaded by some scholars who have researched this sort of thing that Paul is using an illustration here borrowed from the ancient world, where one of the punishments for murder in certain cultures was that a person had the corpse of their victim tied to their back until that victim, so putrified and flesh fell off that there was nothing but a skeleton, and then they were released from it.
But can you imagine anything more horrible than to have to walk around for days with a dead body strapped to your back, that body of death, which would reduce a person to wretchedness? And that Paul, I believe, here is using that in a metaphorical or illustrative sense, saying that this is what the Christian life is like. We are a new person, but we still have to carry this old nature around with us, like this putrefying body of death, this dreadful sin nature that hasn't yet completely fallen off our backs but continues to torment us and cause us to be in this ongoing conflict. But thanks be to God is the apostles' final cry, who gives us the victory in Christ Jesus, and Paul does not leave us wallowing in this struggle or in despair, but chapter 7 moves directly to chapter 8, which is so triumphant in its promise of the victory of God's grace in the Christian life. Paul doesn't pull any punches in his letter to the Romans. The apostle is honest in his understanding.
We still have sinful desires, but thanks be to God, we have a righteousness that only Christ can provide. Dr. R.C. Sproul has addressed a difficult passage in today's lesson. It's from his series, Hard Sayings of the Apostles. We return to this series each Saturday, but if you've missed any along the way or if you'd like to continue your study, we will provide you with a digital download of the five-part series. Just contact us today with a donation of any amount.
You can make your request online at renewingyourmind.org, or you can simply call us at 800-435-4343. If you enjoy Dr. Sproul's teaching here on Renewing Your Mind, I think you'll also appreciate a new podcast from Ligonier. It's called Ultimately with R.C. Sproul. Drawn from a lifetime of Bible study, including content never before released, each episode features unique moments of insights from R.C. It'll help you understand what you believe and why you believe it. You can find it on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, and iHeartRadio. Just search for Ultimately with R.C.
Sproul. In the theological controversy known as perfectionism, I certainly have taken the position for many years against doctrines of perfectionism in this life for basically two reasons, and I think these are very important considerations. I think for us to come to the conviction or the conclusion that we are in fact completely free of sin in our lives, we have to do one of two things, and usually we would do both of them. One of those things would be to alter radically the full measure of the demands of God's law. We would have to drag the law down to the level of our performance, and this was the error that the Pharisees made. They had a superficial understanding of the full demands of God's commandments. And for me to deceive myself into thinking that I am perfect, I have to really have a superficial understanding of the law of God. For example, I don't believe that I have ever loved the Lord my God with all of my heart and with all of my mind and with all of my strength for five minutes. I can always conceive of a greater affection, a greater love for God than I presently enjoy. And the second mistake is like unto the first. In order for us to be persuaded that we have achieved perfection in any kind, we have to have an exaggerated view of our own performance. So we bring God's law down and bring our own performance up so that the two can meet. And either one of those is an extreme danger for Christian growth, and both of them together is basically fatal. So I caution you against that. Next Saturday, Dr. Sproul will address another hard saying of the apostles. Join us for the message titled, The Danger of Apostasy, here on Renewing Your Mind.
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