The Letter to the Romans
Man’s Powerlessness Exposed by the Law
In the previous article (Romans 7:1-12) we saw how Satan or sin took advantage of the opportunity that God’s Law presented for him to express his nature of rebellion and covetousness through us. In this article in verses 13 to 25 we shall see how God intended for the Law to expose the utter powerlessness of the Law to deliver us from Satan’s grasp and the utter futility of self-effort.
Most people read 7:13-25 simply as if it were a picture of the average Christian’s walk. They base their interpretation on the fact that Paul uses the present tense here as if he were talking about his daily experience at the time he was writing. So most people view these verses as a description of the struggle that Christians go through in their attempts to obey Jesus. But there are many problems with this view.
No struggle is described in these verses, only total defeat and powerlessness. If Paul were describing the Christian life here, then he would be saying that the struggle against sin was absolutely hopeless and there is nothing we can do about it. We can only wait for heaven when we will finally be delivered from sinning. Now many Christians hold to this view, but I do not think it was Paul’s view. After all, how could he speak of us being dead to sin in the previous chapter if we were still hopelessly enslaved to it? Paul would be contradicting himself within the space of two chapters!
So if Paul is not talking about the average Christian life, then why does he talk as if it were his present experience? It sure sounds like Paul is describing his present struggles with sin, so what else could Paul be talking about? The problem is that we jump prematurely to the conclusion that Paul is talking about the Christian life since we identify so easily with everything that Paul describes there. But Paul’s primary concern in chapter seven is not to give us a picture of the Christian life, but to answer certain objections to his gospel. In verse thirteen, Paul asks a question to which the rest of the chapter is the answer. Here Paul asks: "Did that which is good (God’s Law), then, become death to me?" In other words, Paul’s real concern is whether the Law became (past tense) a source of spiritual death for him. It is important to recognize that Paul is asking the question in the past tense, that is, he is referring to a condition which characterized his life in the past but is no longer true. That condition he earlier referred to as being "under the Law," the part of his life he lived as a Jew trying to keep the requirements of the Old Covenant given to Moses (see 7:5-6).
The Law’s Failure?
The problem with living under the Law was that the Law failed to deliver him from the power of sin/Satan over him. So the main point of this section is not to portray the Christian life, but to portray the impotence of the Law to rescue us from Satan’s power and, therefore, to show us our need for a new indwelling Spirit who produces good fruit in us instead of bad.
So Paul starts out the section with the question of whether the Law is to blame for his condition of spiritual death. This is the charge that his opponents are making against his gospel–that Paul blames the Law for human sin. After all, we wouldn’t sin if there were no laws to break, would we? But Paul denies this charge, answering that the Law merely reveals sin’s true character; like a bright flashlight, the Law blows Satan’s cover and exposes his operation of the human self. Through the Law, sin becomes utterly sinful, so that God might break through our denial that we aren’t really all that had. When sin/Satan encounters God’s Law, his rebellious character is compelled to manifest itself and we are powerless to prevent his self-manifestation through us.
Paul begins verse fourteen with the word "for," which means that the next paragraph (verses 14 through 20) provides the detailed explanation why his answer in verse thirteen is true. So Paul has two concerns in these verses: first, to show that the Law is not to blame for his sinning, and secondly, to reveal the true cause or source of his sinning. Paul starts out with a fact that everyone agrees upon: the Law is spiritual, that is, it is inspired and given by the Spirit of God as a picture in words of the divine character when it is manifested in human form. But we are unspiritual, fleshly, sold as slaves to sin.
The fact that we are fleshly emphasizes, on the one hand, our weakness and susceptibility to sin. It means that we do not possess within ourselves the means to resist Satan’s temptations and that we will inevitably be convinced by Satan’s lies and give into temptation unless we have access to some kind of power beyond ourselves by which we might resist that temptation. That is the more neutral meaning of the word fleshly. Paul means at least this much, but he also means more by this word. Fleshly also refers to the condition of humanity in spiritual slavery to Satan as a result of Adam’s wrong choice. One was sold into slavery as a consequence of piling up debts that he could not pay back. Israel was sold by God into captivity to the Babylonians during the exile as a consequence for her repeated breaking of the Law and her idolatry (Isa. 50:1).
Consequences of Freedom
The point Paul is making here is that choices have consequences. When Adam made the fateful choice to eat from the wrong tree, and when Israel chose to worship the golden calf, their choices had consequences for the rest
of humanity; what they chose took them and all humanity with them. Once having made the choice, they and all the rest of us became enslaved to their choice, and all of us were sold as slaves to sin. We were made to exercise free choice as persons, but freedom is an unstable state. We are compelled to exercise free choice and in the exercise of it we lose ourselves in what we choose. We join ourselves to what we choose and take on the character of what we choose. And so in Adam’s choice we became slaves to sin.
"But wait," you might say, "If our choice is free, shouldn’t that mean that we are free to reverse our choice? What makes the choice so binding that we cannot unchoose what we have just chosen?" Now, it is true that certain choices can be reversed easily. But other choices, once made, cannot be reversed and the consequences of those choices cannot be undone. Have you ever said something cruel and unkind and then regretted saying it, wishing you could take back those words? And if I were to jump off a cliff, no matter how much I may regret my decision, I cannot reverse it. Once I have stepped off, the decision is irreversible, and the consequences of that choice are unavoidable.
That is why Adam’s choice is called the Fall. His choice was like a fall from a cliff and had irreversible consequences for all humanity who followed him. And just as a fall from a cliff brings death to the one falling, so Adam’s choice brought spiritual death to us all. Only Another intervening and preventing us from being dashed on the rocks below can save us.
Paul’s (and Our) Deception
Paul, however, when he was still under the Law as a Jew, did not realize his true spiritual condition, being under the deception that he, as an independent human being, had the capacity to obey God’s will as revealed in the Law. He believed the Law provided some kind of power to him to enable him to keep it. Instead he found out that neither he nor the Law had any power to enable him to keep it.
So in verse fifteen Paul declares that he does not understand what he is doing. It puzzles him that he finds himself enslaved to sin. After all, isn’t he one of God’s chosen people to whom God gave the Law? Doesn’t the Law, circumcision and the Sabbath mark them out from all the nations of the earth as holy and special to God? The Law ought to keep the people of God from sinning, not lead to even more sinning! But this is exactly the condition Paul finds himself in, a condition which is common to all humanity.
So Paul finds himself doing exactly the things which he hates doing–disobeying God, despite his delight in God’s Law. In verse sixteen Paul demonstrates that it is not the Law’s fault that he is sinning, because even while he is sinning he is agreeing that the Law is God’s highest and best for him; he is just unable to fulfill the Law. So in verse seventeen, Paul addresses the second concern. If the Law is not to blame, and he is acting contrary to his deepest intentions, then what is the source of his sinning? In this verse, Paul discovers that something foreign and alien has entered into him and taken him over as a result of his own and Adam’s choice. Paul says that it is no longer "I" that does the sinning, but the "sin" which indwells him.
This "sin" is not an abstract principle or nature, as many interpreters sup-pose. What is this principle anyway and how did it come into existence within the human heart? Even if we say that the devil created it and then placed it in the human heart as a result of Adam’s choice, we still must ask what it is. It seems unfair and unjust that this irrational principle controls our behavior and makes us do things which we don’t really want to do and then God blames us for disobeying Him.
Sin = Satan
To say that we have a sin nature indwelling us does not really explain why we sin; it is merely a description, not an explanation, of our condition. Instead, "sin" is Paul’s term for the indwelling spirit of Satan, who operates human beings from within their own hearts, supplying the desires and rebellious character which motivate our every action as sinners. For this reason Paul says that nothing good dwells in him, that is in his flesh (his human condition prior to and apart from Christ). It is not his humanity which is bad or evil, but Satan who indwells and operates him from within.
Now what justification do we have for saying that Paul is really referring to Satan here? In Ephesians 2:2, Paul mentions Satan as the "prince of the power of the air, the spirit which now operates in the children of disobedience." Air is something universal and inescapable, which human beings breathe in and out as their life breath. The word spirit in Greek and Hebrew also refers to the wind, air in movement. In the same way, unbelievers are inspired and motivated by Satan as their breath of life and they are moved by him, as by the wind. In other words, Satan is the source of the sinner’s motivations and desires. Jesus says as much in John 8:44 when he says: "You are of your father the devil, and you carry out his desires." The apostle John says that "he who does what is sinful is of the devil" (lJohn 3:8), meaning that the one who sins is spiritually inspired by Satan.
In light of these clear statements of Scripture about Satan’s work in the sinner, we must seek to relate what Paul says about sin to Satan. First of all, in Romans seven, Paul speaks of "sin" as if it were a person. Sin "seizes" the opportunity afforded by the commandment (7:8, 11) and "deceives" me (7:11). Sin performs the sinful actions as if it were a person (7:17, 20). In addition, sin is said to "indwell" the sinner, which is language ordinarily used of spirits or demons which reside in and take possession of a person. Of course, Paul could simply be talking about sin as if it were a person, but without really intending for us to take the analogy that far.
But if we take seriously Paul’s view that sin is an expression of personal hostility toward God (see Rom. 8:7), then sin cannot merely be an abstract principle or nature. Sin is the expression of a spirit who is engaged in personal rebellion against God. So when human beings sin, they are being operated by a spirit who is motivating them and inspiring desires in them that are contrary to the revealed will of God.
But if sin really refers to Satan, doesn’t that mean that human beings cannot be held responsible for their actions? Couldn’t we then say that "the devil made me do it"? Absolutely not! It is through our own choice that we give ourselves over to sin/Satan to be operated by him as his slaves, as Paul clearly says in Rom. 6:16. We may not control our own actions directly, but we do have a choice that determines which spirit will operate us, whether the spirit of Satan who produces sinful actions, or the Spirit of Christ, who produces the fruit of righteousness.
So every time we make a choice to sin, we are really not choosing what sinful action we will commit, but rather are making the same choice which Adam and Eve made: do we believe what God says or what Satan says? When we believe Satan’s lie, we enter into his version of reality and then that reality operates us. We become imprisoned by that understanding of reality, because it has become reality to us and we cannot conceive of things being another way. But we are still responsible for our actions, because we originally had a choice to choose into that reality, and by God’s grace we also have a choice to break free by relying on the power of God’s Spirit and by believing in His reality.
In 7:21-25, Paul finds that there is a law at work within him that is contrary to the law of his mind. The law of his mind obviously refers to God’s Law as revealed in the Bible, but the law at work within his members (his actions) is the law of sin and death. Since a law is basically how a thing works, the law of sin and death is the law by which Satan operates in the believer to bring about his spiritual death. In Hebrews 2:14-15, it is said that the devil holds the power of death and holds people in slavery by their fear of death. Since death is the consequence of sin (Rom. 6:23), then the devil exercises his power of death by motivating people to sin and thereby bringing about their own spiritual death.
And the devil does this despite Paul’s delight in God’s own Law (7:22). External Law, as holy and glorious as it may be, cannot combat the contrary spiritual law which is at work within us. This is why self-effort is always doomed to failure, because no matter how much we may want to stop doing what we are doing, we are not in control of our actions. By our own free choice, we surrendered control to another, to a power greater than our-selves, the indwelling spirit of error.
This indwelling spirit takes us captive and makes us wretched slaves. And so Paul shouts: "Oh, what a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (7:24). A wretched man is one who sits on death row, awaiting final execution. Paul’s attempts to keep the Law through self-effort have led him to this point of utter wretchedness, but it is precisely the point at which God wants him. For only in hitting absolute bottom does Paul realize the depth of his need for a deliverer, and this realization leads him to cry out to Jesus to deliver him from the body of this death, that is, his existence of spiritual death under the dominion of Satan as his spiritual operator (7:24-25).
Picture of Addiction
So Romans 7:14-25 presents us with a picture of addiction. Satan entices us and deceives us by means of our own deepest longings for fulfillment as human beings. We want a sense of wholeness and completeness, a sense of satisfaction with our lives, and all our actions are directed toward this end. There is nothing wrong or sinful about this desire; we were made with this longing, this deep sense of emptiness, so that we might turn to God and find our completeness and satisfaction in union with Him.
But Satan came along and offered a false alternative to God, and presented created things, good as they were, as objects which could satisfy and complete us. Satan presents what God for-bids as if God were depriving us of the one thing necessary to our being whole and complete as human beings. And so he deceived us, and we worshiped the created things rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:21, 25).
Through our own desire for fulfillment Satan enslaved us, and our minds became corrupted by false pictures of what would satisfy us, so that even when we have the desire to do God’s will, we find that we do not have the power to carry it out. A radical deliverance needs to take place, a deliverance that will not only provide forgiveness for sins committed, but that will trans-form the human mind and free it from the false pictures which Satan has placed in it and from the desires for what cannot satisfy. In the next article we will discuss God’s deliverance of us from Satan’s power.
More Articles from The Intercessor, Vol 12 No 3
- Editor’s Note
- To Think About…Faith
- Rethinking the 12 Steps
- Moments with Meryl
- How Do You See?
- A Look at a Book
- 1996 British Easter Conference Report
- The Letter to the Romans
- Tape Talk
- Excerpts from The Intercession of Rees Howells
- Questions & Answers
- The Mailbox
- When Quiet Equals Judment
- 1996 Annual Business Report
- Youth "Business"
- Be Yourself
- Words to Live By…