On May 31, 1838, a seemingly ordinary teacher was hanged at Calton Prison. His name was Eugene Chantrelle, and his story shocked the community of Edinburgh, Scotland, where Eugene was a French instructor at a private academy. Unbeknownst to friends and family, he was also a murderer, secretly poisoning his wife with opium.
Eugene’s trial grew increasingly disturbing as he was exposed for sexual misconduct and implicated in murders across France and Britain. Among those in attendance was Eugene’s friend, Robert, a young author so haunted by the trial that his wife would later recount waking to the screams from his nightmares. Robert would go on to write a story that gained timeless acclaim. He called it the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Who is Paul Addressing in Romans 7?
The idea of an inner struggle between good and evil isn’t confined to Christianity. It’s long captivated storytellers for its veracity, both tangible and numinous. Like Dr. Jekyll, there comes a time when each of us is forced to acknowledge that “man is not truly one, but truly two.” To quote Jekyll: “Of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.”
The Apostle Paul expresses a similar sentiment in one of the most controversial passages in Romans: “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19).
Is Paul describing his unregenerate state or his Christian experience? The answer has implications for the “Mr. Hyde” in each of us. Was he slain at conversion, or do the evil predilections of the flesh continue to war in the hearts of Christians?
Dr. Stephen Lawson contends that Romans 7 is addressing Christians for several reasons. In verses 1-13, Paul uses verbs in the aorist past tense to describe his pre-conversion state. In verses 14-25, he switches to the present tense to speak of a current experience: “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (Romans 7:14).
Furthermore, Paul describes a love for Scripture. In verse 16 he affirms, “I agree that the law is good,” and again in verse 22: “in my inner being I delight in God’s law.” In tandem, he acknowledges his hatred of sin: “The evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).
It seems that from scripture it’s clear that Paul is describing the Christian’s experience.
Our hope isn’t in spiritual perfection, or an end to the battle. Our hope is in an Advocate, in the joyous recognition that we do not fight alone.
Why Do Christians Keep Sinning?
Why would a redeemed believer crave sin? To understand the condition Paul describes, we must understand his tricky use of the word “law,” or nomos in Greek. This word can mean two different things: the law of God (the Pentateuch), or a powerful principal. Notice its use in Romans 7:21-23:
So I find this law (principal) at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law (Pentateuch); but I see another law (principal) at work in me, waging war against the law (principal) of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law (principal) of sin at work within me.
Paul identifies two laws inside himself: the law of God and the law of the sinful nature. One makes him a slave to God, the other a slave to sin. Paul’s conclusion? “What a wretched man I am!” (Romans 7:24).
Say those words today, and you may be hurried to the nearest self esteem expert. But that’s not poor self esteem talking; it’s an accurate diagnosis. Because of his condition – two laws warring within – Paul is wretched, and so are we.
The Gift of Wretchedness
Sometimes when Christians discuss Romans 7, we’re quick to establish degrees of depravity. We admit that we suffer a modicum of fleshly weakness, but not as much as her. Not blatantly like him. The question becomes, Are some Christians just less sinful than others?
True, there are degrees of bondage to sin. If Lisa gets drunk once a month, we could say she suffers less bondage to alcoholism than Tom, who’s been arrested for his third DUI. But is she actually less sinful? Have we considered the fact that Lisa goes to the gym ten times a week, only eats celery, and has a toxic inner critic?
Not struggling with obvious external sin isn’t necessarily a sign of spiritual maturity. It can actually be a sign that you’re not connected to your pain, or you lack a regular habit of introspection. Take, for instance, the Pharisee who thanked God he wasn’t as sinful as the tax collector. Was he actually holier, or spiritually blind? Luke 18:13-14 says the tax collector was the one justified – he who didn’t dare look to heaven, but beat his chest and begged for mercy.
Romans 7 is Paul’s cry for mercy. His accurate diagnosis leads directly to hope and healing: “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). We cannot experience deliverance without awareness.
Where do you see evidence of your own wretchedness? Like Paul, where does your heart cry, “I cannot carry it out!” I cannot obey. I cannot believe. I cannot stop sinning.
Thanks be to God who delivers you through Christ Jesus our Lord! Will the deliverance be full and final this side of eternity? No. But our hope isn’t in spiritual perfection, or an end to the battle. Our hope is in an Advocate, in the joyous recognition that we do not fight alone.
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