As I look at Romans 7 and the struggle that Paul describes, a struggle I believe Paul is engaged in at the time of writing the letter as a mature believer, I see Paul not only describing his struggle, but my own (and I think every Christians). This is what I experience in my life:
1. I still sin. The apostle John says it in his first letter: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." (ESV). This isn’t a point I need to belabor – I know it from my study of the word and from my experience. In my ten years of ministry I’ve only met one person who denied they still sinned. I was honestly at a loss. We sin and we all know it.
2. This sin is incongruous with who I really am. As a redeemed person I have a new nature (2 Cor. 5:17, Eph. 4:22-24). I am a saint, as we all are (see 2 Cor. 1:1, Eph. 1:1, etc.). This is my true identity. Good works, faith, holiness, love, purity – these are the things that flow out of my true nature in Christ. This is already me, yet not yet fully me. In fact, Paul tells me I need to put this new nature on (Rom 13:14).
3. Sin comes from my flesh and its desires, my old self. It no longer defines me – it’s not the true me anymore, but it hasn’t disappeared yet either. There is a paradox with regards to this old self. In one place Paul can say that my old self was crucified with Christ (Rom 6:6, Gal 5:4), also that I died to sin (Rom 6:2). Yet, Paul also teaches me to put off this old self (Eph 4:22). In addition, I am commanded to put to death the deeds of the body (Rom 8:3, Col 3:5). This old self does not define me anymore, but it still clings to me and I must resist it.
4. I am in a struggle against this old sinful nature (Gal 5:16-17, Heb 12:4). It is a struggle to the death (Rom 8:12-13).
5. I often loose battles against the flesh and give in to my fleshly desires (see point 1). I should grieve when I sin. I want desperately to stop sinning, not simply because I fear the consequences, but because I what it does to my relationship with God. I want to stop sinning because I love God and love his glory and no I have offended him. I want to stop sinning to please my heavenly father. Certainly this is a godly attitude towards our sin – God grieves over sin (Gen 6:6), Jesus grieves over sin (Mark 3:5), the Holy Spirit can be grieved (Isa 63:10, Eph 4:30). Paul’s cry is mine – “who will deliver me from this body of death?”
6. As I said on Sunday night, nothing discourages me more than my own sin. What is odd is the more I grow in my relationship with Christ, the more I encounter his holiness, the more aware of my abiding sin I become. Yet, at the same time, I am all the more aware of his grace and mercy. Paul’s answer, like his cry, is mine too – “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” I don’t wallow in misery as I struggle. Instead, I relish the hope of Christ. I celebrate, with humble gratitude, the small victories the Spirit gives me as I rely on him. And I learn. I learn more and more how to stay in step with the Spirit and keep that old man down. I win. Not all the time, but more and more as I progress in the Christian life. In all this, God is glorified as the one who does the rescuing.
I’ll continue to struggle and will keep encouraging other to struggle as well. It is one aspect of the Christian life, one that requires patience and perseverance. God is good and he is faithful, and that is what I need to know to keep struggling.