Romans notes (chapter 7)

[Ted Grimsrud—8/18/08]

7:1-6—An Analogy from Marriage

[7:1-3]—Paul uses marriage as a metaphor for the “law” in making the point that the “law” is temporal and of with only limited significance for people’s lives. He does not make it clear precisely in what sense he means “the law.” Givens the earlier context of the book and his reference here to “those who know the law,” he probably has Torah in mind. However, he could have other law systems as well in mind here.

Paul’s point seems to be that in any system of law, the rules are binding on people only as long as they are alive. They don’t follow a person to death. That is, the law (the specifics of Torah or any other system) does not have eternal significance. It is temporary in its role of shaping human behavior.

To illustrate this point, Paul cites the example of married people. The laws bind them to one another as a legally partnered couple only as long as they both are alive. When one of the couple dies, the other is not longer married to that person according to the law. If both are alive, moving in with someone else constitutes adultery—a violation of the law. But it is not adultery when one has died. Again, the point being that the law has limits. Its jurisdiction is not absolute.

So far, then, Paul is simply making a point about the limitedness of the law. He moves on to explain why this point is significant.

[7:4-6]—“In the same way,” Paul continues, that the law (any law system) does not follow a person into death, Torah (and likely Paul would have agreed this is true of any other law system) does not follow the person who has “died” and been raised in Christ. Turning from trust in idols (Empire or “works of the law”) is a kind of death—but a “death” that is inextricably linked with resurrection (“raised from the dead,” 7:4).

Part of Paul’s point here reiterates what he emphasizes in just about all of his writing. He is not undermining good works. Rather, he seeks to create an environment where good works would flourish. The point of being “raised from the dead” (that is, dying to the idols one has trusted in) is to “bear fruit for God” (7:4).

As Paul has brought out earlier, a person “belongs” to some “god” outside her or himself—either an idol or the true God. To “die” to the idol and thereby gain freedom from it only takes hold when one allows oneself to belong to God instead. As we have seen, this “slavery” to God is actually true freedom.

The term “living in the flesh” is synonymous with “in bondage to idols” and “absorbed with works of the law.” Ironically, for the person absorbed with works of the law (such as Paul before he met Jesus), the very act of striving to follow the letter of Torah led to unleashing one’s “sinful passions” (7:5). We make a big interpretive mistake here (and in what follows) if we think of these “passions” primarily in terms of sexual lust. We need to take seriously Paul’s own story. He wrote elsewhere (Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:5-6) of his own “passion” (that is, “zeal”) that led him to commit acts of violence against followers of Jesus.

Paul’s “sinful passions” were “aroused by the law” in the sense that his zeal to uphold Torah as he understood it led him to murderous violence against both God’s own Messiah, Jesus, and those who sought to walk with Jesus (Acts 9:5). These passions bore fruit that literally was “for death” (7:5). We lessen the impact of Paul’s argument here if we think he is simply being metaphorical. In Paul’s own life, the “fruit for death” of his “sinful passions” was all too concrete. He has issues literally of life and death in mind.

Paul seeks to make a case for how this kind of zeal for Torah that leads to idolatry and death may be transformed. While he surely has his own experience in mind here, an experience where the materials that formed the core of his death dealing were from the Jewish law, his argument applies to all sorts of idolatries and all sorts of sacred violence. Paul’s deepest concerns are not about Judaism versus Christianity. Rather, he is concerned about all forms of sacred violence and how one might be freed from them.

It is simple (though, of course, far from easy). All we need to do is “die” to our idols. Quite trusting in them. When we thus “die,” the law systems that have been linked to the idols are no longer binding on us. Just as the married woman is freed legally to enter a new relationship when her husband dies, so the believer is freed from subservience to their old law system when their idol “dies” (and it dies simply by being dethroned as an idol when we no longer trust in it).

In Paul’s context, the liberation is expressed in relation to “the old written code” (7:6). As he has made clear already, and will now go on to reiterate in what follows in chapter seven, and will assert in a powerful way in 13:8-10, Paul has in mind “the old written code” only insofar as it had become an idol. The problem is not in Torah itself. When Torah is properly understood it is the law of love. The problem is in how Torah was understood and acted upon by legalistic zealots such as the pre-Damascus Road Paul. In his “sinful passion,” Paul saw the Law as a basis for exclusion and self-exaltation. He acted violently toward any who threatened the boundaries he had erected to insure his insider status over against the “other.”

After he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, though, and then reread scripture in light of that meeting, reformulating his theology and allowing his experience of God to be transformed, Paul came to realize that the life of faith that God has provided for is life that has at its center the Spirit of God, not the written code (7:6).

7:7-13—The Law and Sin

[7:7-12]—Paul now wants to emphasize that Torah itself (and, presumably this could apply to other law systems as well—though Paul surely recognizes Torah as supreme to other law systems) is not the problem. The law itself is not sin (7:7). Paul sees the locus of the problem elsewhere. To be antinomian (against law) is dangerous just as being legalistic is. The issue is something else.

For one thing, the law codes help give us a language for understanding what we are doing when we go against God’s will for us as human beings. Much earlier in Romans (chapters one and two), Paul talks about what is “natural” as if lusting, practicing injustice, and being judgmental are “unnatural.” And human beings do violate God’s intention for us whether we have law codes or not. So the laws against these violations are quite helpful. They bring to surface what we are doing so we might then have some hope of overcoming the problems we are creating.

The example Paul gives of this point is violating the command not to covet: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (7:7). He’s not saying he would not have coveted, rather that he would have not had a language for what he was doing. So the law is useful in alerting us to our destructive tendencies. Paul seems to imply here that, say, coveting, is not wrong primarily because the law says it is so much as saying that the law names what is inherently wrong (destructive of life). And in doing so, it helps us out. It helps us see what it is that is destructive to life.

But then come problems almost inherent in this good purpose the law serves. Sin seizes an opportunity in the commandment and actually influences me to do the evil that has just been named for me (it “produced in me all kinds of covetousness,” 7:8). It would seem, from Paul’s own story, that the dynamic here depends a great deal on what one wants to do with the insight that, say, coveting violates the law. Does one see this (as surely was intended with the law of Moses) as an opportunity to find healing for oneself and one’s community and, ultimately, all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3)? Or does one see this as an opportunity to gain leverage over against others and thicken boundary lines between insiders and outsiders? That is, is one’s use of the law serving the true God of creation or is it serving some kind of idol?

“Sin revived” (7:9) when naming it (as the law allows us to do) serves our competitive efforts to elevate ourselves over others. The commandment is vulnerable to being twisted and used, actually, to foster sin even in the name of eradicating it. Implied here is the sense that we face a dilemma. Sin must be recognized and named in order ultimately to be dealt with constructively. But this recognition and naming itself serves sin when it happens apart from a deep, self-conscious awareness of God’s mercy—expressed most profoundly in Jesus’ self-giving love.

What is the purpose of naming sin? If it is to foster mercy and healing, then the spiral of sin may be broken. If it is to foster self-aggrandizement and the exclusivity of the select few on the inside, then naming sin only tightens the spiral. Injustice, violence, and death result—as Paul knew all too well from his own experience.

Again, we do well to take very seriously the autobiographical overtones in Paul’s statement that “the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me” (7:10). Paul’s comments here underscore the reality that when we cause death to others, we kill parts of ourselves. When, in the name of “life” and serving God, Paul applied the law in ways that deeply hurt others, he himself experience death. No wonder he was so profoundly shattered when he met Jesus and realized that the one he had been persecuting was truly the Messiah of the God he thought he was serving.

Paul’s language about dying in Christ stems from his very real experience of doing precisely that. He had staked his life on a sense of responsibility zealously to enforce the “truths” of Torah—and ended up becoming a murderer, one who violated the actual truth of Torah about as profoundly as anyone possibly could. When Paul realized what he has been doing, his only option was to die. But as he proclaims loudly and often, in thus dying he threw himself onto God’s mercy and found God’s mercy to be all sufficient.

Paul states flatly, “sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (7:11). This truly happened in Paul’s own life. His embrace of the legalistic approach to Torah coupled with an embrace of the need to enforce Torah has he was reading it, with literal violence if necessary, opened him to being dominated by the very power of sin he thought he was opposing.

We could say, based on Paul’s self-revelation here, that the presence of violence toward others, even when enacted in service of “God’s truth,” always serves as an indicator that we are worshiping an idol. Paul did not realize, in his zeal, that the true God established Torah to serve healing, not retribution. Paul actually was serving the power of death. Only through his own “death and resurrection” did he come to see that. Still, he agonizes over what he had done and why.

In stark contrast to Paul’s own “sinful passions,” linked as they were to his understanding of Torah, is that status of the actual Torah: “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (7:12). Sure, the commandment provided the opportunity for sin to strike, possessing Paul and twisting him in his zeal to do what is right to become a powerful agent for sin. But the problem is not with the commandment itself. It remains valid and useful and just. We will see much later in Romans (13:8-10) how Paul understands the core content of this commandment—not enforce God’s “purity” through violence but, to the contrary, “love the neighbor.” When we understand Torah in this way, it serves life as it has always been meant to do.

[7:13]—So, Torah is good. Did it, in its goodness, nonetheless bring death to Paul? He rejects this idea emphatically: “By no means!” Sin worked in what is good to bring about evil. But the goodness remains inherent in Torah. Torah retains is ability to identify sin as sin. Coveting remains wrong (and destructive of life).

Since Paul has come through to the other side following his embrace of evil, he now can look back and see how the goodness of Torah was at work even as Paul himself distorted that goodness and served death. “Sin, working death in me through what is good, … [showed] sin … to be sin.”

Paul’s desire to dominate others was masked in his piety of claiming to serve God. He assumed he had Torah on his side. But by playing this game through, he came face to face with Jesus (the actual author of Torah, in a sense) and realized the true nature of the commands. In realizing the true nature of the commands (“love of neighbor”), Paul came to see his quest for domination that was expressed so violently to be “sinful beyond measure.”

7:14-25—The Inner Conflict

[7:14-20]—Paul’s statement, “I am of the flesh” is another way of stating what he earlier termed as being dominated by his “sinful passions.” In both cases, his point of reference is his own zeal to persecute and eradicate by violence those he believed were blaspheming God by violating God’s law (that is, blurring the boundary lines that marked insiders from outsiders with their laxity with regard to key regulations such as Sabbath keeping, kosher eating, and ritual cleanliness).

The law itself is of the Holy Spirit, but when Paul’s zealotry sought to exploit the law by using it as a basis for violence and injustice, he showed himself to having been “sold into slavery under sin” (7:14). As a consequence, Paul was utterly bamboozled concerned the true message of Torah.

Paul follows with this famous statement of his own confused path: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15). He is not here speaking of a present sense of agony over whether he can truly do the good or not. Rather, this is a clear reflection on how he now understands his state of mind as a persecutor of the followers of Jesus. What he wanted to do was serve the God of Israel, faithfully practice Torah, and live a holy and sin-free life. However, as one actually worshiping idols instead of God, his mind was darkened (Romans one). He ended up not serving God but doing the opposite (“the very thing I hate”), serving an idol (Paul’s conception of the holy community that required violence to sustain its identity).

Ironically, the more “successful” Paul was, the more he “faithfully” followed the rigorous path he had set out for himself, the more he sinned. Paul is far from being plagued with a sense of failure due to a weak will or inability to fulfill the commands. In a sense, it’s the opposite. He was able to walk the path he had believed God had set out for him. Incredibly, though, it turned out to be the wrong path—profoundly wrong. It was a path that set him actively to opposing God.

This dynamic shocks Paul. He still marvels at how wrong-headed his earlier life had been—and how fooled he was to think he was serving God instead of the forces of evil. What was going on? He was indeed seeking to follow the true and good law of God. This was born out when his eyes were opened and he realized that this good law actually condemned what he was doing (hating rather than loving his neighbor).

Paul was not acting in terms of what he truly wanted to do (which was to serve God) but instead was acting according to the dictates of the corrupt Powers who had come to dominate his life—let in by Paul’s own idolatry (worshiping his interpretation of Torah more than God). “It is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (7:17). Paul’s “flesh” (which, in Walter Wink’s paraphrase, may be understood as Paul’s “dominated existence” under the sway of the Powers) is corrupted. Hence, even when Paul “wants to do the good” (again, to serve God) he can’t do and, tragically, ends up sinning all the more (persecuting the Messiah and his followers) by doing the very things that he thinks are “good.”

Paul here is directly echoing the condemnations of prophets such as Amos and Jeremiah who asserted that in their very acts of worship, the ancient Israelites blasphemed God because of their lives of injustice.

“The evil I do not want is what I do” (7:19). This speaks precisely to Paul’s experience. He was not wanting to do evil but good when he sought to defend Torah (as he understood it) by “violently persecuting the church of God” (Galatians 1:13). But he was enslaved to his “sinful passions,” leading him to in actuality do the exact opposite of what he wanted to do (serving the rebellious Powers rather than the God of Israel).

Paul recognizes that the violence he practiced stemmed directly from the “sin dwelling within” (7:20). The sense is that “sin” is an outside power that invades a person who allows oneself to be vulnerable to it by not trusting in God. That is, when a fellow human being (a “neighbor” in Jesus’ sense of the word) is treated unjustly, we show we are trusting in something other than God (such as our exclusivist community, our nation-state, our quest of material wealth, or our own sense of superiority over others). The type of sin that indwelt Paul the persecutor was the sin of pride, self-righteousness, and legalism. As a consequence, the “righteous” and “obedient” Paul had his mind blinded just as thoroughly as the “luster’s” he writes about in Romans one.

Paul, an example par excellence of the “judger” chapter two, shows in his own life how the idolatry of the judger who very self-consciously seeks to serve the God of Israel, the giver of Torah, may well result in the same kinds of actions that chapter one associates with the injustice of the idolatrous “luster” (e.g., “wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, and murder,” 1:29). It is likely no accident that Paul uses “covetousness” again here in chapter seven as his example of violating Torah.

[7:21-25]—Paul states here that it is inevitable in life (a “law”) that one will always face this temptation that in seeking to serve the good one may actually end up serving evil (7:21). “Evil” always lies “close at hand.” Even when one “delights in the law of God in [one’s] inmost self” (7:22), one remains always prone to idolatry (captivity to “the law of sin,” 7:23) and hence to serving evil rather than good.

In recognizing that he indeed does “delight in the law of God,” Paul implies that the problem is not one of something like “original sin” where we are corrupt to the very core of our being. Rather, the problem is that we are embedded creatures, socially shaped and participants in a world dominated by the fallen Powers. These Powers use the law Just like they use the Empire to separate us from God (Romans 8:35). This separation is so profound that Paul may write of it as “the law of sin that dwells in my members” (7:23). We can’t escape this “law of sin” even if, speaking precisely, is “dwells” in us and is not strictly part of us.

However, the word of hope here, which will be elaborated on in chapter eight, is that this bondage can be broken. The sin that dwells within us may be exorcised. We may find liberation, being freed from slavery to the power of sin. Paul again is writing literally about his own experience. He did dwell in a “body of death” (7:24), both in the sense of being the cause of death to others in his zeal and of being spiritually dead himself due to selling his own soul to the Powers.

He does not actually state this here, but we know enough about his story to recognize that he was so enslaved that he did not even realize it. He was not capable of “thinking his way through” his problem and figuring out through the power of his own reason what the true God actually wanted. As he says here, he wanted to do good but he was so bound up that this very acts of “good” actually served evil.

Paul needed to be “rescued” (7:24). He needed outside intervention to save him when he did not even realize he needed to be saved. He was subsumed in a “body of death” and in retrospect he must has shuddered to imagine how close he came to a final death in his idolatry. But the rescue came, which is the story of Paul’s gospel.

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25). We know that Jesus intervened and shook Paul’s world to the foundations. Through his rescue of Paul from death, Jesus made clear to Paul that he indeed is God’s Messiah, the one worthy of trust, the one who reveals the true meaning of Torah, the one reality worthy of ultimate trust. When Paul trusted in Jesus and Jesus’ God, Paul did find freedom from the bondage that had corrupted him and turned him into a murderer.

Paul concludes (7:25) by reiterating the tension in which he lives—he must either serve God’s law (love your neighbor) or the “law of sin” (your neighbor is secondary to your service of some idol).

Paul’s own critique of the various Christians communities to which he related—and the history of the church since Paul’s time—make it very clear that Christians have continued to struggle with this choice of which law to serve. The Powers remain active. This is why Paul writes with so much passion. Those who would walk with Jesus must remain vigilant and recognize that in their quest zealously to serve God they, like Paul, remain susceptible to the power of sin that easily subverts zeal and turns it into violence.

As we will see, the key remains holding fast to Jesus way of persevering love and let not other value or commitment take priority over that love.

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