Dan Popp
Je, misérable
Romans: The most important book ever written
By Dan Popp
February 19, 2011

Of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself, or of someone else? (Acts 8:34b, NASB)

That's the controversial question surrounding the latter part of Romans, Chapter 7: Of whom is Paul speaking? We'd better read the whole section, starting with verse 14.

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want I agree that the law is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? God! to whom be thanks through Jesus Christ our Lord! [RSV, ESV, NASB, NKJV, Wey]

Is Paul talking about his own then-current experience? It would be hard to believe that the great apostle had such a desperate battle with sin; but he is writing in the present tense, using the first-person singular pronoun "I."

However, the first thing we read about this I is, I am of flesh, sold into slavery under sin. A few verses earlier Paul used the expression while we were living in the flesh to mean the time before our conversion. His next phrase is even more puzzling. Christians are definitely not sold into slavery under sin — he spent all of Chapter 6 convincing us of that: ...so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin (6:6); For sin will have no dominion over you... (6:14); you were once slaves of sin... (6:17); For when you were slaves of sin... (6:20); But now that you have been set free from sin... (6:22).

So who is this pitiable creature, I? Luther adopted the view that it was Paul as a Christian. "The Apostle says: I am carnal, sold under sin. ... This is the proof of a spiritual and wise man." (Commentary on Romans) Only an enlightened soul could recognize how flesh-bound he is; an unrenewed person would not acknowledge his sinfulness. John Wesley and Augustine are among those who say that Paul was describing a non-Christian or a pre-Christian experience.

But if that's what Paul was trying to convey, why did he write in the present tense? We know that the prophets often wrote in the past tense to describe future events. The evangelists were known to shift tense in mid-sentence. Yet these examples probably wouldn't convince anyone not already convinced. What this case needs, I thought, is another New Testament instance of Paul himself writing as if past were present.

Then I came across this:

"It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all." (1 Tim. 1:15, NASB) It's in a passage contrasting law and grace, like the one we're discussing; and Paul has just said that he "was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor." Was Paul the "chief of sinners" when he wrote this line to his spiritual son Timothy — after he had been forgiven, rescued, and sent on a mission for Jesus? Was he just displaying false humility? Before you answer, remember: the Bible is true.

This is the same conundrum, isn't it? How can a believer be cleared of all charges by the Judge of the universe, and still be the most heinous criminal on two legs? How can I be freed from slavery to sin according to Romans 6, and sold under slavery to sin in Chapter 7? How can past be present?

Please bear with me as I begin to answer that question with a question. Do you remember Karla Faye Tucker? She was convicted of some brutal murders in Texas in 1983. While in prison she had what was probably a genuine conversion experience. Some people argued that she shouldn't be executed because she was "not the same person" as the one who committed those crimes. Let's presume that to be true, in the spiritual dimension. But in the physical dimension, in the eyes of the law, she was still Karla Faye Tucker.

In Victor Hugo's classic Les Misérables, Jean Valjean breaks the law. But he is changed by grace, truly and totally changed. In the course of time he opens a factory that provides jobs for many people. He becomes Mayor. He takes an orphan girl under his wing. But all the while he is hunted by the law. Who is Valjean? To many he is a sacrificial savior, a role model, a hero. To God he is a trophy of grace. But to the relentless lawman Javert, he can never be anyone other than convict 24601.

I put this forward as a possible explanation of how the holy apostle can truly say, I am the worst sinner of all — I am sold into bondage to sin — Wretched man that I am! He is using himself to demonstrate the merely natural I, the I under the Law.

We imagine that we will add the Law on top of the Gospel. Somehow we get it into our heads that Christianity is "Jesus when I sin, and Moses to help me do better." But to Javert and the Texas Penal System and the stone slabs of Sinai, your new identity is only an alias. They sneer at your oh-so-convenient "conversion" and your transparent "good works." The Law knows who you are. You are 24601. You are Karla Faye Tucker. You are Saul of Tarsus, Pharisee.

If I choose to live under the Law, it will be as the unredeemed I.

Now, it's clear from this passage that there are more than one I. There is the I who wills, versus the I who does; the inner man who rejoices in God's Law, and the outer man making "me" [the other "me"] a prisoner. We think that our rational "me" is the real "me," and that it will control the body and its well-known propensity for sin. Nuh-uh, says the flesh. The mind's I wants to look down on the physical I, but finds itself looking out of it as through iron bars.

It's not that we have one too many I's here, but one too few. The third self is our spirit, united to the Holy Spirit. That's where we should be looking — not down, not out, but UP!

Here I should explain something I mentioned in passing last time: Hedonism and legalism seem to be two sides of the same coin to Paul. To live controlled by our appetites is to live under the perpetual accusation of the Law. To live under the Law is to be forever frustrated by the flesh. The solution to both of them is to live in the Spirit.

Now, we need to deal with a phrase that occurs twice in this short passage, in verses 17 and 20: no longer I, but sin which dwells within me. Paul cannot be saying that "the devil made me do it" — not after spending the first two-and-a-half chapters saying that no one anywhere has any excuse for sin! No longer I, but sin is surely a different way of talking about the two I's.

Miserable creature that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. [NEB, RSV]

Note the similarity between body of death here, and our body of sin which was destroyed in 6:6. The good news is, there is a way out of this prison of Self. It's Jesus.

Those who believe this is Paul's Christian experience say that the triumphant verse 25 (above) points to our eventual resurrection, freeing us permanently from our mortal, sin-prone bodies.

In short, it is I who with my reason serve the Law of God, and no less I who serve in my unspiritual self the law of sin. [Jerus]

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, [who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit]. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. [NKJV]

Those who insist that present tense indicates present reality must admit that here, our victory over sin is in the past tense. It was accomplished once, and remains true today. There is now no condemnation... the Spirit has made me free.

The Spirit of Life, in contrast to the Law, brings no condemnation. That's the negative way of saying justified — acquitted — free.

In Romans 7, was Paul speaking of his own ongoing struggles? I don't believe so. I can't say that dogmatically, and there are many respected theologians on both sides of the question. What I believe is that wretchedness was once Paul's experience as a religionist; and that he could have been miserable again at any time had he stepped out of the way of grace, and returned to the bondage of the Law. Paul once opposed Peter openly in Antioch "because he stood condemned." (Please read Galatians 2.) Why condemned? Because Peter had momentarily turned back to the Law. And that's what law does.

Well, we're now into the glorious 8th Chapter of Romans — holy ground, indeed. I hope the unbridled joy of that text will bring many readers back for our next meeting of the Romans Book Club.

© Dan Popp


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