Now we’ve come to the portion of this chapter which has caused some problems. Vss. 14-25 have caused sharp disagreement not only between Bible-believing theologians; it’s actually caused disagreements between me and beloved family members. What portion of Paul’s life is he talking about? Is this 1) talking about his life before Christ, as a non-Christian, or is it 2) talking about a period in his life when he was a believer but not living obediently and not experiencing the full abundant life of Christ, or is it 3) talking about his life post-conversion, his life right now as he was writing this epistle?
Let me start out by admitting freely that all three positions have difficulties they have to overcome. I think the weakest among them is the second, that Paul is talking about himself (or a hypothetical believer) who’s not walking in the abundant life of Christ, who’s living a disobedient lifestyle, who knows better, and who’s miserable. If there was ever a period in which Paul was doing this, we certainly don’t know about it, and it would contradict everything we know about him. And he uses the first person pronoun “I” repeatedly, so there’s little reason to think this is some type of hypothetical believer. It’s talking about Paul, either pre- or post-conversion.
Next let me present the strongest case I can for the position which I disagree with, interpretation # 1. I believe that position # 3 is correct, but I have to concede there’s some really strange language he uses for himself as a mature believer. Is it true, for example, that as a believer Paul could refer to himself as “unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin”? He just finished hammering home in the last chapter that we’re no longer slaves to sin. He also calls himself a “prisoner of the law of sin at work within me” and a “wretched man.” Again, does this sound like a believer, especially one who’s walking so closely with the Lord? How can one reconcile this with the view we have of Paul, who was undoubtedly one of the most (if not the most) godly men who walked the earth at that time? If ever there was a man towards one could point and say “That’s someone whose example I need to follow,” a man who’s living the fullness of an abundant life with Christ, it’d be Paul. And if this passage is describing Paul post-conversion, doesn’t that present a really gloomy picture for the rest of us? Also, how can we reconcile this with passages that paint a different picture for the believer, such as 2 Peter 1:3: “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness”?
When someone is making this argument, what it seems to come down to is the question of perfectibility. Is it possible for a Christian—in this life—to be without sin? If it isn’t—if it’s inevitable that we’re going to sin to some degree, doesn’t that excuse or condone sin somewhat? You know, that’s a really great and deep question, and it deserves its own posting, which I think I’ll do tomorrow.
Now let me make the case for the interpretation I agree with, namely # 3: I think that Paul in vss. 14-25 is talking about his present experience as he was writing the book of Romans. Yes, he was one of the most (if not the most) godly men who ever lived, and this still describes who he was as he was writing these words. Here’s my evidence:
1) I just can’t get past the present tense of the passage. In vss. 7-13 he only uses the past tense. Suddenly in these verses he only uses the present tense, over and over and over and over. Someone might argue “Maybe that’s just a convention, and he didn’t really mean the present tense literally.” Not buying it. To my knowledge, if he did that—using the present tense when he meant the past tense here—that would be utterly unique in his writings. In all of his other writings, when he uses present tense, he means present tense, not the past tense.
2) Here’s some points from John MacArthur: “This person desires to obey God's law and hates his sin (vv. 15, 19, 21); he is humble, recognizing that nothing good dwells in his humanness (v. 18); he sees sin in himself, but not as all that is there (vv. 17, 20-22); and he serves Jesus Christ with his mind (v. 25). Paul has already established that none of those attitudes ever describe the unsaved (cf. 1:18-21, 32; 3:10-20).”
3) Romans is a theological treatise, and in this epistle his thoughts are flowing like a river towards a conclusion. He’s already dealt with people pre-conversion, both Jews and Gentiles, in chapters one through three. He’s already moved past that into how we receive Christ (second half of three through five), then confronts the misunderstanding we might have about the Good News being a license to sin (chapter six). For him to go back and start talking about nonbelievers now would really interrupt the flow of his thought process and seem to be out of place.
That’s why I came up with the title I did. As believers, all of what Paul’s said about us in chapter six is absolutely true, every glorious word of it. We’re dead to sin and alive in Christ. But as believers, we still sin. We still disobey God, and we have even less of an excuse that a non-Christian who a) doesn’t know any better, and b) doesn’t have the Holy Spirit inside him. But vss. 14-25 is the lament of a godly man who soberly realizes that he still falls short of what he needs to be and laments that fact repeatedly. To this man, sin is not a sexy ex-girlfriend he keeps on his speed dial and might consider calling up if the circumstances were right. Sin is what nailed his beloved Savior to a tree, and the fact that he still has to deal with this mess is comparable to having to walk around with a stinking, rotting corpse handcuffed to himself.
But this passage does not end on a lament. It ends on a note of victory. For right now, he (and every other believer) is chained to this stinking lump of nastiness (not the physical body, but our sinful nature). Question: “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” The all-glorious answer: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Lord Jesus, I really need to have you reexamine my attitude towards sin. It is my mortal enemy, and I need to hate it like you do. Please help.