Paul, Pt. 1: “How Low Can You Go?”
HOW LOW CAN YOU GO? (ROMANS 7:12-25)
A man one dreamed of passing into the world beyond. An angel met him and showed him a great golden book. “What is that?” he inquired. “It is the book of your life,” was the reply. Looking closer he saw that there were some writing on the first page. “What is there?”
The angel said, “These are your evil acts, and you see that they are many.” The angel turned the page, and the man saw that the next sheet was more closely written. The angel said, “These are your evil words, and you see that there are more of them than there are acts.” The poet trembled.
The next page was more closely written. “What are these?” asked the man. “These are your evil thoughts, and you see that there are many, for a man thinks more than he speaks or acts.”
With the trembling voice, the man asked what the fourth page contained. The angel turned it over, and lo! it was black as midnight. The angel said, “This represents your evil heart, for it is out if the blackness of the heart that all thoughts and words and acts come.”
The Chinese say, “江山易改，本性難移 (Moving rivers and mountains is easy, changing a person’s nature is difficult” and “劃虎劃皮難劃骨, 知人口面不知心 (You can draw a tiger’s skin but not the bones; you can know a person’s mouth and face, but not his heart.”
Romans 7 is a classic passage on human nature, its origin and destiny, if you may. Four words gird Romans 7: law (23 times), sin (16 times), would/wish or “want to do” in NIV (7 times), and death (5 times).
Why does human nature behave as it does? Is man doomed to struggle or designed to succeed? Is there an end to the struggle? Where does it start and how does it stop?
Sin is the Villain
12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. 13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. 14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. (Rom 7:12-14)
Paul begins by asserting slavery to sin means death.
What is sin? Here are some suggestions:
“Sin is like a kidney stone. No one likes a kidney stone, nor should anyone like sin.”
“Sin is like a rotten egg we try to cover up with spices.”
“Sin is like a cancer with a 0% survival rate.”
“Sin is like weeds in a garden; if not rooted out, they will soon overrun it.”
“Sin is like having cataracts. It slowly adds a layer over our eyes, until sooner or later we can’t see too clearly anymore.”
“Sin is like a spider web. You get trapped in it.”
“Sin is like the bee, with honey in its month but a sting in its tail.”
“Sin is like gravity. It is an ever-present force. You can’t see it – only its effects.”
“Sin is like a snake, full of deadly poison. It is like a little spark that can burn up a great forest.”
“Sin is like an anesthetic; it has a numbing affect.”
“Sin is like a bullet in the body. There can be no strength and healing until the bullet is removed.”
“Sin is like the leak in the pipe; it will very likely cause you to fall every time.”
Sin is not child’s play. It must be exposed and admitted because it is “utterly sinful” (v 13). The word “utterly” is used five times in the Bible, the other four times translated as “most excellent” (1 Cor 12:31), “far beyond” (2 Cor 1:8), “far outweighs” (2 Cor 4:17) and “intensely” (Gal 1:13) and it produces death (v 13).
Everybody has an excuse and a scapegoat for sin. In this case, it is the law. Did the law bring death (v 13)? Is the law responsible for my death? Is it “wrongful death” and am I wrongly charged? Or is the law guilty as charged? The Greek for “by no means” (v 13, Rom 3:4, 3:31, 6:2, 6:15, 7:7, 9:14, 11:1, 11:11) is also translated elsewhere in the Bible as “certainly not” (Rom 3:6, Gal 2:17, 3:21), “never” (1 Cor 6:15) and “far be it” (Gal 6:14). No one enjoys laws, rules and codes, but Paul insists that death is the work of sin, not the work of the law. Remember, God’s law was given after man’s sin, not vice versa. The “law” is the Mosaic law and the “commandment” (v 12) is its authoritative moral and religious precepts.
Paul’s passionate argument is that the law and its teachings did nothing to stumble man, ruin lives or bring death. The law did not cause man to fall; sin is the villain and culprit, and it produces death (v 13).
The law, which was given after and not before the fall (Rom 5:13) to counter man’s sin, is fundamentally holy, righteous and good (agathos) (v 12), so it is unaffected by sin. The law is as good as it gets; it was given not to condemn man’s sin, but to lessen his guilt and reveal God’s holiness. It is was given as provision for man’s sin and not as penalty for man’s sin
In the chapters before, Paul states that the law is the judge (Rom 2:12) –hearing and deciding cases. The law is man’s conscience (Rom 2:15, 3:20) and his tutor (paidagogos) (Gal 3:24). It is the embodiment of knowledge and truth (Rom 2:20).
The law serves as a mirror, a messenger, so don’t shoot the messenger. When I look in the mirror in the morning and I do not like the corners of my hair standing up or jutting out, I need to wet my hair and comb it down. Sometimes, I’ll have to leave the house with a small comb stuck to the stubborn hair, allowing gravity to do its part. The most embarrassing is forgetting about the comb when I go to meet people.
Man is the Victim
15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do-this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. 21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God's law; 23 but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. (Rom 7:15-23)
A man was taken to court for stealing an item from a store. The man said to the judge, "Your Honor, I'm a Christian. I've become a new man. But I have and old nature also. It was not my new man who did wrong. It was my old man."
The judge responded, "Since it was the old man that broke the law, we'll sentence him to 60 days in jail. And since the new man was an accomplice in the theft, we'll give him 30 days, too. I therefore sentence you both to 90 days in jail."
The denial of man’s badness is so strong today that popular statements to deny his responsibility flourish, such as “He is not a bad person, but a good person who did a bad thing” and “He is not a bad person but he has only made some bad choices.” The beneficiaries include criminals and cheats.
Paul accurately portrays the predicament of man. There is no understanding or limit to the depths and despair of human nature, and no end to his mischief and malice either. No ban, boundary or bail is strong enough to deter him. It’s been said, “Rules are meant to be broken.” “Do Not” signs merely invite open rebellion.
The gym I frequent once placed a “Do Not Touch” sign on the temperature control box outside that goes from low 1 to high 10, due to patrons incessantly adjusting the temperature in the room. It did not work; even the sign disappeared! I suggested a “Wet Paint” sign would have done a better job. In today’s language, we say “I can’t help it” or “I can’t help myself.”
The human heart is worse than a can of worms. It does more damage than germs, viruses and diseases, playing its Jekyll and Hyde drama, tug of war sport, yes and no game in us all the time.
The dilemma of man and his struggle with sin, as exposed and expounded in verse 15, is so exquisite and intricate in Greek. There are basically only three “do” words in verse 15 - all at the end of a sentence; the “want to do” expression is merely “wish” in Greek. Verse 15 in Greek says: “For that I do (work out), not I know; for that I wish, not that I do. But what I hate, that I do.”
Paul says he does not “understand” or “ginosko” (know) what he is “doing” (1st “do”), the Greek word for “kat-ergazomai” means “work fully, work out, work through.” It has the “kata” preposition, meaning “against,” “through” or “out.”
Paul does not understand why he purposefully and preferentially do the wrong thing and make the bad choices – to its full extent or maximum limits bare. Further, there is no holding him back from testing the waters and pushing the boundaries. This “do” had to do with its extent, degree or scope – the edge. Understanding this helps readers to unravel the passage, because the word occurs five times in the chapter (Rom 7:13 –“produced”, 15 – “what I do”, 17 –“do”, 18 – “do”, 20 – “I who do it”).
The second do (complicated by NIV) has to with its regularity, typified by the last “do” (prasso) in verse 15 (“not do”). The last two “do’s” before this “prasso” word do not occur in Greek; it just means “wish.” Greek is simply “For not that I wish, I practice (prasso).” “Prasso” (vv 15, 19) is praxis/practice, to perform repeatedly or habitually, the same word translated as “keep on doing” in verse 19. Paul laments he cannot consistently practice good behavior. Good behavior is in bits and pieces, in fits and spurts, switched off and on.
The third “do” (poieo) is the decisive and outcome “do,” which occurs five times in the passage (Rom 7:15, 16, 19, 20, 21).
We do things contrary to our desire and profession to do well - in its complete extreme, constant exercise and conventional end. We sin to no end, we sin at all times and we sin to foregone conclusion. In the end he ended up returning to what he “does not want” or “hates” (miseo) (v 15) to do - precursor to the word “miso-gynist,” means to hate, detest. It is the “I hate to do it” or “I hate myself for it” syndrome. How complex, conflicted and contradictory. Doing right is a titanic struggle and an uphill struggle; doing wrong is a short step or a minor slip. The Chinese says, “學好必須十年功，學壞只須一分鐘 (Doing right requires ten years, doing bad requires just one minute).” The previous Chinese generation says, “要孩子學壞， 只須三日， 學好卻要三年 (Kids take three days to learn bad, three years to learn good.” Some have modified to say kids take three minutes or even there seconds to learn bad.
In truth, practice what you preach is easier said than done. The good you intend to do ends up not just merely bad, faulty or short, but evil (vv 19, 21) – sin’s Murphy's Law equivalent: If anything can go wrong, it will. Not only wrong, but wicked and wasted.
From utterly sinful (v 13) Paul progresses to “nothing good” (v 18) – one stating it in the positive and the other in the negative. The sooner we admit “nothing good” lives in us (v 18), the better it is. Paul uses the construction word “lives” (oikeo) (vv 17, 18, 20), meaning “occupies” or “inhabits,” from the verb “house” in Greek. Good can visit but not stay. Good is merely a renter, but evil is the new occupant. Further good has no intention or ability to stay. Instead sin lives or dwells (vv 17, 20) in me. Sin not a stranger or guest, but a housemate and a landlord. “Right there” (v 21) is parakeimai or to lie near, i.e. be at hand.
Sin is likened to a combatant “warring against” (anti-strateuomai) (v 23) the law of my mind (nous) and “making me a prisoner” (aichmalotizo). The former is the contest; the latter is the conquest - the engagement versus the exile. The latter Greek word occurs three other times, translated as “taken as prisoners” (Luke 21:24), “take captive” (2 Cor 10:5) and “gain control” (2 Tim 3:6).
Christ is the Vindicator
24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. (Rom 7:11-25)
Paul acknowledges that the law, for all its virtues, merits and reserves, is not the answer, too.
Here are some quotations on the law:
“The Law is like an x-ray. It cannot cure cancer, but it can point cancer out.”
“The law is like a map. And a map is better than nothing if you're wandering around on a trackless mountainside: it will at least tell you if you're lost.
“The law is like a mirror. It shows us that we are sinners, but it does not provide the solution.”
“The law is like a flashlight. It shines in the dark and points out the problem, but it cannot fix things.”
“The law is like a bully with a whip, who herds us towards the truth of God. It is extremely painful to go, but it is worse to resist.”
The law, good as it is, was given to sinful men to relive him from his guilt, but not release him his sin. It is “better than nothing” and “better than before,” but is not the best. It serves its purpose but it is not salvation either. It is more like a relief, a respite and a reprieve from sin. A band-aid, if you may. A nurse, but not the surgeon. The law, as the Chinese say, “治標不治本 (treats the exterior, not the issue),” the outside, not the inside.
Jesus Christ our Lord is the one and only vanquisher of sin. The word “rescue” is “deliver” (v 24), and his deliverance is “out of” (ek) (stronger than “from”) the body of death. A track of the Greek word “deliver” tells us Jesus Christ has delivered us from three things: (1) death (v 25), (2) the dominion of darkness (Col 1:13), and (3) the coming wrath (1 Thess 1:10). Nowhere in the Bible does it tell us believers are delivered from sin or temptation. The battle rages on. The nature of man is unchanged, but the spell and curse of sin is broken. There is no difference between a believer and an unbeliever. One is an impenitent sinner and the other a penitent sinner; the former an unsaved sinner but the latter a saved sinner – one acknowledges himself a sinner, the other does not even know. At least now converted sinners have an alternative - serve God in one’s mind even though the flesh (“sinful nature” v 25) persists.
The other reason why believers are delivered from death (v 24) rather than from sin is because sin has no control over the dead, but death’s stranglehold is from Adam to eternity. There is no sin in heaven but death is decided upon heaven’s doors. Sin has a life span but death has no timeline.
Note also that Paul say we are delivered from death, not the law. The law is a Jewish issue, but death is a bigger issue and the last enemy (1 Cor 15:26). Death is a universal experience, so it requires a universal solution. Also, we need no deliverance from the law, since the law is primarily provided for the Jews, not for the world. The law is fine and good (Rom 7:13) as it is. Sin, not the law, deceived men and produced death. (Rom 7:11, 7:13). The sin of Adam’s race came way before the law was given in Moses’ time. Sin reigned from the time of Adam (Rom 5:14). Adam represents the human race and ancestry. The victim is humanity, man as a whole. The fierce onslaught of sin is an experience common to all men, not just the Jews.
Conclusion: Who do you serve – sin or the Savior? Do you allow sin get the best of you? Do you fight sin in your own strength or with the Lord’s help? Are you active or inactive in the Savior’s service warring against sin and delivering victims from death?
1. What is Paul’s view of the Law in general?
2. What is Paul’s view of the Law in relationship to sin? Our culture tends to change the rules, values and even laws to accommodate people. Example: Cohabitation is common nowadays; it really is not a sin. How is Paul’s view different from the secular view?
3. How is the law spiritual? What does that mean?
4. Is sin (original sin / sinful nature) or the sin living in us responsible for the evil we do? Who/what is responsible for our doing good?
5. Do you have similar experience like Paul – desiring to do good but cannot carry it out. What is your example?
6. What is the inner tension that results in Paul feeling like a wretched man? Do you share the same feelings struggling?
7. What exactly is Jesus’ rescue? Consider your personal examples. Do we have the same struggle with the laws at work our body and in our mind?