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Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time
With Romans chapter 7, we see St. Paul approaching the climactic moment of his argument on the grace of God in chapter 8. Here, he puts in place the definitive statement on the place of the Law given to Moses and its insufficiency to free us from our sin.
I am going to do something a bit different today than I normally do. I usually feel very comfortable in my understanding of a text, at least the basic accuracy of my interpretation of it, and so for better or worse I speak with a certain relative confidence that what I am saying is not unfaithful. This text, however, is among the most contested in the New Testament. I have held to both of the major interpretations of it, and both have strong arguments. So I want to be clear today that my position on the meaning of this passage is very provisional, but that the main point of the passage is fairly clear, even if our understanding of how it could vary.
The point is this: the Law of Moses can only condemn us without the rescuing grace of God.
The basic content of the passage is focused on the Law given to Moses. Paul explains that even though he stated before we are not under Law, and the Law condemns us, it in and of itself is good. The problem isn’t the Law, but the disease of sin within us can take even that and twist it, like cancer destroying healthy cells. The Law reveals to us what sin is, which then takes that and moves us to commit that very sin. With knowledge comes a dangerous power; it’s echoing back to Eden, and how knowledge corrupts. “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived 10 and I died, and the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” The Law is good, and revealed what sin was, but because we are too weak to obey the Law, it only leads us to more sin.
And then we get to the difficult part. Paul discusses how sin controls us, leading us ever deeper into our sinfulness. The inner man, the soul we might say, knows and wants to do what is good, but the sinful part of us leads us astray, and he doesn’t do what he wants, bu the very thing he hates. Sin wars against the desire to do good.
Here’s the hard part. When Paul says, “I,” is he speaking of himself in his present, as a regenerate Christian, and that struggle? Or is he speaking of himself, or humanity in general, prior to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit? In other words, is this struggle being described that of a Christian or a nonChristian?
While the main point more or less remains the same, the reason this matters is because how we answer this question gives us insight into the nature of the Christian life. If Paul is here speaking of himself as a Christian, then we see that the Christian life is one of continual struggle, where sin continues to hold immense power over us. However, this is not overly controversial to me, because there are plenty of other Scriptures that make that plain: we will continue to struggle with sin, before we are transformed by the power of God in the new creation.
The alternative is that what Paul describes is what life is like for someone living under the Law prior to being freed by the Spirit from the Law. I think this is the more likely interpretation of this passage, not because the alternative interpretation is not true conceptually, but simply because it is not what this passage is about. This is about what living under the Law without grace is like, what life seeking salvation by our own effort can produce.
I mainly think this because Paul uses here language he used elsewhere about slavery, and death, and we have been told that the regenerative Spirit that unites us to Christ frees us from sin and makes us alive to God. We, in our sin, cannot truly be obedient by simply knowing what we are supposed to or not supposed to do. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” We are rescued. Will we struggle? Yes. But we will also prevail, not of our own power, but because the Spirit can. We prevail through faith. To live under Law without grace is a burden. It requires constant anxiety about our performance. It leads us to become Pharisees, to create more rules to protect the rules themselves, to focus not on God but on our sin and how to eradicate it. To live under the Law is death, because despite our best efforts, sin will twist it and us, and we will be left in despair.
But the Gospel is grace, liberation, life. The Gospel is that Jesus gutted the power of sin, so that even though we will struggle with it, it is not inevitable. The Gospel makes it so that when we are on the precipice and ask, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” the answer can readily be given: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
That is who we are without grace: our shadow selves, always waiting to come through, to destroy relationships, lead us to destructive habits, weigh us down with guilt and shame. But the grace of God in the gospel of Christ destroys all that. Sin, using the law as a weapon, can’t burden us anymore. We are under the rule of grace. We can let go of anger because we can let go of our pride. We can reconcile relationships because we can choose honesty and forgiveness over spite. We can reject greed and theft because we know God will provide what we need. We can deny lust because we know God is the true source of our desires. We can let go of resentment and disappointment because we know that the whole world is in the process of healing, ourselves included, and that until Christ returns it will remain incomplete.
Sin has power over us, but we aren’t its slaves; the Law is good, but because of sin can only reveal sin and increase its sinfulness; we are no longer in a pitched war with our sin, but are freed by the Holy Spirit and the enemy crippled. I will end with the Apostle’s words: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Amen.
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