IS SIN A DEAD(LY) PROBLEM?
Is sin a dead issue or a deadly problem?
Recently, two boys swimming in a pool in Pennsylvania took off the pool intake grate and one of the boys got his leg stuck in the suction underwater, and he couldn't breathe. A man at the pool with his family quickly jumped in the pool and gave mouth to mouth under water. He was under for 8 minutes when first responders pulled him out. The boy lived.
Today in reading Romans 7 we must realize we have all broken the rules, removed the grate and gotten sucked under water, helpless. We need rescue. What was the problem that day in the pool? The grate, suction, regulations, pool owners, parents, the boy removing the grate?
Likewise in Rom 7, what’s the problem? Law? Paul? Jews? Gentiles? Us? Sin? To understand Romans 7, it's helpful to see that Paul uses a series of analogies, comparisons, metaphors to move from what he’s said so far, to explain God’s purposes in using the law to expose sin then deal with it in the new Adam, Jesus the Messiah.
It’s also helpful to define terms: sin is anything destroying the image of God and God’s good creation, and law here is the Torah, the law of Moses, not some general idea of law.
In the first section (7:1-12) Paul addresses people who know the law (v. 1) with a metaphor (“likewise” v. 4). It’s not about marriage, but what’s it about?
In 7:4-5 Paul expresses what look like sexual, marriage imagery (passion, bind, produce) to what end? Paul deepens the marriage metaphor in order to show how the law arouses sin! Whoa! Here in vs. 4, Paul has a unique and powerful name for God. What is it? A favorite phrase Paul will use again in Rom 8 is "the One who raised Jesus from the dead." Paul gives a clue to the results (fruit for God, life not fruit for death).
Israel has by trying to keep the law but failing bound (marriage) itself to Adam but they must bind themselves to a new master, the Messiah.
Is law the same thing as sin? Paul asks rhetorically. Then he answers his own question. By no means? No, the Law showed me that to want other people’s stuff is something tarnishing image of God, coveting ignores image of God in one I’m coveting.
Is Paul dissing law? (8:12, 14) No, Paul is not anti-law. Paul is following what Jews have always said, that law was meant to give life (Deut 30:15-20; Lev 18:5).
But law falls short of giving life — God intended law to show sin to be utterly sinful (v. 13), exposing it for its deadliness. This is a huge problem today, that sin is not seen for the deadly utterly evil killer monster that it is!
With me so far? So is the law the problem? Israel? No. Are Paul’s convulsions the problem?
Sometimes I have to preach against certain interpretations, such as reading 7:15-20 as individuals thinking this vacillation is model for the Christian life, no! Paul is neither promoting moral confusion nor moral triumph. Paul’s got a bigger point in mind about what we all need.
N.T. WRIGHT SAYS ROMANS 7 IS NOT AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL
N.T. Wright proposes we not read the “I” as Paul’s autobiography, or any one person, but the “I” in ways ancient writing often used, as representative of collective, in this case Israel.
Remember the categories of Adam-Christ (Rom 5), and Israel is given the law, but Paul is pointing out that one of the key functions of the law was to show the irony of the agents who are to be light, helping-healers to all nations who are also carriers of the disease of Adam! The law has given light but can't give ultimate life that it promises.
Parables and analogies are imperfect and don't hold up completely, but here's one of mine to try and explain the law. The relationship Israel has with the law is like a security system installer who had never thought about stealing till she started learning how easy it would be to break into people’s houses. Was the security system flawed? No, but the system opened to human weakness now had within it sin that must be dealt with. Another round of security codes? No. She needed an honest partner! That’s what Paul is driving at, the honest partner and faithful Israelite must be the new spouse.
As N.T. Wright says, the law does not get Israel out of the mess but intensifies the mess and makes sin known. No matter how much Israel tries to hug up to the law--they were called to wrap the Torah around them like a coat--the coat is like itchy wool and keeps reminding them with tha itch that says, "You broke me!" They end up the same as Gentiles, morally incapable and good as dead.
So, the problem is neither the law nor Israel, but what is the problem? What is the problem/verdict? That’s what Paul comes to in 7:21. Again, Paul is not anti-law or anti-Israel but pro Torah law, pro Israel. But the law will never be enough.
The paradox is that Israel was to be God’s agent of redemption. The law was not for moralizing, separation of people with competition for who is most moral, a continual war between religions and humans. That happens today, too. No, the law was meant to expose sin and lead to redemption through the faithful Israelite, the Messiah.
Remember sin is anything bent on destroying God’s good and redemptive purposes, bent on spoiling image of God in humans, and we are all trapped hopelessly in it, even those with the good law!! The paradox is that we who think we have it made, come to church, have the B-I-B-LE are trapped and need rescue, too. That's why Paul speaks of redemption as rescue: "Who will rescue me (read Israel, us) from the body of death?”
He answers his own question: God will, through Jesus the Messiah.
So if Law and Israel are not the problem, then the problem must be sin! Sin is deadly, not to be taken casually as if God won't judge sin, and we are so dead we need resurrection, like the boy in the pool!
The intent of law isn't morality for separation nor does it help to place marble ten commandment tablets on courthouse lawns, but the Torah functioned to shed light, point the path to Messiah, to expose the real problem of sin and death. Ultimately, Torah is redemptive because it exposes sin and points to Jesus.
Years ago I quoted in a sermon one of our members, Curtis Burgess, who said, "The Bible is a finger pointing to Jesus." Jacob knew what I was going to do that day, knew I was going to line people up on one side as people of the Law, Prophets and Writings pointing to the cross, and people of the gospels, letters, and apocalypse on the other side pointing back to the cross. The photo is in this post. Notice Jacob brought his foam finger that day!
So, to accomplish dealing with sin, therefore, God sent not just the Torah but Jesus and the Spirit! After Paul says, "wretched man that I am, who will save me from the body of death," and we consider that this singular tense stands for all of Israel, the reply comes like this: “Thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord.” But there's more. What to us may have once looked like ramble or confusion sets up the most powerful writing of Paul in Rom 8!
Redemption, rescue, ransom, salvation is not just something that impacts us in the life to come but also now. We are renewed in our hearts and minds, transformed. The transition Paul is advocating from the law to the life in the Spirit of Christ shows that the law exposed sin and gets us ready for the gospel of Jesus. Terry Rush said at the funeral of Marvin Phillips that "Marvin challenged me to move from church rules posed by man to church life offered by Jesus.
What am we supposed to make of all this? We live not as confused but wholly dependents daily on grace, and in response to this grace we dive in with our whole lives. We don't keep one foot in Adam and one foot in Christ. We put both hands to the plow in loving service. When I think of loving service I think of my wife, Jill. I’m proud of Jill receiving Top 5 Broken Arrow District Teacher of the Year for the 2017-18 school year. At the Gala last week Jill’s and my friend Donna Gradel, Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, told a story to the teachers that I want to apply to Romans 7.
In the 1980s Donna was influenced as a young woman by a compassionate man named Brother Littlefield. One day Brother Littlefield and some of the students including Donna were collecting food for the poor from a farm. Following him along a path with dirty hands from the work, suddenly Brother Littlefield stopped, turned around and addressed the line of students walking behind him.
"Hold out your hands," Brother Littlefield said. “Look at your hands. What an amazing part of our body. You can use your hands to hold something or throw something. You can use them to build something or tear something down. You can use your hands to write a kind letter or an angry accusation. You can use them to gently guide someone or fiercely shove them away. You can use them to embrace and comfort someone or to slap someone in the face. You can use them for good or for evil. What are you going to do with your hands, Donna? How will use them for the rest of your life?”
Brother Littlefield’s words call us to use both our hands to move from Adam’s world, from the law of sin and death and instead to fulfill the law of the Spirit of life in Christ. Paul is not saying we are at war with some kind of two selves, between hands, but daily renew our total two-handed dependence on God who raised Jesus from the dead and is our only hope to change our hearts and raise us on the last and glorious day.
BILLY GRAHAM QUOTE FROM STEVEN CURTIS CHAPMAN SONG
Billy Graham said, “Where is the hope? I meet millions who tell me they feel de-moralized by the decay around us. Where is the hope? To apply more laws? The hope is not in who governs us or what laws are passed or what great things we do as a nation. The hope is in the power of God working through the hearts and lives and hands of people. And that’s where our hope is in this country, and that’s where our hope is in life.”
“Thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom 7:25).
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.