by George Bailey.
“I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7: 18-19)
I find this accurately describes the battleground of my daily spirituality – and everyone I have ever asked about it agrees!
However, is this a situation we should just get used to, or one we should instead hope and even expect God to deliver us from? Romans chapter 7 divides opinion across the Christian tradition. Is Paul writing about an experience from before or after a person is transformed by Christ? What relation does this have to chapter 6, which describes the believer united with Christ as dead to sin and able to “walk in newness of life” (6: 3-4), and to chapter 8 which proclaims that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (8: 2)? Is the purpose of this vivid description of internal human struggle with sin and temptation to alert us to the ongoing reality of Christian life, or is it inviting us to go forward to promised freedom from a life of continual failure? Some have a pessimistic attitude to the potential for Christian transformation in this life; the focus for spirituality is the desperate need to rely only upon God, for even if we are open to God’s work we remain prone to sin. Others have an optimistic attitude to transformation; the focus for spirituality is expectation of the remarkable work of the Spirit changing people and freeing them from sin.
The tradition is fairly evenly divided on this. Most Lutheran and Reformed theology takes the pessimistic view – in this life humans remain always sinful, and can be righteous in God’s sight through Christ only in spite of this. Orthodox and Catholic theology tends to take a more optimistic view, within a theology of perfection, deification and sainthood. Wesleyan theology usually combines the two interpretations by seeing a progression through Romans 6, 7 and 8 such that we can be united with Christ, begin a process of sanctification which is characterised by the struggle with sin, and then reach a situation of more fully realised transformation. As Wesley puts it, Romans 7 “interweaves the whole process of a person reasoning, groaning striving and escaping from the legal to the evangelical state.”[i] In other words, there are two ways to be Christian, the first only half way to receiving the gospel, the second a total change of life inside and out.
The problems of interpreting Romans 7 also produces surprising positions within these broad traditions. For example, John Stott, though from a more Reformed background, adopts a position similar to Wesley by identifying Romans 7 with “Old Testament Christian” spirituality and Romans 8 with “New Testament Christian” spirituality.[ii] The hope is that Christians will progress from one to the other. Contemporary biblical scholarship also remains conflicted, though there is a trend towards something akin to a Wesleyan position developing. Richard Longenecker’s recent major study summarizes the range of opinion and itself interprets Romans 7 as about pre-Christian experience. He achieves this by arguing that the first person passage about sin is a rhetorical device Paul used as a ‘dramatic monologue’ to explain and offer the gospel to Gentile audiences.[iii]
What about us then? All these interpretations have merit, but only within careful theological positions and with close attention to the spirituality that flows from them. In Methodism there is a largely Wesleyan root, which some do continue to talk about, and most are happy to sing about. However, if, in the face of psychological reality and rightful acknowledgement of our own human weakness, we accept Romans 7 as the norm for Christian experience, whilst also shying away from the call to live a Romans 8 sanctified life of the Spirit, where does that leave us theologically, and spiritually? We may be taking the reality of sin seriously, but are we willing to entertain the possibility of actual transformation and freedom from it? We risk taking Romans 7 with a shrug and not much else. Whilst we might see problems with both the optimistic and the pessimistic take on Paul’s description of the confused human situation, both positions do have a wealth of deep and fruitful Christian spirituality behind them, and they encompass ways to receive God’s word through the integrity of Scripture; to accept neither may leave us with a shallow spirituality and no way to read Scripture and receive its message in all its fullness. This is a concern for individuals and their relationship with God – but also, as a church facing decline, this spiritual confusion may be closely tied to the challenges we find collectively when we try to engage with the world around us. I think a more robust theology of Romans 7 (and chapters 6 and 8!) is worth re-developing, or newly discovering, for deeper, fuller contemporary discipleship.
[i] Wesley, John, Explanatory Notes on the New Testament (1755), 1976 reprint ed., London: Epworth Press, Romans 7:14, p.543 (with “man” altered to “person”)
[ii] Stott, John, The Message of Romans, 1994, Leicester: IVP, pp.211-215
[iii] Longenecker, Richard, The Epistle to the Romans (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 2016, Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, p.659. See also Moo, Douglas J., The Epistle to the Romans, 1996, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans.