Can we shrug off sin?

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.

2 thoughts on “Can we shrug off sin?”

  1. John 21:15-17
    When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
    “Yes Lord,” he said “you know that I love you.”
    Jesus said “Feed my lambs.”
    Again Jesus said “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me?”
    He answered “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”
    Jesus said “Take care of my sheep.”
    The third time he said to him “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
    Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time “Do you love me?”
    He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
    Jesus said “Feed my sheep.”

    This was Jesus handing over pastoral care of his sheep to a man who had abandoned and denied him three times and had consistently misunderstood Jesus’ message of unconditional love and unfailing mercy.
    It would seem Jesus was more concerned that we love God and take care of each other than that we spend our lives striving for unattainable perfection.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I recently discovered how this blog works and then found a very intriguing article by George Bailey called “Can we shrug off sin”. Quoted a bit here – ““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?”.
    It seems there is a dichotomy between these two positions. This intrigued me. And it is not just Paul that was confused. The article mentions John Stott’s idea that Romans 7 is “Old Testament Christian” spirituality and Romans 8 is “New Testament Christian” spirituality. George Bailey has no clear cut answer.
    In my inner life, such as it is, the dichotomy does not arise. The dichotomy is about states of being, sinners or righteous, saved or not saved, forgiven or not-forgiven, good or evil. To me this is too individualistic. The injunction to love our neighbour is an ethical demand that is far removed from such navel gazing.
    But what if we see life and self and faith as processes of becoming, and that transcendence is not a state of being but an ethical aim? God’s love, which I take to be unconditional, is then the call to respond to the needs of others, to work for justice and fairness, to help make a world that is inclusive and non-judgmental. I rather like the idea that comes from Andrew Tallon that all human beings are self-obsessed narcissists in a process of becoming other-obsessed altruists. This the battleground of my daily spirituality!
    I suggest the motivation for this is given in Jeremiah 31: “‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds”. Also in Romans 2:15 and Hebrews 10 Paul says that the work of the law is written on their hearts. I like this way of understanding God’s love because it applies to all people: It is inclusive and non-judgmental and avoids the “Christian” pessimistic idea that we are sinners in need of repentance forever estranged from God or the over optimistic view that it is only Christians who are “saved”.
    Can we shrug off sin. My answer is yes!

    I have a question. Levinas wrote about ethical transcendence somewhere, in French, “God only arises in the context of the ethical concern I have for others”. This does not mean that we actually create God of course, but that God comes to our minds in that context. The question is does God arise in other contexts?


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