This second installment of a three-part series will be a somewhat inductive, somewhat conversational study of Romans 7. To quickly recap some of what I mentioned in the introduction to the Romans 6 article, I initially decided a while ago to write on Romans 7, primarily to address the divide that exists in various ecclesiastical circles, including pockets of Adventism, as to whether Paul was converted or unconverted during his “unilateral” (I say it this way simply due to the fact that no other persons were involved, as such) battle between wanting to do what is right and often doing the opposite instead.
I do not expect to eradicate the divide altogether, but if I can at least make a modest contribution to assisting us, as a body of believers, in better comprehending what the Lord wants to communicate to His people regarding such priceless gospel realities, then it is time well spent. In addition, this has a personal impact. I, like anyone else, yearn to know, on a consistent basis, where I am with God, especially at times when I more or less mimic Paul’s experience.
In developing my original inclination, I prayerfully decided it would be wise to write on chapters 6 and 8 as well. There is a synergy between these three chapters in which understanding one of them through the context of the other two is well-nigh mandated. To that end, as your schedule allows, please read the previous post on Romans 6, before continuing if possible. In the meantime, let us embark on our study of Romans 7.
The introductions to chapters 6 and 7 are hinged by the utilization of the death analogy. However, Paul took two distinct approaches. As beneficial as object lessons from simple, mainstream sources can be in augmenting our understanding of more elevated subjects, we must admit that any given analogy is inherently limited. These limits multiply when attempting to compare two or more of them. Nevertheless, we will do our best to determine which components clearly pair together, which ones take more prayerful, diagnostic thought to identify any existing links, and, when necessary, humbly accept that there might be rationales for why the apostle and/or the heavenly Helper were not as explicit as we would have liked.
I will take the liberty of contradicting Julie Andrews (lead actress in the cinema classic, The Sound of Music) and start at the end. That will be a better place to start. In both introductions, something occurs after death, and the synonymity is reasonably apparent—unity with Christ. The emphasis in chapter 6 is us sharing, by faith, in His death, burial, and resurrection, thus effecting the new life that we so desperately need. Through certain key words, this confirms what Jesus declared to Nicodemus. Shades of this are in chapter 7, specifically verse 4. However, Paul went in a different and vital direction by framing this unity with Christ within matrimonial parameters.
Those who have read my work before have likely noticed my proclivity to temporarily wander onto straying paths. I will do more of that in this piece. Please mercifully bear with me. There is a method to my madness. Anyhow, many divisions exist in our church, and the diverse positions and the people who hold them get slapped, irresponsibly and disrespectfully, in numerous situations, with a hearty handful of familiar labels, the two most common being “conservative” and “liberal.”
I will not beat around the bush—I lean toward the conservative side much of the time. Notwithstanding, there are some things that I beg of everyone:
- Let us not ride party lines in such a rigid manner and thereby imitate the patterns of the political realm. Assessing an issue in its own sphere is way more in keeping with intellectual integrity and honesty.
- Let us be courteous and gracious with one another, especially avoiding putting a brother or sister in a cramped little box. It is possible to zealously uphold the biblical standards that mark our identity as Seventh-day Adventist Christians and still saturate this zeal in principled love and compassion.
Going further, one of the ways in which my “fellow right-wingers” frustrate me is by viewing “relationship,” subconsciously or otherwise, as a four-letter word. To these folks, I extend some simple advice: STOP IT! Paul did not randomly use the marriage correlation because he was some hopeless romantic. THE point of the gospel is to restore a close, intimate bond between humanity and God. He did not create us and the other beings throughout the universe to be subjects; He created us to be family.
I will not deny the validity of the claim that some “left-wingers” use “relationship” as a crutch for loose living, and that frustrates me too. We can get into this a little more later, but for now, what I will say is that we must treat the relationship motif with painstaking care, primarily due to its multifaceted complexion. We require divine aid to strike a balance in simultaneously relating to Yahweh as a friend, husband, father, and sovereign authority.
Getting back on track, what happened after the deaths in Romans 6 and 7 are pretty easily bridgeable. Bridging the deaths themselves will take some extra effort. To be reborn and betrothed to Jesus, we are to die to sin, according to chapter 6, and the law, according to chapter 7. Huh? Well, though we reconciled the after-death events with little difficulty, it is obvious that Paul did not ink homogenous expressions, but rather complementary ones. I believe there is also a complementary nature to these deaths.
The former Pharisee, in 7:5, made a connection between sin and the law that should be helpful. Understanding this and the surrounding subsection is predicated on the realization that a major component to his theology—biblical theology, for that matter—was that sin is an issue of condition, as well as behavior. Paul, without reticence, went passed the wrongs we commit with our hands, feet, mouths, etc. and cited what is wrong—not with the law, for there is nothing wrong with the law; it is “holy and righteous and good” (v. 12, NASB)—with us on the inside.
If it can even be said that the law has any accountability in stirring our evil passions, here is why: God has established a government/environment upon the foundation of altruistic, benevolent agape. This government/environment, with its codification in stone, is an affront to conceited narcissists like us. This has been mankind’s wiring since Satan, through Adam, opened the floodgates, which is why we must be reborn and rewired.
Something else in verses 4 and 5 that should elicit at least a modicum of our attention is the juxtaposition of two contrasting fruits. The chief reason why the fruits of our sinful desires lead to death is because they sever us from the timeless Life-giver. With that said, I will propose a secondary reason that might be more basic. Against the self-serving backdrop of the devil’s domain, in which every being makes himself or herself numero uno, everyone else is an enemy, if not immediately, then eventually, for a person’s chase toward and attainment of ambition will, at some point, be at another person’s expense. This enmity fosters war, which can never be anything other than a cacophony of destruction.
In polar opposition, God perpetuates life, directly with His sustaining power, of course, but also, I am convinced, by streaming the essence of His character (see 1 John 4:8, 16) through the worlds and people He has made. Currently, it is just with sanctified imaginations that we can view the other planets and their inhabitants, who aced the test that earth’s first parents failed. They manifest the Creator’s original order. They put Him first and their neighbors ahead of themselves. They keep the commandments and replicate the attributes of Galatians 5:22–23. This fosters a harmony that has eternal staying power, and it is this harmony that our Redeemer labors to accomplish in us as we maintain our faith in Him and His will.
In affirming his stance on the flawless quality of God’s law, Paul particularly references the tenth commandment, and I tend to think this was on purpose and not arbitrary. Covetousness threads through every form of iniquity. A person steals after cultivating a craving for an object that mushrooms outside sensibility. A person commits sexual infidelity after nurturing an appetite for and despicable objectification of someone else that proliferates beyond common decency. The list can go on.
Covetousness reflects a longing for fulfillment apart from the One who alone can provide the fulfillment we genuinely need. The “problem,” according to our faulty perspective, is that since He often does so contrary to our base urges, we become dissatisfied with Him and venture into the hazardous territory of crafting counterfeit gods. The Lord wants us to be happy, but He also wants us to be holy. In a perfect milieu, they go hand-in-hand, but in this wretched setting, holiness takes precedence until He erases this wretchedness permanently.
In a sense, we already discussed why happiness must take a back seat. Against this selfish backdrop, each person’s brand of happiness will inevitably clash with other brands, and this conflict leads to anarchy and death, as does unplugging ourselves from the Power Source.
I previously alluded to the debate over Romans 7, and that debate is specifically over verses 14 through 25. Based on how the two classic camps have partitioned—converted or unconverted—I will say up front that I tilt closer to the converted camp. Unpacking this in meticulous detail would be worthwhile, and it could easily take a dissertation to do so, but I will not go in that direction this time. Within the boundaries of this column, I will keep things pretty broad for the most part.
As I said before, with words being my livelihood, I am more sensitive to how semantics can enflame debates. In this case, “conversion” may be a sticking point. I encourage everyone, in both camps or any tertiary or neutral camps, to view conversion as progressive and not episodic—along a continuum and not in a capsule. If some have difficulty doing this and a gap still exists after mutual attempts to close it, then perhaps we can keep the word on the shelf for a period and implement alternative articulations.
Broadness aside for a moment, in examining some key pieces of evidence, verse 22 is a significant contributor to my tilt. A vocal contingent in the unconverted camp do not consider Paul’s delight in God’s law an indication of his conversion, for Pharisees were prone to this delight also. I don’t buy this, primarily because the missionary to the Gentiles just brought up dynamics such as sin being both conditional and behavioral and serving in newness of the Spirit instead of the oldness of the letter. To whatever extent Pharisees or anyone outside the family of God find “joy” in His commandments, it is rather in their self-interested reconstruction of them.
A swath of unconverted-camp representatives may focus on an important clause in verse 14—“sold into bondage to sin”—and reasonably so. Paul already highlighted the topic of slavery to either immorality or righteousness in chapter 6, with no overlap being possible. We will subtly address this issue from different angles as we conclude our study, but for now I recommend that everyone keep in mind the legitimate phenomenon of people, including Paul, gaining increased awareness of their miserable states because of their increased closeness to Christ. Ellen White sprinkled this concept throughout her writings. Job considered himself vile not long after God called him upright (see 40:4, 1:1).
At the onset of gathering my thoughts for this article, I anticipated, in addition to trekking through Romans 7 proper, that I would discuss some satellite themes that not only pertain to and supplement the passage, but also extend the depth of our soteriological understanding and the practical ramifications it would have. I do not intend this to just be a mental benefit, but a steadily flowing fountain of revitalization throughout our march to Zion.
When it comes to inheriting eternal life, I will suggest to you that there is one, and only one, fundamental requirement. With said, I do believe that this is accompanied by one functional request. The fundamental requirement is purity, while the functional request is maturity.
If anyone considers maturity a requirement and not just a request, I will not fault you for it. In fact, on a personal level, that someone would be right. On a personal level, we need to consider maturity a functional requirement, more or less. I will elaborate on that soon. However, it is not appropriate to stretch this out to a global level.
Why would I say that? The thief on the cross (the one on Jesus’ right side) is one impetus. Upon his remorseful acknowledgement of his wickedness and humble acknowledgement of Christ’s lordship, the Savior bestowed to him an invitation to paradise—an invitation that He extends to each of us. The only ticket with which the thief will enter heaven and the new earth is purity. Maturity will not even be a stub on that ticket. Why not? After his conversion, he lived, at most, several more hours. He had practically no time to mature.
It is due to this and countless, similar examples that we should, for all intents and purposes, avoid calling maturity a requirement across the board. However, being consistent with what I said earlier, the line between request and requirement is very fuzzy for us as seasoned, veteran disciples. If we do not grow throughout our Christian journeys, we will eventually forfeit the purity that Jesus gifted to us, and again, this purity is the only thing that makes us eligible to live forever in the presence of a sacred God.
I referred to party lines earlier, and a set of these lines appears to link the Romans 7 dissension to those regarding the nature of Christ and Last Generation Theology. I will not get into the nature of Christ at all, at least for a while, and a fellow Compass writer will continue doing a thorough job in her series on LGT. In brief, I do believe that those at the end time who are sealed and translated without seeing death will reach optimal levels of both purity and maturity. In addition, I have no problem confessing that Paul, in the Romans 7 context, was not ready for translation. Nevertheless, I have concluded that he had already accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
For the sake of time, we will conclude this study. I may carry over some of my intended satellites into Part 3, depending on how seamlessly they fit into the greater premise. Before wrapping up, let’s look at how Paul ended chapter 7. In verse 24, he followed up his thorough admission of his struggles with a desperate cry: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” He then responds, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 25).
It seems like this would be the more organic close, but instead he recapped his struggles. The thankfulness appears vacuous or parenthetical. Nevertheless, I think it still points to chapter 8 and the role of the Holy Spirit, who, and I say this with the utmost reverence, is the lynchpin in our quests to put our wrestling matches with sin behind us and embody the image of God.