by Alfred T. Overstreet
In answering the objection in chapter five that "Paul taught that the flesh is sinful and that sin dwells in the flesh," I made the statement that "Every kind of foolish and superstitious belief can be proved from the Bible if it is not interpreted according to the demands of context, language, common sense, and reality." As an illustration of this, I referred the reader to the passage in Romans 7:14-25, which is used to teach that the Apostle Paul was himself in bondage to sin at the time he wrote his epistle to the Romans.
Let us look at this passage and see how it is misinterpreted by not paying due regard to language, context, common sense, and reality:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. Rom. 7:14-25.
If we read this passage without paying any attention to its context, it looks like Paul the Apostle was a total slave to his lusts and passions at the time he wrote this epistle. But if we give attention to its context, we know that the Apostle was not describing his own experience at all in the above passage. He spoke in the first person, and uses the word I, not to describe his own personal experience, but as a literary device to illustrate the total bondage of the convicted sinner to his fleshly desires and passions. That Paul used himself as an example or illustration of one who was in carnal servitude to the law, and not to describe his own personal experience, is seen, first of all, by the language he uses:
For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. Rom. 7:14
Now Paul was a Christian, and Christians are not "carnal, sold under sin." Instead, they are spiritual and redeemed from sin. Paul was describing the experiences of someone who did not yet know Christ, who was still in bondage to his sins (carnal, sold under sin), and was face to face with a spiritual law. And he speaks in the first person, using himself to illustrate the bondage of this convicted sinner, who was trying to obey a spiritual law without Christ and the liberating power of God's grace.
But Paul's conclusion in verses 24 and 25 shows that what he was illustrating was not a Christian experience because he declared that Christ delivers from it:
O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.
Many Christians have stumbled over the last part of verse 25, which says "So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin" and have concluded that after all the Apostle had said about being delivered through our Lord Jesus Christ, that he was still in bondage to sin. But the last part of this verse is merely his summing up of all he had said before about the bondage of the convicted sinner who is struggling to keep the righteousness of a spiritual law without Christ. This is a recapitulation to emphasize one more time that, without the deliverance that comes through the Lord Jesus Christ, the sinner will forever remain a slave to his fleshly lusts. He may be convicted by the law, he may see the exceeding sinfulness of his sins, he may make resolutions in his mind to do what is good and right, but he will forever remain a slave to his fleshly lusts unless delivered from sin by our Lord Jesus Christ.
To teach from this passage that the Apostle Paul was living in bondage to sin when he wrote this epistle is to completely take his words out of context. For example, look at chapter six. It does not teach that Paul or any other Christian is in bondage to sin. Paul teaches in this chapter that Christ completely delivers from the power of sin:
verse 2 "How shall we that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?"
verse 6 "Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin."
(The "old man" that was crucified with Christ and the "body of sin" that was destroyed here in the sixth verse was not our literal body of flesh, but rather the sinful moral person we were before wecame to Christ. Paul uses figurative language inthis verse to speak of the moral and spiritual change wrought in us by the grace of Christ.)
verse 14 "Sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law but under grace."
verse 17 "Ye were the servants of sin..."
verse 18 "Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness."
verse 20 "When ye were the servants of sin..."
verse 22 "But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life."
Paul shows in chapter six of Romans that Christ completely frees the believer from the dominion of sin. He continues in chapter seven to show that the law has no such power. Those who are familiar with the Bible will know that in chapter three of Romans, Paul shows that no one can be justified by the law, since all, both Jews and Gentiles, have sinned and are condemned by the law. Then, in chapter seven of Romans, he shows that the law cannot sanctify. It cannot deliver the sinner from the awful bondage of his sins and make him holy. The law is holy, just, and good (Rom. 7:12) but it is powerless to make the sinner himself holy, just, and good. The law gives no life; it only brings conviction of the "exceeding sinfulness" of sin (Rom. 7:13) and pronounces judgment upon the sinner for his sins. The Apostle's argument is that the law is absolutely powerless to break the power of sin or inspire holiness. It is only through our union with the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 7:4-6) that we receive life and grace and are set free from the bondage of sin.
It was after showing the glorious power of Christ to deliver from the bondage of sin, and the utter inability of the law to do anything more than judge and convict of sin, that the Apostle uses himself as an illustration of one who is in the bondage of a carnal servitude to the law--one who is convicted by the law of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, but still unable by the motives of the law to free himself from his fleshly passions and lusts. But, if Paul were describing in Rom. 7:14-25 his own Christian experience or the experience of any other Christian, it would directly contradict everything he said in both chapters six and eight about the Christian being freed from sin. It is impossible that the Apostle could be inspired by the Holy Spirit to teach the contradiction that the Christian is both gloriously saved by Christ from his sins and at the same time a total slave to them. This is the folly of interpreting a text without giving attention to its context.
It is sad that many who call themselves Christians have misused this text in Romans 7:14-25 to excuse their sins, saying that even the great Apostle Paul could not overcome sin, and that they don't consider themselves to be any greater or more spiritual than he. They say that they are having the same experience that the Apostle Paul had in Romans seven, that sin dwells in them the same as it dwelt in Paul, and that we all have inherited the same old Adamic sin nature. They will say that if the Apostle Paul could not overcome sin, they don't see how they can expect to live without sin. I heard one preacher's comment in the Sunday morning service after having read this passage. His comment was "I'm glad this is in the Bible; it makes me feel a lot better." He assumed that Paul was describing his own Christian experience, and it relieved his conscience to know that the Apostle Paul was in bondage to sin just like other Christians. But the person who uses this passage to relieve his conscience and to convince himself that he is a Christian while living in bondage to sin is deceiving himself. He is not a Christian. No man is a Christian who is a slave to sin. Christ sets his people free from their sins.
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit. Rom. 8:1-4
Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. Rom. 8:7-10
If Rom. 7:14-25 were a description of Paul's own Christian experience, it would directly contradict the Christian experience he describes above. He says, "There is now no condemnation"; "Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death"; and "The righteousness of the law" is "fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit." The experience he described in Romans seven was a woeful experience, filled with condemnation, bondage, sin, and death. Is it conceivable that all the Christians to whom Paul wrote were victorious, sin free, uncondemned Christians, and that Paul alone was a condemned, sin enslaved Christian? That would have to be the fact if Paul were truly describing his own Christian experience in Rom. 7:14-25. Let's compare the experience Paul describes in Rom. 7:14-25 with what he taught to be the Christian's victory over sin through Christ. First, Paul said of the experience of one under the law without Christ:
--I am carnal, sold under sin. Rom. 7:14
--Sin dwells in my flesh. Rom. 7:14, 20
--I am in the flesh. Rom. 7:18
--There is absolutely nothing good in me, and I can do absolutely nothing good. Rom. 7:18
--I can't do good, and I can't refrain from evil. Rom. 7:15,18
--Although I recognize the law to be holy, just, and good, it is absolutely impossible for me to obey it. Rom. 7:22,23
--I war against sin but I am continually overcome by sin and made its slave. Rom. 7:23
--I am condemned, I am wretched, and I need deliverance from the dominion of this body of sin and death. Who can deliver me? Rom. 7:24
None of the above verses describes the experience of a Christian. Paul taught that for the Christian:
--There is now no condemnation. Rom. 8:1
--Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. Rom. 8:2
--The righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us. Rom. 8:4
--The Christian is not carnal and not in the flesh, but in the spirit; and that the Spirit of Christ and of God dwells in him. Rom. 8:7-10
--That the Christian's body is dead because of sin, and that his mortal body has been quickened by the Holy Spirit that dwells in him. Rom. 8:10, 11
We can be certain that Paul was not describing his own Christian experience in Rom. 7:14-25, for we find that he said he was carnal, that he was sold under sin, that he had a carnal mind (which, he says later in chapter eight) was enmity against God, not subject to the law of God, and that neither indeed could be. He said that he was definitely in the flesh, and that he still had a sinful body, a body of death, or a sinful body condemned to death, which he cried out to be delivered from.
On the other hand, he told the Christians in chapters six and eight that they were not carnal, but spiritual; that they were no longer walking after the flesh; that they were not sold under sin, but gloriously delivered from the bondage of sin; that they did not have a carnal mind, but a spiritual mind; that they were not in the flesh, but in the Spirit; and that they did not have a sinful body, but that their body was dead. Now, if Paul was describing his own bondage to sin in Rom. 7:14-25, then he was describing his own bondage and slavery to sin at the same time that he declared all the Christians to whom he wrote to be gloriously liberated from the bondage of sin. Such an inconsistent conclusion can only be reached as a result of ignoring context, language, common sense, and reality in interpreting the Scriptures.
No one can come to the Bible with a sincere heart, and read all of chapters six, seven, and eight of Romans, comparing chapter seven with chapters six and eight, and then come away believing that Paul was describing his own Christian experience in Rom. 7:14-25. It is impossible. The contradictions involved in such an interpretation are too obvious.
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