VIII. Texts that Transform
Romans 7:15,18-19, 22-24
18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
“A certain type of ministry of the gospel is cruel,” says J. I. Packer, in the opening sentence of “These Inward Trials,” the 21st chapter of Knowing God. It doesn’t mean to be, he admits, but it is. What kind of ministry is that? It is an evangelical, that is, a Bible-honoring ministry of the kind which I happened to encounter as a junior in college. Packer describes it as so playing down the “rougher side” of the Christian life “as to give the impression that normal Christian living is a bed of roses, a state of affairs in which… problems no longer exist.” Or, if problems do come, it insists that one need only trust and pray and “they will melt away at once.”1
Might there be a danger that our own studies have created the impression that the Christian’s life of obedience, of keeping the commandments (1 Jn 2:4) and of doing good works (Jas 2:14ff) is something that comes easily to us? When we say that there is a necessary and invariable connection between a true knowledge of God and commandment keeping, between faith and works, might we be heard as saying that obedience and good works result without a struggle? Might the struggling Christian conclude that he is not a Christian at all? If so, our ministry has become cruel.
The struggling Christian, Packer continues, wrongly taught to “regard all experiences of frustration and perplexity as signs of sub-standard Christianity,” now encounters “further bondage by the strait jacket of a remedy by which it proposes to dispel these experiences.” Struggle, according to this “cruel” type of ministry, is equaled with defeat, caused by a failure of “consecration” or “trust,” the cure of which is found in confession and reconsecration. “If he does this (it is affirmed), he will find himself once more, in the theological as well as metaphorical sense, on top of the world,” Packer explains.2
My problem was that the exciting rapid growth of my sophomore year of college was followed by a dark junior year of struggle. As a serious Christian, I didn’t know where I belonged any longer. I was living in a fraternity house, alienated by a brotherhood whose common bond seemed to be debauchery. I didn’t mind it the year before. Now I did. The “brothers” seemed to sense my discomfort and resented it. I felt ostracized, alone, isolated.
I was struggling with my own heart sins as well. I was discouraged by my lack of progress in the Christian life. I saw great joy and peace in other serious Christians, little in me, and wondered how I could be Christian at all when I was so unsettled all of the time? For most of my adult life I have been a happy person. I don’t worry much. I don’t get down. I whistle and sing a lot. I am at peace. I’m blessed with joy and contentment. But not then. I was down, and to use a word tossed around far too much, I was depressed.
My Christian friends responded mostly by telling me to get over it. They implied that I was being a bad witness. If the Christian life was as gloomy as I made it seem, who would want to become a believer? I was urged to be filled with the Spirit, and since the fruit of the Spirit is peace and joy, such would return to me. I was given the little blue “bird book” that I mentioned last time, in which I was taught “spiritual breathing.” Breathe out sin through confession, breath in the Spirit by asking, “Fill me with Your Spirit,” as Ephesians 5:18 requires. It’s God’s will for us to be “filled.” We’ve prayed according to God’s will. We have it. Trust that it is done. You are now filled. It is that simple, even mechanical. My mistake, I was told, or at least what I thought I heard was that I was striving. Why all this stress and strain? Why the morbid introspection and self-doubt? I needed to stop. I needed only to yield, to “let go and let God” and all would be well again. Just abide. “Allow” God to work. Just hand it over to Him and He’d win the victory for me. If I simply surrendered to Christ, He would fight my battles and all would be struggle-free peace and joy.
The result of this counsel from Job’s friends: my despondency compounded. Now I was not only down, but I was ruining my Christian witness, the realization of which cast me further and further into darkness. I was caught in a downward spiral, discouraged because I was discouraged, from which I feared I would not recover.
One day my Christian friends and I were reading a Campus Crusade Ten Basic Steps Toward Christian Maturity booklet, specifically Step 3, “The Christian and the Holy Spirit,” and happened upon a citation from Romans 7. Here are some highlights:
15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.
22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7:15, 18-19, 22-24)
As we read these verses I had a eureka moment. That’s me, I said to myself. The Apostle’s struggle deeply resonated with me. I want to do what is right. Yet, “I do the very thing I hate.” Yes, I do hate my sin. I “have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability.” “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” I am this weak, torn, conflicted, foolish person. I am the “wretched man.” Our study leader explained that Romans 7 was the Apostle Paul’s pre-Christian testimony and we needed to move on to Romans 8. Yet instinctively I knew better. As the Scot Alexander Whyte (1836-1921) said to his congregation, “You’ll never get out of the seventh of Romans while I’m your minister.”3 Indeed, we never do. We never escape the fight. We never arrive. Yet despite our divided minds and flawed lives, there is “no condemnation” for those in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).
What are the implications of Romans 7? Let me explain.
First, Romans 7 rebuts any notion of “complete sanctification” or perfectionism. B. B. Warfield, the “Lion of old Princeton” (1851-1921), wrote over 1000 pages on “Perfectionism” between 1918 and 1921.4 He devoted the last three years of his life to exposing its harmful flaws. Though there are various forms of perfectionism and semi-perfectionism, they are all essentially a protest against what was called “miserable sinner Christianity”: gloomy, defeated, morbid, sin-obsessed, failure-focused. Essentially what perfectionists say (or imply) in common is that the Christian life consists of two distinct acts of faith. By the first we are justified as we place our faith in Christ alone for salvation. Yet there is a second act of faith by which we receive the second blessing of full and complete sanctification. This is the “secret” of the Christian life, they say, which so many others have missed. Those “others” are genuine Christians, just not Spirit-filled.
This, by the way, is how one ends up with two classes of Christians: carnal and mature. If the carnal Christians would just learn to trust, to yield to God, they would no longer struggle with sin; they would enjoy perfect peace, joy, and contentment. As we walk in the Spirit we will no longer carry out the desires of the flesh (as in Rom 8:4ff and Gal 5:16, 17). Our aim as Christians, perfectionists maintain, is to reach this plateau, variously known as the “higher life” or “victorious life” or “abundant life.” They ask, can a believer avoid sin for a moment? How about two? On and on the moments may be strung for a lifetime. A guest lecturer during my student days at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary announced that he had not sinned in the previous 20 years, sin having been watered-down and redefined as “conscious sins” or “known sins.” Compare this outlook with that of the Apostle Paul:
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:12-14)
“Not that I have already obtained this” or “attained this” (KJV) “or am already perfect,” the “this” being the completed knowledge of Christ that will be ours in the resurrected or eternal state. “It belongs to the very essence of Christianity that we have not ‘attained,’” says Warfield, and “that sanctification is in progress and there is more to come.”5 No, he is not yet “perfect,” though for that perfected state he does strive. Jesus held out the goal of perfection when He commanded, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Yet we will never make it to perfection in this life. “I do not consider that I have made it,” he says. “I press on,” he says, “I press toward the goal,” he says again. Warfield quotes Luther with approval – Christians are not “made” but “in the making.”6 We will never be free from the remaining dregs of sin. We are free from the bondage of sin (Rom 6:3ff), but not the remnants. Even the Apostle Paul says, “The evil I do not want is what I keep doing” (Rom 7:19). We will always in this world be “straining forward to what lies ahead.” Until when? Until glory. Only then will we be glorified.
Expectations are crucial in the Christian life. If I am expecting that if I dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s” of the Christian life, that I will rise above the struggle, I may be crushed with disappointment and despair by my failure to reach that blissful state. If, however, I am taught that real progress can be made in the Christian life, that substantial victory over sin may be enjoyed, yet that I will never, ever complete that victory, that the fight is lifelong, that I am not only simul justus et peccator but semper justus et peccator, then I will be armed with reasonable expectations; then I will understand my struggle to be normal and lifelong; then I will not become despondent. Rather, I am still the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15, KJV). “When sin lets us alone,” says John Owen in his masterpiece, The Mortification of Sin, “we may let sin alone,” and we might add, and not before.7 As Luther said in the first of his 95 Theses, the whole life of believers, from beginning to end, from top to bottom is a life of repentance. The wise, old Heidelberg Catechism asks in connection with the Ten Commandments, “Can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?” It answers (in part), “No, but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience.”
Romans 7 also rebuts passivity, the kissing-cousin of perfectionism. If I can conquer sin completely, then the fight against sin is over. Perfectionism loses sight of the struggle and encourages a kind of passivistic piety. This is sanctification by realization. Realization of what? That the victory is already won by Christ. As we are justified by faith, so also are we sanctified by faith. One need only trust God to do the fighting. He battles. God takes care of defeating sin for us. He fights our fight. All we must do is yield to Him. Our job, as noted, is to “let go and let God.” God does it all.
Yet, Romans 7 is followed by Romans 8, as the perfectionists have pointed out, though not for the reasons which we will cite. The celebration of victory over sin in Romans 8:1-4 yields to the sober reality of Romans 8:5-13. There the Apostle Paul calls us by the Spirit to “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13; cf Col 3:5). The old word for this was “mortify.” He uses active language. His words indicate continuous, vigorous exertions. Moreover, mortification, says Owen, is a daily work. “Cease not a day from this work,” he warns. “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.”8
“Strive to enter through the narrow door,” Jesus urges, utilizing terminology despised by the perfectionists (Lk 13:24). The word translated “strive” (agōnizomai, to struggle) is used seven times in the New Testament, each in a positive sense. Describing his ministry, the Apostle Paul says, “I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col 1:29). God supplies the energy, we toil and struggle. We “toil and strive,” he insists (1 Tim 4:10). He describes prayer as “struggling on your behalf” (Col 4:12). He characterizes to Timothy the whole Christian life as a fight: “Fight the good fight of faith,” or literally “struggle (agōnizomai) the good struggle (agōn) of faith” (1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7). It is a fight undertaken by faith, but it is a fight, it is a struggle. It is not easy. We “struggle against sin” (Heb 12:4, antagonizomai).
Activistic language is used throughout the New Testament as we are urged to “put off” sin and “put on” righteousness (Rom 13:12-14; Eph 4:22-24ff; Col 3:8-12). We are to “flee” immorality (1 Cor 6:18) and “pursue” righteousness (1 Tim 6:11; 2 Tim 2:22); to “hold fast” to our “confession” and “hope” (Heb 4:14; 6:18; 10:23; 1 Cor 15:2; Rev 3:11); to “be diligent” (spoudazō), a term applied five times to the Christian life. We are urged to be diligent to enter our eternal rest lest we fall away (Heb 4:11); and “be diligent” to be found in Christ without spot or blemish (2 Pet 3:14) and “be all the more diligent to make (our) calling and election sure” (2 Pet 1:10; cf Eph 4:3; 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Tim 2:15). “There is no Quietism here,” says Warfield.9 We must “resist” the devil (Jas 4:7; 1 Pet 5:9), “train” or “discipline” (NASB) ourselves for godliness (1 Tim 4:7), “stand firm” (1 Cor 16:13), “cleanse our hands” and “purify our hearts” (Jas 4:8).
Elsewhere the Apostle Paul insists that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24). He says of his own commitment to Christ, “The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14). This is aggressive, violent, vehement language. This is not a defensive conflict. He is taking the offensive, because as they say in sports, the best defense is a good offense. We could point to dozens and dozens of examples of this sort of active, energetic language. Suffice it to recall that among the favorite metaphors of the Christian life employed by the Apostles are those of athletic competition and warfare. The Apostle Paul likens himself to a boxer who punches with purpose, to a runner who runs “so as to win,” and to a wrestler (1 Cor 9:24-27; Eph 6:12; 2 Tim 2:5).
Listen to this:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, (Heb 12:1)
The Christian life is like a “race” to be won by discarding sin and whatever else might inhibit progress and running with “endurance.” It is also like a war to be fought. The Apostle urges us to “arm ourselves” (1 Pet 4:1). We wield weapons for warfare (2 Cor 6:7; 10:4ff). Because we are “strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might,” we “put on the whole armor of God” and go into battle (Eph 6:10, 11; Rom 13:1; 2 Cor 6:7)). We “work out our salvation” because it is he who works in us” (Phil 2:12, 13). That God is at work is not an excuse for passivity but an encouragement to activity. Because God is at work, we are able to work out our salvation, and work it out we must. “Let not that man think he makes any progress in holiness,” says Owen, “who walks not over the bellies of his lusts.”10 Anyone who implies that we can arrive in heaven on “flowery beds of ease” is teaching tragically misleading and harmful doctrine.11
Discovering this was liberating for me. It normalized my struggle. My classification moved from spiritual loser to ordinary Christian, joining countless other believers who have endured the “dark night of the soul” (see Pss 22, 77, 88). I was released from what Packer calls “a cruel treadmill life of hunting each day for non-existent failures in consecration.”12 And it started me on the path of understanding the Christian life as warfare; of understanding the continuing problem of “indwelling sin” in believers; of understanding the incompleteness of redemption in this world; of understanding our active participation in sanctification; of understanding our absolute dependence upon the Holy Spirit; and of understanding God’s gracious purpose in refining us through our trials and tribulations.
There is nothing easy about the Christian life. We have a world that hates and persecutes us (Jn 15:18-25). We must deal with a devil who is a roaring lion seeking to devour us (1 Pet 5:8). We have our own flesh, our own sinful inclination which wars against the Spirit, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal 5:17). Consequently the Christian life, says Warfield of the Reformer’s view, is “a life of continuous dissatisfaction with self.” Yet it is a life of joy found in a “continuous looking afresh to Christ as the ground of all our hope.”13
Far from struggle being a sign of a defective Christian life, the absence of struggle may raise questions about the character of one’s Christianity. Why is the devil leaving you alone? Why has the world befriended you? Why are you not more troubled by your own flesh? Why are you not wrestling with “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” and deflecting the “flaming darts of the evil one” (Eph 6:12, 16)? Thankfully, Reformed Protestantism has had a firm grasp of the theme of the Christian’s struggle. William Gurnall (1616-1674) wrote over 1100 pages of very small, double-column type on Christian warfare entitled The Christian in Complete Armour,14 and over three hundred years later Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) published in two volumes The Christian Warfare and The Christian Soldier, totaling over 700 pages.15 Both men were expounding Ephesians 6:10-20. Lloyd-Jones writes a wonderful chapter in Christian Soldier entitled “Who Does the Fighting?” We do, of course, with the strength which God supplies. “The state of grace,” says Gurnall, “is the commencing of a war against sin, not the ending of it.”16 We are called, he says, “to proclaim and prosecute an irreconcilable war against (our) bosom sins.”17 “The Christian’s life,” he maintains, “is a continual wrestling.”18
J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 221, 222.
Ibid., 224, 225.
C. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925), 305.
B. B. Warfield, Perfectionism, Volumes 1 & 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931).
John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (1656, 1678; Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 29.
Warfield, Perfectionism, II:553.
Owen, Mortification, 35.
The phrase is that of Watts, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross,” Trinity Hymnal, #573, stanza 2.
Packer, Knowing God, 225.
Warfield, Perfectionism, I:90; He continues: “The more dissatisfaction we feel with ourselves the more the greatness of Christ’s salvation is manifest to us, and the more our delight in it waxes.”
William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour (1662 and 1665; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1964).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Christian Warfare (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976) and The Christian Soldier (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977).
Gurnall, Christian in Complete Armour, I:121.