Summary: Paul desperately wants to be delivered from the influence of indwelling sin. He struggles, as do we all, with his corrupt nature. Through Christ we overcome and make progress...yet the more we grow, the more in touch we are with our faults.
Do you ever feel like a hopeless mess? The Apostle Paul sure did. In Romans 7 he berates himself for his shortcomings: “What a wretched man I am!” Paul's problem was a serious condition. Sin enslaves; it takes over. Jeremiah writes that the human heart is “desperately wicked” (17:9). It's been said that “There is more sin in our hearts than there has ever been in our actions” (Bo Giertz).
We turn on the news and we're appalled by the latest inhumanities and atrocities. The pundits try (and fail) to make sense of the senselessness. They figure people who do bad things are misguided or crazy, but such explanations don't satisfy our need to understand why do people do terrible things. For example, we blame guns. I only wish it were that simple a matter. Cain killed Abel with a rock. Murder is a sin problem, not a gun problem. No matter how we stand on gun control, we need to delve deeper. Let's not fail to recognize the root cause. It is our nature to sin, to reject God's way and go our own way. And every time we choose to do wrong, we are rejecting God.
Paul describes in gut-wrenching detail the human predicament. People may not like to hear it, but we're not getting better; we're not evolving morally. This isn't a popular message. People push-back when sin is mentioned. A sense of sin is lacking in today's world, along with a sense of right and wrong. We've replaced moral absolutes with arbitrary preferences. When you have no standard of right and wrong, it doesn't take long for wrong to wave its standard. People make their own truth. We tend to excuse sin as merely “mistakes.” It is much more. Sin is rebellion under the guise of freedom. Think of the worst sin you can...those doing it have justified their actions. The world is a mess, but do we recognize what a mess we're in? In Romans 3:23, Paul says we've “missed the mark.” Our inability to do right stems back to our fallen nature. We are sinners, polluted by sin, which is written into our DNA by the Fall, Genesis 3.
Adam and Eve made a grave of a garden, and the effects of their rebellion are passed on to us. Our first parents left behind a heritage of dishonor, and that dishonor is still with us. It's been said that “Adam and Eve’s sin was a small thing, but it was enough to undo God’s whole harmony, as we’re now learning to our sorrow…the unfix-able fix is in” (Robert Farrar Capon). In Romans 5:12, we read that “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” This cause of moral weakness and spiritual death should make us alarmed--not only about what wedo, but about what we are.
Some scholars argue over whether Paul is describing himself before or after his conversion. Yet it is clear that Paul is talking in the present tense. He speaks of himself as only a Christian could. He's burdened by his behavior. Elsewhere he describes his pre-Christian attitude as self-satisfied and self-righteous, under the Law. As a Pharisee, Paul was confident that he was living a “faultless” life (Phil 3:6). Now, as a Christian, Paul agonizes over his sin and laments his ongoing struggle with sin, a struggle we all face. Paul confesses what he’s learned about himself, and we share his frustration. In I Timothy 1:5 Paul calls himself the “chief of sinners.” He wasn't saying that he was the worst person alive, but describing just how in touch he was with his imperfections. Are we complacent about our sin, or does it bother us? It should.
Paul admits he is “unspiritual,” verse 14, which elsewhere is translated “carnal,” or “human.” It literally means the “flesh.” This is our fallen, sinful nature, frail and weak, in need of God’s strength. In conversion, God transforms our nature from spiritual death to spiritual life, but we are still influenced by sin. We still struggle to be holy in an unholy world.
Paul says in verse 17 that sin is “living in me”. In the original Greek he says that sin “sets up house in me.” Indwelling sin is like a stranger who bursts into a home and tries to be the Master of the house. Sin takes over; it corrupts and imprisons us. Sins are not merely isolated events; all of our actions reflect who we are. The principle of sin is embedded in our inner being, and only the blood of Christ can remedy our plight. This means we're engaged in a constant battle within.
Listen to verse 18 from The Message: “I realize that I don't have what it takes. I can will it, but I can't do it.” Paul finds it impossible to do what he wants to do. Here's a sober reality: We can't do it. Only God can, in us. We are most vulnerable when we think we can conquer sin on our own. Paul admits that in his struggle with sin, he often loses. We share Paul's frustration when we fail. We know better; we know right-from-wrong...yet we still somehow manage to do what we hate, and we end up hating ourselves.