Sin is such an ugly word. Many of us live our lives believing that we will always struggle with sin – that the power of sin still has some kind of hold on us. It’s all around us, and we are constantly being tempted by the world.
Did you know that not one time in the New Testament is a believer called a “sinner”? God’s Word defines a sinner as someone who still walks in their old sinful nature. They choose to live apart from God and reject His Son. We were sinners, but that is no longer the case. In God’s eyes, we are now righteous. We are holy. We are perfect.
Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin…. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.– Romans 6:6-7, 11
Growing up in church, I remember learning about Paul’s words in Romans 7. In one of the most controversial passages in the entire New Testament, Paul speaks of a struggling man.
Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin. – Romans 7:24-25 (NLT)
I was often taught that the struggling man in this passage was a believer… that Paul was describing himself as a Christian. The basic premise was that we have two natures – a godly nature and a sinful nature – and they are constantly at war with one another. But didn’t Paul just say in chapter 6 (the previous chapter) that we are no longer slaves to sin? Is he contradicting himself here?
As I said before, the struggling man of Romans 7 is quite controversial. Many in the early church believed that Paul was speaking of a non-believer; but later on, we find many prominent theologians beginning to teach that Paul was speaking of His life as a mature Christian. So which is it?
Romans 7 can be somewhat confusing, but if we choose to read it in context, I do believe we can find some answers. For one thing, Paul refers to living by the law (which he just clearly stated that we are no longer bound to as believers); and he also refers to slavery and the power of sin (which he also just addressed in the previous chapter).
The truth is that it doesn’t really matter if the Romans 7 man is a believer or a non-believer. What matters is that he is still bound by the power of sin. He is not living by the power of the Holy Spirit. Will we still struggle with sin from time to time? Yes. But the Holy Spirit gives us the power to overcome it and walk in victory. The Romans 7 man is obviously not walking in that power!
Paul’s “war within” scenario is an illustration – not of the mature believer who is abiding in Christ, but of what life is like without the power of the Holy Spirit.
We need to remember that the book of Romans was a letter written by Paul. His letter wasn’t separated by chapters and verses the way our modern Bibles separate things. Reading in context means reading his letter as a whole. So in order to fully understand his meaning, we can’t just read chapter 7 separate from the chapters surrounding his train of thought.
He actually concludes his thoughts on the Romans 7 man at the beginning of chapter 8:
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. – Romans 8:1-2
As Christians, we have a choice to make. Do we abide in Christ and live by the power of the Holy Spirit? Or do we choose to walk in the flesh and keep ourselves bound to our old sinful ways?
We all make mistakes and it’s easy to view our struggle with sin as just that – a constant back and forth struggle. But the truth is that we have been set free from sin and are called to live as children of God… apart from sin.
No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. – 1 John 3:9
So where do we go from here? Does this mean we have to be perfect? The truth is that the cross has already made us perfect. The very moment we are born again, we are transformed into a new (and perfect) creation. It’s how God sees us now – flawless and blameless.
The cross did more than simply grant us forgiveness – Jesus defeated both sin and death! When we are in Him, we get to share in His victory and His Holy Spirit empowers us towards righteous living.Jesus set us free from the power of sin so that we can now live by the power of the Holy Spirit.
As children of God, we have access to the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. It literally lives within us! (Romans 8:11) And that power is certainly capable of empowering us to live righteously for God! But we must be willing and open to allow God’s life-giving power to work within us, to teach us, and to mold us.
We don’t have to strive towards godly living by our own power (thank goodness for that!) But we do need to make the effort to walk in our new God-given natures – to put off the old, to walk in the light of Christ, and to daily renew our minds in Him.
The more we choose to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, the more our lives begin to look like Christ’s.
*Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.