Growing in Christ

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The seventh chapter of Romans is a continuation of Paul’s discourse on the Christians relation to the law, the reality of sin and the grace of God. In first-century Judaism everyone was familiar with the law and for many it had become a noose around their neck, an unyielding set of rules that only highlighted how far a person was from God’s holy precepts. How different this picture is from our own western society. A few years ago an article in The Guardian newspaper in Britain observed that “sin is as alien to the contemporary mind as fetching water from a well, [or] darning your own socks”. The article also suggested that sin is “obsolete”; “something young people do not know or care about”. [1]

Free from the absolutes of the law of God, we watch our postmodern society fall deeper into a moral vacuum, where almost anything is permissible. Yet despite the excesses of our society, Christians in post-modernity are called to observe the law of God, whilst not being subject to its penalties (Rom. 6:23)––all the time, by the grace of God, trying to do right.

Paul begins the chapter by explaining to his readers that they are now dead to the law.

Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. (Rom. 7: 4)

This was the good news of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, through which mankind could be extricated from the penalties of the law, and live in Christ. The Pulpit Bible Commentary states that the “law, then, in making sin known to man, subjects him to its guilt and consequences to its condemnation. But this is all it does; it is all that, in itself, it can do.” [2] In truth, salvation was never meant to be obtained through law keeping of itself. If it were so, the rich young ruler would have been saved, as he said of the commandments, “all these things I have kept from my youth” but still turned away sad (Matt. 19:20).

A few years ago I came back to my car only to find two burly men, clearly hired for their impressively intimidating looks, standing over my car, which had one of its wheels clamped. They informed me that unless I paid up, I would have to retrieve my car from a distant town. I had to pay the towing fee, although it was never towed and the cost of unclamping the car. All of this totalled £340,which I paid and went on my not so merry way. The feeling that I had been robbed would not go away and, over the next year, I pursued the clamping company through the courts and eventually won my case. The judge deciding that the company had not made it clear that it was illegal for me to park in the prohibited area, as their signs were badly placed; it was tantamount to entrapment.

The law has been put into place so that we can know how to live a life worthy of the grace given to us. Paul says that the “law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12). I thank God that He has made it plain to us, what his requirements are. I dislike covert, unclear laws which whose purpose is to ensure that I pay a penalty. David showed the integral part that the law had to his relationship with God when he said, “thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee” (Psa. 119:11).

Martin Luther discovered in the sixteenth century that the laws of God and man, in and of themselves, were impotent to save and this caused a revolution in his day. The church of his day made serving God prohibitive. However, in 21st-century Adventism, could it be that we also have an uncomfortable time accepting that we are no longer under the condemnation of the law? As a third-generation Adventist, I was in my twenties before I realised that I actually really needed grace. By eating vege-links, studying the lesson quarterly and going on church soup runs, we may fool ourselves into thinking that we are keeping the law and that that will secure a place in the kingdom. We have dabbled with bigamy: a marriage to Christ and the law, believing that surely the law must have some potency to save. At worst, we have had the paraphernalia of Christianity, but denied Christ. Law-observation without the lawgiver is deadly.

Paul then goes on, to what is undoubtedly, the best known section of the chapter: the struggle between self and sin. He explains that he is “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14), a captive to the law of sin” (7:23), deceived by and slain by sin (7:11), constantly wanting to do right but ending up doing the wrong (7: 19). In the classic book The Pilgrim’s Progress, after and encounter with a “villain”, Christian sings,

The Tryals that those men do meet withal,
That are obedient to the Heavenly Call
Are manifold and suited to the Flesh
And come, and come, and come again and afresh. [3]

Paul was all too familiar with the trials that the Christian faced and intimated

Know that nothing good lives in me, I mean nothing good lives in the part of me that is earthly and sinful. I want to do the things that are good, but I do not do them. I do not do the good things I want to do, but I do the bad things I do not want to do, then I am not the one doing them. It is sin living in me that does those things. (Rom. 7:18-20)

Is Christianity meant to be a faltering process of chronic failures? A constant acquiescence to the “law of sin”, but serving God in your mind? Every practising Christian at some point, if not continually, has been able to identify with the sentiments expressed by Paul in these verses. The very circular way in which these verses are written, express the frustration of the sinner saved by grace, but attracted to sin. Even as I write, I am convicted of how far off the mark I can be, of the sin that abides within me and too often comes into full fruition.

Yet it is possible, that too many of us, myself included, look at the situations in our life and at times glibly claim “for the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do” – and then continue on our sinful path resigned to the blight of our situation. Yet Paul’s discourse was not mean to be an apologetic for the apathetic, browbeaten Christian. Paul states in Romans 6:14-15: “let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof […] For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace”.

Paul also says: “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Rom. 8:13). Thus, life in the Spirit will help to kill our carnal nature. We will not continue in the state that Paul describes in chapter 7:7-24. I am inclined to believe that Paul was talking about his previous relationship to sin when he penned Romans 7:25.

Whether or not Paul was referring to his past or present struggles is a moot point. Either way it should not be lost on us that wherever Paul went, people were either converted or tried to imprison or kill him – in other words, nobody was left unmoved. Although a “wretched man”, he left a powerful witness of how the power of God can transform the life of a sinner. Despite our many set backs we must continue “reaching forth unto those things which are before” (Phil. 3:12). Edward Schillebeeckx put it well: “in terms of spiritual growth, the faith-conviction that God accepts me as I am, is a tremendous help to become better.” [4] For the Christian there must always be progression.

Growth is the key for the man and woman of Romans chapter 7. The great poet Alfred Tennyson put it even better in In Memoriam

We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow.


NOTES

  1. Julian Baggini, The Guardian, 9 May 2006.
  2. Acts and Romans, in H. D. M Spence and Joseph Exell (eds.), The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, p.181.
  3. John Bunyan, The Pilgrims progress-, modern adaptation, rev. Edward Hazel Baker (Bridge Logos: 1988), p. 99.
  4. Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), p.165.




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Sat, 10/25/2014 | Los Angeles Adventist Forum
October Adventist Forum
Ronald E. Osborn, Ph.D., A 2014-2016 Mellon Postdoctoral Fell ow in the Peace and Justice Program at Wellesley College (Boston), and a 2 015 Fullbright Scholar to Burma/Myanmar, Formerly an Adjunct Faculty Membe r in the Dept. of International Relations at USC, and in the Honors Progra m at UCLA. Topic: "Death Before the Fall?: A Conversation with Ronald Osbor n."

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