Is Paul’s struggle with sin true?
Have you been taught about “Paul’s struggle with sin” in Romans 7? What would the result be if it were true? What are the consequences if it is false? God has granted us liberty in Him, but very few find it. He has given the assurance of salvation to all true believers, yet few have a settled confidence in their eternal future. Many who profess Christianity live their lives in sin and defeat and wonder why. They live in that desolate land of sin – the Romans 7 Scenario. But they don’t have to.
Here is a look at the truth concerning the doctrine of “Paul’s struggle with sin”. I also outline the way which Christ has given us to have peace with God now, and receive as the result, the assurance of our salvation in the life to come.
Living in the desolate land of sin – A Romans 7 scenario
There are those who hear the truth of the gospel, and are aware that they do not have the assurance of salvation. They understand that their slavery to the world of besetting sins of various kinds separates them from real peace. These people do not know how to walk in that newness of life in Christ Jesus that God promised. They don’t want to return to the world completely because of conviction; but they also can’t truly fellowship with God because of condemnation. These are in that barren place that sin produces – a Romans 7 Scenario.
But God has given the ransom to redeem us from this state. He has granted the way to enter into that land of peace with Him. Read on to discover the truth of Romans 7, and how we can possess a confirmed assurance of salvation.
What is the Romans 7 scenario?
Romans 7:14-25 is a portrayal of a sinner who understands the requirement of the law, and gives consent to the fact that it is holy and righteous and good (Rom 7:12). But, try as he may to walk by the law, he finds that sin that is within him pulls him away from righteousness, perpetuating his death and separation from a life in his Maker. The law is infinitely holy and obeying it produces life being encapsulated in two commandments: to love God with our all and, contribute and partake of God’s divine benevolence.
But upon his discovery of the law the sinner learns that his past sin has already disqualified him from an eternal life with God (Rom 7:9-10) making vain all attempts of reconciliation through works of righteousness. Seeing his terrible and helpless estate, he cries out: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom 7:24)
But Is Paul speaking about himself in Romans 7?
Many understand this scenario in Romans 7 as the place that supposedly describes Paul’s confession of his own struggle with continued sin in his life. According to them, even though Paul taught holiness of heart and life, and death to the body of sin, he continued to live with it (i.e. committing sin continually). But did Paul struggle with sin?
If Paul was speaking about his own prevailing sin, then we would be justified before God to continue in ours. After all, if one of the greatest pillars of the early church continued in sin and was saved at the same time, then we too can sin and keep our salvation.
Further; if this were so, then there would be no point in desiring to be holy, and free from sin. We would be destined to live out the rest of our days in defeat, enslaved to besetting sin as our master. But if we apply the principles of discerning truth to their claim will it be found true?
1) What does the Bible say?
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.(Heb 10:26-27)
If Paul was indeed testifying to his own life of sin in the account mentioned in Romans 7:14-25, it would be antithetical to what he teaches just prior to those verses in the previous chapter where he admonishes us to consider ourselves dead to sin (Rom 6:2) and, to walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4), which is to live separated from the world of sin. In fact, Paul teaches in all his writings that we are to live holy lives without continued sin.
There are hundreds of scriptures that support the converse to the claim that Paul was speaking of his own sin. But for the demonstration I only need to use scriptures from the previous chapter (Romans 6). Here is a comparison between the two chapters. I place scriptures in Romans 7 that seemingly support their claim that Paul lived in sin in the first column, and antithetical scriptures of Romans 6 in the second column as follows:
Because scripture cannot contradict itself, it must be obvious to the reader that Paul cannot be speaking about his own prevailing sinful state. But let’s press on, for all three principles of discerning truth must apply to any claim of truth to test it and establish whether it is true or not.
2) What does reason say?
If a righteous man married a poor prostitute, and was willing to love and care for her on the premise that she give up her sin, would it not be deemed absurd for her to continue in her past sin? Would not everyone think her to be utterly selfish in her desire to have the benefits of a new life yet continue in her past vices? Could that righteous man accept her on these terms?
God, who, bear in mind, is infinitely holy, loves mankind so much that He came to earth, through Christ, as an atonement for our eternal damnation. This was to liberate us from the life of sin and its resulting eternal judgement and to enable us to walk in a newness of life in Him.
Let the reader note:
The infinitely holy God of all things, who made the universe, chose to die (through Christ) for the wretched sinner. He did this so that sinners could understand God’s righteousness as eternal Judge (Rom 3:25). He demonstrated through His own death in Christ the eternal offense and judgement of sin, because only God in His eternal capacity could qualify to be the propitiation and satisfactory atonement for our sin. Thus satisfying public justice for His righteous kingdom on behalf of the sinner.
But it also demonstrates His infinite love for us so that we would be happy to forsake our sin, which is the very thing that separated us from Him in the first place (Isa 59:2). With such a great demonstration of love for us, can we continue to think that He would accept us with unforsaken sin? (Heb 10:29)
Therefore, how can Paul, particularly chosen of God, who, by his own confession, led an exemplary sinless life (Act 24:16), teach others to live a life without sin, yet all the while continue in his own sin, as they claim he confesses to do in the passage of discussion?
3) What does the testimony of life say?
We can only assume the holiness of the leaders of the early church by the writings of such men. However, the world today still has true saints who walk in sanctification, which is purity of heart and life. I do not say that it is impossible for them to willfully sin. Walking in the Spirit of Christ does not take away the possibility of sinning, but it does remove the propensity!
Therefore, if men of today can walk in purity, having escaped the bondage of sin, then it is certain that one such as Paul could, which, in itself, nullifies the claim that Paul had sin in his life.
Listen to what the man said about his own life since his conversion:
Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day.”(Act 23:1)
What is a Pauline scripture?
A Pauline scripture is one that identifies a passage of scripture as being typically of Paul. Romans 7 is a typical example where Paul uses himself as the example to bring home the truth more forcibly. Here is an earlier example of this:
“But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? (Rom 3:7)
And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just.” (Rom 3:8)
Every reasonable, thinking reader would clearly see that Paul was not admitting to being a liar in the above passage.
Dr. Nijay K. Gupta, in his post: Paul’s fight with sin? in crosswalk.com, describes this method of using one’s self as an example as ” a literary technique from the Graeco-Roman world called “speech-in-character””.
James, the pillar and ruler of the Christian church in Jerusalem used a similar tactic in Jam 3:2; Jam3 :9-10. He certainly is not confessing to stumbling in many ways, or admitting that he too curses men!
Paul’s subtle transition to get to the first-person in Romans 7
Beginning with “you”…
In the beginning of Romans 7, Paul uses the second person “you“(Rom 7:1). He addresses particularly those who knew the Jewish law. He proceeds to give an example of our relationship with a wife to demonstrate the similitude of the church’s relationship with its new “husband,” Christ (Rom 7:2-3). For we, the church, are the bride of Christ (2Co 11:2).
Then he subtly changes his address in verse 5 to the first-person plural – “we”. “For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death” (Rom 7:5). Like James in James 3, Paul subtly softens his discourse by including himself as “we”. Jesus used the very same method in (John 3:11).
And then “I”…
By the time we get to verse 7, Paul switches to the first-person “I” to bring home the message. He focuses on the awful state of the personal consciousness of those who knew the law and its holiness, yet at the same time knew they had transgressed it and had therefore been found condemned by it. “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”(Rom 7:24). But he uses himself as an example, for demonstrative purposes only.
Yet, there are leaders that have ignorantly, (or intentionally) used this portion of scripture to justify sinners in their sin and thereby weaken the gospel message in God’s church.
What Peter says of Paul’s writings:
“… as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2Pe 3:16)
Christ’s mission in saving us
Jesus came to:
- save us primarily from our sin (Mat 1:21). That is; not only from the penalty of sin, but from the power of it also.
- sanctify us through the atonement of Himself (Heb 10:10). For without being sanctified we cannot see the Lord in peace (Heb 12:14).
If we are saved from living in sin through repentance, having received the atonement of Christ by faith, and are walking in His Spirit, we will be sanctified. (Sanctification is that state where the believer is set apart from sin and the world, and set unto God). Jesus did not come to save us primarily from hell! He came to save us from the sin that sends us there (Mat 1:21). His atonement covered our past sins (Rom 3:25), and His Spirit now saves us from perpetual sin – breaking its power over us, so that we can walk in newness of life, free from condemnation. Then and only then can we apply Romans 8:1 to our lives and confidently believe that we are truly in Christ and therefore are not under condemnation.
This does not mean that by attempting to correct our sinful state we can “earn” our salvation. Read on to see my explanation.
Let the reader understand
What I need the reader to understand, is that without true repentance there is no starting point. We will not be able to exercise faith for salvation. For without repentance of sin there can be:
- no reconciliation to God, because our refusal to give up our sins will perpetuate our separated condition (Isa 59:2).
- no grounds for real faith, because our hearts will condemn us (1Jn 3:21). Consequently, our attempts in obtaining our sanctification and eternal life will be vain (Rom 6:22).
If we are walking in the Spirit of Christ we will not carry out the sinful desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16). Therefore, we will not be transgressors of the law of God (See 1Cor 9:21). Consequently, there is no condemnation for us (Rom 8:1) because walking by the Spirit, through continual faith, frees us to walk in holiness of life (Rom 6:22). It separates us from the power of sin, condemnation and death.
Paul said: Therefore, there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ…(Rom. 8:1). If we are found to be in Christ, sin is no longer master over us, compelling us to sin. For we have a new master – the master of righteousness (Rom 6:18). We have put on Christ having removed the old man of sin (Rom 13:14). Now we live in the freedom of the Spirit who indwells us, and leads us in the path of righteousness so that we can obtain the inheritance promised to those who are indeed children of God (Rom 8:16).
How do we obtain the assurance of salvation?
In Romans 6 Paul teaches that we are to die to self and rise in newness of life in Christ. This life gives us the assurance that we have favor with God and eternal life with Him.
In the latter half of Romans 7 Paul gives the example of a frustrated man in bondage to sin and, looking for a way out, he turns to the law – only to find that instead of the law saving him, it condemns him (Rom 7:10).
Then in Romans 8 he shows us how to walk in that newness of life in the Spirit through faith. The result is being freed from the power of sin. He teaches that we are to set our minds on the Spirit and not on the flesh. This is the only way to escape the slavery of sin. The answer is to exercise faith in the abiding presence of Christ and to walk consciously in Him. Walking in Christ naturally compels us to do only those things that are pleasing Him.
Change our way of thinking
God calls us to change our way of thinking – to choose the love of righteousness in lieu of our previous love for sin. He gives us the assurance of salvation when we repent and forsake our sin, and exercise faith in the whole of Christ. That is; faith in His atonement as a propitiation for us; His mediatorial position with the Father on our behalf; and His abiding presence through the Holy Spirit to keep us on the path of righteousness. This is the only way we can be reconciled to Him.
Steps to the assurance of salvation
- Understand the holiness of God and His righteous law that governs all of His universal kingdom in the natural and spiritual realms.
- See our fallen estate from the grace of God because of our sin and the just separation from God and eternal good.
- Repent (with a contrite heart) and forsake our sin, knowing that it was our sin that separated us from the company and favor of God.
- Recognize and believe what God has done for us in Christ to reconcile us to Himself
- Receive, with thankfulness, His great eternal gift in Christ as the only propitiation (payment and exchange) for our sin which brought about our eternal condemnation
- By faith continue in life walking in loving obedience in the conscious presence of the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9).
Conquer besetting sin
The only way we can conquer besetting sin is if we set our minds on the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:5). The presence of Christ is real and universal (Rom 8:9). It is by faith that we become conscious of His presence. And by the same faith we surrender ourselves to loving obedience to Him. His indwelling Spirit will move us to live pleasing to God.
But how will we know if we have this consciousness (faith)?
When we are walking in Christ he gives us:
- a reverential fear of God. This is not a fear of condemnation any longer. It is the fear of separating ourselves from the love of God through sin. We who truly love God walk in fear of offending Him after having come to know His righteousness.
- a peace found in communion with Him that is beyond comprehension (Phil 4:7) – a peace that nothing in this world can give (John 14:27).
But if we continue to walk according to the fleshly desires, we will set ourselves at enmity with God, and will not be able to walk in the Spirit of Christ or in subjection to the law of God (Rom 8:7-8). We will not possess the assurance that He gives, and the wrath of God’s displeasure will continue to abide over us (John 3:36).
To see more about how to obtain salvation, or to assess if we are truly saved see How do I know if I am saved?
“But Paul said that he wasn’t perfect!”
Paul did indeed confirm that he was not perfect as he would be in his transformed, resurrected state (Php 3:11-12). He was still subject to human error as in forgetfulness, omission, ignorant mistakes, lack of angelic intellect etc.. But the perfect he calls for is the same “perfect” that Christ calls for when He said: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect”. This perfection is the obedience of faith – that which the mature in Christ walk.
Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; (Php 3:15) The evidence of such is a holy walk, and the result is our salvation.
Paul’s purpose for writing the book of Romans
Paul’s whole purpose for writing the book of Romans was to “bring about the obedience of faith in Christ”. This is evident throughout his epistle to the saints in Rome. See (Rom 1:5; Rom 15:18; Rom 16:26). Professing Christians often use the purported doctrine of Paul’s struggle with sin in Romans 7 to justify their own sinfulness. However, the honest reader can see that this excuse for our sin dissipates in the light of scripture.
Living in sin is a contradiction of the principles of truth, and negates the very purpose of Paul’s life and ministry. Let us not look for excuses to justify our sin. Rather, let us look at the gospel for what it is. Paul lays out the path to our freedom from sin in this life, so that we can be reconciled to God, and gain as our inheritance, eternal life.
For more on God’s grace, what we do if we sin after repentance, and how to be free from the pull of sin, see the post: How can I break free from sin?