I hear a lot of people quote Paul from Romans 7, using him as an example of a life of struggling (regularly giving in) to sin. Usually this is in the context of the cheap grace gospel being presented. And they quote, too, where he said that he was the chief of sinners, as though Paul was consistently sinning.
I believe the Lord Jesus wants me to examine this today. So, let’s begin with the quoted texts:
#1: 1 Timothy 1:15 ESV
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
Okay, so if Paul was literally saying that he was (present tense) the chief (foremost, leading) of all sinners, that would mean that he was committing every sin possible to man, that he was living in sin, and he was making sin his practice (Gal 5:16-21; Eph 5:3-6; Rom 1:18-32; 1 Co 6:9-10).
#2: Romans 7:14-23 ESV
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
“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. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 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.”
Pay attention to the wording here. For, if Paul was saying that this was a description of his present life, then he was saying that he:
• Is sold as a slave to sin
• Does not understand his own actions
• Is doing (actively, as a matter of practice) what is sinful
• Does not have the ability to carry out what is right
• Keeps on doing what is evil (practicing sin)
• Is captive (a slave) to the law of sin
But Romans 7 falls “smack dab in the middle” of Romans 6 and Romans 8. And what do they say about slavery to sin, making sin our practice, keeping on doing what is evil, and not having the ability to do what is right?
“How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (v. 2)
“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would NO LONGER be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” (vv. 6-7)
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are SLAVES of the one whom you obey, either of SIN, which leads to DEATH, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (v. 16)
“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who WALK NOT according to the flesh BUT according to the Spirit.” (vv. 3-4)
“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the MIND ON THE FLESH IS DEATH, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is HOSTILE TO GOD, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh CANNOT PLEASE God.” (vv. 5-8)
“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For IF YOU LIVE according to the flesh YOU WILL DIE, but if by the Spirit you PUT TO DEATH the deeds of the body, YOU WILL LIVE. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (vv. 12-14)
So, how could Paul write what he wrote in Romans 7 and also write what he wrote in Romans 6 and 8 and in all the other books he wrote in the New Testament? Do we really get what Paul taught about sin, slavery to sin, death, righteousness, and life eternal with God? If truly he meant what a lot of people are saying he meant in Romans 7 and in 1 Timothy 1:15, then he was not only the chief of sinners, but he was the chief of hypocrites, too.
Or, we have to take his words in Romans 7 and in 1 Timothy 1:15 and interpret them in the context of everything else he wrote that is now part of our Bible. And he wrote probably half of the books in the New Testament.
Let’s Examine It
For Paul wrote that if we live in sin, according to the flesh, we will die in sin. If we keep on doing what is evil, if we remain enslaved to sin, and if we make sin our practice, then we don’t have eternal life with God (Gal 5:16-21; Eph 5:3-6; Rom 1:18-32; 1 Co 6:9-10; Gal 6:7-8; Rom 2:6-8).
But isn’t that exactly what he said he was doing in Romans 7? So, is he a big fat liar and the chief of hypocrites? Or is there another explanation for what he said in Romans 7? Yes! There is!!
Look at how Romans 7 was sandwiched in between Romans 6 and 8. Study word by word what he said in Romans 6 and Romans 8. What he is describing in Romans 7 is the life of one who is still under the power and control of the flesh. But then the good news comes in Romans 6 and in Romans 8. Through abiding faith in Jesus Christ, we are delivered from that slavery to sin and we now become slaves of righteousness. Amen!
Paul was a slave of righteousness. Read his writings. He was sold out to Jesus Christ 100%. He lived or he died for Christ and for his gospel. And that gospel teaches that we must no longer be enslaved to sin but that we are now to become slaves of God and of his righteousness.
And it teaches that if we remain living in sin, doing the kinds of things he described in Romans 7, that we are hostile to God, and we cannot please God, and that our lives will end in death without Christ because we refused to die to sin and to live for Christ in this life on earth.
So, when Paul said he was the chief of sinners, and he did say it in present tense, apparently, we have to take it that what he was talking about was his past life, and that the kinds of things he did in his past, he felt, made him chief of all sinners because he persecuted and murdered Christians who were following Jesus Christ with their lives.
So, let’s go back two verses to verse 13 in 1 Timothy 1:
“though FORMERLY I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy…”
And what does he say at the end of Romans 7?
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Jesus delivered him from his slavery to sin, and that is why he could write what he did in half of the New Testament. He was no longer a slave to sin, but now he was a slave to God, to Jesus Christ, and to his righteousness. And that is why he could boldly teach us that we must do likewise, or we will not have eternal life with God, but we will face the wrath of God, instead.
So, don’t believe the lies telling you that Paul was living in sin or that he was struggling with (regularly giving in to) sin. Study Paul’s writings and you will see that he lived such a holy and godly life above reproach that he could, in fact, tell people to imitate his manner of life. How many of us could do that?
And don’t believe the lies, thus, that tell you that you can be saved from your sins, be guaranteed heaven when you die, but that you can continue making sin your practice (your habit, your go to). Either walk according to the Spirit and live with Christ for eternity or walk (in lifestyle) according to the flesh and be prepared to die in your sins.
Jesus, Be Near to Me
Words and music by Tommy Walker
Jesus, be near to me
Let me know You are here
How I need You, how I need You
To reveal Yourself to me
Through Your unchanging truth
Through the breath of Your Spirit
In my questions and pain
Whisper words of Your love
Always the same…
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