“When I sin it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” With this phrase in Romans 7, Paul divorces his new creation identity from sin. Far from saying, “I sin because I am a sinner (an identity statement), he says he sins because there’s something in him that is “not I.” This “not I, but sin” is the reverse of the great Galatians verse, “Not I, but Christ.” So we find that sin is not basically “I” – and neither is righteousness “I”. This puts our humanity in the middle ground where it belongs, as a vessel, slave, branch – a thing containing, following the orders, and dependent on the life of someone else. Neutrality, not sin or righteousness, is the hallmark of the essential human self.
The born-again believer, one who puts his faith in Jesus Christ, has been freed from the slavery of Eph 2:2, “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience (the Greek word from Strong’s there is apeithia, which means literally, “the unconvinced”). Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You are of your father the devil, and his lusts you will do,” indicating they weren’t following their own strong desires; they were driven by an inner father, a propagator, just as Jesus was driven by His heavenly Father.
The Gospel is an either-or proposition. He that is not with me is against me. There are no half-measures here. If we’re not born-again we cannot see God’s Kingdom because we live in darkness, as children of darkness. Whether that darkness is the black muck of alcoholism and drugs or the more subtly insidious blindness of legalistic religion doesn’t really matter; both spring from the same source, a satanic mindset that is desperately trying to become something in and of itself rather than accepting the life of Christ within itself. That’s the sin of Lucifer, the light-bearer. He rejected the Light, and so became darkness masquerading as false light. He would be his own Source.
Now, I’m not a dualist. Satan is not God’s evil counterpart; he’s a finite created being who has fallen. But there are too many verses dealing with an either-or: two trees (Gen 2:9), two gods (1Kings 18:21), two gates and two ways (Matt 7:13, 14), two kinds of vessels (Rom 9:22, 23), two kinds of sons (sons of the Devil and sons of God), two princes (John 12:31), two women and two sons (Hagar and Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac in Galatians), and even two birds (the unclean raven and the clean dove of Noah) and two kinds of foods (clean and unclean). None of these things mix; there aren’t partially clean foods, a partially false god, a partially-allowed bondwoman, etc. There aren’t vessels of half-wrath and half-mercy.
To the contrary, the Word continually teaches this either-or approach. “For you were (past tense) once darkness; now you are (present tense) light in the Lord…” Not part light and part darkness. We were sons of the devil, as the Pharisees, operated and motivated by the false spirit of Eph 2:2; now, Jesus Christ, through His perfect sacrifice and resurrection, has made us into new creations; He’s made us into sons of God. We were vessels of wrath, but now are vessels of mercy; once slaves of sin, now we are slaves of righteousness. We are inhabited by Christ, “Greater is He that is in you,” or the alternative, “than he that is in the world.”
This is why Paul’s pattern in most of his letters is to write first of identity, then behavior. A rare exception is Galatians, where he goes straight for the throat of the independent-self concept. But in most of his epistles Paul goes on and on about our new identity, what Christ has done, who we are in Him, that we’re kings, priests, holy, perfect, one Spirit with the Lord, that we no longer live but Christ lives in us, dead to sin, dead to Law, and the rest of those jeweled realities.
We recognize our true identity first and foremost, and then see that our behavior will flow from that reliance on Christ within us. “For you were once darkness; now you are light in the Lord. Live, then, as children of light.” In other words, you’re on the top of the mountain of holiness. You don’t have to climb step by step to get there on broken glass and nails to become holy. Holiness Himself lives in you; rely, and if you’re relying your behavior will show hospitality to strangers, love for your wives, respect for your husbands, etc. The Pauline pattern: You are this – so step out in faith and rely on Christ in your actions. Be it.” Be-ing precedes doing; doing does not cause being.
The other way, Romans 7, is to try to act righteously in order to gain the identity. That’s the point of Romans 6-8, Galatians, and the book of Hebrews – and more. Reliance on Christ within us is better than human effort (because it actually works).
At the end of 7 Paul says this: So then I myself serve the Law of God, but with the flesh the Law of sin. Note how he again refuses to identify himself with sin. What does this statement mean? It means when I follow the Spirit within me, when I accord my mind with the truth of being dead to sin, dead to flesh-effort, alive to God, then I manifest or follow the Law of God, which is “love God and neighbor.” That’s living according to my real self in Christ. Conversely, if I follow flesh tendencies as indicators of Reality (thoughts, feelings, reactions to circumstances) then I’m once again thinking I’m an independent “I” that has to be good, effectively cutting myself off from Christ’s power in me. “ In Gal 5:2, Paul says emphatically to believers, “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.” The power of Christ in us will not come through us – it is not effective and is of no value – if we put ourselves under the Law, under self-effort, under strain and striving rather than sufficiency and rest in Him. We’re often too busy with do-it-yourself sanctification to let Him use us as His vessels.
I was hoping to dig into Romans 8 but felt impelled to talk more about the end of 7. In 8 Paul explores in more detail what living according to the Spirit really means. In 9 he shows that Spirit-directed life leads to the expression of God’s nature through us – “my life (and even my salvation if I could give it up) for others.”