In a Staring Contest With Sin, You Lose
Yesterday our pastor preached on that terribly difficult, in many ways head-scratching text in Romans 7 where the Apostle Paul describes himself as sold as a slave to sin; this just after telling us in chapter 6 that we are not slaves of sin and just before he declares in chapter 8 that Christ has "set us free from the law of sin and death"!
So notoriously tricky is this passage that I recall the great Dr. Richard Gaffin saying that he'd changed his view of Romans 7 so many times it now basically depends on how he feels when he gets up in the morning!
Pastor Alfred took the minority view in his interpretation of the passage, arguing that Paul is speaking of his current, ongoing struggles with sin as a mature believer. And, given that difficult decision, preached a magnificent sermon full of vast wisdom and hope for the believer struggling with the ongoing presence and power of sin.
I agreed wholeheartedly with and took comfort and warning from all of it.
Except that he inadvertently convinced me (I think) that his interpretive decision is wrong.
I won't go into all the details, but essentially I've come to the conclusion that the best way to understand all of the difficult nuances in the passage is to understand Paul as describing the existential experience of the Old Covenant believer, still under the "way of the written code" and not (yet) the "new way of the Spirit." (7:6). This was the view, I believe, of the late John Stott, for example, and it allows us to understand how the person described can legitimately say he "delights in God's law" (7:22), for this person is not an unbeliever. But it also accounts for why this person needs something more than the law; it describes the law's impotence to generate obedience. It seems so fitting to me that the passage ends with a despairing cry, "Who will rescue me from this body of death"? Jesus Christ will! Is this not exactly what Paul elsewhere says was the purpose of the Old Covenant administration: As a schoolmaster to drive a person to Christ (Gal. 3:23-24)? I think this really fits. And it fits especially well with the immediately following statement: "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death." This seems clearly in contrast to what just came before!
Don't misunderstand: this is not meant to deny, not even for one moment, the reality of an ongoing struggle with indwelling sin. In fact, last night we had a particularly edifying small group discussion about the sermon, and somebody brought up something that turned into something really quite compelling. Reflecting on the nature of repentance, he said something like, "Simply saying no to sin is not enough. It must be a turning from sin to God." To which I then piped in and said, "You can tell sin 'no' all day long, keep it at arm's length, stare it down, even. It will conquer you if you don't actually turn your back on it."
And then someone brought up The Addiction, the 1995 vampire movie that also happens to be the finest Christian film ever made. In the film, the vampire always tells the victim to "Look me in the eye and tell me to go away." The invariable * response from the victim is: "Please, don't hurt me!" At which point the vampire sighs in disgust and proceeds to bite away. That is precisely how we are with sin: "Please, don't hurt me!" We don't command it to get lost and flee.
* Spoiler alert: the only exception in the film is the Christian evangelist who, invited to go with the vampire, steadfastly refuses, even invoking the name of Jesus. This enrages the vampire, of course, for she'd never had a refusal before!
I thought this theme from The Addiction was simply perfect. You cannot win a staring contest with sin. You cannot indulge it with the plaintive request that it not hurt you. You must resist, not with your own resources, for you have none. With God's resources, the Spirit of life who, Paul says, has set you free from the law of sin and death. The only hope in resisting sin is to turn to him!
Oh, and who brought up The Addiction example? Okay, I'll tell you.
The same guy who preached the sermon. He might have got it wrong, but he also got it so, so right.