The Powerlessness of Religiosity: A new look at Romans 7

Romans 7:7-24 has been interpreted in a number of different ways over the centuries. Some have seen Paul’s treatise on his struggles with sin, wanting to do good but then doing what is bad too much, as 1) the normal Christian life, b) describing a back-slidden Christian, or 3) someone who is not a Christian. The struggle to understand what he means is compounded by his use of “I” and the present tense. So is Paul describing the norm for his life after he became a Christian?  Is he describing his day to day struggles? Or was this just how he felt when he did sin? Or is it how he felt before he became a Christian?  And whichever it is, how do we apply it to our own lives today?

I believe a key to understanding this section begins with looking at how he begins talking about it. Romans 7:7-8 says: “What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead.”

To follow what Paul is driving at here, it is important to have a correct view of the law. We know that the law is good, as Paul says in vs. 12: “So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good”  Then in vs. 14: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” The law is good, but we are sinful. The law was given by God in part to show us how holy He is and how sinful we are. This is the theme of the book of Galatians.  We need a savior because we simply cannot, with our own strength, obey the law as God wants.

So what happens when we do try and follow the law with our own strength? I believe this is what Paul is describing in Romans 7:7-24. It leads to real frustration when you have a person, like Paul, a Pharisee and the son of a Pharisee, who studied the law under the famed teacher Gamaliel, who in his heart wanted to do what the law said, but as a sinner simply could not even come close to its standard of holiness. Vs. 21-23 describe his frustration point blank: “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.”

The majority of the Jewish people did seem to try and follow the law, but they could not keep it. God already knew this would be the case, and that is why He set up the sacrificial system, which in itself was actually pointing to the need for a better sacrifice, a perfect sacrifice, who is Jesus. This is the message of the book of Hebrews.

Too many times when we think of the law we think of the Pharisees Jesus spoke about, who seemed to try and keep the law mostly for show, but as Jesus said, their hearts were far from God. I think they were the exception, for many, like Paul were good-hearted, including the Jewish people in Rome reading this letter. They wanted to do what God wanted, but they failed more than they succeeded.

teachreadTo get more to the point, when Paul is using “me” and “I” throughout this passage, I believe that he is focusing on his Jewishness, and how he felt before his heart was transformed by Jesus. He was “religious”, he wanted to be a good Pharisee, a good Jew, he wanted to do what was right, but his own sinful nature got in the way, his “best” was just not good enough.  The Jewish people who did not yet have Jesus in their lives are on Paul’s heart. He knows his people, and he knows their frustration in trying to serve God, but failing miserably to live up to the impossibly high standard of the law. He therefore uses his own “before Jesus” experience to relate to their frustration.

But he has good news for the religious Jews. He comes to the end of the section, in vs. 24 and 25 and reveals the only way to change this path of frustration: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God–through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  Here is the real point. Paul could not live up to the law’s standard on his own. But Jesus bridges the gap. He becomes Paul’s perfection and transformed his life, as he expands on in chapter 8.

Paul continues his great conclusion of how the Jews, and all people, are to become right before God. It is not the ability to obey the law perfectly, but the answer is in Jesus. 8:1-2 says: “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.”  Trying to keep the law perfectly is impossible, so if that is your only way to God, you will fail and it will lead to death. But through Jesus, the condemnation of the law over us for not being able to keep it perfectly is wiped out. We are made clean through the blood of Jesus, the perfect sacrifice.

Paul is saying to the Jews, and to all religious people: “I know how you feel. I felt it for most of my life. I loved God, I wanted to do His will, but I just couldn’t do it on my own. But through His power I am no longer under condemnation. I have experienced the transforming work of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is living within me. I am now sinless before God because of the sacrifice of Jesus and now have the power to live a life pleasing to Him.” As 8:5 says: “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” The law is good, but it does not change our heart. Jesus, and the Holy Spirit living within us, is what changes us through and through.

So in conclusion, the way we can apply this is to know that no matter how “religious” we are, if we have not given our lives to Jesus, we will find ourselves living a psychotic, bi-polar life which Paul describes in chapter 7; wanting to do good but simply unable to do it with any consistency. We do not need to be more “religious”, we need the transforming power of Jesus in our lives and in our hearts.

You may be a Christian and sometimes feel the same way. The Bible deals with this as well, and so we can apply, in regards to this part of Scripture, chapter 8 to our lives when we are failing even though we are a Christian. Chapter 8 says that through the power of the Spirit we can overcome sin. The Bible talks a lot about how to redirect our lives, and I’m sure we have heard lot of sermons on the importance of daily personal devotions, prayer, counsel of fellow Christians, regular fellowship, filling our minds with Godly things in the middle of all the “trash” we are bombarded with in this world, etc. It is a daily battle, but the most important thing is to not to try and fight it on our own. Let us surrender our lives to Jesus and let His Spirit direct us. Without this, we have no chance.


2 thoughts on “The Powerlessness of Religiosity: A new look at Romans 7

    • Good point. I think that he, as a good Pharisee, was able to follow all the requirements of the law, at least as they were interpreted at that time, and fulfilled them in a way that any religious Jew of the time would consider blameless. But he knew his own heart, and knew that he was a sinner. The example he uses in Romans 7 is coveting. Now that is one that people on the outside never know about, but it pricked Paul’s conscience and made him feel inwardly sinful and unclean. It is hard to tell how many other types of hidden sins he dealt with especially before knowing Jesus. So blameless as stipulated by the law as he says in Phil. 3:6 as opposed to blameless in the sight of God and in one’s heart does not seem to be the same.


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