Romans 7.15-25 – Freedom of the Mind
Last week we began our series on Romans. Chapters 6-8 are at the very heart of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. Paul’s letter comes from his heart. The letter to the Romans is Paul’s most comprehensive writing contained in the New Testament. We find in this letter the heart of the Gospel message – that the Law was not able to save people from death and that sin remains a living indwelling problem within the flesh of every person. But thanks be to Jesus Christ that through his birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and the power of his Spirit we can be set free from the Law of sin and death to live a God-centered life in the Spirit!
Saul is a Religious Zealot.
For us to understand this portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans we truly need to understand Paul’s hunger for righteous living. His whole life was shaped and formed by his religious beliefs. Paul expresses his confidence in the Law and in the flesh more concisely in a different letter – the letter to the Philippians. Hear what he says:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. – Phil. 3.3-5
Saul was a man whose aim was at wholehearted obedience to the Law. And, it was this wholehearted obedience to the Law that got him in trouble with Jesus. Saul was so zealous that he began to persecute the very people who Christ came to save. Saul was killing the Christians. And, the Christian beliefs were of wholehearted obedience to God’s Spirit. Because of Christ Jesus the Law has been fulfilled.
Saul was on the road to Damascus with a posse of religious zealots to eliminate the treat to their religious beliefs in the Law. I am using the name Saul because he has not yet been converted, and has not received his new name. On the way there Saul has an encounter with Jesus that is miraculous — even frightening. You can follow Saul’s conversion story in the book of Acts chapters 5-9. In chapter 5 Saul’s religious teacher is leading a resistance to the new movement of the Spirit through the Christians.
A young man named Stephen rises up among the Christian way as a deacon who is serving the poor widows. Stephen was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. He was full of faith and power and did great signs and wonders among the people. Stephen was drawn into a dispute, and found himself giving the sermon of a lifetime to the high priest and the Jerusalem council.
As Stephen’s narrative account of Jesus filled the air describing the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ Jesus, Stephen becomes overcome with exasperation. Stephen directly calls out the sin in the hearts of the religious leadership. It is at this point that Stephen is stoned to death. But it’s not Stephen’s death, the first martyr of the early church that interests us today – it is the leader behind the riot.
The religious zealot Saul is recorded to have been standing nearby and approving of the death. After Stephen’s died, Saul continued to organize door-to-door “religious cleansing.” He entered every house and dragged off men and women to prison. Saul pursued the “religious cleansing” ritual beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem to the city of Damascus.
As Saul was overcome with his religious zealousness for the Law he continued to breath threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He even went to the High Priest and asked for letters to the synagogues in Damascus. His intent was to take custody of every person – man or woman – who were followers of the “Way.” And, he intended to bring each of them – bound or in chains – to Jerusalem.
On his way to Damascus Saul and his compatriots encounter the resurrected Lord Jesus. In the flash of the light of glory from heaven Saul is humbled and his mind is transformed. From pursuing the deaths of multitudes of people, he submits to the new directions from Jesus himself. Saul experiences an amazing moment of clarity. What he once thought was right – he has realized was very wrong.
And, not long after this encounter with Jesus in all his glory, Saul was given a new name – Paul. After 13 or 14 years, Paul’s “new way of thinking” became a new identity, a new calling, and a new mission. He and his friend Barnabas are set apart for God’s purposes. One ministry trip upon another is placed before Paul until 10 years later he composes this letter. About 25 years after his new birth experience, Paul writes to the church at Rome to discuss the meaning of the Gospel message – a lesson Paul new too well!
What does Paul have to say to us?
In this letter to the Romans, Paul is teaching the hard truth about two opposing worldviews. One worldview is sin, death, and the flesh that all lead to a self-centered lifestyle. The other worldview is Law, Life, and Spirit that leads to a God-centered lifestyle.
But sin is a word we don’t really use any more. Sin needs to be exposed for what it was and is. The only way to draw out sin in the heart of humanity is by dropping a plumb line down into the heart and that plumb line is the Law. Sin can be seen as sin only when there is the true opposite present next to it like light and darkness. When sin is laid next to righteousness, then and only then can humanity understand its self-centered perspective.
Sin leaves the heart corrupted. Only when God can take hold of the heart of humanity can sin be removed from the human nature. (Ez 36.24-32) Paul speaks of two kinds of sins specifically in this text: ignorant sins and unwilling sins. Paul speaks of a desire in the inward person to do right…a desire that affirms the Law, even when we cannot follow them. There’s something inside of us that unwittingly knows about the goodness of God’s law.
Ecclesiastes 3.11 points out that God has set eternity in every human heart. Perhaps that vague awareness of good and evil is what Wesley called “prevenient grace.” Prevenient grace helps us to recognize the reality of God just beyond the senses.
The hard news for us to hear is that sin leads us down a pathway to death, but the Law leads to eternal life. It’s important to note that the Law is not the cause of death, but sin causes death. God’s Law is only good. Paul is adamant in his viewpoint: God is not to blame for death! God even provides a remedy for death in Jesus Christ alone.
For Paul the only way good can come from any one of us is through the Spirit of God dwelling within each of us. The Spirit of God has to transform the human nature inside of us. And, in this way the Holy One of Israel can come upon us and aid us to overcome the sin that indwells our hearts. For Paul a person’s will stands at odds with good intentions.
There are many things in life that test a person’s character. The line between right and wrong is thinner than one might think. Moments of courage are often moments of self-preservation rather than a heroic act on our part. But true transformation becomes an act of justice, faith, and trust in something bigger than we are.