The Death Zone
Romans has been described as the Himalayas in the Bible and Romans 8 as Mount Everest. Keeping this image going, then Romans 7:7-25 is what climbers call the “death zone” on the way to the top of Mount Everest. Here Paul lays bare his own soul and struggle with sin (that is ‘housed’ within him; ESV “dwell” (vs. 17, 18, 20). In a stunning admission, the Law itself serves as the mirror to his own dark motives. The 10th commandment, “you shall not covet” opens Pandora’s box. Elsewhere Paul says plainly covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3:5-6). Covetousness thus violates the first three commandments pertaining to the worship of God (Deuteronomy 5:6-21). And when it is fully expressed, the path to adultery, lying, stealing and murder is wide open (see 2 Samuel 11-12). The 10th commandment (refraining from wanting to have what other people have) seems to open endless possibilities. We are fooling ourselves if we think this is only about material or another person’s wife (as in Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 20). We wish we had the brains of somebody else, we want to have the promotion the other person got, we want our brother’s toy over the one we have, we want the status another person has, the success, the looks, the list is as long as the human heart’s capacity to create stuff it wants that it doesn’t currently have. Here Paul brilliantly describes the idolatry of the nations condemned in Romans 1, but now it’s not even “crouching at the door” as we saw last week, it’s right there inhabiting his own heart.
And how is this vicious illness of the soul made manifest? The commandment (itself from God, therefore perfect and good and right Romans 7:12) causes the dormant sin within to awaken and wreak havoc on Paul’s willpower (Romans 7:8; Romans 7:11). “Sin came alive and I died” he confesses plainly. He gets even more authentic when he acknowledges that the internal war he’s waging (Romans 7:23) he’s actually losing (Romans 7:19). This sort of refreshing honesty in describing the struggle is of course a prelude to the exaltation of Jesus and His victory over sin and death in Romans 8. But as we now all too well in Romans, you’ve got to be able to accept how bad it is before you can fully appreciate how awesome the good news actually is.
Now and Not Yet
And yet at the end of this repetitive descent into self-despair, through Paul’s cry of anguish, we get a ray of hope: “Wretched man that I am! Who will (future) deliver me from this “body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). Once the “body of death” is out of the way, Paul says, full deliverance will be secured (Revelation 21:1-4)
This struggle in the “now” (Paul uses the present tense here) sets up a real conundrum of course. How do we reconcile this mighty struggle with the assurance that we “have been set free from sin” and “become obedient from the heart” (Romans 6:17; Romans 6:22)? For this to be answered fully, we will need to wait until we come to chapter 8. But in the meantime, here’s a sneak peek of the mountain top: The “dwelling [housing] of the Spirit” (Romans 8:11) is the promise that in spite of the very real struggle in this body of death, we are in fact more than conquerors and we will make it. We now are ‘housed’ and empowered by the Holy Spirit all because of Christ’s sacrifice (Romans 8:1-2). We will never be perfect and sinless as long as we carry this body of death. But until then, the Spirit “helps us in our weaknesses” (Romans 8:26). Thus, self-awareness in our lives must include the reality that we will not always be strong and “together.” If Paul has enough courage to expose for all to see the struggles of his own heart, we too can afford a bit more honesty with ourselves and with one another.
So, we take solace that we’re not alone in the struggle. We don’t quit and we don’t despair. “Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). God is with us all the way to the top.