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The Fight

The Fight

Why being spiritually conflicted is normal in the Christian life

Dear friends

One of the first resources I was given as a keen but confused young Christian in the early 1980s was a little book called The Fight. I can’t find my copy any more, and don’t remember a great deal about the book’s argument—apart from its main metaphor and message, which was pretty much summarized in the title. The Christian life is wonderful, joyous, liberating and ruled by the peace of God—but it is also a fight; a lifelong conflict with the world, the flesh and the devil.

In today’s discussion, we think about the nature of this ‘fight’ by looking closely at Paul’s argument in the seventh chapter of Romans. I hope it strengthens your arm for the battle.

Your brother


The Fight

Tony Payne: Phillip, do you think a book with a title like The Fight would still be popular today? 

Phillip Jensen: No, I don’t think that’s the theme that people want to go on today. We see it in our singing. We don’t have a lot of Christian funeral songs or songs about judgment, and we don’t have ‘fighting’ hymns anymore such as “Stand up, stand up for Jesus” or “Onward Christian Soldiers”. 

TP: Yes, it's not a common vibe any more. Why is that? Do we have a kinder, softer, gentler, more therapeutic view of life?

PJ: Yes, I think the soft and gentle therapeutic mindset captures a lot of how we think about Christian things. We've embraced Freud; we've embraced that the internal struggle is a psychological struggle rather than a spiritual or moral struggle.

TP: And that if I can conquer my psychological inhibitions and oppressions, the oppression of tradition and authority, if I can just release myself to actually stop fighting myself and be myself, then that's freedom. 

PJ: The authentic self. The true me. Yes, it's awful.

TP: So there's a battle, but the battle isn't between me and sin, between me and the devil.

PJ: No, it’s between me and my mother weaning me too quickly.

TP: Or it’s between me and society, or me and conventional morality, which I have to overcome. So I’ve been thinking about this whole issue as we come to Romans 7, because although there’s debate about exactly what this passage is referring to, it's certainly about a battle between the self and sin, between different aspects of me, between me wanting to do something and not being able to do something. There's all kinds of conflict in this passage.

PJ: Yes. And part of the background to that debate is that we have that ongoing permanent weak version of Christianity called Pelagianism, the sense that we do sinful things, but we're not that bad. 

TP: We’re maybe a bit sick, but we're not dead. We've got some problems, but with a bit of effort we could pull ourselves up by our own shoelaces. It's an ancient heresy. But it's still around in various forms—sometimes in a partial form, a Semi-Pelagianism. That’s the idea that God does save us by his grace, but that there's still a big contribution we make as well to work our way to final justification.

If you have that view and come to a passage like Romans 7 with such a pessimistic view on the state of the soul, you are more disposed to think that he surely must be talking about the old non-Christian self. He couldn't be talking about his Christian self with that level of sinfulness still in his heart or his body. Surely Christians aren't that bad.

PJ: Yes. The debate about Romans 7 is often put into three kinds of views. One, Paul was writing of his former life as a non-Christian. Or secondly, this is Paul writing of himself as a weak Christian or someone who hasn't had the fullness of spiritual life. Or the third, this is Paul describing what the Christian life is like. And I think people fall into these three camps in reading this passage. So yes, let’s read it. 

TP: Setting the context: in Romans 7:7-12 Paul was answering the question “Is the law sin?” and he said absolutely not. The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. And now we continue with verses 13-25.

Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

PJ: It has a lot of laws, doesn't it?

TP: Yes. As we mentioned last week, sometimes the word ‘law’ (or ‘nomos’ in Greek) can refer to the Old Testament law–as it often has in the argument of Romans to this point–but it also can be a norm or principle, as it is in verse 21, that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.

But reading the whole passage like that, you can see why there are different views of it and why people read themselves or read other people into this passage at certain points. It really does sound exactly like our experience as a Christian–we know what it's like to agree and delight in the law of God, but then it’s almost like my body has a mind of its own. I find myself falling into the very sin that I intellectually acknowledge that I hate. And that's an experience we all have. So we read that and we think, yes, of course, he's talking about me.

PJ: But could it be me as a weak Christian, because surely a really strong Christian wouldn't have that feeling. Or is it talking about me before I became a Christian? You can see how people come to quite different conclusions.

TP: We need to dig into a couple of key verses in detail because how you read them influences the whole thing. We'll come to that in a moment, but first we need to set it in its context, because this question of who the passage is referring to is our modern question. That's not really Paul's question. If you don't listen to the answer to his own question, then there's every chance you'll fail to understand what the passage is saying because you're bringing the wrong question to the passage. I presume he had no doubt as to who he meant when he was writing like this.

So what is the question Paul is seeking to answer? Where is he up to in his argument? 

PJ: Well, it goes back, I think, to Romans 5:20 where he says: 

Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

The subject of law and sin and grace and righteousness dominates chapter 6 and 7. It has a series of questions.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? (Romans 6:1)

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? (Romans 6:15)

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? (Romans 7:7) 

Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? (Romans 7:13)

Each of those questions is outlandish, and that's why he answers with ‘by no means’. 

TP: Yes, the ‘absolutely not’.  

PJ: That could not be true. Chapter 6 deals with sin. Chapter 7, deals with law. So he's now looking at the law. Just as we were under sin, we were under the law. But now through Jesus Christ and justification, we're not under law anymore. But what part does law play in our sinfulness? Because remember Romans 5:20 has this strange phrase: “law came to increase the trespass”. 

And in Romans 7:7-12, he spells this out for us. I didn't know about coveting until the law came, but coveting was there all the time. Sin was there all the time. And so sin, “seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (Rom 7:11).

And so he's now asking the question: Well, then did the law, the good thing, kill me? And he’s saying, well that can’t be true. It was sin producing death in me. The wages of sin is death, not the wages of law is death.

TP: Yes. And so sin here again is this power, this master, this personified reality that is the problem. It's not the law that's the problem. The law didn't kill us. The law provides more opportunity for sin, but it was sin that produced death in me through what is good which is the law. 

PJ: Yes, which brings us to verse 14 as really being a important verse. 

TP: Yes, it does. He says, 

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.

So the law is good. It belongs in the realm of the spiritual. It's not earthly or sinful or unholy.

PJ: It's fascinating isn't it, because I don't think people normally think of the law as spiritual. Grace is spiritual, but the law is also spiritual. 

TP: Yes, it is. But in contrast to the law, which is spiritual, ‘I am of the flesh', he says, ‘sold under sin’.

This is a critical verse because it's one of those places where it really sounds like he's talking about his former life, because he has already said that we are no longer a slave under sin. Sin is no longer our master. So what does he mean here?

PJ: Well, he is speaking in the present tense–”I am of the flesh”.

TP: That's right. And it’s confirmed within the verse itself that he's speaking in the present tense because the verse starts by saying, “For we know that”— and that's been a phrase that he's been using all through chapters 6 and 7. So he's talking about himself, and the people he's writing to, and saying this is something we currently know—that the law is spiritual. 

PJ: Yes. But what does it mean to be ‘of the flesh’ compared to being ‘spiritual’? What does that mean?

TP: Well, we think of flesh as the meat that hangs on bones or as a steak. But when Paul talks about the flesh, it refers to the sinful, fallen mortal aspect of our natures. Is that a fair description of the ‘flesh’?

PJ: Yes, the NIV used to translate it as ‘sinful nature’, which can be a spiritual disposition. But it's also still bodily. That's why flesh is a hard thing to translate. 

TP: The way that Paul is talking about this aspect of the human self—that it is fleshly, and against the spirit—is a physical metaphor. 

PJ: It talks about the ‘body of death’ doesn't it, in verse 20? 

TP: Yes, yes. 

PJ: Which I take it is my mortal body; this thing I'm in which is dead and dying is my flesh. It's of this world as opposed to the world to come. 

TP: Exactly—the human bodily part of it, the part of us that is fallen, that's in Adam. It participates in Adam's sin and inherits the curse, inherits death. It's that whole aspect of our human life that is ‘fleshly’. I can't avoid the fact that there's this aspect of myself that is prone to rebellion against God, in contrast with the law and the spiritual. 

PJ: But where does the mind fit? 

TP: That's a good question. In this passage, the mind keeps on being contrasted with flesh. As the passage goes on, I think it's fairly apparent that he is talking about the battle that's going on within himself in the present tense. It starts in verse 14, and in this battle, the two kinds of locations are the two selves of Paul–his fleshly self and his mind. Do you see this in verse 23? 

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 

And then at the end, when he's summarizing the whole thing, 

So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

PJ: And that's why he can keep on appealing to ‘we know’, because all through chapter six, it's the same thing, isn't it? Let me remind you of what we know. Because something has happened to the mind of the Christian.

TP: Yes, we have a whole new mind. In fact, as we go on into chapter 8 in the coming weeks, that's how he characterizes the difference between the old and the new: the mind that is set on the Spirit, the mind that it's set on the flesh, one is the way of life, one is the way of death. 

PJ: And so the mind can be corrupt. 

TP: Yes. But we have a new mind, we have a mind that's now no longer serving under our old master Sin, we now have a whole new mindset and way of thinking about God and ourselves. It's also why the imperatives throughout this whole section have been “Think of yourself this way.” You have been crucified with Christ, so think about yourselves that way. Consider or reckon yourself that way. That's your new mind.

PJ: Well, what about this ‘sold under sin’ in verse 14? 

TP: It's odd, isn't it? Because it does sound if it is all present tense at this point. Why would he say he's sold under sin when he's previously been saying we're no longer under sin? I hate to call upon the intricacies of Greek grammar, but sometimes they are very important. And what we have here is, is a perfect passive participle. It's literally “but I am of the flesh, having been sold under sin”, which sounds quite different than just “sold under sin”. 

PJ: Yes. It's another way of just describing what being under flesh means. Someone who is ‘of the flesh’ is being someone who ‘has been sold under sin’.

TP: It's the character of someone who has been sold under sin. And Paul has been, like we all have been, under the mastery of sin. And we've all therefore developed or taken on the characteristics of living under the master of sin. We've all become fleshly, we've become rebellious, we've become not-spiritual.

PJ: But haven't I been set free from that slavery to sin?

TP: Yes, indeed. That's what chapter 6 has said, hasn't it?

PJ: So then what does it mean to say that having been set free from slavery to sin, I am still in some sense fleshly having been sold under sin? Is it talking about the past? 

TP: It's talking about the present because of the past—because I have been sold under sin (in the past), because that was my master, because that was the nature of me as someone who was in Adam, then although I have been set from that old master, I am still a fleshly person. I’m still someone with a body that is so used to sinning that it keeps on doing it—even though I've been set free now from that old mastery. I now live in a whole new kingdom where grace reigns, as you said earlier in chapter 6, where my mind is now set on the new, where the old me and that old mind has died. There's a whole new me that serves the Lord Jesus Christ, and that has their mind set on the Spirit. That's the new me. Paul says that's who I am.

But I still have this fleshly body that has its character because of its past. And so I carry that with me. And so even though now I rejoice and totally agree with the law of God and I want to obey it, even though now my mind is set on the Spirit and the law of God, it's as if I've got this traitor that I'm walking around with all the time almost with a mind of its own, taking me off and doing other things.

PJ: Can you illustrate for us how your body can have a mind of its own?

TP: It's strange for us, isn't it? Because we tend to think our minds control our bodies. And so how can our bodies do things that our mind does not want to do? But I think of it this way. Sometimes I pick up the guitar, and start picking out a song that I haven't played for 20 or 30 years. And I'll just start playing it. And Alison will say to me, “How can you still play that? How can you remember it?” And I say, “I can't remember it. But my fingers, remember it."' It's like the music's there somehow in my fingers and I can just play it without thinking. In fact, if I try and think about it, I make mistakes. But somehow, the old pattern is still there. And that's why we have this concept of muscle memory, that you can train your body to be a certain way and it will just keep doing that even without thinking. It's the key to many sports or arts—training your body to do what it can do without consciously thinking about

And I think it's that kind of concept here in Romans 7—that having been under the old master, my body has learned how to sin. And it's so deeply ingrained into the fleshly, human part of me that my body just keeps doing it. But now I've got a new mind that's in conflict with what my body keeps wanting to do. Does that make sense? 

PJ: Thank you. Yes. With a body that has a mind of its own, my mind is now different to that body. I can see that's what we mean by the fighting, isn't it? So ponder, for example, in Galatians 5:16-17, where it talks about the flesh and the Spirit warring against each other. It's the same kind of thing you're talking about, that the new age which we have entered into in Christ Jesus is at war with the old age that my body is still in with its reflexes. And it's sinful inhabitation.

TP: Yes, its misdeeds. It's interesting how in Romans 8 he talks about the ‘misdeeds of the body’, as if the body has got its own set of deeds. In fact, it talks about how our whole mind is now in a new place. It is inhabited by the Spirit, set on the Spirit. We have Christ within us, we have this whole new life without condemnation. And so we have an obligation to kill off and put off these ‘misdeeds of the body’. And what I think he's doing here in chapter 7 is laying the anthropology as the basis for that, that as humans, we have this problem that we've been sold under sin and have lived with sin as our master. And that's meant that our whole fleshly selves are disposed to rebel against God and disposed towards evil.

There’s a very good article by Will Timmins on this chapter. He describes Romans 7 as a Christian description of the problem we all have as humans, that we’re all fleshly. The difference with the Christian is that we now have a whole new mind that we serve God with, even though our fleshly selves are traitors to us. 

PJ: But the passage starts off on the law. The question it’s answering is: is it the law that leads me to death? The law is important because it shows me my sinfulness. It teaches me about what sin is, otherwise I would not know about this or that particular sin. It shows me that I am a sinner because one of the characteristics of people who are not interested in serving God is an unconsciousness about how sinful and impossible it is for them to serve God. They don't like the law of God being mentioned because it condemns, it draws attention to their old fleshly nature. And so the law doesn't cause me death. It condemns me to death, but it doesn't cause me death. It is sin that causes me death through the law.

TP: Quite so. That's why, at the end of this passage, twice, he talks about how he serves the law of God with his mind, and he rejoices or joyfully goes along with the law and wants to live the kind of life that the law upholds. But he's saying, my natural capacity, my fleshly, human capacity, is such that I can't possibly do that. That's why he says, thanks be to God that there is no condemnation because of the death of Jesus Christ and his keeping of that requirement.

PJ: And thank God that, through Jesus Christ, I will be relieved from this body of death.

TP: This body that keeps working against me in what I do. 

PJ: So that's a looking forward mindset.

TP: Yes, which has been happening right through chapters 6 and 7. We've been crucified with Christ, and if we've been crucified with him, we will share in a resurrection like his. By the time you get to the end of chapter 8, it's still talking about that time when our bodies will also finally be redeemed, when the whole thing is united and finished. 

PJ: So living as a Christian will mean conforming my life under the power of the Spirit to be more and more like Jesus, and this may in fact happen. But my consciousness of sin will go along with that, so that I become increasingly conscious of just how sinful I always was. But I didn't realize it until I tried to live by God's law. So that's why he has this principle that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. Because of the conflict between the two, I am much more conscious of sin and evil than I ever was. Whereas if I don't fight, I guess I'm not very conscious of sin.

TP: It's why in a sense this is both a comforting and challenging passage. It's comforting in the sense that Galatians 5 is also comforting and challenging. That is, it tells us that there is a battle before us (and Romans 8 will go on to describe more of that battle). And so it does comfort the Christian who sees this reality in their own lives—that sin is still with me in my flesh and my body seems to have a mind of its own. Because some tender-hearted Christians will think, “Well, God has done all these things for me and saved me, and yet I find myself just hiving off and doing the wrong thing again and again. What sort of Christian can I be? Maybe I’m not a Christian at all if I having this internal conflict” But this passage reminds us that the internal conflict is a sign that we are Christians—that there is a new Spirit at work within us battling against our fleshly natures.

PJ: We said earlier that there were three kinds of views on this passage. I think we’ve seen that the view that this speaks about the non-Christian experience is inadequate. But there’s the idea of the strong Christian and the weak Christian. Well, yes, the passage is saying we are weak. So the idea of saying this is normal Christian is actually no different to saying the weak Christian. 

TP: Because normal Christians all suffer from this weakness.

PJ: So there are only two alternatives that we've got. But then that leads me to my other conclusion—that fighting is normal. And that if you're not fighting, it's either because you've given into sin, or you're dead. Jesus has returned and you are no longer in the flesh, no longer in the body of death. So to fight because we are normally weak is the sign of Christian spirituality.

TP: It's a sign of Christian strength. The normal Christian life is a fight. Some people get a tender conscience and say ‘I'm struggling with sin and therefore maybe I'm not a Christian’; and others stop fighting and compromise, because they want want a peaceful Christian life with no fight. Both are complete misunderstandings of who we are in Christ Jesus.

What’s Really Going On in Romans 7

Will Timmins


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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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