Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Theologians, expositors, and preachers have puzzled over and debated exactly who or what sort of person is depicted in Romans 7:14-25?  Some contend that it must be an unsaved person since a saved person is no longer a slave to sin.  Others say it is a regenerated man who has not yet discovered the power or filling of the Holy Spirit, often seen as a “second blessing” after salvation.  Still others see this struggle with sin as the normal lot of the Christian, the battle we all must fight on a daily basis.  

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones saw the passage differently from all those other positions, and I am greatly indebted to him for pointing out Paul’s purpose for this illustration.  Pastor Charles Leiter takes this same position in his book Justification and Regeneration.  Lloyd-Jones’s exposition is very extensive in his series of published sermons on Romans.[1]  While I agree with Lloyd-Jones’s central point, I can’t agree with his conclusion that the “man” being described is someone under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and enlightened concerning the Law but not yet set free by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  I think he made his point earlier when he affirmed that Paul is constructing a closely-reasoned logical argument as to the purpose and limits of the Mosaic Law.

So who is the man in Paul’s drama, the man Paul refers to as “I” and “me”?  He is both every believer and no one in particular.  He represents, in the person of the apostle himself, a progressive illustration of the pervasive power of indwelling sin and the inability of the Law to overcome it.  The struggle itself is one that every believer can identify with at various points in his or her Christian walk.  Yet it is not the “normal” Christian life.  It cannot be!  The man in verses 14-25 is not only struggling against sin, he is ALWAYS losing!  “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.”  (Romans 7:19)  He wants to do what’s good, but he doesn’t.  He wants to shun evil, but he does it.  This is not the picture of the normal Christian life!

If we look at this passage as the logical object lesson Paul intends, it will make sense and the dilemma will be resolved.

Answering Paul’s Critics

Paul had been accused of preaching against the Law of Moses (Acts 18:13; 21:28).  This was a charge Paul had to answer wherever he went, including Rome where he was a prisoner (Acts 28:23).  So in this epistle to the church at Rome (written earlier), Paul carefully expounds the purpose and limits of the Old Covenant Law of Moses.  

To assure his critics that he is not disparaging the Law, Paul states clearly at the beginning of this section: “So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good . . . For we know that the Law is spiritual . . .” (Romans 7:12, 14)  He acknowledges the goodness and spiritual nature of the Law from the outset.  Our problem is not caused by the Law; it is caused by sin and by our own inability to keep it!  In Chapter 8 Paul will say,

“For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:3-4)

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.  Paul steps into the picture and uses himself as an illustration of what the Christian life feels like when lived under the law and by our own fleshly efforts.

After acknowledging that the law is good and holy and spiritual, Paul states, “but I am fleshly, sold under sin” (v. 14).  The King James Version translates the word “fleshly” as “carnal,” the same basic concept but with a more negative connotation.  Paul establishes the fact that as children of Adam we have innate sinful tendencies that corrupt everything we do and think.  When Adam declared his independence from God by disobeying God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, his nature was corrupted, and everyone born after that inherited Adam’s nature.  “When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image . . .”  (Genesis 5:3)  Paul explained in Romans 5:19 that “through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners ...”  Even though Paul is speaking as a saved man, a born-again man, he recognizes that sin is still a powerful resident in his life.  The effects of innate sin have not been eradicated. 

So with this as a starting point, let’s look at the passage.

For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle (lit. “law”) that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (Romans 7:14-24)

This can only be a saved man, a regenerated man, who is saying these things.  No unsaved person would or could say, “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.”  But I don’t think is it Paul’s point to describe the struggles of a saved person.  His point is to illustrate what happens when we try to live under the law rather than in relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. 

Limits of Law and Good Will

Observe what we have in this passage.  Paul takes the role of the saved man who (1) recognizes the good, holy, and spiritual nature of the law, (2) who recognizes his own fleshly weakness and sinful propensities, (3) who has the will to do good and avoid evil, and (4) who fails in his holy efforts.  Why does he fail?  What is missing?  He has the law and delights in it, he has the will to obey God’s law, but he lacks the power to do what is good.  This brings him to his exclamation in verse 24: “Wretched man that I am!  Who shall set me free from the body of this death?”  The Law demands obedience, yet our fleshly efforts – in spite of the holiest of intentions – fail us!  Why do they fail us?  Because of indwelling, overpowering sin that remains in our members.  Sin is like a law that springs into motion at the very mention of God’s Law!

Who will set me free from the body of this death?  The Law?  Not a chance!  Sinful passions, Paul says, are “aroused by the Law” (v. 5), and sin takes “opportunity by the commandment” and deceives us (vss. 8, 11).  The purpose of the Law in God’s redemptive plan was to awaken us to the gravity and power of sin, “for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

Freedom from the Law of Sin and Death

So, again, who will set me free from the body of this death?  Paul answers triumphantly:
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25)

 It is Paul’s relationship with Jesus Christ that sets him free from the domination of sin.  He has already said in Chapter Six: “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:14 NKJV)  Please note: It is because we are not under law but under grace that sin’s domination is broken.  Under grace our focus is on Christ and our relationship to Him, rather than on the Law which actually arouses our indwelling sin.  (Want to test this?  Tell a two-year-old not to open something and then leave the room!) 

But Paul doesn’t end verse 25 with the words above (as I’m sure you noticed).  He concludes his logical argument about the purpose and limit of the Law with these words:

“So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin”

What does Paul mean here?  Is he schizophrenic?  No, he is simply concluding his argument that the flesh has no capacity in and of itself to fulfill God’s law, even though his mind fully concurs with God’s law and is a bond-servant to it.  There is only one thing the believer can do with the fleshly nature: “. . . but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:13)

But what about the righteousness required by the Law?  Surely God wants to see that in His redeemed children.  Indeed, and Paul now tells us how that happens under the New Covenant: The Law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus.

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.  (Romans 8:1-4 NASB)

So who is the man struggling with sin and losing?  He’s Paul’s object lesson to show the inadequacy of the law and our good intentions to produce a righteous life without the power of the Holy Spirit through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  He is Paul’s way of showing the futility and frustration of trying to live “under the Law”.  The struggling man is any believer in Christ who – even for a moment, a day, a week, or longer – focuses on the Law rather than on Christ.  He is any believer who begins to take pride in his works rather than humbly walking with Jesus.

[1] For a detailed refutation of the various other positions, see D. M. Lloyd-Jones. Romans: Chapters 7:1-8:4, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974)

Thursday, August 15, 2013


"I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. "Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.  (Act 20:29-31)

The Apostle Paul, giving his farewell address to the elders of the Ephesian church, warned them of two serious threats to the people of God: external attacks (“savage wolves”) and internal corruption (“men . . . of your own selves . . . speaking perverse things”).  Of the two threats, the second is by far the more serious.  Persecution, while having a purifying effect on the Church by testing true commitment and faith, certainly hinders the progress of the Gospel and the ministry of edification of the members.  That’s why we are to pray “for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:2). 

The gravest threat to the spiritual life of the Church – God’s flock – is the internal threat from those who profess to be believers, especially ministers who lead people astray with “perverse” (distorted or corrupt) teachings.

With this article I am beginning a series on what I see as serious internal threats to the spiritual health of the Church in our day.

The first threat is a subtle attack on the Holy Scriptures – The Bible.  That is always the first point of attack.  The Serpent’s challenge to Eve in the garden was a subtle attack on God’s Word: “Has God said . . .?”  Foundational to the Christian faith is the doctrine of the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. Paul declared, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God (literally, ‘God-breathed’), and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NKJV)

The doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration affirms that the very words of Scripture (verbal) were given by God’s Spirit through the agency of the human authors, that all of Scripture (plenary) is inspired by God, and therefore all of the Bible is inerrant as originally given by God.

Now there have always been those preachers, commentators, and theologians who have denied this truth outright. Their denials come in various forms: Some say that the writers of Scripture were simply recording their experiences with God in their own words, more or less accurately. Others have said that the concepts were inspired by God, but the authors recorded them as best they could in their own words, however fallible.  Others have denied any divine inspiration, claiming that the Bible is simply a collection of religious writings, including myths and legends, and should not be read as fact but for inspiration and insight into Hebrews and Christian culture. It’s not difficult to recognize these denials; they’re not subtle.  What is happening in evangelical circles today is, indeed, subtle, and therefore dangerous!

 The essence of this threat is a diminishing, or outright denial, of the distinct meaning of the words of Scripture.  According to certain professors of biblical linguistics, words that have been understood to distinguish various forms of love, righteousness, goodness, forgiveness, etc., are simply stylistic variations of the writers and should not be pressed as to their individual significance.  To these scholars, making any distinction – ever, in any context – between agapao (love involving the will) and phileo (a love of affection) is “linguistic nonsense.”[1]  Biblical word studies, like R. C. Trench’s Synonyms of the New Testament, A. T. Robertson’s Word Pictures in The New Testament, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, M. R. Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament, and the like, were all useless endeavors.  Etymology, the study of the roots and development of word meanings, is likewise, useless since words have no meaning outside their current context.

It is not difficult to see that this notion has serious implications regarding our belief in the verbal inspiration of Scripture.  If the words of the Bible, in their original languages, were given by God, howbeit through the agency of the human writers (2 Peter 1:21), are we not to give careful attention to the specific meaning of those words, as well as the context and syntax in which they are found?  Don’t words contain a story, a history in themselves?  Indeed they do.  James Hope Moulton and George Milligan gave the Christian world a marvelous gift in their monumental lexicon, The Vocabulary of the New Testament, in which they trace the usages and development of New Testament Greek words.  In the introduction to the 1930 edition, Milligan gives an example of how the “story” behind a word can be very edifying.

In Colossians 2:14, we read that our Lord “blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us,” and the verb used for “blotted out” (exaleipsas) is a technical term for “washing out” the writing from a papyrus sheet.[2]

Normally, a new generation of scholars “stands on the shoulders” of the giants of the past and climbs higher.  The tendency in much of biblical scholarship today is to be iconoclastic, to tear down and sweep aside the works and views of great scholars of the past.  And as it is with all iconoclasts, the movement is extreme.  It is one thing to point out inaccurate conclusions from Greek and Hebrew etymology, but quite another to deprecate the study of etymology altogether! 

This devaluation of the importance of the individual words of Scripture undermines the uniqueness of the Bible, and it discourages the average reader from meditating on the very words of Scripture.  This new theory of the fluidity of words forms the basis for the new translations based on “dynamic equivalence.”  (See blog post: Is What I'm Reading Really God's Word?)

According to the new school of biblical linguistics, words have no meaning apart from their context.  I would counter that verbal, plenary inspiration means that God gave all the words of Scripture, and therefore the context also.  Certainly, biblical words must be understood in their context. That’s the first rule of biblical interpretation. But words in context still have individual meanings.  The semantic range of a word is limited by its context, but its meaning and etymology are not obliterated by the context.  Each word brings its accumulated color to the text.

The inspiration and impetus for this new way of thinking about Scripture came from a Scottish scholar named James Barr. His monumental work, The Semantics of Biblical Language, changed the way interpreters and, most importantly, translators thought about the Scriptures.  Barr was an outspoken critic of Fundamentalism, Evangelical Conservatism, and Biblical Inerrancy. His book on biblical semantics was published in 1961, and in its wake came a line of Bible translations that expressed what the translators called “dynamic equivalence”. Thanks to Barr, the individual words of Scripture were not important so long as the meaning of the text (as interpreted by the translators) was made clear to modern readers.  That meaning can stray so far from the original words of Scripture that it is difficult to recognize the passage.  Note the following “translations” of John 6:27:

On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval. (NIV, TNIV)
For on him God the Father has set the seal of his authority. (REB)
Because God the Father has given him the right to do so. (CEV)
For God the Father has sent me for that very purpose. (NLT)
He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last. (The Message)

The liberties taken in these “dynamically equivalent” translations are what Prof. Leland Ryken calls the “destabilizing of the text.”  A reader could not be sure if these quotations, especially the last three, were from the same passage of Scripture.

This all springs from a depreciation of the very words of Scripture.  The evangelical scholars involved in this movement would undoubtedly affirm their belief in the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture, but in their writings, they rarely mention the Holy Spirit’s work in the choice of words in the Bible.  Someone has said: “Our beliefs must change our behavior, or sooner or later, our behavior will change our beliefs.”  There is a disconnect between the profession of these scholars and their practice.  One cannot continue to minimize or ignore the individual inspired words of Scripture and still affirm faith in verbal inspiration.  It will not surprise me when some of the prominent names in this movement declare that they have changed their belief and now hold to something akin to concept inspiration.  Sadly, it may go virtually unnoticed by most Christians.

In the meantime, I want to know what the Bible says, not what someone tells me it means!

[1] D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, Second Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996) 28.
[2] James Hope Moulton and Milligan, George, The Vocabulary of The Greek New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1930, Reprinted June 1974) xii.