Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. Rom. 7:20
Paul’s detailed description in Rom. 7 of his relationship to his sin nature can be quite confusing to read or preach on. The logic of his argument gets lost in his over-use of the pronoun “I” unless you realize that there are, in fact, two “I’s” that Paul is referring to—the “big I,” by which he means his desire and will, and the “small I,” which refers to his unruly sinful nature. Paul has cultivated a healthy detachment with regards to himself that we too can apply to all aspects of our inner life.
If we consider the whole passage of Rom. 7:15-20 with this type of differentiation in mind we can perhaps see more clearly how Paul applies this logic to his relationship to his sinful nature. Note the positioning of the two “I’s” in the following passage. To highlight this distinction I have capitalized the “big I” and left the lower case for the “small i” (as well as the word “sin” which it refers to).
- I do not understand what i do. For what I want to do, i do not do, but what I hate, i do. And if i do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me… For I have the desire to do what is good, but i cannot carry it out. i do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this i keep on doing. Now if i do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
Paul recognizes that there are two “I’s” at work in his inner life—the “I” of his redeemed will and the “i” of his unruly flesh. The fact that he disagrees with himself is what differentiates the “I” that wants to do good from the “i” that doesn’t do what the “I” of his will wants. And it is this differentiation that he ultimately recognizes as his saving grace.
When, for instance, Paul appeals to the fact that “I agree that the law is good” he stands in agreement with God. But he is also aware of the contrary actions of his small “i” and how these actions do not agree with what he (and God) wants. Following this logic he concludes that, since his true self agrees with God, the “i” that is doing this— in other words, the “i” that is in disagreement with both he and God—is not his true self. His summary statement then is that “it is no longer I who do it, but sin living in me.” Logically speaking, it is a fair assessment of the good and evil that are both at work in his inner life. But being aware of this, in itself, does not resolve his dilemma.
Like all of us Paul feels trapped by the forces of sin in his body. It is a fearful predicament to find oneself in—that though I disagree with myself, I nevertheless continue to do things that both God and I would condemn. Being attached to your sinful nature is like having a millstone tied around your neck, which is why Paul later exclaims, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (Rom. 7:24).
The answer to Paul’s question, “Who will rescue me?” is, of course, Jesus, which is why the apostle then responds with gratitude for the mercy of the cross whereby he knows that he is no longer attached to the fate of his sinful nature. “Thanks be to God,” he cries, “who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25) His sinful nature will never have a share in the kingdom of God (1Cor. 6:9), but Paul knows that he is no longer attached to its destiny. For to the extent that we agree with our sin nature we are yoked to its fate. But to the extent that we disagree with our sins we too can lay claim to the reasoning that Paul is expressing here.
Rob Des Cotes
Imago Dei Christian Communities
(written for Feb. 19, 2015)
FOR GROUP DISCUSSION:
- How would you make a similar distinction in the inner workings of your own life between the “I” of your redeemed will and the “i” of your unruly flesh?” Can you see these as two separate selves?
- In agreeing that God’s law is good and thereby opposing yourself when you act contrary to that law can you say, as Paul does, “it is no longer I who do it, but sin living in me?”
- Consider the statement that “to the extent that we agree with our sin nature we are yoked to its fate. But to the extent that we disagree with our sins we too can lay claim to the reasoning that Paul is expressing here.” Are there aspects of your sin nature that you still find yourself justifying in some ways?
FOR PRAYER: In prayer, allow yourself to be aware of your sin nature. Note how, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, you cannot help but feel opposed to this nature. Give thanks to God who, through Jesus Christ our Lord, has delivered you from the destiny of sin by detaching you from all within you that is contrary to His righteousness.