First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 3

William Loader

Pentecost 3: 3 July  Romans 7:15-25a

Paul is employing observation of human experience to add further support for his gospel which depends on a relationship of faith to change people, not observance of the Law. He is on dangerous ground because many would hear his comments as encouragement to disregard scripture. That would have generated the same heat then as it would now. But Paul will not back off. In a daring metaphor he speaks of entering a new marriage in 7:1-6. We are no longer married to the Law! That marriage bore children in the form of sin. We were stuck with it. Now we have been liberated from the old marriage - made somewhat more palatable by suggesting not a divorce but death of partner! These scary thoughts are Paul's way of saying: we are now in a relationship which bears different kind of children: behaviours of goodness. Some of the hearers of his letter must have been ready to get up and walk out!

He imagines their outcry in 7:7. "Is the Law sin?!" Of course he doesn't mean that. The last thing he wants to do is disparage scripture, but he wants to torpedo a spirituality which believes people will change by telling them (or themselves) to be obedient to the commandments. He argues his case here along the lines that an approach to the Law which sees it as something to be obeyed inevitably ends up subverting it (7:7-8). Human nature when it is twisted by sin takes the commandments to serve its own ends so that commands end up not preventing but rather prompting sin. Many a drug education program has been an introduction to the drug scene when not carefully handled. In what may be a play on the garden of Eden, Paul seems to suggest that the very prohibition put the idea in Adam and Eve's mind (7:9-11). Or, at least, that is how he sees human experience. By contrast, as Romans 8 will show, he believes that goodness is the product of goodness liberating people to be good, not of the negative path commandments. His gospel of goodness has that power for liberation (1:16-17).

In 7:12-14 Paul returns to settle the objection and have his hearers sit down again! They need to understand he has no argument with the goodness of the commandments and the holiness of the Law. But it is not really going to change people. Now, in our passage in 7:15-23, he employs more arguments from human experience. People find themselves wanting to do good (including God's good Law) but end up not able to do it. His hearers may be familiar with this insight. It was alive in the intellectual traditions of the Greco-Roman world as an analysis of the human predicament and how people are not free. It reaches as far back as Euripides' tragedies.

Paul uses these ideas within a theological framework. Translation is difficult because of his use of the word, nomos, which could in every instance mean the Law or could in some instances mean "the principle". Either way he is talking about people's relation to the Law. This is the case in 7:21-23. Perhaps Paul is seeing the Law playing different and conflicting roles in the human mind, sometimes as conscience, sometimes as prompting awareness of the possibilities of sin. In any case Paul, through his repetitions, wants to say: human nature when twisted by sin has the capacity to be divided against itself and render a person almost helpless, at least  seriously morally impotent. He might say the true self wants to do God's Law, but the false self wants something else and, as long as it remains dominant, any move towards goodness will be undermined. No amount of encouragement to do good and obey commandments will achieve much until the inner state of affairs is dealt with.

It is almost comic, but also tragic, that some read Paul here as describing the inevitable for everyone and seeing no hope of change in this life. Christians troubled by their consciences have sought solace in Paul's hopelessness. That is a tragic confession and contrary to the whole drift of Paul's argument and defence in Romans. Even more misleading is the reading which imagines Paul, by saying, "I", is talking about his current state of being. That would simply play into his opponents' hands! "All he has is bad news!" For Paul is saying: this is the state where people try to live by the Law and it is why he offers an alternative.

The good news of God's goodness in Christ brings a new power into this hopeless situation which liberates people from such captivity. As people open themselves in faith to the love which offers them a relationship of forgiveness and growth in confidence, they move from death to life, they move towards freedom from sin and guilt and death. That freedom then liberates them to live and to love others, not least because they are released from the hopeless struggle grounded in fear. Love reproduces love and for Paul love is the fulfilling of the Law. That is how to get there - not via the path of trying harder to obey good commandments.

So in 7:24 Paul gives voice to such human hopelessness: who will liberate us from this destructive personality (body of death)? His good news answers: God in Christ (7:25a). Romans 8 then goes on to show how this happens. Our passage cuts off at 7:25a because 7:25b seems to start the discussion over again. In fact it is better to see it as summarising his defence: Yes, in that state I serve the Law of God with my mind or intellect but in my corrupted false self I serve the law of sin (or the Law as an instrument leading me to sin). So, you see, I am not opposing the Law of God; rather I am trying to say: people in that state are in a state of hopeless conflict. He follows this with the declaration that when we change states and enter the relationship with Christ we become freed from this chaotic situation and the condemnation it incurs (8:1).

Paul's arguments remain important early pointers to what achieves change in human behaviour. We recognise that behavioural change can in fact be effected by direct interventions, enhanced motivation, altered routines and patterns, but Paul's fundamental insight remains: people are most likely to change when they experience the kind of love which helps them deal with the sense of inadequacy whether that is grounded in guilt or false guilt or simply in the sense of shame that expresses itself in seeing no value or place for ourselves. Radical love has the capacity to bring rebirth and make people new. Closer to Paul's terms, we get set right by trust/faith in such love, and thus God's goodness can reproduce itself in us.

 Gospel  Pentecost 3:  3 July Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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