Recently I spoke to a man who felt condemned to repeat a particular sin. "Believe me, I know myself," he said, "and it ain't pretty. I just can't help it."
I know what he means, but I just can't accept that this since of fatalism with regard to sin is really what God wants for us. And yet it's difficult to respond to this attitude. You come off sounding like a naïf; like someone who has not yet wised up to the power and persistence of the flesh. Surely it is good to be "realistic" about oneself. Good to face up at last to one's weakness.
And yet . . .
I just don't accept it. In effect, this makes confession and repentance an end instead of a beginning. As if Christ's exhortation, "Get up and walk," was not meant for us today. And this attitude seriously underestimates the power of the Gospel, it seems to me. As if it were only a future hope, but never a present reality. As if Romans 7 were the end of the story, and Paul had never followed his heartfelt confession of weakness with the great encouragement to spiritual victory that is Romans 8.
That chapters begins with a verse in which millions have taken comfort over the centuries: "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Does this simply mean that through Jesus we are no longer subject to the judicial condemnation that we deserve? "In the city of refuge," as Matthew Henry says, safe from the avenger. That would be grace indeed, but I do not believe that Paul wants his readers to be satisfied in that. The grace of "no condemnation" is a grace to stand. It is a beginning, not an end. Matthew Henry goes on to say:
It is the undoubted character of all those who are so in Christ Jesus as to be freed from condemnation that they walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit. Observe, The character is given from their walk, not from any one particular act, but from their course and way. And the great question is, What is the principle of the walk, the flesh or the spirit, the old or the new nature, corruption or grace? Which of these do we mind, for which of these doe we make provision, by which of these are we governed, which of these do we take part with?I have never written a purpose-statement for Mr. Standfast, but if I ever do it will bear the message, "Christian, there is an alternative to sin!" We are freed not only from the guilt of sin, but from its binding power.
Now, don't get me wrong. I am not a Christian perfectionist. Confession and repentance is going to be a constant in the Christian's life, because sin is going to be a constant. But so is the enabling of the Spirit. Romans 6-8 paints a picture of the Christian life that is, far from being static or fatalistic (as might be assumed by those who interpret Romans 7 as if it stood alone, apart from its context), a thoroughly new way to live. Paul is essentially an optimist about the Christian life. If I have any message to offer my friend, it must share in that optimism. "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made [us] free from the law of sin and death."