Dichotomy of the Self.
This portion of Paul’s Epistle to the Roman Church reads like the Apostle to the Gentiles was experiencing a dichotomized self, where he is clearly aware of his wicked nature on one hand, pivoted against his new life in Christ. And the struggles between ‘the old and the new man’ seem to rage unabated through his life. The distinctive change of tenses midway through this passage (Rom 7:14) from the past to the present, clearly demarcates his understanding from a life under the law to one transformed by the indwelling Spirit of God. We will attempt to unpack these divisions of being.
Paul’s own Pharisaic upbringing modelled a deeply religious and moral life, since he was schooled in the Torah. However, following his conversion at the Damascus road (Acts 9), it dawned on him that he had totally misunderstood the basis of God’s laws; his prior appreciation was limited to the letter of the law, whereas the spirit of these laws highlighted man’s basic inborn sinfulness (Rom 7:1-3). The tenth commandment on coveting (i.e., desperately wanting something more than he desired to obey God; Rom 7:7-8) became the lighthouse that illuminated Paul’s condition of his own heart. Could it be he suddenly realized how much he had coveted his superior religiosity as a zealous Pharisee, which drove him towards persecuting the Christians? Facing up to the origins of those utterly despicable extrajudicial killings finally crushed him. The human capacity for covetousness is legend, and it certainly has become the bane of our modern individualistic and consumerist society, with its prideful acquisitiveness of positions, possessions, and accolades. And when we allow them to get to us, it would eventually distance us from God. Within the context of what had been achieved (in the past tense) on our behalf by Jesus Christ, Paul defined our ability to triumph over the expressions of our baser evil instincts through the power of the One who works within us (Eph 3:20-12; Phil 2:13). Since victorious Christian living on this side of heaven is derived from our position in Christ when we entirely submit to His Lordship and embrace His salvation of our souls, His victory over death and sin together with His resurrection, becomes our triumph too (Rom 7:4-6,9-13).
Paul described this conflict of two natures succinctly: the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want… and 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 (Rom 7:14-25; cf., Gal 5:17). The human mind finds it impossibly perplexing to consciously grasp these two states of being, as it is an otherworldly spiritual principle, juxtaposing God’s holiness with our ungodliness. The law’s incapability to deal with resident evil in our hearts meant that using will power to suppress it is a non sequitur, as we have all tried, one way or another (Rom 7:5). The spiritual reality is that the law is no longer a means to salvation as was previously regarded by the Jewish believers, since we have also died when Christ was crucified, and rose again when He resurrected (Rom 6:8-11). Positionally, our transformed spirit resulting from being made a new creation in Christ enables us to love God’s law, to love His righteousness, and His holiness. And how is this possible? It is the person of Christ – the Spirit of Christ – who indwells us, who sets us free from the body of this death (Rom 7:22-25; 2 Cor 5:16-17). It is this dynamic relationship with our Lord, where we become less presumptuous of our egoism and independence by our intentional submission of our will to Him (c.f., Col 3:1-10). However, our innate self-centred nature rebels against this incessantly, to assert our own will. And it is this battle that Paul is addressing. Would we allow God to be the Lord of our Life?