Many years ago, when I was in seminary, I asked one of my professors what had surprised him most about the church when he had finished his own theological studies and had started serving in ministry. I will never forget his response. He said, “Guy, would you believe there is actually sin in the church!”
As my professor insightfully and rather comically pointed out, we are so often surprised by the fact that Christians continue to sin after coming to faith in Jesus Christ. But we shouldn’t be—not really. We live with ourselves. And so we should know, better than anyone else, the thoughts that we think and the things that we say and do. We should know that what the apostle Paul says about himself in Romans 7:13-25 applies to us as well. We regularly fail to do the things that we want to do and instead find ourselves doing what we do not want to do (vv. 15-16). It’s not just that you and I were sinners until Christ set us free from sin and death but, as Paul says of himself, we are still “wretched” men and women who still need to be “deliver[ed]…from this body of death” (v. 24).
But, having said this, it is important to point out that some New Testament scholars would disagree. They believe that Romans 7 is not talking about Paul after his conversion but before. That interpretation, however, does not hold up to further scrutiny. What is more, it is out of step with several other passages in the New Testament that confirm the reality of remaining sin within Christian men and women. Let’s look a little closer at this idea.
The first thing I would mention in regard to Romans 7 is that an important key to understanding what Paul is saying is found in vv. 16-17 and in v. 20: “Now if I do what I do not want…it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” At first glance, Paul would seem to be passing the buck or shifting the blame: “It’s not my fault. Don’t blame me. Blame the sin that lives within me.” Sounds like a convenient attitude, doesn’t it? But I don’t think that is what Paul is really saying here. I think Paul is telling us that his “I” has been changed. In other words, he has been converted. He is no longer dead in sins and trespasses (à la Eph. 2:1), which is why he says it is “no longer I who do it.” He is now a “new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). But sin still remains within him, leading him to do the things he does not want to do so much of the time.
Paul then confirms this in vv. 22-23, when he says: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Paul’s “I” has been changed. That is why he can say that he “delight[s] in the law of God” in his “inner being.” He has been changed on the inside. But sin still remains in his “members.”
In terms of his previous life, Paul was like a tree that was dead at the root and, consequently, could only bear fruit in keeping with that condition. The lack of life in the roots worked its way up the tree and affected the kind of fruit the tree produced (see Matt. 7:15-20 and 12:33-37). But, after coming to faith in Christ, Paul is, by his own testimony, changed in his “inner being,” i.e., at the root. He is now like a tree that is alive on the inside and, as a result, begins to bear good and living fruit. But the death that so defined his reality isn’t instantaneously purged from his experience. It remains in the branches or, as Paul says, in his “members.” To be sure, this remaining sin will eventually be driven out of every Christian. But this doesn’t happen immediately upon conversion. It takes a lifetime and will never be complete until we get to heaven. Then and only then will we do exactly what we want to do at all times. Until that day comes, however, we will struggle with the sin that remains within our branches or members.
The fact that we will struggle with sin until the day we die doesn’t mean that we are to turn a blind eye to it or accept it without any hint of remorse or repentance. We are rightly to be grieved over our sins and imperfections even though we are forgiven for them all in Christ. We are with Paul to lament over the things we do that we do not want to do and the things we don’t do that we very much want to. We are to cry out with him, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
This should give us great humility and patience in dealing with other Christians, especially when they fall short. Rather than being surprised at what others do, we should keep an eye on our own struggles with remaining sin and our own resulting “wretchedness.” We should remember what Augustine said so long ago, namely, that the seeds of every sin are in each of our hearts. Given the right circumstances, there is no sin that is beyond any one of God’s people—except of course for final unbelief (which is what I take the sin against the Holy Spirit in Matthew 12:22-32 to be referring to). No matter how mature we are, no matter how strong our faith may be, we are capable of almost any sin, given the right circumstances. Just ask King David. He was, by the Lord’s admission, a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22). And, yet, in the course of time, he broke every one of the 10 commandments. Keeping these things in mind should prevent us from being surprised at the sin we see around us in the church, as my seminary professor was so many years ago.
But we must also remember that all of our remaining “wretchedness” is completely and eternally forgiven in and through Jesus Christ. And this is a truth that we must preach to ourselves far more frequently than we think about our sins. It’s no wonder, therefore, that Paul begins Romans 8 with the words, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” He knew that after laying out his and, by extension, our, remaining wretchedness in Romans 7, we would all need to be reminded that our sins have been completely forgiven forevermore in Christ. It is not just our past sins that Jesus bore in His body on the tree, the ones that we committed before we came to faith in Christ. He bore them all—past, present, and future. As a result, God is now for us, and that will never change.
So while it is definitely helpful for us to remember our own wretchedness in order that we might be patient with and forgiving of the sins our brothers and sisters in Christ commit, it is far more vital for us to keep in mind that we are forgiven forevermore through the blood of Jesus for everything we do. Borrowing the well-known words of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, we might put the principle in this way: for every 1 look at our neighbor’s sins, we should take 10 looks at our own; and for every 1 look at our own sins, we should take 10 at the cross of Christ.
Sin is a reality for all who are in Christ. That shouldn’t surprise us, because we ought to be far more concerned about our own sins than we are about someone else’s. And all of our own sins should point us to the cross, which is the only place that we can find true and lasting forgiveness.