Romans 7, and the case for two natures

Yesterday I suggested that the sinful nature teaching among evangelicals is questionable. Today I want to touch lightly on a most challenging passage, which has different interpretations, though by and large, I think one should prevail, with some possible overlap into the Christian life.

Romans 7 is often understood as teaching that the believer in Christ has two natures. And I’ve heard the teaching repeatedly, we probably all have, that it depends on which nature one feeds as to which one survives, or thrives and grows. At the same time it’s taught that the believer will have an inevitable struggle with the two natures, even a tug of war (it has even been inaptly called I think, a civil war), and the struggle won’t end in this life; it will always be present.

Romans 7 needs to be read and studied in the context of at least Romans chapters 6 and 8. What is noticeable in Romans 7 in contrast to the previous and following material is that both grace and the Spirit are absent. Romans 7 depicts life under the law, we might capitalize Law, life under the Torah. At least at this point when the transition has taken place and the first/old covenant is of the past, the final/new covenant present, grace and the Spirit are no longer present with what is now the old covenant, as important as that covenant being first, was. Paul would have surely argued that only in the new/final covenant was God’s grace and the Spirit to be dominant, the old/first covenant having laid the groundwork for that.

One might argue that Paul’s use of the first person “I” indicates he’s talking about his own experience as a Christian. I think along with some interpreters (at least one of the early church era) that he is using a rhetorical device which was especially common, or at least known when he wrote it, and is simply identifying what life is like under the law in the graphic terms of one living there. However insofar as we who are in Christ, no longer in the flesh, but in the Spirit (Romans 8) and under grace, not under the law (Romans 6), insofar as we live like those who are under the law, something of the experience of Romans 7 will be experienced. But in reality we are not under the law, but under grace, and not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, so that the thought is a deception.

People refer to Paul calling himself the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1), as if he sins right up to the present, contradictory of the teaching of Romans 6 and 8. But Paul is surely thinking of his past life of persecuting Christians, and not to his present life. At the same time, it’s true that we don’t arrive in this life. We still have both indwelling sin, and sin to confess. So there might be some case to make for two natures. As Galatians 5 makes clear, if we don’t walk/live according to the Spirit, we will live according to the flesh.

There is little doubt that at least at times we can and will falter. And we don’t arrive in this life to any kind of sinless perfection, but do sin in thought, word and deed daily in both what we do and fail to do to love God with all of our being and doing, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. So that we are always in need of God’s mercy to us as sinners. But at the same time, our lives are to be characterized as those who are led by the Spirit, putting to death the deeds of the body, and living as those enslaved to God and to righteousness in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

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