Sunday, April 26, 2009

Romans 7: Why Are Forbidden Fruits Sweeter? (Part II)

The unedited draft of my article for Kairos Magazine 2009: (2nd part)

Recently, I overheard some heated discussions in blogdom about the meaning of being ‘released from the law’. Does that mean that the Ten Commandments are no longer binding on Christians? One side of the debate was accused of promoting the law without grace (legalism) while the other was indicted of giving out a license to lawless living (antinomianism). So are we still expected to obey the law? Answer: Yes and no!

Legalism says: “Obey and you will be accepted by God!”
Lawlessness says: “Disobey and you will still be accepted by God!”
The Gospel says, “You are accepted by God because of Christ, therefore obey!”

Yes, the law still has a positive role for us as the revelation of God’s will because we have been set free from sin to become slaves of God and of righteousness (6:18, 22). We are liberated so that we may belong to Christ and bear good fruit (7:4). But no, our motive to obey is not to save ourselves or earn acceptance from God. We serve out of a grace-filled, loving relationship with Christ. Not because we have to, out of mere obligation, but because we want to, out of grateful delight. Such obedience is empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, not fleshly efforts or external coercion (7:6).

“What a wretched man I am!”

If the law is not to be blamed for sin, it is also clear that it is too weak to do what it is supposed to do – that is, to make us holy. Paul wrote, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (7:14). Biblical scholars have spilled much ink over the identity of the ‘wretched man’ caught in intense introspective struggles as described in Romans 7:14-24. He delights in God’s law in his mind (7:22) yet confesses that nothing good lives in him, that is, in his sinful nature (7:18). He could not do the good that he wants to do. Instead, he carries out the very evil that he wants to shun (7:15-16). It almost seems like he has a split personality, fighting a ferocious war within himself (7:23).

Was Paul talking about his own guilt-ridden inability to keep the law as a Pharisee in his pre-conversion days? Or does the ‘wretched man’ represent a regenerate Christian life caught in the already-not yet tension of growing in holiness in a fallen world? Or was Paul mimicking an abnormal Christian who still relies on external law-keeping rather than the ‘new way of the Spirit’ for his sanctification?

Without getting entangled too deeply in this debate (the curious reader may consult a good commentary for more details), perhaps it would be fair to say that all of us (be it Christian or otherwise) are unable to keep the law perfectly due to the power of sin living in us. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God— through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:24)! These inner struggles did not climax with a cry of despair but of anticipation for eventual deliverance. We would only read of the indwelling Spirit by whom we put to death the misdeeds of the sinful nature later in Romans 8.

Tim Keller has a helpful way of distinguishing the gospel from both legalism and lawlessness. While it is easy to detect sin in a hedonistic lifestyle, we often cannot tell how the gospel is any different from moralistic religion. But a legalist rejects God’s grace by trying to be his own savior through achievements just as a hedonist rejects God’s law in pursuit of selfish pleasures. Both are fundamentally opposed to the gospel of grace.

Two Christians may join the same cell group, tithe regularly, serve in church, listen to the same sermon and try their utmost to be good parents. But they may do so out of radically different motives, resulting in radically different approaches to life. The legalist does these things in order to appease God, out of fear and despair that God will reject him if he fails to perform. If he succeeds, he feels proud and superior to others. On the other hand, the believer transformed by the gospel does the same things out of grateful joy in God’s free acceptance and desire to bring Him pleasure. The result is a humble boldness since Jesus alone is his righteousness and atonement for sins.

Which is the primary driver in your life - the law or the gospel?

Is our standing before God dependent on grace rather than our track record in law-keeping? Is our obedience an outflow of a personal, living relationship with God? Or do we relate to God in terms of a slavish bondage to rules and regulations, a list of do’s and don’ts, of mere duties and obligations?

God is not glorified by joyless religious duty, but by our joyful, willing and obedient delight in all that He is.

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