Sunday, April 26, 2009

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

The latest Kairos magazine is out of the stove and here is the unedited draft from my article on Romans chapter 7.

Have you ever stolen mangoes or rambutans from a neighbour’s tree? If those adolescent exploits still make you chuckle, it may seem puzzling to see why Augustine agonized with guilt over some stolen pears in his Confessions. Was he indulging in a kind of mental self-beating?

Apparently not. Augustine looked back on his ‘fruitful’ endeavor and confessed that he was not even hungry that day. In fact, he gleefully threw his loot to the pigs. His desire was not the sweetness of pears, but merely the excitement of doing what was wrong! He asked himself, “Was it possible to take pleasure in what was illicit for no reason other than that it was not allowed?” Forbidden fruits taste better simply because they are off-limits.

This universal human experience seems to be on the apostle Paul’s mind when he wrote:

“What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet”. But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from the law, sin is dead.” (Romans 7:7-8)

Earlier in this grand epistle to the church in Rome, the apostle had argued powerfully that sinners are declared righteous by God’s grace through faith in Christ, not through obeying the law (3:27). Consequently believers are ‘not under law, but under grace’ (6:14). They are no longer trying to impress God or earn divine favor by keeping the written code and live under its condemnation. Instead, they depend on what Christ had graciously done for their salvation and thus set free from the power of sin.

If the law only brings us wrath from God (4:15), does that mean that Paul considered the Mosaic law to be responsible for sin and death? Was he casting a shadow against the law as the cause of sin and condemnation? (7:7, 13) In Romans chapter 7, the apostle would answer these serious objections and defend the role of the law in our discipleship.

No, he wrote, the law in itself is “holy, righteous and good” (7:12). On the contrary, it is our fallen nature which is the source of sin and death. Although the law reveals and condemns transgressions, our self-centered disposition is thus aroused to produce every kind of prohibited desires (7:8). For this reason, the law is unable to rescue sinners or make them holy. It can neither be the ground for our justification or sanctification.

Paul used marriage as an illustration to explain the principle that the law has authority over a person only as long as he or she lives. “For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage” (7:2). Similarly, believers have died to the law through participation in the death of Christ so that they may now belong to Him and bear good fruit to God. They were once controlled by the sinful passions provoked by the law, resulting in evil deeds that lead to death. But now they have been released from the law so that they may serve God in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (7:1-6)

See Part II


Living Lee said...

There is an interesting comment on Blaise Pascal in Robert Swinton's book "the story of god" where even mathematics can become interesting when one is forbidden to study it. Apparently the young Pascal was forbidden by his father to study Euclid until he was 15 but he secretly did it and became an adept at it before the time.
If you want your book (eg. Satanic verses or Shit) to sell just get it banned by the establishment. Certain societies are so obsessed with sex because sex is repressed. The list goes on.

In their book on "Cat and dog theology", Bob Sjogren and Gerald Robinson points out the two categories of Christians. Dog Christians are drawn towards and facing heaven while the cats are avoiding hell with their backs to heaven. Its a classic on whether we are faithful and loyal God-centred doggies or selfish cats who behave as if they are god and God is suppose to cater to their every whim and fancy like their servant.
Good read.

Living Lee

CDPC Friend said...

My friend and I read aloud Augustine's 'Confessions' to one another.

Like you I was struck by the length to which he reflected on stealing pears as a boy. 11 pages or more. Besides concluding that forbidden fruits taste better, Augustine also noted that what spurred him to commit that 'crime' was good things: friendships and comradeship. Alone, he would never have thought of stealing the pears. But he was with friends.
And they egged one another on to do that deed.

It was a profound reflection on the promises and perils of friendship. Friendship is never neutral. Friendship at its best spurs us to greater good. At its worst, it leads to evil (consider the comradeship of Nazi Germany!).

And while stealing pears might sound trivial, for Augustine, it was the sheer wantonness of it (he wasn't hungry, he did it on a frivolous whim, and he ended up throwing the pears away) that made the deed so reprehensible. Interestingly enough, Augustine wrote all his profound reflections on sin decades after his salvation. Augustine shows us that the greater our realization of God's grace, the more we realize the profound depths of sin.