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How Far Can We Follow Jesus? Part 5
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In Part 4 of this series, I explained why the most commonly quoted proof text for the “two natures” doctrine (Rom 7.18-23) is inadmissible as supporting evidence. I went on to say that the “two natures” interpretation was and is theologically vague; and that the vast majority of Early Church teachers understood Rom 7.14-25 differently.
But despite my objections, the more observant among my readers will have noticed that the Early Church's preferred interpretation of this passage doesn't sit easily with the current scholarly understanding of the usual significance of the tense, voice, and mood combination in Rom 7.14-25. If Paul was indeed describing a pre-conversion struggle, how was it supposed to be of continuing relevance to born-again Christians?
Before I return to this point, let me make a small confession. In Part 4, I wrote that Rom 7.14-25 describes the struggle between “the flesh” and “the spirit”. This is exactly what most modern Christians assume. It's what I used to believe too. But it doesn't. In fact, Rom 7.14-25 describes a struggle between the “flesh” and “the law of my mind” (Rom 7.23), also described as “my inner being” (Rom 7.22). Yes, Paul does say that the law of God is “spiritual” (Rom 7.14), but nowhere does he mention “the Spirit” or “the spirit” in this passage.
This glaring absence suggests the Church Fathers were right to say the passage describes a futile pre-conversion struggle to obey God's laws. The element of continuing relevance for Paul's Christian audience in Rome was his description of “the flesh”, against which we struggle even after conversion. This explains Paul's God-inspired choice of tense, voice, and mood in Rom 7.14-25. But why do so many of us wrongly assume the above verses mention “the Spirit” or “the spirit”? The answer is that modern preaching has led us to project the contents of a different passage on to this one.
Several years earlier, Paul wrote a letter to born-again Christians in Galatia. They had started following teachers who told them to become circumcised and obey the Law of Moses in order to complete and ensure their salvation. Paul argued urgently and passionately against this teaching. He told the Galatians that as many as “walk by the Spirit” are no longer subject to the law (Gal 5.16-18). This is because the Spirit leads us to love God and others as we should, thus fulfilling the purpose of the law (Gal 5.13-14).
So I conclude that Rom 7.14-25 and Gal 5 describe two spiritually different sorts of people. The first type wants to obey God's laws consistently, but can't do so as an unregenerate sinner; the second type has already been born again, but is mistakenly trying again to treat his own inner moral strength as the ground of his salvation. It's therefore deeply misleading to portray the spiritual failure of Rom 7.19-20 as the inevitable outcome of the struggle described in Gal 5.17; the Holy Spirit doesn't live in the first type of combatant.
The “two natures” doctrine concludes that we are still in our sins, and will remain so until the day we die. It denies our present victory in Christ. Part 6 of this series will look more closely at Paul's references to “the flesh”, and try to find a better paraphrase for “the flesh” than “sinful nature”. If you'd like to read any more series like this one on my brand new blog page, please leave a comment to that effect for me here.
© 2014 by Christopher Bevis. A Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England, a Christian for many years, and an avid reader for even longer, Christopher is a UK-based writer who has long-standing friends and contacts in the USA. He's thinking of setting up his own web site to give busy subscribers a time-saving, affordable chance to profit from his extensive Christian library. Send him a message if you'd be interested in signing up. He can be contacted for matters relating to Christian writing via the Faithwriters.com website.
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