Myrna knelt beside her bed, her body resting on the mattress, her arms stretched out across the bedspread, and her fists clenched into tight balls. “Oh, God,” she cried, “I blew it again! It must be the two thousandth time! How can you ever accept me? Now I’m lost for sure!”
Myrna had just returned from the grocery store, where she’d gone to pick up several items, including one that was on sale. She’d watched the green numbers on the digital panel as the clerk scanned the items, and the last item rang up as $14.99 instead of the $10.49 that had been advertised in the flyer she’d received in the mail several days earlier.
She called the clerk’s attention to the error, but the clerk replied that the cash register knew what it was doing. This irritated Myrna, because she knew that the advertisement had said $10.49, and she was sure the sale didn’t end until tomorrow. She’d specifically come to the store today in order to catch the lower price before it expired.
But the clerk informed her, rather curtly Myrna thought, that the sale had ended yesterday, and this jolted Myrna’s anger. She and the clerk argued for a couple of minutes, but the woman stood her ground. Finally, realizing that she wasn’t going to win this one, Myrna slammed her hand on the counter, shouted, “I’m never coming back to this store again!” and stormed out in a huff, leaving her groceries on the counter.
“Stupid woman!” she muttered as she put her car key in the switch. The words roiled in Myrna’s mind all the way home: Stupid woman! Stupid woman! Stupid woman! Gradually though, as the day wore on, the realization grew that she’d lost her temper. Again! And this time in public! By evening Myrna was on her knees, her body stretched out across the bed, the tight balls of her fists pounding the mattress. “God, I’ve done it again! How can you ever forgive me?”
This is a fictional story—and it isn’t. It’s happened over and over again in the lives of countless Christians for 2,000 years. And I can assure you that you’re in good company. None other than the great apostle Paul cried out, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. . . . What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:18, 19, 24).*
A careful look at Romans 7
Paul was surely a converted Christian when he wrote these words in his letter to the Christians in Rome, but was he really struggling that hard and that unsuccessfully with his besetting sins at that time? Some people suggest that he was actually describing his preconversion experience. However, I believe he was describing not only his own struggle with temptation as a converted Christian but that of every other Christian from his day to ours, including Myrna’s struggle and yours and mine.
Several verses in Romans 7 provide us with the key to understanding Paul’s thinking. In verse 17 he said, “As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it [the sinning], but it is sin living in me”; in verse 20 he said, “It is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it”; in verses 22, 23 he said, “In my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.”
The point here is that there were two Pauls. There was the Paul of the mind that was very committed to serving God, and there was the Paul of the sinful nature that caused him to stumble from that commitment. And it takes a converted Christian to think like that.
Let’s go back to Myrna for a moment. Did the fact that she lost her temper for “the two thousandth time” mean that she wasn’t a converted Christian? Did it mean that God had rejected her, as she so feared? Or was she a converted Christian who was committed to serving God? Her bitter repentance as she lay across her bed pounding the mattress with her fists tells me that she was very much a converted Christian. She was exhibiting profound repentance, which is precisely what God wants to see in us. An uncommitted, unconverted Myrna would have nursed her resentment and refused to ever go back to “that store.”
So what further counsel does Paul have for Myrna and for you and me?
Because of the chapter division between Romans 7:25 and 8:1, it’s easy for us to overlook the fact that Paul was continuing his explanation of how the Christian life works in the first verse of chapter 8 (chapter and verse divisions weren’t added to the Bible till hundreds of years after Paul wrote Romans). So let’s look at the last sentence in Romans 7:25 and the first word of 8:1 together:
Chapter 7 verse 25 says, “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”
Chapter 8 verse 1 says, “Therefore, . . .”
The word therefore is a conjunction. All languages have conjunctions, because they help us to express ourselves more effectively by tying two thoughts together. I’ll illustrate with the conjunctions and and but. If I say to my wife, “I’m going to the store, and . . .” the word and is a clue to her that I will probably buy something at the store. On the other hand, if I say, “I’m going to the store, but . . .” the word but is a clue that maybe I’m going to the store for some other reason than to buy something. That’s why I said that conjunctions are a handy way of tying two thoughts together.
And, as I said, the word therefore, which is the first word in Romans 8:1, is a conjunction. The special function of therefore is to let the reader know that the speaker or writer’s next words will draw a conclusion from what he or she just said. For example, I could say, “We know that this is true; therefore, that also has to be true.”
So in Romans 7:25, when Paul said, “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin; therefore, . . .” we can know that he’s going to draw a conclusion from what he said. And what is that conclusion? “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Did you get that good news? Like the desperate man of Romans 7, Myrna is struggling with her anger, but she isn’t under condemnation! God isn’t looking down at her with a frown on His face just because she blew it this time! And neither does He frown at you on those occasions when you fail in your struggle with temptation. He’s there to help you.
You may say, “Oh, but you left out the last part of verse 1! It says that ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,’ and the fact that Myrna got mad at the clerk at the store is evidence that she isn’t in Christ Jesus.” Really? Are Christians supposed to live perfect lives starting from the moment they accept Jesus as their Savior? “Well, no,” you may say, “but they’re supposed to repent and confess their sins and seek forgiveness.” True enough. So what was Myrna doing as she lay across her bed pounding the mattress with her fists? Was that another fit of anger, or was it repentance for her temper tantrum at the store?
Let’s look at Romans 8:3–5, “And so he [God] condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.”
The first thing to notice here is that God condemned the sin in sinful people; He did not condemn the sinful people. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t condemn sinful people. But He doesn’t condemn those who, when they sin, go on to repent, confess, and seek forgiveness.
Then comes some good news: “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us.” Please notice that Paul holds out the possibility that you and I can have complete victory over sin! That’s what “the righteous requirements of the law being fully met in us” means. However, Paul added one qualification. He said that “the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.”
That makes sense, doesn’t it—that we can only fulfill the righteous requirements of the law if we’re living in harmony with the Holy Spirit’s will? So what does it mean to “live according to the Spirit”? Paul answered that question in verse 5, “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”
So it all depends on the set of the mind. You and I will gain the victory over our temptations as long as we have our minds set on what the Holy Spirit wants us to do. And, of course, the Holy Spirit wants us to have our minds set on God’s will for us, which is expressed in His law.
So let me ask you, was the mind of the desperate man of Romans 7 set on “what the [Holy] Spirit desires”? Paul answered that question in Romans 7. In verse 22 he said, “In my inner being I delight in God’s law,” and in verse 25 he said, “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law.”
The desperate man of Romans 7 had not yet gained the victory over his temptations, but God accepted him, because, like Myrna, his mind was set on keeping God’s law. Like the man of Romans 7, Myrna was frustrated—terribly frustrated—because she’d lost her temper for “the two thousandth time,” but the bitter tears she shed at her bedside are clear evidence that she still had her mind set on what God’s Spirit desires.
And what’s true of Paul and Myrna is also true for you and me. The Christian life is not a clear, undeviating path to victory over all our temptations and sins. But if we keep our focus on God’s will for our lives, and if we maintain our determination to pursue victory over our temptations and sins—for that’s what it means to have our minds set on what the Spirit desires—God accepts us where we are. He accepts us as though we had already gained the victory, even while we’re still on the way.
* This article uses the 1984 edition of the New International Version.