The doctrine of the Christian life is remarkably simple. There are two parts: death and life. The practice of the Christian life, however, is quite another thing. The practice of the Christian life, the living out of our life in Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone, in union with Christ is so difficult, so incomplete, so littered with failure that the Apostle Paul nearly despaired of it. Remember that, as he came to Romans 7, he had already preached our guilt under sin and the law. He had already proclaimed the riches of God’s free grace to sinners in Christ, received through faith alone. He has nowhere given us any good reason to think as Arminius suggested, that he was now, in chapter 7, putting on a persona. Rather, chapter 3 leads to chapter 4, which leads to 5, 6, and 7. As soon as he even began to consider the Christian life, however, he faced a crisis. The problem, he wrote, is not the law, which is “good.” It was not the law but the deadly combination of my sin and the law (Romans 7:13). The great problem lies not with the law, which is “spiritual” but with me. “I,” writes Paul the believer, “am of the flesh, sold under sin” (v. 14). It is a great paradox. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (vv. 14, 15; ESV). Again, (v. 16) the problem lies not with God’s holy law but with me. There is a principal within me, even though God has graciously granted to me new life, even though he has granted to me the gift of faith, and even though I am united to Christ, nevertheless, that foreign principle that once dominated me, sin, “dwells within me” (v. 17). As a consequence of the Christian’s conflicted reality, when we sin “it is no longer I who do it” but that foreign principle, sin. The non-Christian cannot say this because it is not true of him. In the unregenerate, sin is not a foreign principle. It not something else in him. No, when the non-Christian sins it is he who is doing it. There is no competition within him. There is only one principle at work, not two. As a Christian I recognize that nothing good lives in my flesh, i.e., my sinful nature (v. 18). By grace, as a believer, who has been granted the principle of new life, “I have the desire to do what is right, but” because I live still live in this life, because I am not yet glorified, I too often lack “the ability to carry it out” (v. 18). It’s not that I do not want to do good. I do but, in reality, the evil that I do not want to do, I keep doing” (v.19). Because I have been given new life, I realize that, when I sin, when act contrary to my new nature, it is not I “but sin that dwells within me” (v. 20) that is doing it. There is a law at work in me, “that when I want to do right” (v. 21) evil is right there. As a new creature in Christ, declared righteous only for the sake of Christ’s righteousness imputed, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (v. 22) but too often there is within me a war waging within me (v. 23). This war, like all wars, is terrible. it is exhausting. It is discouraging. It makes one cry, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Nevertheless, quite unexpectedly, the very fact of the struggle is encouraging. With Paul I say ” Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (v. 25; ESV). Because, in the unbeliever, there is no struggle between the new life and the new man in which serve God’s holy law out of gratitude, and the old law of sin and death that still resides within me.
I find the greatest encouragement, however, in the gospel truth that is outside of me, that comes to me in the preached gospel, in the gospel made visible (in the sacraments). The first word of the gospel is: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). The second benefit of the gospel is:
For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom 8:1–4; ESV).
The law, as it were, of the Holy Spirit has set us free from the law of sin and death. The principle, the beginning of new life has triumphed over the old principle of sin and death. God the Son incarnate has set free believers from the tyranny of sin and death—not that they do not struggle mightily with it and not so that, in this life, they never sin but so that even though they sin they will not ultimately be defeated by sin and death. Christ has fulfilled the law for us. He has definitively conquered sin and death for us and now he is at work in us gradually, graciously conforming us to himself. Thais why we “walk not according to the flesh” but rather, now, in Christ, we walk, i.e., we live, according to the Holy Spirit.
In Heidelberg Catechism 88–90 we summarize Paul’s teaching on the Christian life thus:
88. In how many things does true repentance or conversion consist?
In two things: the dying of the old man and the quickening of the new (Heidelberg Catechism).
There are two parts to the new life, the Christian life, the life of union and communion with Christ: mortification, the putting to death of the old man, and vivification, i.e., the making alive of the new. This teaching is quite clear and simple but, as we see in Paul’s discussion of it, in Romans 7, it is far from easy. Indeed, sometimes it seems to be impossible. Of course, it is not impossible because with God nothing is impossible (Luke 11:37)
In order to think about the Christian life clearly, biblically, and confessionally we need to understand that we are not speaking about our standing before God but how we live in light of that declaration, in light of God’s free, sovereign, gracious salvation. We are asking about the consequences of salvation and the gospel, not the conditions to receive or benefit from them.
This is why the catechism asks about the nature of true repentance or true conversion. Since the so-called Second Great Awakening of the 19th century, American Christians have tended to talk about a “conversion” experience. In that context Christians might speak of responding to an altar call or something of that sort. When the Reformed speak about “conversion,” however, they are speaking not of a single decisive event (e.g., an altar call) but rather of the daily dying to sin and living to Christ. Paul describes the Christian life in terms of a baptism, an identification with Christ’s death:
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin (Rom 6:4–6; ESV).
The baptism of which Paul writes in Romans 6 is certainly metaphorical. He was certainly not saying that every baptized person is necessarily, ex opere united to Christ any more than meant to say that circumcision necessarily united Esau to Christ. Not at all. Just as in Colossians 2:11–12, so too here in Romans 6 Paul uses death and baptism as an illustration of death, to explain what has happened to believers. They have been identified with Christ’s death. Believers have died with Christ. A decisive break with sin has been accomplished and is being worked out in them personally. Believers have been saved for a purpose and he explains that purpose clear: in order that “we might walk in newness of life.” The old man, what we were, has been crucified. As a consequence we are no longer enslaved to sin. As he makes clear in chapter 7, there is still a mighty, even titanic struggle, but a decisive victory has been won for us and despite our experience, we believe that it is being gradually realized in us by God’s grace.
Next time: What it means to put to put to death the old man.