Friday, September 21, 2007

Was Paul a Carnal Christian?

Countless hours and gallons of ink have been spent discussing the "wretched man" of Romans 7:14-25, the debate often centering on whether Paul is describing a regenerate or an unregenerate man.

The answer is no.

Before we get to my position, though, I will address the more popular view, namely, that Paul is speaking of himself and his own battle with the flesh.

If Paul is describing his own personal experience in Romans 7:14ff, this creates a serious contradiction between his statements in 6:14, 7:14, and 8:7. According to this position, the apostle's conversion (his individual shift from being "under the law" to being "under grace") resulted in "sin… not hav[ing] dominion over [him]." But at the same time that Paul was allegedly free from sin's dominion (6:14) he was "sold as a slave to sin" (7:14). In other words, Paul’s so-called autobiographical account in 7:14ff is a perfect description of the condition that his so-called conversion in 6:14 is supposed to have precluded.

Furthermore, when we compare 7:14 and 8:7, the "autobiographical view" would force us to say that Paul's description of himself as "carnal" in 7:14 demands that he is therefore "hostile to God" and "not in submission to God’s law" (8:7). But this description appears inconsistent with his "delight[ing] in the law of God according to the inward man" spoken of in 7:22. These inconsistencies force us to reject the view that the "wretched man" of Romans 7 describes the normal condition of the believer.

Still, there is obviously some difference between the liberated saint in Romans 6:14 and the shackled man of Romans 7:14-25. What accounts for this contrast? Is the former a "victorious Christian" who has received the second blessing of the Spirit while the latter remains a "carnal Christian"? Is the so-called "saint" of Romans 7 even a Christian at all?

I would argue that answer is found, not surprisingly, in the text itself. The contrast is drawn in 7:6 between the person who serves God according to the old way of the letter (i.e., under the [Mosaic] law), and the person who serves God according to the new way of the Spirit (i.e., under grace [of Christ]). The distinction, then, is redemptive-historical rather than existential in nature (though the latter results from the former). The Old Covenant, therefore, produces bondage, condemnation, and death (as Paul argues in II Cor. 3).

This means that when we recognize ourselves in the carnal man of Romans 7, labelling this type of sanctification the result of "a theology of the cross" as Lutheran theologians are wont to do, we are stopping short of espousing the semi-realized eschatology of the New Covenant.