Have you ever played tug of war? The point of the challenge is to pit two teams against each other in a test of skill and strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.
In a sense, Romans 7:15-25a deals with the idea that all of us experience a spiritual tug of war as we walk this journey of faith. In the letter to the Romans, Paul discusses humankind’s relationship to God, including how we are to understand ourselves before our holy and righteous God, and our relationships to other humans. One of Paul’s goals in doing this is to help readers understand how these points of relationship (God, others and self) form the vast web that is Christ’s body in the earth.
Paul also spends time telling his readers that although they had become a part of God’s family through Christ, they would still face the ghosts of law and sin, the two principles that previously controlled their lives. The law was God’s commands given for all people so they could clearly understand what it was that God wanted them all to do. Sin was any act that disobeyed God’s law.
According to Paul, disobedience to God’s law and consequences for sin were things that every person would have to face one day. But, he had good news. Jesus changed the trajectory of history for everyone when he sacrificed himself on the cross. He suffered the consequences for sin on the behalf of everyone. Because of this, his readers were free from condemnation before God and they could be restored to full relationship with God, despite not being able to fulfill the law or live sinless. Through Christ, they were no longer condemned by the law.
Despite this newfound freedom, Paul’s readers would still live a life filled with spiritual tug of war. They would live life going back and forth between doing what God wanted versus what they wanted. This is because, as Paul says, when a person knew what God wanted them to do, and even when a person wanted to do what was good and right in God’s eyes, the flesh fought against it. No matter how much they wanted to please God, their hearts and minds would somehow work against them.
That’s one of the things that I most appreciate about Paul’s writings. He doesn’t try to sugarcoat the challenges that we will face in life. He doesn’t say that once you have accepted Christ, life becomes perfect. Paul says the opposite. Because we have accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior, life will in some ways get harder because, in many ways, we are attempting to live up to a higher standard.
Through this passage, I think we learn that sometimes proper faith or proper relationship with God recognizes that you may sometimes fail spiritually and physically, but even in those times, you still get life right when you earnestly recognize that you can’t do this all by yourself and seek God’s face for assistance. That’s not a cop out, or not trying to hold people to a godly standard. That’s acknowledging that people are human and, as Paul said, the things we know we should do, we don’t always do them.
But our story doesn’t end there. I find joy in Paul’s final words. Our hope is not in ourselves, but in Jesus who will ultimately cause us to become victorious in this spiritual tug of war. Amen.
Terrell Carter is assistant professor and director of contextualized learning at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan., and pastor of Webster Groves Baptist Church in Webster Groves, Mo.