PAUL – chief of sinners strugling with sin in Romans 7? Maybe but maybe not?

When Paul called himself chief of sinners in 1 Tim 1:15 what did he mean? Was he worse than Genghis Kahn, Hitler and even Hannibal Lecter?

One thing is clear from his other writings. Paul still felt the weight of his persecutions of the church during his life as a Pharisee.

He refers to these persecutions in Acts 22:4-5

I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness.

Acts 26:9-11 I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.

Gal 1:13-14 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.

Phil 3:6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless.

1 Cor 15:9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

It is clear that this violent past remained in Paul’s mind. In the last of my quotes, Paul is thinking of this when he calls himself the least of the apostles. Later in our 1 Timothy verse, it would seem plausible that Paul is still thinking of the same thing when he calls himself chief of sinners. Same issue, but burning ever deeper into his regrets.

Hitler tried to eradicate the Jews – as have others before him. But Paul was trying to eradicate the Church! What greater sin can there be than that?

This leads on to Paul’s apparent story of his personal struggle with sin and the flesh in Romans 7:7-25. Is this a statement that at the time of writing Paul was struggling with his flesh and doing all sorts of evil that he doesn’t really want to do (verse 19). That would seem inconsistent with Paul’s statement of his ability to live holy as a Pharisee (Phil 3:6). Had Paul been doing these evil things as a Pharisee, clearly he wouldn’t have been blameless according to the law. So why did getting saved result in Paul doing evil that he didn’t do when unsaved? That cannot be. Salvation will improve our life, not make us worse!

Paul clearly here is talking about the struggles with the flesh. The carnal life. Paul defines in 1 Cor 3 a baby Christian as carnal and a mature one as spiritual. The person Paul describes in Romans 7 is clearly a carnal believer. Can Paul be classed as immature? I think not! Paul teaches that our flesh was crucified with Christ. It is no loner I that live but Christ who lives in me he said. So does Paul have Christ and sin living in him together?

Could it be though, that many of Paul’s readers will readily understand Paul’s description of life. Could it be that his reader will feel that Paul really understands the struggle?

We get an insight into Paul’s methods in 1 Cor 9:22
To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.

I believe that in Romans 7 Paul is doing precisely this. ‘Becoming’ weak and a struggler in order to help those who DO struggle with these things. This isn’t some wriggling and twisting to avoid an uncomfortable truth. Paul’s teachings in other places show how we can live free from sin. Galatians 3 for example. Even here in Romans 7 Paul ends with the plea ‘Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ Note deliver, not help in a struggle that will continue forever. And to his reader, who thought that there was no hope, that the struggle would continue until death, Paul SHOUTS the glorious triumphant answer. THANS BE TO GOD THROUGH JESUS…

So with my flesh I serve the law of sin Rom 7:25. Naturally, that will be IF his flesh is an ongoing problem. So what does Paul say we do about the flesh? The thought process continues into Romans 8. This is not a good place to start a new chapter, because these verses expand on the victory of Jesus shouted in verse 25.

Despite the problems of your flesh, dear reader, there is NO CONDEMNATION now in Jesus. The law of the Spirit of life has SET YOU FREE from the law of sin and death. You have been set free from your flesh. We can live righteous not by walking better in the flesh but by walking in the Spirit (Rom 8:4).

Paul goes on to say that those who are in the flesh – continuing to live in Romans 7 – cannot please God Rom 8:8-9
Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.

For the sake of argument let us consider whether this passage can be descriptive of Paul’s current and past life. If that be the case the whole passage must fit. If any part of it is inconsistent with this interpretation, the interpretation is false. Consider verse 18. For I have the desire to do what is right, but NOT the ABILITY to carry it out.

Can this be the same Paul as the Pharisee who knew what was right – the law – and lived blameless under the law – HAD the ABILITY to do it AND DID IT. That verse clearly demonstrates that the passage is NOT about Paul. It can only be about someone Paul is trying to help, by using a leterary device of speaking in the first person. This would be for the sake of not lording it over that person, not coming over as superior, and enabling that person to join with Paul in the first person to find thier freedom.

So this is Paul’s answer to someone who struggles with Romans 7 – live in Romans 8:9. Clearly this is the place that Paul lived in.

Far from being a statement that we’re all condemned to live in Romans 7, this is the declaration of how to get out of that sorry defeated life and live the life you always wanted to – holy and righteous overcoming sin and the devil by living in the Spirit.


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