The Sinful Paul Thesis
Romans 7: 23-25 ~ "23-But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24-O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 25-I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin."
In the comments of the post Does The Bible Deal With Sexual Orientation? I was amazed to find that some Christians view Apostle Paul as a person struggling with sin within his personal Christian life to the extent that he was overwhelmed by it within his own Christian walk. This view is held by some who interpret certain verses of Romans 7 to be Paul's confessional and personal declaration of his own depravity. One thing to note, is that many who hold to that interpretation superimpose their life and struggle with sin on top of Paul's words in order to create a sinful Paul from his very own words in effort to make sense of their personal struggles. I call this the "Sinful Paul Thesis".
Assumptions such as these presuppose that Paul was "like us" in what he had been exposed to in life and that his sinful inclinations, propensities, and social conditions were similar to ours. The problem with this is that in order to make Paul like us, we have to strip him of his moral base. The life of a first century Jew was dramatically and drastically different than ours in 21st century Western America. Paul being a pious and zealous Jew was steeped in scriptural teachings and Jewish traditions which he readily admits. This by itself does not exempt Paul in any way from sin and that's certainly not the claim that we make, but it does set the backdrop of understanding that Paul would not have readily been a willing participant in issues that he knew were sin especially on an ongoing basis. Paul was familiar with certain disciplines that kept him from certain types of sins and sin in general. He introduces concepts of fasting prayer, meditation, supplication and immersion in the word of God in effort to give believers the strength to overcome personal struggles and to help edify the church and all believers in general. To take spiritual disciplines in Christ away from Paul is to miss his complete message as it pertains to overcoming sin through Christ and as it pertains to his understanding and explanation of what Christ actually did on the cross.
So at best individuals claiming that Paul was somehow a closet sinner do the gospel a disservice by actually taking Paul out of the context in which he existed, stripping him of his value set, and recreating a Paul who affirms and suits 21st Century struggles and failures. Further they create a message of Christ that is powerless to effect the practice of sin in the flesh. As we can see not only is this a bad way to read the bible it will never allow one to come to an accurate understanding of what's being communicated and it has some far reaching impacts.
The Impact Of A Sinful Paul
The fact is that Paul certainly sinned. That is not in question. However, for one to suggest that the overarching premise of Paul's life was sinful, is not only an perversion of scripture, it is a totally absurd and unsupportable view. This is the focus of what we are discovering in this post.
Those holding to the sinful Paul thesis make a total muck out of the righteousness of God and actually recreate a gospel based on suggestions rather than commands and make the power of God of non effect.
If Paul was not able to overcome sin in his life, one should ask how does he have the ability and nerve to require the church to overcome their sins? Secondly, what could he possibly be calling a sinner to if he, through all of his revelations couldn't address issues of sin in the flesh? If Paul taught that there was no change in the life of the sinner then the gospel becomes powerless. A powerless gospel was not a gospel that Paul believed in nor taught:
Romans 1:16 ~ "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the POWER OF GOD UNTO salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek."
A sinful Paul makes no sense to the atheist, homosexual, pedophile, adulterer, murderer, drunkard, or any number of types of sinners and sins that you could name. A sinful Paul is only a voice crying in the wind, struggling to accomplish what he tells others to do.
Further, and more to the point, a sinful Paul becomes the biggest hypocrite within the New Testament by telling everyone else how to overcome struggles within the mind, telling everyone to not let sin reign in the flesh, while he yet practices and continues a life of sin and has an uncontrolled mind and heart towards sin.
As you can see these notions are RIDICULOUS but they are the natural results of the sinful Paul thesis.
A Better And More Biblically Consistent Perspective
My contention is not only that the sinful Paul thesis a faulted doctrine, it is an utter and abject perversion of truth and total disregard for not only Paul's testimony but for the word of God in general. Further, the sinful Paul thesis is an attempt to minimize the truth of the Gospel message while paying no regard to holiness and righteousness that Christ on the cross provided when he obliterated the power of sin.
we must consider sections of scripture where Paul discusses his own character and approach to matters related to sin and shame. Here are a few things we observe from scripture:
The scriptures presents a Paul who tells us as believers to live free of sin in Romans 6:
Romans 6:1-2 ~ "1-What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? 2-God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?"
For Paul, after meeting Jesus, sin was the exception NOT the rule. In a previously written epistle, Paul encourages us that, through Christ, even the mind itself would and could be made captive to Christ. Salvation for Paul was an all or nothing principle. No doubt that was one of the virtues pulled from his Judaic and Pharisaic upbringing. According to Paul, deliverance was available to us in our thought life as long as our trust was in Christ:
2 Cor. 10:4 ~ "4(For the weapons of our warfare [are] not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) 5-Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;"
Then Paul taught that we had power and strength rooted in Christ to stand against the devil in every aspect of our being:
Ephes. 6:10-18 ~ "10-Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.11-Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12-For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high [places]. 13-Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. 14-Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; 15-And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16-Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. 17-And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: 18-Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;"
Somehow, in spite of all of this, some cling to the sinful Paul thesis to affirm their own personal struggles. For them Paul, is a good man but powerless and helpless against sin in his own life, because according to them, Romans 7 becomes a revelation and biographic portrait of Paul's personal experience of salvation and the Christian walk in this present world. So despite of all that Paul otherwise teaches, for the extremist Paul summarizes his life as being abjectly sinful. We'll deal specifically with Romans 7 later in this writing but let's ask, can this be true?
Answer: NOT IN A MILLION YEARS!
A Perversion Of Truth!
Now we must be fair and admit that sin is a present reality in this world. The Apostle John says it like this:
1 John 1:7-10 ~ "7-But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. 8-If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9-If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us [our] sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10-If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us."
Apostle John deals with
1- Our walk with Christ
2- Our fellowship with believers
3- Our progressive cleansing from sin (using the word cleanseth)
4- The truth that we own or possess our sin and are responsible for it
5- The truth that sin must be confessed and acknowledged as opposed to hidden
6- The promise of God's ability to cleanse us FROM all confessed and admitted sin and unrighteousness in this present reality
So sin is prevalent and has effected us to the core as we readily acknowledge. However in Christ there is an answer to the sin that formerly reigned over us. Paul in an earlier chapter or Romans discusses that contrasting life in Christ to death of sin. Here I will do a little expository teaching
3-Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?
Here Paul contrasts our "baptism" in Christ to our baptism into his death. At this point Paul begins to create a parallel between the death, life and resurrection of Jesus and the living out of the Christian life. The inference is not that Christians are physically dying in Jesus, but that Christians are coming to spiritual life as a result of what he has done. He states further:
4-Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5-For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also [in the likeness] of [his] resurrection:
The burial with Christ is not simply some mata-spiritual occurrence. The fellowship with Jesus and of his resurrection allows the Saint to "walk in newness of life". Therefore, the context is clear. Our experience in Christ beginning with death (baptism or being in Christ), graduating to resurrection, causes us to walk in a newness of life. The contrast is starting to take shape, and yet another element of it is soon to be introduced.
6-Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with [him], that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
Here the contrast is our sins and life to the cross revealing that what Jesus did was to destroy the "body of sin". Clearly the destruction is not a physical one whereby our actual bodies are obliterated somehow because of the cross, but, in context, the "body of sin" is the sinful works of the flesh that are the barometers of the sin condition. Paul's says that sin was not to be served.
"7-For he that is dead is freed from sin.8-Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: 9-Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him."
As a matter of fact, Paul draws a parallel to death and freedom from sin. This is an allusion to the thought that just as sin has no hold on the physical body at death, sin has no hold on the believer who is "dead in Christ" Paul contrasts death to life in Christ, saying that our "death with Christ" is, once again, indicating our union communion and fellowship with Christ, which gives us the ability to live with him also.
10-For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.
To show the far reaching impact of scripture Paul indicates that Jesus died unto sin. What this is not saying is that Jesus was a sinner or that he had sin within him. What this does indicate is that Jesus made himself subject unto the world of sin dying because of it, but continues to live because of God. This leads us to the next few verses:
11-Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. 12-Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. 13-Neither yield ye your members [as] instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members [as] instruments of righteousness unto God.
Our accounting of ourselves and our actions according to Paul are to be "reckoned" as being dead unto sin but alive in Christ. Because of that relationship sin was not to "reign" or rule in our living or mortal bodies and were were not committed to obey the "lusts" of it. Because of what Jesus did and our relationship to him this is the prescribed path and results are that 1- Let not sin reign in us 2- Our physical body (members) were not to be yielded to sin but yielded to righteousness because we participate in his resurrection to new life. Our victory over sin was a sign or an outgrowth of the victory we have received through Christ!
14-For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. 15-What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. 16-Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?"
Then to put a fine point on it Paul declares that sin was not to have "dominion" or the ruling or overarching premise or preeminence in life over us. This is important, as he is not discussing sin as in a particular event or temptation. He is discussing a life premise. He further affirms the concept that to whomever or whatever we yield our bodies to we receive the reward of that yielding. ie: if we yield unto sin we enter into death but if we yield unto obedience in Christ we enter unto righteousness.
So What Of Romans 7?
As so readily seen within scripture Paul carefully paints a backdrop for Romans 7 with previous writings and prior teachings in the book of Romans itself leading us up to and through the contrast contained within Romans 7 One should view the article by Michael E. Brooks HERE for an article regarding a point by point understanding of the teaching and context of Romans 7. Mr Brooks concludes his thesis like this:
All of these recent ideas may be traced to a fundamental mistake about what Paul is talking about in Romans 7:14-25. If we, Christians, are fundamentally sinful even after having "passed from death to life" (John 5:24), then bring on the Spirit control while we die to these sinful selves that are who we still are. If, however, we, Christians, have "died to sin" (Romans 6:2), have been "freed from sin" (6:7) and are now "in (not 'controlled by') the Spirit" (8:9), then the possibilities of living lives that glorify God are as high and wide and broad and deep as the God who has called us. As people who are "spiritual," not "fleshly," we need not fall helplessly before the onslaught of sin (which was our life before Christ) but may with full confidence place our trust in Christ, through whom we have been freed from sin. Whereas before we had no choice but to go on doing the evil that we hated and not the good that we wished, now there is a choice. If we should go on living as if we did not know Christ, as if we had not been freed from sin, then this does not mean that we are expressing our deepest nature, because our deepest nature is now that of Christ, not sin. Rather, we would be living as people who were "nearsighted and blind, forgetful of the cleansing of past sins" (2 Peter 3:9). And this observation brings us back to where we started, for the second epistle of Peter warned us at the beginning that some things in Paul's letters are difficult to understand! Nevertheless, one thing is certain: because of Christ, we may, as people freed from sin, "not let sin exercise dominion in our mortal bodies, to make us obey its passions" (Romans 6:12); instead, we may "present ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and our members to God as instruments of righteousness" (6:13). This is both the hope of joyful service to God and the guarantee thereof.
In addition a reputable Christian apologist J P Holding addressing the language issues of Romans 7 reveals this:
Critics may say that in Romans 7, Paul seems to be confused about his sin. He claims elsewhere to have a new nature, but Romans 7 doesn't seem to reflect that when he speaks about himself as still committing sin as part of his nature.
The problem is that this criticism is reading Romans 7:14ff as though Paul were describing his own present experience. What Paul is actually doing here is engaging in a typical Greco-Roman rhetorical practice (also found in Jewish literature, including the Qumran Psalms) in which the personal "I" and the present tense is used as a literary convention.
Where the personal "I" is combined with the present tense, the author is utilizing a practice called "speech in character" to represent a universal experience. Here, Paul is bringing out the universal experience of those who do not know Christ (and that did include him, at one time) and their struggle with moral law and sin. He is not giving a biographical account of his present experience as our objection argues. -JPH
What of 2 Corinthians 12: 5-12 ?
"5-Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities. 6-For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but [now] I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me [to be], or [that] he heareth of me. 7-And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8-For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9-And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10-Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 11-I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing. 12-Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds."
First, for one to assert that Paul's "thorn" was sin, is another superimposition upon scripture.The questions that we should ask are these:
1- Is sin an infirmity?
2- Would God allow sin to reign within the body while he instruct us to not allow it to reign?
3- Does sin abide in us so that God can abide in a greater way?
4- Would God, who came to obliterate sin, allow sin to have power or authority over his people if they want victory over it?
To say that Paul in this verse of scripture was discussing sin is to turn one's head to the context of the verse, physical illness, and to try to assert that there should be an allowance for sin within the life of the believer. As stated, for all the reasons pointed out in this article, both are ridiculous and anti-biblical notions.
There is ample evidence to provide that Paul was not a practicing sinner and or one who struggled with the issue of sin. There is no consistent theological construct that can support Paul being a sinner or even teaching that sin was an allowable practice among the church. The opposite is readily observed. Sin within the life of the believer is condemned.
A foriegn concept to the word is those who dabble in sin and reserve sin for their own personal use. The question rightfully rendered to those is have you ever really met Christ? Although I hold that to be a possibility, the fact is that Jesus recognized that no man could serve 2 masters. You are either serving one or the other. This is what he said about the subject:
Matthew 6:24 ~"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon."
Though the context was money, the principle is the same and consistent...NO MAN can serve both righteousness and evil and sin simultaneously. One may do good things, but living righteousnly is another issue for righteousness flows from the heart of an individual. Sin flows from the heart also. Therefore, there is no way in right relationship that two overarching principles can exist simultaneously that are in diammetric opposition to one another.
A sinful Paul thesis is certainly no less than an exegetical scriptural and hermenutic mistake. A sinful Paul thesis is certainly dramatic inconsistency of scriptural interpretation and an unbalanced proposition.