Sunday, April 26, 2009

Romans 7: Why Are Forbidden Fruits Sweeter? (Part I)

The latest Kairos magazine is out of the stove and here is the unedited draft from my article on Romans chapter 7.

Have you ever stolen mangoes or rambutans from a neighbour’s tree? If those adolescent exploits still make you chuckle, it may seem puzzling to see why Augustine agonized with guilt over some stolen pears in his Confessions. Was he indulging in a kind of mental self-beating?

Apparently not. Augustine looked back on his ‘fruitful’ endeavor and confessed that he was not even hungry that day. In fact, he gleefully threw his loot to the pigs. His desire was not the sweetness of pears, but merely the excitement of doing what was wrong! He asked himself, “Was it possible to take pleasure in what was illicit for no reason other than that it was not allowed?” Forbidden fruits taste better simply because they are off-limits.

This universal human experience seems to be on the apostle Paul’s mind when he wrote:

“What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet”. But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from the law, sin is dead.” (Romans 7:7-8)

Earlier in this grand epistle to the church in Rome, the apostle had argued powerfully that sinners are declared righteous by God’s grace through faith in Christ, not through obeying the law (3:27). Consequently believers are ‘not under law, but under grace’ (6:14). They are no longer trying to impress God or earn divine favor by keeping the written code and live under its condemnation. Instead, they depend on what Christ had graciously done for their salvation and thus set free from the power of sin.

If the law only brings us wrath from God (4:15), does that mean that Paul considered the Mosaic law to be responsible for sin and death? Was he casting a shadow against the law as the cause of sin and condemnation? (7:7, 13) In Romans chapter 7, the apostle would answer these serious objections and defend the role of the law in our discipleship.

No, he wrote, the law in itself is “holy, righteous and good” (7:12). On the contrary, it is our fallen nature which is the source of sin and death. Although the law reveals and condemns transgressions, our self-centered disposition is thus aroused to produce every kind of prohibited desires (7:8). For this reason, the law is unable to rescue sinners or make them holy. It can neither be the ground for our justification or sanctification.

Paul used marriage as an illustration to explain the principle that the law has authority over a person only as long as he or she lives. “For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage” (7:2). Similarly, believers have died to the law through participation in the death of Christ so that they may now belong to Him and bear good fruit to God. They were once controlled by the sinful passions provoked by the law, resulting in evil deeds that lead to death. But now they have been released from the law so that they may serve God in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (7:1-6)

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