St Paul, one of the greatest Christian leaders of all time, while he was writing one of his most profound letters, struggled to live as a disciple of Jesus in the way that he wanted to. Knowing that helps.
The anguished passage in 7:14-25 sets out powerfully what so many of us feel when we’re trying to live holy lives. However much we want to live like Jesus, there’s something in us that drives us in the wrong direction. I’ve often compared this – the ‘sinful nature’ to the dodgy wheel on a supermarket trolley that never wants to go in a straight line. Only it’s more like one that has its own independent motor and braking system as well. And a sensor for knowing just the right moment to kick in…
The reality is that, for as long as we’re alive, we’ll struggle against sin. I remember being told once that if you don’t recognise at least something of yourself in Paul’s dilemma, then one of two things has happened. Either (a) you’ve died and gone to heaven, but not noticed it yet or (b) you’ve stopped trying to live Jesus’ way. Paul is clear that out of our own strength we will all and always struggle. Even the Law, while helping us better to understand our sin, doesn’t enable us to stop sinning.
The good news is that ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.’ (8:1-2). I’m intrigued by the ‘therefore’. The point seems to be that it’s because we’re in such a mess that God gives us life in the Spirit. Paul’s taken a long time to bring us this far. This is about everyone – Jew and Gentile, sinners of every type and degree, saints of every shade of holiness. All of us, without exception, are offered a life without condemnation in Christ Jesus.
In 8:15 Paul writes of the Spirit we have received – not of fear but of adoption. Faith is not about living in dread of God’s disapproval. It’s about knowing that we are the adopted children of God, and so the adopted sisters and brothers of Jesus. Paul takes up the very word that Jesus used to pray – ‘Abba’. He’s making a point. Unlike Jesus, Paul probably didn’t speak Aramaic as a native language. But he uses the Aramaic word of Jesus’ prayers – a word so important that here and in the gospels it’s not translated, just repeated – of a child speaking to a Dad. We’re invited by the Spirit to share in the prayer of Jesus, because we’re invited to share in the relationship he has with his Father who has adopted us.
And that ‘therefore’ of 8:1 isn’t accidental. In our culture, children are usually only available for adoption because their life has not been what it should. It’s the same for us. Our natural life, whatever we know and however hard we try, will never be what it should be without God’s Spirit. And he chooses to call us his children.
It’s worth admitting that we’re in a mess.