[Continued from Part One]
[QUESTION. What does Paul mean by the phrase “body of sin” in Romans 6:6? Is he referring to the physical body? And if so, in what sense is it a body “of sin”?]
ANSWER. As we saw in the previous part of this essay, because of the effects of sin upon the two parts of our human nature, and because of the singular focus of regeneration at the time of conversion, the Christian is a combination of a redeemed soul and an as-yet-unredeemed body. As a result, the Christian life is an on-going conflict between the soul and the body—a conflict which Paul describes from his own personal experience in Romans 7:14-25. I have no doubt that this text should be understood as referring to the Christian’s life. (See my Romans commentary for the reasons why this is the case.) In this part of my essay I will explain this struggle based on Paul’s testimony.
I. THE SEVERITY OF THE STRUGGLE (vv. 14-20, using the ESV unless noted). First, we notice that Paul describes our struggle as a conflict between willing and doing: “For the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not” (18b, NASB). It is clear that Paul WANTS to do good; he does not want to do evil (19). This includes a positive attitude toward God’s law: “the law is spiritual” (14a); “I agree with the law, that it is good” (16b); “I delight in the law of God” (22a).
What is “the good” that he wants to do? Behavior required by our Christian law code (New Covenant requirements for holy living). And what is “the evil” he does not want to do? Behavior forbidden by this law code. But what does he actually DO (not all the time, but at least sometimes)? He DOES the very opposite of what he WANTS to do! “For I do not do what I want” (15a); “I do what I do not want” (16a). “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (19). In fact, “I do the very thing I hate” (15b).
Paul suggests it is almost like being TAKEN OVER by the sin that dwells in him: “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (17; see 20). It is like he is a slave to sin, “sold into bondage to sin” (14b, NASB). This is not meant to be an excuse, but an explanation.
II. THE SOURCE OF THE STRUGGLE (vv. 21-25). Paul’s explanation of the struggle within him presupposes the two-fold nature of human beings: physical and spiritual. On the one hand he constantly refers to his physical body as the source of his evil inclinations: “I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (14b). “Nothing good dwells in me, that is in my flesh” (18a). “The law of sin . . . dwells in my members” (23b; see 23a). He longs to be free from “this body of death” (24b); here the “death” is the spiritual death that is present in the body. Finally, “with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (25b).
On the other hand, Paul refers to the spiritual side of his being and a force for good: “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (22). (See Rom. 6:6; 2 Cor. 4:16; Eph. 3:16.) “The law of my mind” is opposed to my sinful urges (23). “I myself serve the law of God with my mind” (25a). Here “I myself” is the emphatic autos egō, and it refers to the inner man in contrast with “my flesh.”
What explains such an intense struggle that is taking place within the Christian. The bottom line is this: in the salvation event of Christian baptism, our SOULS undergo a radical healing change, but our BODIES do not. I.e., we are redeemed in two stages. First, at conversion the sinful soul is crucified with Christ and raised up into a state of spiritual life (Rom. 6:1-6). Then, at the second coming the sin-infested body will be redeemed (Rom. 8:23), either through resurrection or transformation (1 Cor. 15:50-57). But in the period between these two events, while we are still living on this earth, we exist as an awkward combination of redeemed soul and as-yet-unredeemed body. As F. F. Bruce says, “We are living simultaneously on two planes” (Epistle of Paul to the Romans, 1963, p. 151). See my commentary on Romans, I:444-445.
The crucial factor is that somehow, SIN still lives (dwells) in our bodies: vv. 17b, 18a, 20b, 21, 23. This does not mean that our bodies are inherently evil (contra metaphysical dualisms), but that they have become invaded by and commandeered by sin, as it were. The result is that our spirits struggle against our flesh. Spiritual conflict is present in the Christian’s life because one part of our being follows the law of God, while the other part follows the law of sin. On the one hand, the regenerated inner man (mind) is fully committed to God’s law, and delights in it. We “joyfully concur” in it (22a, NASB). It is the good thing our hearts want to do. (See Ps. 119:14, 16, 24, 35, 47, 97). On the other hand, the law of sin is in the members of my body, in my flesh. This law or power of sin still “lives in” my body (vv. 17, 20), still permeates it and exploits its appetites and weaknesses.
Paul compares this struggle to a military battle in which the body is “waging war” against the spirit, trying to make us prisoners of war (aichmalōtidzō)—“captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (23). He also compares it with trying to serve as a slave (douleuō) for two masters (25): the law of God (22) and the law of sin (23).
Before turning to III. THE SOLUTION TO THE STRUGGLE (in part three of this series), I will list a few pastoral implications of the struggle as Paul describes it here. First, this helps to explain why even Christians may still have so much trouble with “the lusts of the flesh.” Again, it is not an excuse, but an explanation.
Second, materialistic science, and our monistic culture in general, seek a physical or chemical explanation for all such problems, e.g., brain/genetic/hormonal disorders, or chemical imbalance. One result of this “nothing buttery” (simplistic) explanation is the elimination of blame or of personal moral responsibility for immoral behavior. This is not consistent with Paul’s teaching in Romans 6-7, though. On the other hand, we cannot ignore or dismiss the findings of modern brain research, which may show that there IS some connection between physical states (e.g., of the brain) and behavior patterns. We must, however, be open to spiritual explanations for such physical states in the first place.
Third, if the reality of the spiritual is rejected, then any desired solutions to such problems will also be limited to physical remedies. Of course, we should avail ourselves of effective physical treatments (e.g., drugs) where appropriate and effective. But the only truly effective solutions are based on these two spiritual realities: ONE, the regeneration of the sinful spirit and the resultant ability of the thus-redeemed spirit to control the remaining desires and inclinations of the as-yet-unredeemed body. TWO, the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who empowers our spirits to exercise such control. These last points will be discussed in part three, yet to come.