PAUL’S CONFLICT IN THE FLESH
Revd. R. A. Finlayson, M.A.
It is considered that Paul’s Epistle to the Romans has done more than any document ever written to uplift and unfetter the human spirit and bring it into possession of the liberty wherewith Christ makes His people free. And yet to many it is the most difficult to unravel of all Paul’s Epistles. One wonders how the young Church at Rome felt about it when the faithful Phoebe delivered to them the letter! No doubt a letter from Paul was always welcome and always read. It undoubtedly contains the most closely-knit argument in any of his Epistles, and it is vitally important that we should pick up the links in the strong chain of argument by which Paul presses upon mind and heart Â— theirs and ours Â— the heritage that is ours in Christ Jesus.
It deals with the doctrine of Justification by Faith, viewed first objectively and then subjectively. But in the process of narration much is involved that is sometimes hard to unravel. Paul is relating a conflict of soul through which he passed in his own experience. It is so personal in its narration that we might be looking at a man’s private diary containing echoes from the heat of conflict. Smooth-flowing logic is not to be expected in such a situation. A war correspondent, writing from a distance about the great battle being waged, will adopt quite a different style from the soldier speaking from the heart of the conflict. Paul’s letter is, in part at least, a bulletin from the Front Line, and every word, every accent, every nuance, is instinct with life and struggle, with defeat and victory.
The Nature of the Conflict.
1. The two contestants.
They are the Law of God and the Law of Sin. These are the military commands directing operations.
2. The two centres of conflict.
They are the Mind and the Flesh.
The mind is Paul’s word for the inner man, in his case the
The flesh is his word for the inherited nature with its
instincts and passions.
Here we have set the field of battle.
3. The two loyalties.
The Law of God appeals to the mind of the regenerated
The Law of Sin appeals to the flesh.
This means that sin has an ally within the camp, a territory that still -acknowledges its law, and it is so firmly entrenched that Paul calls it “the law in my members”, the law that expresses itself so
often through the members of the body, turning legitimate physical instincts into occasions for sin.
The Elements of Conflict in Romans 7.
The elements of conflict can be seen to be very real. The Law of God has taken possession of the mind and it has received the affection and loyalty of the inner man. Paul’s changing relations to the Law of God are an interesting study.
Once Paul was “without law” (v. 9), that is, in his preconversion days, when he knew nothing of the law and its holy commands, and without law “sin was dead” as far as his experience went: he had no consciousness of divine holiness or of his own sin.
Then Paul says that he was “under law” (v. 9), when the “commandment came” and asserted its authority over him. The sin principle, of which he was not conscious before, because it met with no resistance from him Â— it had its own way Â— now awakened into life, and his moral nature was lashed into a fury. God pressing His demands, and Paul’s nature resisting as “an ox kicking against the goad”. It was then he became suddenly conscious that he could not resist sin, that sin had complete mastery. At that moment, to use Paul’s own graphic phrase, “sin revived, and I died”. This period belongs to his pre-conversion days, perhaps the period between the death of Stephen and the arrest on the Jerusalem-Damascus Road. Paul Â— or Saul Â— was then “under the law”, under its lash, whipping his moral nature into a frenzy of rebellion and despair. Sin then entered deeply into his self-consciousness, and his self-righteousness was slain. The Pharisee died, the convicted sinner was left.
Paul then speaks of another period Â— still present Â— when he was not under law when he was freed and delivered from its lash (v. 6). This was deliverance indeed Â— delivered from the lash that tore into his moral nature, from the goad that bit into his flesh. That was the period when the good news of the divine righteousness in Christ came into his experience. He realised that now he could get a perfect standing with God through being linked by faith to Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is now done with the law as a way of satisfying God, for he is accepted and acceptable “in the Beloved”. But the law is not done with him.
Then there emerged that other period when Paul could sincerely say: “I delight in the law of God” (v. 22). He now delights in all that the law says and demands, because it is the law of the Lord who delivered him. He loves his Lord, and therefore he loves His law. Not only so, but, deep down in his nature, he is in hearty agreement with what the law says. He delights in the law of his God “after the inward man”. In the mirror of this law he now sees the character of his Lord and Redeemer, and he never wearies of looking into this transcript of his Redeemer’s nature.
The Two Natures in Conflict
But what of the law of sin reigning within his sinful flesh? It is still there. Paul now seems fully aware that there are two natures within him, a holy nature and a sinful nature, utterly antagonistic to each other. There is a moral dualism within. Why God did not destroy and eradicate the sinful nature at conversion, we do not know and we cannot tell. What God did was to bring to birth within him a divine life, whose operating principle was akin to His own nature, and He asked it to fight its way to complete victory.
And fight it must, for the old sinful nature has its own principles of conduct Â— it is self-centred and not God-centred Â— and it challenges the new nature at every point. Conflict ensues. That is Paul’s conflict in the flesh, the Law of God and the law of sin in conflict to the death.
The Moral Law at Work
Paul tells of several things the Moral Law of God did in his
The spirituality of the moral law made him conscious of what he calls his “flesh”. Hence the discovery: “The law is spiritual. . . . but I am carnal” (v. 14). As he stands before that holy mirror of spirituality he sees his own carnality Â— he is “made of flesh”.
The commands of the law made him feel the enslavement of sin
The fettering power of sin is sometimes so strong that he feels “sold under sin”, sold as a slave is sold against his will, or as a captive in war might be sold. But this does not happen with his consent: as a captive taken in battle he is now in the enemy camp, but his loyalities are all on the other side. In other words, when sin traps him he does not willingly submit Â— he abhors sin even when he commits it (v. 15). The opposition of his real desires and actual conduct imply his real concurrence with the moral excellence of the law, and he “consents unto the law that it is good”. So it is no longer his true personality that works this evil, but the sin principle which still lies within. And for this, of course, he must accept full responsibility.
The Final Crisis and Victory
Paul’s position is pitiable. He is weighted down by a body of death: a corrupt dead body that is strangely alive, for it is the seat of the sin principle, and the principle of sin is death. He feels himself no match for the foe and he is handicapped by the presence of a traitor in the camp. He needs reinforcements from without. And so he sends up the cry: “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (v. 24). And the answer is immediate, and thanksgiving takes the place of nigh despair: “1 thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v.
25). Grace Â— “more grace” (Jas. 4: 6) Â— was sent to the rescue, and deliverance was wrought. But the war is not over. The forces in conflict are still in the field: “So with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin” (v. 25). The battle for character goes on, a battle in which there can be no armistice.
Liberty in the Spirit
Paul now moves onto the uplands of chapter 8. He has fought for every step of the way and reinforcements of divine grace have sustained him in the conflict. Let us beware, however, of thinking that chapter 7 is left behind for ever. It is not an emergence once and for all out of chapter 7 into chapter 8. It is not that Paul was less a Christian when he engaged in the conflict of chapter 7 than when he raised in chapter 8 the three-fold cry of deliverance: No condemnation: No accusation: No separation. Paul would not disown chapter 7 when he wrote chapter 8. Far from it. The experiences of chapter 7 are Christian experiences not less than the experiences of chapter 8. And strange as it may seem the two sets of experience can exist side by side, for the simple reason that when we are enjoying the liberty of the Spirit we are not any less open to assaults from the law of sin in the flesh.
What then are we to make of these two chapters? They faithfully depict the Christian life from two different viewpoints. We see the Christian life, as it were, in two different spheres, the spheres of justification and of sanctification. In chapter 7 it was Â— and is Â— conflict in the flesh, in chapter 8 it is liberty in the Spirit. The liberty is the liberty of our full and free justification; the conflict in the flesh is for our full and complete sanctification. In the wisdom of God the assaults of the flesh are directed towards the sanctification of the justified one till eventually our condition is brought up to the level of our position in glory itself.
Reprinted from the Monthly Record of the Free Church of Scotland