Romans 7 has long been a cornerstone of popular Christian teaching, particularly when discussing the concept of the “sinful nature.” It has played a significant role in shaping how many people understand humility. Quotes from influential figures like Andrew Murray and the lyrics of Christian worship songs by Hillsong reflect the prevailing belief that there is “nothing good” in us.
According to John MacArthur, who represents the conventional view, Paul speaks about a believer in Romans 7. This person earnestly desires to obey God’s law and detests sin, acknowledging that “nothing good dwells within their humanness.” This interpretation has endured throughout Christian history, with John Calvin approvingly quoting John Chrysostom’s assertion that every individual is not only a sinner by nature but wholly sin itself.
But is this truly what Paul intended to convey in Romans 7?
However, a more nuanced reading of Romans 7 challenges this traditional understanding. In Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes, my chapter on Romans 7 argues that Paul’s primary focus lies neither in human nature nor the individual. Instead, he directs our attention toward sin and the law, seeking to vindicate the law’s righteousness and expose the culpability of sin. By maintaining a collective identity perspective, we stay consistent with the broader argument presented by Paul.
Should “I” Be Ashamed?
But does Paul intend to evoke shame through Romans 7? Is his purpose to shame readers into recognizing their inherent wickedness? Not quite.
In fact, Paul presents a more generous view of humanity than many Western teachers assume. Romans 7 emphasizes humanity’s inability rather than its evil disposition. The “I” in Romans 7 delights in God’s law and does not desire evil. It is sin, not the “I” itself, that bears the blame for wrongdoing. The question of reconciling mutual culpability between sin and the individual remains a separate matter.
What often goes unnoticed is that the “I” in Romans 7 portrays itself as sin’s victim, not merely a perpetrator. The tension depicted in Romans 7 can be likened to addiction, where an individual bears responsibility for the choices that led to addictive behavior. Over time, addiction exerts a destructive influence on a person’s neurology, making it increasingly difficult for them to change. In essence, the addict relinquishes control and becomes enslaved to the addiction. The person then becomes both a victim and perpetrator of wrongdoing.
“I” am not Sin
Failing to grasp these distinctions can lead to undue shame often associated with Romans 7. We frequently overlook or downplay human goodness, which stems from being created in God’s image.
This oversight can lead us to treat people as if they were synonymous with sin, rather than recognizing them as victims of its enslavement.
Consequently, individuals begin to view themselves not only as having committed bad actions (resulting in guilt) but as being inherently bad (causing shame). This perspective diminishes their worth as human beings. While actions can be changed, there is little hope for transformation when a person’s very self is deemed worthless.
Adopting a fresh perspective on Romans 7 challenges prevalent teachings that shame individuals, which come across as cold, not compassionate. It is essential to present the truth in its full biblical context, recognizing the complexity of human nature and the dynamics of sin.
Embracing humility does not require embracing destructive versions of shame. By understanding the true essence of Paul’s message, we can foster a culture of compassion, encouraging growth and transformation while recognizing the inherent worth and goodness found in each individual.