What’s always amazed me is how we often create doctrines that get things backwards from what God is trying to tell us. A case in point: the epistle of Romans is often used to show how human nature is totally depraved, when Paul is brilliantly making the opposite argument. This is what struck me when reading chapter 7 this morning.
Here’s the passage I was reading in particular:
20 So if my behavior contradicts my desires to do good, I must conclude that it’s not my true identity doing it, but the unwelcome intruder of sin hindering me from being who I really am. (Rom.7:25 TPT*)
The NKJV says it this way:
20 Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. (Rom.7:20 NKJV*)
Whatever translation you pick, the point is the same. There’s a disparity between what we know is right and what we actually do. And when we don’t do what’s right (sin), it proves that this is not who we really are.
Paul starts Romans 7 by telling us why we’re no longer under the Law, and also what purpose it served. Before the verse I highlighted above, Paul makes his case as follows:
15 I’m a mystery to myself, for I want to do what is right, but end up doing what my moral instincts condemn.16 And if my behavior is not in line with my desire, my conscience still confirms the excellence of the law. 17 And now I realize that it is no longer my true self doing it, but the unwelcome intruder of sin in my humanity.18 For I know that nothing good lives within the flesh of my fallen humanity. The longings to do what is right are within me, but will-power is not enough to accomplish it.19 My lofty desires to do what is good are dashed when I do the things I want to avoid. (Rom.7:15-19 TPT*)
Like Dorian Gray, our inner conscience (our true selves) looks at our sinful actions (the painting) and sees its corruption. This is what the Law does, it reveals this disconnect between what we do and who we really are.
As Paul concludes, “The longings to do what is right are within me, but will-power is not enough to accomplish it.”
Notice that Paul isn’t saying the desire to do evil is within him. He’s saying quite the opposite: “The longings to do what is right are within me.”
In other words, our true nature is to live righteously before God, but sin has corrupted us beyond being able to fix ourselves.
This is Paul’s argument: while seeing that his true nature is to live righteously, he also knows he’s hopelessly stuck in sin’s quagmire. Again, this is what the Law beautifully teaches us, and why we cannot live under it but, instead, must live under grace, because the Law “that was intended to bring life brought me death instead.” (Rom.7:10).
The famous artist, Michelangelo, saw sculpturing in a way I think will help us see what Paul is trying to tell us about God’s solution to our dilemma. Here are two of his famous quotes:
“The best artist has that thought alone
Which is contained within the marble shell;
The sculptor’s hand can only break the spell
To free the figures slumbering in the stone.”
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
To use Michelangelo’s quotes analogously, Paul is telling us that we come to God “encased in marble,” if you will. Our authentic self that desires what is right is trapped within this “marble shell,” which is the societal construct alienated from God that programmed us called “this fallen world.”
While the Law brilliantly revealed what we’re not, God, the Master Artist, sent Jesus to take away our sin (remove the outer marble shell) in order to reveal His masterpiece—who we really are—encased within:
1:18 Until this moment God remained invisible to man; now the authentic begotten, the blueprint of man’s design who represents the innermost being of God, the son who is in the bosom of the father, brings him into full view! He is the official authority qualified to announce God! He is our guide who accurately declares and interprets the invisible God in us. (John 1:18 MIRROR *)
Early Church father, Athanasius (298 -373 AD), also gives us a brilliant analogy of Christ’s redemptive purpose, using the illustration of the subject being repainted for a new portrait when the original becomes disfigured:
“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself, and seek out His lost sheep, even as He says in the Gospel, “I came to see and save that which was lost.” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 3:14*)”
How can we know this is true? We can know because God has given all of us a moral conscience. And, unless one is a sociopath, we know we aren’t living as we should. This disparity between our conscience and our actions shows there’s got to something more authentic about us.
This is the glorious good news of Jesus Christ! He’s freed us from what has “encased” us, revealing who we really are. Now we can cooperate with His Spirit to become what He created us to be from the beginning.
10 For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. (Eph.2:10 NLT)