Continuing in his train of thought, and highlighting the struggle of the old age, Paul writes “For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want---instead, I do what I hate. But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good. But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me. For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me” (7:15-20).
We must resist the temptation to reductionism, hearing this as Paul’s personal, spiritual experience. Instead, because Paul operates within a story that shapes his theology, his soteriology, his ecclesiology, his sociology, his politics, his economics, his psychology, his philosophy, and his missiology (though we don’t pretend that these are necessarily separate categories for Paul), we must hear Paul echoing the plaintive cry of all those, prior to the cross and against the powers at work in the old age, that have been called to carry the covenant and to reflect God’s glory into the world.
Understanding the voice by which he cries, we hear him continue on to say “So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (7:21-24) The answer, not just for Paul as an individual, but for all that have been called to bear the divine image and to carry the covenant banner, comes with the Christ and the cross, as Paul (as we are continually mindful of who it was that carried the title of Lord, along with the city to which Paul sends this letter) exclaims: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (7:25).
The true self, which is the true human being of a renewed humanity animated by the Spirit of God, has come to life with Christ in the new age of the Spirit, in which the true law of God (love and sacrifice as manifested by Jesus) is served. The flesh of the old age died with Christ on the cross. This epic struggle, though it may not always appear to be the case, has now been set right in the new age of life in the Spirit, which, among other things, does away with the law and its covenant boundaries and creates a united humanity as a new family of God, capable of rightly bearing the divine image and of reflecting the glory of God into the world. As we attempt to understand the various components of Paul’s thinking, picking apart various statements so as to gain an appreciation of Paul’s insights into what is accomplished by the work of God in Christ, we do not lose sight of the bigger picture that is being conveyed to the body of believers, which is the wholesale unity of those believers under one Lord as they serve as ambassadors of the kingdom of God.
This brief foray into the seventh chapter, as we have continued to find Paul encouraging a unified family of God, facilitates a more nuanced (and perhaps better appreciated) understanding of what can be found in the eighth chapter. While we consider the over-riding corporate (people of God) application as opposed to the individual (person of God) application of Paul’s communication, along with Paul’s giving voice to the failed covenant bearers from the beginning, the contrasting presentation of the ways of the old age versus that of the new age allows us to make eminently more sense of “For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit. For the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace, because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:5-8).
With this being said and now better understood, we again hear Paul addressing the congregation, saying “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you” (8:9a). What will be the evidence that the Spirit of God is living in them corporately? One such piece of evidence will be the lack of any division between Jew and Gentile. Those who want to continue to maintain these divisions, continuing to insist on adherence to certain traditional provisions as marks of justification (covenant participation), rather than recognizing belief in Jesus as the sole necessity for covenant participation (justification), and thus perpetuate a divided humanity (and ultimately a fractured messianic banqueting table) are those that maintain the outlook of the flesh. Those that rightly embrace the sole covenant provision that brings and indicates justification, are those that have the outlook of the Spirit, and are participants in the kingdom of God (life and peace). Consequently, “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person does not belong to Him” (8:9b). Those that want to hold to old covenant markers (old age/flesh/death) do not participate in the kingdom whose head is Christ the Lord.