What is sin? In the confession of sin that we usually use, we say, “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, things done and left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
We might answer the question slightly differently. Most of us, if asked about sins, would probably begin by rattling off the ten commandments, or at least what used to be called the second tablet: Thou shalt not commit murder; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not bear false witness; thou shalt not covet.
In those silent moments before we begin saying the familiar words together, we might, some of us, run through a mental checklist. As we do that, we’re probably also interpreting for ourselves just what those commandments might mean—murder is clear, theft is clear, but coveting? or bearing false witness, lying? There’s so much room for interpreting acts like these, especially when we live in a culture where celebrities, corporations, and politicians routinely look for ways around the rules—what’s the definition of “is” after all? More deeply, even if we regard an act as wrong, or even as a crime, do we generally think such an act is a sin—an affront to God?
Probably you’re familiar with such soul-searching, if not in the few minutes before beginning to recite the confession, then when you’re on your own, struggling as you wonder what action to take. You may even be familiar with a deeper sense of frustration, a deeper soul-searching of the sort that Paul seems to be talking about in chapter 7 of Romans:
“I do not do understand my actions. I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.”
That’s something we’ve all experienced. We’ve all been in situations where we know what the right thing to do is; we want to do the right thing, but instead we do the wrong thing. We see such behavior in others—in children, who test the rules: “Don’t touch a hot stove.” But the thing that’s forbidden becomes more attractive.
We know it in ourselves, or in our younger selves, having engaged in risky behavior, responding to someone’s dare, or going along with the actions of a crowd. We know it in ourselves now, looking over the menu at brunch or dinner, knowing we ought to eat healthy food, but there’s that entrée rich in fat and calories, or the decision to go back to the buffet after we’ve already eaten our fill—and later this afternoon, we’ll regret that decision. So when Paul says, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate,” we assume we understand what he’s talking about.
But before we go too far in assimilating Paul’s experience with our own, it’s important that we remember the context in which he’s writing, what he’s writing about. The law that he’s talking about in this passage is not some generalized moral law, some innate sense of right and wrong. Instead, the law to which Paul refers is the Torah, the law given by God on Mt. Sinai, the Law that is binding on Jews like Paul.
It’s important to keep in mind, as I’ve said before, that one of Paul’s overarching concerns is to find a way to bring together Jews and Gentiles in these new communities that confess Jesus to be the Messiah, the Christ. As he does so, he has to make the case to Gentiles that the Law was a good thing. But even as he says that, he argues that the Torah is no longer binding on Jew or Gentile. In these verses, he is claiming that the Torah teaches morality. For example, just a few verses earlier he said that one learns what coveting is through the Law.
We’re the products, even if we don’t know it, of nearly five hundred years of Protestant theology and biblical interpretation, so generally we assume that what Paul’s talking about is that the law teaches us to sin. Its commands are so harsh, so undoable, that we sin repeatedly and finally realize that we are saved through justification by faith apart from works of the law. But that’s reading Paul through the eyes of Martin Luther (and to some extent Augustine of Hippo). Paul can state elsewhere in his letters that he didn’t have a problem keeping the commandments of Torah: “As to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
And here, he says twice, that the law is a good thing. In fact, he goes further: “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self.” The problem for Paul is not the law, Torah. The problem is not even his will or intellect. The problem lies elsewhere. He seems to say the problem lies in his body, his members , but we shouldn’t interpret him to mean that he locates the problem, or sin, in his physical body.
To put it in our terms, we know what we ought to do. We know the distinction between right and wrong. More than that, it is often the case that we want to do the right thing, but for whatever reason, we fall back into old patterns of behavior that hurt ourselves and others. Paul uses the word sin to describe that experience. But for Paul, sin is not merely an act that we do; it is not even fair to say that Paul understands sin as inherent in human nature. For Paul, rather, sin is a cosmic force or power, that has us and the world in its grasp. It is at war against God and as humans we are caught in the middle of that battle.
Now some of what Paul is saying here may seem somewhat strange to us. We don’t often think of sin in the terms Paul uses. In fact, you may now think that Paul conceives of sin like a Saturday morning cartoon, in which a character debating between doing good and evil has a good angel perched on one shoulder and a devil on the other. That’s not what Paul has in mind, either. For him, humans are in the grip of sin and death, but we have been freed from both powers by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; so sin has no lasting dominion over us.
But we don’t fully experience Jesus Christ’s victory over sin and death. And here’s where our own experiences connect with what Paul is talking about. All of us struggle with doing the right thing. All of us know people who are in the grip of addictions of one sort or another. Each of us knows, all too well, the internal conflicts we have as we seek to follow Christ and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We often hear Jesus’ words in the gospels as presenting us with a set of demands we can’t possibly meet. We might even fall into despair and give up.
But that’s not the end of the story. Paul himself has experienced such struggles. They weren’t precisely the same sort of struggles I’ve just been talking about, but struggles nonetheless. In his encounter with Jesus Christ and in his deepening life with Christ, he experienced something else, that victory over sin and death. Even more, he came to know Jesus Christ living in him and the Spirit renewing him.
In the gospel, we hear Jesus offering us a similar message: “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Whatever burdens we may be carrying with us today, whatever struggles we have, Jesus Christ offers us the possibility of new life, a new spirit. Jesus Christ offers us refreshment, hope, and renewal. In Jesus Christ we can find rest for our souls.