What does it mean to be washed of our sin? To be “made new”? We USAmerican Christians don’t talk about sin much these days. It makes us uncomfortable. And in our world of “alternative facts” and ideology over facts, we flip the channel or shut off.
Paul tackles an even deeper layer of this – a great concern of early Christians. If in our baptism we were made new, why are we still hanging out with other Christians on earth and not in heaven? How does sin fit in if we were washed of our sin? Isn’t that life over?
Paul’s answer in Romans is very much “Yes and No.” He speaks of the conflict with the spirit and the flesh – that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
He uses powerful words to describe this life. Many of these words have been demonized by our culture and so we try to avoid them, to our detriment, because this is how he drills home the importance. Words and phrases like: slave, war, making me captive, evil lies close at hand.
For Paul the war against the flesh was a cosmic battle. His intention is not to teach us to hate our bodies, for in other places we learn that our bodies are temples of the Lord, to be cared for and protected. But at least here, speaking of sin, he is helping to explain the struggle of the mind and the flesh – summing up the human condition.
To be at war with his own true intentions, or to be captive or enslaved by evil, is a good way to describe the “already and not yet” aspects of the kingdom of God. But furthermore, and more importantly, this inner struggle involves the law. Paul discovers that one cannot master the evil impulses with the law, or with human will. So he turns to a greater Master. That master is also the King, the Messiah. He is the one who has conquered the Evil One on the battlefield at the cross.
This is where Paul’s argument gains much momentum. It is not that our physical and spiritual selves are at war with one another, making us schizophrenic-like. Instead the battle is for grace and hope and life. It is beyond our individual SINS, and attests to the power and domain of one who went before us to conquer the sting of SIN.
I encounter a lot of people as a minister who are struggling with various inner conflicts. Some are trapped in abusive relationships, or unfulfilling careers. Others are struggling with guilt they have imposed on themselves that haunts them from childhood. Others are struggling with addiction or sexual identity.
To all these people Paul is saying that there is hope. And his hope is not that the flesh can be overcome with the spirit, but that the flesh can be overcome by the Spirit. Notice the capitalization. Paul turns and appeals to God as the one who overcomes the law with grace, and helps in the struggle of the human condition. The promise is the Spirit of life, in whom judgment does not reign supreme, but love, grace, and acceptance.