Read Romans 7:15-25
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:15-17)
We’ve all experienced it. We decide that today we will eat only when hungry—but we find ourselves munching as a means of comfort or stress relief. We make a firm decision to avoid reading news today and instead be in God’s presence. But there we are again, overwhelmed by the cares of the world. We make the strongest possible vow and effort to avoid anger or lust or pride or whatever it is—and fail. Often.
It is true that temptation is not a sin. When we are tempted by our base nature and resist, we are making progress. But what about when we are tempted and fall? Do we really have the Spirit of God? Are we really even Christians? Who will rescue us from this body of death?
Paul makes an interesting move here. “It is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells in me.” Since he desires to do good but fails, he seems to personify sin in himself and dissociate himself from it. The higher part of his spirit is clean, but the lower part is not. Paul identifies himself with the higher part. But is this a way of absolving himself from sin?
Read Romans 8:1-11.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (Romans 8:1-2)
Sin must be dealt with. It is a diseased will, affections turned in on self, that lead to sin. But knowing about sin through the law isn’t enough. Deciding to stop sinning isn’t enough. Your best effort isn’t enough. Your will cannot long override your affections—what you love in your inmost being. You are bound. You are a slave. “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God—indeed, it cannot.”
“But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” “The Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free.” “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
Freedom comes not through effort but through the Spirit. The Spirit is life. The Spirit is light. The Spirit is love. Your desire to conquer sin and have a pure heart—that’s the Spirit. Your desire to know Christ and him crucified—that’s the Spirit. Your desire to love and serve God and neighbor—that’s the Spirit.
Lean into the Spirit. Love God. Love your neighbor. Don’t fight selfish desires head on; instead, turn away from them toward love. Purification is more powerfully effected by longing love.