WHY DOES PAUL USE THIS WORD 60 TIMES IN ROMANS?
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 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. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me (Romans 7:14-20 NRSV).
Those of a certain age will remember the comedian Flip Wilson. Wilson’s most famous comedy sketch was playing a character in drag named Geraldine. Geraldine’s oft used line was, “The devil made me do it.”
Paul does not say the devil made him do it, but he does say Sin made him do it. Paul takes us through a bit of a taxonomy of sin throughout the Letter to the Romans. The noun hamartia (sin) and words related to it (sinner, to sin, sinful) appear 60 times in the letter. Why does Paul use this word concept of sin so many times in Romans? Because, at the heart of sin is humanity’s refusal to give thanks and honor God (1:21). This refusal manifests itself in all kinds of symptoms of the primordial disease (1:26-32). But sin is much more than a wrong human action, it is a power (3:9). As a result, it is easy to see that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).
This understanding of sin is also why as we move through the Letter to the Romans, Paul will speak of Sin rather than sins. It is sin as this enslaving, addictive, and destructive power that preoccupies Paul. Sin comes into the world through Adam (5:12), Sin increases (5:12), Sin “exercised dominion” (5:21; cf. 6:12,14), Sin “produced” (7:8), Sin “revived” (7:9), Sin “dwells” (7:17,20). Indeed, for Paul Sin is an anti-God power loose in the world. This is never clearer than in Romans 7.
On the one hand, Paul’s focus is on the law and its goodness. But on the other hand, it is the overwhelming power of Sin in spite of the goodness of the law. We vividly feel and empathize with Paul’s struggle: “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (7:19). This is certainly a bleak picture Paul paints, but it is not the end of the story.
In this cosmic, apocalyptic battle between God and the anti-God powers of Sin, Death, and Satan, God is the victor through what God has done in Christ. Sin’s demise is guaranteed by God’s action in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, we can rejoice, along with Paul, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (7:24).” God’s action in Christ breaks the grip of Sin!
The late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said that the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine is the doctrine of sin. Despite the goodness we see running through people and our world, where do you see also see Sin? Where have you seen evidence of God’s in-breaking new creation?
Lord God, thank you that Sin is not the last word. We are so grateful that you have broken into this world in Jesus Christ to make all things new. We pray for your kingdom to come, on earth as it is in heaven. In Jesus name. Amen.
Mark Manassee is Senior Minister of Culver Palms Church of Christ, a vibrant mosaic of people representing the rich cultural and ethnic diversity of Los Angeles. “Our experiences are varied,” says the church, “but we are united in and by the love of Christ.”