“But if I am doing the very thing I do not want I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me…So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.” (Rom. 7:20, 25)
“If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)
There is circumstance, and there is identity. There is what happens to us—even what we allow in moments of weakness, and who we are. The two are not the same, and when we the lines get blurred it results in an identity crisis. Before I came to understand this truth I thought because I sinned that was who I was. I knew I loved the Lord, and I didn’t believe I was a child of the devil by any means, but “sinner” was a large part of the identity I let myself take on. How could someone who was supposedly a child of God go on sinning, particularly hounded by the same old sins I had repented and asked forgiveness for over and over again? I couldn’t square that in the face of mounting evidence I was being pointed to telling me it wasn’t true. What I had after over 38 years of Christian ministry was an identity crisis!
The two verses above were ones I used often to justify my old identity. I constantly cited Romans 7 to say, “See, Paul was like me! He knew he was a sinner, and so did John!” Thanks to the help of some dear brothers, and tiring to the point of futility beliefs like this had brought me to, I now no longer carry that identity. How do I look at these verses now? First, the one from John who also writes, “He who does what is sinful is of the devil” (1 John 3:8), another contradiction I could not reconcile. But notice John says, “If we say we have NO sin…” Because we say our identity is saint, royal priest, son or daughter, etc: all descriptions the Bible gives for us, we are not saying we have no sin. Of course we sin, for as long as we live in sinful flesh the war between flesh and spirit will go on. What we are saying is “sinner” is not our identity.
Have you ever said something thoughtless to someone dear to you that you didn’t mean, even though you have treated them kindly for years? Does that mean your identity with them is “cruel monster?” Have you ever made a few mistakes at work, even though your intentions are good and the vast majority of time you do your job well? Does that make your identity “horrible employee or employer?” Of course it doesn’t! We all make mistakes. That doesn’t make that our identity. Do you really think God is a half-full or half-empty cup sort? If half-empty, then explain the whole Jesus coming to earth thing to me. Do you think He’d rather think of us as sinners or saints given the price He paid to make us the latter? Would He rather we surrender to the positive or negative forces at play in our lives? Peter tells us the Lord does not wish for any to perish, but for all to come to Him.
Which brings us to Paul’s confession in Romans: after several verses discussing his struggles with the flesh he concludes with, “It is no longer I who does this, but sin that dwells in me.” First, Paul states clearly this sinning is NOT his identity when he says, “It is no longer I who does this.” This struggle was not him. It was not his identity! He goes on to point the sin finger where it belonged: the sin that dwelt in his flesh. Paul is specifically saying, “I [the one whose identity is saint, priest, etc in Christ] am not the one doing this, because I don’t want to do it and I hate it. It’s something that temporarily takes over bringing me to do it, but it’s not me.” Further down in the same passage he is even more emphatic in making this point when he says, “So then, on the one hand I myself [who I truly am. The word in the Greek means “the reflective self”] with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh [who I was before Christ did away with the old and made me an entirely new creature] the law of sin.”
If Paul’s identity was miserable sinner in need of grace, how could he also have said he was an entirely new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17)? How was it God would lead him to say, “It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 6:2)? Would a man “buffet who he was to make himself a slave to himself” (1 Cor. 9:27)?Was the Christ who lived in Paul then a sinner in need of grace? By no means! Paul’s identity in the flesh had been replaced by Christ’s identity becoming his! This is what Paul meant when he said, “It is no longer I [my true identity] who does this. I myself [me: who I truly am], with my mind, am serving the law of God.”
The final proof of who Paul believed he was in Christ falls in the very next verse in Romans, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” Think about all of the descriptions Paul had just given of his condition [of flesh, in bondage to sin, doing what he neither wants nor understands and hates, nothing good dwelling within, practicing evil, evil present within, a force waging war against him, etc] that would lead to self-condemnation if sinner was his identity: If that were so, would he immediately follow all of these indictments with “There is no condemnation for me?” Paul knew who he was: saint and not sinner, and therefore confidently made the claim he [the true Paul] was under no condemnation right after he gave so many reasons he could be condemned!
What is the occasional circumstance for those truly in Christ? We sin. What happens to us occasionally? We err because the sin nature that inhabits our flesh gets the best of us. But let us remember Paul’s final words on the matter of Romans 7, “Who will save me from this body of death [that torments me, but is not who I am]? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord [whose actions and love now allow me to deal with my tormentors through the grace offered me at the cross, and my new identity in the Spirit]!” Now, if our practice is to sin and we occasionally stumble into righteousness on Sunday mornings, then perhaps our true identity is “sinner” and that needs to change because that is a very dangerous place to be. But Paul is speaking of those “in Christ Jesus,” not those who feign religion.
It is only fitting then that Paul was also the one who revealed how to shed our former identity and take on our new one in another famous passage in Romans: “And do not be conformed to this world [your former identity], but be transformed by the renewing of your mind [He says with your mind serve the law of God in Romans 7] so that you may prove what the will of God is [what you can do taking on your new identity]: that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Transformation is what Jesus was all about, and what He came to accomplish in us: to “rescue us from the domain of darkness and transfer us in to the kingdom of His Son” (Col. 1:13). We need a total mind-transformation!
The bottom line is this: we can either let our sin define us or we can let our God define us. Jesus came to re-define the Father’s relationship with us, and ours with Him, from an external covenant where “He did not care for us” (Heb. 8:9-10), to and internal, transformative one where “He would abide in us and we in Him” (John 15). God does not abide in the hearts of sinners “who cannot continue in His covenant.” That was the problem before Jesus came to us. That one, where His people were indeed sinners He could not abide, was “the former covenant that was useless and passed away” (Heb. 7:18). He now abides in the temples of hearts of forgiven saints who continue in His New Covenant, because He provided the cross to leave the identity of sinner in the rubbish heap and the Spirit to give them a new identity as kingdom saints. Determine you will no longer allow your flesh to define you, even though at times it gains the victory. Ask God to define you and transform your thinking to His definition, and then believe!