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03.25.12 The Fruit of Self-Control, Romans 7.1-25 Sermon Summary

by on March 26, 2012

Romans 7 is one of the Bible’s most interesting chapters. Is self-control, one of the fruit of the Spirit, even possible?

Summary Points

  • Three interpretive challenges in Romans 7
  • How self-control in the New Testament is unique
  • The difference between the law and the Spirit- oriented life
  • The surprising way to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit which is self-control
  • Questions for discussion or reflection

I took a class on Romans in seminary from one of the premier Pauline scholars alive. I can tell you that even a semester under such mentoring isn’t enough to begin to understand this book, and Romans 7 stands at the heart of the complexity.

For example, exactly to whom is Paul referring to when he says “I”? It could be Paul himself at the time of the writing. It could be Paul before his conversion (when he was named Saul). It could be all of the nation of Israel—“I, Paul, the Jew, am referring to my whole nation.” Or it could be all of us through a general reference to “I, Paul, the human like you, a descendant of Adam.”

Or another example: which “law” is Paul referring to? The natural assumption is that he’s referring to the Jewish Law (Torah), summarized by the Ten Commandments. But earlier he observed that the Gentile observe the law without having it. So maybe he’s referring to natural law. Or perhaps he means any kind of prohibition, going back again to Adam and Eve in the garden where the only law was not to eat of a certain tree.

Or what about the relationships among sin, law, and the flesh or sinful nature? Are we innately good until the law provokes our sinfulness? Are we innately sinful and the law simply reveals it?

In Galatians 5, Paul writes that the fruit of the Spirit is self-control. Given the complexities of our human nature and our relationship to law and sin revealed in Romans 7, how is it possible that we can have any self-control?

The word Paul uses in Galatians is egkrateia and it means self-mastery or self-control. Greek philosophy and culture highly valued such self-mastery. It was a great concern of the New Testament also, for several passages exhort Christ’s followers to avoid licentiousness and lasciviousness—two really great words that refer to the unbridled pursuit of pleasure (usually sexual).

What is interesting is that the New Testament only uses egkrateia or a related word six times, and most of them are from Paul. We would expect more, but that’s it, only six. Is it because egkrateia is such a self-centered, anti-Spirit notion—that we can control ourselves without dependence upon God? But then why does Paul list egkrateia as a fruit of the Spirit?

I think the point of Paul’s particular but limited use of egkrateia is that self-control is impossible apart from God. No matter how you interpret the “I” and the “law” of Romans 7, isn’t the bottom line simply that we just can’t do it alone? Augustine has it right in his Confessions when he says, “You command self-control; give what you command, and command what you will.” In other words, the only way we can hope to fulfill God’s commands is to rely on God’s strength. Alone, we can’t do it.

To enhance his point, in both Galatians and Romans, Paul contrasts the law-oriented life with the Spirit-oriented life. The law-oriented life depends on itself for its progress in the spiritual life. And since no one can live up to the law’s perfect demands, the law-oriented life leads either to despair (“I can’t do it!”) or pride (“I’m doing it better than most”).

On the other hand, the Spirit-oriented life depends on God for its progress in the spiritual life. It submits to the Spirit for guidance and relies on the Spirit for strength. Whereas the law-oriented life leads to despair or pride, the Spirit-oriented life leads to faithfulness.

As an illustration, Paul offers a metaphor in 1 Corinthians 9:24-26. There he contrasts the disciplined and directed effort (egkrateia) of an competitive runner with that of someone who runs aimlessly. Athletes who are self-controlled are motivated by a goal, by a purpose, or to use the theological language, by a calling. They are not so much SELF-disciplined as they are disciplined by their efforts to be faithful.

And so we finally have the key to unlocking how self-control can be a fruit of the Spirit. The final fruit of the Spirit is self-control, and perhaps the best way to think about it is that it is itself a fruit of the preceding fruit of the Spirit. In other words, when we practice fruits 1-8, self-control will result without our trying to produce it.

Remember the key points of our earlier messages (you can find the summaries by searching for the various fruit on this blog). The eight earlier fruit of the Spirit are:

  1. Love: self-sacrifice for the benefit of another, esp. neighbor
  2. Joy: recognizing and participating in God’s work, even through hardship
  3. Peace: as wisdom from heaven, through service, prayer, forgiveness, e.g.
  4. Patience: since time is a gift, we receive it and give it, like the king in Jesus’ parable
  5. Kindness: as God is kind to all, so we can be through remembering God’s kindness, receiving kindness, and giving thanks for it
  6. Goodness: depending on God, we grown in goodness continually, submitting to God wherever we need to like the Rich Man
  7. Faithfulness: following God’s example of passive and active faithfulness, we have faith AND faithfulness
  8. Gentleness: because we follow the Chief Shepherd, we serve others in love, bearing light like a candle instead of a flare

As we follow these eight fruit of the Spirit, the Spirit bears the ninth fruit of self-control in our lives, which isn’t really self-control as much as it is Spirit-control. And this is the fundamental teaching of Romans 7, especially as we consider it in the context of Romans 6-8. There Paul talks about the new life we have in baptism (Romans 6) and the life we have by the power of the Spirit (Romans 8).

Questions for Discussion or Reflection

  • Given all the complexities of Romans 7, try reading it several times, coming up with all the variations of meaning depending on how you interpret “I” and “law”. How do these various meanings apply to your life?
  • Think about the many times you’ve “resolved” to do or not to do something. How long were you able to keep that resolution? For more self-control, try paying attention to the first eight fruit of the Spirit in order to produce the ninth. What can you do to be more loving, gentle, patient, etc?
  • Read and study Romans 6-8, or even better, the first eight chapters of Romans. Take 20-30 minutes each day for a week to read these chapters and see how much more sense Romans 7 makes!
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