Our passage from Romans 7 presents the classic conundrum for honest humans who, though trusting in Christ for salvation and sanctification, nonetheless still struggle with a familiar sin. “I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate.” We may be saved, but why do we still find it so hard to be holy?
Most of the Early Church Fathers took the position that Saint Paul was writing as if he were unsaved and unregenerate, rather than describing his ongoing personal struggles as a Christian. This was because the common understanding of salvation in the earliest days of the Church was that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit delivered a person from the internal wrestlings and struggles that Paul is writing about in these verses. Diodore of Tarsus, who died around 390, certainly took this approach. “The ordinary person can see in his (or her) mind what ought to be done but cannot achieve it.” But the follower of Jesus, Diodore continued, “can achieve it with the help of the Holy Spirit.”
For those who point out that verse 22 says, “I gladly agree with the Law on the inside,” and therefore Paul is not talking about an unbeliever, the Early Church Fathers had a simple rebuttal. Anyone could consciously and knowingly agree with the precepts and principles of the Gospel. It is rational, after all. It appeals to the intellect. So, it would make sense for persons to delight in the Law of God. The difficulty, they stressed, was in moving from theory to practice. Just because I know something to be true does not mean I live it out. Just because I know that food is scalding hot doesn’t mean I don’t take a bite anyway. Just because I know something is wrong and contrary to God’s perfect will doesn’t mean I don’t give in to such temptations from time to time. “I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate.”
For Augustine, this was a matter of turning the will over to God. All persons, even after the Fall, retained the ability to choose between right or wrong. We always have free will. But the direction of our will, according to Augustine, could be to either good or evil. In other words, we can have a good free will or a bad one, and this is key to Augustinian thought.
When Augustine speaks of freedom, he understands simple spontaneity or self-activity, as opposed to actions that are undertaken while facing external constraint or from animal instinct. Free will, for him, is the ability to make voluntary decisions free from any coercion. It is active, not passive, and is caused by the self rather than by another or some external stimulus. Such freedom is a prerequisite for moral behavior of any kind. And such freedom exists at all times and is essential to human will, even in a sinful state. This is the basis for guilt and punishment, for merit and reward, in Augustine’s thinking. We know the good we ought to do. Whether or not we do it is another thing (see James 4:17). For both sin and holiness are choices. We can become persons who do the good we know we ought to do.
When we sin, then, we are choosing to do so. We are not forced to do so. We have become bound by our own sinful impulses, such that we need the only remedy to help us live the life we want and are called to live… grace. Without grace the sinful person lacks the ability to break free from their slavery to sin. Augustine distinguished carefully between free will (liberum arbitrium) and liberty (libertas). I always have free will, as has already been stated, but it can become so bent in upon my own desires and wants that I become enslaved to my sinful, evil passions, in bondage to my corrupted will. I’m unable to live a righteous life on my own.
But the grace of God freely given us through Jesus Christ liberates us, brings liberty. And the more we surrender to God’s will, the more we are willing to die to our own way, the more we are able to live a life of holiness and righteousness and justice and peace. It is shalom in its purest sense, the restoration and flourishing of how things are supposed to be. Grace is what helps us every time we fall. And grace is what helps us to become women and men who don’t fall nearly so often.
As the Apostle proclaimed at the end of our passage, “Thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Thank God for grace, indeed.