Formations 03.24.2019: Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Romans 7:14–8:2

I didn’t know there was a TV show called Temptation Island until I started researching for this article. The premise of the show is to put four unmarried couples who are “at a crossroads in their relationship” in an island paradise surrounded by dozens of alluring single men and women. Will the couples stay together or will they succumb to temptation? The show has been renewed for a second season.

I wish the couples well. It’s not easy to rise above the temptations that are all around us—island or no island! I do wonder, however, about the wisdom of putting oneself in a position to be tempted. I find that temptations of various sorts have a way of finding me if I’m looking for them or not.

In today’s passage, Paul confirms what had already learned from experience. As a species, human beings are not always wonderful at dealing with temptation. That’s a problem all of us can identify with. We tend to do the things we detest and fail to do the things we actually admire. Our will doesn’t line up with our performance.

We all know something of this internal battle, and smarter people than me have tried to explain it. To that discussion, Paul contributes a way out of slavery to sin. His promise of “no condemnation” (8:1) introduces grace to this otherwise pessimistic picture. Through Christ, we can be rescued from sin’s dominion.

Thanks be to God!

Erik Pedersen, “‘Temptation Island’ Renewed for Season 2 on USA Network,” Deadline.com, 26 Feb 2019 <https://deadline.com/2019/02/temptation-island-renewed-season-2-usa-network-1202565541/>.

Discussion

• Where do you find strength when you are tempted?
• How should we understand Paul’s distinction between the flesh and the spirit?
• How can Christians strive for holiness without wallowing in guilt over our sins?
• What hope does this passage provide for those who long to lead lives of holiness?

Reference Shelf

An Ethical Sense to Flesh

In the NT the apostle Paul gives an ethical sense to flesh. People, as flesh, are contrasted with Spirit and are sinful. They cannot please God without the help of the Spirit. Rom 8 is the classic text in which Paul contrasts life “in the flesh” and life “in the Spirit.” Verse 8 says “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Verse 9 is evidence that to be “in the flesh” is equivalent to not having God’s Spirit dwelling in one. Flesh in this sense refers to the whole person in his or her distance from God, the attempt to live one’s life independently of God. When Paul says in Rom 7:18, “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh,” he is not referring to the physical body. Flesh here has the ethical sense of his unregenerate nature. Gal 5:19-21 lists the “works of the flesh.” Only five of the fifteen are basically sensual (fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, drunkenness, and carousing); the other ten include idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, anger, divisions, and envyings.

Roger L. Omanson, “Flesh and Spirit,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 302.

Will versus Performance

In the Scriptures of Israel different strata reflect varying degrees of anthropological optimism or pessimism. The prophets normally held an optimistic view of evil. Evil was a problem that could be corrected by proper discipline (the exile). The theologians who put Genesis together after the exile held a more realistic view. The Noah stories tell how good and evil are intertwined even in the righteous so that the two cannot be separated within history. The apocalyptic sections of Daniel manifest a pessimism about evil. Evil is a mystery so deep-seated and radical that only God can resolve it and that at the last day. A similar pessimistic judgment is heard in certain post-biblical Jewish sources. At Qumran, 1 QS 11.9-10, using the “I” form, says: “I belong to evil humankind to the assembly of wicked flesh; my failings, my transgressions, my sins. …with the depravities of my heart, belong to…those who walk in darkness. For to man (does not belong) his path, nor to a human being the steadying of his step.” The Jewish apocalypse, 4 Ezra 3:19-22, 25-26, speaks to the same point. This apocalypse uses the concept of the evil yetzer to deal with the moral impotence of Israel. God gave the Law to Israel (v. 19). He did not, however, take away their evil heart (v. 20). So just like Adam, who was burdened with an evil heart, they transgressed (v. 21). In their hearts there were both the law and the evil root (v. 22). The latter prevented obedience to the former. Jerusalem, after David, also had the evil heart and transgressed (v. 26). Unlike Paul who spoke of “sin” personified, 4 Ezra uses the concept of the evil yetzer (= impulse). Both, using different conceptual tools, talk about the moral impotence of Israel. Israel cannot obey the law because of the evil in their hearts. This is a pessimistic anthropology (cf. 4 Ezra 9:36-37). Did all Jews feel this way? Hardly. Did some? Definitely. But even in the pessimistic stream of thought in the Jewish Scriptures and in post-biblical Judaism there is still the assumption that some few will be able to be obedient out of their own resources.

In Romans 7, therefore, Paul described a conflict between will and performance. It is one known to humans generally. Paul was, therefore, using a standard topos of the ancient world—the conflict between what is the right thing to do and the moral incapacity to do it. The pagans may have described it as a tension between reason and passion and the Jew as a split in the human will or as the dominance of an evil impulse, but the battle is recognized by all. For Paul, as with 4 Ezra, it was the conflict within those who live “in Adam.”

Charles H. Talbert, Romans, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 193.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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