By James Cornwell
Reading from Romans, 7:13-25
13 Did what is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.
14 For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
St. Paul describes the war many of us feel within us: a part of ourselves which hears, knows, and loves the law; and another part that is stubborn and knows, loves, and prefers sin and death. Ancient philosophers also acknowledged this tension, seeing it as a conflict between the “corruptible” material and “incorruptible” immaterial worlds.
Leaving aside the dichotomy between the body and soul that Christians reject, there is perhaps a larger hopelessness in “the flesh” that the ancients overlooked and St. Paul laments.
In Dante’s Inferno, Dante’s guide through hell, Virgil, who represents the wisdom of the Greek and Roman philosophers, can only pass down through the first three circles: the circles of the self-indulgent, the wrathful, and those of ill will — the sorts of sins one can, perhaps, “train” out of oneself with enough effort. But when attempting to pass lower down, it requires supernatural intervention: an angel must come and open the door of Dis.
There are sins we cannot escape by being individually careful. Even the most virtuous of Adam’s children are still members of Adam’s body, many of whose members’ lies, violence, and treachery sustain our way of life. Thus, even if we were capable of ordering our own personal lives justly, courageously, and temperately to the standards of the ancient Greeks or Romans, without deliverance beyond what human ethics can offer, we are nevertheless tied to the death-bound corruption of the body of Adam.
So if we are honest in our own ethical reflections, we cannot stop with questions of what we personally ought to do. As well-meaning and energetic (and necessary!) as our moral exertions might be, we will ultimately find ourselves on the other side of the demon-guarded doors of Dis crying with St. Paul: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Thanks be to God that he has sent his answer.
James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their five children.
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