Paul's Gospel: Part 3, The Sarx/Sin/Death Catastrophe

Let me summarize the last two posts. On the road to Damascus, two things are revealed to Paul. First, a tragedy had befallen Israel. Israel had crucified her Messiah. And Paul's own path was continuing on this trajectory: he himself was persecuting the Messiah. Second, zeal for the law, as illustrated in Paul's own life, had brought about this cataclysm. 

In short, what is revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus is that righteousness won't and can't be obtained by diligently following the law. If anything, this path had been tried and it culminated in disaster. 

What, then, had happened? 

The answer Paul came up goes to the heart of his gospel.

The fullest explanation of what had befallen both Israel and Paul is found in Romans 5-8. 

To start, again, Paul is keen to point out that the problem with trying to obey the law isn't with the law itself. Wanting to obey God is, and has always been, good. As Paul says, following Psalm 119, the law is holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7.12). 

The trouble comes when the law intersects with human flesh (sarx). Sarx is a hugely important word for Paul. Sarx simply means "flesh," as in "meat." But why would the word "meat" hold such theological significance for Paul? Because flesh alone is impotent and powerless to fulfill the demands of the law. Paul is clear on this point: 

For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Rom. 8.7-8)
In Chapter 7, Paul gives a vivid account of how the flesh interacts with the law:
For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness ... For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. (Rom. 7.7-8;14-17)
This situation is key to understanding Paul's gospel, how sarx lacks the ability to carry out the dictates of the law. The issue of guilt isn't the focus here, but moral incapacity. Sarx does not submit to God's law; indeed it cannot. 

Why does sarx lack this moral capacity? As Paul describes it, sarx (as mere meat) is weakened by the powers of sin and death. This weakening is crucial for Paul. In Chapter 5, Paul describes how death comes to reign over human life: "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men." Due to Adam's fall, "sin reigned in death" over humanity. And sarx is impotent in the face of these powers: 
Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom. 7.20-24)
Salvation, then, is being rescued from this predicament. This sits at the heart of the Paul's gospel. Notice, therefore, a couple of things. 

First, observe that the issue here isn't about guilt and forgiveness. The issue is about how sarx is weakened by sin and death, making us unable to follow God's law. To be sure, because of our weakness we come under condemnation and curse. We break the law and as law-breakers face forensic, penal consequences. But that guilt is a surface-level symptom of a deeper problem. The runny nose and not the underlying virus. Mere forgiveness for crimes, therefore, doesn't get deep enough. Consequently, overcoming the weakness of sarx in its desire to obey God is critical to what Paul means by salvation. Simply stated, forgiveness without empowerment would leave us mired in a body chronically weakened by sin and death. 

Second, the issue for Paul's gospel isn't a works-based righteousness, legalism, or "trying to earn your salvation." Again, the Jewish desire to follow God's law is spot on. Let's say it again: Paul is very clear that obeying the law is holy, righteous and good. Attempting to follow and obey the law--righteous works--is not the problem. Obeying God's law is never a problem. The problem is that we can't follow the law, and that failure brings us under condemnation. 

In short, the Jewish people were not prideful legalists in trying to obey God's law. That desire was on point. The trouble was, as Paul came to see the situation, is that human beings, being sarx and weakened by sin and death, could not carry out God's righteous commandments. And it is precisely this weakness that caused the catastrophe revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus. This predicament caused Israel to reject her Messiah and is the reason Christ came, died, and was raised. 

How Christ accomplished this work we'll turn to in the next post. For today, let's return to the issue in Galatians and Paul's concern about Christ dying for "nothing."

Simply stated, if Christ died to set us free from the sarx/sin/death catastrophe you can see why Paul would object in Galatians to any teaching that was asking Gentile and Jewish believers to simply obey the law. Not because this was legalistic or a works-based righteousness. Rather, this "false gospel" wholly ignored the sarx/sin/death catastrophe, how no one, not Jew and not Gentile, can simply "follow the law." You can't follow the law without Christ. Christ died to give us the capacity to follow the law, and you can't do an end run around this work. For if righteousness could be achieved merely through "works of the law" then Christ indeed "died for nothing." 

In short, the false gospel was failing to face the deeper disaster revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus, the disaster Christ saved us from. Ignore that disaster, and you ignore and nullify everything Christ did to save us. 

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