The apostle Paul wrote in Romans chapter 7 that there was a war raging in him. What he wanted to do he didn’t do, and what he hated he did. He said that when he wanted to do right evil lied close at hand. Romans 7 is a very compelling read. Paul fights within himself over his actions and his heart. He has two desires within him: one for righteousness and one for evil. It’s been equally intersting for me to see this theology played out on the new hit NBC show My Own Worst Enemy, which vividly depicts this internal battle.

In My Own Worst Enemy Christian Slater plays Edward Albright, an American Secret Agent who volunteered for a special program where his cover alias, Henry Spivey, was actually a dormant consciousness implanted in his brain. Albright’s handlers have implanted a chip in his brain which has this alternate personality programmed into it and they can switch it on and off (which means putting Albright to sleep, and “awakening” Henry Spivey). The only problem is that Henry Spivey thinks he’s a real person with a real history and when Albright’s chip breaks Spivey finds out what is really going on. Suddenly these two personalities begin clashing within the same person and indeed warring against each other.

In one episode Edward wakes up in Spivey’s home with his wife and children. When asked to take his daughter shopping for a formal dress he spends several thousand dollars on a ridiculously inappropriate dress for a young girl. Once Henry “wakes” to find out what has happened he attempts to sabatoge Edward’s life (by breaking his finger…an admittedly puny attempt). The two continue to battle one another, leaving phone messages for the alternate personality and royally messing up one another’s lives.

It’s an interesting, though certainly defecient, picture of what Paul describes in Romans 7 where the old nature of sin battles with the new nature of the Christian. Thankfully, unlike Henry and Edward, we know that in the end righteousness wins out and Christ will complete the work he began! Until that time I can say with Paul – and surprisingly, with NBC – that I am “My Own Worst Enemy.”


  1. Interesting idea. Satoshi Kon’s television series from a few years back, Paranoia Agent, explores this particularly well in the third episode of the thirteen-episode show. In that episode, the quiet, conservative Harumi (introduced in the previous episode as the tutor of a popular junior high-aged kid) finds herself struggling against stylish, passionate Maria. The thing is: they are the same person and have no memory of each other’s lives or activities. And both are trying to maintain dominance, believing themselves to be the real identity. And oh yeah, Maria is a high-end prostitute.

    Which always makes things fun for Harumi.

    So Harumi and Maria alternate back and forth trying to sabotage each other’s life. Maria leaves harassing voice mails for Harumi. Harumi throws out all Maria’s sleazy clothes. And all the while, Harumi is trying to carry on with her courtship of a nice coworker of hers from the school she works for.

    The whole thing is a mess and serves to illustrate the difficulty with which those in the Japanese culture struggle to grasp hold of their identity. Since identity is one of the primary difficulties facing believers, the parallels found in Kon’s show and the Christian life are often striking. Ultimately though, Kon’s Paranoia Agent is concerned with much more than just this question of identity (he’s more interested in issues of personal/national responsibility), so he doesn’t linger on the question and mostly finishes up Harumi/Maria’s story in the single twenty-two-minute episode.

    The Danes last blog post..20081106.ObamaTax

  2. I am sad to report this series has been canned. It’s down to eight episodes. I guess new shows just aren’t making it in this season of rather mediocre television. But this one I thought was good.

  3. A corrective: On the main page it says “David Dunham relates to Christian Bale.”

    As the Pauline parallel is concerned, it’s there I suppose, but only in the very broad sense that both men have “two desires” within them. I think Heroes, barring the fact that the series seems to be abandoning story for the fantastic, is currently doing a better job of depicting internal struggle with Sylar.

  4. I think that’s a good comparison. The battle within Sylar is exploring more pointedly the internal struggle. The only shortcoming is that it is rooted in, what I wrote about in my previous article, this idea that human beings are innately good.

  5. Of course, the other key difference between TV portrayals and Paul is that he suggests the battle is ultimately hopeless- well, depending on what you think is happening in Romans 7.

    This is a favorite debate topic for my Dad and I. He is from the school of thought that says Romans 7 is Paul placing himself in the mindset of the unbeliever… in other words, a dramatic portrayal of the “battle” within the unredeemed, which is ultimately hopeless. I contend that the discussion is carried on independent of salvation, and is instead a description of the legal system to save. Similar results, just differences regarding the textual goal.

    And of course, the “classic” (and also probably wrong) interpretation is that Paul is talking about his own battle with sin as a Christian… despite the fact that everywhere else, he discusses Christian living as a life of freedom FROM sin, TO glorify God.

    My point here is that though I appreciate the cultural value of discussing inner battles with acting good verses acting bad, we should be very cautious about leading others to believe that Romans 7 is an accurate description of the believer’s battle with sin. I have seen too many Christians incorrectly use this passage to “explain away” persistent sin in their lives.

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..A Song and a Blessing

  6. @Ben Bartlett – Interesting.

    I’d like to see more justification for that view. That people misuse the passage to justify sin is only an incidental argument against the classic reading of the passage and a specific argument merely against reading into scripture what is not actually there.

    That St. Paul describes Christian living everywhere else “as a life of freedom FROM sin, TO glorify God” is an important point, but does he not often speak of what the Christian life should look like in the context of believers who are not behaving as they ought? That is, they are not fully living the Christian life? He takes it as a matter of fact that these badly behaving people are Christians and therefore he has the authority and responsibility to speak into their lives as a fellow believer and as an apostle. As such the fact that he speaks of what the true Christian life is supposed to look like wouldn’t imply a lack of internal struggle. In fact, in many of his letters he spends much of his time imploring fellow believers to choose sides in that struggle.

    There’s also the structure of the passage and the apparent lack of any literary indication (at least on a superficial reading) that Paul is suddenly placing himself in the mind of the unbeliever.

    I’m quite sure you’ve encountered these contentions before, so I guess I’m saying all this because I’m curious to know what the more complete argument in favor of your view is.

  7. @Ben Bartlett – Oh wait … crud.

    By not reading thoroughly I completely missed some important bits.

    Soooo, I’ll say right away that I don’t agree with your dad’s position, but I am curious to know more of what you mean by saying that “the discussion is carried on independent of salvation, and is instead a description of the legal system to save.” That sounds very interesting but I’ll hold off judgment until I understand it more.

    I’m also curious as to why you suspect the “classic” view is wrong.

  8. Let me make a few caveats before plunging in.

    First, I was wrong to say a particular interpretation is, “almost certainly wrong.” That was a severe exaggeration. Instead, I should have commented on how this interpretation is misused in evangelical circles (which I’ll do later in this comment).

    Second, this is a notoriously difficult passage. As I’ll point out, people in very close doctrinal agreement cover the entire spectrum of opinion on the topic. Which, of course, is why I need to watch my sarcastic tongue more carefully.

    Third, I cannot provide a fully satisfying answer, so instead I’ll try to briefly outline the key elements of the debate as well as my own position.

    Finally, if you are interested in this debate, here is my number one recommendation: Get Romans 1-8 into Word, REMOVE ALL HEADINGS AND VERSE NUMBERS, and then read the entire thing in one sitting. That is how it was written, and this will be very helpful to you in trying to apprehend the flow of the argument. Also, to remove confirmation bias, try reading through chapter 7 as if you are trying to prove one position… and then do it again for both of the other positions as well.

    So, away we go. There are three basic interpretations of Romans 7, especially verses 7-25.

    1.) Paul is speaking of himself, as a Christian. He is talking to the Christians in the church at Rome. He is describing the feeling of competing desires; on one hand he delights in obeying God, on the other he feels attacked and captivated by sin. The passage is a comfort to Christians struggling with sin. One problem is that the passage speaks of being “captivated” by sin, which seems to go against all Paul’s other descriptions of our relationship to sin as Christians. This position is the most widespread, with champions such as David Dockery.

    2.) Paul is speaking of himself, before his salvation. He is speaking to the church at Rome, especially Jewish Christians. He is describing a condition of attempting to live up to the Law, but on the other being overwhelmed by sin. The passage highlights God’s grace in saving him away from this wretched condition, freeing him from sin. One problem is that it is a less intuitive reading of the passage, and it seems odd to speak this way to a church full of Christians. This position is becoming much more widespread, and its key champion is Douglas Moo (in his fabulous commentary on Romans, which I highly recommend for laymen).

    3.) Paul is speaking of himself, as a Jew in relation to the Law. He is giving an “aside” in the course of his argument to the Jewish Christians at Rome who are arguing that the Law should have a more central role in Church life (a huge issue in the early church). He is highlighting the fact that attempting to be righteous by fulfilling the law is futile, thus highlighting the importance of the gospel message he has taught for the last 7 chapters. The passage is designed to calm debates within the church by showing that though the Law is useful, it cannot provide saving, “alien” righteousness. One problem is that this reading does not separate “Christian vs. Non-Christian” status very well, and there aren’t good literary markers for knowing that it is an aside. This position is championed by Thomas Schreiner in his also-good-but-not-as-accessible commentary on Romans.

    Now, the first thing to keep in mind when approaching these arguments is that all three have a certain amount of agreement from other places in Scripture. It is true that Christians still struggle with sin, that the unbeliever is captivated by sin, and that the pursuit of the law does not save. This is a complicating factor, but at the same time it is reassuring, because you can’t do as much damage as you could, say, misinterpreting Revelation (7th Day Adventists, anyone?)

    So, there are 4 basic tests, or readings, that you can use to try to figure out what a passage is saying.

    1. What does it sound like the meaning is, based on a simple reading of the passage? Much of the time in Scripture, this test is sufficient.

    2. What is its location in the argument? In other words, what expectations would you have for what this argument is doing? Why or why not does it fill or not fill those expectations? Who is the target audience?

    3. Does it agree with the overall theology of the book and the author? This is especially important for Paul, because he has so much other material to compare it to. How does the passage connect with his already/not yet theology? How does it compare to his discussion of sin and salvation in other locations?

    4. Does it agree with the Scriptural witness as a whole? What does the Bible, overall, say about what happens to sin when we are saved?

    So then, your process should be this. First, read the whole argument Paul makes, chapters 1-8 at least (all of Romans is even better). Avoid verse numbers and section headings! Next, read the key passage in light of the three interpretations. Third, apply the four major tests to the passage (and let me just tell you… tests 2 and 3 are the big ones here). Finally, argue about it with friends and family! This provides hours of entertainment.

    For me, I go with Argument 3. Here’s why.

    a. Paul is constantly “speaking” to Jewish Christians (the Judaizers) about the difference between the Law and the Gospel. This is the logical place to make the argument that the Law is good, but it cannot provide the needed alien righteousness.

    b. Paul clearly speaks of himself as being captivated by sin and wretched as a result… but NOWHERE else in his writings does he speak of sin this way. He always speaks of the Christian as being freed from sin, freed to obey, as being made completely righteous in God’s sight. Just look at verses 5 and 6, or 8:1, or chapter 6! To me, this eliminates Argument 1. It’s possible he’s focused on the relationship of sin and the Law, but I don’t think he is describing a normative Christian experience.

    c. I don’t think it makes sense for Paul to simply highlight that he was dead in sin and needed a savior… he already made that argument in the first chapters of Romans. To me, that makes Argument 2, though more viable, unlikely and perhaps oversimplified. Why repeat the argument? And why make a “universal” argument about his Pre-Christian days, when there are so many who did NOT, “serve the law of God with my mind,”? It seems strange that he would rehash an old argument by citing an extremely specific case- a Jew before salvation.

    d. I think, given Paul’s many references to the Jew-Gentile unrest in the church, that he was mediating the discussion of the value of the Law. Yes, it has value… but at the same time it highlights my sin and is at war with my mind! It cannot save. Who WILL save me? Christ alone. This solution basically says that if you are a non-Christian, pursuit of the Law will not save you. And if you are a Christian, it does have some value, but it isn’t as central as the gospel because it cannot save. Only an alien righteousness can save, and that is only found through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    Seen this way, the passage is a helpful aside that reminds us of the proper perspective to have on the Law… which was very important in the early church against the Pharisaic teachings of the Judaizers.

    Whatever your interpretation, I think it’s good to be careful. I have seen a LOT of misuse of this passage, where people say that their sin hardly matters (ignoring chapter 6) because after all, Paul struggled too. They use it as an excuse to live like the world… and the problem here is that their spiritually fruitless lives may be a better indication of lack of true salvation than of God’s grace in their lives. Hence, using Romans 7 that way seems dangerous and out of character for Paul.

    Yipes, this may be a comment-length record. In fact, it’s longer than most of my articles. Hope it was helpful! I’m always open to further interaction on this stuff.

    Here are some resources:

    Pre-salvation position:

    Post-salvation position:

    Douglas Moo:

    David Dockery:

    Happy Theological Hunting!

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..A Song and a Blessing

  9. Haha. I love the lengthy response… forgive my assumption but would you consider yourself roughly Calvinist/Reformed? (perhaps that’s obvious, but I’m new to this site) I ask not because it comes out in your post but because I can always count on such people for a good conversation or debate. :) Your average Evangelical non-denominationalist tends (though certainly not always) to have an “I just love Jesus” or “let’s just stick to essentials” attitude which I find frustrating and misplaced. It’s true that not everyone can be a theology junky but those who aren’t should certainly value the serious study scripture more than they often do.

    But that aside, I don’t have much to say in response. I wish I disagreed with something if only for the sake of prolonging the discussion, but I don’t think I do. Perhaps once I’m able to study it a bit more and clarify the details I’ll have more to say. Incidentally, I do find #2 untenable based on a “verse-less” readign I’d done of chapter 7 yesterday, but Moo certainly deserves a hearing.

  10. Post s.

    Just noticed that the Dockery article is hosted on the faculty page of my old undergraduate OT/Greek prof. kinda neat.

  11. Well said, JR. Yes, I’m certainly of the Reformed category. I’d hope I’m more from the “teaching” vein than the “arguing” stream, but I definitely toe the line.

    I certainly encourage you to spend some time hacking away at it. Even if you come away even more confused or uncertain than before, it is a very healthy exercise. Feel free to e-mail me if you want more in-depth discussion… I try to stay fairly irenic at CAPC, but I’m willing to hash things out with a little more fervor on e-mail if you are interested.

    And definitely give Moo an opportunity. I think he’s one of the finest commentators I out there, and he makes a strong argument. To me, I would say his position makes more sense than #1 (Paul’s theology of freedom from sin in chapters 6 and 8 and elsewhere is a SEVERE problem in my mind), but in the end the individual always has to decide.

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..A Song and a Blessing

  12. I also love the debate topic of Romans 7. I also really enjoy this TV show, as I have seen the first several episodes online. I simply wanted to say that in my literature class (of which Mr. Goad is the teacher), we have been assigned to write a creative story. After reading this post and considering the Romans 7 idea, I have decided to use a variation of the ideas behind “My Own Worst Enemy” as the background for my story. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Nick Keutzers last blog post..I can finally breathe!

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