I like what NT Wright says about this passage: “There is no denying that this passage is extremely convoluted. It goes to and fro in a manner which, at first glance, seems quite bewildering.”
Because of the convoluted nature of this text, I’ve got to be vulnerable for a moment. Studying this passage this week has been quite a task just because of its complex thought pattern. Some have looked at this passage and hailed it as a profound insight into the human condition for everyone – about who we all are on the inside. Others have dismissed it as muddled ramblings by Paul.
What we see here in this passage is Paul baring his very soul; and he is telling us of an experience which is of the very essence of who we are. He knew what was right and wanted to do it; and yet, somehow, he never could. He knew what was wrong and the thing he wanted was not to do it; and yet, somehow, he did. He felt himself to be a split personality. It was as if two men were inside the one skin, pulling in different directions. He was haunted by this feeling of frustration: his ability to see what was good and his inability to do it; his ability to recognize what was wrong and his inability to avoid doing it.
Paul was not alone in his first century situation. Lucius Seneca was Rome’s leading intellectual during the middle of the first century and he talked about “our helplessness in necessary things.” He talked about how people hate their sins and love them at the same time. Ovid, the Roman poet, had penned the famous tag: “I see the better things, and I approve them, but I follow the worse.”