Romans 7 and the Psychikos Man of 1 Corinthians 15:44
August 14, 2015
This past Lord's Day my evening sermon was preached on a passage that includes 1 Corinthians 15:44, where Paul writes that the body "is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body." (Those interested in the sermon can find it here). Reflecting on this statement will help us to understand Paul in Romans 7 as describing his current struggle as a believer with the sinful nature of his bodily life.
1 Corinthians 15:44 is a fascinating and instructive verse, but it has involved a challenge to Bible translators. The Greek word for "natural" is psychikos, from the Greek word for "soul" and from which we derive our word "psychology." For this reason, it is often translated as the "soulish" body. The word for "spiritual" is pneumatikos, for the Greek word for "spirit." One error is to see the resurrected body as "spiritual" in the sense of being less than fully physical. In reality, we would better see the resurrection body as more than physical: our glorified resurrected bodies will be suited for bodily dwelling of our perfected and holy souls as they are fully indwelt by God's Holy Spirit.
The key to interpreting 1 Corinthians 15:44 is to realize that Paul has used this same combination - psychikos and pneumatikos - earlier in his letter to distinguish between unregenerate and regenerate spirits. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says that the "natural person (psychikos) does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned." In contrast, the "spiritual person (pneumatikos) judges all things" (1 Cor. 2:15). Thus, when speaking of the inner person, Paul uses psychikos (soulish) for the unregenerate and pneumatikos (spiritual) for the regenerate. This helps us to see what Paul is doing in 15:44. Now, speaking of the body, Paul says that our present bodies are unregenerate - they are fallen bodies fitted to the unregenerate life of sin and unbelief. But in the resurrection, our bodies will become regenerate in a manner that is fitting to our glorified spirits.
The practical implications of this teaching are many, including an explanation for why the Christian life is so hard. We have unrenewed bodies, including not only our physical selves but our fleshly minds and hearts. Our psychikos self likes sin!
This psychikos and pneumatikos dynamic also offers an answer to the conundrum of Romans 7. Reformed scholars debate how to understand Paul's lament there regarding his sinful condition. Many scholars argue that Paul cannot be talking about his present experience as a regenerate person when he cries, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24). How can Paul be describing a saved person, they ask, when he says "I am of the flesh, sold under sin. . . . I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . nothing good dwells in me" and so on. Alarmed that this might be said of a regenerate believer, many scholars assume that Paul is speaking of his prior life prior to coming to faith in Christ. Other scholars argue the opposite, since the plain reading of the text indicates that Paul is describing his present struggle, which is why it reads in the present tense. So which understanding is correct? Is it possible that Paul could describe the believer's present, regenerate life in such strikingly negative terms? The answer of 1 Corinthians 15:44 is Yes. Paul is describing the present struggle facing born again believers in Christ.
In looking forward to the resurrection of the body, Paul encourages us to anticipate a pneumatikos body which will be suiting to spiritual life and holiness. He describes our current body with the same psychikos terminology that he previously used for the unregenerate soul. This precisely accords with the lament of Romans 7: Paul cries out about his bodily struggle: "I am of the flesh. . . . it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. . . . nothing good dwells. . . in my flesh. . . I see in my members another law. .. making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members" (Rom. 7:14-23). This is the psychikos body and this is the struggle that true and regenerate believers daily face. The Christian life is already-and-not-yet: our spirits are born again but our bodies (including our psychology) remain unrenewed. How helpful it is to know that our struggle is not strange or unbiblical, but that God himself knows that our spirits are waging war with an unspiritual body, just as Paul lamented. Yet how much better news it is that this will not go on forever. Yes, Romans 7 describes Paul's (and our) struggle as believers against our sinful flesh. But there will soon be a resurrection when Jesus returns and then the fight will be won. Together with the entirety of the glory that will be, our bodies will be raised pneumatikos - truly holy and spiritual. No wonder that Paul concludes Romans 7 exclaiming his only hope and salvation: "Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom. 7:25).