Fr. Dale Matson
“Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.” (Romans 7:24-25, NASB).
I believe St. Paul is describing what can be called “The Carnal Christian” here. While an individual may have given himself or herself to Christ, I believe there is a stage for the newly converted Christian where there is a struggle with the ingrained behavioral consequences of prior sins. Sinful behaviors become more than wrong actions. They become ingrained as wrong attitudes; changed belief patterns and even our concept of who we are.
Let me use smoking as an example. Through practice (behavioral repetition), I went from someone who smoked cigarettes to being a smoker. That was an actual change of identity based on repeated behaviors. When I became a Christian again (It is not once saved always saved) twenty years later, I knew in my mind that my body was God’s temple and that I was desecrating it by smoking. Yet, while I was repentant and felt guilty about it, I did not possess the will to quit smoking. I needed to pray for two years for God to give me the will to quit.
When I did quit on January 10th 1983, I spent the next three weeks with my hand coming up to my shirt pocket as if reaching for a smoke. The smoking behaviors were also enmeshed with other habits like the cups of coffee throughout the day and the drinks of alcohol at night. Removing one sinful habit helps break the web of bondage to other habits too.
So much of the reformed Christian life is enabled by what psychologists would call replacement behaviors. St. Paul would call this “Putting off the old man and putting on the new man. This is especially true for those who suffer from addictions. With what behavior will you replace the addictive behavior? I replaced smoking with running and became a runner. Listen, as St. Paul offers replacement behaviors.
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:21-32).
The moral and theological virtues are replacements for the seven deadly sins. From a behavioral sense if you are engaged in doing good works, you are not engaged in sinful works. As we live so we believe. Amen