Romans 6 vs. Romans 7 Part II – Original Sin and Concupiscence in Catholicism

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Yesterday we looked at the debate surrounding Romans chapter six and Romans chapter seven (click here to read Part I of Romans 6 vs. Romans 7). We looked at how in chapter six Paul teaches that we are “no longer slaves to sin”, but that in chapter seven he says that he is “sold under sin”. This is the so-called Pauline Aporia of Romans (or at least one of them).
We also looked at how contemporary scholars, especially in light of the New Perspective on Paul, have sought to show that Romans chapter seven is a description of “pre-Christian Paul” despite the Apostle’s use of the present tense: “I am carnal, sold under sin.”
Martin Luther attempted to reformulate the traditional Catholic interpretation (which we’ll get to in just a moment) by postulating that the justified Christian is simul iustus and peccator — simultaneously righteous and a sinner.
So what is the Catholic position on Romans chapter six and chapter seven?
In a nutshell, the Catholic position holds that Romans five is about Original Sin. Romans six is about Baptism, and Romans seven is about Concupiscence:
  • Romans 5 is about Original Sin
  • Romans 6 is about Baptism as the remedy of Original Sin
  • Romans 7 is about Concupiscence/Flesh (i.e. the inclination to sin that remains in the baptized even though original sin has been washed away in baptism)
Catholic theology, going back to St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, has identified Saint Paul’s “law of sin” [Greek νόμος τῆς ἁμαρτίας] or “flesh” [Greek σὰρξ] with the concupiscence or inordinate desire that remains in Christians. Concupiscence is of itself not sinful and it is not a “sin nature” (contrary to the NIV translation of Romans 7). The process of sanctification is the battle against concupiscence.
{Side note: Concupiscence is the result of the human passions (Aquinas says there are 11 passions) overtaking human reason so that man becomes disordered, that is, man becomes inclined to sin. Baptism doesn’t reconstitute man’s rational dominion over the passions, but it does confer sanctifying grace, justification, and the presence of the Holy Trinity.}
For the Catholic, Romans 6 is talking about our redemption from sin via baptism (Rom 6:4-6) and Romans 7 is the inward struggle that we still fight on account of concupiscence.
Martin Luther and John Calvin rejected this Catholic understanding because they rejected the Catholic doctrine of original sin as it relates to concupiscence. Consequently, most Reformed Christians have never even heard of doctrine of concupiscence. For the Protestant tradition in general, “original sin = concupiscence” and “concupiscence = original sin”. The doctrine of concupiscence is also the reason why Reformed Christians hold to “total depravity” while Catholics reject it. By equating original sin with concupiscence, the magisterial Protestant tradition emptied justification and baptism of their transformative power. Clearly, baptized believing Christians still struggle with inordinate desires. If this desire is identified as original sin per se, then the justified Christian is still inwardly devoid of righteousness – instead he must acquire Luther’s imputed alien righteousness. Yet if we take the Catholic doctrine of concupiscence that states that concupiscence is not original sin, then we can have an inward transformation that makes us righteous. The interior desire to sin which remains is not sinful in itself and so the justified Christian can be inwardly righteous. Sin is neither a desire nor a temptation. For the Catholic, sin is an act of will. To say it another way, Saint Francis had concupiscence but this didn’t make him sinful. Sin is only present if and when he submitted to the inordinate desire of concupiscence. He is a great saint because he fought bravely against the inward law of sin–against concupiscence.
Saint Paul writes in Romans chapter seven (vv. 22-23):
“For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.”
Here the Apostle explains that in his inmost self, he is righteous (delighting in the law of God) and yet the law of sin (concupiscence) in the lower region of his soul makes war against the higher region of the “law of my mind”. Here the Apostle is describing the the disordered passions at war with the human intellect in the state of grace. Paul’s soul is not bifurcated, nor does he have a “sin nature”. Instead, Paul is describing the inordinate passions that the Christian must fight in this life. This then solves the riddle or difficulty of the supposed contradiction between Romans chapter six and Romans chapter seven.
For Protestant readers: Have you heard of the Catholic doctrine of concupiscence and does this Catholic solution seem plausible to you?
For Catholic and Protestant readers: Do you relate to Saint Paul’s desciption of the two “laws” battling within you as you mortify the flesh and pursue sanctification?
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