Augustine may have introduced it. Luther certainly formed it. But the Apostle Paul wrestled openly with it as he penned lines he most certainly knew would be authoritative for the Church of Jesus Christ. When you read Romans 7, you most certainly identify with Paul’s struggle. If you are honest, no matter how long you’ve been following Jesus, you must admit that, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18-19).
Most people would agree that the battle with the flesh rages throughout the life of a believer. But the question is: Why would Paul so openly confess this here? Surely toward the end of his life, he came to understand that his writings were being circulated. He knew that the letters he wrote were authoritative (1 Thess. 2:13). Paul, this great church-planting pastor, the leader of a movement, the greatest missionary in Christian history. Paul, who endured countless beatings, imprisonments, and persecutions for the sake of Christ. Paul, who would give his own life under the persecution of Nero. Why in the world would he openly admit this struggle?
Incurvatus in se is a Latin phrase, coined by Luther and rooted in Augustine’s thought, which simply describes the primordial evil in the world—humanity curved inward on itself. And it is precisely this idea that Paul wrestles with in Romans 7. How do I know? Turn the page.
In Romans 7:24, after Paul has written himself to the point of frustration over his own struggle with sin, he is completely undone. He writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” In other words, “I look within myself and I find absolutely nothing that is not wretched, depraved, and totally self-absorbed. I need deliverance from someone other than me!”
Gazing on Jesus Christ
What happens next is stunning. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25). And he doesn’t stop there. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 8:1).
Don’t you see what Paul is doing here? Are you catching the whole scope of what is going on? Paul struggles, he wrestles, as he acknowledges his inward curvature. As he looks within, he is given over to despair because of his total depravity. But . . . do you see where Paul’s gaze turns? Upward! To Christ! To the gospel! Romans 8 is one of the richest expositions of the gospel in all of Scripture, and we so often forget that it comes on the heels of Romans 7.
Why does Paul do this? Is he just given over to his own emotions, carried along by whim as he is writing? Certainly not. Paul is giving his readers a picture of exactly what the gospel does. It redirects our gaze. It restructures our natural curvature. We move from inward to upward. When we look within, we find nothing but condemnation and despair. But when we look to Jesus, we find a banner which reads, “It is finished. No condemnation.” And perhaps the most gloriously counterintuitive part of this message is this—it has absolutely nothing to do with us.
So how does a man go from being a self-absorbed Pharisee (Paul’s former life), to being a selfless missionary who leverages everything he has for the cause of Christ? The gospel redirects his gaze. He meets Jesus, and his eyes are fixated on the cross.
Incurvatus in se (being curved inward on oneself) is the main enemy of making, maturing, and multiplying disciples. More than Satan’s plans to thwart our evangelistic efforts. More than the apologetic arguments of the leading atheists. More than the newest scientific discovery. Men and women curved inward will never desire to make, mature, and multiply disciples of Jesus.
This is why so many theologians have remarked about the power of the gospel especially for Christians. We need to have our gaze redirected every day. The gospel reminds us, over and over, that nothing good resides in our members, and yet, there is no condemnation because of the finished work of Christ. We are drawn to look on Jesus. We are moved to consider him. Something like worship begins to stir up in our hearts. And do you know what the automatic outflow of worship is? Making Disciples.
Christian, you are the chief enemy of the make, mature, and multiply mentality. You are not exempt from the natural curvature of all humanity. This is why being gospel-centered is absolutely necessary. It is not a catch phrase. It is not a buzz-word. It is the power of God for salvation.
Looking Outside of Yourself
When your heart is set on yourself, you will never look outside of yourself. You’ll get home from work and retreat inside your home, where you’ll neglect your wife and children, owing it to the need to decompress after a long day. You’ll never engage in small-group discipleship because it’s all about giving of yourself, not getting for yourself. You’ll hardly care about the lost and dying around you because you are probably too busy checking who has commented on your most recent self-glorifying status update.
If the gospel captures your gaze, day after day, you’ll be reminded of the glorious reality of no condemnation. You’ll spend your time looking up and out. You’ll be free to serve everyone because you need nothing from anyone. You will live a gloriously counterintuitive kind of life in which you won’t care about your own power, position, prominence, or praise. You’re only concern will be the glory of Jesus and the praise of his glorious grace.
Christians, let us come before the glory of the gospel each day, that our gaze may be lifted upward and outward. Let us remind each other of the glorious reality of no condemnation with ferocious vigilance. Let us seek to make, mature, and multiply because our gaze is fixed on the One who told us “There is no condemnation.”
Alex Dean is a pastor in Lakeland, Florida. Holding an undergraduate degree from Dallas Baptist University, Alex is currently completing his graduate work at Reformed Theological Seminary. His book, Gospel Regeneration: A story of death, life, and sleeping in a van, will be released in the summer of 2014. Follow his blog at gospelregeneration.com or follow him on Twitter @alexmartindean.