Why are confession and absolution a permanent part of our worship, both in the Daily Office and in the Eucharist? Today’s Romans text may provide one of the more complete answers, although commentators are hardly of one mind. I find James Dunn’s approach helpful: Paul is talking about his present experience. It’s not simply a matter of the common human experience of acting in self-contradictory ways (“I see the better and approve it, but I follow the worse” Ovid, Metamorphoses 7:20-21) or of the rabbinic “good impulse” and “evil impulse” within each person. It’s a matter of, through Christ, straddling two ages. (Two ages: this age and the age to come. And God in Christ has begun to bring the age to come [the “last things,” the eschatological] into our present.) Here’s Dunn toward the end of his discussion:
“V.25b [“So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.”] is a classic statement of the eschatological tension set up by the death and resurrection of Christ: through his death writing finis to the age of Adam and through his resurrection introducing the age of the last Adam. In Paul’s understanding the tension is not one that is natural to man, or one that is consequent upon the fall of man. The fallenness of man is one side of it, but the tension is only set up by the introduction of the eschatological ‘now’ in Christ. And it only becomes personal for Paul with conversion-initiation. The tension then is a tension not simply of redemption delayed, but precisely of a redemption already begun but not yet completed. The very fact that he can envisage a service of the law of God with the mind presupposes a renewed mind (cf. 12:2), a having died with Christ (6:2-11); while the continuing service of the law of sin with the flesh clearly indicates a dimension of the believer’s existence not yet caught up in the risen life of Christ (cf. 8:11, 23), a having-not-yet-been-raised with Christ (6:5, 8). The assurance of future deliverance does not itself bring to an end the eschatological tension in which believers find themselves caught.”
Pulling the camera back, Paul introduced himself as a slave (doulos) of Jesus Christ at the start of the letter, and set up a binary contrast between being slaves to sin or to righteousness in 6:15-23. Here (7:25b) bringing in the camera for a close-up, Paul uses the corresponding verb (douleuw): slave to the law of God and to the law of sin. No wonder in the next chapter we’ll hear “we ourselves…groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
In other words, today’s text encourages a rereading of chapters 5-6, in which we may notice that while some of the results of Jesus’ obedience are in the present, others are set in the future. This does give us the dignity of some agency—with today’s text a warning that our agency is more constrained than we’d like. So for the reader inspired by Paul’s exhortations in 6:12-23, today’s text warns against discouragement. Likewise, today’s text guards against an overly triumphalist reading of chapter 8!