Romans 7:14-25: “We are aware that the law is spiritual; but I am a creature of flesh and blood under the power of sin. I cannot understand what I do. What I want to do, that I do not do; but what I hate, that I do. If what I do not want to do I in point of fact do, then I acquiesce in the law, and I agree that it is fair. As it is, it is no longer I who do it, but the sin which resides in me-I mean in my human nature. To will the fair thing is within my range, but not to do it. For I do not do the good that I want to do; but the evil that I do not want to do, that is the very thing I do. And if I do that very thing that I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but the sin which resides in me. My experience of the law, then, is that I wish to do the fine thing and that the evil thing is the only thing that is within my ability. As far as my inner self is connected, I fully agree with the law of God; but I see another law in my members, continually carrying on a campaign against the law of my mind, and making me a captive by the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this fatal body? God will! Thanks be to him through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore with my mind I serve the law of God, but with my human nature the law of sin.
This passage is obviously a poignant account of a person’s inner conflict with himself, one part of him pulling one direction and another part pulling the opposite. The conflict is real and it is intense.
For perhaps as long as the church has known this text, however, interpreters have disagreed as to whether the person described is a Christian or a non-Christian. Whole movements have arisen to promote one of those views or the other. One side maintains that the person is too much in bondage to sin to be a believer, whereas the other side maintains that the person has too much love for the things of God and too much hatred of sin to be an unbeliever.
It is obviously important, therefore, to determine which sort of person Paul is talking about before any interpretation of the passage is attempted. It is also of some importance to determine whether Paul’s first person singular refers to himself or whether that is simply a literary device he uses to identify more personally with his readers. The answer to those two questions will automatically answer a third: If Paul is speaking of himself, is he speaking of his condition before or after his conversion?
Those who believe Paul is speaking about an unbeliever point out that he describes the person as being “of flesh, sold into bondage” (v. 14), as having nothing good dwelling in him (v. 18), and as a “wretched man” trapped in a “body of … death” (v. 24). How then, it is argued, could such a person correspond to the Christian Paul describes in chapter 6 as having died to sin (v. 2), as having his old self crucified and no longer being enslaved to sin (v. 6), as being “freed from sin” (vv. 7, 18, 22), as considering himself dead to sin (v. 11), and as being obedient from the heart to God’s Word (v. 17)?
Those who contend Paul is speaking about a believer in chapter 7 point out that this person desires to obey God’s law and hates doing what is evil (vv. 15, 19, 21), that he is humble before God, realizing that nothing good dwells in his humanness (v. 18), and that he sees sin as in him, but not all there is in him (vv. 17, 20-22). He gives thanks to Jesus Christ as his Lord and serves Him with his mind (v. 25). The apostle has already established that none of those things characterize the unsaved. The unbeliever not only hates God’s truth and righteousness but suppresses them, he willfully rejects the natural evidence of God, he neither honors nor gives thanks to God, and he is totally dominated by sin so that he arrogantly disobeys God’s law and encourages others to do so (1:18-21, 32).
In Romans 6, Paul began his discussion of sanctification by focusing on the believer as a new creation, a completely new person in Christ. The emphasis is therefore on the holiness and righteousness of the believer, both imputed and imparted. For the reasons given in the previous paragraph, as well as for other reasons that will be mentioned later, it seems certain that in chapter 7 the apostle is still talking about the believer. Here, however, the focus is on the conflict a believer continues to have with sin. Even in chapter 6, Paul indicates that believers still must continually do battle with sin in their lives. He therefore admonishes them: “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness” (Rom. 6:12-13).
Some interpreters believe that chapter 7 describes the carnal, or fleshly, Christian, one who is living on a very low level of spirituality. Many suggest that this person is a frustrated, legalistic Christian who attempts in his own power to please God by trying to live up to the Mosaic law.
But the attitude expressed in chapter 7 is not typical of legalists, who tend to be self-satisfied with their fulfillment of the law. Most people are attracted to legalism in the first place because it offers the prospect of living up to God’s standards by one’s own power.
It seems rather that Paul is here describing the most spiritual and mature of Christians, who, the more they honestly measure themselves against God’s standards of righteousness the more they realize how much they fall short. The closer we get to God, the more we see our own sin. Thus it is immature, fleshly, and legalistic persons who tend to live under the illusion that they are spiritual and that they measure up well by God’s standards. The level of spiritual insight, brokenness, contrition, and humility that characterize the person depicted in Romans 7 are marks of a spiritual and mature believer, who before God has no trust in his own goodness and achievements.
It also seems, as one would naturally suppose from the use of the first person singular (which appears forty-six times in Rom. 7:7-25), that Paul is speaking of himself. Not only is he the subject of this passage, but it is the mature and spiritually seasoned apostle that is portrayed. Only a Christian at the height of spiritual maturity would either experience or be concerned about such deep struggles of heart, mind, and conscience. The more clearly and completely he saw God’s holiness and goodness, the more Paul recognized and grieved over his own sinfulness.
Paul reflects the same humility many places in his writings. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, he confessed, “I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9). Although he refers there to his attitude and actions before his conversion, he speaks of his apostleship in the present tense, considering himself still to be unworthy of that high calling. To the Ephesian believers he spoke of himself as “the very least of all saints” (Eph. 3:8), and to Timothy he marvelled that the Lord “considered me faithful, putting me into service” and refers to himself as the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:12, 15). He knew and confessed that whatever he was in Christ was fully due to the grace of God (1 Cor. 15:10).
Only a new creation in Christ lives with such tension of sin against righteousness, because only a Christian has the divine nature of God within him. Because he is no longer in Adam but now in Christ, he possesses the Spirit-given desire to be conformed to Christ’s own image and be made perfect in righteousness. But sin still clings to his humanness, although in his inner being he hates and despises it.
He has passed from darkness to light and now shares in Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and eternal life, but as he grows in Christlikeness, he also becomes more and more aware of the continued presence and power of indwelling sin, which he loathes and longs to be rid of. It is such sensitivity that caused the fourth-century church Father John Chrysostom to say in his Second Homily on Eutropius that he feared nothing but sin. The person depicted in Romans 7 has a deep awareness of his own sin and an equally deep desire to please the Lord in all things. Only a mature Christian could be so characterized.
The Puritan writer Thomas Watson observed that one of the certain signs of “sanctification is an antipathy against sin … A hypocrite may leave sin, yet love it; as a serpent casts its coat, but keeps its sting; but a sanctified person can say he not only leaves sin, but loathes it.” He goes on to say to the Christian, “God … has not only chained up sin, but changed thy nature, and made thee as a king’s daughter, all glorious within. He has put upon thee the breastplate of holiness, which, though it may be shot at, can never be shot through” (A Body of Divinity (London: Banner of Truth, rev ed., 1965], pp. 246, 250).
The spiritual believer is sensitive to sin because he knows it grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30), because it dishonors God (1 Cor. 6:19-20), because sin keeps his prayers from being answered (1 Pet. 3:12), and because sin makes his life spiritually powerless (1 Cor. 9:27). The spiritual believer is sensitive to sin because it causes good things from God to be withheld (Jer. 5:25), because it robs him of the joy of salvation (Ps. 51:12), because it inhibits spiritual growth (1 Cor. 3:1), because it brings chastisement from the Lord (Heb. 12:57), and because it prevents his being a fit vessel for the Lord to use (2 Tim. 2:21). The spiritual believer is sensitive to sin because it pollutes Christian fellowship (1 Cor. 10:21), because it prevents participating properly in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:28-29), and because it can even endanger his physical life and health (1 Cor. 11:30; 1 John 5:16).
As pointed out in the previous chapter of this volume, Paul uses past tense verbs in Romans 7:7-13, which doubtless indicates he was speaking of his preconversion life. Beginning in verse 14, however, and continuing throughout the rest of the chapter, he uses the present tense exclusively in reference to himself. That abrupt, obvious, and consistent change of tenses strongly supports the idea that in verses 14-25 Paul is describing his life as a Christian.
Beginning in verse 14 there is also an obvious change in the subject’s circumstances in relation to sin. In verses 7-13 Paul speaks of sin as deceiving and slaying him. He gives the picture of being at sin’s mercy and helpless to extricate himself from its deadly grasp. But in verses 14-25 he speaks of a conscious and determined battle against sin, which is still a powerful enemy but is no longer his master. In this latter part of the chapter Paul also continues to defend the righteousness of God’s law and rejoice in the benefits of His law which, although it cannot save from sin, can nevertheless continue to reveal and convict of sin in the believer’s life, just as it did before salvation.
As long as a believer remains on earth in his mortal and corrupted body, the law will continue to be his spiritual ally. The obedient and Spirit-filled believer, therefore, greatly values and honors all the moral and spiritual commandments of God. He continues to declare with the psalmist, “Thy word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee” (Ps. 119:11), and that Word is more than ever a lamp to his feet and a light to his path (Ps. 119:105). God’s Word is more valuable for believers under the New Covenant than it was for those under the Old Covenant, not only because the Lord has revealed more of His truth to us in the New Testament, but also because believers now have the fulness of His indwelling Holy Spirit to illumine and apply His truth. Therefore, although the law cannot save or sanctify, it is still holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12), and obedience to it offers great benefits both to believers and unbelievers.
Paul is still teaching about the broader subject of justification by grace through faith. He has established that justification results in the believer’s security (chap. 5), his holiness (chap. 6), and his freedom from bondage to the law (7:1-6). To that list of benefits the apostle now adds sensitivity to and hatred of sin.
In Romans 7:14-25 Paul gives a series of laments about his spiritual predicament and difficulties. The first three laments (vv. 14-17, 18-20, 21-23) follow the same pattern. Paul first describes the spiritual condition he is lamenting, then gives proof of its reality, and finally reveals the source of the problem. The final lament (vv. 24-25) also includes a beautiful exultation of gratitude to God for His Son Jesus Christ, because of whose gracious sacrifice believers in Him are no longer under condemnation, in spite of the lingering power of sin (8:1).
Paul is baring his very soul; and he is telling us of an experience which is of the very essence of the human situation. He knew what was right and wanted to do it; and yet, somehow, he never could. He knew what was wrong and the last thing he wanted was to do it; and yet, somehow, he did. He felt himself to be a split personality. It was as if two men were inside the one skin, pulling in different directions. He was haunted by this feeling of frustration, his ability to see what was good and his inability to do it; his ability to recognize what was wrong and his inability to refrain from doing it.
Paul’s contemporaries well knew this feeling, as, indeed, we know it ourselves. Seneca talked of “our helplessness in necessary things.” He talked about how men hate their sins and love them at the same time. Ovid, the Roman poet, had penned the famous tag: “I see the better things, and I approve them, but I follow the worse.”
No one knew this problem better than the Jews. They had solved it by saying that in every man there were two natures, called the Yetser hatob and the Yetser hara. It was the Jewish conviction that God had made men like that with a good impulse and an evil impulse inside them.
There were Rabbis who believed that that evil impulse was in the very embryo in the womb, there before a man was even born. It was “a malevolent second personality.” It was “man’s implacable enemy.” It was there waiting, if need be for a lifetime, for a chance to ruin man. But the Jew was equally clear, in theory, that no man need ever succumb to that evil impulse. It was all a matter of choice.
There were certain things which would keep a man from falling to the evil impulse. There was the law. They thought of God as saying: “I created for you the evil impulse; I created for you the law as an antiseptic.””If you occupy yourself with the law you will not fall into the power of the evil impulse.”
There was the will and the mind.
“When God created man, he implanted in him his affections and his dispositions; and then, over all, he enthroned the sacred, ruling mind.”
When the evil impulse attacked, the Jew held that wisdom and reason could defeat it; to be occupied with the study of the word of the Lord was safety; the law was a prophylactic; at such a time the good impulse could be called up in defence.
Paul knew all that; and knew, too, that, while it was all theoretically true, in practice it was not true. There were things in man’s human nature-that is what Paul meant by this fatal body-which answered to the seduction of sin. It is part of the human situation that we know the right and yet do the wrong, that we are never as good as we know we ought to be. At one and the same time we are haunted by goodness and haunted by sin.
From one point of view this passage might be called a demonstration of inadequacies.
(i) It demonstrates the inadequacy of human knowledge. If to know the right thing was to do it, life would be easy. But knowledge by itself does not make a man good. It is the same in every walk of life. We may know exactly how golf should be played but that is very far from being able to play it; we may know how poetry ought to be written but that is very far from being able to write it. We may know how we ought to behave in any given situation but that is very far from being able so to behave. That is the difference between religion and morality. Morality is knowledge of a code; religion is knowledge of a person; and it is only when we know Christ that we are able to do what we know we ought.
(ii) It demonstrates the inadequacy of human resolution. To resolve to do a thing is very far from doing it. There is in human nature an essential weakness of the will. The will comes up against the problems, the difficulties, the opposition-and it fails. Once Peter took a great resolution. “Even if I must die with you,” he said, “I will not deny you” (Matthew 26:35); and yet he failed badly when it came to the point. The human will unstrengthened by Christ is bound to crack.
(iii) It demonstrates the limitations of diagnosis. Paul knew quite clearly what was wrong; but he was unable to put it right. He was like a doctor who could accurately diagnose a disease but was powerless to prescribe a cure. Jesus is the one person who not only knows what is wrong, but who can also put the wrong to rights. It is not criticism he offers but help.
(7:14) Law: the law is spiritual. It is spiritual in at least three senses.
- The law was given to man by the Spirit of God (pneumatikos). The Greek word used is the very name of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the source of the law.
- The law is the expression of the will and nature of God. The law is spiritual because it describes the will of God and tells man just what God is like. The rules of the law reveal both the mind and nature of God.
- The law is spiritual because of its purposes.
(7:14-17) Carnal—Flesh—Man, Nature: the first confession of Paul is that he is carnal, sold under sin. The word “carnal” or “fleshly” (sarkinos) means to be made of flesh; to consist of flesh; to have a body of flesh and blood. It means the flesh with which a man is born, the fleshly nature one inherits from his parents when he is born.
The word carnal also means to be given up to the flesh, that is, to live a fleshly, sensual life; to be given over to animal appetites; to be controlled by one’s fleshly nature.
Paul says that he is “sold under sin.” He simply means that as a creature of flesh, that is, as a man, he is…
- a slave to sin.
- under sin’s influence.
- subject to sin.
- capable of sinning.
- guilty of sinning.
- cannot free himself from being short of God’s glory.
- cannot keep from sinning—not perfectly.
- cannot erase sin’s presence—not completely.
- cannot cast sin out of his life—not totally.
- cannot get rid of sin—not permanently.
Paul makes three points about his being carnal and sold under sin.
- He says that a carnal life is a helpless, unceasing struggle.
- “That which I do I allow not”: the word “allow” (ginosko) means to recognize, to know, to perceive. A carnal man finds himself doing things, and he cannot understand why he is doing them. He fights and struggles against them, but before he knows it, he has sinned and come short. The sin was upon him before he even recognized and saw it. If he had known that the behavior was sin, he would have never done it, but he did not recognize it as coming short of God’s glory and God’s will for his life.
- “What I would, that do I not.” Paul says that he wanted to do right and to please God as he walked throughout life day by day. He wanted to be conformed to the image of Christ and to become all that God wanted him to be. But despite his desire and expectation, before he knew it, he found himself coming short of God’s glory and will.
- “What I hate, that do I.” Paul hated sin and hated coming short of God’s glory. He struggled against failing and displeasing God; he hated everything that hurt and cut the heart of God, and he fought to erase it completely from his life. But no matter how much he hated and struggled against coming short, he still found himself failing.
- A carnal life demonstrates that human nature and knowledge is inadequate. A carnal man fails to live for God like he should. No matter how much he tries to please God and to be conformed to the image of Christ, he comes short.
Now note: it is the law that tells man that he comes short. The law tells him that despite all his efforts to please God, he is short and not acceptable to God. He may know the law and he may try to keep the law, but his desire to know and to seek God will not save him. His nature and knowledge are not enough; they fail. What he needs is a Savior, One outside his own flesh who can forgive his sins and impart eternal life to him.
Note another fact: a carnal life proves the law is good. The word “consent” (sumphemi) means to agree, to say the same thing, to speak right along with the law, to prove and demonstrate and show that the law is right. The law proves and demonstrates that a man cannot live a perfectly righteous life. A carnal man proves the very same thing. He sins, finding himself doing exactly what the law says not to do and what he himself prefers not to do.
The point is this: when a carnal man sins, the law points out his sin. The law tells the carnal man the truth: he is a sinner doomed to die. Knowing this, the carnal man is able to seek the Lord and His forgiveness. Therefore, the carnal man agrees with the law; the law is very good, for it tells him that he must seek the Savior and His forgiveness. He may not actually follow through and seek the Lord, but the law has at least fulfilled its function and shown the carnal man what he needs to do.
- Paul’s conclusion is that man has a fleshly nature. What causes him to conclude this? As a man who was a genuine believer, he did not want to sin; he actually willed not to sin. However, he found that he could not keep from sinning. He continually came short of the glory of God and failed to be consistently conformed to the image of Christ. Why?
- Not because he failed to exercise his will.
- Not because his mind was not focused upon Christ.
- Not because he did not know God’s will.
- Not because he did not seek to do God’s will.
- Not because he did not call upon every faculty and power of his being.
He came short and failed because of sin that dwells in him, because of sin within his flesh. The carnal man finds a principle, a law of sin within his flesh that tugs and pulls him to sin. He finds that no matter what he does, he sins…
- by living for himself before he lives for God and for others.
- by putting himself before the laws concerning God and the laws concerning man. (This refers to the ten commandments where the first laws govern our relationship to God and the last laws govern our relationship to man.)
No matter what resources and faculties man uses and no matter how diligently he tries, he is unable to control sin and to keep from sinning. Sin is within his flesh; it dwells in him. In fact, man is corrupt and dies for this very reason. He was never made to be corruptible nor to die; he was not created with the seed of corruption that causes him to age and deteriorate and decay (Romans 5:12). The seed of corruption was planted in his flesh, in his body and life when he sinned. The carnal life proves that man cannot keep from sinning, that man is diseased with the seed of corruption, the seed of a fleshly nature.
The conjunction for carries the idea of because and indicates that Paul is not introducing a new subject but is giving a defense of what he has just said. He begins by again affirming that the Law is not the problem, because it is spiritual. Salvation by grace through faith does not replace or devalue the Law, because the law was never a means of salvation. As observed previously, Hebrews 11 and many other passages of Scripture make clear that the only means of salvation has always been the provision and power of God’s grace working through the channel of man’s faith.
“But I,” Paul continues, “am still of the flesh. I am still earthbound and mortal.” It is important to note that the apostle does not say he is still in the flesh but that he is still of it. He has already explained that believers are no longer “in the flesh” (7:5; cf. 8:8), no longer bound by and enslaved to its sinfulness as they once were. The idea is that, although believers are not still in the flesh, the flesh is still in them. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul describes the Christians there as “men of flesh,… babes in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1). As the apostle confesses later in the present passage, using the present tense, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (7:18). Even as an apostle of Jesus Christ he possessed a remnant of the sinfulness that characterizes all human beings, including those who, in Christ, are saved from its total mastery and its condemnation.
But the Christian’s spirit, his inner self, has been completely and forever cleansed of sin. It is for that reason that, at death, he is prepared to enter God’s presence in perfect holiness and purity. Because his spiritual rebirth has already occurred, his flesh, with its remaining sin, is left behind.
Every well-taught and honest Christian is aware that his life falls far short of God’s perfect standard of righteousness and that he falls back into sin with disturbing frequency. He is no longer of his former father, the devil (John 8:44); he no longer loves the world (1 John 2:15); and he is no longer sin’s slave—but he is still subject to its deceit and is still attracted by many of its allurements. Yet the Christian cannot be happy with his sin, because it is contrary to his new nature and because he knows that it grieves his Lord as well as his own conscience.
The story is told of an unbeliever who, when he heard of the gospel of salvation by grace alone, commented, “If I could believe that salvation is free and is received only by faith, I would believe and then take my fill of sin.” The person witnessing to him wisely replied, “How much sin do you think it would take to fill a true Christian to satisfaction?” His point was that a person who has not lost his appetite for sin cannot be truly converted.
The phrase sold into bondage to sin has caused many interpreters to miss Paul’s point and to take those words as evidence the person being talked about is not a Christian. But Paul uses a similar phrase in verse 23, where he makes clear that only his members, that is, his fleshly body, is “a prisoner of the law of sin.” That lingering part of his unredeemed humanness is still sinful and consequently makes warfare against the new and redeemed part of him, which is no longer sin’s prisoner and is now its avowed enemy.
Paul’s strong words about his condition do not indicate he was only partially saved at the time but rather emphasize that sin can continue to have dreadful power in a Christian’s life and is not to be trifled with. The believer’s battle with sin is strenuous and life-long. And as Paul also points out later in this chapter, even a Christian can truthfully say, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18). In himself, that is, in his remaining fleshly being, a Christian is no more holy or sinless than he was before salvation.
Probably many years after he became a believer, David prayed, “Be gracious to me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness; according to the greatness of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Ps. 51:1-3). The rendering in the New International Version of verse 5 of that psalm gives helpful insight: “Surely I have been a sinner from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” David well understood the truth the apostle John would later proclaim to believers: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).
It was in that humble spirit that Isaiah, although a prophet of God, confessed as he stood before the heavenly throne: “I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). Like Isaiah, the more a Christian draws near to God, the more clearly he perceives the Lord’s holiness and his own sinfulness.
The commentator C. E. B. Cranfield observed, “The more seriously a Christian strives to live from grace and to submit to the discipline of the gospel, the more sensitive he becomes to … the fact that even his very best acts and activities are disfigured by the egotism which is still powerful within him—and no less evil because it is often more subtly disguised than formerly” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975], p. 358).
Thomas Scott, an evangelical preacher of the Church of England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, wrote that when a believer “compares his actual attainments with the spirituality of the law and with his own desire and aim to obey it, he sees that he is yet, to a great degree, carnal in the state of his mind, and under the power of evil propensities, from which (like a man sold for a slave) he cannot wholly emancipate himself. He is carnal in exact proportion to the degree in which he falls short of perfect conformity to the law of God” (cited in Geoffrey B. Wilson, Romans: A Digest of Reformed Comment (London: Banner of Truth, 1969], p.121).
Sin is so wretched and powerful that, even in a redeemed person, it hangs on and contaminates his living and frustrates his inner desire to obey the will of God.
Paul’s proof that sin still indwelt him was in the reality that that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do. Understand has the basic meaning of taking in knowledge in regard to something or someone, knowledge that goes beyond the merely factual. By extension, the term frequently was used of a special relationship between the person who knows and the object of the knowledge. It was often used of the intimate relationship between husband and wife and between God and His people. Paul uses the term in that way to represent the relationship between the saved and the Savior: “Now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?” (Gal. 4:9). By further extension, the word was used in the sense of approving or accepting something or someone. “If anyone loves God,” Paul says, “he is known [accepted] by Him” (1 Cor. 8:3).
That seems to be the meaning here and is consistent with the last half of the sentence. Paul found himself doing things he did not approve of. It was not that he was unable to do a particular good thing but that when he saw the fullness and grandeur of God’s law he was not able to measure up completely. It was not that he could never accomplish any good at all, nor that he could never faithfully obey God. The apostle was rather expressing an inner turmoil of the most profound kind, of sincerely desiring in his heart to fulfill the spirit as well as thelet ter of the law (see 7:6) but realizing that he was unable to live up to the Lord’s perfect standards and his own heart’s desire.
It was not Paul’s conscience that was bothering him because of some unforgiven sin or selfish reluctance to follow the Lord. It was his inner man, recreated in the likeness of Christ and indwelt by His Spirit, that now could see something of the true holiness, goodness, and glory of God’s law and was grieved at his least infraction or falling short of it. In glaring contrast to his preconversion self-satisfaction in thinking himself blameless before God’s law (Phil. 3:6), Paul now realized how wretchedly short of God’s perfect law he lived, even as a Spirit-indwelt believer and an apostle of Jesus Christ.
That spirit of humble contrition is a mark of every spiritual disciple of Christ, who cries out, “Lord, I can’t be all you want me to be, I am unable to fulfill your perfect, holy, and glorious law.” In great frustration and sorrow he painfully confesses with Paul, I am not practicing what I would like to do.
Paul now deals with the reason, or the source, of his inability to perfectly fulfill the law and he begins by staunchly defending the divine standard. “Whatever the reason for my doing the very thing I do not wish to do,” he says, “it is not the law’s fault. I agree with the Law in every detail. My new self, the new creation that placed God’s incorruptible and eternal seed within me, is wholeheartedly confessing that the law is good. In my redeemed being I sincerely long to honor the law and to fulfill it perfectly.”
Every Christian has in his heart a sense of the moral excellence of God’s Law. And the more mature he becomes in Christ, the more fully he perceives and lauds the law’s goodness, holiness, and glory. The more profoundly he is committed to the direction of the Holy Spirit in his life, the deeper his love for the Lord Jesus Christ becomes, the deeper his sense of God’s holiness and majesty becomes, and the greater will be his longing to fulfill God’s law.
What then, is the problem? What is the source of our failure to live up to God’s standards and our own inner desires? “Now it is no longer I who is the one doing it,” Paul explains, “but sin which indwells me.”
Paul was not trying to escape personal responsibility. He was not mixing the pure gospel with Greek philosophical dualism, which later plagued the early church and is popular in some church circles today. The apostle was not teaching that the spirit world is all good and the physical world all evil, as the influential
Gnostic philosophy of his day contended. Proponents of that ungodly school of thought invariably develop moral insensitivity. They justify their sin by claiming it is entirely the product of their physical bodies, which are going to be destroyed anyway, and that the inner, spiritual person remains innately good and is untouched by and unaccountable for anything the body does.
The apostle had already confessed his own complicity in his sin. “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin,” he said of his present earthly life as a believer (7:14). If the “real” inner Christian were not responsible for sin in his life, he would have no reason to confess it and have it cleansed and forgiven. As noted above, John makes clear that a claim of sinlessness makes God a liar and proves that His Word is not in us (1 John 1:10). A true believer is continually recognizing and confessing his sin (v. 9).
Throughout this chapter Paul has spoken in personal, nontechnical terms. He has not been drawing precise theological distinctions between the old preconversion life of a believer and his new life in Christ. He was certainly not teaching that a Christian has two natures or two personalities. There is just one saved person, just as previously there was one lost person.
In verse 17, however, Paul becomes more technical and theologically precise in his terminology. There had been a radical change in his life, as there has been in the life of every Christian. No longer is a negative adverb of time, indicating a complete and permanent change. Paul’s new I, his new inner self, no longer approves of the sin that still clings to him through the flesh. Whereas before his conversion his inner self approved of the sin he committed, now his inner self, a completely new inner self, strongly disapproves. He explains the
reason for that change in his letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).
After salvation, sin, like a deposed and exiled ruler, no longer reigns in a person’s life, but it manages to survive. It no longer resides in the innermost self but finds its residual dwelling in his flesh, in the unredeemed humanness that remains until a believer meets the Lord at the Rapture or at death. “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh,” Paul further explained to the Galatians; “for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (Gal. 5:17).
In this life, Christians are somewhat like an unskilled artist who beholds a beautiful scene that he wants to paint. But his lack of talent prevents him from doing the scene justice. The fault is not in the scene, or in the canvas, the
brushes, or the paint but in the painter. That is why we need to ask the master painter, Jesus Christ, to place His hand over ours in order to paint the strokes that, independent of Him, we could never produce. Jesus said, “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The only way we can live victoriously is to walk by Christ’s own Spirit and in His power, in order not to “carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).
(7:18-20) Flesh—Sin—Man, Nature: the second confession of Paul is that he is void of any good thing. By “flesh” (sarki) Paul means the human, sinful, depraved, and corrupt nature of man. Paul declares: there is no “good thing” in his flesh. This does not mean that he never did any good thing or work. It means that his flesh…
- is unable to please the goodness of God.
- is unable to be as good as it should be.
- is unable to be perfectly good.
- is unable to conquer the tendency and push toward sin.
- is unable to be conformed to the image of Christ.
- is corrupted and short of God’s glory.
- is contaminated and diseased by sin.
- is incapable of reaching God on its own and by itself.
- is aging and deteriorating, dying and decaying.
- is condemned to face the judgment of God.
- Note why Paul says that his flesh is void of any good thing. He wills and resolves not to sin, but it is all to no avail. No matter how much he wills and resolves, he fails and comes short. Note that being willing to do good is ever present with him. The word “present” means that it is constantly before his face. He is always willing to do good and to please God. There is no lack of will in him. It is not the weakness of will nor of his resolve that causes him to come short of God’s glory and will. How does he know this?
- Because what he wills to do, he fails to do.
- Because the evil he tries not to do, he does.
- Paul’s conclusion is the same as that of point one. He is void of any good thing because he has a sinful, depraved, and corrupt nature. He is held in spiritual bondage.
In order that his readers will not misunderstand, the apostle explains that the me in whom nothing good dwells is not the same as the “I” he has just mentioned in the previous verse and which referred to his new redeemed, incorruptible, Christlike nature. The part of his present being in which sin still dwells is his flesh, his old humanness, which has not yet been completely transformed.
Again he points out (see vv. 5, 14) that the only residence of sin in a believer’s life is his flesh, his unredeemed humanness. As noted above, the flesh in itself is not sinful, but it is still subject to sin and furnishes sin a beachhead from which to operate in a believer’s life.
Paul had a deep desire to do only good. The wishing to do God’s will was very much present within his redeemed being. The me used here does not correspond to the me of the first half of this verse but to the I in verse 17. Unfortunately, however, the perfect doing of the good that his heart wished for was not present in his life. Slightly rephrasing the same truth, he says, For the good that I wish, I do not do.
As noted in regard to verse 15, Paul is not saying that he was totally incapable of doing anything that was good and acceptable. He is saying that he was incapable of completely fulfilling the requirements of God’s holy law “Not that I have … already become perfect,” he explained to the Philippian church, “but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12-14).
As a believer grows in his spiritual life, he inevitably will have both an increased hatred of sin and an increased love for righteousness. As desire for holiness increases, so will sensitivity to and antipathy toward sin.
The other side of the predicament, Paul says, is that I practice the very evil that I do not wish. Again, it is important to understand that this great inner struggle with sin is not experienced by the undeveloped and childish believer but by the mature man of God.
David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14) and was honored by having the Messiah named the Son of David. Yet no Old Testament saint seems a worse sinner or was more conscious of his own sin. Particularly in the great penitential psalms 32, 38, and 51, but in many other psalms as well, David agonized over and confessed his sin before God. He was so near to the heart of God that the least sin in his life loomed before his eyes as a great offense.
Paul repeats what he said in verses 16-17, with only slight variation. If I am doing the very thing I do not wish, he argues with simple logic, then it follows that I am no longer the one doing it. The apostle again uses the phrase no longer, referring to the time before his conversion. Before salvation it was the inner I who sinned and agreed with the sin. An unsaved person cannot truthfully say he is not doing it. He has no moral or spiritual “no longers.”
(7:21-23) Sin, Law of—Mind, Law of—Inward Man: the third confession of Paul is that he finds two laws or two forces within him. Very simply, as soon as Paul wills to do good, he is immediately confronted…
- by a law of evil (Romans 7:21).
- by the law of sin (Romans 7:23).
The law of sin and evil battles the law of the inward man (Romans 7:22), the law of his mind (Romans 7:23).
- The law of evil or the law of sin means that sin is a law, a rule, a force, a principle, a disposition, an urge, a tendency, a pull, a tug, a corruption, a depravity within man’s nature or inner being. It is called a law…
- because of its regularity; it rises up and rules all the time.
- because of its permanent and controlling power.
- because it is impossible to break its rule and to keep from sinning.
- because it has captivated and enslaved the nature of man (Romans 7:14f).
- because it is not passive but active, constantly struggling to gain the ascendency over the law of the mind.
- Any man who allows the law of sin to rule in his life is a miserable and helpless victim of sin.
- The law of the inward man or the law of the mind means…
- the divine nature of God implanted within the believer.
- the “new man” created when a believer is born again.
- the abiding presence of Christ in the believer’s life.
- the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
Very simply stated, the law of the inward man is the law, rule, disposition, urge, tendency, pull, and tug of the Holy Spirit to please God and to delight in doing His will.
The confession of Paul is striking. He declares that the law of sin wars against the law of his mind and that it gains the ascendency. The law of sin captivates and enslaves him.
The continuing presence of evil in a believer’s life is so universal that Paul refers to it not as an uncommon thing but as such a common reality as to be called a continually operating spiritual principle. Lingering sin does battle with every good thing a believer desires to do, every good thought, every good intention, every good motive, every good word, every good deed.
The Lord warned Cain when he became angry that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted but his own was not: “Sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:7). Sin continues to crouch at the door, even of believers, in order to lead people into disobedience.
The first part of Paul’s proof that sin is no longer his master and that he is indeed redeemed by God and made into the likeness of Christ is his being able to say, I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man. In other words, the apostle’s justified inner man is on the side of the law of God and no longer on the side of sin, as is true of every unsaved person.
Psalm 119 offers many striking parallels to Romans 7. Over and over and in a multitude of ways, the psalmist praises and exalts the Lord and His Word: “I have rejoiced in the way of Thy testimonies, as much as in all riches” (v. 14), “I shall delight in Thy commandments, which I love” (v. 47), “Thy law is my delight” (v. 77), “Thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path” (v. 105), and “Thy word is very pure, therefore Thy servant loves it” (v. 140). It has always been true that the godly person’s “delight is in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 1:2).
Paul’s inner man, the deepest recesses of his redeemed person, the bottom of his heart, hungers and thirsts for God’s righteousness (see Matt. 5:6) and seeks first His kingdom and His righteousness (see Matt. 6:33). “Though our outer man is decaying,” Paul told the Corinthian believers, “yet our inner man is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). He prayed that Christians in Ephesus would “be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man” (Eph. 3:16).
The second part of Paul’s proof that sin is no longer his master and that he is indeed redeemed by God and made into the likeness of Christ involves a corresponding but opposite principle (cf. v. 21), a different law, which does not operate in the inner person but in the members of the believer’s body, that is, in his unredeemed and still sinful humanness.
That opposing principle is continually waging war against the law of the believer’s mind, a term that here corresponds to the redeemed inner man about whom Paul has been talking. Paul is not setting up a dichotomy between the mind and the body but is contrasting the inner man, or the redeemed “new creature” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17), with the “flesh” (Rom. 7:25), that remnant of the old man that will remain with each believer until we receive our glorified bodies (8:23). Paul is not saying his mind is always spiritual and his body is always sinful. In fact, he confesses that, tragically, the fleshly principle undermines the law of his mind and temporarily makes him a prisoner of the law of sin which is in his members.
As Paul will explain in the following chapter, what he has just said of himself could not apply to an unbeliever, who is entirely, in his mind as well as in his flesh, “hostile toward God” (Rom. 8:7). Unbelievers do not want to please God and could not please Him if they wanted to (v. 8).
Psalm 119 also parallels Romans 7 on the down side, in regard to the believer’s constant struggle with the sin that he hates and longs to be rid of. Like believers of every age, the psalmist sometimes was plagued by evil forces and people that warred against God and his own inner person. “My soul is crushed with longing after Thine ordinances at all times” (v. 20), he lamented, “My soul cleaves to the dust” (v. 25), and, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Thy statutes” (v. 71). He repeatedly pleads with God to revive him (vv. 25, 88, 107, 149, 154). With the deep humility that characterizes every mature believer, the writer ends by confessing, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep,” by imploring God to “seek Thy servant,” and finally by affirming again, “I do not forget Thy commandments” (v. 176).
As Paul has already mentioned in the first part of this verse, the source of his sin is no longer the inner man, which is now redeemed and being sanctified. Like all believers while they are in this earthly life, Paul found himself sometimes to be a prisoner of the law of sin, the principle that evil was still present in him (7:21). But now sin was only in the members of his body in his old self (Eph. 4:22), which was still “dead because of sin” (Rom. 8:10).
It is not that Paul’s salvation was imperfect or in any way deficient. From the moment he receives Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the believer is completely acceptable by God and ready to meet Him. But as long as he remains in his mortal body, in his old unredeemed humanness, he remains subject to temptation and sin. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh,” Paul explained to the Corinthian Christians (most of whom were spiritually immature and very much still fleshly), “for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses” (2 Cor. 10:3-4). In other words, although a Christian cannot avoid living in the flesh, he can and should avoid walking according to the flesh in its sinful ways.
(7:24) Spiritual Struggle—Sanctification—Paul: the fourth confession of Paul is that he is a desperate, wretched man who needs a Deliverer. There is a sense in which man is a walking civil war. He has the ability to see what is good, but he is unable to do it. He can see what is wrong, but he cannot keep from doing it. Paul says he was pulled in two directions, pulled so much that he was almost like two men in the same body. He knew the right, yet he did the wrong. He knew what was wrong, yet he was unable to stay away from it.
There is no believer, no matter how advanced in holiness, who cannot use the same language used by the Apostle. There is a bondage, a power of sin, within the believer’s nature that he cannot totally resist. True, he may and does struggle against the power, and he desires to be free from it; but despite all his efforts, he still finds himself under its influence.
This is precisely the bondage of sin, of coming short of the glory of God. Too often he finds himself distrusting God, being hard of heart, loving the world and self, being too prideful, too cold, too slothful—disapproving what he knows to be right and approving what he hates. He groans under the weight of sin, of being short of God’s glory and of failing to be conformed to the image of Christ. He aches to walk in humility and meekness and to be filled with the fruit of love, joy, and peace. But day by day he finds the force of sin reasserting its power over him. He struggles and struggles against it, but he finds that he cannot find the power to free himself.
The believer senses an utter helplessness and longs and desires for God to free him. He is a slave looking and longing for liberty. As one has said, this conflict between the flesh and spirit “continues in us so long as we live, in some more, and in others less, according as the one or the other principle is the stronger. Yet, the whole man is both flesh and spirit, and contends with himself until he is completely spiritual” (Martin Luther as quoted by Charles Hodge. Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1950, p.236).
It is this consciousness that drives the believer to the awareness that deliverance is found only through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(7:25) Spiritual Struggle—Sanctification—Deliverance—Life, Victorious: the fifth confession of Paul is that the great Deliverer is the Lord Jesus Christ. This is an exclamation! Paul bursts forth with praise to God, for there is a glorious deliverance from sin! But note: the deliverance does not come through…
- some man-made law.
- some man-possessed power.
- some man-possessed ability.
- some superior quality and faculty.
- some great spiritual force.
- The deliverance comes through the great Deliverer Himself, Jesus Christ our Lord. He is the Deliverer from sin; He alone can deliver from sin. He is perfectly clear about this.
Jesus Christ delivers the believer from sin in two ways.
- Jesus Christ justifies the believer.
- Jesus Christ places the believer under God’s grace.
- Paul’s conclusion is that he serves the law of God with his mind, that is, with his renewed mind. The believer who truly knows that his deliverance is through Jesus Christ our Lord learns something. He learns that his mind is transformed and renewed by Jesus Christ; he learns that his “mind” is born again and experiences a new birth just as his “old man” does. He learns that his old mind becomes the new mind and that his “old man” becomes the “new man.”
Because of Jesus Christ, the believer takes his new mind and does all he can to serve the law of God. When he fails—when his flesh caves in to sin—he knows that it is the law or force of sin that has caused it, not the law of his new mind. He knows that he is still flesh as well as spirit, that he is still indwelt by two laws, two forces that struggle for allegiance; therefore, he does all he can to focus his mind upon the law of God. He simply serves God—His will and His nature (that is, His law)—trying to please God in all that he does.
He dedicates himself not to come short of God’s glory but to be conformed to the image of Christ. He knows that he is delivered from the law (force) of sin through Jesus Christ; therefore, the believer keeps justification and God’s grace ever before his face. The believer knows that when his flesh serves the law of sin by failing, he has open access into God’s presence to ask forgiveness. Therefore, he “girds up the loins of his mind” and comes before God for forgiveness. And once receiving a fresh surge of God’s forgiveness and grace, he starts all over again. The believer begins to sense the law of God with renewed fervor, the fervor of his renewed mind.
It should be noted that most commentators see the latter part of this verse as reverting back to what Paul had been saying, as a summary statement of what the carnal man or believer experiences. However, it seems much more natural to see Paul building upon his confession of Jesus Christ as the great Deliverer from sin. After coming to know Jesus Christ as the great Deliverer, it is not reasonable for him to be reverting back to the fleshly struggle of the carnal man. It is much more reasonable to see the mind as the renewed mind of the “new man.” However, if one prefers the summary interpretation, then the meaning would be as follows.
The carnal man uses his mind, his human, fleshly reasoning to serve the law of God. He tries and tries with all his might to honor and to keep the law of God.
However, he is flesh and he is carnal; therefore, he is subject to sin. No matter how much he tries to struggle against sin, his flesh gives in to the law of sin and comes short of God’s glory.
Paul’s final lament is even more intense than the others. He cries out in utter anguish and frustration, Wretched man that I am! Because this person describes himself in such negative terms, many commentators believe he could not be speaking as a Christian, much less as an apostle. If Paul was speaking of himself, they argue, he must have been speaking about his preconversion condition.
But the Scottish commentator Robert Haldane wisely observed that men perceive themselves to be sinners in direct proportion as they have previously discovered the holiness of God and His law. In one of his penitential psalms, David expressed his great anguish of soul for not being all that he knew the Lord wanted him to be: “O Lord, rebuke me not in Thy wrath; and chasten me not in Thy burning anger. For Thine arrows have sunk deep into me, and Thy hand has pressed down on me. There is no soundness in my flesh because of Thine indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities are gone over my head; as a heavy burden they weigh too much for me” (Ps. 38:14).
Another psalmist expressed distress over his sin in words that only a person who knows and loves God could pray: “Out of the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let Thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If Thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope” (Ps. 130:1-5).
Paul next asks a question to which he well knows the answer: Who will set me free from the body of this death? He again makes clear that the cause of his frustration and torment is the body of this death. It is only a believer’s body that remains subject to sin and death.
Set … free has the basic idea of rescuing from danger and was used of a soldier’s going to a wounded comrade on the battlefield and carrying him to safety. Paul longed for the day when he would be rescued from the last vestige of his old, sinful, unredeemed flesh.
It is reported that near Tarsus, where Paul was born (Acts 22:3), a certain ancient tribe sentenced convicted murderers to an especially gruesome execution. The corpse of the slain person was lashed tightly to the body of the murderer and remained there until the murderer himself died. In a few days, which doubtless seemed an eternity to the convicted man, the decay of the person he had slain infected and killed him. Perhaps Paul had such torture in mind when he expressed his yearning to be freed from the body of this death.
Without hesitation, the apostle testifies to the certainty of his eventual rescue and gives thanks to his Lord even before he is set free: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! he exults. Later in the epistle he further
testifies, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). Frustrating and painful as a believer’s present struggle with sin may be, that temporary earthly predicament is nothing compared with the eternal glory that awaits him in heaven.
Because Christians have a taste of God’s righteousness and glory while they are still on earth, their longing for heaven is all the more acute: “We ourselves,” Paul says, “having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23; cf. 2 Cor. 5:4). On that great day even our corruptible bodies will be redeemed and made incorruptible. “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” Paul assures us, “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.
For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality … The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:52-53, 56-57).
Paul’s primary emphasis in the present passage, however, is not on the believer’s eventual deliverance from sin’s presence but on the conflict with sin that torments every spiritually sensitive child of God. He therefore ends by
summarizing the two sides of that struggle: 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.
In the poem Maud (x. 5), one of Tennyson’s characters yearns, “Ah for a new man to arise in me, that the man I am may cease to be!” The Christian can say that a new man has already arisen in him, but he also must confess that the sinful part, his old man, has not yet ceased to be.
This text is foundational to our view of the Christian life. As we conclude, allow me to point out some important truths and their implications for our lives.
(1) There is an intense struggle going on within the Christian. Conversion to Christ does not instantly solve all our problems. It even results in some problems we had never experienced as unbelievers. Before our salvation, we were never in opposition with sin. We were unknowingly the slaves of sin, all along thinking we were serving our own interests. Before our conversion, we were enemies of God. Our struggle was the result of our opposition to Him and His present judgment in our lives. As a result of faith in Christ, our animosity toward God ended and a new animosity—toward sin—began. The struggle which Paul is describing in Romans 7:14-25 is the result of his conversion.
(2) An overwhelming sense of despair over our struggle with sin and our defeat by it is an essential step in the solution to this problem. Paul’s despair was legitimate and even necessary. Until we hate sin, we will not turn from it. Until we reach the end of ourselves, we will not look to God. Just as unsaved men and women must come to the end of themselves in order to receive God’s gracious provision of righteousness, by faith in Christ, Christians too must come to the end of themselves to find the solution, once again, at the cross of Calvary.
(3) The problem with many Christians is not their despair, like that of Paul, but their lack of it. If coming to the end of ourselves is essential to turning to God for our deliverance, then many Christians will never turn to God for victory over sin because they do not recognize their true condition or take it seriously enough. It was the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees who did not come to Jesus for forgiveness simply because they did not think they needed it. It is the “smooth-sailing saints” who do not come to the cross for deliverance from the power of sin in their lives because they do not agonize over their condition as Paul did.
Christians fail to identify with Paul here in Romans 7? Let me suggest several reasons.
We fail to agonize over sin because we have redefined our old sins, giving them new Christian labels. Aggressive, self-assertiveness, once condemned as sin, now becomes “zeal for the Lord.” These are the same vices, the same sins, but we now sanctify them by putting Christian labels on them.
We live superficial, hypocritical lives, which deny the reality of our sin, and our failure to live as God requires.
We ignore and reject God’s Law, as though it were “of flesh,” while we are the ones who are spiritual (the exact opposite of what Paul says in verse 14).
We teach Christians to “cope” with their sin. Paul never teaches Christians to cope. In effect, we say to Christians that they need to learn to live with the agony. Paul says, “No, you don’t. You need to have that agony so intense that you can’t live with it, and you can only turn to God.”
We seek to convert our socially unacceptable sins to those sins which are socially acceptable. We know that robbery and murder are unacceptable to society, and so we redirect our sinful energies in areas which serve our own self-interest, but in ways which bring us the commendation of others, rather than their condemnation. We give up those sins for which society puts men in prison and take up those sins for which society will make us president.
We appeal to unholy motives in order to produce conduct which appears righteous. We use pride, ambition, greed, and guilt within the church, making these illicit motives the reasons for acceptable conduct.
We cannot stand to see people “putting themselves down” and thinking of themselves as wretched creatures, and so we attempt to build their self-esteem. We would not turn Paul to the cross for the solution to his problem; we would rebuke him for his poor self-esteem, and put him in a class or program which made him feel good about himself.
Those of us who are Christians and can identify with Paul are blessed. Those of us who cannot identify with Paul are to be pitied. It is not that we are plagued because we think too little of ourselves, but because we do not take sin seriously enough. The agony of Romans 7 is a prerequisite for the ecstasy of Romans chapter 8.
(4) Sin is complicated, but its solution is simple. Paul has already said it—sin is beyond our comprehension. We do not understand it. We cannot understand it. But we do not have to understand it in order to solve the dilemma it poses.
Whatever form sin might take, the solution is the same. The solution to sin is not to be found in understanding it. The biblical solution to sin is not to be found in any other provision than that of the cross of Calvary, the teaching of God’s Word, and the enablement of His Spirit. Let us look for no other solution. Let us receive that which God has provided, in Christ.
How great is your struggle? How great is mine? I think if our struggle is as great as Paul’s we will in desperation give up all self-help efforts, and we will turn to the cross. God has provided a righteousness we cannot produce by ourselves. That righteousness Jesus Christ offers to us through the power of the Spirit. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The answer is to come in Romans 8. The very Spirit that raised the dead body of Jesus Christ from the grave is the Spirit that dwells in you and will give life to your mortal bodies. God has the solution. The solution for Christians is the walk of the Spirit. But we will never get to that point until we have come to the desperation of Paul in Romans 7.
My prayer is that you may begin to grasp the immensity of the struggle with sin. May you forsake all efforts to serve God in the strength of your flesh. May God help each of us to acknowledge that our flesh is a body of death from which we must be delivered. May God help us to understand as we proceed in our study of Romans the walk of the Spirit, the provision that God has made for us to live in a way which is pleasing to Him.
The Inability of the Law (Rom. 7:14-25)
Having explained what the Law is supposed to do, Paul now explains what the Law cannot do.
The Law cannot change you (v. 14).
The character of the Law is described in four words: holy, just, good, and spiritual. That the Law is holy and just, nobody can deny, because it came from the holy God who is perfectly just in all that He says and does. The Law is good. It reveals God’s holiness to us and helps us to see our need for a Saviour.
What does it mean that the Law is “spiritual”? It means that the Law deals with the inner man, the spiritual part of man, as well as with the outer actions. In the original giving of the Law in Exodus, the emphasis was on the outward actions. But when Moses restated the Law in Deuteronomy, he emphasized the inner quality of the Law as it relates to man’s heart. This spiritual emphasis is stated clearly in Deuteronomy 10:12-13. The repetition of the word “love” in Deuteronomy also shows that the deeper interpretation of the Law relates to the inner man (Deut. 4:37; 6:4-6; 10:12; 11:1; 30:6, 16, 20).
Our nature is carnal (fleshly); but the Law’s nature is spiritual. This explains why the old nature responds as it does to the Law. It has well been said, “The old nature knows no Law, the new nature needs no Law.” The Law cannot transform the old nature; it can only reveal how sinful that old nature is. The believer who tries to live under Law will only activate the old nature; he will not eradicate it.
The Law cannot enable you to do good (vv. 15-21).
Three times in this passage Paul stated that sin dwells in us (Rom. 7:14, 18, 20). He was referring, of course, to the old nature. It is also true that the Holy Spirit dwells in us; and in Romans 8, Paul explained how the Spirit of God enables us to live in victory, something the Law cannot help us do.
The many pronouns in this section indicate that the writer is having a problem with self. This is not to say that the Christian is a split personality, because he is not. Salvation makes a man whole. But it does indicate that the believer’s mind, will, and body can be controlled either by the old nature or the new nature, either by the flesh or the Spirit.
The statements here indicate that the believer has two serious problems: (1) he cannot do the good he wants to do, and (2) he does the evil that he does not want to do.
Does this mean that Paul could not stop himself from breaking God’s Law, that he was a liar and thief and murderer? Of course not! Paul was saying that of himself he could not obey God’s Law; and that even when he did, evil was still present with him.
No matter what he did, his deeds were tainted by sin. Even after he had done his best, he had to admit that he was “an unprofitable servant” (Luke 17:10). “So I find this law at work: when I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Rom. 7:21, niv). This, of course, is a different problem from that in Romans 6. The problem there was, “How can I stop doing bad things?” while the problem here is, “How can I ever do anything good?”
The legalist says, “Obey the Law and you will do good and live a good life.” But the Law only reveals and arouses sin, showing how sinful it is! It is impossible for me to obey the Law because I have a sinful nature that rebels against the Law. Even if I think I have done good, I know that evil is present. The Law is good, but by nature, I am bad! So, the legalist is wrong: the Law cannot enable us to do good.
The Law cannot set you free (vv. 21-25).
The believer has an old nature that wants to keep him in bondage; “I will get free from these old sins!” the Christian says to himself. “I determine here and now that I will not do this any longer.” What happens? He exerts all his willpower and energy, and for a time succeeds; but then when he least expects it, he falls again. Why? Because he tried to overcome his old nature with Law, and the Law cannot deliver us from the old nature.
When you move under the Law, you are only making the old nature stronger; because “the strength of sin is the Law” (1 Cor. 15:56). Instead of being a dynamo that gives us power to overcome, the Law is a magnet that draws out of us all kinds of sin and corruption. The inward man may delight in the Law of God (Ps. 119:35), but the old nature delights in breaking the Law of God. No wonder the believer under Law becomes tired and discouraged, and eventually gives up! He is a captive, and his condition is “wretched.” (The Greek word indicates a person who is exhausted after a battle.) What could be more wretched than exerting all your energy to try to live a good life, only to discover that the best you do is still not good enough!
Is there any deliverance? Of course! “I thank God that there is Someone who shall deliver me—Jesus Christ our Lord!” Because the believer is united to Christ, he is dead to the Law and no longer under its authority. But he is alive to God and able to draw on the power of the Holy Spirit. The explanation of this victory is given in Romans 8.
The final sentence in the chapter does not teach that the believer lives a divided life: sinning with his flesh but serving God with his mind. This would mean that his body was being used in two different ways at the same time, and this is impossible. The believer realizes that there is a struggle within him between the flesh and the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-18), but he knows that one or the other must be in control.
By “the mind” Paul meant “the inward man” (Rom. 7:22) as opposed to “the flesh” (Rom. 7:18). He amplified this thought in Romans 8:5-8. The old nature cannot do anything good. Everything the Bible says about the old nature is negative: “no good thing” (Rom. 7:18); “the flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6:63); “no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). If we depend on the energy of the flesh, we cannot serve God, please God, or do any good thing. But if we yield to the Holy Spirit, then we have the power needed to obey His will. The flesh will never serve the Law of God because the flesh is at war with God. But the Spirit can only obey the Law of God! Therefore, the secret of doing good is to yield to the Holy Spirit.
Paul hinted at this in the early verses of this chapter when he wrote, “That we should bring forth fruit unto God” (Rom. 7:4). Just as we are dead to the old nature, so we are dead to the Law. But we are united to Christ and alive in Christ, and therefore can bring forth fruit unto God. It is our union with Christ that enables us to serve God acceptably. “For it is God which worketh in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). That solved Paul’s problem in Romans 7:18: “For to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.”
The old nature knows no law and the new nature needs no law. Legalism makes a believer wretched because it grieves the new nature and aggravates the old nature! The legalist becomes a Pharisee whose outward actions are acceptable, but whose inward attitudes are despicable. No wonder Jesus called them “whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27). How wretched can you get!
The best is yet to come! Romans 8 explains the work of the Holy Spirit in overcoming the bad and producing the good“