14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For 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. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. – Romans 7:14-25 ESV
This section of scripture is some of the most controversial in all the bible. Whether you know it or not, or if you may have heard it, I need to clarify this and the misunderstanding of this scripture.
In the nineteenth century several churches, particularly in America, following some ideas set forth by John Wesley, developed what is known as Holiness churches. These churches contained in their doctrine the idea of a second work of grace available to all Christians by which they can experience instantaneous holiness. The beginnings of the modern Pentecostalism were also tied in with this perfectionist idea. Speaking in tongues was considered to be evidence of this second work of grace. Only in recent times with the advent of neo-Pentecostalism have adjustments been made to that doctrine. Their thinking now is that the baptism of the Holy Spirit empowers Christians for ministry but does not necessarily produce in them an immediate victory over all sin.
The controversy of this section of scripture is whether Paul was talking about his past when he described his struggle with sin, or his current condition when he wrote to Rome. Study after study of this original Greek text points that the scriptures are in present tense, and that truly this section points out characteristics that we do not find in unregenerate people, such as love for the law and great desire to please God. You don’t find that in people that are not reborn.
The testimony of the greatest saints in history is that the longer they are Christians and the more deeply immersed they become in the Word of God, the more acutely conscious they become of their shortcomings. As we grow in grace, we grow in our understanding of our ongoing need for that grace.
Get me be straight here. Biblically, you will have and battle sin until either Jesus returns or you die. Do not question your salvation because there is sin, be concerned about your response to sin and your battle with sin. There are no shortcuts to Christian maturity, to growing up into the fullness of conformity to the image of Christ. It is a lifelong pursuit.
In one sense, it should be comforting to know that the Apostle Paul struggled with the sin in his life, like we do from time to time. It it comforting to me to know that someone with Paul’s dedication to the pursuit of holiness and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ had struggles like this. I take comfort in it, not because I want to rejoice in evil or in somebody else’s weakness but because I am not left hopeless when I consider my own weaknesses.
Please refer to the order of salvation that we posted a few weeks back that clarifies the order and note that there is no second coming of grace that perfects you while you are alive.
This section of text brings to mind the battle of two warriors. The old me, the stubborn me, the one that believed he knew what was right and what is good. Versus the new me, the one that has learned to trust in the Lord and receive his gifts. There is that battle that continues, but the beauty is that it is easier and easier for me to see who is who. That does not mean I can eradicate the old self, but it is easier to recognize the old self.
Just for a final clarification as well, there are some organizations that believe in tripartitism, which means there is a triune of body, soul and spirit. Tripartitism holds that ordinary Christians have the Holy Spirit in body and soul but not yet in spirit. Average Christians are 2/3 of the way along in Christian growth, but if they want the higher, Spirit-filled life, then the Spirit of God has to affect them not only in body and soul but also in spirit. This is also known as the “Deeper Life” movement.
Fundamentally, scripture see us as duality, we have a physical aspect and a nonphysical aspect. We are body and soul. Nowhere in scripture do we find the idea that the Spirit will get to two of the three but not the other.
Paul talks a lot in this section about wanting to do certain things but failing and a strong point needs to be made that obedience is not a light switch. You don’t just hear something and conform. It takes a while. We would like to lead a life of perfect obedience to Christ, but we do not because there is conflict in our hearts between our general desire for obedience and the specific acts of obedience that confront us. There is also a strength of the temptation toward disobedience. We are people of mixed desires, which is why life does not really become complicated until we are born again. Before we were born again we had only one principle – the flesh.
The first part of the chapter Paul explains what the law is suppose to do and now concludes the chapter with what it cannot do.
The law cannot change you (v14)
The scriptures indicate that the law is spiritual. What do you suppose that means?
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 “Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good? – Deuteronomy 10:12-13 NASB
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 same way a speed limit cannot make someone slow down, but it will reveal how fast you were going compared to recommendations. The believer who tries to live under law will only activate the old nature; he will not eradicate it.
Have you ever caught yourself in a season when you were caught in a life of just following the law?
The law cannot enable you to do good (v15-21)
Three times in this section Paul declares that sin lives within us (7:14, 7:18, 7:20) We also have the spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, dwelling within us as well. In chapter 8 we will find out from Paul how the Spirit of God enables us to live in victory, something the law cannot help us do.
Paul goes no in this section with words that point right to himself. This section Paul almost seems psychotic. But in reality, he was just being honest and allowing his testimony to be used by God to give hope to the hopeless and healing to the wounded.
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.
Can you relate to Paul’s dilemma of not being able to do what you know you need to do and continuing to do what you desire to not do?
We need to also note that the confusion that Paul expresses is not out of theological issues, but by his own behavior. Pay attention that Paul is not only dealing with a physical challenge, but a battle of his will.
The law cannot set you free (v21-25)
A person comes to Christ and attempts to set himself free and is determined to break the bondage of sin. He works hard and does well in his commitment and he evens has some good accountability partners assisting. He does well for a while, 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. We have to realize that the law does not give us extra power and abilities that we did not have before. Instead it is like a magnet that draws out of us all kinds of sin and corruption. The inward man may delight in the law of God, but the old nature delights in breaking the law of God.
This struggle and approach is what so many believers under the law become tired and discouraged, and eventually give up. It is understandable when a person exerts all their energy and try to live a good life, only to discover that the best they can do is still not good enough.
Have you ever had a season in your journey when you got exhausted trying to abide in the law and behave?
Is there any deliverance? Of course! “I thank God that there is Someone who shall deliver me—Jesus Christ our Lord!” Because as believers we are united to Christ, we are dead to the law and no longer under its authority. But we are alive to God and able to draw on the power of the Holy Spirit. The explanation of this victory is given in the next chapter, 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 will amplify this thought in the next chapter as well. The old nature cannot do anything good. 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.
The charge for the week
In the next couple weeks as we live our life out, let’s be aware that our own body is at war against God as well as the enemy. This is not a simple say it and believe it opportunity we are in. As you go about your days, be aware of why you do what you do. Is it because of law, because of your physical desires, is it to love God, get approval of others, be accepted? Be aware of your decisions, know their intentions, clarify your own motivations.