A Fight You Can’t Win by Yourself

The Point:  We are not alone in facing our ongoing struggle with sin.

Indwelling Sin:  Romans 7:14-23.

[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.  [ESV]

[14-23]  “Having vindicated the law in verses 7-13 as not responsible for sin or death, Paul now proceeds to show that nevertheless the law cannot be responsible for our holiness either. The law is good, but it is also weak. In itself it is holy, but it is impotent to make us holy. This important truth lies behind the whole final section of Romans 7. It depicts the hopeless struggle of people who are still under the law. They are right to look to the law for moral guidance, but wrong to look to it for saving power. As we turn to this passage, what immediately catches our attention is that, although he retains the personal ‘I’, Paul changes the tenses of all his verbs. He has been using the past tense which indicated his past, pre-conversion experience. But now suddenly his verbs are in the present tense which sounds like his present, post-conversion experience. This would be the natural interpretation of the personal pronouns and the present tense. But is this really the Christian apostle who is describing his own continuing painful conflict between what he wants and what he does, between desire and performance? Or is he impersonating somebody else? Before studying the text, it is essential to probe the identity of this ‘I’. Is Paul impersonating an unregenerate person in these verses or is he describing himself as a truly regenerate and mature believer? Three characteristics of his self-portrait support this latter view. The first concerns his opinion of himself. He calls himself unspiritual or of the flesh [14] and declares that nothing good dwells in him [18], that is, his sinful nature. But unbelievers are self-righteous and self-confident; only believers think and speak of themselves in self-disgust and self-despair. Secondly, there is Paul’s attitude to the law. He not only calls it holy and righteous and good [12], and spiritual [14], but also refers to it as the good I want [19]. He states both that I delight in the law of God, in my inner being [22] and that I myself serve the law of God with my mind [25]. So here is a man who not only acknowledges the intrinsic goodness of the law, but who loves it, delights in it, longs for it, and considers himself enslaved to it. This is not the language of the unregenerate. Thirdly, consider Paul’s longing for final deliverance. The wretched man’s cry [24] expresses desire rather than despair. He yearns to be rescued from this body of death [24], that is, out of this present state of sinfulness and mortality into a new and glorious resurrection body. Such a person, deploring evil in his fallen nature, delighting himself in God’s law, and longing for the promised full and final salvation, seems to provide ample evidence of being regenerate and even mature. In turning now to the text [14-25], it divides itself naturally into two paragraphs [14-20 and 21-25], both of which open with a positive reference to the law. The tragedy is, however, that Paul cannot keep this law. Nor can it keep or save him. So both paragraphs elaborate the weakness of the law, which is attributed to sin.”  (Stott, pages 205-211).


[14-20]  “The law and the flesh in believers. In this paragraph the apostle writes almost exactly the same things twice, presumably for emphasis, first in verses 14-17 and then in verses 18-20. Each of the two sections begins, continues and ends in the same way. First, each begins with a frank acknowledgment of innate sinfulness. It is a question of self-knowledge: we know [14] and I know [18]. And in both cases the self-knowledge concerns the flesh. Although the law is spiritual, Paul is of the flesh, sold under sin [14]. The corresponding statement of verse 18 is: for I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. This cannot be interpreted absolutely, meaning that there is nothing at all in fallen human beings which can be labeled good, since God’s image in which we are still made, although defaced, has not been destroyed, and since Jesus Himself spoke of the possibility of even pagans doing good [Matt. 5:46; 7:11]. Since the person Paul is describing goes on in the second part of the verse to say that he has the desire to do what is right, it seems likely that the nothing good of the first part of the verse alludes to his inability to turn the desire into action. It also means that everything good in human beings is tainted with evil (sinful desires). Secondly, each of the two sections of this paragraph continues with a vivid description of the resulting conflict [15 and 18-19]. After confessing that he does not altogether understand his own actions, and that he has desires for good which he cannot carry out, Paul summarizes his inward struggle in negative and positive counterparts. On the one hand, I do not do what I want, and on the other I do the very thing I hate. He is conscious of a divided ‘I’. For there is an ‘I’ which wants the good and hates the evil, and there is an ‘I’ which acts perversely, doing what is hated and not doing what is wanted. The conflict is between desire and performance; the will is there, but the ability is not. Surely this is the conflict of a regenerate person who knows, loves, chooses and longs for God’s law, but finds that by himself he cannot do it. His whole being (especially his mind and will) is set upon God’s law. He wants to obey it. And when he sins, it is against his reason, his desire, his consent. But the law cannot help him. Only the power of the indwelling Spirit could change things. Thirdly, each section of this paragraph ends by saying (in almost identical words) that indwelling sin is responsible for the failures and defeats of the person under the law [16 and 20]. Both verses contain a premise and a conclusion. The premise is stated in the phrase if I do what I do not want, drawing attention to the radical discontinuity between will and deed. Then the first conclusion is I agree with the law, that it is good [16] and the second is that it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me [17,20]. Who, then, is to blame for the good I do not do and the evil I do? This is what Paul clarifies. It is not the law, for three times he declares its holiness and goodness [12,14,16]. Besides, in wanting so ardently to do good and avoid evil, he is thereby endorsing and approving the law. So the law is not to blame. But neither, Paul goes on, am ‘I’ responsible. For when ‘I’ do evil ‘I’ do not do it voluntarily. On the contrary, ‘I’ act against my better judgment, my will and my consent. It is rather the flesh, sin living in me, the false, the fallen part of the person. In other words, the law is neither responsible for our sinning, nor capable of saving us. It has been fatally weakened by the sinful, fallen flesh.” (Stott, pages 211-212).


[21-25]  “The double reality in believers under the law. Paul now summarizes the believer’s inward conflict in terms of their double reality. He depicts this double reality four times in four different ways, as the two egos, the two laws, the two cries and the two slaveries. First, there are two egos in verse 21. The antithesis between the ‘I’ who wants the good and the ‘I’ beside whom the evil lies is more obvious in the Greek sentence by reason of the repetition of the Greek word meaning ‘in me’ or ‘by me’. One might paraphrase it: “When in me there is a desire to do good, then by me evil is close at hand.” Thus the evil and the good are both present simultaneously, for they are both part of a fallen yet regenerate personality. Secondly there are two laws. I delight in the law of God, in my inner being (that is, in the real regenerate me) [22]. This inner delight in the law is also called the law of my mind [23], because my renewed mind approves and endorses God’s law [16]. But I see … another law (a very different law) in my members … waging war … making me captive [23]. Thus the characteristic of the law of my mind is that it operates in my inner being and delights in the law of God, whereas the characteristic of the law of sin is that it operates in my members, fights against the law of my mind and takes me captive. Thirdly, there are two cries from the heart. One is Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [24]. The other is Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! [25]. The first is a cry of longing, which ends in a question mark, while the second is a cry of confidence and thanksgiving, which ends in an exclamation mark. Yet both are the cries of the same person, who is a regenerate believer, who laments his corruption, who yearns for the final deliverance at the resurrection, who knows the impotence of the law to rescue him, and who exults in God through Christ as the only Savior. Fourthly, there are two slaveries. I myself serve the law of God with my mind for I know it and love it and want it; but with my flesh I serve the law of sin [25]. The conflict is between my renewed mind and my unrenewed flesh; with that indwelling sin that still resides in me.” (Stott, pages 213-214).

No Condemnation in Christ Jesus:  Romans 7:24-8:2.

[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. [8:1]  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. [2]  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death  [ESV].

[24-25]  “Paul’s deep emotion explodes in the exclamation Wretched man that I am! The more we advance spiritually the more clearly we see the high standards God sets for His people and the more deeply we deplore the extent of our shortcoming. Paul is surely referring to his own experience. Paul is expressing in forceful terms his dismay at what sin does to him. It is, moreover, important that we understand this as applying to the regenerate. It is all too easy to take our Christian status for granted. We so readily remember our victories and gloss over our defeats. We slip into a routine and refuse to allow ourselves to be disturbed by what we see as occasional and minor slips. But a sensitive conscience and a genuine sorrow for every sin are the prerequisites of spiritual depth. The apostle goes on to ask who will deliver him from this body of death. In the context it is better to see the word body as referring to the physical body, which is characterized by death. It is itself mortal, and it is that in which sin operates and so brings death to us. The question in verse 24 appears to be a rhetorical one, with the answer “Nobody can” all too apparent. But Paul answers it with the joyful shout Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!. The victory is God’s, and He gives it through Christ. It is Paul’s consistent teaching that God in Christ has supplied all our need and will continue to do so. Clearly Paul’s words express gratitude for a present deliverance, but it is likely that they also have eschatological significance. The deliverance we have today is wonderful, but it is partial and incomplete. It is but a first installment of greater things to come, and Paul looks forward to that great day with his burst of thanksgiving. So then introduces a logical summary of what Paul has been saying. We should view the second half of verse 25 as a summary of the preceding argument before going on to the triumph of chapter 8. It sums up with clear-sighted honesty the tension, with all its real anguish and also all its real hopefulness, in which the Christian never ceases to be involved so long as he is living this present life. While there is that in him which approves God’s way there is that in him also which follows the paths of sin.” (Morris, pages 296-298).


[8:1-2]  “If in Romans 7 Paul has been preoccupied with the place of the law, in Romans 8 his preoccupation is with the work of the Spirit. The essential contrast which Paul paints is between the weakness of the law and the power of the Spirit. For over against indwelling sin, which is the reason the law is unable to help us in our moral struggle, Paul now sets the indwelling Spirit, who is both our liberator now from the law of sin and death [2] and the guarantee of resurrection and eternal glory in the end [Rom. 8:11,17,23]. Thus the Christian life is essentially life in the Spirit, that is to say, a life which is animated, sustained, directed and enriched by the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit true Christian discipleship would be inconceivable, indeed impossible. The word therefore indicates that the apostle is summing up, or expressing an conclusion. The deduction he draws, however, does not seem to come from chapter 7 alone, but from his whole argument thus far, and specially from what he has written in chapters 3, 4 and 5 about salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ. And the word now emphasizes that this salvation is already ours if we are in Christ, as opposed to being in Adam. The first blessing of salvation is expressed in the words no condemnation, which are equivalent to justification. In fact, the opening statements of Romans 5 and Romans 8 complement each other. Our justification, together with its corresponding truth of no condemnation, is securely grounded in what God has done for us in and through Jesus Christ. The second privilege of salvation is expressed in the next statement: for the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death [2]. Thus a certain liberation joins no condemnation as the two great blessings which are ours if we are in Christ Jesus. Moreover, these two blessings are linked by the conjunction for, indicating that our liberation is the basis of our justification. It is because we have been liberated that no condemnation can overtake us. From what, then, have we been set free? Paul replies: from the law of sin and death. The context seems to demand that this is a description of God’s law, of Torah. So, shocking as it may sound, God’s holy law could be called the law of sin and death because it occasioned both. In this case, to be liberated from the law of sin and death through Christ is to be no longer under the law, that is, to give up looking to the law for either justification or sanctification. The means of our liberation Paul calls the law of the Spirit of life [2]. At first sight it seems strange that law should liberate us from law, especially when commentators are determined to give law the same meaning in both expressions as referring to the Torah. They see Paul as reaffirming the two-sidedness of the law as a law of both death and life, that is, of sin and death belonging to the old epoch, and of Spirit and life belonging to the new. The alternative is to understand the law of the Spirit and life as describing the gospel, just as Paul calls it elsewhere the ministry of the Spirit [2 Cor. 3:8]. This makes the best sense, as it is certainly the gospel which has freed us from the law and its curse, and the message of life in the Spirit from the slavery of sin and death.” (Stott, pages 216-218). In other words, Paul is saying that our justification is not based upon our imperfect obedience to God’s law but rather on the work of the Spirit in the lives of all those who are in Christ Jesus [Rom. 5:1-11].


Questions for Discussion:

1.         Who is the ‘I’ in 7:14-23? What are the three characteristics that support the view that Paul is describing a truly regenerate and mature believer in 7:14-23? Do you find these characteristics true in your life? Do you find in your life that there is a conflict between what you want to do for God and what you actually do?

2.         In 7:21-25, list the four different ways Paul depicts the double reality that exists in the believer. Do you find this double reality true in your life? Do you still experience a conflict between your redeemed, renewed nature and your sinful nature, which Paul calls the flesh?

3.         Paul does not leave us to struggle with this inner conflict in our own strength. In 8:1-2, Paul describes two blessings that belong to the redeemed. First, even in the midst of our struggle with indwelling sin, we do not need to fear God’s condemnation, for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. In other words, Paul is saying that our justification is not based upon our obedience to God’s law but rather on the work of the Spirit in the lives of all those who are in Christ Jesus. [see Rom. 5:1-11]. Second, we have the law of the Spirit of life to set us free from fighting the battle against indwelling sin by ourselves. What is the law of the Spirit of life and how does this “law” enable us to overcome indwelling sin (this will be discussed in next week’s lesson which looks at chapter 8 of Romans)?


The Epistle to the Romans, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

The Epistle to the Romans, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

Romans, Thomas Schreiner, BENT, Baker.

Romans, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

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