THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS A CONSTANT STRUGGLE WITH SIN INVOLVING CONTRADICTION, TENSION AND CONFUSION BUT WITH THE SURE HOPE OF COMPLETE DELIVERANCE THROUGH CHRIST
There has been much disagreement down through church history regarding the interpretation of this text. Is Paul talking about his own experience as a believer or something else? How can a believer describe himself as “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin”? Yet, if we are honest, the more mature we are as a Christian we must acknowledge that the reality of our experience certainly meshes with the tension and conflict that Paul describes here. That does not mean that we do not experience victory through our Lord Jesus Christ in the process of sanctification. I tend to follow the line of interpretation taken by Dr. John MacArthur who sets forth the controversy as follows:
That is a poignant description of someone in conflict with himself, someone who loves God’s moral law, someone who deep down in his innermost self wants to obey God’s moral law, but is pulled and pushed away from its fulfillment by sin, sin that is in him. It is the personal experience of a soul in conflict. It is a battle. It is a warfare that rages in the heart. The conflict is very real. It is very intense. It is very strong. Of that there is no mistake.
It finds its summation in verse 25 – or verse 24 – “O wretched man that I am.” There is a wretchedness about this battle. There is a wretchedness about this conflict. And then the cry, “Who shall deliver me?” And then the affirmation. “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” But even knowing that, it concludes, “So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.”
Now some people say this is a Christian being described. And some people say this is a non-Christian. And people have been saying those two things ever since Romans 7 was written. Whole movements have depended for their very life on the interpretation of Romans 7. One side says there is too much bondage to sin for a Christian. The other says there’s too much desire for good for a non-Christian. You can’t be a Christian and be bound to sin and you can’t be a non-Christian and desire to keep the law of God. And therein is the conflict of interpreting the passage.
David Thompson: I am totally and completely convinced that Romans 7:13-24 is unequaled in its ability to produce spiritual victory in our lives and it is critical that we understand these verses very carefully. This text is one of the most controversial texts in the entire book of Romans.
The big controversy is this: Is Paul describing himself when he was spiritually unsaved? Is Paul describing himself when he had a struggle with fleshly carnality? Is Paul describing himself at a time when he came under conviction? Is Paul describing himself as a very spiritual and mature believer?
Those who believe Paul is describing an unsaved man do so on the basis that he says “he is sold into bondage to sin” (v. 14), that “nothing good dwells in me” (v. 18), and finally says “wretched man that I am” (v. 24). However, the biggest grammatical argument against this is that in verses 7-13 the verbs are aorist and in verses 14-24 the verbs are present tense, describing Paul’s present, continuous experience.
Those who believe Paul is describing a carnal Christian, who is dominated by the flesh, do so on the basis of the argument, that what we see here in this context is nothing but a defeated Christian who talks about his flesh problem (vv. 14, 18). However, if the context is carefully studied it is clear, that according to verse 25, Paul learns where victory is found – in one’s life through Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8).
Those who believe Paul is describing a man under conviction do so on the basis of the fact that Paul does not seem to describe one lost or one saved, but one in a state of conviction. The real problem with this is that one is either lost or saved. Again, Paul uses present tense verbs which indicate this is a continual situation, not a temporary moment of conviction.
We are far better to assume that Paul is writing these things and a very mature and spiritually minded apostle. This was the conviction of Augustine, Luther, Calvin and most of the serious Bible interpreters. Paul is describing the struggle of the Christian life and he will show where victory is found.
Now there is nothing easy about victory in the Christian life; it is a struggle. You will not be able to go to some weekend seminar and come out victorious. You will not be able to have some peak spiritual experience and defeat your flesh. You must be a spiritual realist like Paul. You must be able to spot sin, and one thing you must know if you are to have victory, is that you will not get it from the O.T. Law. The one thing you must understand is this:
THE LAW OF GOD IS NOT DESIGNED TO MAKE ONE SPIRITUAL, IT IS DESIGNED TO SHOW ONE IS SINFUL AND, THEREFORE, ONE WHO TRIES TO BE SPIRITUAL BY KEEPING THE LAW WILL BE ABSOLUTELY MISERABLE.
John Murray: The person portrayed in 7:14-25 is one whose will is toward that which is good (vvs. 15, 18, 19, 21) and the evil that he does is in violation of that which he wills and loves (vss. 16, 19, 20). This means, without doubt, that his most characteristic will, the prevailing bent and propension of his will, is the good. And this again is totally unlike the unregenerate man of 8:5-8. The man of 7:14-25 does bad things but he hates them and they violate the prevailing bent of his will to the good.
Bruce Hurt: This section has been one of the most controversial in the New Testament. The majority of commentators (e.g., John MacArthur, John Piper, Warren Wiersbe, S Lewis Johnson, Robert Mounce, Harry Ironside, Donald Barnhouse, Albert Barnes, William MacDonald, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Melanchthon, Beza, John Owen, Delitzsch, Hodge, Shedd, Kuyper, F F Bruce, and C E Cranfield, et al) favor this to be a description of a regenerate man (Paul) wrestling with the sinful propensities still present in his mortal body as it is in every saved person.
Steven Cole: We need to keep in mind that Paul’s main purpose is not to share this as an interesting story, but rather to establish the holiness and integrity of the law, while at the same time to show the law’s inability to deliver us from sin. To have consistent victory over sin, we must learn to rely moment by moment on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, which Paul explains in chapter 8.
I. (:13) THE BLAME FOR OUR DEATH FALLS NOT ON THE LAW, BUT ON THE AWFULNESS OF OUR SINFUL NATURE – WHICH THE LAW EXPOSES
A. Death Cannot Be Blamed on the Law
- Absurd Inference
“Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me?”
- Outright Rejection
“May it never be!”
B. Our Sinful Nature Deserves All the Blame
“Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.”
Frank Thielman: The verse serves a transitional function between 7:7–12 and 7:14–25. Like 7:7–12 it is set in the past (“did that which is good . . . ?”), and the rhetorical question with which it begins arises naturally out of Paul’s statement that sin “killed” him “through the commandment” (7:11). At the same time, however, its claim that sin became “extremely sinful” and its mention of the “death” that sin “produced” (κατεργαζομένη) in the individual anticipate the major themes and vocabulary of 7:14–25 (cf. especially 7:15, 17, 18, and 20). . .
The substance of the sentence is that sin rather than the good commandment was the cause of the individual’s death, and so the commandment is exonerated from blame for the death of the individual. With the two purpose clauses and the passive-voice verbs they contain, however, Paul addresses the deeper question of how, in a world that God oversees, sin could get away with using the law this way. Paul answers this implied question with a principle he has already articulated in 3:20, 4:15, 5:13, and 5:20. Sin did not steal the law from God and use it contrary to God’s intentions. Instead, the close association between the law and sin fulfilled one of God’s purposes in giving the law. When the law came into contact with human sin, it revealed sin’s true nature as a deceptive force that tricks people into disobeying God and thus suffering the inevitable consequence of death (cf. Gen 3:1–6).
John Toews: The law creates death by drawing boundaries which people cross. The second purpose of the law intensifies the first. The law serves to make Sin sinful to an extraordinary degree. It demonstrates the real character of Sin and its consequences, death. At precisely the time that Sin appears to have conquered the law, the law proclaims God’s will. It fulfills the divine purpose by revealing the radical sinfulness and awful result of Sin.
Ray Stedman: to expose the fact that this evil force (Sin) is in every one of us, waiting only for the right circumstance in order to spring into being (cf. God’s warning to Cain “sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Ge 4:7b, cp Ge 4:6, 8), overpower our will and carry us into things we never dreamed we would do. Many of us experience this. According to this passage, the great power of sin is that it deceives us (Ro 7:11–note). We think we have got life under control — and we are fooled. All sin is waiting for is the right occasion (Ro 7:8, 11-notes Ro 7:8; 7:11) when, like a powerful, idling engine, it roars into life and takes over at the touch of the accelerator and we find ourselves helplessly under its control. (The Continuing Struggle)
II. (:14-23) THE CHRISTIAN’S STRUGGLE INVOLVES CONTRADICTION, TENSION AND CONFUSION – 3 LAMENTS
Not speaking about the universal Human Struggle here; this struggle only applies to Christians; not talking about weak believers; in fact the more mature the Christian, the more he is aware of his utter sinfulness and of the struggle being waged between the Spirit and the flesh.
(Therefore, the presence of the struggle itself should be an encouragement that one is a believer.)
The key here is that you cannot become spiritual by keeping the law.
A. (:14-17) Lament #1 – Wrestling with Contradiction
- :14) The Condition: Constant Struggle between 2 Opposing Forces
a. The Spirit – Represented Here by God’s Righteous Law
“For we know that the Law is spiritual;”
Warren Wiersbe: 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.
b. The Flesh – Our Old Sin Nature that Still Plagues Us
“but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.”
How can a believer who is dead to sin still function at times as if he is very much alive to sin?
Cf. the Illustration of a chicken with its head cut off but still acts very much alive.
William R. Newell: This is slave-market talk: and it describes all of us by nature. Instead of being spiritual and therefore able to harken to, delight in and obey God’s holy, spiritual Law, we are turned back, since Adam sinned, to a fleshly condition, our spirits by nature dead to God, and our soul-faculties under the domination of the still unredeemed body (Romans, p. 292).
David Thompson: Paul is talking about a mature believer here. A new convert does not know this. A new convert or an immature believer knows that his sins are forgiven and that he is justified by faith and is joyful about that. But the new convert does not know that there is an evil nature that will soon raise its ugly sinful head and will rebel against God and pursue its own path.
The more spiritually minded we become, the more we will realize the goodness and holiness of God and the worthlessness of ourselves . We will more and more realize our need to depend on God’s grace and less and less depend on our works or attempts at keeping the Law.
John Murray: Paul recognizes that the flesh still resides in him (vss. 18, 25). This is closely associated if not synonymous with the fact that sin dwells in him (vss. 17, 20). If the flesh still dwells in him, it is inevitable that in respect of the “flesh” in him he should be called “fleshly”, and it is not inconsistent with his being regenerate that he should so characterize himself because of the flesh which is still his.
- (:15-16) The Proof of that Condition
“For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good.”
David Thompson: I want to point out the verb, “I do.” This is a key verb of this section. It appears in four verses – 15, 17, 19, and 20. The Greek verb (κατεργαζομαι) is one that literally means to achieve through labor (G Abbott-Smith, Greek Lexicon, p. 240). In this context it means to attempt to achieve through labor the works of the Law.
Paul is saying that he kept trying, by his own works, to keep the perfect Law of God and couldn’t understand why he could not do it. He wanted so desperately to have victory over sin, but he kept losing and doing the very thing he hated. This was a major theological concession for Paul because at one time he thought he could keep the Law blamelessly before God (Philippians 3:6, 9).
This verse combats two extreme faulty notions:
- The possibility of sinless perfectionism.
- The promotion of sinful antinomianism.
- (:17) The Source of that Condition = Indwelling Sin
“So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me.”
B. (:18-20) Lament #2 – Wrestling with Tension
- (:18a) The Condition = Nothing Good Dwells in My Flesh
“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh;”
James Stifler: This dirge does not advance the argument one step. It comes to the same conclusion as the last one and in the same terms – “sin that dwelleth in me.” But, while it does not advance, it emphasizes by becoming more specific. There he introduced the metaphor of a house: “sin dwells in me.” He now shows that sin occupies every room in the whole abode: “there does not dwell in me a good thing.” Sin lodges in every chamber form the cellar to the roof.
- (:18b-19) The Proof of that Condition
“for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.”
“For the good that I wish, I do not do;
but I practice the very evil that I do not wish.”
- (:20) The Source of that Condition = Indwelling Sin
“But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish,
I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.”
C. (:21-23) Lament #3 – Wrestling with Confusion
- (:21) The Condition = Evil is Present in Me
“I find then the principle that evil is present in me,
the one who wishes to do good.”
- (:22) The Proof of that Condition
“For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man,”
- (:23) The Source of that Condition = Indwelling Sin
“but I see a different law in the members of my body,
waging war against the law of my mind,
and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.”
John Murray: When we ask how the evil can be present when there is the determinate will to the good, the answer resides in the fact that there are two antithetical laws, the law of God and the law of sin, both of which bear upon our persons and are therefore registered in us in a way that reflects the antithesis in which they stand to each other.
III. (:24-25) NEVERTHELESS, THE CHRISTIAN LIVES WITH A CONFIDENT HOPE FOR COMPLETE DELIVERANCE THROUGH CHRIST
A. (:24) Cry for Deliverance
- Wretched Condition
“Wretched man that I am!”
- Desperate Plea
“Who will set me free from the body of this death?”
B. (:25a) Thanksgiving for Ultimate Deliverance
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
David Thompson: What is the answer? Who is the answer? It is found in verse 25. Recognize that spiritual victory is not found by keeping the law; it is found in Jesus Christ. As long as a person tries to keep the law he will live in misery. But when one focuses on Jesus Christ, he can have a life of victory.
John Murray: This is the answer to the question of vs. 24, and it expresses triumphant assurance of ultimate deliverance from the body of this death and from the captivity to the law of sin which elicits the anguish of his complaint. The “heart-rending cry” cannot therefore be construed as one of despair; it must never be dissociated from the sequel of confident hope. What is in view in this thanksgiving? If “the body of this death” refers to the body through which the law of sin carries on its warfare, then no other interpretation suits the terms of the thanksgiving itself or the analogy of Paul’s teaching more adequately or relevantly than the assurance of the resurrection. That it parallels 1 Cor. 15:57, where the hope of the resurrection is beyond question, is not by any means an unreasonable supposition. And what could be more relevant to the anguish which the exclamation expresses and to the consideration that the body is the body of the death alluded to than the assurance of the deliverance that will be wrought when the body of our humiliation will be transformed into the likeness of the body of Christ’s glory (Phil. 3:21) as that which believers groan and wait for (8:23)? It was not death that Paul longed for as the blessed hope but the deliverance bestowed when the corruptible will put on incorruption and the mortal immortality (1 Cor. 15:4; 2 Cor. 5:4). The terseness of the thanksgiving in no way unsuits it as the formula of eschatological hope. It brings to the forefront the power and grace of God and the mediation of Christ, the elements which makeup the essence of the hope to come.
C. (:25b) Reality of Continuing Struggle
- The Spirit – Represented by the Law of God
“So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God,”
- The Flesh
“but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.”