Lesson 24: Romans 7:13-25
No one has to be told that all humans have an on-going struggle with sin.
Our own experience, and the direct statements of the Bible, confirm that even the redeemed in Christ struggle with the continuing influence of a fallen nature. This struggle leads some to doubt their salvation and fall into discouragement. It makes some give up the battle in their war with sin. It instigates others to devise strange remedies of mystical awakenings and insights as if sin could be conquered by just the right attitude, experience, or knowledge.
These are tragic errors. They mislead and hurt people who care about their Savior. So Paul deals with this problem in these middle chapters of his Letter to the Romans. There is a right way to engage the enemy of sin as the war wages on.
Paul had just explained that before he was regenerated by God’s grace, he had lived superficially. He thought he was able to keep the law well enough to earn God’s blessings. Of course, only a very shallow view of God’s law could lead to a conclusion like that. He saw himself as very much alive spiritually and innocent before God. He was completely blind to the sin that condemned him and made all his pious deeds worthless.
Then something revolutionary happened in his soul. The Holy Spirit came and changed his heart. The Spirit used the law of God to show Paul that he was not as good as he supposed. Sin was thriving in places he had not expected to find it. Not only was it wrong to steal or to commit adultery, the law now showed him it was wrong even to covet such things. With his spiritually opened eyes he saw the inner spiritual nature of the law of God. What he thought was proof that he was spiritually alive proved the opposite. So when the law came in its real meaning sin revived and he found himself to be spiritually dead.
The Holy Spirit made the gospel known to him. Once he saw his own depravity he could appreciate the wonders of the work of Jesus Christ. He realized that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah who died in place of his people to remove their guilt and to restore them to fellowship with God.
The law took on a whole new meaning for him. Instead of thinking of it as a way to earn his way to blessing, he saw it as God’s guide for showing his thankfulness for his salvation by grace alone. He found that the law was never a way to life. Instead, its moral principles were, are, and always will be the way of life for those redeemed by the work of the Savior.
Paul begins this next section of Romans 7 with a question:
Romans 7:13, “Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful.”
The law works a wonderful achievement in the sinner touched by God the Holy Spirit. He is humbled before God to see things as they really are. He sees the depth of his own sin and is driven in repentance to the Savior. He sees that Jesus Christ fulfilled all that which the laws of sacrificial worship promised. He paid the debt of sin in the sinner’s place. There, by trusting in this work of the Redeemer alone, the rescued sinner finds great comfort and peace as the weight of his guilt is lifted. The law is not the cause of death. It exposes a death that was there all along. It reveals the true state of things, and becomes the backdrop against which the redeemed behold the full grandeur of grace. God’s law not only reveals our sin, it also provides a continuing guide for grateful and victorious Christian living.
Paul explains the struggle that is so real to every believer.
Romans 7:14-23, “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
This can be a difficult passage if not taken in the context of the flow of Paul’s reasoning. Its basic meaning is very simple and obvious. Paul is dealing with our agonizingly familiar struggle with sin. However, some want to take it in a less self-condemning way. They invent ways to explain away the personal conflict we all face as the redeemed children of God.
Some suggest that Paul is only talking about the struggle of unbelievers. Since he uses himself as an example, they imagine he is speaking of his life before he was a Christian. But the unbeliever never struggles against sin in the way described here.
In the previous section (6:1-7:12) Paul explained how the felt about sin before the Lord changed him. Back then he was a leader among the Pharisees. He saw no spiritual problem in his life. He imagined himself to be spiritually alive and morally good. It was not until the Spirit opened his eyes by the law that he realized sin was the enemy within. It is only the regenerated believer who struggles in this way against sin. The unbeliever has no inner love for the law of God. Therefore this section cannot possibly refer to the struggle of the unbeliever
Others suggest that Paul is speaking of different classes of believers. They imagine that there are some believers who know Christ as Savior, but not as Lord. They invent a system where a person can be cleansed from the guilt of sin, but not changed within. To them this section is only speaking of those “carnal” christians who have not yet discovered the secret of moving up to being “spiritual Christians”.
The Bible never speaks of different classes of believers. Either you are redeemed by Christ and changed, or you are not. All who are redeemed struggle with sin in this life, and each progresses differently, but no one gets a special rank that elevates him above the others. Only the spiritually proud would imagine themselves to be a special class within the body of Christ.
When Paul says he is “carnal”, and calls the Corinthians “carnal” in his letter to them, he is not saying they need to get some second work of grace. He is simply saying what we all know to be true: though we are born again, and released from our condemnation, we still struggle with the remains of sin. There is no simple and quick solution to our struggle. Instead of trying to explain away the battle, we need to learn how to fight battle.
Paul shows us that there are two opposing principles at work.
1. the principle of righteousness
The believer is assured that the guilt of his sin is paid for by Christ. He understands that his guilt is deserved and very real, but it is paid for. By his life and death, Jesus took on the penalty the believer deserved so that he could be forgiven without violating justice. The holy life of Jesus is credited to the believer so that God views him as holy. The believer wants to thank God for that grace by living an obedient life. Once fellowship with God is restored by Christ, an inner change takes place. Sin is no longer defended. The believer begins to want to live obediently. This engenders a love for the law and a desire to honor God by it. Clearly Paul shows that inwardly he wants to do what is right. There is now a principle of righteousness at work in him. Though he does evil, he doesn’t desire to be a sinner (verse 19). In verse 22 Paul wrote, “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man.”
God’s law is spiritual. It is applied by the Holy Spirit to the inner part of man. In contrast, Paul still struggles with the former ways of sin.
2. the principle of evil
There is another principle at work, the principle of evil present with him (7:21). Though the believer wants to do right he finds that he does not always do it. The remains and habits of sin are not gone and are hard to overcome. Paul sees himself caught in a struggle, a true spiritual war (7:23). The war is not just against the world around him. He finds that it is also in his own heart. The believer, though redeemed and regenerated, is in one sense in bondage to sin (7:23). The imperfection of our souls will never be removed until we are united with Christ in eternal glory.
Obviously there are different ways in which we are in “bondage” here.
The scope of captivity or bondage is always specific. It rarely includes everything imaginable. For example, Israel was in “bondage” in Egypt. However, even as slaves they were free to pray. God used their prayers to end their slavery through his deliverance by Moses. Their bondage was only outward. Satan is said to be bound in this age in Revelation 20:1-3. That does not mean he is inactive. Far from that! He is only said to be locked up in bondage so that he will no longer deceive the Gentiles (Revelation 20:3). When the Gentiles started becoming the main part of the church, it proved that Satan no longer held them in his deception as a whole group. So also, the bondage Paul speaks of here and in the previous section is limited. Therefore in one sense we are free from bondage to sin. In another sense we are still bound to sin.
In the last section Paul said that we are set free from bondage to sin. He did not mean that we are now free from ever sinning again. That much is obvious. He was making it clear that we are no longer under sin as our master in two specific ways:
1. We are free from the condemnation of sin as demanded by God’s justice. The law demands that sinners die. This death is not just physical. It includes spiritual death, total separation from fellowship with the Creator forever. Jesus paid that infinitely large price in place of his people. Believers are set free from the horrors of damnation which they deserve. They are no longer bound to the legal penalties of sin because those debts have been paid.
2. We are also set free from the disposition that always inclines the lost person away from honoring God. In our lost condition we are unable to do anything truly good. No unredeemed person is motivated by a love of God and directed to live for their Creator’s true glory. In Christ we are set free from that evil master, and bound to a love for righteousness. We are made able to do truly good things for God’s glory. Obedience is not for self-benefit. It is done humbly out of love for the Redeemer. We never contribute to our redemption. Jesus alone does that. In this sense we are no longer in bondage to sin as our master.
Here, just a few verses later, Paul says we are in bondage to sin. He obviously means it in a different sense. In this section he is not talking about the legal debt of sin, or the spiritual deadness of our captive heart. Here he is talking about the on-going influence of sin in our lives. Clearly no one can claim that we are totally set free from ever sinning by trusting in Jesus Christ as his Savior. The Apostle John put it this way in 1 John 1:8-10, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just 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.”
Since sin is our continuing enemy, we better know how to fight the battle!
We need to fight sin as those who trust in the power and love of our Savior, Jesus Christ. The unbeliever fights against the consequences of his sins, not against the sins themselves. He wants to avoid the bad outcome, but not because it is wrong and offends God. He knows that if he steals he might go to jail, but he fails to see it as stealing when he keeps extra money he gets because of a mistake at the checkout counter. He knows he should never murder because of the bad results if he gets caught. However he justifies his hatred of people he sees as annoying. He is willing to kill unborn babies rather than control his sexual urges. He knows that if he is unfaithful to his wife he might get thrown out of the house, not be able to visit his children, or have to pay alimony. He avoids abusing alcohol and drugs because it might cost him his job. He knows that if he lies people might not trust him anymore. If he believes he can keep out of trouble or get away with it, he will gladly mislead and deceive. He knows he should worship and go to church because he fears hell and damnation, but he wants worship to be entertaining, worth his time, and for the sermon to stay away from pointing out sin and responsibility too clearly.
The reason he is so hypocritical is that the undredeemed person is still in bandage to the guilt of his sins, and his disposition remains inclined toward self-interests over the glory of the true God. The unbeliever has not only the principle of evil in him, but in place of the principle of righteousness he has a principle of unrighteousness. He battles sin only so that things will go well for him in conscience and for personal gain.
The believer looks on the battle with sin very differently. He wants to do right because he knows that sin offends the God who has redeemed him. The principle of unrighteousness has been replaced with the principle of righteousness. When he sins he grieves because he knows that his loving Shepherd is grieved. As Paul explains here, he has learned to “… delight in the law of God according to the inward man,” (7:22). He wants to do good for God’s glory, not for harps, halos, or a home in the clouds. His sin bothers him greatly. He confesses it most sincerely, and by the power of his risen Lord he works hard to overcome it.
These are important promises for the believer. He has the power of the living Savior at work in him to enable him to do what is truly God honoring. He has the assurance that when he sins, his guilt is paid for. In light of the enormity of the Redeemer’s work on his behalf, grace overwhelms him. He knows he does not receive the penalty he deserves. He knows by God’s own promise in the Scriptures, that while he battles all his life to overcome sin, yet he cannot lose the forgiveness and new birth he has by God’s grace.
The remains of sin are not the chains of sin.
Of course there will not always be a steady and clear day by day improvement. Sometimes he will sin most disappointingly and grievously. To him, the inner-sins seem so much more offensive as he matures spiritually. His awareness of his sin increases. However, in the overall view of things, he is growing in Christ.
How is it that in 7:17 Paul says, “But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.”? Obviously he is not excusing his sin as if he wasn’t to blame, or that another person in him did it. He is expressing that inner battle we all know when we come to love God’s moral principles, but are humbly convicted about our lapses into sin. Paul is saying here that he is not altogether behind it. While he sins most willingly, yet part of him is deeply upset by it for God’s sake. So it is not the whole person that is running after sin as it was before his redemption. It’s that sin part in him, his yet unsanctified remains of sin, that drive him to do wrong.
Finally Paul cries out in agony, but not in despair.
Romans 7:24-25, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God — through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.”
He finds relief, comfort, and hope in the promise of his living Savior.
The battle with sin is not a mystical clash of impersonal forces that pull us against our will. It is a simple matter of us who are yet imperfect fighting with all we can to grow in Christ. We draw from the power of our Creator, having been restored to fellowship with him by the righteousness imputed to us from our Savor.
This is truly a war. The enemy is not only out there trying to bring us down. He lies within. It is a battle we each will fight all our lives. There is no easy escape. We have all the weapons we need to wage the war, and we have the power of Christ which ensures us that the war is already won.
One day the moral struggles of this life will be over. We will enjoy complete victory. For the rest of eternity that struggle with sin will be over. Heaven is far more than a tranquil resort for harp loving cloud dwellers. That pagan view of glory has little appeal to the true believer.
What God promises is far far better. One day each of us will know what it is like to no longer be at battle with indwelling sin! There will be no more habits of evil to overcome or to fight off. We will struggle no more with offenses from which to repent.We will know no more weeping because we have grieve our God. We will live in a sin-free state in the glorious presence of God for all eternity.
Meanwhile, never lose heart. By using all the means God has given you, keep up the battle resting by the power of Christ which alone enables his children to progress toward the Savior’s likeness, and to be dying more and more to sin’s presence.
by Bob Burridge ©2011
(The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)