14 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15 For what 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 want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 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. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! 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. (Romans 7:14-25)
I was once told by one of my professors that the further she went in her education, i.e. Master’s/ Doctorate, etc., the more she was made aware of what she did not know. This is an interesting concept that understanding the vastness of knowledge available becomes more apparent the more you seek it. This passage in Romans is a very controversial one. Scholars argue who is writing it. Obviously with the use of “I” we expect it to be Paul, but which Paul? Was it the non-Christian Paul? The newly converted Paul? Or Paul in the anointing of writing 2/3 of the New Testament? Was it the same Paul that would say,
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21).
“What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage that I may gain Christ.” (Phil. 3:8)
This passage has been one of the hardest for me to understand as I continue to study it. It seems like a lot of talking in circles and doesn’t look to be consistent with the rest of what Paul has been teaching on the surface. But, as we dive deeper into what is being conveyed, I think we answer the first question on which Paul is writing this as well as understanding more how all of it is linked together with this gospel of grace that we have been spending so much time on.
What we see here is conflict. We must know that there is a war going on between good and evil in this world. Paul refers to this war in depth in Ephesians 6.
“10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16 in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6: 10-17)
But, not only is this war going on in the world, it is going on inside each one of us. Our spirit has died and been resurrected with Christ, but the flesh, our mortal body (part of the cursedness we were born under), is still very much present and powerful. The law has been used to expose our sin and our need for the redemption of this nature. In our new self, we can start to see its beauty. The glory of God exudes through the righteousness of his law, but it doesn’t change our inability to follow it in our own strength. This is where the struggle takes place. We are now able to love the law, but we still are incapable to follow it.
15 For what 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.
19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.
Before we were redeemed, the law had no appeal to us. It was condemning, it was damning, it was much easier to just disagree with, or even more dangerous, twist it to fit our own wants, desires, and agendas. After this union with Christ, we now desire to follow the law. But, as we struggle to keep doing things through our own power, the flesh, we deal with the frustration of not being able to. The more we seek Him and His holiness, the more we see that we can’t behave in a way that meets that standard.
“24 Wretched man that I am!”
Where this struggle gets confusing is in where the blame of sin should go.
“17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.” (Romans 7:17-20).
This sounds like a copout. “The devil made me do it.” But, if we look further, I think that we can see it more as encouragement that there is a method to this madness. The desire is there for me to do right because I now have the Spirit of the One that is righteous inside of me. Before, I could care less. There is no conviction by the Spirit in a soul that is dead because of sin. But now, I really want to be different; my desires have changed. Unfortunately, I am still not able to act or even think in the desirable way. The reason for this is because my mortal, dying flesh is still present.
Part of this process of sanctification is the journey with which the transformation takes place. Our first death, when we die to the dominion of sin, is just the beginning of the sanctification process. Our second death, when our mortal body perishes, we have seen Him complete that process in us. Remember, we no longer have the excuse to sin because it is no longer in control. However, we must choose to not let it control us.
12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts,13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. (Romans 6:12-13).
It no longer has dominion, but it is still very powerful. So, because our desires have changed and our bondage has been broken to its ownership, when we do fall into its grips, we must understand that it is no longer our innermost being that is causing this sin. Now, the sin is caused by the weakness of our flesh, and not the result of who we are at our core. This is not a copout or a license to sin any more than it is to say that we are no longer under law. It becomes further proof of our need for Christ to reign in our lives and our constant need to turn our lives over to Him.
“…Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24b-25a).
The illustration of this struggle proves to me that this passage was written by the extremely mature Christian Paul. The more he dives into the goodness of God, the more he sees the depravity of his own nature and the more dependent that he becomes of Jesus. The more that he sees how wretched that he is, the more grateful he becomes for the grace of God. When our sanctification process is complete, we stand in the presence of God, and for eternity we sing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty.” There must be something amazing that we learn at that point about his amazingness that blows our mind in order for us to eagerly seek eternity spent singing praises to His name. I think Paul had a glimpse of this by the point that this passage was penned.