In her book, Joni, Joni Ericson Toda describes her first distressing realization of the grim reality of her paralysis. Joni was only 15 when she was permanently paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a diving accident. She was rushed to the hospital for extensive tests and x-rays to determine the extent of her injury. As she lay unclothed on a hospital cart, the sheet covering her slipped to the side leaving her partially exposed. In her modesty, Joni desperately wanted to cover herself, a small task easily and quickly accomplished before her accident. But now, as much as she wanted to make her arms and hands move, they simply would not respond. Joni knew in her mind exactly what she wanted to do, but her body was totally unresponsive. You and I can only taste of Joni’s struggle in small portions. My body generally does what I ask it to do nowadays, although to my chagrin, it does it slower and not nearly as well. It is threatening that some day it might not even respond to my requests at all.
Paul describes in the Book of Romans a much deeper frustration—one with which only Christians can identify and one with which all Christians can identify. The Christian’s agony comes from realizing that our sinful flesh refuses to respond to the requirements of God’s Law. Those things which we as Christians despise we find ourselves doing. Those things which we as Christians desire we fail to accomplish. No matter how much we may wish to serve God in our minds, we find ourselves sinning in our bodies. As Paul describes his frustration in Romans 7, with his mind he desires to serve God. He agrees with the Law of God and rejoices in it. He wants to do what is right, but his body will not respond. He watches, almost as a third party, as sin sends a signal to his body, and as his body responds, “What would you like to do?” Paul finds, as we do, that while our fleshly bodies refuse to obey God and do that which we desire and which delights God, they quickly and eagerly respond to the impulses and desires aroused by sin.
Joni’s difficulty only partially describes the analogy of Romans 7, for it is one thing to have our body not do what we tell it to and quite another to realize that our body is very obedient to something else. That is the frustration of Paul in Romans 7. Every Christian who reads Romans 7:14-25 should immediately identify with Paul’s expression of frustration and agony due to the weakness of his fleshly body: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). We are confronted with a dilemma as we try to live righteously. If there were no answer for this question, we would hardly dare to press on. But there is an answer! Thanks be to God, there is a solution!
Some of our most tender nerves are touched by Paul’s teaching in verses 14-25. For the truths taught here could be taken as the most depressing and hopeless realities of our lives. But Paul does not dwell on the weakness of our flesh in order to discourage us. Rather, Paul exposes the weakness of our flesh as the root problem which prevents Christians from living the kind of lives God requires and which we, as Christians, desire in our innermost being. Paul exposes the weakness of our flesh to prepare us for God’s provision for godly living, the solution found in Romans 8. Those of us willing to honestly identify with the agony of Romans 7 will be ready for the ecstasy of God’s gracious provision for living righteously in Romans 8. If Romans 7 takes the Christian to an all time low, Romans 8 takes us to a refreshing high. Let us welcome these words of encouragement as a revelation from God, for these verses are God’s good news for sinners.
Paul lays down his argument in Romans 1-11 as he builds to three peaks. The first peak is found in Romans 3:21-26 where in verse 21 Paul, with great joy and enthusiasm, presents the good news: God has provided the righteousness which all men lack and which God requires for eternal life. In Romans 8:1-17, we come to the second peak of the book when Paul tells the Christian that God has provided the means for righteous living which all Christians lack. Finally, in Romans 11, Paul tells us of God’s work among His people, the Jews, in bringing about their righteousness by means of the Gentiles in His sovereign program for His people.
In each case, only after Paul demonstrates the need for righteousness and man’s inability to produce it by his own works does Paul introduce the righteousness which God provides and produces. In Romans 1:18–3:20, Paul demonstrates the universal sinfulness of all men, Jews and Gentiles. Man’s desperately sinful condition is summarized in Romans 3:10-18, where Paul employs the Old Testament Scriptures themselves to prove his point that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.
Romans 7:14-25 is similar to Romans 3:10-18. These verses sum up the Christian’s utter inability to live righteously, in his own strength. Rather than citing the Old Testament Scriptures here, Paul refers to his own experience as we read of his final cry of despair in Romans 7:24. The darkest hour of Romans 5-7 comes just before the dawn of Romans 8.
Romans 5 begins by assuring the Christian of the certainty of salvation and of its many blessings in which we boast. The basis for our struggle with sin (in Adam), as well as the basis for our victory over sin (in Christ), is exposed in the last half of chapter 5. Romans 6 stresses the necessity of living righteously, not in sin as we once lived before our salvation. Romans 7:1-6 speaks of our death to the Law and the freedom this grants us to be joined to Christ and to produce the fruit of righteousness. In Romans 7:7-13, Paul establishes the goodness of God’s Law and the wickedness of sin. Now, in Romans 7:14-25, Paul brings us to the root of the problem, the cause of our constant defeat by sin: our own flesh, the “body of this death” (verse 24).
This portion of Scripture is fraught with problems and different interpretations, and even some would say that this is a description of Paul as an unbeliever. Many of us are uncomfortable with the fact that Christians struggle, and yet it seems that one must begin by saying this is the struggle of a Christian. In the Book of Romans we are not in the salvation section but in the sanctification section. Christians and non-Christians alike struggle, but they struggle with very different things. The non-Christian’s enemy is God and ultimately the struggle of the unbeliever is his struggle with God. His distress and troubles are a manifestation of the wrath of God. We were born in our transgressions and sin; we were at enmity with God—sin is not the problem. For the Christian, sin is the enemy. And that changes only at conversion so that the struggle Paul is describing is his personal struggle with sin as a believer.
Before considering Paul’s teaching verse by verse, we need to make several observations concerning this text as a whole.
(1) Paul changes from the past tense in verses 7-13 to the present tense in verses 14-25. This change strongly suggests (as other evidence will confirm at least to my satisfaction) that while Paul speaks of his experience as a non-Christian in verses 7-13, he is now speaking of his experience as a Christian in verses 14-25.
(2) Note the progression in our text which presses on to the problem which is the source of the spiritual struggle of every Christian—the awesome power of sin. Paul begins by stating that the problem is not with the Law of God but with his own flesh (verses 14-16). He then goes on to show that the real culprit is sin and not the flesh (verses 17-23). Sin is evil; the flesh is weak.
(3) In our text, Paul is describing his own personal struggle with sin. This is the most dramatic testimony of Paul’s struggle with sin. We have little difficulty believing that we struggle with sin or that others like Peter struggled, but Paul somehow seems above it all. This is a misconception, as our theology should remind us, and as Paul’s words instruct us. Paul’s struggle is a deeply personal struggle, with sin and with his own flesh. It is a war within. It is a war which results from his conversion, a war which did not exist until he was saved.
(4) Paul is not able to understand or to precisely analyze his own struggle with sin. I remember reading Don Baker’s book, Depression, in which he describes his own deep depression, hospitalization, and recovery from what we would call a nervous breakdown. Baker had no quick and easy explanation either for his breakdown or for his recovery. Paul tells his reader that he does not understand what he is doing (verse 15).
We tend to think of Paul as the man with all the answers. If anyone can understand sin and our struggle with it, it would be Paul. But in our text Paul is the one struggling, and he does not offer a quick and easy explanation. This is because sin cannot be understood. Sin is irrational. We try to rationalize our sinful actions to make it appear that we have reasons, good reasons, for our sin. But there is no good reason for sin. Sin is an irrational act which has no easy, rational explanation.
(5) Paul is not trying to supply us with the solution to his problem but simply describing the immensity of the problem of sin and the intensity of his struggle with it. The solution to the Christian’s struggle with sin is explained in Romans 8. The struggle is described in Romans 7. While we are eager to hear God’s solution, we must first be convinced of the seriousness of the problem. Drastic situations require drastic measures. This situation is drastic, as are the measures God outlines in chapter 8.
14 For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15 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.
In Romans 7:7-13, Paul has shown that God’s Law is “holy, righteous, and good” (7:12). In verse 14, Paul makes a very significant statement: “The Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” Paul seems to be saying this: “The Law is not the problem, I am.” We might paraphrase it this way: “The Law is spiritual. I am carnal.” Both statements catch us somewhat off guard. Both need explanation and clarification.
The Law has already been shown to be “holy, righteous, and good.” Now Paul tells us something more, “The Law is spiritual.” Just how is the Law “spiritual”? How does being “spiritual” differ from being “holy, righteous, and good”? To understand and agree with Paul’s words, we must take several important matters into account:
(1) Paul is speaking specifically of the Law of Moses and not just “law” in general.
(2) As such, the Law of Moses was given by God. God was the Author of the Law.
(3) The Law of Moses is Scripture, “… inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16; see also Romans 15:4).
(4) The Law defines and reveals sin, showing men to be sinners, under divine condemnation and in need of a righteousness not their own.
(5) The Law reveals the character of God to men. It also anticipates and bears witness to the righteousness of God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.
(6) It defines sins and determines their penalties so that those who break the Law can be punished (see 1 Timothy 1:7-11).
(7) Far more than being a mere set of rules, the Law is suggestive, giving those who seek God much fuel for meditation, prayer, and praise.
(8) The Law cannot be understood apart from divine illumination (see Psalm 119, especially verses 8, 26-27, 32, 33-34); 1 Corinthians 2:6–3:3). No man can understand God’s revelation apart from the Spirit of God. The Law is spiritual; it therefore requires the Spirit to interpret it to unspiritual men.
(9) The Law is not concerned merely with externals but with man’s heart and spirit.
(10) The Law turns men from trusting in themselves and points them to God, in Whom alone they must trust and worship.
The Law is not Paul’s problem. Paul tells us that he is the problem. The Law is “spiritual,” and he is not. He is “of flesh.” His nature, by birth and by virtue of his union with Adam, is fallen. His fleshly nature is hostile toward God and friendly toward sin. Nothing good dwells in his flesh. His nature impairs not only his ability to comprehend the Law of God but inclines him to disobey it even if he did understand.
Imagine that I had been stricken with a fatal ailment, and I would soon die. I learn that an Hispanic doctor has discovered a cure—if only I can contact the doctor, my cure is certain. But there are problems: the doctor is in Mexico and speaks only Spanish. I live far away and speak only English. I am also intensely prejudiced against Hispanics and even if I could understand him, I would be completely unwilling to accept this man’s cure.
Paul’s flesh is in “bondage to sin” (verse 14). Because of this, the standards set by the Law are not met. Those things which the Law requires, Paul finds himself failing to do. Those things which the Law prohibits, Paul finds himself practicing. He does the very things he hates (verse 15). One thing can be learned from Paul’s confusing and chaotic condition and conduct: if not in his actions, at least in his attitude, Paul agrees with the Law of God, confessing it to be good (verse 16). Paul hates those sins which the Law condemns. Thus Paul is in agreement with the Law. Paul wishes to do what the Law commands. Paul is, once again, in fundamental agreement with the Law. Paul’s mind is in agreement with God’s Law, but his flesh is opposed to it. The Law is not the problem; Paul is.
17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish. 20 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. 21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes 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?
Paul recognizes his fundamental agreement with the Law. As he has shown, this testifies to his own appraisal of the goodness of the Law (verse 16). But the problem goes even farther than this. His agreement with the Law shows that the source of the problem is not Paul, but the strength of sin. Nothing good indwells Paul’s flesh, but sin is present in him.
Paul’s flesh is naturally opposed to God, to His Law, and to anything righteous. Paul’s flesh is responsive to sin. Paul’s flesh (his fallen nature—all that he was before he came to faith in Christ) has become sin’s sanctuary. In one sense, Paul is a prisoner of his own flesh. Deep within himself, Paul wishes to do that which God’s Law defines as good. He desires not to do that which the Law calls sin. His desires conform to God’s Law. His deeds reject and resist God’s Law. He is almost schizophrenic in his spiritual life.
But Paul’s agreement with the Law of God in his mind shows that he is not really the one practicing sin. He is being held as a hostage by sin, in his own flesh! What he is doing, he is doing against his own will! Paul has been taken prisoner by sin. Sin has taken advantage of the weakness of his flesh and has perverted the Law to entice men to sin, rather than to keep them from sin.
Paul’s flesh is weak, and he is overpowered by sin. Paul’s escape and deliverance must take place by his deliverance from his own sinful flesh, his “body of death.” Listen once again to his agonizing cry for help:
Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (Romans 7:24).
If there is anything clear in this text it is the intensity of the problem. The desperate struggle in the life of the Christian to do what is right on his own power leads to complete frustration and failure - even the apostle Paul says this is his experience.
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.
Paul’s deliverance from the power of sin which takes advantage of him by means of his weakened and fallen flesh is through Jesus Christ and His cross. Just as the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ was God’s provision for the righteousness we lack for eternal life, so the cross of Christ is God’s provision for the righteousness He requires of His saints. We will find the explanation in chapter 8, but Paul does not leave us hanging with no hope.
Paul’s condition is repeated once more in verse 25. He is living two lives. In his mind, Paul agrees with the Law of God and submits himself to it. But in his flesh, Paul finds his body in service to sin. I am reminded of the way I felt during a radio pledge week a few years ago. My family was committed to the support of this Christian radio station but found the making of a pledge contrary to our convictions. We also had strong reservations about having our names and the amount of our donation broadcast. As we were listening to those who pledged to give, to our utter amazement and chagrin we heard our own daughter’s name. Unknown to us, she had called in to make a pledge. I felt something like Paul, knowing that he had unwillingly become a part of something he did not agree with or desire.
This text is foundational to our view of the Christian life. As we conclude, allow me to point out some important truths and their implications for our lives.
(1) There is an intense struggle going on within the Christian. Conversion to Christ does not instantly solve all our problems. It even results in some problems we had never experienced as unbelievers. Before our salvation, we were never in opposition with sin. We were unknowingly the slaves of sin, all along thinking we were serving our own interests. Before our conversion, we were enemies of God. Our struggle was the result of our opposition to Him and His present judgment in our lives. As a result of faith in Christ, our animosity toward God ended and a new animosity—toward sin—began. The struggle which Paul is describing in Romans 7:14-25 is the result of his conversion.
(2) An overwhelming sense of despair over our struggle with sin and our defeat by it is an essential step in the solution to this problem. Paul’s despair was legitimate and even necessary. Until we hate sin, we will not turn from it. Until we reach the end of ourselves, we will not look to God. Just as unsaved men and women must come to the end of themselves in order to receive God’s gracious provision of righteousness, by faith in Christ, Christians too must come to the end of themselves to find the solution, once again, at the cross of Calvary.
(3) The problem with many Christians is not their despair, like that of Paul, but their lack of it. If coming to the end of ourselves is essential to turning to God for our deliverance, then many Christians will never turn to God for victory over sin because they do not recognize their true condition or take it seriously enough. It was the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees who did not come to Jesus for forgiveness simply because they did not think they needed it. It is the “smooth-sailing saints” who do not come to the cross for deliverance from the power of sin in their lives because they do not agonize over their condition as Paul did. My concern is that I lack the kind of agony that Paul has. I lack the kind of intensity that Paul has.
Why is it I do not feel the struggle as much as he does? How can Christians fail to identify with Paul here in Romans 7? Let me suggest several reasons.
We fail to agonize over sin because we have redefined our old sins, giving them new Christian labels. Aggressive, self-assertiveness, once condemned as sin, now becomes “zeal for the Lord.” These are the same vices, the same sins, but we now sanctify them by putting Christian labels on them.
We live superficial, hypocritical lives, which deny the reality of our sin, and our failure to live as God requires.
We ignore and reject God’s Law, as though it were “of flesh,” while we are the ones who are spiritual (the exact opposite of what Paul says in verse 14).
We teach Christians to “cope” with their sin. Paul never teaches Christians to cope. In effect, we say to Christians that they need to learn to live with the agony. Paul says, “No, you don’t. You need to have that agony so intense that you can’t live with it, and you can only turn to God.”
We seek to convert our socially unacceptable sins to those sins which are socially acceptable. We know that robbery and murder are unacceptable to society, and so we redirect our sinful energies in areas which serve our own self-interest, but in ways which bring us the commendation of others, rather than their condemnation. We give up those sins for which society puts men in prison and take up those sins for which society will make us president.
We appeal to unholy motives in order to produce conduct which appears righteous. We use pride, ambition, greed, and guilt within the church, making these illicit motives the reasons for acceptable conduct.
We cannot stand to see people “putting themselves down” and thinking of themselves as wretched creatures, and so we attempt to build their self-esteem. We would not turn Paul to the cross for the solution to his problem; we would rebuke him for his poor self-esteem, and put him in a class or program which made him feel good about himself.170
Those of us who are Christians and can identify with Paul are blessed. Those of us who cannot identify with Paul are to be pitied. It is not that we are plagued because we think too little of ourselves, but because we do not take sin seriously enough. The agony of Romans 7 is a prerequisite for the ecstasy of Romans chapter 8.
(4) Sin is complicated, but its solution is simple. Paul has already said it—sin is beyond our comprehension. We do not understand it. We cannot understand it. But we do not have to understand it in order to solve the dilemma it poses.
I know a young man who was converted to Jesus Christ. He was a homosexual before his conversion, and he also practiced homosexuality as a Christian. He found the solution in the cross of Jesus Christ. In speaking to a group of ministers, he said something very important. “Do not try to understand, and please do not try to identify with me in terms of my homosexuality. You cannot and should not understand. You do not need to understand. Identify with me on the level that we all struggle with—sin, due to the weakness of our flesh.”
He is absolutely right. Whatever form sin might take, the solution is the same. The solution to sin is not to be found in understanding it. The biblical solution to sin is not to be found in any other provision than that of the cross of Calvary, the teaching of God’s Word, and the enablement of His Spirit. Let us look for no other solution. Let us receive that which God has provided, in Christ.
How great is your struggle? How great is mine? I think if our struggle is as great as Paul’s we will in desperation give up all self-help efforts, and we will turn to the cross. God has provided a righteousness we cannot produce by ourselves. That righteousness Jesus Christ offers to us through the power of the Spirit. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The answer is to come in Romans 8. The very Spirit that raised the dead body of Jesus Christ from the grave is the Spirit that dwells in you and will give life to your mortal bodies. God has the solution. The solution for Christians is the walk of the Spirit. But we will never get to that point until we have come to the desperation of Paul in Romans 7.
My prayer is that you may begin to grasp the immensity of the struggle with sin. May you forsake all efforts to serve God in the strength of your flesh. May God help each of us to acknowledge that our flesh is a body of death from which we must be delivered. May God help us to understand as we proceed in our study of Romans the walk of the Spirit, the provision that God has made for us to live in a way which is pleasing to Him.
If you, my friend, are reading this and your struggle ultimately is not with sin but with God, I pray that if you do not know Jesus Christ personally you will today acknowledge your sin, acknowledge that there is nothing you can do to earn eternal life, and that you will trust in Jesus Christ who has been punished on your behalf and who offers to you the righteousness which God requires.
Whether your struggle is with God, as an unbeliever, dominated by sin, or it is a struggle with sin, as a Christian, the cross of Christ is God’s provision. I urge you to accept it.
Verses 14-16 make the first statement as Paul says something I think most of us do not believe. The Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” I think contemporary Christians would say just the opposite if this verse were not staring them in the face. If you asked many would say, “I am spiritual, and the Law is carnal. I am spiritual and the Law is a matter of mere externals.” That is not what Paul says. Paul says the problem is the Law’s basic essence; it is spiritual and my basic essence is that there is no good that dwells within me. We are on two different wave lengths: First, I can not understand the Law, and second, even if I could understand it I would not do it because I am operating in the flesh, and there is no good that dwells in my flesh. My flesh resists the Law. It hates the Law.
In what sense then do we say the Law is spiritual? First we must say the Law (the Law of Moses), is spiritual because it is God’s Word. It is divine revelation, “the oracles of God”—it is God’s revelation to men. Can we not say that the Law is Scripture? When we come to 2 Timothy 3: All Scripture is inspired, God breathed and profitable for teaching, etc., most people tend to say, “Yes, Pauline Epistles, New Testament, maybe the Gospels, but maybe some of the Old Testament.” But in essence much of that Scripture which was in the hands of those who received that statement was Law. The Law is Scripture, the Law is God-breathed, the Law is profitable. The Law speaks to men at the spiritual level. This is where the legalistic Sadducees and Pharisees missed the point. Because they were not spiritual, they could not understand the Law. Jesus kept saying to those who were the experts in the Law, “Have you not read? Have you not understood? You are greatly mistaken.” Why did He keep saying that to those who were the most expert in the Law? Because they did not understand that the Law was spiritual, and they were not. Unspiritual men cannot understand spiritual law. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is saying the Law does far more than address mere externals. The Law addresses man’s spirit.
So over and over again Jesus kept taking the Law to its innermost part, to its spiritual dimension, which went right over the head of those who were most expert in the Law. That is why we fail to read 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 where Paul is saying: “But just as it is written, ‘THINGS WHICH EYE HATH NOT SEEN AND EAR HATH NOT HEARD AND HAVE NOT ENTERED INTO THE HEART OF MAN—it is above us and beyond us—it is spiritual—beyond our dimension—these things God has prepared for those who love Him.’ For to us God revealed them through the Spirit for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.” No man can understand God’s revelation apart from the spirit of God—the law is spiritual; it therefore requires the spirit to interpret it to unspiritual men. We must have the Spirit of God to understand the spiritual dimensions of the Law. That is why David the Psalmist says, “Oh, how I love Thy law; it is my meditation day and night” because it did far more than say, “Do this,” “Don’t do that.” That is why David said, “Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things from Thy law.” There was much more in the Law than simply the external commandments. There was that addressing of the heart. “The Law is spiritual. I am of flesh.”
In my deepest humanity apart from God I am simply flesh. There is no good thing that dwells within me. The mind set on the flesh, Paul says, is death. It is opposed to God—opposed to His rule and His reign. And therefore I find that in my own nature that I am opposed to that which is true of God and His Word. “The Law is spiritual; I am of flesh; sold into bondage to sin.”
When Paul says “I” he sometimes means “I” the new creation in Christ and at other times he is saying “I” the old me in Adam. If you are honest, don’t you sometimes wonder as a Christian which of you is doing it? Sometimes, isn’t it really hard to know even when you are doing those things which seem so pious—you ask yourself, which one of me is doing this? Is it the legalistic me who thinks that somehow in the external act of reading the Bible, of preaching, of praying, of ministering to others, that I am really serving God. That is what often Pharisaism was all about: “Have we not cast out even demons in your name. Have we not done all of these things?” But they did them not unto God, but for themselves.
170 I appreciate these words from John R. W. Stott, on this text in Romans: “Indeed, an honest and humble acknowledgment of the hopeless evil of our flesh, even after the new birth, is the first step to holiness. To speak quite plainly, some of us are not leading holy lives for the simple reason that we have too high an opinion of ourselves.” John R. W. Stott, Men Made New (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1966), p. 74.