The crux of the matter therefore is our new position in Christ Jesus our Lord. Position invariably determines practice. Our position in our Savior enables us to experience daily victory over sin through constantly yielding to the Holy Spirit for obedience to God’s will. But the spiritual life will be a struggle, as chapter 7 clearly teaches.
The first paragraph of the chapter reiterates by illustration the statement “You are not under Law but under grace.” It actually begins, “Or” (if you question the statement, “you are not under Law”). In the illustration Paul talks about a married woman who is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If he dies, she is free to marry someone else without the Law condemning her.
It is possible to take this little illustration to be saying that the woman represents Christians who leave the Law and follow Christ when the Law is done away. That is possible, but not probable. More likely Paul is underscoring his teaching that the husband who dies represents the old “man” (as it has come to be called), the old sinful nature, as looked at under the Law (see 6:6 where the old man was crucified and is to be reckoned dead). The old nature is related to Adam. The wife represents our inner being that survives the changes, for at salvation there is a dramatic change that makes us new creations.
But we are still the same persons. We were converted, we were regenerated; but the old person has not been eradicated, not til glory—survives the changes that take plans at salvation. And according to Galatians 2:20, Paul reasons that if we no longer live, but Christ lives in us, then there must be a survival of the old nature to warrant such a teaching. His point is that there is such a change that I now reckon that I no longer live. Paul will go on to explain in Galatians that there is a struggle between the flesh (our nature) and the Spirit. It will take lifetime of growth to develop habits of victory over our inclinations.
There is a good deal of false teaching today that our nature represents the way that God made us, and therefore the Church should condone and bless it. This can be used to cover sexual variations or simple personality quirks. No—salvation means we are born again, we get a new nature, and that new nature will change the way we live.
The application is then found in verses 4-6. “So then,” Paul says, it is as if we were once married to sin, producing the fruit of death. But Christ died for our sins! The prerequisite to a change of marital status is invariably death (7:2). So his death ended our marriage. That is, in Christ we died to the Law and now belong to another, one who was resurrected—the Lord Jesus. The language is, of course, figurative, since we did not actually die—but a way of life, a nature, a pattern of sin, came to an end, or at least was supposed to have come to an end, or begun to come to an end. Something had to change. Here is the reiteration of the theme: we have been crucified in Christ, that we might have new life in him, in order to bring forth fruit. This new union results in fruit (righteous acts produced by the new nature) unto God. So the believer must realize this new relationship in Christ and implement it by faith to bring glory to the Lord. Paul affirms at the end of the section that we have been released from the Law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit.
If the believer has died to sin, and if the believer has died to the Law, one might think that the Law and sin are in the same category, or that the Law is sin. But Paul in no way is saying this. He confirms in verse 12 that the Law is holy, just and good. Mirroring as it does the nature and will of God, the Law is to be highly esteemed. What the Law revealed was the will of God; the regulations for Israel to implement the Law have been concluded in Christ, but the revelation is eternal.
One of the main purposes of the Law is that it reveals sin. The commandment “You shall not covet” not only reveals the sad fact that people covet, but it also draws out of our nature the desire to covet. The old principle that ‘concentrating on the prohibitions excites interest in them’ is sadly true. That is the point of verse 8—sin seized the opportunity to produce covetous desires. Sin nature did this; the Law never caused anyone to sin. The Law simply revealed sin and made people realize they were sinners who deserved nothing but death.
So while the Law is holy, just and good, sin deceives us and turns what was also a guide for righteousness into a messenger of death. It is the Law that brings the recognition and conviction of sin. But a rebellious person can use it for occasion to sin; that is how corrupt and corrupting the human nature is. How else can we explain that while Moses was on the mountain receiving the rest of the Law, the people were down below violating the first commandment by building a golden calf, and designating it as the god who brought them out of Egypt. There is a human nature that seizes every opportunity to rebel against God’s Law, and rationalize it in some way. The Law reveals that this is sin.
There are a couple of questions that must be addressed in studying the rest of chapter 7. First, is Paul drawing on his own experiences, or is he speaking autobiographically for the sake of teaching? They seem to be his experiences, but they are representative of all other people as well. This is a shared struggle.
Second, does the material deal with a saved or an unsaved person? In other words, is the struggle what he had before conversion, or is it part of the Christian life? The Greek Fathers said it referred to the unsaved person; but that view invited Pelagianism.1 Augustine contended it referred to the Christian life. Here are several arguments in support of that view:
1. The general flow of the argument of Romans 1-8 supports this view. Justification, sanctification, glorification, are all truths of the saved person.
2. To take this as a description of unregenerate people would involve contradictions both here and in parallel passages. There is no sufficient evidence of a divided self in Paul before conversion. According to Phil. 3:4-9, Paul says that he was blameless in his unsaved condition; and in Acts 24:10-16, lived in all good conscience. But in Romans 7 he is running contrary to God. So when one dies to the old nature, then a struggle ensues.
3. The exegesis of Romans 7 supports this view. There is a change of tenses: up through verse 12 the past tense was used (the salvation experience); but in verses 13-25 everything is in the present tense. This is the ensuing present experience.
4. The language fits a believer. The unbeliever could not so diagnose his condition as the writer of these verses. He hates sin (v. 15), delights in the Law (v. 22), and looks for deliverance to Christ alone through grace (v. 25).
5. Verse 18 is harmonious with salvation. It suggests that there is a part of him that is good, other than the flesh. It is the mind that must serve God.
6. Verse 25 forms the fitting conclusion, a summary statement, in which he appropriates the struggle to the present time.
This section of Romans 7 then is a picture of the capacities and liabilities of the believer apart from the enablement of the Spirit of God. If one is seeking to obey the Lord’s will without the enablement by the Spirit, it will be a frustrating struggle. Note these statistics: the emphatic pronoun “I” is used 16 times in chapter 7, the term “Law” is used 20 times, and the only reference to the Holy Spirit is in verse 6 and that is questionable. But in chapter 8 the Holy Spirit is mentioned 20 times, and the “Law” only 4 times.
Paul’s depiction of himself is in stark contrast to what he has been saying about the Law. The Law is a reflection of the character of God—it is holy, it is spiritual. But in this section Paul declares, “I am unspiritual.” “This is what I am in myself,” he is saying. But beyond that he moves to an even more degrading idea: not only is he “fleshly” (human, carnal, natural), he has been sold as a slave to sin. This slavery extends to every part of his life; if it appears that he is obedient to the dictates of the flesh, it is almost mechanical and not volitional. It takes some doing to undo a lifetime of wrang habits. As a result he seems forced to carry out things that he does not want to do (instinct), and what he really would like to do never materializes (he has no entrenched habit with it yet). Paul is not trying to escape responsibility; rather, he is putting his finger on the real culprit—indwelling sin. With this master clinging to control, no matter how strongly Paul wants to do good, he finds himself “checkmated” as it were, often failing when he wants to do what is right.
This discussion in Paul might indeed be influenced by the Jewish teaching that people have two impulses, the good inclination and the evil. The Jewish teachers’ solution was a devoted, diligent study of the Law. But Paul’s view differs radically. He has claimed that the Law cannot counteract the power of sin. So Paul must look elsewhere.
“Who will rescue me?” is his cry. There is deliverance, of course, provided by God through Jesus Christ. This question and conclusion to the chapter prepare the reader for the grand exposition of the deliverance through Christ and the Spirit in chapter 8.
There is always a struggle, but there is always a measure of victory. It is never possible to get out of Romans 7 experiences entirely, even though some who teach a victorious Christian life doctrine contend for that. But there should be a growing measure of deliverance. Romans 7 may be a present aspect of practical salvation, a necessary part of the Christian experience, but it is not the complete experience. No believer need remain in the discouraging atmosphere of defeat when the free, fragrant and wholesome air of Romans 8:1-39 is beckoning to victory. But it will take spiritual maturity to move from the struggle to the victory.
Paul will return to the theme of renewing the mind as the basis for spiritual victory in the latter part of the book.
1. There are several notions about sanctification that people hold: the struggle of the soul is essentially a struggle against certain sins; that human nature is essentially good; that sanctification is a process of obeying the commandments; that if one determines to do right he will be successful. What do you think of these notions on the basis of Romans 7?
2. Try to imagine how an Old Testament believer would have looked at the Law. Can you think of passages of Scripture that would show how it was used, both for revealing righteousness and sin as well as regulating worship and life? Do you think the devout believers thought it was a burden?
3. What clues do we find in the Old Testament that the revelation of God in the Law of Moses was incomplete for the program of redemption?
4. In your knowledge of the teaching of the apostles, how many purposes were there for the giving of the Law?
1 This is the name of the heresy that grew up in the fourth and fifth centuries that taught that people by their free choice could initiate salvation by their good deeds that they did by the good nature that God had given them. Pelagius was not too interested in the doctrine of original sin; subsequent teachers in this tradition denied it.