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Lesson 36: Free from the Law (Romans 7:1-6)

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In my judgment, one of the most difficult theological issues in the Bible is that of the believer’s relationship to the law of God. Since the word law is used 19 times in Romans 7, clearly that is Paul’s theme. I was hoping that the Lord might come before I got to this chapter! I still have some time to be rescued before I get to the most difficult part! In Romans 7 Paul expounds on his statement in Romans 6:14, “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.” In 6:15-23, he used the analogy of slavery to show that we will not sin under grace because we have become enslaved to God and righteousness. In chapter 7, he explains what it means to be free from the law and how this relates to breaking free from sin’s tyranny.

The theme in chapter 6 was sin; Paul uses that word 17 times there. In his mind, there was a direct correlation between sin and the law. In 1 Corinthians 15:56 he says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” So there are several parallels between chapters 6 & 7 (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 270): Believers have died to sin (6:2) and they have died to the law (7:4). We have been freed from sin (6:18, 22) and we are released from the law (7:6). We walk in newness of life (6:4) and we serve in newness of the Spirit (7:6). Our victory over sin is tied to our union with Christ in His death and resurrection (6:8-11). Our release from the law and its sin-arousing power is because we are now joined to the crucified and risen Lord (7:4).

So if we want to gain consistent victory over sin, we have to wrestle with Romans 7 as Paul explains the purpose of God’s law and our relationship to it. His thinking was radically opposed to the common Jewish views of his day. They would have said that the law was given to make us holy, but Paul says that the Law served to arouse us to sin! In chapters 1-5 Paul shows that it is impossible to be justified by keeping the law. Here he shows that it is impossible to be sanctified by keeping the law. In fact, Paul argues that the law is actually a hindrance to sanctification (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits [Zondervan], p. 5).

The chapter falls into three sections. In 7:1-6, Paul shows that we are no longer married to the law. A death has taken place and now we are joined to Jesus Christ so that we might bear fruit for God. But that raises the question, “Then is the law sin?” Paul answers this in 7:7-12, showing that the law is holy and good. It is we who are the problem! When our sinful nature comes into contact with the law, it does not obey. Rather, it is aroused to sin. Then in 7:13-25, he shows the ensuing battle that sinners have with the law. This is a very difficult and controversial section, as debate rages over whether the person in view is an unbeliever or a believer. I do not want to raise your hopes that I will solve this puzzle for you, but we will try to work through it as best as we can.

In our text (7:1-6), Paul first makes a general statement about the law’s jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives (7:1). Then (7:2-3) he illustrates his point by showing that a woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. He is not giving comprehensive teaching here about divorce and remarriage. Rather, he uses an analogy to make a point: the law has jurisdiction over the living, not over the dead. If a person dies, he is no longer under the law. Then (7:4), he applies the point, showing that we died to the law through the death of Christ. We are now “remarried” to Christ so that we might bear fruit for God. Then (7:5-6) Paul explains verse 4 negatively (7:5) and positively (7:6). We need to die to the law because it aroused our sinful passions to bear fruit for death (7:5). But in Christ we have been released from bondage to the law so that we serve God in newness of the Spirit (7:6). To summarize:

Through our union with Christ, we have died to the law so that we are free to bear fruit for God in the Spirit.

1. Through our union with Christ, we have died to the law, which only produced sin and death.

Many books have been written on what it means for us not to be under the law, so I can only give some brief guidelines here. I offer one negative and three positive thoughts to clarify what Paul means when he says that we died to the law.

A. Dying to the law does not mean that we are free from specific moral commandments.

We need to understand that we did not die to the law so that we could live lawlessly, doing whatever we please. That was the false charge that Paul’s enemies leveled against him. But Paul makes it very clear that we died to the law so that we might be joined to Christ, under His authority. Just as a woman is under the authority of her husband (according to the Bible), so we were under the authority of God’s law. But when we died to the law, it was not so that we could become free spirits. Rather, it was so that we could now be joined to Christ as our husband.

Paul’s analogy is rather confusing if you try to make it say more than he intends. In 7:2-3, the woman’s husband dies so that she is free to remarry. But in the application (7:4), it is not the husband that dies, but rather the wife dies to the law through Christ. By implication she is raised from the dead so that she can marry Christ, who died and was raised from the dead. But Paul does not intend this to be a tight allegory, where one thing consistently represents another. Rather, he is making the main point that by being identified with Christ in His death and resurrection, we died to the law so that we’re legally free to be joined to Christ.

But, dying to the law does not mean that we no longer are obligated to keep specific moral commandments. As Paul states later (Rom. 8:4), the requirement of the law is now fulfilled in us as we walk according to the Spirit. Sometimes it is argued that the only command under the new covenant is love, since love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8, 10; Gal. 5:14). But this is often misapplied in a simplistic way so that “love” means whatever the person wants it to mean. For example, couples argue that it is okay to have sexual relations outside of marriage because they “love” one another. But the New Testament is abundantly clear that the sexual relationship is restricted to heterosexual marriage (1 Cor. 6:9-10, 18; 7:1-9; 1 Thess. 4:2-8). Love does not mean that we are free to disregard the Bible’s moral standards.

In fact, the New Testament gives many detailed commands about love. Love speaks the truth. Love does not steal, but rather labors so as to be able to give. Love speaks wholesome, edifying words. Love is not bitter or angry. Love is kind and forgiving. Love does not engage in immorality or greed (see Eph. 4:25-5:4). Many more specific commands on other topics are given throughout the New Testament to believers who have died to the law (see Romans 12). So we would be mistaken to think that dying to the law frees us from the obligation to obey specific moral commandments. So what does it mean?

B. Dying to the law means that we are free from the demands of the law as an impersonal system for approaching God.

While salvation has always been by grace through faith, not by works, many who were under the Mosaic law wrongly thought that they could be right with God by keeping the law. It was true: Keep the law perfectly and you will live (Matt. 19:17; Gal. 3:12). The problem is, that system brought everyone who tried to live by it under a curse, because no one could keep the law perfectly (Gal. 3:10). As a Pharisee, Paul thought that he was blameless with regard to the law (Phil. 3:6), but at best he was “blameless” only in the sense of outward obedience to the ceremonies and rituals that the law prescribed. The truth was that in his heart, he was proud of his blameless obedience, and pride is the root of all sins before God. When he met Christ, Paul came to see that he was actually the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).

So dying to the law means that we do not approach God by an impersonal system of performance, where we try to earn right standing with Him. That is the way of virtually every religion in the world, including many that go under the name of “Christian.” The good news is that God justifies sinners by grace through faith alone and that the core of saving faith is to know Jesus Christ (Rom. 4:5; Phil. 3:2-10). And, as I said, Paul’s point in Romans 7 is not only that we are justified by grace through faith alone, but also that we are sanctified in the same way (see Col. 2:6).

C. Dying to the law means that we are free from the condemnation of the law.

Paul says (Rom. 7:6) that the law held us in bondage. It did so by putting us under a curse because of our failure to obey it perfectly (Gal. 3:10). Peter refers to the law as “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). The law closes every mouth and makes us all accountable to God (Rom. 3:19). No one is able to be justified by keeping the law; rather, the law brings the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20) and puts us under God’s wrath (Rom. 4:15). The law increased our transgressions and held us under the reign of sin and death (Rom. 5:20-21). Attempting to be right with God by law-keeping is doomed to failure. The only benefit of the law with regard to salvation is that it shows us God’s impossible standard of holiness and thus drives us to Christ as our only hope, so that we will be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24).

D. Dying to the law means that we are free from the inability of the law to produce obedience.

This is Paul’s primary focus in Romans 7:5: “For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.” In this context, being “in the flesh” means, before we were saved, before we received the Holy Spirit. As Thomas Schreiner puts it (The Law and Its Fulfillment [Baker], p. 133), “The law apart from the Spirit does not produce obedience. The law apart from the Spirit does not save but kills.”

Paul will explain this further in 7:7-11, where he says that coveting was not a problem until he read, “You shall not covet.” That commandment triggered something in him that made him covet all over the place. The problem was not with the law, which is holy, but with his sinful flesh. We can all relate to what he is saying. I wouldn’t think about walking on the grass if it weren’t for that annoying sign that says, “Do not walk on the grass.” The commandment makes me want to walk on the grass!

So the law is not the answer to our sin problem. Trying to keep the law can never reconcile us to the holy God, because we’ve all violated His law many times over. Posting a list of God’s commandments on the refrigerator and trying to keep them by our own strength won’t work, either, because the law just incites our sinful passions. It does not quench the desire to sin. The oldness of the letter was a “ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:6, 7). We need a more powerful solution, which Paul gives in 7:4 & 6.

Paul says that we were “made to die to the law through the body of Christ” (7:4). That’s an unusual phrase, referring to Christ’s physical body. Paul is calling attention to the fact that in His human body, Jesus satisfied the demands of the law on our behalf, so that He “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). So when Jesus died to the demands of the law, we died in Him. In summary, this means: We are free from the demands of the law as an impersonal system for approaching God. We are free from the condemnation of the law. The power of the law to arouse our sinful desires is broken, because being joined to Christ, we now have the Holy Spirit to give us the power to obey.

2. Having died to the law, we are now joined to Jesus Christ, which produces fruit for God in the Spirit.

As I said, God does not free us from the law so that we can live any way that we please. Rather, He frees us from the law (7:4) so that we “might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God.” Restating it in a slightly different way (7:6), this release from the law enables us to “serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” So our union with the risen Savior through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit works in us to bear fruit for God. Note six things about this union or marriage to Christ:

A. Our union with Christ is a transforming relationship.

In verse 6, Paul uses the same contrast that we saw in 6:22, “But now.” It points to the great change from before we met Christ to afterwards. Before we met Him, we were in the flesh, enslaved to sin, and under the condemnation and power of the law. “But now we have been released from the law, having died to that by which we were bound” (7:6). If I have broken the law and am facing a prison term, but before I go to prison I die, they aren’t going to take my corpse to prison! My death released me from the power of the law. It changed everything.

Also, our death to the law freed us to be joined in marriage to the risen Christ (7:4). This implies that we have new life in Him, because Jesus doesn’t marry a corpse. We have a new relationship of love with our Bridegroom, who gave Himself on the cross to secure us as His bride. (By the way, it’s difficult as a guy to think of myself as “married” to Jesus, but think of it corporately, not individually. The biblical analogy is that the church corporately is the bride of Christ.) Our new union with Christ changes everything.

There is one thing certain about marriage: it changes you forever! Suddenly, you are not your own. You have to think about your wife before you make plans. You have to think about what pleases her. You have to take her into account in every decision that you make. You have to work at staying close in your relationship to her. But in spite of these new responsibilities, I can say with gusto that marrying Marla changed me for the good! In the same way, being joined to Jesus Christ changes everything. It gives you new responsibilities, but it transforms you decidedly for the good.

B. Our union with Christ is a love relationship.

As I said, the phrase “through the body of Christ” points to the cross, where Jesus died a horrible death to secure us as His bride. He paid the price that the law demanded for our sin. “Christ … loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). So now we willingly submit to Him, not out of duty, but out of love.

Picture a woman married to a demanding, perfectionistic man. He’s the kind who takes a white glove and wipes it on the top of the door molding to see if it has been dusted. She lives in constant fear that she will not please him. But then (much to her relief) he dies. Sometime later, she meets a loving, kind, and caring man. They fall in love and get married. Now she still cleans the house and cooks the meals, but she does it joyfully out of love, not dutifully to meet the demands of an impossible tyrant.

The analogy breaks down, in that the law did not die. Rather, we died to it. But, we no longer have to strive in vain to meet its impossible demands as the grounds of our acceptance with God. Rather, Christ met those demands for us and we are joined to Him in love. We still live to please Him, but our whole motive has changed from duty that condemned us to love that accepts us.

C. Our union with Christ is a liberating relationship.

Before, we were bound by the law, but now we are released from its condemnation and domination (7:6). The picture is that of a prisoner who has been set free. I’ve never been in prison, but I got a feel for what it must be like when I was in boot camp. We were in captivity in every sense of the word. The Coast Guard determined our schedule, our activities, what we wore, how we looked, and what we ate. Boot camp was on an island in the Oakland Bay. From our upstairs barracks window, I could see cars stuck in rush hour traffic out on the Oakland freeway. I thought, “Those drivers are probably grumbling about the traffic, but if they only knew how free they are to be able to drive their own car wherever they want to go, they’d quit complaining!” Before Christ, we were bound by the law, but now we’re free.

D. Our union with Christ is a fruitful relationship.

The reason we are joined to Christ is so “that we might bear fruit for God” (7:4). When you compare that to 7:6, “so that we serve in newness of the Spirit,” it probably refers to the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), or “the fruit of the Light,” which is “all goodness and righteousness and truth, trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:9-10). If you’re not bearing fruit for God, you are not fulfilling the purpose for which He saved you.

E. Our union with Christ is a powerful relationship.

The law was impotent to help us obey, but Christ gives us the Holy Spirit to indwell us and empower us to overcome sin. To be under the law is to be “in the flesh” (7:5), which has no motivation or power to overcome sin. But the Spirit enables us to put to death the deeds of the body, so that we will live (8:13; Gal. 5:16-23).

F. Our union with Christ is a holy relationship.

I mentioned at the outset that being free from the law does not mean that we are free to disobey the moral commands of Scripture. But I mention it again as we close, because it is so often misunderstood or ignored. The word “serve” (7:6) is the same Greek word translated “enslaved to God” (6:22). So Christ frees us from the law to which we were bound, but not to do as we please. We’re freed from the law so that we can be enslaved to God in the newness of the Spirit. Being a slave of righteousness is true freedom!


Martyn Lloyd-Jones (p. 84) says, “You are either a Christian or not a Christian; you cannot be partly Christian. You are either ‘dead’ or ‘alive’; you are either ‘born’ or ‘not born’. Becoming a Christian is not a gradual process; there is nothing indeterminate about it; we either are, or we are not Christian.”

If you’re not a Christian, you are under the condemnation of the law. But if you put your trust in Christ, who bore the curse of the law, you are released from the law and joined to a loving husband so that you can bear fruit for God. That’s even better than the best of earthly marriages can be!

Application Questions

  1. Why is the notion that love is the only command for those under grace inadequate and misguided?
  2. If the law was impossible to keep and actually stimulated our sinful passions, why did God institute it?
  3. Can there be such a thing as an unfruitful Christian? Include John 15:1-8 in your discussion.
  4. Are Christians obligated to keep the Ten Commandments? What about the Sabbath command?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Law, Spiritual Life

Lesson 37: Why God Gave the Law (Romans 7:7-11)

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Almost a quarter century ago, philosopher Allan Bloom published his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind [Simon & Schuster, 1987]. He began (p. 25):

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4. These are things you don’t think about.

The chief virtue that this relativism seeks to inculcate is tolerance or openness. The main enemy of tolerance is the person who thinks that he has the truth or is right in his views. This only “led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point,” says Bloom (p. 26), “is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.”

Bloom later (p. 67) reports his students’ reaction to his question, “Who do you think is evil?” They immediately respond, “Hitler.” They rarely mention Stalin. A few in the early 80’s mentioned Nixon, but by the time Bloom wrote the book, Nixon was being rehabilitated. Bloom comments (ibid.),

And there it stops. They have no idea of evil; they doubt its existence. Hitler is just another abstraction, an item to fill up an empty category. Although they live in a world in which the most terrible deeds are being performed and they see brutal crime in the streets, they turn aside. Perhaps they believe that evil deeds are performed by persons who, if they got the proper therapy, would not do them again—that there are evil deeds, not evil people.

I cite Bloom because the worldview of the young people that he observed a quarter century ago is now pervasive in our society. And the worldly relativism that minimizes or even eliminates the concept of sin is not just “out there.” It has flooded into the church. Popular megachurches thrive by making the church “a safe place” for everyone, where no one will be judged and where various types of immorality are relabeled as personal preferences. The “gospel” gets retooled as a way that Jesus can help you succeed and reach your personal goals. If you want your church to grow, you should never mention anything negative, like sin. Rather, tell people how much God loves them because they are so lovable. Build their self-esteem, but never suggest that they are sinners!

But if we are not sinners, then we do not need a Savior who died to bear the penalty of our sin. More than a century ago, Charles Spurgeon lamented (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography, The Early Years [Banner of Truth], p. 54), “Too many think lightly of sin, and therefore think lightly of the Saviour.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones observed (Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits [Zondervan], p. 151), “The biblical doctrine of sin is absolutely crucial to an understanding of the biblical doctrine of salvation. Whatever we may think, we cannot be right and clear about the way of salvation unless we are right and clear about sin.” And since Romans 7 is one of the most penetrating analyses of sin in all of Scripture, we need to understand Paul’s thought here.

In our text, Paul defends the integrity and righteousness of God’s law against critics who argued that Paul’s teaching implied that the law is sin. “May it never be,” he exclaims (7:7). He exonerates God’s law as holy, righteous, and good (7:12), while showing why God gave the law:

God gave His law to convict us of our sin and bring us to the end of ourselves so that we would flee to Christ for salvation.

Our innate self-righteousness is so entrenched that until the law strips us of it and convicts us of our sin, we will not cast ourselves totally upon Christ. Our culture adds to this by telling us that we’re not sinners. We’re not worms, for goodness sake! We’re pretty good folks. We may want to bring Jesus into our lives as a useful coach or helper in our self-improvement program. But to trust Him as our Savior, we have to see the depth of our sin as God’s law exposes it for what it is. That’s what Paul describes here.

We come here to one of the most difficult and controversial sections of Romans. In verses 7-25, Paul dramatically shifts to the first person singular, dropping it again in chapter 8. In 7:7-13, he uses the past tense, but then in 7:14-25 he shifts to the present tense. Scholars debate whether Paul is speaking autobiographically or not. At the crux of this debate is when Paul possibly could have been “alive apart from the law” (7:9). There is also much controversy over whether verses 14-25 describe Paul before he was saved, Paul as a new believer, or Paul as a mature believer. So it’s a very difficult passage, with competent, godly scholars in every camp. I do not claim infallibility as we proceed (not that I ever do)!

Paul’s main concern in this chapter is not to share his personal experience, but rather to exonerate God’s law from any hint of being evil. He uses his own experience (as I understand it) to show how the law functions to bring conviction of sin, but also how it is powerless to deliver us from sin’s grip. Rather, it drives us to Christ, who alone has the power to save (7:25); and to the indwelling Holy Spirit, who gives us the power to overcome sin (8:2-4). So, let’s try to work through these verses.

1. The law is not sin, but it does reveal our sin (7:7).

Romans 7:7: “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’”

Paul is responding to the charge that critics would bring in reaction to 7:5: “For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.” The Jews believed that God gave the law to give us life and make us holy, but Paul claimed that the Law aroused us to sin, resulting in death. So now he answers this charge: “Is the Law sin?”

After strongly rejecting that slur against his teaching, Paul argues that the law functions to reveal our sin to us. He uses as a personal example the tenth commandment against coveting. This shows that by “the law” Paul mainly had in mind the Ten Commandments as the embodiment of God’s requirements for holy living. Probably he picked the tenth commandment because it is the only command that explicitly condemns evil on the heart level. Jesus pointed out that the commands against murder and adultery (and, by implication, all of the commands) go deeper than the outward action. If you’re angry at your brother, you have violated the command against murder. If you lust in your heart over a woman, you have committed adultery in God’s sight (Matt. 5:21-30). But the command against coveting explicitly goes right to the heart. Coveting concerns your heart’s desires, whether you ever act on those desires or not.

When Paul says, “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law,” he does not mean that he (or others) do not know sin at all apart from the law. He has already said (2:14-15) that Gentiles who do not have the law have the “work of the Law written in their hearts.” People sinned from Adam until Moses, even though they did not have the written law (5:12-14).

What Paul means is that the law, especially the tenth commandment focusing on the inward desires, nailed him so that he came to know sin as sin against God. Before his conversion, outwardly Paul was a self-righteous Pharisee. He thought that all of his deeds commended him to God. With regard to the law, he saw himself as “blameless” (Phil. 3:6). But when the Holy Spirit brought the tenth commandment about coveting home to his conscience, Paul realized that he had violated God’s holy law. At that point, he came to know sin. The commandment made it explicit: “Paul, you are a sinner!”

Like Paul before his conversion, most people think that they are basically good. Sure, they know they have their faults. Who doesn’t? They’re not perfect, but they are good. They excuse even their bad sins, just as Paul excused his violent persecution of the church. After all, it was justified because it was for a good cause.

So guys excuse a little pornography because, “After all, everyone looks at that stuff and I’m not hurting anyone. Besides, I’ve never cheated on my wife.” And they excuse their violent temper because that person had it coming and, “Hey, I didn’t hurt him; I just told him off!” People excuse all manner of sin and still think of themselves as basically good people because they have not come to know God’s law, especially the law as it confronts our evil desires. At the heart of coveting is the enthronement of self as lord.

Spurgeon (“The Soul’s Great Crisis,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 61:425) compares the sinner who thinks that he is basically good, but won’t look at God’s law, to a man who thinks he is rich and lives in a lavish manner, but refuses to look at his books. The guy lives in style. When he gets into a financial bind, he takes out a loan, and when that one comes due, he’ll meet it with another loan. He says he is all right and he convinces himself that he is all right. At the moment he’s living as if he’s all right. But does he ever get out his accounts and take stock of his real condition? No, that’s boring. We all know where that will end—the man will go bankrupt.

In the same way, Spurgeon says, we may convince ourselves that we are right with God by brushing over our faults as no big deal. We live as if we’re good people; all is well. But if we don’t examine our true condition in light of God’s law, we’re heading for eternal bankruptcy. The law reveals our sin. But Paul goes further:

2. The law provokes sinners to sin (7:8).

Romans 7:8: “But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law, sin is dead.”

Paul personifies sin as an active force that uses the law to provoke us to commit acts of sin. By sin, Paul means sin as a principle and power, not just acts of sin (Lloyd-Jones, p. 120). He repeats the phrase again (7:11), “sin, taking opportunity through the commandment.” Opportunity was a word used for a military base of operations from which the army launched its campaigns. So sin takes God’s holy commandments and uses them to tempt us to violate those commands. It stirs up the rebel in us and makes us want to assert our right to do as we please.

James Boice (Romans: The Reign of Grace [Baker], pp. 742-743) tells a story from when he was in sixth grade. The school principal came into his classroom just before lunch and said that he had heard that some students had been bringing firecrackers to school. He went on to warn about the dangers of firecrackers and to say that anyone caught with firecrackers at school would be expelled. Well, Boice didn’t own any firecrackers and he hadn’t even thought about firecrackers. But when you get to thinking about firecrackers, it’s an intriguing subject. He then remembered that one of his friends had some.

So during his lunch break, he and a friend went by this other friend’s house, got a firecracker and returned to school. They went into a cloakroom and planned to light it and pinch it out before it exploded. But the lit fuse burned the fingers of the boy holding it. He dropped it and it exploded with a horrific bang, echoing in that old building with its high ceilings, marble floors, and plaster walls. Before the boys could stagger out of the cloakroom, the principal was out of his office, down the hall, and standing there to greet them. As Boice later sat in the principal’s office with his parents, he remembers the principal saying over and over, “I had just told them not to bring any firecrackers to school. I just can’t believe it.”

But that’s how sin operates in the hearts of rebels. It takes God’s good and right commandments and entices us to violate them. Sometimes when you read about others sinning or you see it on TV or in a movie, you think, “I’ll bet that would be fun!” You know that God forbids it, but probably He just wants to deprive you of some fun. Besides, what will it hurt to try it once? It can’t be all that bad. And, I can always get forgiven later. So our sin nature springboards off the commandment to provoke us to sin.

What does Paul mean when he says, “For apart from the Law sin is dead”? Since the fall, everyone is born in sin and is prone to sin. Before the flood, before God gave the law to Moses, the world was so sinful that we read (Gen. 6:5), “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” So how can Paul say, “apart from the Law sin is dead”?

He must have meant, “Sin was comparatively dead; as far as his awareness was concerned it was dead” (Lloyd-Jones, p. 135). In other words, before God brought the law to bear on Paul’s conscience, as far as he knew, he wasn’t in sin. He saw himself as a good person. The law had not yet revived the sin that lay dormant in his heart. Apart from the law, sin seems to be dead as far as the sinner is concerned. Paul traces the process further:

3. The law, through our failures to keep it, brings us to the end of ourselves (7:9-11).

Romans 7:9-11: “I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” (I will have to deal with the deceptive aspect of sin in our next study.)

What does Paul mean when he says that he was “once alive apart from the Law”? This is the same apostle who said that before salvation we all were dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1). How could he once be alive? And when was Paul ever “apart from the Law”? He was raised from his youth up in the strictest traditions of Judaism (Acts 22:3; 26:4-5; Phil. 3:5). And, when did sin “kill” him?

As with every verse in this text, there are many opinions. Some say that verse 9 refers to Adam, since he is the only one of whom it rightly could be said that he was once alive apart from the law. Others take it to refer to Israel before the law was given. But most likely, Paul is speaking in a relative sense about his own perception of himself. Once, he thought that he was alive and doing quite well in God’s sight. He saw himself as blameless with regard to the righteousness of the law (Phil. 3:6). Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, he would have prayed (Luke 18:11-12), “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” In that sense, Paul saw himself as once alive apart from the law. He was “apart from the law” in the sense that it had not yet bore down on his conscience to convict him on the heart level.

But then “the commandment came”—“You shall not covet.” He had memorized that commandment as a child. He had recited it many times. But the Holy Spirit had not nailed him with it. Lloyd-Jones (p. 134) illustrates this with the experience that we’ve all had, where we’ve read a verse many, many times, but we’ve skipped right over it and kept going. It didn’t say anything to us. But then suddenly, it hits you. You see it as you’ve never seen it before. The commandment came to you.

Then what happens? “Sin became alive and I died” (7:9). At first, Paul thought that he was alive and sin was dead. But then, God’s law hit him and he suddenly realized that his sin was very much alive and he was dead. He saw that he was not right with God, as he formerly had thought. Rather, he was alienated from God and under His judgment. He had thought that he would get into heaven because he was a zealous Jew, and even a notch above other Jews, because he was a Pharisee. But now he realized that he was a blasphemer, a persecutor of God’s church, a violent aggressor, and the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:13, 15).

The commandment promised life (7:10) to all who keep it (Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11). Paul thought that he had been keeping it blamelessly. But God shot the arrow of the commandment, “You shall not covet.” It hit Paul in the heart and killed him. Spurgeon (61:427) says, “What died in Paul was that which ought never to have lived. It was that great ‘I’ in Paul … that ‘I’ that used to say, ‘I thank thee that I am not like other men’—that ‘I’ that folded its arms in satisfied security—that ‘I’ that bent its knee in prayer, but never bowed down the heart in penitence—that ‘I’ died.”

Spurgeon goes on (pp. 427-428) to show several other respects in which Paul died. He died in that he saw he was condemned to die. He stood guilty before God. He died in that all his hopes from his past life died. His good works that he had been relying on came crashing down as worthless. He died in that all his hopes as to the future died. He realized that if his salvation depended on his future keeping the law, he was doomed. His past showed that he would be sure to break it again in the future. And, he died in that all his powers seemed to die. Formerly, he thought that he could keep the law just fine by his own strength. But now he saw that every thought, word, and desire that did not meet God’s holy standard would condemn him. And so all his hope died. He felt condemned. The rope was around his neck, as Spurgeon says elsewhere (Autobiography, 1:54).


Can you identify with Paul’s experience? Has God’s holy law hit home to your conscience so that you died to all self-righteousness? Has the law killed all your hopes that your good works will get you into heaven? If so, that’s a good thing, because Jesus didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). When you see God’s holy standard and how miserably you have violated it over and over, you then see your need for a Savior. And the best news ever is that Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15)!

James Boice (p. 746) tells of a time when John Gerstner, who was then retired from teaching church history at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, was at a church preaching from Romans. He expounded on the law and used it to expose sin. After the service, a woman came up to him. She held up her hand with her index finger and thumb about a half-inch apart and she said, “Dr. Gerstner, you make me feel this big.”

Dr. Gerstner replied, “But madam, that’s too big. That’s much too big. Don’t you know that that much self-righteousness will take you to hell?”

God gave His law to strip us of all self-righteousness and to convict us of our sin so that we would flee to Christ to save us. Make sure that your hope for eternal life is in Christ alone!

Application Questions

  1. Is there ever a proper place in evangelism to tell sinners that God loves them? If so, when?
  2. A popular author says that Christians should not view themselves as sinners, not even as sinners saved by grace, but as saints who occasionally sin. What’s wrong with this biblically?
  3. To what degree has moral relativism invaded the church? How can we counter and resist this trend?
  4. How can we know whether feelings of guilt are coming from the Holy Spirit or from the accuser (Rev. 12:10)?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Law, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 38: The Utter Sinfulness of Sin (Romans 7:11-13)

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In 1973, psychiatrist Karl Menninger, founder of the famous Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, wrote a best-seller titled, Whatever Became of Sin? [Bantam Books]. I didn’t read that book, but the title, especially coming from a psychiatrist, who to my knowledge was not a Christian, is significant. Menninger realized almost 40 years ago that the concept of sin was vanishing from our culture. He argued (as summarized by James Boice, Romans: The Reign of Grace [Baker], 2:747),

In the lifetimes of many of us, sin has been redefined: first, as crime—that is, as transgression of the law of man rather than transgression of the law of God—and second, as symptoms. Since “symptoms” are caused by things external to the individual, they are seen as effects for which the offender is not responsible. Thus it happened that sin against God has been redefined (and dismissed) as the unfortunate effects of bad circumstances. And no one is to blame.

We now view many behaviors that the Bible calls “sin” as psychological or emotional issues for which therapy, not repentance, is the solution. I’ve read polls that show that even among evangelical Christians, many do not view premarital sex or homosexual behavior as sin. Churches offer anger management classes (not anger repentance classes) or groups to help you overcome your “addictions” (not sins). Sin has become a disease that we treat therapeutically, not a behavior for which we’re responsible.

Christians regularly watch Hollywood’s latest movies that are rife with filthy language, sexual scenes, and violence, without any concern that they are disobeying Scripture, which commands (Eph. 5:3-4), “But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.” So Dr. Menninger was quite right to ask, “Whatever became of sin?”

In our text, Paul is defending himself against critics who alleged that he taught that the law is sin. Paul has been teaching that if you try to gain right standing with God by keeping the law, you are doomed to fail. The law was not given to make us right before God. To the contrary, “through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). “The Law brings about wrath” (4:15). “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase” (5:20). And so Paul shows (7:4) that through our union with Christ, we died to the law in order that we might bear fruit for God. We have been released from the law so that now “we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (7:6).

Paul knew that critics would react to this teaching by accusing him of saying that the law is sin. His response is (7:7), “May it never be!” The problem is not with the law. Rather, the problem is our sin. When you mix God’s holy law with our sin, it produces negative results, much like mixing two incompatible chemicals.

Verses 11 & 12 wrap up Paul’s argument that the law is not the problem; rather, sin is the problem. As we saw last time, he personifies sin as an active force. Verse 13 serves as a hinge verse, restating the argument from 7:7-12 while also introducing 7:14-25. We can sum up his thought in 7:11-13:

God’s law reveals the holiness of His commandments and the utter sinfulness of sin so that we will hate our sin.

1. God’s law reveals the holiness of His commandments.

Paul concludes (7:12), “So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”

By “the Law,” Paul means the law as a whole. When he repeats, “the commandment,” he may be referring to the tenth commandment against coveting that he has just mentioned (7:7), or to the moral commands. But he means that the law as a whole and every single part of it is “holy and righteous and good.” He piles up these terms to emphasize his point (in 7:7) that the law is not in any way sinful. The reason that the law is holy, righteous, and good is that it was given to us by God who is holy, righteous, and good.

God’s law is holy. God’s holiness means that He is altogether separate from us and separate from sin. Christ’s aim for His church is that “she would be holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27). Applied to us, God’s holy commandments show us how to live separately from this evil world, in a manner pleasing to the Lord.

That God’s law is righteous means that it is right or just. God Himself is the standard of what is right. Moses says of God (Deut. 32:4), “For all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He.” If we violate God’s moral commands, we are wrong because God is always right. His standards are not relative, changing with the culture or over time. We can’t persuade Him to bend His righteous commands to fit what we may think is right.

God’s commandments are also good because they come from God who is always good. As with righteousness, God is the final standard of what is good (Luke 18:19). This means that all of God’s commandments are for our good. To violate His commands is to bring trouble and hardship on ourselves. If we want to live the truly “good life,” then we must follow God’s good commands.

Since as new covenant believers we are not under the Law of Moses, we may wonder, “Which of the Old Testament commands apply to us? Are we obligated to keep the Ten Commandments, since Paul calls them a ‘ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones’” (2 Cor. 3:7)?

In the sense that the Ten Commandments serve as a summary of the two great commandments, to love God and love others, they are valid and binding for today. Also, all of the Ten Commandments, except for the Sabbath command, are repeated in the New Testament. The Sabbath command, as I understand it, was fulfilled in Christ (Heb. 4:1-11; Rom. 14:5; Col. 2:16). The exhortation to us is not to forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:25), but we are not under that command in the legal sense of the Old Testament. (See my message, “God’s Day of Rest,” from Gen. 2:1-3, 12/17/95, on the church website for my further thoughts on this.)

So Paul wants us to be clear that God’s law is holy, righteous, and good. Being under grace does not mean living in a lawless manner (1 John 3:4; 1 Cor. 9:21).

2. God’s law reveals the utter sinfulness of sin.

Paul concludes (7:13c), “so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.” As C. H. Spurgeon put it (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 59:469), “[The law] was not the cure of the disease, much less the creator of it, but it was the revealer of the disease that lurked in the constitution of man.” He goes on to show that when Paul wanted to come up with a word to describe how bad sin is, he didn’t call it exceedingly black or horrible or deadly. Rather, when he wanted to find the very worst word, he called sin by its own name—it is exceedingly sinful. There is nothing as evil as sin. God gave His law for our good (Deut. 10:13), and so when we deliberately throw it off and trample it under foot, that law exposes the utter sinfulness of our sin in at least four ways:

A. Sin is utterly sinful because it is rebellion against our loving and kind Heavenly Father.

When God gave Adam and Eve the command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that command was for their good, to keep them from the consequence of death (Gen. 2:16-17). We can compare it to parents who tell their little children not to run into a busy street. That command is not to deprive the children of fun, but to protect them from death. So when we sin, we rebel against the God who is loving and kind towards us. He is never mean, harsh, or cruel. Rather, sin (as Spur­geon put it in another sermon) is the monster that this verse drags to light (ibid., 19:73). We need to see sin for what it is, rebellion against our loving and kind  Heavenly Father.

B. Sin is utterly sinful because it takes a good thing and uses it to kill us.

Sin takes the good law and turns it into an instrument of death. It would be like taking a scalpel and using it to murder someone. Is the scalpel bad? No! The scalpel is a good and useful tool in the hands of a skilled physician. The sinner who used the scalpel to murder someone is the culprit. Sin takes God’s holy commandments and uses them to kill us. (Paul mentions “death” or “killed” in 7:9, 10, 11, & 13.) He means that the law brings us under God’s righteous, eternal condemnation because we have deliberately violated it over and over. So we should fight against our sin with as much effort as we would struggle against an intruder who broke into our house and was attempting to murder us.

C. Sin is utterly sinful because it involves deliberate violation of God’s good and perfect will for us.

As Paul said (4:15), “Where there is no law, there also is no violation.” This is not to say that people did not sin before the law (5:13-14), but rather to say that the law heightens the sinfulness of sin by showing that we are deliberately going against what God has commanded for our good. Our conscience may nag at us that something is wrong. But when we read the explicit command in the Bible and then go against it, we’re just thumbing our nose at God. We’re saying, “God, You don’t know what is best for me! I know better than You do, and I’m going my own way.” The commandment shows sin to be utterly sinful.

D. Sin is utterly sinful because it uses deception to kill us.

In his book and film, “Peace Child,” missionary Don Richardson told about the wicked practice of the Sawi tribe before he brought the gospel to them. They extolled deception as a virtue. They would lure an outsider into their midst as a friend, who didn’t suspect their treachery. They would treat him as a king and feed him well, but they were literally fattening him for the slaughter. At the opportune time, when the victim thought that the Sawi tribal leaders were his friends, they would sadistically smile as they killed him, and then they would eat him. And so when Richardson first told them the story of Jesus, they thought that Judas was the real hero! He used deception to kill Jesus. In the same way, sin is utterly sinful because it uses deception to kill us.

In two other places (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:14) Paul uses the same verb, “deceived” (Rom. 7:11) to describe the serpent’s deception of Eve in the garden. One commentator (C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [T. & T. Clark], 1:352-353) shows three ways that the serpent deceived Eve. First, he distorted and misrepresented God’s commandment by drawing attention only to the negative part of it and ignoring the positive. Second, he made her believe that God would not punish disobedience with death, as He had warned. Third, he used the very commandment itself to insinuate doubts about God’s good will and to suggest the possibility that she and Adam could assert themselves in opposition to God. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits [Zondervan], pp. 155-160) lists nine ways that sin deceives us. I’ve incorporated his list into my own list of 15 ways that sin deceives us. I don’t expect you to remember all of these, but by piling them up without much comment, I want you to see how dangerous of an enemy sin really is.

(1). Sin deceives us into thinking that outward obedience alone pleases God, whereas we need to please Him on the heart level.

This was the downfall of the Pharisees. They thought that they were keeping all of God’s commandments, but Jesus rebuked them because their hearts were far from God (Mark 7:6-7; Matt. 23:25). Sin deceives us so that we congratulate ourselves for our outward obedience to God, but all the while our hearts are corrupt. “Sure, I look at some porn, but at least I’ve never cheated on my wife.” “Sure, I’m bitter over what he did to me, but I haven’t killed him.” But God looks on the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12).

(2). Sometimes sin changes its tactics and tells us that everything is hopeless, so we might as well keep on sinning.

We wrongly conclude, “I’ve failed again and again, so there is no hope for me. I might as well just give in and go on sinning.”

(3). Sin deceives us to presume on God’s grace.

Sin tells us that it doesn’t matter whether or not we are holy. It says, “Don’t worry about your sin. It’s not hurting anyone. Besides, you can always get forgiven later.”

(4). Sin deceives us into thinking that it will bring true and lasting happiness, while holiness will bring us misery.

This is such a common ploy that you would think that we’d see right through it. But it works over and over again. “An affair will bring happiness, but being faithful to your marriage vows will make you miserable.” Related to this is the next form of deception:

(5). Sin deceives us into thinking that we have a right to happiness, while we forget that we have a responsibility to holiness.

I’ve known Christians who walk away from their marriages with the excuse, “I deserve some happiness in my life. My marriage has only brought me misery. How can this new relationship be wrong when it makes me so happy?” That’s the defense of a well-known Christian singer who divorced her husband and married another singer who divorced his wife. I recently read an article that tried to convince the readers that this sinful behavior was all right, because now she and her new husband are so happy. But what about the biblical command to be holy?

(6). Sin deceives us by getting us to discount the consequences of willful disobedience.

Satan lied to Eve (Gen. 3:4), “You surely will not die!” God would not be so mean as to impose such harsh consequences for such a minor thing as eating a piece of fruit, would He? God is loving and gracious; He won’t punish your sin!

(7). Sin deceives us into thinking that we’ve earned some free passes to sin because of all that we’ve done to serve God.

This may have been what led to David’s downfall. He was the king—didn’t that give him some extra privileges? He had written many psalms. He had fought and won many battles. Didn’t he deserve a “break”? Several years ago, a well known pastor was exposed when it came out that he “relieved the stress” of his ministry responsibilities by going to a homosexual prostitute! Talk about being deceived!

(8). Sin deceives us by getting us to swap the labels and call it something much more acceptable.

It is not adultery; it’s an affair or a fling. It’s not perversion; it’s being gay. It’s not stealing; it’s just taking what the company owes me but doesn’t pay me. I’m not angry; I just have a short fuse. It’s not gossip; I just wanted to share a prayer concern.

(9). Sin deceives us by making us think that we’re normal when we sin and to think that holy people are weird.

We look around at the world and conclude that yielding to temptation is normal. The weirdoes are those holy people who obey God. Or, we think, “I’ll bet that they’re no different than I am. They probably engage in some secret sins, but they’re hypocrites. At least I’m honest about who I am.”

(10). Sin deceives us by working by degrees, so that eventually that which would have shocked us is now accepted as normal.

When I used to paint houses, the home owner would walk in and make a big deal about the smell of the paint. But I was so used to it that I didn’t even notice. The prophet Hosea chided “Ephraim,” or Israel (Hos.7:9): “Gray hairs are sprinkled on him, yet he does not know it.” Can you imagine someone going gray without being aware of it? But the prophet was using this humorous analogy to show how we drift spiritually without being aware of how far off course we really are. The first time you watch a sex scene in a movie, it shocks you. But after you’ve seen such filth a few dozen times, you just shrug it off as no big deal. When you first hear profanity, it jars you. But after being around it a while, you don’t even wince and you may even toss off a bad word or two yourself without being aware of it.

(11). Sin deceives us by making us angry at the law, feeling that God is against us when He prohibits something.

Sin gets us to believe that God and His law are unreasonable, impossible, and unjust. “Does He expect me to be perfect? Why doesn’t He give me a break now and then? He must not care about me or He wouldn’t give such unreasonable commands!”

(12). Sin deceives us by making us think very highly of ourselves.

“You’re smart enough to figure out what is best for you. You’re able to determine right and wrong without putting yourself under God’s legalistic standards. Think for yourself!”

(13). Sin tells us that the law is oppressive, keeping us from developing the gifts and talents we have within us.

“God’s moral standards are holding you back from reaching your full potential! Use the brain that God gave you! You don’t have to be restricted by that outdated book, the Bible!”

(14). Sin makes righteousness look drab and unattractive.

“You’ve only had sex with your marriage partner? How boring! You go to church every Sunday? How restrictive! What a way to mess up your weekend!”

(15). Sin deceives us by getting us to compare ourselves with other sinners, rather than to compare ourselves to God’s holy standard.

The psalmist says that sin flatters us in our own eyes (Ps. 36:2). It makes us think that we’re not so bad because we compare our relatively “minor faults” with the really bad things that others do. By comparison, we’re not so bad. But the standard is not what others do or what we do, but what God’s Word commands.

Thus God’s law reveals the holiness and goodness of His commands, along with the utter sinfulness of sin. What should our response be?

3. The practical result of understanding the holiness of God’s commands and the utter sinfulness of sin is that we should hate our own sin.

I am inferring this, since Paul doesn’t state it directly here, although he does go on (7:14-25) to show how much he hates his own propensity towards sin. But the Bible is clear: “Hate evil, you who love the Lord” (Ps. 97:10a). And we’re not just supposed to hate the evil in others, but first and foremost, we need to hate our own sin. Take the log out of your own eye first (Matt. 7:5). It was Paul’s hatred of his own sin that caused him to cry out (Rom. 7:24), “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”


Do you hate your own sin? Do you hate it enough to stop making excuses for it and to give serious thought and effort as to how not to sin? Sin is ugly, ugly, ugly! To watch a believer fall into sin is like watching a dog licking up its own vomit (2 Pet. 2:22). God’s Word shows us how walk in the light so that we do not fall into the mire of sin. Love the Word! Read it! Memorize it! Obey it! Don’t let sin kill you. Rather, hate your sin enough to kill it!

Application Questions

  1. Since we are not under the Law of Moses, how can we know which of the O.T. commands are binding on us?
  2. Why is it important to understand that God’s law is holy, righteous, and good? How does doubting God’s goodness set us up to yield to temptation (see Gen. 3:1-7)?
  3. Meditate on 2 Cor. 11:3. What does this verse teach about Satan’s deception and how to avoid it?
  4. What are some practical strategies for fighting against and killing sin? See Rom. 8:13; Gal. 5:16-23; Eph. 6:10-20.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Hamartiology (Sin), Law

Lesson 39: Who is This Wretched Man? (Romans 7:14-25, Overview)

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We come now to one of the most difficult passages to interpret in the Book of Romans. With the exception of certain prophetic texts, there are not many other passages in Scripture where there is such widespread difference of opinion among godly scholars as there is for Romans 7:14-25. Is Paul describing his own experience here? If so, is it his experience before he was saved, his experience as an immature believer, or his experience as a mature believer? Since Paul is in the midst of teaching us how to overcome sin in our daily experience, it’s an important text to understand. But we can’t apply it correctly until we first understand it correctly.

In this message, I want to give an overview of the various views and their main arguments. In subsequent messages I’ll work through the text in more detail. When you come to a text where so many godly men differ, it’s important to be gracious towards those who differ and acknowledge that there is no neat, tidy view that answers all the difficulties. Each view has its strengths and weaknesses, and so you have to pick which weaknesses you’re willing to live with in the view that you adopt. If someone claims to have solved all the problems, he is blind to the weaknesses of his view. If we could solve all the difficulties, then everyone would agree.

Also, when you come to a difficult text, it’s important to interpret it in light of other texts that are more clear. We need to try to harmonize and integrate this text into the flow of Paul’s unambiguous teaching elsewhere. And, as always, we need to confess our lack of understanding to the Lord and ask Him to give us insight through the Holy Spirit so that we will grow in godliness. Our aim is not just to solve the interpretive puzzle, but to become more like Jesus Christ.

The main problem that we have to grapple with here is that some statements make it sound as if Paul were not a believer, whereas other statements make it sound as if he were a believer. Among those who argue that Paul is describing the experience of an unbeliever, some say that it is the experience of a Jew under the law. Some say that it describes a man under deep conviction of sin just before his conversion. Among those who argue that it describes a believer, some argue that he is talking about the normal experience of a mature Christian, whereas others say that he is describing the experience of a new or very immature believer.

Some argue that Paul is not speaking autobiographically here, but it seems to me that he is describing himself here. He uses “I” 24 times in 7:14-25, plus “me,” “my,” or “myself” 14 times. While Paul could be using this as a literary device, the most obvious way to take it is that he is speaking of his own experience. Obviously his experience is representative of the experience of all who have struggled against sin. But we’re learning through Paul’s experience.

Also, 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.

With that as a background, let me walk you through some of the arguments for the various views. There are a number of variants within each view which we will not have time to delve into.

Romans 7:14-25 describes an unbeliever.

This was the position of the early church fathers in the first three centuries of Christianity. Augustine held this view earlier in his Christian life, but later argued that it refers to believers. John Wesley and many in the Arminian camp hold to this view. Here are the strongest arguments for this view:

1. Paul uses language throughout the passage that could only be descriptive of an unbeliever.

This is the strongest argument for this position. In 7:14, Paul laments, “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” But in 6:14, he stated as a matter of fact, “For sin shall not be master over you.” He also stated (6:17-18), “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” He reinforces this in 6:22, “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.”

Also, in 6:2, Paul said, “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” But in 7:25b he says that with his flesh he is serving (the word means, “to serve as a slave”) the law of sin. In 6:6, he says that we were crucified with Christ so that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin. But in 7:24 he laments, “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” In 7:18 Paul says, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” How could a man indwelled by the Holy Spirit say such a thing? In 7:23 he adds that he is “a prisoner of the law of sin.” And, how could a believer who has already been redeemed by Christ cry out (7:24), “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”

So the descriptions of our new position in Christ as believers in chapter 6 are totally at odds with these statements of the wretched man in chapter 7. He must still be an unbeliever.

2. The flow of the context argues for 7:14-25 being a description of unbelievers.

Almost everyone agrees that 7:7-13 describes Paul as an unbeliever. If 7:14 shifts to his experience as a believer, you would expect a disjunctive word, such as “but.” Instead, Paul uses “for,” which indicates that he is explaining further his experience as an unbeliever. This is further substantiated by his immediately stating that he is “of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” This goes back to 7:5, where Paul describes his experience as an unbeliever as being “in the flesh.”

Also, some argue that our text describes further the experience of 7:5, of the unbeliever in the flesh, whereas 8:1-17 picks up on 7:6, which describes the newness of serving in the Spirit. Also, there is the dramatic shift between the miserable experience of 7:14-25 and the “now” of 8:1 and the experience of victory that follows. Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 442-451) argues that Paul presents his experience as a representative Jewish unbeliever under the law to show that the law is impotent to save anyone from their sin, thus reinforcing the argument of 7:1-13. He also is persuaded by the contrasts mentioned under the first argument.

3. In 7:14-25, there is an absence of any references to the Holy Spirit, who indwells all believers, whereas in chapter 8, the Holy Spirit is mentioned frequently.

Paul makes it clear (in 8:9) that every believer is indwelled with the Holy Spirit. If you do not have the Holy Spirit, you do not belong to Christ. Since there is a glaring absence of any mention of the Spirit in 7:14-25, as contrasted with at least 17 references to the Spirit in chapter 8, chapter 7 must describe an unbeliever.

4. The person in 7:14-25 is not just struggling with sin but is defeated by sin.

Elsewhere Paul makes it clear that all believers struggle with sin, but that’s not what he describes in these verses. His experience in 7:14-25 is not just a struggle, but one of repeated failure, defeat, and inability to obey God. This is descriptive of an unbeliever.

There are some variations of the view that these verses describe an unbeliever. Martyn Lloyd-Jones argues for the position (also held by Godet and the Pietists, Francke and Bengel), that Paul is describing the experience of a Jew who is under deep conviction of sin, but not yet reborn. Thomas Schreiner (Romans [Baker], p. 390) argues that “Paul does not intend to distinguish believers from unbelievers in this text.” Rather, “Paul reflects on whether the law has the ability to transform human beings, concluding that it does not.” So Schreiner says that the passage could be describing either unbelievers or believers. Stuart Briscoe (The Communicator’s Commentary [Word], p. 147), somewhat in line with Schreiner, holds that “Paul is relating the struggles he had with the law of God before he knew Christ and which he continues to have since coming into an experience of the risen Lord.”

Romans 7:14-25 describes a mature believer.

This was the view of Augustine later in life, as already mentioned. It is also the view of Luther, Calvin, and most of the Reformers, along with Reformed men down through the centuries, such as John Owen, Charles Hodge, John Murray, James Boice, J. I. Packer, John Piper, and others. Here are the main arguments to support the view that Paul is describing the experience of a mature believer. (John Piper gives ten arguments in favor of this view, but I can only list a few.)

1. The shift to the present tense argues that Paul is speaking of his present experience as a mature believer.

As I’ve noted, Paul makes a very obvious shift from past tense verbs in 7:7-13 to present tense verbs in 7:14-25. The most natural way to understand this is that Paul is here describing his ongoing struggle against sin when he wrote this letter.

2. The context of Romans 6-8 is a discussion of sanctification in the Christian life, not of an unbeliever’s struggle with the law.

3. If 7:14-25 describes Paul’s pre-conversion experience, it is in conflict with how he describes that experience elsewhere.

In Philippians 3 and in Galatians 1, along with a couple of places in Acts, Paul portrays himself before conversion as a self-satisfied Jew, bent on persecuting the church. There is no record that he went through an intense inward conflict such as that described here.

4. Paul’s desires in these verses are those of a believer, not of an unbeliever.

He says (7:22), “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.” He is seeking to obey the law, not just outwardly, but with the “inner man” (7:15-20, 22). Unbelievers may put on an outward show of obedience, but their hearts are far from God (Matt. 23; Mark 7:6-13). Unbelievers do not seek after God (Rom. 3:11) or desire to please Him (8:8). His heartfelt cry, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” sounds like the cry of a man who yearns for God and the new resurrection body, which will be free from sin. The closer a man draws to God, the more he sees the corruption of his old nature and the more he desires to be free from all inclination to sin.

5. The battle between the two “I’s” describes a believer, not an unbeliever.

Unbelievers only live in the flesh, but believers have a new nature and the indwelling Holy Spirit that war against the flesh (Gal. 5:17). Every Christian who is honest acknowledges this inner struggle against sin that goes on throughout life. Paul’s lament (7:18), “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh,” indicates that there is more to Paul than just flesh. He has a new inner man that longs for God and His holiness, although he has not yet attained it.

There are more arguments for each side and each side has arguments to rebut the arguments of the other side. For sake of time, I cannot go through each of these. Rather, I will now give you the correct view (yeah, sure!). As I said, there are strengths and weaknesses with every view, so we have to pick a view that seems most to harmonize with other Scriptures and to have the fewest problems. I actually was pushed toward this view by reading Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ volume on Romans 7 where he argues that these verses describe a Jew under intense conviction of sin, just prior to conversion. (He would not be happy that his argument pushed me in this direction!)

Romans 7:14-25 describes an immature believer who has not yet learned that he is free from the law and that he has the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit to overcome sin.

Let me begin by acknowledging that the main weakness of this view is Paul’s use of the present tense. It sounds as if Paul is speaking of his current experience, not of a past experience that he had as a new believer. But Paul could be using the present tense as a vivid way of sharing his experiences as a new believer. For reasons that I will share in a moment, I cannot accept that Paul is describing his experience as a mature believer.

Also, I want to distance myself from what is called the Keswick teaching, popularized by Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life and Ian Thomas’ The Saving Life of Christ. These and other books of this persuasion teach that Romans 7 describes a “carnal” Christian who has not yet learned the secret of the “exchanged life.” When you learn the secret, “not I, but Christ,” you break through into the experience of Romans 8. It is sometimes pictured as moving from the wilderness to the Promised Land. This teaching gives the impression that once you break into the Romans 8 experience, the Christian life becomes an effortless, struggle-free, sin-free life. You never worry, you’re never ruffled by trials, and you experience perpetual joy and close fellowship with the Lord. These books convey that if you’re struggling against sin, you haven’t learned the secret of letting go and letting God. That is not my understanding of the biblical Christian life!

I understand the Christian life to be an ongoing, lifelong struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. We never arrive at a place in this life where sin no longer tempts us, where trials are not a difficult burden, and where we have attained sinless perfection. Jesus Himself cried out to God with loud crying and tears (Heb. 5:7). Paul was burdened so much that he despaired of life itself (2 Cor. 1:8). He describes his Christian life as a fight, not an effortless rest (2 Tim. 4:7). The author of Hebrews commends his readers in their striving against sin, and encourages them to submit to the difficult discipline of the Lord that for the moment does not seem joyful, but sorrowful (Heb. 12:4-11). So I’m not saying that in moving from Romans 7 to Romans 8, life becomes an effortless, ecstatic experience of perpetual victory. Even mature believers fall into sin on occasions and they always fall far short of perfection.

This means that there is always going to be some degree of the struggle expressed in Romans 7 in the Christian life, even in Romans 8. In that, I agree with those who argue that this is the experience of a mature Christian. As we grow to know God and His ways more deeply, we will always be painfully aware of how far short we fall. We will always lament our propensity toward living in the flesh and yielding to the sin that so easily besets us. There will always be the battle between the two natures. I do not agree with those who say that believers only have the new nature, or that we only sin occasionally. It is a daily battle with many setbacks.

But I disagree with those who argue that Romans 7 describes the “normal” Christian life. The man in Romans 7 is not just struggling against sin, which every Christian must do all through life, but he is consistently defeated by sin. He describes himself as “sold into bondage to sin” (7:14). He is “not practicing” what he would like to do, but is doing the very thing he hates (7:15). He wills to do good, but he does not do it (7:18). He practices the very evil that he does not want to do (7:19). He describes himself as a prisoner of the law of sin (7:23). These descriptions are contrary to 1 John 3:9, which says that believers cannot continue to sin as a normal way of life. Believers do sin, but they do not live in perpetual defeat to sin as Paul here describes. Mature believers do not continue practicing sin or living in slavery to it.

I’m sensitive to the argument that in light of chapter 6, no believer could say that he is “sold into bondage to sin” and “a prisoner of the law of sin.” As I said, that is the strongest argument that this is an unbeliever. But an unbeliever would not experience this intense hatred of his sin and inner desire to be free from it. And a mature believer would not describe himself as being in bondage to sin. Thus I think that Paul is describing his experience as a new believer, before he understood that he had died to the law and been joined in marriage to Christ and before he learned to walk by means of the Holy Spirit.

Since Paul before his conversion was a legalistic Pharisee, it’s not likely that immediately after his conversion he understood that he was dead to the law or that he now could live by the power of the Holy Spirit. He probably began his Christian experience by striving to obey the law in the flesh. After a time of trying and failing and trying again and failing again, he finally broke through to realize, “Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace” (6:14). He came to understand that since he was identified with Christ in His death, he was now free from the law, so that now he could serve in newness of the Spirit (7:4, 6). He grew to understand his new identity in Christ. He realized the glorious truth, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). But it probably took him a while, perhaps a few years, to work through all of this both theologically and practically in terms of his daily experience. My understanding is that he is sharing those early struggles in Romans 7:14-25.


I’ll go back and work through these verses in more detail in coming messages. But for now, let me leave you with a few practical issues to think about.

First, if you do not hate your sin and struggle against it, you need to examine whether you are saved. Those who have experienced the new birth hate their sin and they desperately want to have victory over it. If you shrug off your sin as no big deal, it is not a sign that the Holy Spirit is dwelling in you. A life of ongoing repentance is the mark of the new birth.

Second, if you have trusted Christ but are defeated often by sin, so that you feel in bondage to it, there is hope for deliverance. Your defeats do not necessarily mean that you are not born again. At the same time, you need to realize how serious your sins are and that God did not save you so that you would live a defeated life. He has provided the Word, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the body of Christ to help every Christian gain consistent victory over sin, beginning on the thought level. We will never be sinless in this life, but we should be sinning less as we grow to maturity in Christ. If you learn to walk in the Spirit, you will not carry out the desire of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).

So wherever you’re at spiritually, I want to offer you genuine hope in the Lord. If you are not saved, cry out to God: “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). If you are defeated by sin, so was none other than the apostle Paul. But he learned to live in consistent victory in Christ, and so can you! Romans 8 will help point the way.

Application Questions

  1. In your opinion, which are the strongest arguments for each view? Which are the weakest arguments? Which view do you think is the best?
  2. What are some of the practical ramifications of each view?
  3. Some deny that believers have an old sin nature, emphasizing 2 Cor. 5:17. Why is this view spiritually dangerous?
  4. Have you heard of the Keswick teaching? Why is this view spiritually dangerous?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Sanctification, Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 40: The Merry-Go-Round of Sin (Romans 7:14-20)

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Have you ever felt like you were on a merry-go-round of sin, but you couldn’t figure out how to get off even though you wanted to? In that sense, it isn’t a merry-go-round, but a miserable-go-round! You hate going around and around, but you don’t know how to get off the stupid thing.

That’s what Paul describes in Romans 7:14-20 about his spiritual experience: he hates what he is doing, but he can’t stop doing it. He knows that God gave us the law; it’s spiritual and good; it’s the right thing to do. The problem is, he can’t do it. He doesn’t have the power to get off the merry-go-round of sin.

But the problem we face in trying to understand Paul (as I explained at length last week) is that it’s difficult to determine whether he is talking here about his experience before salvation or after he was saved. Some of his statements sound as if he was an unbeliever, but other statements sound as if he was a believer. And, if it refers to his experience as a believer, how then do his words about being in bondage to sin (7:14) square with what he has said in chapter 6 about being freed from sin?

My understanding is that Paul is describing his experience as an immature believer, before he came to understand that he was no longer under the law and that he could experience consistent victory over sin by relying on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. I hold this view because Paul makes some statements that an unbeliever could not make. He loves God’s law and wants to keep it from the heart (7:22). He hates his own sin.

But he also makes some statements that a mature believer could not make. He is not merely describing the ongoing struggle against sin that all believers experience, but rather an experience of ongoing defeat. He was habitually practicing the very evil that he hated (7:15, 19). This does not square with a person who walks by means of the Spirit and thus does not fulfill the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16). It does not line up with 1 John 3:9 (and 2:3-6), that those born of God do not practice sin.

It’s reasonable to assume that after his conversion, Paul did not instantly understand his new position of being dead to the law and united to Christ (Rom. 7:1-4) or how to walk in dependence on the indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:4, 13). So I believe that he is describing his own frustrating experience as a new believer, before he learned these truths. And, as I also said, Paul’s main point in the context is to show that God’s law is holy, righteous, and good, but it is not able to deliver us from the power of sin.

As I also explained, I agree that the Christian life is never free from the struggles that Paul describes here. We have to do battle against indwelling sin as long as we live. But Paul is not merely describing a struggle here. Rather, he is talking about a life of consistent defeat. He’s not just describing an ongoing battle, but a losing ongoing battle! I contend that this is not the normal Christian life of a mature believer.

Rather, as we grow to understand and live in light of our new identity in Christ and to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can experience consistent victory over sin. We will never be sinless, but we will sin less as we grow. Also, as we grow we will come to see more and more of our inward corruption and more and more of God’s holiness, so that we lament our propensity toward sin and long for our new resurrection bodies. But we will not yield to our sinful desires as often as we did as new believers. So that is my approach to these verses.

Several commentators (F. Godet, Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 282, is the earliest that I could find) point out the cyclical structure of Romans 7:14-25. Each cycle begins with a fact, then gives the proof of it, and a conclusion:

First cycle (7:14-17):

Fact (7:14): “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of flesh….”

Proof: (7:15-16): “For what I am doing, I do not understand….”

Conclusion: (7:17): “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.”

Second cycle (7:18-20):

Fact: (7:18): “For I know that nothing good dwells in me….”

Proof (7:18b-19): “For the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not….”

Conclusion (7:20): “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.”

Third cycle (7:21-25):

Fact (7:21): “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.”

Proof (7:22-23): “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in … my body….”

Conclusion (7:25): “So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but … with my flesh the law of sin.”

The second and third cycles in many ways repeat the first cycle, which is why I’m describing Paul’s experience here as being on a merry-go-round of sin. He’s doing the same thing over and over, in spite of his good intentions to the contrary. He wants to stop, but he can’t. And so the overall feeling is one of powerlessness. He knows that he’s doing wrong and he wants to please God, but he’s not able to do so. Sin gets the upper hand again and again.

In this message, I will look at the first two cycles (7:14-17, 18-20), which teach us:

After the new birth, immature believers often experience a frustrating cycle of being defeated by sin because they yield to the old nature.

I’m not saying that once you understand the truths of Romans 8, you will never suffer bouts of being defeated by sin. Romans 8 does not propel you into a life of effortless, struggle-free spiritual victory. The Christian life is a continual battle and there are setbacks and at times overwhelming failures. But I do contend that Romans 7, with its perpetual defeat, pictures an immature believer, whereas Romans 8 gives us the key to consistent victory. This means that if Romans 7 describes your life right now more than Romans 8 does, there is hope! Paul was once where you’re at now. His frustrating experience teaches us three things:

1. When God saves you, He gives you a new nature, but He does not eradicate the old nature, which is corrupted by sin.

In Romans 6:6, Paul says that “our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.” In light of that, some, such as John MacArthur, teach (The MacArthur Study Bible NASB [Nelson Bibles], p. 1670), “The believer does not have two competing natures, the old and the new; but one new nature that is still incarcerated in unredeemed flesh.” As highly as I respect John MacArthur, I strongly disagree with that statement. I think it is unhelpful and dangerous, because it minimizes the spiritual danger that resides in every believer. I don’t care whether you call it the old nature, the flesh, or indwelling sin. But there resides in every believer a strong propensity toward sin that wars against the new nature that we received through the new birth.

Then how do I explain Romans 6:6? It reflects our new position in Christ, which we must count as true in the daily battle against sin. Paul often portrays the tension between our position and our practice in the Christian life. In Colossians 3:9-10, he says that as believers we have “laid aside the old self with its evil practices and have put on the new self….” But in the parallel in Ephesians 4:22-24, he commands us (almost all commentators take the infinitives as imperatives) to “lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit …” and “put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” If we have already laid aside the old and put on the new, why does he command us to do it? The answer is, positionally it is true. But practically, we must count it as true and live in light of it.

You find the same tension between Romans 6, which emphasizes that we have died with Christ, and Romans 8:13, which commands us to put to death the deeds of the flesh. Or, in Colossians 3:3, Paul says that we have died with Christ, but in 3:5 he commands us to put to death (literal translation) the members of our earthly body with regard to various sins. We’re dead, so we need to live like it by putting our flesh to death.

So the point is, conversion does not eradicate the strong desires of the flesh or work to improve the flesh. The old man is “being corrupted according to the lusts of deceit” (Eph. 4:22). It won’t get better over time. You may have been a believer for 50 years, but you still must put off the flesh on a daily basis. That’s why the godly George Muller used to pray as an elderly man, “Lord, don’t let me become a wicked old man!” He knew that in him, that is, in his flesh, dwells nothing good (Rom. 7:18).

2. New believers are often still enslaved to sin because they yield to the old nature.

Again, while there is much controversy, with some saying that these verses describe unbelievers, while others argue that they reflect Paul’s experience as a mature believer, I contend that they describe an immature believer who is still yielding to his old nature. He has not yet learned to put on his new identity in Christ and to walk by means of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who gives us the power to resist the lusts of the flesh (Gal. 5:16).

There has been a lot of confusion because of some popular teaching that Christians may be divided into those that are “carnal” and those that are “spiritual.” This teaching was popularized through the Scofield Reference Bible, Lewis Sperry Chafer’s He That is Spiritual, and Campus Crusade for Christ’s “Holy Spirit” booklet. Purportedly based on 1 Corinthians 2 & 3, the teaching is that you can legitimately be a Christian through a decision to invite Christ into your life as Savior, but you’ve not yet chosen to let Him be Lord of your life. So you live with self on the throne until you learn to yield to the Holy Spirit. After that, you bounce back and forth between “carnal” and “spiritual,” depending on who is on the throne: self or the Lord.

But Scripture does not present the option of accepting Christ as your Savior, but not as your Lord. And you don’t bounce back and forth between being carnal or spiritual. Granted, there is a lifetime of growth involved in yielding every area of life and every thought to Christ. But if you are not seeking to obey Christ in every area of life, you need to examine whether He has changed your heart. All who are born of God strive to please God in every way. (See Ernest Reisinger’s booklet, What Should We Think of the Carnal Christian? [Banner of Truth], for more on this.)

It is better to say that Christians, like humans, grow through various stages: infancy, youth, and adulthood (see 1 John 2:12-14). Paul addresses the Corinthians as “infants in Christ,” who needed milk, not meat, because they were still fleshly (1 Cor. 3:1-3). Just as human babies must grow from milk to solid food, and from being fed to learning to feed themselves, and from being carried to crawling to walking, and in many more areas, the same is true spiritually. Newer believers usually yield more often to the old nature (the flesh or indwelling sin) than more mature believers do. Maturity involves learning to reckon yourself as dead to sin and alive to God in Christ. And it involves learning by the Spirit to put to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom. 8:13).

Here, Paul gives us a glimpse of his losing battle against sin as a babe in Christ, which he calls being “sold into bondage to sin” (7:14). Note six things about this enslavement to sin:

A. This enslavement to sin stands in complete contrast to our new identity in Christ, creating an intense internal battle.

Romans 7 stands in such stark contrast to the truths of Romans 6 that many have concluded that it describes an unbeliever. If it were not for the inner struggle, you’d look at Paul’s behavior and conclude that he is not a believer. He is in bondage to sin. He does not obey God’s law, but rather does the opposite. In other words, Paul knew that he was living in disobedience to God. But internally, this war was raging, because he knew that his behavior did not match what he was supposed to be and what he desperately wanted to be.

This means that living in continual defeat to sin does not necessarily mean that you are not saved. But if you are saved, you can’t live contentedly in sin. You will hate what you’re doing and you will fight it desperately until you gain the victory. Spiritual complacency is not a good sign! Even young believers experience this intense internal conflict.

B. This enslavement to sin causes inner turmoil, because it conflicts with the desires of the new nature.

Jonathan Edwards argued forcefully in his A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (in The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth] 1:236), “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” In other words, when God saves us, He gives us new holy desires. Edwards argues (1:239, italics his), “So holy desire, exercised in longings, hungerings, and thirstings after God and holiness, is often mentioned in Scripture as an important part of true religion.”

We see that here. Paul wants to obey God’s law and do what is right, but he’s failing. He confesses that God’s law is good, but he’s not able to obey it. His desires for holiness are evidence that God has imparted new life to him, but his inability to do what God requires is causing this inner turmoil. If you know that you’re disobeying God, but you just shrug it off, it may mean that you’re not born again. Those born of God’s Spirit are in turmoil when they disobey Him.

C. This enslavement to sin causes mental confusion.

“For what I am doing, I do not understand” (7:15). By “understand,” Paul may mean that he does not approve of what he is doing (C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans [ICC, T. & T. Clark], 1:358). Or, he may mean that he does not fully comprehend the depths of sin that are still in his heart (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 373). But it’s obvious that he is a confused man. He doesn’t understand his own behavior. Sin always clouds our minds and causes us not to think clearly.

D. This enslavement to sin does not eradicate our recognition of God’s holy standards.

Paul agrees with the Law, confessing that it is good (7:16). Even though he is defeated by sin, he still recognizes that God’s ways are right and his own ways are wrong. He isn’t disputing with the law, as if it were unfair or even wrong.

E. This enslavement to sin stems from the ongoing existence of indwelling sin, not from our new, true identity in Christ.

Paul concludes the first section (7:17), “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.” We need to be careful not to fall into error over verses 17 and 20, which say essentially the same thing. Paul is not saying, “I’m not responsible for my sin. I’m just a helpless victim. I didn’t do it; sin did it!” Rather, he is acknowledging the powerful inner struggle that takes place in every believer. He’s personifying sin not as an honored guest or a paying tenant, but as an uninvited squatter who is difficult to eject (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 293). But since Paul commits the sin, he is responsible for doing it. And he is acknowledging that when he sins, he is acting against his new identity in Christ, which is his true new person. As new creatures in Christ, we are responsible to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ (Rom. 6:11).

F. This enslavement to sin shows that indwelling sin is a powerful force that we are not able to control in and of ourselves.

You can resist sin outwardly by sheer will-power, but it will keep wearing away in your inner man until it wins. In other words, outward morality is not enough. The Pharisees were outwardly moral, but Jesus nailed them for their hypocrisy and the evil that was in their hearts (Matt. 23). You have to judge sin on the thought level. It is so powerful that Jesus graphically portrayed dealing with it as cutting off your hand or plucking out your eye (Matt. 5:29-30). To live in consistent victory over indwelling sin, we need nothing less than the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. We all tend to minimize our sin, excusing it as no big deal. But these verses should show us that we’re dealing with a powerful force that is out to control and destroy us. We need more than will-power.

Thus, we all have a battle within due to the existence of the new man and the old in the same person. If we yield to the old man (the flesh, indwelling sin), it will dominate and enslave us.

3. A new believer’s enslavement to sin feels like a merry-go-round of defeat due to the inner battle between the two natures.

In large part, verses 18-20 are a repeat of verses 14-17. Paul is explaining further the conclusion of verse 17, and his conclusion in verse 20 is almost identical with his conclusion in verse 17. He’s on the merry-go-round and can’t figure out how to get off. The repetition serves to drive home the facts that sin is more powerful than human will power, that the flesh is corrupt, and that if we let it, the old nature will dominate the new, even against our desires to the contrary. So we need nothing less than the very power of God to overcome the power of indwelling sin.


There are no answers to this huge problem of indwelling sin in Romans 7:14-25, except for the brief exclamation of hope in verse 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” The answers come in chapter 8.

But in one way there is an answer here: Sometimes God lets us come to the end of ourselves so that we will be driven to trust in Him alone. By our proud fallen nature, we’re prone to trust in ourselves, first for salvation, and then for sanctification. God has to show us that we cannot save ourselves by our own righteousness or good deeds. God only saves sinners who cast themselves upon His mercy in Christ. And He has to show us that we cannot conquer sin by our own will-power and effort. If we could, we’d boast in our holiness! Peter had to learn that painful lesson by denying the Lord. We have to learn it by going through the Romans 7 merry-go-round of resolve and failure, until we learn that the victory is not in us; it’s in the Lord.

My friend, Bob Deffinbaugh, who is a pastor in the Dallas area, put it this way ( problem with many Christians is not their despair, like that of Paul, but their lack of it.” He goes on to point out that until we come to the end of ourselves in utter despair, we will not come to Christ, because we think that we don’t really need Him. Until we see the magnitude of our sin problem in the inner person, we’ll assure ourselves that it’s under control because we’re outwardly moral. The first step to get off the merry-go-round of sin is to cry out (7:24), “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” Thankfully, the answer is clear: God will set us free through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important to recognize that believers have both a corrupt old nature and a redeemed new nature? Why is it dangerous to say that believers only have a new nature?
  2. Why is it erroneous and spiritually dangerous to teach that believers can get to a place of complete victory where there is no internal battle?
  3. At first glance, it seems as if Paul (7:17, 20) is disassociating himself from his sin, as if he is not responsible. What other Scriptures show that this is a wrong interpretation? What does he mean in these verses?
  4. Why is the popular “carnal” Christian model unhelpful and misleading? Isn’t that what Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 3:1-3?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life

Lesson 41: The War Within (Romans 7:21-25)

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I recently saw a bumper sticker with the peace symbol around the border. It showed two children with their arms around each other. The caption was, “All the arms we need.” I said to Marla, “What planet do these people live on?” When we dwell on the new earth, when all sin is completely eradicated, we won’t need arms to defend ourselves. But as long as sin is in this world, we need arms not only to hug one another, but also to fight against enemies that seek to destroy us. As unpleasant as it is, the reality of life in this fallen world includes conflict.

That’s also true in the Christian life. We all want peaceful lives. Perhaps you came to Christ because someone told you that in Him, you would find peace. That’s true. In Christ, we experience peace with God (Rom. 5:1). Christ is the basis for peace between believers (Eph. 2:14). As much as is possible, we are to be at peace with all people (Rom. 12:18). And, in Christ we come to know a sense of inner peace, even in the face of tribulation, that we lacked before (John 16:33).

But while the Christian life is one of peace, it’s also one of constant warfare. As we serve Christ and seek to extend His kingdom, we’re at war with the evil powers of darkness (Eph. 6:10-20). We’re engaged in the battle between God’s truth and the lies of Satan that captivate the minds of the unbelieving (2 Cor. 10:3-5). And, as every Christian knows, there is a fierce inner battle that goes on between the flesh and the spirit, the old man and the new (Gal. 5:17). If we do not learn how to overcome the strong inner urge to gratify the flesh, sin will take us captive and enslave us. Paul describes this war within in Romans 7:14-25.

As I explained in the previous two messages, some godly scholars understand these verses to be a description of Paul as an unbelieving Jew, striving but failing to keep God’s law. Others argue that Paul is describing the ongoing battle that he was experiencing as he wrote. Even mature believers have to fight this battle against indwelling sin as long as they live.

While I agree that mature believers must fight a continual battle against indwelling sin (the flesh or the old sin nature), I disagree that such a description adequately explains these verses. Paul is not just describing a battle here, but a losing battle. He describes himself as (7:14), “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” He is not practicing what he would like to do, but rather was doing the very thing he hated (7:15, 18, 19). He was a prisoner of the law of sin (7:23). As I explained (in the last message), he was on the merry-go-round of sin and he couldn’t get off.

We looked at the first two cycles (7:14-17, 18-20) of sin and defeat. Now we come to the third time around the merry-go-round, which follows the same three-fold progression: Fact, proof, and conclusion:

Fact (7:21): “I find then the principle that evil is present in me ….”

Proof (7:22-23): “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in my members, waging war…”

Conclusion (7:25): “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.”

I reject the view that Paul is describing his experience as an unbeliever because he says things that are not true of unbelievers. I reject the view that he was writing primarily about his struggle as a mature believer because while mature believers struggle with sin and sometimes lose the battle, they do not live in perpetual defeat and bondage to sin.

I contend that these verses primarily describe an immature believer who has not yet come to understand that he is no longer under the law, but under grace. He has not yet learned to rely on the indwelling Holy Spirit to overcome the lusts of the flesh. (There is no mention of the Spirit here, but much is said of the Spirit in chapter 8.) But at the same time, the war that Paul describes here does go on, even for mature believers. The difference is that while sin is winning the war in chapter 7, Paul through the Holy Spirit is winning against sin in chapter 8. While we can never in this life obey God’s law perfectly, we can learn to obey God consistently. We do not have to yield repeatedly to sin, which is the frustrating cycle that Paul describes here. This third cycle teaches us:

To win the war within, we must understand the magnitude of the inner conflict so that in despair we cry out to God for deliverance.

In 7:24, Paul cries out in despair, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” His exclamation in 7:25 gives us a ray of hope, followed by a summary of the war within: “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.” Chapter 8 goes on to unfold the deliverance that God gives us over sin through the indwelling Holy Spirit. I see three lessons in our text:

1. To win the war within, we must understand the nature and magnitude of the conflict between indwelling sin and the new man.

The Christian life is a constant battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Here the focus is on the flesh. “I find” implies that this was a discovery that came to Paul after some painful failures. He discovered this truth in the school of hard knocks. Even though Paul had experienced a dramatic conversion, it didn’t immediately result in a life of consistent victory over sin. And so he portrays here the two combatants in this battle. We can picture them as boxers:

A. In this corner: The reigning champion, the old man, waging war in my members to make me a prisoner.

Paul uses several terms here to describe the evil within. While they have different nuances, they basically describe the same thing: “the law that evil is present in me” (7:21); “a different law … waging war” (7:23); “the law of sin” (7:23, 25); “the body of this death” (7:24); and, “my flesh” (7:25). All of these terms refer to the old man and its method of operation. The old man is not eradicated at conversion, but continues to be corrupted according to the lusts of deceit (Eph. 4:22). As we saw last time, positionally the old man was crucified with Christ, in order that our body of sin might be done away with (Rom. 6:6). But practically, we have to reckon this to be true in our daily experience by putting it off (Rom. 6:11; Eph. 4:22-24). If we don’t learn to do this, the old man will make us prisoners to the law of sin (7:23). Note how the old man operates:

(1). The old man (the flesh, indwelling sin) operates according to a law.

The word translated “principle” (NASB, 7:21) is literally, “law.” Some commentators argue that it refers to God’s law (as it does in 7:22 & 25), so that in 7:21 the sense is, “I find then that in reference to [God’s] law, evil is present in me .…” While that is possible, the fact that Paul specifies “the law of God” in 7:22 indicates that he is distinguishing it from the law that he has just mentioned in 7:21.

So he is probably using “law” ironically in 7:21, both to compare and contrast the law of sin with God’s law. In this sense, it rules us and with authority tells us how to live (although wrongly!). It promises rewards if we obey it: “You’ll be happier and more fulfilled if you experience the pleasure of this sin.” It threatens us with penalties if we do not obey it: “You’ll miss out on all the fun if you don’t do what I say.” So indwelling sin is powerful. It operates as a law, commanding us, threatening us, and enticing us. (I am indebted to Kris Lundgaard, The Enemy Within [P & R Publishing], pp. 23-26 for some of these insights about the law of sin.)

(2). The old man operates by waging a cunning, relentless war.

Paul says (7:23), “But I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war ….” The war that the old man wages is a guerilla war. It doesn’t wear red coats and come marching towards you in formation, so that you can see it coming. It uses snipers and land mines and hidden roadside bombs and civilians posing as friends when really they’re enemies. In other words, sin is subtle and cunning. It lures you into traps where you get ambushed. And it’s relentless. If it loses one battle, it doesn’t pack up and go home, conceding defeat. It keeps coming at you until it brings you down.

(3). The old man operates through our bodies.

This law operates “in the members of my body” (7:23). Paul laments “the body of this death” (7:24), which refers to his physical body that is under the curse of death. He contrasts the law of sin with “the law of my mind” (7:23).

We need to be careful here or we could fall into an error that became prevalent in the early church. Gnosticism taught that the body is inherently evil, whereas the spirit is good. This led to two different extremes. Some said that since the body is evil, we must treat it harshly by depriving ourselves of food, comfort, and physical pleasure. This is asceticism, which Paul strongly condemns (Col. 2:16-23). The other extreme was that some said that since the body is evil anyway, you might as well indulge it. What the body does is unrelated to the spirit. So you could indulge in sexual immorality, but at the same time claim that your spirit was not in sin.

Since Paul elsewhere clearly denounces these errors, we would be mistaken to take his teaching here in that way. Rather, he is saying that the law of sin works through his physical body and manifests itself in evil deeds. But it takes his entire person captive (7:23, “making me a prisoner”). In this sense, by his members, Paul means his flesh (7:18), which is the old sin nature. Temptation always begins in our minds, but it appeals to and works its way out through our bodies. Thus one strategy against sin is to make it your aim always to glorify God with your body (1 Cor. 6:20).

(4). The old man operates through strong compulsion or feelings, not through reason alone.

Sin uses reason, however faulty, to appeal to us. Satan reasoned with Eve that God surely would not impose the death penalty for eating a little piece of fruit. He also used faulty reasoning to get her to doubt God’s goodness in imposing the command. The fall brought our minds as well as our bodies into captivity to sin.

But in addition to reason, temptation always appeals to our feelings. Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans, p. 294) refers to it as “the compulsion to do evil.” It’s not purely rational. In fact, sin is usually irrational. If we were to stop and think about the consequences both for us and for others, we’d resist the temptation. Don Kistler pointed out the irrationality of sin when he astutely observed (in “Why Read the Puritans Today?” referring to Jeremiah Burroughs’ thesis in The Evil of Evils), “Sin is worse than suffering; but people will do everything they can to avoid suffering, but almost nothing to avoid sin.”

So, in the first corner, we have the reigning champion that has dominated the human race ever since the fall: the old man.

B. In the other corner: The new challenger, the inner man, joyfully concurring with the law of God.

Paul wants to do good (7:21). He says (7:22), “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.” He says that with his mind he is serving the law of God (7:25). This must refer to the mind of a regenerate man. So by the inner man and my mind, Paul is referring to the new man, which through the new birth “has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:24). Leon Morris (p. 295) calls this “the real Paul.” F. F. Bruce (Romans [IVP/Eerdmans], rev. ed., p. 146) identifies it as “the ‘new nature’ in Christ that is daily being renewed in the Creator’s image.” He adds (ibid.), “In light of 8:7-8 it is difficult to view the speaker here as other than a believer.”

One of the marks of the new birth is that God gives you new desires. You have a new love for Christ, who gave Himself on the cross for you. You love God’s Word and desire it like a newborn babe desires his mother’s milk (1 Pet. 2:2). You long to be holy, just as Jesus is holy. You hate your own sin. You love to be with God’s people and talk about the things of God. And yet, at the same time, you know that in your flesh there is still a strong desire to do evil. In new believers, the desires of the old nature (the reigning champion) often win out over the new desires of the new nature (the new challenger) until the new believer learns how to fight.

That’s the picture of Paul here. He has a new nature that joyfully concurs with God’s law in the inner man, but he’s still dominated by the old nature. Unbelievers do not have two natures warring against each other and they do not joyfully love God’s law in their hearts. But mature believers have learned to put on the new man and put off the old, so that they experience consistent victory over sin. But before we begin to see consistent victory, we often experience frustrating defeats because of the power of the reigning champion, the old man. Let’s examine what deliverance from the old nature looks like:

2. Deliverance in this conflict consists of consistent victory over sin in this life and perfect, permanent victory in the resurrection.

In addition to Paul’s dramatic use of the present tense, one strong argument that he is describing mature believers here is that even mature believers identify with the struggle pictured here. Even after we’ve learned to overcome temptation on a consistent basis and after we’ve walked in obedience to the Lord for years, we still find ourselves sinning. We lash out in anger at our loved ones. We act selfishly with no regard for others. We see a seductive woman and lust floods into our thoughts.

But I do not see Paul describing here a lack of perfection, but rather a lack of obedience. He is not doing what he knows to be right. He is practicing what he knows to be wrong. He is failing completely. I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits [Zondervan], p. 222), who argues that Paul’s cry of anguish (in 7:24) is not caused by the fact that he is in conflict against his old nature, but rather by his persistent defeat in yielding to that old nature (7:23). So let me make three observations to try to picture what deliverance looks like:

A. Deliverance does not refer to a state of sinless perfection in this life, but to consistent victory over sin.

In this life, I will never love God as completely as I should, with my entire heart, soul, mind, and strength. I will never love others as much as I love myself (Mark 12:30-31). I will always fall short of these commands. But a lack of perfection is not the same as persistent disobedience. As a new creature in Christ, by God’s Spirit, I can choose to love God by spending time with Him each day in His Word and in prayer, by gathering with His people to worship Him each week, and by honoring Him with the money He entrusts to me. I can love my wife, my children, and others in a self-sacrificing manner. The deliverance that Paul is crying out for (in 7:24) may include the perfection that will come when we get our resurrection bodies. But he wants to be freed from his present enslavement to sin (7:23). He wants to obey God consistently, even if such obedience can never be perfect in this life.

B. Deliverance from sin always creates tension with the growing awareness of your many sins and shortcomings.

There is an irony in the Christian life: As you walk more consistently in obedience to God and grow closer to the light of His holy presence, you see all the more how dirty you really are. When Isaiah saw God in His holiness, he immediately saw how sinful he was (Isa. 6:5). Paul’s cry here may have stemmed partly from this awareness of his sinful imperfection. In that sense, it’s a cry that we will continually echo as we grow in Christ.

But it seems to me that Lloyd-Jones is right when he connects Paul’s cry in this context mainly with his disobedience and defeat, not just with his imperfection (7:24 follows 7:23). Yet at the same time, growing to know Christ and obey Him more always leads to a greater awareness of how sinful you still are. Deliverance from sin’s power does not eliminate this tension of how far short you fall.

C. Deliverance from sin means consistent victory over it, but it does not eliminate the lifelong struggle against it.

After Paul’s jubilant exclamation (7:25), you’d expect him to move on to talk about victory over sin. But instead, he summarizes the war he has just described, in which with his mind he serves the law of God, but with his flesh, the law of sin. It leaves you with the feeling that sin is still consistently winning. Victory doesn’t come until chapter 8. Bishop Lightfoot (Notes on Epistles of St. Paul [Baker], p. 305) says that while Paul’s thanksgiving is out of place, he can’t endure to leave the difficulty unsolved, so he gives the solution parenthetically, even though it interrupts his argument.

But while the struggle against sin is a lifelong battle, when we do learn that we can’t win it in our own strength and when we learn to walk in the Spirit, we can experience consistent victory, which is the flavor of chapter 8. But even when we walk in the Spirit, the daily struggle against sin goes on. The war within of chapter 7 is never eradicated in this life, but the difference is, chapter 7 pictures persistent defeat, whereas chapter 8 pictures consistent triumph and victory, even in the face of severe trials. By God’s grace, we can put the defeat of chapter 7 in the past and experience the consistent victory of chapter 8.

3. To experience consistent victory over sin, we must despair over our sin and cry out to God for deliverance.

As I cited my friend Bob Deffinbaugh last week, the problem with many Christians is not their despair, like that of Paul, but their lack of it. They don’t feel the anguish of their persistent disobedience. They avoid the struggle, often by minimizing their sin as a “personality quirk” or as “just being human.” They excuse it as normal: “Everyone has his faults.”

But you will not gain consistent victory over sin until you first see God’s holy standard and realize how often you’re disobeying that standard. You must also realize, often through repeated failures, that you cannot obey God in your own strength. Then, in despair, you cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” As you search God’s Word for answers, you learn that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (8:2). You learn to walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (8:4). You begin to experience consistent victory over sin in your daily walk, beginning on the thought level.


Dwight Eisenhower once said, “War is a terrible thing. But if you’re going to get into it, you’ve got to get into it all the way.” Underestimating the power of the enemy is a sure way to lose. The war within will be with us as long as we live in these fallen bodies. It is winnable, not perfectly or permanently, but consistently. But we can’t be half-hearted. If we fully engage the battle using God’s resources, we can consistently win!

Application Questions

  1. Some argue that the way to victory over sin is to see yourself as a saint who occasionally sins, not as a sinner. Why is this at odds with the biblical strategy for victory?
  2. Why is underestimating the power of indwelling sin a sure path to spiritual defeat?
  3. James Boice points out that Christians often avoid the battle against sin by a formula, a new experience that supposedly will give instant victory, or avoidance. To which of these are you most prone?
  4. Why is it important to distinguish between perfection and consistent obedience? What problems result if we don’t?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 42: Set Free (Romans 8:1-4)

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We come to a chapter that has often been called either the greatest or one of the greatest chapters in the Bible (James Boice, Romans [Baker], 2:781; Martyn Lloyd Jones, Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits [Zondervan], p. 258). The Swiss commentator Godet pointed out that it begins with “no condemnation” and ends with “no separation.” Another commentator (C. A. Fox) added that in between there is “no defeat” (cited by Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 299).

Personally, I’ve come to Romans 8 again and again when I’ve been discouraged or depressed. I don’t see how you can read Romans 8 and remain down. If you struggle with guilt, read Romans 8. If you struggle with sin, read Romans 8. If you’re going through trials, read Romans 8. If you don’t know how to pray, read Romans 8. If you’re struggling with assurance of your salvation, read Romans 8. Interestingly, while the flavor of Romans 8 is exhortation, there is not a single command in the chapter. The German Pietist Philipp Spener said that if the Bible were a ring and Romans its precious stone, chapter 8 would be “the sparkling point of the jewel” (F. Godet, Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 295).

There is a noticeable shift from Romans 7 to Romans 8. In chapter 7, “I” is frequent, the law is prominent, and sin is dominant. In chapter 8, the Holy Spirit is frequent (18x, more than any other NT chapter), God’s grace and persevering love are prominent, and victory over sin is dominant. There are several ways to outline the chapter; here is one:

1. Justification and sanctification: God’s salvation through Christ and His indwelling Spirit give us life to overcome judgment and sin (8:1-13).

2. Adoption: God’s Spirit assures us of our adoption as His children and heirs (8:14-17).

3. Glorification: Although we (and all creation) now suffer, God will bring us to final glory (8:18-30).

A. Our present sufferings do not compare to our future glory (8:18-25).

B. In our weakness, the Spirit intercedes for us (8:26-27).

C. God will work all things together for our good, because His sovereign purpose for His elect will bring us to glory (8:28-30).

4. Assurance: No attack or hardship can separate God’s elect from His great love (8:31-39).

With that as an overview of the chapter, let’s zero in on 8:1-4, where Paul deals with two very practical issues: guilt and sin. As we saw in chapter 7, believers fight an inner war. With the new man in Christ, they joyfully concur with the holy commandments of God’s law. But, with the old man (the flesh, or indwelling sin), they are prone to be held captive by the law of sin. As I explained, I understand Romans 7:14-25 to refer primarily to immature believers who have not learned of their new identity in Christ. They do not yet reckon themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ. They have not yet learned to rely on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit to put to death the deeds of the flesh. They’re living like unbelievers. So sin and guilt are a major problem for them.

Even though mature believers experience consistent victory over sin, they still struggle daily against the flesh and occasionally lose the battle. So they must understand how to deal with guilt and how to overcome temptation. When we do sin as Christians, the enemy comes in to stir up doubts about our salvation: “How do you know that your sins are all forgiven? True Christians don’t do what you just did! You’re hopeless! You might as well admit your hypocrisy in claiming to be a Christian and quit trying to be holy.” It is to those practical issues that Paul directs these opening verses:

God has graciously set free from sin’s penalty and power all who are in Christ Jesus.

Although these are wonderful verses, they’re not easy to interpret. So godly commentators and pastors disagree over many details in the text. Some see verses 1 & 3 as pertaining to justification, with verses 2 & 4 applying to sanctification. But as I’ve wrestled with the flow of thought, I think that Paul is dealing with justification through most of this paragraph, but brings in sanctification at the end to answer his critics who accused him of promoting licentiousness. Note that verses 2 & 3 both begin with “for.” In verse 2, Paul explains what he said in verse 1, which clearly deals with justification. Thus I understand verse 2 primarily to explain justification. Verse 3 explains further verse 2. The first half of verse 4 gives the result of justification (in 8:1-3). Then the last half of verse 4 describes those who have been justified: They do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. Verses 5-11 explain the differences between those in the flesh and those in the Spirit, which is applied to believers in verses 12-13.

1. Justification: God has graciously set free from sin’s penalty all who are in Christ Jesus (8:1-4a).

There are three stages in Paul’s thought:

A. Those who are in Christ Jesus can be assured that they will not be condemned at the judgment (8:1).

Romans 8:1: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” If you have not memorized that simple verse, do it! You will need it over and over again, every time you sin. By the way, the King James Version wrongly includes the phrase from verse 4, “who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” That rightly belongs at the end of verse 4, but it was probably inserted after verse 1 by a copyist who was worried that the bold statement of verse 1 as it stands would lead readers into licentiousness. But it lacks sufficient manuscript support. Verse 1 ends with the wonderful phrase that Paul uses so often, “in Christ Jesus.”

There are four words or phrases that we must understand to grasp the truth of verse 1: “Therefore”; “no condemnation”; “now”; and, “in Christ Jesus.”

Therefore”: It is not immediately obvious what Paul refers to with “therefore.” Some think that it refers to his exclamation in 7:25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” But the intervening summary at the end of that verse makes the connection unclear. Probably, Paul is going back to the entire argument of justification by faith that has dominated the letter from 3:21 onward. But there are two more definite connections. The word “condemnation” (in Greek) only occurs elsewhere in the New Testament in Romans 5:16 & 18, where Paul argued that just as condemnation came to the entire human race through Adam’s sin, so God’s free gift of justification came to us through Jesus Christ. Just as we were under condemnation in Adam, so now we are in Christ, justified by His grace.

Also, in Romans 7:6, Paul said, “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” He seems to be picking up that truth and elaborating on it here. So “therefore” goes back to sum up the great truth of the gospel of justification by faith alone through God’s grace alone in Christ alone that Paul has laid out earlier in this letter.

No condemnation”: “No” is emphatic and means, “not any,” or “not one.” “Condemnation” is a legal or forensic term that “includes both the sentence and the execution of the sentence” (Morris, p. 300). In Adam, we all stand before God as guilty and condemned to eternal punishment (5:16, 18). We’re on death row, awaiting the execution of the guilty verdict that has been passed. If we died in that condition, we would pass into eternal separation from God, the second death. But since Christ bore the punishment that we deserved, in Him we are set free so that we stand before God justified and acquitted, with all charges dismissed.

This raises the practical question, “As a believer should I feel guilty when I sin?” If there is no condemnation, should we refuse to feel guilty when we disobey God? I would argue that properly understood, believers should feel guilty when they sin. The guilt stems from the fact that I have violated God’s holy Word. I have disobeyed my loving heavenly Father. Rather than loving my Savior, who went to the cross on my behalf, I have loved the sin that put Him there. Feelings of guilt that lead to genuine sorrow and repentance when I disobey God are appropriate.

On the other hand, I should not feel the guilt of condemnation that stems from the accuser’s false charge: “True Christians don’t do what you did. You’re not even a Christian!” If I mourn over my sin and am repentant before God over it, then I must accept His forgiveness and answer the accuser with the blood of the Lamb and the word of my testimony that I trust in Jesus (Rev. 12:10-11; Zech. 3:1-5). To put it another way, the guilt that I feel when I sin is relational, as a child to my Father. It is not forensic, as a criminal before the judge.

The third word is “now”: This refers to the great change that came about in salvation history when God sent His own Son to bear our sins on the cross. Now that Christ has come, we no longer need to bring the blood of sacrificial animals over and over again to atone for our sins. Once for all, Jesus offered Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice (Heb. 10:1-18). But personally, it also applies to the time since you put your trust in Christ as your sin-bearer. Since He bore the full wrath of God, which you deserved, and your trust is in Him, not in any good works of your own, now you stand before God with no condemnation. Even when you sin, you stand before God as His child, not as a guilty criminal. Now should bring you great relief every day, especially when you sin.

Finally, this great blessing of no condemnation is not for everyone. Rather, it is for those who are “in Christ Jesus.” As we saw (in 5:12-21; 6:1-11), there are only two categories of people: Those who are in Adam; and, those who are in Christ. Those who are in Adam are under God’s just condemnation and face His awful wrath for all their sins. Those who are in Christ have been clothed with His righteousness. His death paid the penalty for all of their sins, so that God can be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (3:26). So, as one writer put it, “The unbeliever has his judgment day before him, but the believer in Christ has his judgment day behind him” (Marcus Rainsford, cited by W. H. Griffith Thomas, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 205).

And so it’s no trivial question to ask, “Are you in Christ Jesus?” Have you fled to Christ as your only refuge from God’s judgment? When God destroyed the world through the flood, the only thing that mattered was, were you on the ark? You may have thought that you were a decent person, but if you weren’t on the ark, you perished. You may not have believed that God was going to judge the whole earth, but your not believing it didn’t change the fact. God brought that terrible judgment and the only ones who were saved were those who heeded His warning and got on board the ark. Have you “gotten on board” with Jesus Christ? If you’re in Him, you’re safe from the judgment to come. If you’re trusting in your own ability to swim, you’re under condemnation!

B. Liberation from the law of sin and of death comes through the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (8:2).

Romans 8:2: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” “For” explains how it is that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ. Before Christ, you were under the law of sin and of death. This refers to the strong principle or authority of sin that dominated your life as an unbeliever. Unchecked, that life under sin’s domination was leading you toward death. As I explained in the messages on 7:14-25, I believe it also explains the experience of an immature believer, who has not yet learned to live under the new law of the Spirit of life in Christ (7:23, 25). So in that sense, Romans 8:2 has a secondary application to sanctification, or the process of growing in holiness. Believers are now freed from sin’s domination by the new principle or power of the Spirit of life.

But I think that verse 2 refers primarily to the new life that the Holy Spirit gives to us in regeneration. Jesus told the religious Nicodemus (John 3:6-7), “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” He also said (John 6:63), “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.”

Religion, no matter how conscientiously we follow it, cannot deliver anyone from the power of sin and death. All the good deeds in the world will not set you free from the law of sin and death. To be set free, you need new life imparted by God’s Spirit. Along with this new life comes complete justification from all your sins (8:1). But also, this new life means that you are now dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11). The new law of life in the Spirit frees you from the old law in which sin held you down, just as the law of aerodynamics frees a heavy plane from the law of gravity.

So I understand verse 2 as primarily referring to the new life that the Spirit gives in regeneration. That new life comes to us “in Christ Jesus” and frees us from “the law of sin and of death.” But of course this new life in the Spirit works after regeneration by giving us the power to overcome sin in daily life. Sin still tries to hold us down, but the life that comes from the indwelling Spirit gives us the power to soar above sin and the resulting death.

C. God did what the law could not do: through the substitutionary death of His own Son, He paid the penalty that the law demanded (8:3-4a).

Romans 8:3-4a: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, …” As Paul has stated, the law brought God’s wrath and resulted in increased sin (4:15; 5:20). The problem wasn’t with the law, which is holy, righteous, and good (7:12). The problem was with our flesh (7:13, 25). The law did not provide the power to keep it, and so was weak through the flesh. Apart from God’s intervention, the law only served to condemn us.

But, thankfully, God intervened! He sent His own Son. Salvation is completely from the Lord. God’s sending His Son implies the pre-existence of the Son. Did you notice the Trinity in our text? God the Father sent Jesus Christ His Son to offer Himself for our sins, so that the Holy Spirit could provide us with new life. God is one God who exists eternally in three distinct persons, each of whom is fully God. The word own is emphatic and shows us God’s great love for us: He sent none other than His own Son (5:8).

When Jesus came, He took on “the likeness of sinful flesh.” There is a fine balance here. Jesus did not come in sinful flesh, in that He was without sin. If He had been born in sin, He would have had to die for His own sin. He did not come in the likeness of flesh, which would mean that He was not truly human. This was the early church heresy known as Docetism. They claimed that Jesus only appeared to be a man. But Jesus came in the likeness of sinful flesh. His body was a real human body, so that He could die for human sins. But He was also sinless, so that He could be the Lamb without blemish, dying as a substitute for sinners.

Also, He died “as an offering for sin.” The literal Greek phrase is, for sin, which may mean, “to deal with the sin problem.” But it is also a technical phrase in the LXX, where in 44 out of 54 occurrences it refers to a sacrifice for sin (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 480, note 48). The result of Christ’s sacrificial death was that “He condemned sin in the flesh.” The phrase might better be rendered, “in the flesh, He condemned sin” (Morris, p. 303). This means that by His sacrificial death, offering His body on the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for our sin. His death was substitutionary—in our place. He died the death that we deserve so that we could be set free from the law of sin and death.

But there is debate over what the next phrase means (8:4a): “so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, …” Many scholars whom I respect (e.g., Thomas Schreiner, F. F. Bruce, John Piper, Martyn Lloyd-Jones) understand this to refer to the obedience of Christians who walk by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables them to obey God’s law. Thus it refers to sanctification.

Others (John Calvin, Charles Hodge, Douglas Moo) point out that even with the Spirit’s power, no believer fulfills the righteous requirement of the law. If you keep the entire law, but stumble in one point, you are guilty of it all (James 2:10). Only Christ completely fulfilled the law by His perfect obedience and sacrificial death. Thus I think that the first part of verse 4 refers to Christ’s perfect righteousness applied to our account through faith. This is the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.

But critics have always alleged that that doctrine will lead to licentiousness (Rom. 3:8). If God counts us as totally righteous apart from our good works, then we can sin all we want, so that grace might abound. Paul’s strong response to that charge is (6:1), “May it never be!” Here he counters it by adding the last phrase of verse 4 and then expanding on it in 8:5-13:

2. Sanctification: God has graciously set free from sin’s power all who are in Christ Jesus, who walk in the Spirit (8:4b).

Romans 8:4b: “who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Justification (8:1-4a) is the necessary foundation and motivating cause of sanctification (8:4b). Justification frees us from sin’s penalty; sanctification frees us from sin’s power. Because God has forgiven all our sins through Christ’s death and because He has imparted new life to us through the Holy Spirit, we now do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Walk implies steady, gradual progress along a path toward a goal. In this life, we will never walk in perfect obedience. Only Jesus did that and His perfect righteousness is credited to our account so that we stand before God with no condemnation. But as we learn to walk daily in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we will make progress in obedience to God’s Word. We will grow in holiness. Our lives will increasingly be distinguished by the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Salvation by grace through faith alone always results in a life of walking in good works (Eph. 2:8-10).


I leave you with two questions: (1) Are you in Christ Jesus through faith in His blood, shed for the remission of your sins? If so, you can enjoy the assurance that there is now no condemnation for you, because you are in Christ Jesus.

(2) Are you walking according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh? Each day, do you yield to the Holy Spirit and rely on His power, so that His fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22-23)—are growing in you? Christ died and the Spirit gave you new life to set you free from the law of sin and of death.

Application Questions

  1. Do you agree that believers who sin should feel guilty? If not, why not? If so, explain what you mean.
  2. Why is justification the necessary foundation for sanctification? Why is it important to affirm that justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, not the impartation of righteousness?
  3. Some argue that the requirement of the law being fulfilled in us refers to our sincere obedience in fulfillment of Jer. 31:33. Agree/disagree? Why?
  4. What does it mean practically to “walk in the Spirit”? Describe what it looks like in specific terms.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Grace, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 43: Two Groups, Two Destinies (Romans 8:5-6)

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In Faith Works ([Word Publishing], p. 127) John MacArthur tells about reading a book which told about a pastor who had been sent to prison for robbing 14 banks to finance his encounters with prostitutes! The author of this book was fully convinced that this pastor was a true Christian and so he wrote the book to explore how such a thing could be possible. MacArthur writes, “Call me old-fashioned, but I think it is fair to raise the question of whether someone who regularly robs banks to pay for illicit sex is truly saved!” Yes!

In recent years several polls have shown disturbing beliefs and behaviors among those who profess to be evangelical Christians. For example, a Pew Forum poll indicated that 57 percent of evangelical church attenders believe many religions can lead to eternal life (in Arizona Daily Sun [06/24/2008]). Other surveys show that only 9 percent of teens and 32 percent of adults who claim to be born again believe in moral absolutes (Barna Update, 2/12/2002). That means that over 90 percent of “born again” teens and two-thirds of “born again” adults do not believe in moral absolutes!

These shocking numbers may be explained in part by a lack of solid biblical preaching in evangelical churches. But beneath this lack of solid preaching is a basic misunderstanding about the nature of the gospel. We have wrongly assumed that when someone makes a decision to accept Christ as Savior or prays a prayer to invite Jesus into his heart, he is saved. We wrongly think that someone can accept Jesus as his Savior, but not yield to Him as Lord. Or we mistakenly assume that all who profess Jesus as Lord, especially those who serve Him, will go to heaven. But Jesus made it clear that only those who obey Him can expect to be welcomed into heaven (Matt. 7:21-27).

The Bible is clear that salvation is a matter of God’s imparting new life to a person who was dead in his sins. And such new life always manifests itself in changed belief and behavior. This is not to say that those who are truly born again cannot fall into gross sins. But it is to say that they cannot live complacently in sin. While growth in godliness is a lifelong process, there is such growth in the lives of all who have been born of the Spirit.

In Romans 8:1-4, Paul gives assurance that if we are in Christ, we will not be condemned at the judgment. Jesus paid the penalty we deserved on the cross. If we have trusted in His shed blood, the Holy Spirit who gives life has set us free from the law of sin and of death. Paul concludes that section (8:4b) by describing those who have been justified by faith: they “do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Now he explains (“for”) why some walk according to the flesh and others walk according to the Spirit: It is due to their nature. Their spiritual nature of being either “according to the flesh” or “according to the Spirit” determines their spiritual behavior of walking according to the flesh or the Spirit. In 8:5-8, he mainly describes those who are “according to the flesh.” In 8:9-11 he focuses on those who are “in the Spirit.” Griffith Thomas (St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 208) summarizes the flow of thought: “Hence, as in verses 1-4, the Apostle has shown that until and unless a man is justified he cannot possibly be holy, so now, in verses 5-11, he will show that if a man is not holy he cannot possibly have been justified.” In other words, justification is always the necessary foundation for sanctification. And sanctification is always the evidence of justification.

So Paul paints a picture of these two distinct groups: those according to the flesh; and, those according to the Spirit. We can apply his point by saying,

Since there are only two groups of people with two very different destinies, make sure that you are“according to the Spirit,” not the flesh.

1. There are two and only two groups of people in the world: Those who are according to the flesh and those who are according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:5: “For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.”

It’s important to understand that Paul is not writing here about two types of Christians, but rather about how non-Christians differ from true Christians. While it’s true that immature believers may yet live in accordance with the flesh (as I believe 7:14-25 describes), and even mature believers at times yield to the flesh (Rom. 8:12; Gal. 5:17), that is not what Paul is describing here. Here, “those who are according to the flesh” describes the spiritual condition of unbelievers. They are characterized by death (8:6). “Those who are according to the Spirit” describes believers, who are characterized by life and peace (8:6). The nature of each group determines their present behavior and their final destiny.

There is a popular but mistaken view that there are two optional tracks for the Christian life. If you’re prone toward masochism, you can sign up for the discipleship track. Under this plan, you give up everything to follow Christ. You have to deny yourself and take up your cross daily. You will suffer hardship, sacrifice, and perhaps even martyrdom. You have to give the control of all of your material assets to Christ. You may be required to take the gospel to a foreign culture, where you’ll live in difficult and perhaps dangerous circumstances. But, your rewards in heaven will be great. This discipleship track is for the super-committed.

The other track, the “cultural Christian track,” is for the rest of us more “ordinary” believers. Under this plan, you can accept Jesus as your Savior (to make sure that you’ll go to heaven), but also pursue your dreams for success and personal fulfillment in this life. You get the best of both worlds without needing to be gung ho, like those on the discipleship track. You can enjoy the fellowship of a good evangelical church and pursue the American dream at the same time. Just drop something in the offering plate once in a while to pay your dues. Once in a while you can volunteer to help out at the church, when it fits in with your busy schedule. Don’t be too hard on yourself about obedience to the Bible. After all, we’re all human. God is gracious and He understands your weaknesses. So accept yourself and don’t think that you have to be all-out for Jesus. That’s just for the fanatics on the discipleship track.

But Jesus made it clear that there is only one track for the Christian life (Mark 8:34-38):

And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”

It’s pretty clear that Jesus is talking about eternal life or eternal condemnation. If you want eternal life, you must die to self and follow Jesus. In Paul’s language, that describes a person who is “according to the Spirit.” The other track describes those who are “according to the flesh.” These are the only two groups in the world when it comes to eternal life or eternal death.

2. These two groups are sharply distinguished by different mindsets.

Paul describes the mindset of those who are according to the flesh as “the things of the flesh” (8:5). This mindset is death (8:6); it is hostile toward God, not subject to God’s law (8:7), and not pleasing to God (8:8). On the other hand, the mindset of those who are according to the Spirit is “the things of the Spirit” (8:5). This mindset is life and peace (8:6). By implication, since it is the opposite of the mindset of the flesh, the mindset of those who are according to the Spirit is friendly toward God, subject to His law, and pleasing to Him.

To be “according to” the flesh means to live under the flesh, to make it your rule, or to obey it. To live “according to” the Spirit means to be “ruled and determined by His awakening, regenerating, illuminating presence; characterized by the fact that He dwells in [us]” (H. C. G. Moule, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans [Cambridge, 1903], p. 141). Let’s look at the two mindsets:

A. Those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh (8:5a).

“Flesh” in the Bible can be used in different ways, depending on the context. It may refer to our human bodies with no moral connotations at all (2 Cor. 10:3; Gal. 2:20; 4:13). It may refer to the weakness of human life as temporal (1 Pet. 2:24). Or it may refer to the sinfulness of human nature after the fall, as expressed in the deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:16-21). These deeds include sins that we might categorize as sensual (immorality, impurity, drunkenness); but they also include worshiping false gods, strife, jealousy, and anger. So to live according to the flesh is to live independently of God, in dependence on oneself, with self at the center. The fleshly person may be outwardly moral, but his motives and goals are for his own glory or gain or comfort, without regard for the glory of God or the good of others.

Paul makes it clear that being “according to the flesh” has to do with our mindset, or how we think. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Sons of God [Zondervan], p. 5) explains, “The term includes not only thought and understanding, it includes the affections, the emotions, the desires and the objects of pursuit.” That non-Christians set their minds on the things of the flesh not only means that they think about them occasionally, he says, “but that these are the things which they think of most of all; these are the things of which they think habitually, the trend or the bent of their thinking is toward them.”

To set one’s mind on the things of the flesh is much the same as when John says (1 John 2:15-16), “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.” Loving the world or setting one’s mind on the things of the flesh means to live for the temporal things that the world values, in disregard of God and eternity.

B. Those who are according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit (8:5b).

The things of the Spirit are the truths revealed to us in God’s Word concerning who He is, who we are, the great salvation that He has provided in Christ, and how we should live in light of that salvation (1 Cor. 2:6-13). To set your mind on the things of the Spirit does not mean that you go around with your head in the clouds, detached from everyday matters. It does not mean that you must join a monastery and spend hours every day in meditation and prayer. It does not mean that you do not get your hands dirty with mundane things like work, paying bills, cleaning the house, fixing meals, mowing your lawn, or reading the newspaper.

Rather, to set your mind on the things of the Spirit means to relate all of life to God and His Word. God has seen fit in His Word to tell us how to have our sins forgiven and to have eternal life through faith in Christ. That is the most important thing, because you could die at any moment and stand before God. That is why Paul says (Col. 3:1-4),

Therefore, if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.

So to set your mind on the things of the Spirit means especially to think often about matters of salvation. It means to worship God and commune with Him.

But the Bible also tells us a lot about many practical, down-to-earth matters. In the context of Colossians 3, Paul goes on to talk about sex, greed, anger, abusive speech, and truthfulness. He gives practical commands regarding relationships, marriage, child-rearing, and work. In other places, the Bible says a lot about how to manage money, how to deal with trials, how to relate to civil authorities, and many other practical matters. So to repeat, to set your mind on the things of the Spirit means to relate all of life to God and His Word. It means to develop a biblical worldview, where you think about and process all of life through the lens of the Bible.

At the heart of this process is how you think. In an article on the Greek noun, phronema, which occurs only in Romans 8 (translated “the mind set”), J. Goetzmann points out that there can be no such thing as neutral thinking. We’re always aiming at something. He adds (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Words [Zondervan], ed. by Colin Brown, 2:617):

This passage makes it abundantly clear that the way one thinks is intimately related to the way one lives, whether in Christ, in the Spirit and by faith, or alternatively in the flesh, in sin and in spiritual death. A man’s thinking and striving cannot be seen in isolation from the overall direction of his life; the latter will be reflected in the aims which he sets himself.

In Colossians 3, Paul commands us to set our minds on the things above, but in Romans 8 he describes believers as those who set their minds on the things of the Spirit. While it’s a lifelong process that involves growth, we need to ask ourselves honestly, “Does this describe me? Do I set my mind on the things of the Spirit or on the things of the flesh? Which direction am I heading?”

I’ll give you a clue: If you spend more of your spare time watching television or playing video games or on your computer than you spend reading the Bible, reading Christian books, fellowshipping with other believers, or serving the Lord in some capacity, you’re probably not heading in the right direction. I’m not saying that every spare minute should be spent on spiritual activities. We all need some down time. We all have chores to do. But if you’re not making a concerted, consistent effort to develop a biblical mindset, something is seriously wrong.

Thus there are two and only two groups of people in the world: Unbelievers who live under the domination of the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh. Believers who live under the domination of the Holy Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. From there, things get even more serious:

3. These two distinct groups are marked by mindsets that lead to two completely different destinies: death or life and peace.

Romans 8:6: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”

Paul is describing the current spiritual state of each group, which explains (“for”) why the first group sets their minds on the things of the flesh and the second group sets their minds on the things of the Spirit. The first group is dominated by the flesh because they are spiritually dead. The second group is dominated by the Holy Spirit because He has given them life and peace with God.

But the scary part is this: If those who are dead in their sins continue in that state until they die physically, they will continue throughout eternity in the awful condition of separation from God, under the penalty of His just wrath. The Bible calls this the second death and it is spent in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). The next verse (Rev. 20:15) adds, “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

This state of eternal spiritual death does not mean that those in hell are annihilated or cease to exist. That would be a blessing for them! But the Bible is clear that eternal spiritual death means enduring conscious torment forever (Mark 9:43-48; Luke 16:16-31; Rev. 14:10-11). These frightening truths come to us from the Lord Jesus Himself and from John, the apostle of love. If we reject this truth, we are not following Jesus.

The good news is, if you have been given new life through the Holy Spirit, although your physical body will die (Rom. 8:10), God will resurrect your body (8:11) and you will enjoy life and peace with Him and with all the saints throughout eternity. The moment your physical body dies, your spirit goes immediately into the presence of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Acts 7:59; Luke 23:43).

Death is never a pretty picture. The mortician can make up a corpse to look its best, but we all know, that person is dead. And death is the spiritual picture of all who are outside of Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 2:1, Paul writes, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” He repeats (Eph. 2:5), “Even when we were dead in our transgressions, [God] made us alive together with Christ ….” The unbeliever may be a good person. He may give generously to charity and devote himself to good deeds. But if he has not been born again by the life-giving Spirit, he is spiritually dead.

But the one who has been born again has life and peace. The life is called eternal life because it is indestructible. It cannot be taken away by any evil force (Rom. 8:33-39). It joins us in living union with Jesus Christ, who once and for all conquered death and who lives and reigns forever. Peace means that we now have peace with God because our sins have been completely forgiven: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Even in the midst of life’s trials, we enjoy peace in Christ (John 16:33).


The application of our text is obvious: Make sure that you have new life through God’s Spirit and that you are not living according to the flesh! Don’t deceive yourself by thinking, “I’m one of those worldly or carnal Christians, but I’m going to heaven because I prayed a prayer to ask Jesus into my heart.” The issue is, do you have life and peace with God through the Spirit? Do you set your mind on the things of the Spirit? If not, repent and cry out to God to give you new life! If you’re sure that you’ve been born again, but you’re drifting into the things of the flesh or world, the solution is the same: Repent and don’t rest until your mind and focus are on the things of the Spirit.

Sit down and evaluate your schedule. Do you remember the “big rocks” illustration? A professor came in with a large jar filled to the brim with big rocks. He asked the class, “Is the jar full?” “Yes,” they responded. He poured in some pea gravel and shook it down through the cracks. “Is it full now?” They weren’t so sure. He poured in some sand. Then he added water. The point of the illustration is, if you don’t put the big rocks in first you won’t be able to fit them in at all. Schedule your priorities or they will get crowded out by the urgent but trivial. Your biggest rock is your relationship with God. Set your mind on the things of the Spirit!

Application Questions

  1. Do you agree that there are not two options for followers of Jesus? What bad consequences follow the “carnal” Christian teaching?
  2. How can a person know for sure that he has eternal life? What are the marks of the new birth? Give biblical support.
  3. Is setting our minds on the things above automatic or does it require discipline? How (practically) can we do this?
  4. A professing Christian tells you, “I’ve tried to get into the Bible, but it bores me.” How would you counsel him?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Heaven, Hell, Spiritual Life

Lesson 44: Understanding the Unbelieving Mind (Romans 8:6-8)

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Once in a while people ask why I do not give altar calls, where I invite people to come forward to indicate that they want to receive Christ as Savior and Lord. Due to the influence of Billy Graham and other popular evangelists, many think that if you don’t give an altar call, you have not properly preached the gospel.

The short answer to why I do not give altar calls is that there is no biblical example or command to do so. I assume that Jesus and the apostles, as recorded in the Gospels and Acts, preached the gospel. While they often called on people to repent and believe in Christ (as I also do), there is no indication that they ever invited them to raise their hands or get out of their seats and come forward. That method of evangelism came into vogue in the early 19th century and was later popularized by Charles Finney, who held to some seriously heretical views of human nature. Iain Murray, who chronicles this in Revival and Revivalism [Banner of Truth], says regarding altar calls (p. 186), “Nobody, at first, claimed to regard it as a means of conversion. But very soon, and inevitably, answering the call to the altar came to be confused with being converted.”

Murray shows the damaging effects of “revivalism,” the evangelistic method that emphasizes some external action that the sinner can do to be saved. Gospel preaching that brings sinners to despair over their inability to do anything, driving them to trust in Christ alone, may bring true revival. At the root of the problem (and the longer answer for why I don’t do altar calls) is the biblical understanding of the spiritual condition of unbelievers and the nature of true conversion, which is Paul’s subject in our text.

Charles Spurgeon, who was used of God to bring thousands to genuine conversion through his preaching, understood this even early in his ministry. In a sermon in 1860, when he was only 24, Spurgeon said that the doctrine which leaves salvation up to something that man does exalts the flesh and dishonors God. He labels that view as Arminian. He explained (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 6:259, also cited by Iain Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon [Banner of Truth], pp. 87-88, italics Spurgeon’s):

What the Arminian wants to do is to arouse man’s activity; what we want to do is to kill it once for all, to show him that he is lost and ruined, and that his activities are not now at all equal to the work of conversion; that he must look upward. They seek to make the man stand up; we seek to bring him down, and make him feel that there he lies in the hand of God, and that his business is to submit himself to God, and cry aloud, “Lord, save or we perish.” We hold that man is never so near grace as when he begins to feel that he can do nothing at all. When he says, “I can pray, I can believe, I can do this, and I can do the other,” marks of self-sufficiency and arrogance are on his brow.

He goes on to emphasize that you cannot be saved unless God saves you. And so he urges sinners, not to come forward, not to look to their own prayers or faith, but to cry out to God to draw them to Christ by His grace. Only God can take away a sinner’s heart of stone and give a heart of flesh that loves Him. And if anyone complains that he cannot repent or believe, Spurgeon says, these, too, are gifts from God. Cry out to Him to have mercy and save you. Salvation is totally from the Lord, not from us, or we would boast, even about our own repentance and faith!

The frequent result of an emphasis on doing something, such as coming forward, to receive Christ is that it promotes false conversions and gives false assurance to those who did it that they are saved because they went forward or prayed a prayer (Murray, Revival, p. 243). But such a decision alone is no evidence of the new birth. As Paul makes clear in Romans 8, the genuine result of being saved is that we walk according to the Spirit, not the flesh (8:4).

In 8:5, Paul sets forth the contrast between these two groups: “For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.” To be “according to the flesh” means to live under the domination of the flesh and to obey its dictates. It is to live with a self-centered, not a God-centered focus. Another way of saying it is that such people are “in the flesh” (8:8); they live in the sphere of the flesh. Such people may believe in God and be very religious, but they live to please themselves. Godet (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 303) calls the flesh, “the life of the I for itself.” Those in the flesh do not set their minds on the things of the Spirit, which are the truths revealed to us in God’s Word. (See last week’s message for more on 8:5-6.)

In 8:6, Paul explains that the reason those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh is that they are spiritually dead: “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.” Then, in 8:7-8, he explains further why the mind set on the flesh is spiritually dead and headed toward eternal death: because it is hostile toward God, not subject to His law, and displeasing to Him. These verses reveal Paul’s insight into the unbelieving mind:

The mind set on the flesh is spiritually dead and thus an enemy of God because it does not and cannot submit to Him or please Him.

Note three things:

1. The mind set on the flesh is spiritually dead and headed toward eternal death because it is an enemy of God (8:6a, 7a).

A. The mind set on the flesh is spiritually dead and headed toward eternal spiritual death (8:6a).

Romans 8:6a: “For the mind set on the flesh is death ….” In our last study we saw that outside of Christ, everyone is spiritually dead, and so I only mention this in passing since it’s the foundation for verse 7. To be spiritually dead means to be separated from God and the eternal life that only He can give. In Ephesians (2:1, 5) Paul says that we all were dead in our sins before God graciously imparted new life to us. And if we die in that state of spiritual death, we enter into what the Bible calls “the second death,” eternal separation from God (Rev. 20:14, 15).

Some try to avoid the implications of what it means to be spiritually dead by saying, “It’s only a metaphor and you can’t press it too far.” But the metaphor was not chosen without reason and it does convey something important (which I’ll say more on in a moment), namely, that sinners are spiritually unable to seek God or please Him. Spiritually dead people are cut off from understanding the things of the Spirit, including the gospel (1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:4-6). This is the natural condition of every person (except Jesus) descended from Adam since the fall.

B. The mind set on the flesh is not spiritually neutral, but is an enemy of God (8:7a).

Romans 8:7a: “Because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God.” Paul uses the same word (“hostile”) to describe a deed of the flesh (Gal. 5:20) and the perpetual hostility between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:14, 16). It is the opposite of love. Unbelievers do not love God; they hate Him. He is their enemy.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “But I know many unbelievers who don’t hate God. They don’t have anything against Him.” But the Bible draws a line: Either you are a God-lover because He has saved you from your sins; or, you’re a God-hater because you do not want Him to rule over you. Unbelievers may be religious, but invariably, it’s religion as they like it. They pick and choose the kind of “God” that suits their preferences. They come to God on their own terms, by their own good works, and they “use” Him for their own selfish purposes.

So unbelievers are not spiritually neutral. They may be indifferent toward God, but that’s often the worst form of hatred. Spurgeon (MTP, 32:20-21; I’m paraphrasing somewhat) illustrates this by supposing that someone wrote you a letter, but you paid no attention to it. “When did it come?” “Last Monday.” “Have you read it?” “Oh no, I don’t bother to read his letters.” “You’ve had a good many of them, then?” “Oh yes, hundreds of them.” “What have you done with them?” “I haven’t done anything with them. I leave them alone and don’t bother to read them.”

“When you did read one of his letters, what was it about?” “Well, it was about wishing to be at peace with me, and desiring to do me good. He spoke of my being in great danger, and said that he would help me; and of my being poor, and he offered to make me rich.” “He talked like that and yet you’ve never read any more of his letters? You must hate that person very much!” Indifference toward this kind and merciful God is to hate Him.

Also, unbelievers often think that a holy God is too strict and foreboding. They prefer a God who is more cuddly and user-friendly. They think that God’s justice in judging sinners is too severe. They protest, “Sure, I’ve got my faults. But God shouldn’t judge me for being imperfect. That’s not fair!” They think that God’s truth is too inflexible. They wish He would be more tolerant, as they are. They say, “I believe that as long as a person is sincere and does his best, he will go to heaven.” And they even think that God’s mercy through the cross is offensive, because it implies that they cannot save themselves by their own good works (Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines of the Whole Bible [Zondervan], XV:203, suggests the thoughts I developed in this paragraph.) But all of this puts the person who sets his mind on the flesh at odds with God.

You should always be careful before you make an enemy, especially if that enemy is much stronger and smarter than you are! But the problem is, we all are born at enmity with God. You would think that everyone would be scrambling to figure out how to become God’s friend and end the hostility. But instead, unbelievers brazenly defy God and disobey His law. They boastfully oppose God’s truth as revealed in His Word, asserting that they know more about spiritual matters than He does! They remake God in their own image. I’ve even heard of professing Christians who say, “My God isn’t a God of judgment; He’s a God of love!” Okay, but then your “God” isn’t the God of the Bible!

By way of contrast, those who set their minds on the Spirit (believers in Christ) are not God-haters, but God-lovers. We seek to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We love the Savior, who left the glory of heaven to suffer and die on the cross in our place. We don’t want to do anything to hinder the fellowship that we now enjoy with Him because of His grace.

So Paul shows that the mind set on the flesh is not spiritually neutral. Rather, it is separated from God (dead) and actively opposed to Him as His enemy. Also,

2. The mind set on the flesh does not submit to God (8:7b).

Romans 8:7b: “for it does not subject itself to the law of God.” God’s law reveals who He is and how He commands us to live. While we’re not under the law of Moses (Rom. 6:14), we are under the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21). We are subject to the two great commandments, to love God with our entire being and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-40; Rom. 13:9). The New Testament gives many specific commands about how we are to live as believers in Christ. But the unbelieving mind does not subject itself to God’s Word. Its mindset is, “I love my self and its will first and most” (H. C. G. Moule, The Epistle to the Romans [Christian Literature Crusade], pp. 213-214).

Unbelievers often say that they do not believe because of intellectual reasons: “Give me enough proof and I’ll believe.” “If I saw a real miracle, then I’d believe.” Or, “If God would speak to me from heaven, I’d believe.” But God has given sufficient evidence through creation (Rom. 1:18-20) and through the biblical witness to Jesus Christ. But unbelievers suppress the truth in unrighteousness because they do not want to submit to God. The root of unbelief is not intellectual; it’s moral. They do not want God to rule over them. They do not want to obey His Word.

By implied contrast, those whose minds are set on the Spirit do submit to God’s Word. John Calvin describes his own conversion from Catholicism by saying, “God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], preface to the Psalms, p. xl). A good test of whether your mind is set on the flesh or on the Spirit is, “Do I have a teachable heart in submission to God’s Word?” The test of having a teachable heart comes when you encounter some of the difficult doctrines in Scripture, such as the Trinity, hell, predestination, and handling trials. Do you fight God regarding these truths, or do you submit to Him?

Speaking of difficult doctrines, this leads us to a difficult truth which many who profess to know Christ do not accept:

3. The mind set on the flesh cannot submit to God or please Him (8:7c-8).

Paul does not stop by saying that those who are in the flesh do not submit to God’s law. He goes further by saying that they are not even able to do so, adding (8:8), “and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Cannot is a word of inability. It goes back to the matter of a sinner’s fallen nature in Adam, which is incapable of obeying God or pleasing Him. Just as a pig is free to act in line with its pig nature, but not in line with a human nature, so fallen sinners are free to act in line with the flesh, but not in line with the Holy Spirit, whom they do not possess.

But many who contend for so-called “free will” argue that God has given all people the ability to choose salvation. This is called “prevenient grace.” I don’t have time to go into the arguments for this doctrine, but they are biblically weak. (For a full refutation of this idea, see Thomas Schreiner, “Does Scripture Teach Prevenient Grace in the Wesleyan Sense?” in Still Sovereign [Baker], ed. by Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware, pp. 229-246.)

Suffice it to say that elsewhere Paul also teaches human inability to respond to the gospel apart from God’s gracious enabling power. That is clear from his reference to sinners as dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1-5) and as being blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4). Dead people cannot choose to live. Blind people cannot choose to see. Paul also says that the natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God, which includes the message of the cross, which he says is foolishness to the natural man (1 Cor. 2:14; cf. 1:18-30).

Jesus also taught that no one can come to Him unless the Father grants it and draws him (John 6:44, 65). He pointedly asked the skeptical Jews (John 8:43), “Why do you not understand what I am saying?” He answered His own question, “It is because you cannot hear My word.” Obviously they could hear what He was saying, but they lacked the spiritual ability to hear with obedience.

And since those in the flesh cannot please God and faith pleases God (Heb. 11:6), sinners cannot believe in Jesus Christ for salvation by their own free will, apart from God’s special saving grace. The fallen human will is not free; it’s in bondage. This means that in the order of salvation, regeneration precedes faith. God must impart life to dead sinners so that they can believe the gospel (John 1:13; and, note the Greek verb tenses in 1 John 5:1).

The frequent response to this biblical truth is, “That’s not fair! God commands sinners to repent and believe, but they aren’t capable of repenting and believing unless He grants it!” First, I would say, be careful about accusing the Sovereign of the universe of being unfair (Rom. 9:11-20). God would be perfectly fair to send us all to hell with no opportunity to receive His mercy. Second, let me share a story that speaks to this issue (in Murray, Revival, pp. 373-374). During the 1840’s at a time of revival in Savannah, Georgia, a young man complained to Pastor B. M. Palmer:

“You preachers are the most contradictory men in the world; you say and you unsay, just as it pleases you, without the least pretension to consistency. Why you said in your sermon that sinners were perfectly helpless in themselves—utterly unable to repent or believe and then turned round and said they would all be damned if they did not.”

Pastor Palmer decided that it would be best to reply in an off-hand or seemingly indifferent way, so he said:

“Well, my dear [friend], there is no use in our quarreling over this matter; either you can or you cannot. If you can, all I have to say is that I hope you will just go and do it.”

Pastor Palmer did not raise his eyes from his writing, which he continued to do as he spoke, so he did not know what effect his words had until after a moment’s silence he heard a choking cry, along with the words, “I have been trying my best for three whole days and cannot.” “Ah,” responded Palmer, raising his eyes and putting down his pen, “that puts a different face upon it; we will go then and tell the difficulty straight to God.” He then reports:

We knelt down and I prayed as though this was the first time in human history that this trouble had ever arisen; that here was a soul in the most desperate extremity, which must believe or perish, and hopelessly unable of itself, to do it; that, consequently it was just the case for divine interposition; and pleading most earnestly for the fulfillment of the divine promise. Upon rising I offered not one single word of comfort or advice … So I left my friend in his powerlessness in the hands of God, as the only helper. In a short time he came through the struggle, rejoicing in the hope of eternal life.


The unbelieving mind is spiritually dead and hostile toward God. It does not and cannot submit to God or please Him. This means that salvation is not a matter of the human will, but rather of God’s imparting new life to those who are spiritually dead (John 1:12-13). This means that salvation is not even a joint project between God and sinners. Rather, salvation is of the Lord (1 Cor. 1:30; Jonah 2:9). Since salvation is completely God’s doing, He gets all the glory (Eph. 1:3-12). Two brief applications:

*These truths have important implications for how we share the gospel. Don’t get overly enmeshed in intellectual debates about evolution or the existence of God or the problem of suffering and evil. Rather, zero in on the person’s rebellion and refusal to submit to God. And, while you should be as cogent as possible, salvation is not a matter of convincing someone with persuasive arguments. Rather, it is a matter of God’s opening blind eyes and changing hardened hearts. So pray as you share that God would grant repentance and saving faith (Acts 11:18; Phil. 1:29)!

*These truths pertain to how we evaluate ourselves. Am I reconciled to God as His friend or am I hostile toward Him? Do I subject myself to God’s Word? Do I seek to please Him with my thoughts, my words, and my deeds? Is my mind set on the Spirit, not on the flesh? May God grant that these evidences of His grace would be growing in each of us!

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important to understand that lost people are not just spiritually sick, but dead? What are the implications of this?
  2. An unbeliever tells you that he doesn’t have anything against God. How would you help him see that he is hostile toward God? Why would this be important to do?
  3. Someone says, “If unbelievers cannot repent and believe, it’s not fair of God to demand that they do.” Your response?
  4. In the order of salvation, why must regeneration precede faith?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 45: Do You Belong to Christ? (Romans 8:9-11)

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The most important question that you ever need to answer is, “Do I belong to Christ?” If you belong to Christ, all of God’s promises are “yes” for you in Him (2 Cor. 1:20). If you belong to Christ, you are reconciled to God, your sins are all forgiven, you can enjoy fellowship with Him every day, and you know that if you were to die today, you would be with the Lord in the glory of heaven forever.

So, do you belong to Christ? You may say, “Yes, I invited Jesus into my heart at Vacation Bible School when I was a child.” I’m glad to hear that, but do you belong to Christ? “Yes, I prayed the sinner’s prayer after a campus worker shared the Four Spiritual Laws with me in college.” That’s fine, but do you belong to Christ? “Yes, the worker told me that if I prayed that prayer, I could be assured that I’m going to heaven.” Really? Where does the Bible say that praying a prayer will get you into heaven? You need to make sure that you belong to Christ based on what the Bible says.

One of Paul’s main reasons for writing Romans 8 was to give assurance to us who believe in Jesus Christ that we belong to Him for time and eternity. He begins with the most wonderful statement imaginable (Rom. 8:1), “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Then he explains (8:2), “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” The new life that the Holy Spirit imparts frees you from the condemnation that resulted from your sin. Jesus, God’s eternal Son, bore the penalty that the law demanded, so that its requirement of perfect righteousness is met in Him (8:3-4a). This is what Paul has earlier called “justification.”

Then Paul describes those who have been justified (8:4b): [they] “do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” He goes on to describe this contrast further. Those who have not been justified are “according to the flesh” (8:5a). They “set their minds on the things of the flesh.” Those who have been justified are “according to the Spirit.” They “set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” He explains further why this is so (8:6): “For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.” Those who have not been justified are in a state of spiritual death or separation from God. Those who have been justified enjoy new life (from the Spirit of life, 8:2) and peace with God.

Then (8:7-8) he explains further the unbelieving mind, which is set on the flesh: It “is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Those in the flesh are spiritually incapable even of trusting in Christ for salvation because of their innate rebellion against Him. For them to be saved, God’s Spirit must raise them from spiritual death to life.

Now (8:9-11), Paul turns to those who have experienced the new birth and explains (8:9), “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” But perhaps you are concerned for a loved one who died or troubled over the inevitable fact that you are going to die. Does this mean that you do not have new life in Christ? No, Paul goes on to explain (8:10) that although your physical body will die, the Spirit has given you life because you are righteous in Christ. And, although your body will die, the same God who raised Jesus from the dead will one day resurrect your mortal body through His Spirit who dwells in you (8:11). But, all of this depends on the matter, “Do you belong to Christ?” Paul is saying:

If God’s Spirit dwells in you, you belong to Christ; and though your physical body will die, God will raise your body from the dead.

When we trusted Christ as Savior and Lord, we changed realms from living “according to the flesh” to living “according to the Spirit.” We used to be “in the flesh,” living under its ruling influence. Now we live “in the Spirit,” under His rule and the Spirit lives in us.

1. You are in the Spirit if the Spirit of God dwells in you, which is a mark of everyone who belongs to Christ (8:9).

C. H. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 19:529) calls verse 9 “one of the most solemn texts in the whole Bible.” He says, “It is so sweeping: it deals with us all…. And it deals with the most important point about us, for to belong to Christ is the most essential thing for time and eternity.” Thus,

A. It is absolutely vital to have the Spirit of God dwelling in you, because if you do not, you do not belong to Christ.

As we have seen, Paul divides all people into just two categories: Those who are “in the flesh” and those “in the Spirit.” There is no category for so-called “carnal” Christians, who claim that Jesus is their Savior, but not their Lord. While the process of bringing every area of life under the lordship of Christ is lifelong, every true Christian is involved in that process. If the direction of your life is not, “Jesus, You are my Lord and I submit all of myself that I am aware of to You,” then you are not a Christian in the vital sense of that word. You are in the flesh, hostile toward God, and not subject to His Word (8:7).

Being a Christian is not a matter of going to church or believing certain doctrines of the Christian faith or trying to live by certain moral standards. Of course, true Christians do all of those things, but the vital thing is that the Holy Spirit has caused you to be born again. Jesus said this very plainly to Nicodemus, a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews. Talk about going to church—this man went to the temple to pray several times a day. He never skipped a religious observance to go fishing! Talk about believing in certain doctrines—he had memorized large portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. Talk about morality—this man was scrupulous about keeping the Ten Commandments.

But Jesus’ opening words to him were (John 3:3), “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” He went on to say (John 3:7), “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” Peter spoke of the same thing (1 Pet. 1:3): “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (see, also James 1:18; Titus 3:4-6). So when we are born again, the Holy Spirit imparts new life to us and takes up residence in us. Thus it is a matter of spiritual life or death to have the Spirit of God dwelling in you or not.

Some Pentecostal groups teach that you must receive the Holy Spirit subsequent to salvation. They base this on a misinterpretation of Acts 19:2, where Paul encounters some disciples of John the Baptist and asks, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” When they reply no, Paul explains some things, prays for them, and they receive the Holy Spirit. But it’s important to understand that Acts is a transitional book from the age of the Law, when the Spirit was only given to some and could be withdrawn (Ps. 51:11) to the age of the promised Holy Spirit, who permanently indwells all who are born again (John 7:39; 14:17; 1 Cor. 12:13). Romans 8:9 makes it clear that if you have been born again, you have the Holy Spirit dwelling in you. If you don’t have the Spirit, you do not belong to Christ.

This does not mean that we should not ask for a deeper experience of the Spirit’s presence and power. We must yield more and more of ourselves to the Spirit’s control as we become aware of areas that we have not given to Him. We are commanded to walk by means of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16) and to be filled with (or controlled by) the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). But if you have been born again and your trust is in Christ as Savior and Lord, you do not need to receive the Holy Spirit. He dwells in every believer.

Paul states it negatively (8:9b), “But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” Think about the opposite: If you have the Spirit, you do belong to Christ. He bought you with His blood. You are not your own; you are His slave. In 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Paul also combines the idea of the indwelling Holy Spirit and belonging to Christ: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

I can’t help but think that the church would be very different if everyone would live daily in the reality of the truth, “I am not my own; I now belong to Christ.” My tongue is not my own to use to yell at my family when I’m upset. I must use it to glorify Christ. My eyes are not my own, to look lustfully at women. I must use my eyes to glorify Christ. My money is not my own to use as I please. I must use it to glorify Christ. My time is not my own to squander on frivolous pursuits. I need to use it to serve and glorify Christ. It’s a life-transforming principle! The mark of being a Christian is, the Spirit dwells in you and you now belong to Christ.

By the way, note how Paul interchanges terms in these verses. The Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (8:2) because He imparts new life to us in Christ. In 8:9 He is called “the Spirit of God,” indicating that He is God and that He carries out God’s purposes. He is called “the Spirit of Christ” because Christ sent Him to the church when He returned to the Father. His role is to glorify Christ (John 16:14). When He was on the earth, Jesus lived in the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1). He is also called “the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead” (8:11) to emphasize that if He dwells in us, God will through the Spirit resurrect our bodies.

Also, Paul moves easily from the Spirit dwelling in us to Christ dwelling in us. Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 491) explains, “What this means is not that Christ and the Spirit are equated or interchangeable, but that Christ and the Spirit are so closely related in communicating to believers the benefits of salvation that Paul can move from one to the other almost unconsciously.” Thomas Schreiner points out (Romans [Baker], p. 414), “Texts like these provided the raw materials from which the church later hammered out the doctrine of the Trinity.”

Thus it is absolutely vital to have the Spirit of God dwelling in you, because if you do not, you do not belong to Christ. But how can you know whether or not the Spirit indwells you? Is it a warm feeling inside of you or a tingling sensation? A woman once told me that she knew that the Spirit was in our church because when she came in the building her hands tingled. I wanted to suggest that she get a check-up with a neurologist!

B. There are distinguishing marks by which you can tell if the Spirit dwells in you.

After speaking to Nicodemus about the new birth, Jesus drew an analogy between the effects of the wind and the effects of the Holy Spirit. We can’t see the wind, but we can see its effects. When a piece of paper blows by, you do not assume that it is flying on its own like a bird. You assume that the wind is blowing it. So it is with the Spirit. You can’t see the Spirit, but you can see His effects.

In Romans 8, Paul shows a number of things that the Spirit does. He sets you free from the law of sin and of death (8:2). He gives new life and peace with God (8:6). The Spirit will raise our mortal bodies (8:11); He enables us to kill our sin (8:13); testifies to us that we are God’s children (8:16); and, helps us to pray (8:26). And, by way of implied contrast (8:7-8), the Spirit reconciles us to God and enables us to submit to His Word and to please Him.

I can’t comment much and this list is not comprehensive, but here is one negative and nine positive marks by which you can tell if the Spirit dwells in you:

(1). Speaking in tongues is not a sign that the Spirit dwells in you.

I must point this out because some Pentecostal denominations claim that speaking in tongues is the sign that you have the Holy Spirit. But this is contrary to Paul’s statement that all do not have the gift of tongues (1 Cor. 12:30). It’s debatable whether or not the gift of tongues is valid for today. But if it is valid, it must be translatable language, not babble. You cannot interpret or translate babble. It’s just nonsense syllables. Language has definable structure and vocabulary. The biblical gift of tongues is the miraculous ability to speak in a language that you have not learned so that a speaker of that language could understand you. But most of what is called tongues today is just nonsense syllables. Non-Christians have experienced the same phenomena, obviously without the power of the Holy Spirit. Positively,

(2). If the Spirit dwells in you, you have experienced the new birth.

You may not remember the exact time or place, but you know that the Spirit of God has changed your heart from being a God-hater to being a God-lover. He changed you from trusting in your own good works to trusting in Christ alone.

(3). If the Spirit dwells in you, you are drawn to Jesus Christ and you desire to know and honor Him (John 16:14-15; Eph. 3:16-17).
(4). If the Spirit dwells in you, you have been flooded with God’s love so that you have hope in Him (Rom. 5:5; 15:13).
(5). If the Spirit dwells in you, you regard Scripture as His Word of truth and you are growing to understand it.

Jesus calls Him “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17; 15:26). He inspired the writers of Scripture (2 Pet. 1:21; 2 Tim. 3:16). He helps us to understand the many riches that God gives us through the written Word (1 Cor. 2:10-16).

(6). If the Spirit dwells in you, His fruit is growing in your life and the deeds of the flesh are diminishing.

Fruit takes time, but it should be evident that you are growing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

(7). If the Spirit dwells in you, you will have a growing hatred of sin and love of holiness.

He is the Holy Spirit. He works to make us holy (set apart from this evil world), beginning on the thought level (1 Cor. 6:11, 19; 2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 14:17; 1 Thess. 4:7-8).

(8). If the Spirit dwells in you, you will be growing in praise, joy, and thankfulness toward God (Luke 1:67ff; 2:26-32; 10:21; Acts 13:52; Eph. 5:18-20; Phil. 3:3).
(9). If the Spirit dwells in you, you will be growing in prayer (Rom. 8:26; Eph. 6:18; Jude 20).
(10). If the Spirit dwells in you, you will tell others about Christ.

Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses….” The Book of Acts is the story of the early church bearing witness of Jesus and the resurrection through the Spirit’s power.

So the point of verse 9 is, if you belong to Christ, you have the Holy Spirit indwelling you. But, if He is the Spirit of life (8:2), then why do believers die?

2. We who are in the Spirit are still subject to physical death, even though the Spirit has given us life (8:10).

Romans 8:10: “And if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” By “body,” Paul means the physical body. “Dead because of sin” means that our bodies are still under the curse of death as a result of the fall (5:12; 6:23). We all die physically because Adam sinned. Death remains as the penalty on the human race until Christ’s work is consummated (Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:26).

Commentators and translators are divided over whether “spirit” refers to the human spirit (NASB) or to the Holy Spirit (ESV, NIV, NKJV). (The original Greek did not use capital letters.) It’s difficult to decide, as there are good arguments for both. If it refers to the human spirit, the sense is, your spirit is alive because you are righteous in Christ. This seems to complement the contrast with the dead human body. But the word Paul uses is not “alive,” but “life.” This fits better with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of life (8:2). The sense then would be, as Thomas Schreiner explains (p. 415), “The presence of the Spirit demonstrates that believers will not be saddled with their weak and corruptible bodies forever. The Spirit is a life-giving Spirit and will overcome death through the resurrection of the body.” The reason that the Spirit is life to us is that we are righteous in Christ through justification.

3. We who are in the Spirit have the promise that He who raised Jesus from the dead will also resurrect our mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in us (8:11).

The instant we die physically, our spirit goes to be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Luke 23:43), while our bodies decompose. But the instant Jesus returns, God will give us new resurrection bodies, which will be suited for the new heavens and earth, in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13; 1 Cor. 15:12-57).

Jesus is the prototype. His resurrection body is a physical body, but it is not subject to disease or death. The God who raised Jesus from the dead (Eph. 1:19-20) will also raise our bodies from the grave at the moment that Jesus returns (1 Cor. 15:50-57). Whether a person was burned at the stake, died at sea and was eaten by sharks, was blown to bits by an explosion, or decomposed in a grave, God will resurrect those bodies in a recognizable but new, indestructible body. And so we shall always be with the Lord.


In 1986, I was preaching through 1 Corinthians and I came to 15:19: “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” That verse jarred me. I asked myself, “Is that true of me? Can I say that if there is no heaven, you should feel sorry for the stupid way that I’m living my life?” I live in America and enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle. I have a wonderful wife. At that time, my children were still at home and a great source of joy for me. Now they’ve given me the joy of ten grandchildren. But that verse caused me to put my focus more on heaven.

Without Christ, life is grim and futile. As the bumper sticker says, “Life is tough and then you die.” Even if you make it to 100, so what? But if you belong to Christ, no matter when you die you have the certain hope that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will raise you through His Spirit who dwells in you.

Near the end of his life, D. L. Moody said, “Soon you will read in the newspaper that I am dead. Don’t believe it for a moment. I will be more alive than ever before” (cited by Randy Alcorn, Heaven [Tyndale], p. 31). And so I can’t urge you strongly enough to make sure you can answer “yes” to the question, “Do you belong to Christ?”

Application Questions

  1. Why is it important to affirm that every Christian has the indwelling Holy Spirit? Why is it also important to affirm that every Christian should seek to experience more of the Spirit’s power?
  2. How would you respond (biblically) to a person who said that if you have not spoken in tongues, you do not have the Holy Spirit?
  3. How (practically) can we develop a greater desire for heaven?
  4. Which marks of the Spirit are most evident in your life? Which need more attention?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Assurance, Spiritual Life