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9. Sanctification—Humanly Impossible! (Romans 7)


Two extremes must always be avoided in the Christian life. The first is what has often been called ‘antinomianism’ or ‘libertinism.’ Essentially, this error centers about the concept that the best law is no law at all.

Today antinomianism is found in a number of forms. Freudian psychology advocates it backhandedly by charging that the major cause of mental and emotional problems is to be found in the unrealistic and abnormal ‘Protestant puritanical ethic.’ This type of therapy attempts to solve psychiatric problems by convincing the patient that his or her guilt is the result of unrealistic and absurd standards of conduct. The rule book is simply rewritten, or thrown out altogether. Jay Adams accuses the Freudian of making an “archaeological expedition back into the past in which a search is made for others on whom to pin the blame for the patient’s behavior.”24

Orthodox Christianity has always been accused of advocating this heresy because of their conviction that men are saved totally apart from works and solely on the basis of faith. The ugly fact is that some Christians have actually advocated ‘antinomianism.’ They maintain that since we are no longer under Law, but under grace (cf. Romans 6:15), we go about our Christian lives ‘as the Spirit leads us,’ and that this leading is independent of any form of biblical absolute. Without exception, this has led to careless and sinful living.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the error of legalism. Legalism seeks to produce godliness through the keeping of a certain set of regulations and prohibitions. It equates finding favor with God with keeping the rules. Most often these rules are far more rigid than those of the Old Testament Law of Moses. In essence, legalism seeks to produce sanctification by works.

Legalism can appear to be a necessity. Put yourself in the place of the devout Jew who has been raised to revere and keep the Law. When a Jew was saved, it was only natural for him to continue to observe much of his Judaism. But when God began to save Gentiles and add them to the Jewish church to the point that they outnumbered the Jews, imagine the board meetings which these Jewish church leaders must have had. Could they trust that God would radically transform these heathen to the point that they would not undermine all that the church stood for?

Perhaps you and I could better identify if we visualized ourselves as a long-time member of a very conservative and very orthodox Bible church. Suddenly God begins to work dramatically in our community and saves dozens of hairy, unkempt, unclean hippies—and worst of all, they decide to join our church. The first Sunday they arrive in full force, and with bare feet and tattered clothes. Wouldn’t we seriously consider establishing some rules for those who were members of our church? Of course, we would. We would resort to some basic codes of conduct on the pretext of protecting the testimony of our church, and, of course, the reputation of the Lord. And, in so doing, we would have become a legalist, just as the Jewish Christians of the first century.

But legalism is both theologically and practically wrong. It not only violates the principle of grace, but it also doesn’t work. John Warwick Montgomery reports: “… ironically, therefore, separationism (we could say legalism here) usually produces exactly the evils it tries to counteract! The fundamentalist church in the town in which I grew up, by effectively keeping its young people from all forms of mixed entertainment, succeeded in having the highest illegitimate birth rate of any church in the community!”25

It is this matter of legalism which Paul lays to rest in Romans 7. We have seen all men, both Jews (chapter 2) and Gentiles (chapter 1) condemned to the eternal wrath of God, for they have rejected the revelation available to them. What men could not do by their works, God did in the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (chapter 3). Justification is not by works, but on the basis of faith, just as the case of Abraham illustrated (chapter 4). Having described both the fruit and the root of justification (chapter 5), Paul moved on to the demonstration of the righteousness of God in the life of the Christian (chapters 6-8). In chapter 6, Paul established the necessity of sanctification. Theologically, it is the only practice consistent with our position in Christ, having died to sin and having been raised to newness of life in Jesus Christ (6:1-14). Practically, it is the only other alternative to the servitude of sin, for either sin or Christ will be our master (6:15-23).

In Romans 7, Paul deals with the Law and its relationship to sanctification. In verses 1-6, Paul will illustrate that we are free from the Law. In verses 7-12, Paul will come to the defense of the Law, as that which is holy, just and good. In verses 13-25, Paul will explain why it is impossible for the Christian to be sanctified by the Law. Here we will discover why legalism will never sanctify anyone.

Freedom From the Law

The first word of verse 1, ‘or,’ indicates to us how closely tied these verses are to what Paul has taught in chapter 6. Our death in Christ constituted us as dead to sin, Paul taught in chapter 6 (verses 1-12). Now Paul illustrates how our death in Christ frees us from the Law. In verse 1, we find the principle; in verses 2 and 3, we have the illustration of this principle in the realm of marriage; and in verses 4-6, we are given the application of this to our sanctification.

The Principle (v. 1). The principle is this: the Law has authority and jurisdiction only over those who are alive. By implication, then, those of us who have been reckoned dead in Christ are no longer under the authority of Law.

The Illustration (vv. 2-3). Marriage is an institution governed by Law. The Law declares a woman to be an adulteress who marries another man while her first husband remains alive. But if her husband dies, the Law which bound her to that first marriage no longer has authority over her, and thus she is free to marry the man she chooses. Death releases the married woman from the Law pertaining to marriage.

The Application (vv. 4-6). No illustration is without its shortcomings, and this one is no exception. The analogy of the married woman does not precisely correspond to the death of the Christian to the Law, for the Christian died, but in the case of the married woman, it was her husband who died. Nevertheless, the point is clear. We died in Christ to sin and to the impossible demands of the Law which condemned us to death. Our death and resurrection in Christ has freed us from the jurisdiction and authority of the Law, and we are now free to choose another master, the Lord Jesus Christ, raised from the dead,26 to bear fruit unto God. How foolish to return to slavery to the Law and sin! How delightful the thought of servitude to God!

And so we see the implications of our death, burial and resurrection in Christ. We are released from the Law as a cruel taskmaster. We are free to become the servants of God.

A Defense of the Law

But hasn’t Paul gone too far? Hasn’t Paul implied that the Law is not something good, but something evil? Isn’t this precisely what his Jewish opponents accused him of doing (Acts 21:28)? Anticipating this charge, Paul asks the question for his opponent in verse 7: “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin?” Paul’s response is one of sheer amazement: “May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law …” (Romans 7:1b).

To think the Law to be sinful is like calling an x-ray evil, simply because it has some kind of relationship to cancer. An x-ray is good and beneficial simply because it exposes what is fatal to man if not dealt with. So, too, the Law exposes sin in man, which must be dealt with through the blood of Jesus Christ.

In these verses, Paul gives a specific illustration from his own experience. Had the Law not forbidden coveting, Paul would not have recognized the sin of covetousness in his own heart. Sin found a handle in the life of Paul through this commandment, “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17). Sin took up the opportunity provided by the entrance of the Law.27

Paul describes from his own experience how sin took advantage of the entrance of the Law. There are several ways of understanding what Paul describes, but the most natural explanation would seem to be that Paul relates his experience as a young Jewish boy when he became a ‘ son of the commandment’ at the age of 13. Until this time, Paul had not realized his own sin, but once he became aware of the requirement of the Law, “ Thou shall not covet,” all kinds of evil desires sprang up within him.

Apart from the Law, “sin was dead” (verse 8), not in the sense that it did not exist, but that it was inactive, until prompted by the Law. I once was given some sweet pea seeds that came originally from sweet pea seeds found in King Tut’s tomb. Now those seeds which originally came from that tomb had been dormant for thousands of years, but when they were put in the correct environment of soil and water, they sprang to life. So it is with sin. Sin had existed in the heart of Paul, but it was when he became conscious of the Law and its righteous requirements that this sin came to full bloom. The Law reveals sin.

In verses 7-12, we find a three-fold relationship between sin and the Law. (1) The Law defines sin; (2) the Law condemns sin; and (3) the Law provokes sin.

When Dan Tarbox was so ill for such a long period of time, we all knew that something was wrong, but no one knew what it was. What was needed was something that would present some symptoms or some sure indication of the source of his illness. It was an x-ray which finally exposed the growth around his lungs. Now treatment has begun. The cancer of sin would never have been exposed apart from the Law, and so the Law is revealed to be holy, and righteous, and good (verse 12).

The Real Culprit Exposed

If the Law is not the real villain of the story, what is? In verses 13-25, Paul pursues the real culprit and exposes it. In the process of putting the responsibility for evil where it belongs, Paul also continues to vindicate the Law as holy and good. Verse 13 raises the same basic question in slightly altered form: “Are we to say then that this good thing was the death of me?” (NEB). The essence of the question is this: All right, so the Law is not intrinsically evil. Nevertheless, it is responsible for death, isn’t it? Paul’s summary answer is that sin’s use of that which is really and truly good to bring about death is more proof of the exceeding wickedness of sin.

When I taught school in a state penitentiary in Washington, I had a young inmate tell me that he was certain that the study of psychology would be beneficial to him, even in the practice of crime. In fact, this young man was preparing to set up a consulting service in crime. He was learning all he could while in prison so that he could establish a business which would lay out bank robberies and the like for the less talented criminals. And for his services, he would of course charge a fee. Now we should not say that education was the real culprit, but rather that this man’s misuse of what is basically good shows him to be a real scoundrel.

Atomic energy is basically good, and it can be used to save countless lives and benefit millions. But when it is misused to destroy lives more quickly and efficiently than ever before dreamed, this tells us of the wretchedness which is within men, not about any evil in atomic energy. Sex is holy and good in terms of the purposes for which it was created by God. Men have abused and perverted it, and this reveals to us the wickedness of men.

So the Law is holy, righteous and good, and its misuse only proves the exceeding wickedness of sin.

When we come to the matter of sanctification, or the outworking of the righteousness of God in the life of the Christian, the root problem is not the Law itself, but that which makes the Law weak, the flesh. The problem of our sanctification is not to be found in the Law, but in man himself. Verses 13-25 reveal to us (1) the condition of the Christian; (2) the conflict in the Christian; and (3) the conclusions of Paul’s argumentation. Let’s look at these more closely.

The Condition of the Christian.28 The problem of the Christian is that he has within him two natures, each drawing him in a different direction. The sin nature Paul calls the ‘old man’ (Romans 6:6) or the ‘flesh’ (Romans 7:14,18). This nature is diametrically opposed to the new man, the new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), and the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:17). Although the ‘old self’ has positionally been put to death in Christ, it is practically very much alive and well in the saint, prompting him to continue in sin. The normal Christian experience is to progressively lay aside the characteristics of this old self and to put on the qualities of the new man in Christ (Colossians 3:10ff.). The challenge of the New Testament epistles is to become what we are, and to lay aside what we were.

The Conflict of the Christian. The resulting dilemma of the Christian is that he finds himself torn in opposite directions. To every decision there are two opposing choices, two desires. The Christian is a virtual battleground on which two opposing forces wage a life and death struggle. The inner man or the new creation desires to serve God, but finds himself frustrated by the fact that the flesh, the old man, is dominated and permeated with sin. What he desires to do, he cannot. What Paul despises as a Christian, he does anyway.

Many have sought to avoid the obvious by insisting that these verses which describe this great conflict within the apostle depict a struggle in the apostle before his conversion. Let me mention several facts which leave no room for this explanation:

(1) The context is one of sanctification, not salvation. What purpose would a description of Paul’s preconversion struggles serve in the context of living out the righteousness of Christ as a Christian? The context demands that Paul’s struggle be the struggle of the saint, trying to live a godly life.

(2) There is a conflict. Conflict and agony over the commission of sin is not the experience of the unbeliever. Paul agrees with the Law; he desires to do what is right and pleasing to God. This is not the desire of the unbeliever. Paul hates the evil which he does. Can this be the case with the unsaved? The only sensible explanation for this struggle is that Paul struggled as a Christian.

(3) The change in tense supports Paul’s struggle as a Christian. When Paul spoke of the way the coming of the Law awakened sin like a sleeping giant in verses 7-11, the tenses of the verbs were past. But in his description of his struggle with sin, they are all present: “… the Law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh …” (Romans 7:14). The only reason for a change in tense is to make it plain that Paul now spoke of his struggle in the matter of sanctification.

(4) Our experience as a Christian corresponds to Paul’s. I have not known of a Christian who has not found real identification with the apostle in the struggle which he describes. Our experience as Christians trying to live godly lives perfectly fits that of Paul in these verses.

Some have tried another explanation to avoid admitting that Paul as a mature Christian could have such spiritual struggles with sin. They acknowledge that Paul is a believer here, but a carnal one. This was Paul in his early days as a Christian. They would say that every Christian must pass through Romans 7 in order to reach the victory of chapter 8. Now I would agree that before victory comes struggle, but I have to maintain that this struggle never ends in this life, and that the victories won are far from decisive or conclusive. I would agree with Stott when he states:

… this is the conflict of a Christian man, who knows the will of God, loves it, wants it, yearns to do it, but who finds that still by himself he cannot do it. His whole being (his mind and his will) is set upon the will of God and the Law of God. He longs to do good. He hates to do evil—hates it with holy hatred. And if he does sin, it is against his mind, his will, his consent; it is against the whole tenor of his life. Herein lies the conflict of the Christian.29

My friend, you and I will never get out of Romans 7 in this life. Hopefully, the old man will be progressively defeated, but he will not be irradicated until we leave this earthly tabernacle. I suspect that most of us have figured this out for ourselves already, but it is still so. That is why Paul concludes with a word of victory, combined with a description of continual struggle in verse 25: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.”

The promise of Romans 8:1 is not that of no more sin, but of no more condemnation. No one would delight more than I in the total irradication of sin in this life, but no one is more convinced that it has not happened, and according to the Word of God, it shall not happen. No condemnation. That’s a promise we can live with!


There are two major conclusions which Paul drives home in chapter 7:

(1) The Law is holy, righteous, and good. The Law is good because it reveals the righteousness of God and the sinfulness of man. The Law drives us to Christ. The Law is also good, for I in my inner man agree with it and want to abide by it.

(2) The Law can never sanctify the Christian because of the weakness of the flesh. The Law cannot and does not subdue our sinful nature; it stimulates it. The only cure for the flesh is death, and this has already taken place on the cross. The power to live the Christian life is not found within myself, but in the Holy Spirit of God. This is the message of chapter 8.


(1) We must come to understand that sanctification, like justification, is the work of God. The greatest need of the sinner is to realize his utter depravity and the fact that he is hopelessly lost. Justification is the work of God on behalf of man, which is received by faith, apart from works. The greatest need of the saint is that he is totally incapable of living a life pleasing to God in the power of the flesh. He must then come to realize that in Christ, he died to sin and was raised to newness of life, and that God makes this possible through the work of the Holy Spirit.

(2) We must realize that the road to spiritual power is through self-despair.30 As Stott has said, man’s great problem has been too high an opinion of himself. And yet, in spite of this, so many today are appealing to Christians to live the Christian life in their own strength. The emphasis of most revivals, and nearly all re-dedication pleas is the emphasis of self. Sanctification is presented as the certain result of following a few simple steps. That is not, in my estimation, the teaching of the Word of God. The Christian life is a life of continual struggle, of victories and defeats, and Christian victory comes only when we totally distrust self, and rely on the provision of God. How frequently we throw works out the front door of justification, and invite them in the back door of sanctification.

(3) We should gain from Romans 7 a biblical understanding of the Law. The Law is not evil, but good. The Law has several functions. It was never given to save or to sanctify, but rather to reveal our sin and to drive us to Christ. It is as valid today and a standard of righteousness as it was in the Old Testament days. It reveals to us the righteousness and holiness of God (Hebrews 12:18, 29; Deuteronomy 28:58). In the New Testament, both the motive for keeping the Law, and the method of doing so have changed. The motive for Law-keeping is not in order to be saved or sanctified, but in order to bring honor and glory to the God we serve. The Method of Law-keeping is not that of self-works, but the provision of the power of the Holy Spirit. Freedom from the Law as a master does not mean the Law is evil; it simply means the Law is powerless because of the weakness of the flesh. The Law drives us to Christ, and Christ delivers us from sin.

24 Jay E. Adams, Competent to Counsel (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1970), p. 6.

25 John Warwick Montgomery, Principalities and Powers (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1973), p. 170.

26 The implication is that since Christ is risen from the dead, no more to die, this union between Christ and the Christian is eternal, as opposed to that of a man and a woman in marriage.

27 The word ‘opportunity’ in verse 8 is used in the ancient Greek in a military sense of a ‘a base of operations’ and in a literary sense, ‘to take a hint.’ The Law gives sin the opportunity it has been waiting for. Cf. William Sanday and Arthur Headlam, The Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1902), p. 179.

28 This three-fold analysis of this section is adapted from the excellent exposition of Romans 5-8 by John R. W. Stott, Men Made New (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1966), pp. 75-76.

29 Stott, p. 76. Notice also this quotation of a statement by Dr. Alexander Whyte, who said: “As often as my attentive bookseller sends me on approval another new commentary on Romans, I immediately turn to the seventh chapter. And if the commentator sets up a man of straw in the seventh chapter, I immediately shut the book. I at once send the book back and say ‘No, thank you. That is not the man for my hard-earned money.’” Quoted by F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963), p. 151.

30 Stott, p. 74.

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation), Sanctification

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