In Romans 7:14-25 Paul the apostle wrote a poignant description of a soul in conflict with himself.
For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the goodthat I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish. But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.
Paul loved God’s moral law and wanted to obey it, but felt pulled away from doing so by the sin that was in him.
The scholars and many Christians are conflicted about this — Is Paul talking about a Christian (perhaps even himself) or a non-Christian? Can Christians feel such bondage to sin? Do non-Christians often express such a desire to do good? It’s a conundrum. Christians cannot be bound by sin, but non-Christians don’t desire to keep the law of God.
Paul wrote “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin” (verse 14) and “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is in my flesh; I want to do good, but I cannot do it” (verse 18). Those who believe this passage speaks of a non-Christian say that Christians know how to do what is good in God’s eyes and they see an obvious lack of the Holy Spirit’s power in this passage.
Verse 24 “Wretched man that I am!” does seem distant from the promise of Romans 5:1-2 of “Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Romans 6 has many examples of the believer’s freedom from sin’s power. How can the person who said all that turn around and say “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin?”
Paul did a marvelous job of capturing the messiness that is grace. Chapter 6 emphasize the new creation, nature, and identify in Christ. Now redeemed, the believer has broken sin’s dominion. Chapter 7 shows the other side of the Christian life.
Honestly, every Chrisitan knows from experience that though she is a new creature in Christ, sin is still a problem. Chapter 6 even points out the conflict in verses 12-13: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts.” Because it is still possible for Christians to yield to sin, we are commanded not to.
Arguing that chapter 7 cannot refer to a Christian because of statements in Chapter 6 is to misunderstand the entire gospel as presented in the letter to the Romans.
We are saved through grace by faith, not from anything that we have or will do, so that we have no cause to boast of our accomplishments. But Jesus isn’t done with us after that. We don’t get our “fire insurance” and go on upon our merry way setting fire to the world with our sin. Faith without works is indeed death because it is a mental and verbal assent that returns no fruit.
Romans 8:7 explains that the unregenerate person (the non-Christian) is not subject to the law of God. You didn’t consent. You don’t have to comply. Christians, however, did consent and we owe God the respect of our compliance with His laws. Paul proclaimed that he joyfully concurred with the law of God in his inner man (verse 7:22), but he struggles with his desire to do right because his flesh is weak.
Ah, a carnal Christian! the gossips among us pounce. Surely it couldn’t be a Spirit-filled missionary to the European continent! It must be someone with a low level of spirituality who is trying in his own strength to keep the law.
My own experience is that the more spiritual or mature a believer is, the greater his sensitivity to his shortcomings are. An immature Christian doesn’t have such an honest self perception. The legalist is under the illusion that he is very spiritual. I believe Paul was describing himself, which should certainly explain the extensive use of the personal pronoun “I.”
Was Paul describing his struggles before he was saved? Really? No! Paul was persecuting Christians before the bright light on the road. There’s no evidence he struggled with his conscious or with righteous living at the time. Besides, it is the mature Christian who possesses an honest self-evaluation, which Paul often exhibited (1 Corinthians 15:9-10; Ephesians 3:8). Paul was very precise in his language in Romans 7. He states that he hates committing sin (v. 15), that he loves righteousness (vv. 19, 21), that he delights in the law of God from the bottom of his heart (v. 22), and that he thanks God for the deliverance that is his in Christ (v. 25). Those are the responses of a mature Christian.
The change in verb tenses is a clue that this passage applies to a Christian. The verbs in Romans 7:7-13 are in the past tense. They refer to Paul’s life before his conversion and the process of conviction he experienced when he stood face-to-face with the law of God. However in verses 14-25, where we see the battle with sin taking place, they are in the present tense.
Romans 7:14-25 is Paul’s own testimony of the struggle between living as a Spirit-controlled, mature believer who loves the holy law of God with his whole heart, but finds himself wrapped in human flesh and unable to fulfill it the way his heart desires.
This is part of a series What if Character Went Viral?