For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 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. 21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 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 Law Doesn't Justify or Sanctify
Paul's aim in Romans 7:7-25 is to support the teaching, up to this point in the book, that the Law of Moses - or the law written on the heart of all men - is powerless to declare us righteous before God and powerless to make us righteous before God. We are sinners by nature and by action. Therefore the Law condemns us and stirs up rebellion within us. It doesn't justify and it doesn't sanctify.
Therefore God, in his mercy, has made his righteousness available for us another way, apart from the Law (3:21), namely through Jesus Christ his Son. So to be declared righteous (to be justified) we must turn from our law-keeping to Christ's law-keeping. We must receive Christ as our treasure, and be declared righteous because of our union with him by faith, not because of any righteousness in us. That's how we are declared perfectly righteous before God.
Then to become righteous (to be sanctified) we must also turn from law-keeping, or as Paul says in Romans 7:4, we must die to the Law and be united with Christ so that we might bear fruit for God. So justification is by faith in union with Christ, and sanctification is by faith in union with Christ. And both involve turning away from the Law as the decisive means of getting right with God and becoming like God.
Romans 7:7-25 is written to support that teaching. In an unusual way. It answers an objection. The objection is that all this teaching on justification by faith and sanctification by faith - all this talk about getting right with God "apart from works of the law" (Romans 3:21) and bearing fruit for God by "dying to the law" really undermines the law and makes it sinful and deadly. That's the objection.
Paul had already faced it back in 3:31 where he said, "Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law." Now in Romans 7:7 he asks, "What shall we say then? Is the Law sin?" And in verse 13 he asks, "Did that which is good become a cause of death for me?" You see that he is answering an objection: Paul, you are saying that the law of God is sinful and poisonous. If that is true, then Paul's doctrine is false. So he defends and supports his doctrine of justification by faith and sanctification by faith by arguing that the Law is holy, just, good, and spiritual. It is powerless to justify and sanctify not because it is sinful and deadly, but because I am sinful and my sin is deadly. Therefore this objection to his teaching on justification by faith and sanctification by faith falls to the ground. And the glorious truth of the gospel stands. That's the point of Romans 7.
A Peculiar Way to Defend the Law
Now here's a crucial question - and it leads to something very practical for your life: Why did Paul go about defending the Law and answering this objection in this peculiar way - namely, by describing the experience of this divided man in Romans 7:14-25? The man who says in verse 19, "The good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want." How does this long, drawn-out description of this man's turmoil and sense of wretchedness (verse 24: "Wretched man that I am!") serve his purposes? Why not just say that the Law is holy and good and that sin is the real culprit? Just say it.
To answer this question I need to tell you where I stand on who this divided man is. Remember from last week, some say Romans 7:14-25 is Paul's description of his experience before he was a Christian; and some say that it is his description of his experience as a Christian.
Well, I think the second position is right. Paul is speaking about himself here as a Christian. Let me say immediately that I do not mean we should settle in and coast with worldly living and a defeatist mentality. We should not make peace with our sin; we should make war on our sin. Defeat is not the only, or the even the main, experience of the Christian life. But it is part of it. I agree with J. I. Packer who wrote an article on this passage two years ago to defend the view that I am taking here. He said
Paul is not telling us that the life of the "wretched man" is as bad as it could be, only that it is not as good as it should be, and that because the man delights in the law and longs to keep it perfectly his continued inability to do so troubles him acutely. . . . The "wretched man" is Paul himself, spontaneously voicing his distress at not being a better Christian than he is, and all we know of Paul personally fits in with this supposition.
So I think what Paul is saying is not that Christians live in continual defeat, but that no Christian lives in continual victory over sin. And in those moments and times when we fail to triumph over sin, Romans 7:14-25 is the normal way a healthy Christian should respond. He should say,
· I love the Law of God. Verse 22: "I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man."
· I hate what I just did. Verse 15: "I am doing the very thing I hate."
· Oh the wretchedness I feel in these times! I long for deliverance from this body that constantly threatens to kill me, and that I have to mortify day after day. Verse 24: "Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?" (see Romans 6:6; 8:10, 13).
Nobody should want to live this way. Or settle to live this way. That's not the point. The point is, when you do live this way, this is the Christian response. No lying. No hypocrisy. No posing. No vaunted perfectionism. Lord, deliver us from a church like that - with its pasted smiles, and chipper superficiality, and blindness to our own failures, and consequent quickness to judge others. God give us the honesty and candor and humility of the apostle Paul.
So that is the view I want to defend. Romans 7:14-25 is part of Christian experience - not ideal, but real.
The Law and Indwelling Sin
Now what? Well, now we can go back to what I called a crucial question a moment ago: Why did Paul go about defending the Law in this peculiar way? Remember, that's what he's doing: answering the objection that the doctrines of justification by faith and sanctification by faith treat the Law like sin and poison. Why did he defend the Law by describing his experience in times of Christian failure? "The good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want" (7:19). How does dealing with the imperfect Christian and the Law help him defend the Law against this false charge that he is making the Law to be sin and death?
Well, here's the problem with Christian experience: Paul has just said in Romans 7:4 that Christians must die to the Law and embrace Christ in order to bear fruit for God. But, the objector says, look at Christians. Look at the church of Corinth; look at the church of Laodicea (Revelation 3:17); look at Bethlehem. You know what you get, Paul, when you die to the Law? You get Romans 7:19, "The good that I want, I do not do." You say in Romans 3:31 that your doctrine is really establishing the Law. You say in Romans 8:4 that those who live by the Spirit fulfill the Law. But look at real Christian experience. Look at your own! You know what your problem is Paul? You don't love the Law. And you treat the Law as the problem, not the solution.
So what's his answer to this objection? Well first of all, his answer is to tackle the problem head on. He deals with Christian experience. And we can see the essence of his answer in four pairs of statements. One half of each pair says that Christians love the Law and delight in the Law, and the other half says that our failures are not owing to disrespect for the Law but to the power of indwelling sin. So his answer is twofold: esteem for the Law and acknowledgement of indwelling sin.
· Esteem for Law: Romans 7:14a, "For we know that the Law is spiritual."
· Acknowledgement of indwelling sin: Romans 7:14b, "But I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin."
· Esteem for Law: Romans 7:16, "But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good."
· Acknowledgement of indwelling sin: Romans 7:17, "So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me (he oikousa en emoi hamartia)." (Here is where the term "indwelling sin" comes from. And you can see it again in 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 [he oikousa en emoi hamartia]).
· Esteem for Law: Romans 7:22, "I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man."
· Acknowledgement of indwelling sin: Romans 7:23, "But I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members."
· Esteem for Law: Romans 7:25b, "So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God."
· Acknowledgement of indwelling sin: Romans 7:25c, "But on the other, with my flesh the law of sin."
So Paul's answer is that the Christian loves the Law of God, esteems the Law of God, delights in the Law of God, concurs with it, regards it as good, and does not blame the Law for his own failures. Instead the Christian admits – and here is a crucial and practical teaching that I will close with - that there is in all of us Christians, as long as this fallen age lasts and we live on the earth, the reality of "indwelling sin" (7:17, 20).
In other words, the Law does not cause our defeats, the Law defines our victories. Indwelling sin causes our defeats. And Paul is very jealous in chapters 6-8 that we not overstate or understate the measure of holiness possible in this fallen age where Christians are delivered from the dominion of sin and yet groan awaiting the full redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23) and the "law of sin" connected with them.
A Personal Example from J. I. Packer's Life
I'll end with a personal illustration from J. I. Packer's life that shows how crucial it is that we not get off balance here with either extreme and begin to say either that there is no holiness necessary or that perfection is possible in this age. (Packer teaches theology at Regent College in Vancouver.)
I've heard him tell the story in person, and I've read it in two different books. In 1944 he was studying Latin and Greek in Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and playing in a jazz band called "Oxford Bandits." One evening he attended a meeting of the Christian Union and heard a sermon from a relatively unknown preacher named Earl Langston. He said, "The scales fell from my eyes . . . and I saw the way in."
But soon came the crisis. There was a good bit of false teaching around Oxford, especially regarding perfectionism and the possibility of a second experience of "sanctification by faith" - by which they meant a crisis experience after which you wouldn't have any more struggle with sin, which is not what I mean by that term! Packer had a very sensitive conscience and could not deceive himself. He was not perfect and no matter how many times he reconsecrated himself to God there was still no perfection. He said it could easily have led him to suicide if it were not for two great discoveries: the writings of John Owen on indwelling sin (especially volumes 6 and 7 of his Works) and the writings of J. C. Ryle (especially his book on Holiness). Here he learned the Biblical realism of "indwelling sin" and the ongoing fight of faith and the glorious rest that comes from God's righteousness imputed to us in Christ by faith alone.
We have barely gotten our feet wet in this river of truth. There is so much more to say about this divided man of Romans 7. But I pray that what we have seen will be used by God to cause scales to fall from your eyes, and help you find your way between hopeless perfectionism on the one side and hopeless defeat on the other. The mark of the Christian is not perfection, but the fight of faith showing itself in imperfect love by the power of the Spirit and in the joyful confidence that God justifies the ungodly. So take Christ as your righteousness and fight to treasure him and his ways above all things.