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.
Christian or Non-Christian? – To Be Continued
This is one of the most famous texts in the book of Romans and one of the most controversial. Here we have the well-known words of verse 19: "For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want." Here we have a divided man, or a man with a divided will, or a divided heart. There is the part of him – the "I" – who wants to do good and does not want to do evil. And there is the part of him – the "I" – who does not do the good he wants but does the evil he does not want.
One of the biggest disagreements over this text is who this man is. Whose experience is Paul describing? Is this the experience of Paul, the believer? Or is this the experience of Paul, the unbeliever? Christian or non-Christian? Or should we pose the question with more precision: Is this a morally awakened but unconverted Paul? Or is this the spiritually quickened converted Paul who is new and immature in the faith? Or could this be the mature Christian Paul, but in times of lapsed faith and vigilance? I don't think I will tell you today what I think the answer is. I would like you to be thinking and studying this passage for yourselves without being sure what I think.
I do believe you can make a more or less plausible case for all of these possibilities and that none of them necessarily leads you into false teaching on the larger, over-all view of sanctification. In other words, it is possible to be wrong on our interpretation of one text but right in our view of the Christian life. You might say, "This text is not about Christian experience," and still believe that Christians have experiences like this - sometimes doing what we don't want to do. Or you might say, "This text is about Christian experience," and still believe that much more victory over sin is possible than this in the Christian life.
So what we conclude (about whether Romans 7:14-25 refers to Christian experience or not) does not describe our whole view of Christian experience. There are dozens of other very important texts in the New Testament that we have to stir into the mix to see the bigger picture of the Christian life. Beware of people who build their views on isolated passages. That is where most cults and quirky interpretations come from.
But before we talk about the pros and cons of these various views, note the main purpose of the text. It may be surprising to you, but I think the main point of this text will stand clear and unassailed on any of the views I just mentioned about whether this divided man is a Christian or not. Now what is that main point? Why are these verses here? Where is Paul going?
Someone Else's Righteousness Credited to Us by Faith
Let me try to sum it up for you.
The book of Romans is about how sinful human beings - that is, all human beings (3:9) - who have fallen short of God's glory (3:20) and dishonored him with our lives (1:21) and therefore deserve his wrath (1:32; 2:5), are made right with God - that is, are justified on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done for us in his life and death and resurrection (3:24-25; 5:18-19).
Paul's answer to the greatest human problem - namely, our sinful guilt before a holy and just God - is that God himself, through his Son, Jesus Christ, has provided a righteousness for us that is not our own, but is imputed or reckoned to us through faith alone, not through works. You see this especially in Romans 4:5-6, "But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works." So you see this enormously important word "credited" - or "reckoned" or "imputed." At the end of verse 5: "His faith is credited as righteousness." And the end of verse 6: "God credits righteousness apart from works."
The glorious gospel truth of Romans is that God provides a righteousness that is not our righteousness and he credits it to us through our faith. Faith looks away from our own deeds and performances of the Law as a hopeless way to be justified, and trusts in Jesus Christ alone as the basis for God's crediting us with an alien righteousness, which is not our own.
Whose then is it? Romans 3:21-22 tells us: "But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe." The righteousness that is credited to us through faith is "the righteousness of God." It is God's own righteousness, not ours (see Philippians 3:9).
You can see even more clearly in Romans 10:3-4 whose righteousness this is that justifies us: "For not knowing about God's righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God." What does that "subjecting" ourselves to the righteousness of God look like today, which is so different from "establishing our own righteousness"? Paul answers in verse 4 (which says literally), "For the end (or goal) of the Law [is] Christ for righteousness to everyone who believes."
To submit to the righteousness of God, instead of establishing your own, is to realize that the goal of the Law was to lead us to "Christ for righteousness." And that we have "Christ for righteousness" by faith - it is for everyone who believes. So when Paul says in Romans 5:19, "For as through the one man's disobedience [namely, Adam's] the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous," I think he means that Christ so obeyed God and his Law that by faith in him and union with him his obedience, or his righteousness, becomes mine. It is God's righteousness because it consists in keeping God's will perfectly and it is enabled by God and it is acceptable to God and it is God's gift to us in Jesus Christ.
So Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, "[God] made [Christ,] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." In Christ we "become the righteousness of God." This, God's righteousness accomplished by Jesus Christ, is credited to our account the way our sins were credited to his account. This is the glory of the gospel of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. This is the main thrust of the book of Romans.
It is gloriously good news for sinners. And O how I hope you feel the wonder and preciousness of this gospel this morning. Do you see it and savor it? I beseech you, on behalf of Christ: Be reconciled to God this morning by looking away from your own works and receiving Jesus Christ as your only justifying righteousness - the treasure of your life.
The Law Is a Big Problem in Getting Right with God
But what's the point of chapter seven? How does it fit into this main purpose of Romans?
Here's the problem. Along the way, Paul has argued passionately against justification by works of the Law. We do not get right with God by law-keeping, but by faith alone. And in the process he even seemed to say that the Law is part of our problem, not part of our rescue. For example: Romans 3:20, "By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin." Or Romans 3:28, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law." Or, even more shockingly, Romans 5:20, "The Law came in [God gave the Law at Mount Sinai] so that the transgression would increase." That makes the Law sound like the accomplice of sin.
In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that if you want to bear fruit for God - that is, if you want to be sanctified as well as justified - you have to die to the Law. Romans 7:4, "Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God." You can't bear fruit for God if you don't die to the Law. Law-keeping is not the first and decisive way to bear fruit for God. Being joined to the risen Christ is the first and decisive way to bear fruit for God. If Christians wind up fulfilling the Law of God (as the law of Christ) it will be only because we have first died to the law and pursued obedience another way, namely, by union with the risen Christ, where we stand completely justified before we make any progress in law-keeping at all.
Well, we could go on to show from Romans 7:5-6 that Paul sees the law of God as a big part of our problem in getting right with God. So the huge question that he has to answer is stated in Romans 7:7, "What shall we say then? Is the Law sin?" Or, a little differently in verse 13, "Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me?" Here are two huge questions raised by Paul's gospel of justification by faith apart from works of the law: Is the law sin? and Does the law cause death? Or to be more specific: If you have to turn away from law-keeping to the righteousness of Christ to be justified, and if you have to die to the law and be united to Christ to be sanctified, then isn't the law sin and isn't it the cause of death?
If the answer to these two questions is yes (the law is sin and causes death), then Paul knows that his gospel is undermined. There is no future for a gospel that turns the law of God into sin and death.
But the Law Is not Sin
So with all his might in verses 7 and 13 Paul says, No! "May it never be!" "By no means!" The law is not sin; sin exploits the law and uses it. The law is holy, just, and good (verse 12). The law does not cause death; sin causes death through what is good, the law (verse 13).
The purpose of writing Romans 7:7-25 is to explain and defend that answer. Don't miss this. It's all about justification by faith and sanctification by faith. If these two foundational doctrines imply that the law of God is sin and causes death, they are doomed and cannot be true.
So when Paul is done with Romans 1-7 he has accomplished two great things: on the one hand, he has shown that we must die to the law to be accepted by God (justification, 3:28) and we must die to the law to bear fruit for God (sanctification, 7:4-6). And on the other hand, this necessity to die to the law to be justified and sanctified is not because the law is sin or poison. It's because in our dreadfully sinful condition we must have Christ for the ground of our justification, and Christ for the power of our sanctification. The law cannot do what only Christ can do.
I Am Sinful and My Sin Is Deadly
So now we are in a position to see why the identity of this divided man in Romans 7:14-25 does not change the main point of the passage. If the man is a Christian or not a Christian, in either case his misery ("O, wretched man that I am," verse 24) is caused by his indwelling sin, not by the Law. The Law is not sinful and the Law is not poison. I am sinful, and my sin is deadly poison.
Three times at least Paul makes the point. Verse 14: "The Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh." Verse 16: "If I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good." Verse 22: "I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man." So the Law is "spiritual" and "good" and a "joy."
This is true whether we decide that this divided man is a struggling believer or a conscience-quickened unbeliever. In either case, Paul's main point is the same: Justification by faith apart from works of the Law (3:28) stands, because it does not imply that the Law is sin or poison. And sanctification by faith through death to the Law (7:4) stands, because it does not imply that the Law is sin or poison.
That is where we will leave it today.
You need not fear that receiving the gift of justification by faith alone will tarnish the Law of God. You need not fear that bearing fruit for God by dying to the Law will tarnish the Law of God. On the contrary when you turn to Christ for justification and when you turn to Christ for sanctification you will honor the Law of God. Because the goal of that Law is "Christ for righteousness for all who believe" (10:4). And the fruit of love inspired by Christ (7:4) is a fulfillment of the Law (13:10).
O how full and deep is the salvation Christ has provided for us in his life and death! Come to him. Everything you need is in him.