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.
I argued last time ("Who Is This Divided Man? Part Two") that Romans 7:14-25 was written to defend the Law from false inferences – namely (among others), that Paul makes God's Law the culprit in Christian living that isn't all it should be. In other words, it is as if someone says to Paul:
See, you tell people that they are "dead to the law" (Romans 7:4) or "released from the law" (Romans 7:6). But look at what that assault on the Law results in: people who do what they don't want to do and don't do what they want to do. The problem with you Christians, Paul, is that you don't honor the Law the way you should. In fact, you tell Christians they are not "under law" (Romans 6:14-15; Galatians 4:21; 5:18). So you treat the law like sin and disease. But what do you get?
So we find Paul arguing for three things in Romans 7:14-25.
What Paul Is Arguing for in Romans 7
First, he is arguing for the goodness and spirituality of the Law of God.
· Romans 7:14a, "For we know that the Law is spiritual."
· Romans 7:16b, "I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good."
· Romans 7:22, "I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man."
· Romans 7:25b "I myself with my mind am serving the law of God."
So we see Paul defending the law against the false inference from his teaching that he makes it out to be sin and death.
Second, he is arguing for the reality of what he calls "indwelling sin" to explain why Christians are not perfect and don't measure up to their own highest standards.
· Romans 7:17, "So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
· Romans 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."
So on the one hand he is arguing that the Law is good, and on the other hand that indwelling sin is the culprit in the Christian life.
Third, he is arguing for his own genuine Christianity – that he is a new man, a new creature in Christ, even though he still sins.
For example, he says in Romans 7:22-23: "I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body." I have been changed. There is a new spiritual taste for God and his law in me. I am a Christian.
Who Is This Divided Man?
But now here we are at the most controversial thing about this passage: Is the divided man a Christian? A new Creature in Christ? A person who trusts Christ as Savior and Lord and therefore has the Holy Spirit dwelling in his heart? I answered "Yes" in the last message and promised that I would give you the reasons. So that is my main aim today. Why do I believe that in Romans 7:14-25 Paul is describing part of his own Christian experience, not his experience before conversion or the way a Christian would see his experience before his conversion?
The Practical Implications for Rescuing People
One of the reasons this matters is the immense practical importance it has for rescuing people from the devastating hopelessness of perfectionism. I told the story last time of J. I. Packer who was rescued from suicidal thoughts soon after his conversion by the solid teaching of John Owen on "indwelling sin."(Owen's book is based on Romans 7:21.) There is a hopelessness that comes from rejecting all of God's standards for faith and life. And there is a hopelessness that comes from having perfectionistic standards that give no place in real life for the sins of true saints. Paul's teaching in this passage has a powerful pastoral effect to help people navigate the troubled waters between these two kinds of hopelessness. And that is where we all live.
I stressed last time – and I stress it again briefly – that the point of this text is not that we should make peace with sin, but that we should make war on sin in our own lives and know how to understand ourselves and how to respond when we suffer tactical defeats in the war. Chapter six makes clear that we will win the war against sin (see 6:14). Chapter seven makes clear that it will not be without tactical defeats that will make us love our Savior all the more. It's the earnestness of the war and the response to defeat that show your Christianity, not perfection.
So what I want to do now and again next time is give reasons for believing this text really does talk about Christian experience, and so really does give the kind of guidance and encouragement for Christians that most interpreters in the history of the church has believed that it does.
1. Paul's Use of First-Person Pronouns
The most natural way to understand Paul's use of the first person "I" and the present tense, is that he is talking about himself and a part of his life that he experiences now as a believer. He uses "I" or "me" or "my" about 40 times in this text. And he explains his situation in the present tense all the way through: "I am of flesh . . . what I am doing, I do not understand . . . I do the very thing I do not want . . . I find then the principle that evil is present in me . . . For I joyfully concur with the law of God . . . with my mind I am serving the law of God . . ."
It will take a very compelling argument to overthrow the simple, straightforward impression you get that Paul is talking about himself and a part of his present Christian experience. I don't think there is such an argument. At least I've never heard it.
2. Paul Speaks of the Law as Only a Christian Could
Paul speaks about the Law of God in this passage in a way that sounds like the way a Christian believer would talk about it, not the way an unregenerate, non-Christian Jewish man would talk about it. I am thinking not just of him calling the law "good" (7:16) or even "spiritual" (7:14), but especially 7:22 when he says, "I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man." It's this phrase "inner man" that sounds so much like the way Paul talks about the Christian's real, inner self. And when you put that together with the word "joyfully concur" ("I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man") it sounds to me like Paul's description of his present deep joy in the truth and law of God, not a carnal and superficial and ungodly joy that would be the experience of an unregenerate Pharisee. So it seems to me that Paul treats the law in this passage the way a believer would.
3. Paul's Other Pre-Conversion Descriptions Do not Match Romans 7
And what about the description of Paul as a divided and sometimes tormented man in relation to the law? Does that fit with what we know about Paul before his conversion? No it doesn't. Paul gives us a few glimpses of his pre-Christian life, and what we see there is anything but a man who is torn because of any perceived failures to live up to the law of God.
For example, in Galatians 1:13-14 he says,
For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; 14 and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.
So Paul saw his life before his conversion as a life of unrivaled zeal for the law and the traditions. He doesn't give us any hint of torment or conflict or inner division as we see in Romans 7.
Similarly in Philippians 3:4-6 he speaks of how he might have boasted before his conversion in his relation to the Jewish law:
If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.
So in the few glimpses Paul does give us into his pre-Christian life we do not get the picture of conflict and torment that we see in Romans 7.
So it seems to me that what we are reading in Romans 7:14-25 is not Paul's description of his pre-Christian experience, but of part of his Christian experience. The real battle with loving the law and hating what we do against the law begins when God saves us and gives us a spiritual taste for God's glory and for the obedience of faith and for what the law is really pointing toward in a life of love. So I think it is more likely that the conflict we read about here is part of Paul's Christian experience than his pre-Christian experience.
4. Paul Speaks of Himself as Only a Christian Could
Paul talks about himself in a way that I don't think he would have talked about a person who is not a new creature in Christ – a person without faith and the Holy Spirit. The main verse that I have in mind here is Romans 7:18, "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh." Two things stand out in this statement. First, is the devastating self-assessment, "I know that nothing good dwells in me." This does not sound like the self-confident pre-Christian Paul that said he was blameless before the law (Philippians 3:6). It sounds like what a broken-hearted and meek sinner might say who has been saved by grace alone and who knows that he was dead in trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:5) and that "none is righteous, no not one" (Romans 3:10).
But, we might ask, if Paul is a Christian, and a new creature in Christ, can he really say that – "I know nothing good dwells in me." What about Christ dwelling his heart by faith (Ephesians 3:17) and the Holy Spirit dwelling in his heart (Romans 8:11)?
Well, Paul's answer would be, "That is why I qualified what I said. When I said, 'I know that nothing good dwells in me,' I added this qualification: 'that is, in my flesh.'" This is the second thing that stands out about this verse. If Paul were giving a Christian assessment of his former, pre-Christian life, I don't think he could have added this qualification. Only the Christian is more than "flesh." Only the one who believes on Christ is born again and has a new nature and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Before that happens to us we are merely "flesh." That's all. Merely human. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh," Jesus said in John 3:6. Only when we are born again can we say, I am more than flesh. I now have the Holy Spirit. I now have a new nature.
And so when Paul qualifies his own self-description in verse 18, "Nothing good dwells in me," with the phrase, "that is, in my flesh," he means: "Apart from Christ, apart from the Spirit, apart from my new nature in Christ, I am not good." In other words, this is Paul's description of himself as a Christian, not a pre-Christian. There is something good in the Christian, namely, Christ and the work of Christ.
5. Peter as an Example of a Divided Man
There are several more arguments for saying that Paul is describing his Christian experience. I will save most of them for next time. But I will mention one more here as a way of applying it all to our daily lives. Let's consider the life of Peter and his failures as a Christian to show that Paul's description here is not far-fetched even to describe a man of Peter's Christian caliber.
We all know how Peter denied Christ three times. I don't doubt that as we went away and wept bitterly he said something like, "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this cowardly body of death?" But some might say, "Well, that was before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and Peter did not have the full strength of the Spirit, and so it is not a fair example.
So let's go to an illustration from Peter's life long after he was filled with the Spirit. In Galatians 2:11ff Paul describes a failure of Peter that was so serious Paul had to rebuke him in public.
He said in verse 12-13:
Prior to the coming of certain men from James [the strict Judaizers from Jerusalem], he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.
Now notice who was involved: two of the finest Christians in the first century. They were both heroes in Luke's story of Acts: Peter and Barnabas.
Next, notice the two terrible words of indictment that Paul uses to describe their behavior: "fear" and "hypocrisy." Verse 12 at the end: ". . . fearing the party of the circumcision." And verse 13 at the end: ". . . even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy."
Peter had been enjoying his freedom in Christ, eating as a Jew with Gentiles, which many would have considered ceremonially unclean. But he was not "under the law" as Paul would have said. But when influential people from Jerusalem came, Peter feared their censure, and became – again! Note that! Again! – a coward. Same old sin. The kind that make you say, "O wretched man that I am!" He pretended in front of these people that he did not do what in fact he did do – namely, eat with Gentiles. He was coveting the approval of men. He was fearing whom he should not fear. And he was lying and deceiving with his behavior. And it was so serious that Paul thought the very Gospel was at stake, because he said in verse 14, "But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel . . ." and then he rebuked him in front of everyone.
Well, I could go on and describe this in the very terms of Romans 7:14ff. But I will save that for another time. Suffice it to say here that you and I know what this is like. It happens to us and we hate it. Indwelling sin is to be mortified, put to death. But there are times when it suddenly captures us and makes slaves of us before we know what is happening.Or sometimes it comes with such subtle wooings that we know exactly what is happening and we let ourselves be deceived.
This does not mean we are not Christian. The test is, Do we love the law? Do we hate our failure? Do we cry out in dismay over our sinful condition? Do we look to Christ and his righteousness? Do we fly to the cross? Do we confess and repent and renounce Satan and set our faces to go forward with Jesus on the Calvary road?
Do that! Let us pray for each other that we do that.
This 150-page work from the 17th century is still in print in The Works of John Owen, Vol. 6 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), pp. 153-322. Its full title is "The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers; Together with the Ways of Its Working and Means of Prevention, Opened, Evinced, and Applied: with A Resolution of Sundry Cases of Conscience Thereunto Appertaining."
I am aware that one of the main arguments for a pre-Christian interpretation is that a Christian of the Romans 6 variety cannot be "sold under sin" (7:14, "I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin"). I take "sold" here to be an image of "sold into slavery." But I take it to be a temporary experience of what Paul says not to let happen in Gal. 5:1, "Keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery." I think Paul would have said that is what Peter let happen in Gal. 2:12ff. So my understanding is that we are not in constant slavery to sin and that we have been decisively manumitted out of that state and condition, but that we slip back into it from time to time, and sin is spoken of as "enslaving" us in one sense in those times.