The Law and the Believer’s Sin Part 1 – Romans 7:14-17
Pastor Mark Hardy September 30, 2012
Imagine for a moment how much simpler things would be if Jesus Christ only came to earth once and the moment people received Him as their Savior and Lord they were instantly ushered into heaven and glorified. But that’s not how God chose to do it. Instead, God’s sovereign plan of redemption involves Christians living on earth in this extended time called the “Church Age.” However, this creates a problem because although we have “already” been transferred from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col. 1:13), we are “not yet” there.
Therefore, as believers we live in a time warp, in that, like amphibians that live both on land and in water, we belong to two realms or ages at the same time. We live in the painful tension between the “already” of the kingdom’s inauguration and the “not yet” of its consummation. That means right now we struggle with sin that will not go away until we are fully and finally saved either through death or the Rapture when we are glorified and the very presence of sin is gone forever. Although we can experience substantial, significant, and observable victory over sin in our lives, sinless perfection will never be ours until heaven and the victory we do enjoy is not without conflict. It is this on-going struggle with sin in his own life, and the life of every believer, that Paul talks about in Romans 7:14-25. We will begin looking at this passage this morning. Turn with me to Romans 7.
Last time in vv. 7-13 we saw that Paul as a Christian was reflecting back on his life experience before Christ when God was beginning to work in his spiritually dead heart. His intent was to defend the inherent goodness of the Mosaic Law, although it is subverted by sin to advance its evil purposes. Now as we come to vv. 14-25, Paul looks at his life experience after Christ as a Christian and again defends the goodness of the Law, although as we will see it is impotent to address the sin in his life. This is very strategic passage that we need to understand for our sanctification.
In Romans 7:14-25 we see three personal confessions of Paul whereby he laments his spiritual condition and struggles. In each of these three confessions (vv. 14-17, 18-20, 21-25) he follows a similar pattern, but in the third he also draws a final conclusion and thanks God for the victorious deliverance that comes through the Lord Jesus Christ (vv. 24-25). This morning we will be looking at only his first confession in vv. 14-17.
The first personal confession of Paul is this:
I. His Inability to overcome Evil by the Law
A. As I said, in each of his three confessions Paul follows a similar pattern. The first element of Paul’s pattern is: He describes his spiritual condition. Look at v. 14: For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.
1. In v. 13 Paul had showed that it was sin, not the Law, which was the cause of death. Now as we come to v. 14, the word “For” (gar) indicates that he is continuing to defend what he has just said, and will further explain in vv. 14-25 how death is due not to the Law, but to the power of sin.
2. Now just as he defended the Law and its commandment in v. 12 saying they are “holy and righteous and good,” so Paul affirms a common knowledge that is held by all believers by saying, “…we know that the Law is spiritual.” The word “spiritual” (pneumatikos) here means that the origin of the Law is the Holy Spirit, who is its Author, illuminator, and enabler.
3. But in stark contrast to the spiritual Law, Paul goes on to describe his spiritual condition in saying, “…but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” We will look at what Paul means by this, but first this confession of his deplorable spiritual condition, along with other statements, has caused great controversy throughout church history over who exactly Paul is talking about in vv. 14-25.
4. Although there are numerous views, here are three of the most popular views: The first view says that Paul is describing himself as a non-Christian. Since he is in bondage to sin (v. 14), acknowledges nothing good dwells in him (v. 18), keeps doing the evil he doesn’t want to do (v. 19), and cries out that he is a wretched man (v. 24), this view says that he cannot be a true believer. These descriptions are seen to contradict what he has already said in chapter 6 about being dead to sin, his old self crucified, and no longer being a slave to sin (vv. 2, 6, 17-18, 22).
5. The second view says that Paul is talking about himself as an immature, carnal Christian who is living on a very low level of spirituality (1 Cor. 3:1-3). Paul is seen as merely a legalistic Christian who wrongly attempts to be sanctified by trying to live by rules and regulations in his own strength and doesn’t reach the “higher spiritual life” stage until chapter 8.
6. The third view says that Paul is describing his experience as a mature believer. The fact that he talks about hating his sin (v. 15), wills to do what is good (vv. 18, 19, 21), delights in God’s law (v. 22), and longs for deliverance (v. 24) all show that he is not only a believer, since none of these things characterize the unsaved (1:18-21, 32), but a mature believer because carnal Christians are not so sensitive to sin and to grieving the Holy Spirit.
7. Also this third view points out that whereas in vv. 7-13 Paul used the past tense “I was” to reflect back from a Christian perspective on his life before Christ, in vv. 14-25 he uses the present tense “I am” to talk about his life now after becoming a Christian.
8. I believe this third view is correct. As a mature Christian, Paul is primarily speaking of his own personal experience in struggling with sin, but his experience is also representative of all Christians in varying degrees.
9. Therefore, Paul’s agonizing battle with sin in vv. 14-25 should not be viewed as abnormal or unique to Paul, but as “the normal Christian life.” For even in 6:12-13 and 19 we saw that all believers still struggle with daily sin and must continually resist it, instead of presenting the members of their body to its control.
10. C.E.B. Cranfield wisely tells us how we should approach this passage when he states, “Romans 7:14-25 and chapter 8 are necessary to each other. Neither, if read in isolation from the other, gives a true picture of the Christian life.” (pg. 342) He further says, “But we are convinced that it is possible to do justice to the text of Paul. . . . only if we resolutely hold chapters 7 and 8 together, in spite of the obvious tension between them, and see in them not two successive stages but two different aspects, two contemporaneous realities, of the Christian life, both of which continue so long as the Christian is in the flesh.” (pg. 356)
11. Thomas Schreiner also brings chapter 6 into the mix when he states, “Romans 7:14-25 should not be taken in isolation from Rom. 6 and 8, nor should Rom. 6 and 8 be separated from 7:14-25. All three chapters must be taken together in order to understand the nature of the Christian life.” (pg. 382)
12. Therefore, Romans 6, 7, and 8 describe realities that exist or occur at the same time throughout our entire Christian lives. We are “already” positionally righteous according to chapter 6 as we are no longer in Adam, our old self was crucified, and we are a new self in Christ.
13. But we are “not yet” practically righteous in our experience as we, like Paul, struggle with sin as we see in chapter 7. However, we can also experience victory over sin and peace right now through dependence on the Spirit as we expectantly wait our full and final salvation, according to chapter 8.
14. Therefore, as believers we live in this “already, but not yet” tension throughout our entire Christian lives.
B. Now look again at how Paul painfully describes himself at the end of v. 14 in stark contrast to the spiritual Law, “…but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.”
1. Notice that Paul doesn’t say that he is “in the flesh,” which refers to an unbeliever (7:5; 8:8), but that he is “of flesh,” which refers to a believer. In this context, the word “flesh” or “fleshly” (sarkinos) speaks of a believer in sin. The same word is used in 1 Corinthians 3:1 and 3 of the Corinthian believers who were full of envy and strife.
2. Although Paul as a Christian was positionally “dead to sin” because he was no longer “in Adam,” he still had a “little Adam in him.” Being fleshly is being self-obsessed and striving for independence and autonomy from God and His resources. Trying to make our life work apart from God.
3. There was a time in the past when we were exclusively a sinner; and there will be a time in the future when we will be exclusively a saint. But right now in this life we are sinner-saints or saved sinners who continually battle with sin and selfishness in our lives.
4. It is because of this that Paul says he is “…sold into bondage to sin,” literally, “sold under sin.” This strong expression takes us back to the imagery of slavery in chapter 6, and once again sin is personified as the wicked task master that it is.
5. Now the word “sold” (pepramenos) here is passive in the Greek, which indicates that Paul did not willingly and actively sell himself to sin but is carried off by it.
6. John Murray said, “It is one thing to sell oneself to do iniquity; it is another to be sold under the power of sin.” (pg. 261) And Charles Hodge states, “He does not intend to say that he was given up to the willing service of sin; but that he was in the condition of a slave, whose acts are not always the evidence of his inclination. His will may be one way, but his master may direct him another.” (pg. 227)
7. Paul is not absolutely in bondage to sin but is conditionally in bondage to sin, for this is the difference between being an unbeliever and a believer. Although he was delivered positionally from the penalty and power of sin through justification, he still found himself a virtual prisoner to the power of sin in his daily life of sanctification.
C. Paul now goes on to explain what he means by being fleshly and sold into bondage to sin in the second element of Paul’s pattern, which is: He proves his deplorable condition. Look at v. 15: 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.
1. When Paul declares, “For that which I am doing…” obviously, what he is “doing” is not right according to the holy standards of God’s Law. But we are not to assume that Paul is talking about the whole of his experience.
2. Here he is referring to episodes of wrong doing not a habitual, unbroken pattern of sin in his life, which would be evidence of being unsaved (1 Jn. 3:9). Leon Morris is correct when he says, “Paul is giving expression to the horror of sin committed. It matters little that the sin is occasional. This is the way the sensitive believer views it when it happens.” (pg. 288)
3. But having done what he did, Paul cries out, “…I do not understand” (ginosko). He is probably talking about being both bewildered by the depth of his sin and disapproving and hating what he actually did.
4. This is why he says at the end of v. 15, “…for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.” Although Paul was aware of a godly desire within him to obey God’s Law, he couldn’t do what God demanded in his own strength and resources and even did the exact opposite.
5. Here we see that Paul is so sensitive to sin in his life that he is disgusted with himself when he didn’t live up to what he knew to be true, but instead did the very thing that he hated. The more he understood of the holiness of God and His holy Word the more he saw how far away he was from it, and the more he agonized over his least infraction or falling short of God’s Law.
6. We can also see Paul’s attitude toward his continuing sinfulness in Philippians 3:12-16, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.”
7. Since Paul was wholly devoted to pursuing the prize of Christlikeness, he was sensitive to everything in his life that was un-Christlike. Do we have that same passion for Christlike purity that Paul did?
8. We should because Peter said in 1 Peter 1:15-16, “But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.”
9. C.E.B. Cranfield accurately states, “The more seriously a Christian strives to live from grace and to submit to the discipline of the gospel, the more sensitive he becomes to the fact of his continuing sinfulness, the fact that even his very best acts and activities are disfigured by the egotism which is still powerful within him—and no less evil because it is often more subtly disguised than formerly.” (pg. 358)
10. This same inner conflict with sin that Paul describes here in Romans 7:14-25 is also seen in Galatians 5:17, “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.”
11. Although our struggles with sin, and our sufferings and trials are difficult and agonizing, it is through these that the Lord teaches us how to experience victory in Him. For example, we experience frustration and defeat by trying to live in our own resources before we start to depend on God for victory in the area where we failed.
12. And as we gradually learn to depend more and more upon the Holy Spirit, we more and more experience the reality of Galatians 5:16 which says, “…walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.”
13. This cycle continues throughout our Christian lives as the Lord faithfully works to draw us and even drive us into a deeper and deeper dependence upon Him, which we will see in chapter 8.
14. No wonder Paul scolds the Galatians in Galatians 3:2-3, “This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
D. Now Paul makes it very clear that his failure to keep the Law is not the Law’s fault. Look at v. 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.
1. When he does the very thing he does not want to do or disobeys what the Law demands, it could seem that Paul is rejecting God’s Law as a moral guide for life, which is the secondary purpose of the Law.
2. But the very fact that he wants to obey it shows the sanctifying presence and work of the Holy Spirit within him that “agrees with” and “confesses” the goodness of the Law, although the Spirit is never mentioned by name in chapter 7. The word “good” (kalos) here speaks of God’s Law as being beautiful, noble, and morally and spiritually excellent.
3. Therefore, once again we see that the Law is not the problem, which reinforces his conclusion about the Law in vv. 12 and 14. This is why whenever Paul sins he takes the Law’s side against himself.
E. We now come to the third element of Paul’s pattern, which is: He reveals his struggle’s origin. Look at v. 17, “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
1. Since he concludes that the Law is good, the origin of Paul’s struggles is the powerful force of “sin which dwells in me,” literally, the “dwelling in me sin.”
2. Once again Paul personifies indwelling sin and pictures it as having taken up residence within Paul as an alien power or squatter that moves into an abandoned house and is near impossible to evict.
3. Everett Harrison describes it this way, “The invader has managed to secure more than a foothold; he roams the place, considering it his home. In putting the matter like this, Paul has moved from a consideration of outward acts to an emphasis on the unwanted tenancy (or tenet) of sin.” (pg. 82)
4. Now when Paul says, “no longer am I the one doing it,” but indwelling sin it is crucial we understand that Paul is not denying personal responsibility for his sin. This is not some Flip Wilson theology that says, “The devil made me do it.” Or in this case, “It wasn’t me, it was sin that made me do it.”
5. No way! Paul is merely putting his finger on the real culprit—indwelling sin—and confessing his impotence. He is showing the extent and power of indwelling sin, which is far beyond the power of the Law to eradicate or control in his own resources.
6. Therefore, the “I” (ego) that hates evil and the “me” in which sin dwells as a power that brings bondage is the same person. Yes it is sin, but it is our sin!
7. The buck ultimately stops with us. For if we as believers were not responsible for sin in our own personal lives, we would have no reason to confess it and have it cleansed and forgiven, which we are told in 1 John 1:9.
8. Now what we can learn from Paul’s honesty about his agonizing struggles with sin in these verses is that our Christian life must not be one of denial and facade. We are all a mess that only heaven can cure completely!
9. So even though we are unable to overcome the evil within us by the Law, we are still responsible before God to obey His demands in dependence on the Spirit and must never justify our complacency with sin. We are to be like the prisoner who is shaking his chains trying to cast them off.
In closing, the first personal confession of Paul is his inability to overcome evil by the Law. But his struggle with sin is not just his own, it is ours as well, and we need to learn from him, so that we might continually grow in our dependence on the Spirit of God.
A leading New Testament scholar in his day, Charles F.D. Moule summarized this “already, but not yet” tension that every believer experiences in this way, “The strange thing about the new life claimed by Christians is that they have it and have it not: they have yet to become what, as they claim, they already are. Not surprisingly, this causes tension within and criticism without. . . . The Christian claim, if taken seriously, means perplexity for the historian, disturbance for the ethicist, and pain for the believer. He has been delivered from the dominion of darkness and transferred to the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col. 1:13); and yet. . . . he remains vulnerable to what in Galatians, is called ‘the present evil age’ (Gal. 1:4). So he is torn in two directions. The preacher tells him that what he could not do for himself has already been done for him by God; and that he has only to accept with gratitude the finished work of Christ. And yet, the same preacher is always exhorting him to do better, and telling him that his performance does not match up to his calling. In a nutshell, the Christian command is a perplexing one: ‘Become what you are!’ . . . . It is paradoxical. It is tension-causing. . . . If the growing-pains are never felt, it is doubtful whether the new life has begun…”