The Law and the Believer’s Sin Part 2 – Romans 7:18-25
Pastor Mark Hardy October 28, 2012
The wonderful missionary David Brainerd wrote in his dairy on May 13, 1742, “Saw so much of the wickedness of my heart, that I longed to get away from myself. I never before thought there was so much spiritual pride in my soul. I felt almost pressed to death with my own vileness. Oh what a body of death is there in me! Lord, deliver my soul.”
George Whitefield, who was probably the most famous preacher in America and Britain in the eighteenth century and a vital part of the Great Awakening, said a similar thing about himself, “When I see myself I seem to be half devil and half beast.” He went on to say that as he passed through great crowds on his way to preach, “I wondered why the people did not stone so vile a wretch as myself.”
It is this same super-sensitive conscience to sin of these mature believers that Paul is talking about in Romans 7:14-25, which is one of the most strategic passages in the New Testament for understanding our sanctification. As we saw last time, Paul’s major intent in this passage is to defend the inherent goodness of the Mosaic Law, but in doing so he also shows how the Law in itself is powerless to address the sin in his life. Remember that as a mature believer, Paul is both talking about himself autobiographically in his own agonizing struggle with sin and representatively for all of us as Christians. His personal experience that he honestly reveals was not abnormal or unique to him, but is to be regarded as “the normal Christian life.”
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 three-fold pattern, but in the third he also draws a final conclusion, thanks God for the eventual deliverance that comes through the Lord Jesus Christ, and summarizes his on-going battle with sin (vv. 24-25).
Now thus far, we have seen Paul’s first confession in vv. 14-17: His inability to overcome evil by the Law. This morning we will see his other two confessions. The second personal confession of Paul is this:
II. His Inability to accomplish Good by the Law
A. The first element of Paul’s pattern is: He describes his spiritual condition. Look at v. 18: For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh… (Stop there)
1. This is very similar to v. 14, but whereas in v. 14 Paul said “we know” and “I am of flesh” or fleshly, now he says “I know” and “in my flesh.”
2. Having just described the origin of his struggles as indwelling sin in v. 17, he now begins v. 18 with the word “For” (gar) to confirm and amplify what he has said. Therefore, in vv. 18-20 Paul does not merely repeat vv. 14-17 but builds on them.
3. Now what Paul has come to “know” (oida) about himself is “…that nothing good dwells in me.” What he means by “good” (agathon) is that which is of moral and spiritual excellence.
4. But he quickly clarifies what he is talking about in saying, “…that is, in my flesh.” As we have already seen in vv. 5 and 14, when the word “flesh” (sarx) is used in a negative ethical way and associated with sin, as it is here, it does not refer to the physical body, but to man’s self-reliant independence and autonomy from God and His resources.
5. The flesh is everything related to “self”— selfishness, self-obsession, self-centeredness, self-everything.
6. C.E.B. Cranfield calls it “…our fallen, ego-centric (or self-centered) human nature and all that belongs to it.” (pg. 372)
7. And John Peter Lange says it this way, “Flesh is…the whole nature of man, turned away from God, in the supreme interest of self, devoted to the creature…The ruling principle of the flesh is undoubtedly selfishness.” (Zemek pg. 26)
8. I believe that our selfishness is most clearly seen in how we relate to one another. Notice that Paul calls this “my flesh,” and that even as a believer he says that it still resides “in me.”
9. Therefore, as Paul accesses himself in light of the perfect standard of God’s Law, he sees nothing of moral and spiritual excellence in himself.
B. Paul goes on to explain further what he means by this in the second element of Paul’s pattern: He proves his deplorable condition. Look at vv. 18b-19: …for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.
1. In essence, Paul restates the substance of v. 15. The word “willing” (thelein) here is also translated “want” or “desire.”
2. Paul had the desire to do what was “good” (agathon) or beneficial according to God’s Law “present” within himself, which revealed he was a true believer. However, the “doing” or accomplishment of the good he was not.
3. On the contrary, he states, “…but I practice the very evil that I do not want.” What a vivid description of the internal conflict and frustration within a believer who wants to please God by obeying His Law, but cannot do so in his own resources.
4. Paul recognizes his inability to accomplish good by the Law. Although God’s Law informed his willing, it could not enable his doing.
5. C.E.B. Cranfield describes it this way, “…even his best actions, in which he comes nearest to accomplishing the good he wills, are always stained and spoiled by his egotism.” (pg. 361)
6. Now as we saw in v. 15, we must not assume that Paul is talking here about the whole of his experience. He was not ever and always doing bad things, for we often see him in his other letters as victorious, fruitful, and always rejoicing even in the midst of difficult circumstances.
7. Paul is simply referring to episodes of wrong doing in his life. As he looks at his life, what he knows from God’s Law and desires to do isn’t being live out in his daily practice as it should.
8. Isn’t this often true of us as well? We truly desire to do what pleases God, but many times we don’t.
9. Remember that the spiritual realities revealed in Romans 6 (positional freedom from sin), 7 (constant struggle with sin), and 8 (victory over sin) are contemporaneous, in that, they exist at the same time throughout our entire Christian lives. But Paul’s focus here in Romans 7 is on his sin.
10. Just because he doesn’t say anything about the “fruit of the Spirit” in his life in this passage doesn’t mean it’s not there. He will address how this comes about in chapter 8.
C. We now come to the third element of Paul’s pattern where: He reveals his struggle’s origin. Look at v. 20: But if (first class condition—“if and it’s true” or “since”) I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
1. As we saw in v. 17, Paul again seems to be denying personal responsibility for his sin and appears to see himself as a helpless victim of the alien power of sin. But he is not!
2. Yes, it is “indwelling sin” that is the culprit, but it is nonetheless his sin. Paul was 1o0% morally responsible for his sinful actions, just as we are for ours.
3. I cannot separate myself from my sin, by saying “I didn’t do it, sin made me do it.” When I sin, it is me who sins!
4. We now come to the third personal confession of Paul, which is this:
III. His Inability to experience Freedom by the Law
A. The first element of Paul’s pattern is: He describes his spiritual condition. Since unsuccessfully struggling in himself to accomplish the good demanded by the Mosaic Law, Paul now concludes in v. 21: I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.
1. William Newell accurately states that Paul “…now states as a settled conclusion, what he has experimentally discovered.” (pg. 276)
2. Now the Greek literally reads, “I find then the law (nomon)…” Whereas some scholars see this “law” as the Mosaic Law, in this context it is best to take it as a “principle,” which refers to a rule or norm.
3. The stated principle is this: “…evil is present (present tense) in me. The continuing presence of “evil” (kakon) or sin in a believer’s life is so universal that Paul here refers to it as a continually operating spiritual principle.
4. As we saw in vv. 14 and 18, Paul is again describing his spiritual condition as a saved sinner. The tyranny of indwelling sin is constantly “present” in him, “…the one who wants to do good.”
5. Now in the Greek there is another “in me” in this second part of the verse, which the NASB and KJV have left out. We might paraphrase it like this: “I find then the principle that evil is present in me; in me who wants to do good.”
6. The point is that both “in me’s” show the unity of Paul. He is both the willing “me” and the failing “me.”
7. He is the same Paul who desires to do good, but also sins. And the same is true of me and you!
B. Paul explains more fully this internal struggle with sin in the second element of his pattern where: He proves his deplorable condition. Look at vv. 22-23: 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… (Stop there)
1. The one Greek word translated “joyfully concur (sunedomai) means to rejoice or delight in. Since Paul was a true believer, his redeemed heart delighted in the “law of God,” which refers to the Mosaic Law.
2. In the Psalms the various psalmist’s repeatedly talk about rejoicing and delighting in God’s Law (Ps. 1:2; 19:8; 119:14, 16, 24, 35, 47, 70, 77, 92).
3. Notice that Paul’s rejoicing in the Mosaic Law is “…in the inner man.” Although some identify this with the “new self” (Eph. 4:24), in this context it is best to simply see it as describing the immaterial hidden person of the heart (1 Pet. 3:4) in contrast to the material or physical body of a person that other people see.
4. We see this same comparison in 2 Corinthians 4:16, “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” (Eph. 3:16)
5. No one could see Paul’s inner man where he sincerely delighted in God’s Law and said AMEN to it. It wasn’t visible to the human eye.
6. But as Paul honestly and humbly looked into himself, he goes on to say in v. 23, “…but I see a different law in the members of my body.” This is the area where other people could see.
7. The word “different” (heteron) here means another of a different kind, which distinguishes a totally separate law from the law of God. This “different law” is equivalent to the “principle” in v. 21 and the “law of sin” at the end of the verse.
8. Paul declares that this “different law” of sin is “…in the members of my body.” As we have seen before in chapter 6, it is important to understand that our physical body is not sinful in itself, it is not the source of sin; it is merely a neutral instrument that can be used for good or bad, for God or for sin.
9. And in this case, the law of sin in Paul’s soul is being expressed “in the members of (his) body,” such as his tongue, eyes, ears, hands, feet, etc. It is here where other people could observe him periodically as not living consistently with God’s Law that deep inside he delighted in and desired to do.
10. Notice that Paul says this “different law” of sin is also constantly “…waging war (present tense) against the law of my mind.” It is the very nature of sin to constantly mount military campaigns against the “law of the mind” to gain victory and control over us.
11. Concerning the “law of the mind,” John Murray rightly states, “…the law of the mind is not the law that proceeds from and is propounded by the mind. It is rather the law of God as the law that regulates the mind and which the mind serves.” (pg. 267)
12. Therefore, the “law of sin” is continually fighting against the “law of God” in our approval and obedience of it in our mind. Notice how the “mind” is the center of our spiritual battle.
13. Proverbs 23:7 says, “For as (a man) thinks in his heart, so is he” (NKJV). Romans 12:2 states that the believer is “…transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
14. And in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 we are told, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”
15. The battle is for our mind. The law of sin not only fights against God’s Law that the mind approves, but it also works to make us a POW.
16. Charles Hodge said it well, “The principle of evil is not only active, but it is conquering. It takes the soul captive.” (pg. 237)
C. We see exactly this is the third element of Paul’s pattern where: He reveals his struggle’s origin. Look at the end of v. 23: … and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.
1. The word “prisoner” (aichmalotizonta) means to be taken captive, to be brought under control. This is similar to what Paul said in v. 14 about being “…sold into bondage to sin.”
2. Therefore, the origin of Paul’s struggles is the “law of sin”—the principle or different law, which is “…the power, authority, and control exercised over us by sin.” (Cranfield pg. )
3. Even though we as believers are already “dead to sin” and “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11), whenever we yield to sin in our lives we once again open ourselves up to be enslaved by this cruel taskmaster and made its prisoner. This is what sinful compulsions and addictions are all about.
4. Notice again where Paul says “…the law of sin which is in my members.” The “law of sin” expresses itself in very concrete ways in and through the various “members” of our physical body.
5. But remember that bodily “members” don’t sin, people do. We are the responsible agents and our members merely express the ethic of our personal agency.
D. Paul now draws a final conclusion from his agonizing struggle with sin and cries out in v. 24: Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?
1. The word “wretched” (talaiporos) means “a miserable and distressed condition.” (Huges pg. 144) Paul recognizes that he is utterly hopeless and helpless in himself to free himself from sin by the Law or his own self effort.
2. This is not a cry of despair but one of earnest longing for final deliverance by a power greater than himself. And since he already knows Jesus Christ as his personal Savior and Lord, notice that Paul doesn’t ask the question, “What do I do?” but rather “Who will set me free from the body of this death?”
3. Now to be “set…free” (rhusetai) means to be rescued, delivered, or preserved from danger. In the midst of his struggle with sin Paul longed for the day when he would be rescued from “the body of this death?”
4. The “body of this death” refers to our mortal physical body through which the law of sin carries on its endless warfare and often leads to captivity and eventually to death, which is the wages of sin.
5. C.E.B. Cranfield says it like this, “That from which the speaker longs to be delivered is the condition of life in the body as we know it under the occupation of sin which has just been described, a life which, because of sin, must succumb to death.” (pg. 367)
6. Now the future tense of “Who will set me free” speaks of the future deliverance that all believers will experience when we receive our resurrected and glorified bodies. At that time “…this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:42; 26, 57; Rom. 8:23; 2 Cor. 5:2-5; Phil. 3:20-21).
7. But it’s not just our future deliverance that Paul is talking about here. He also anticipates our present deliverance as we live in dependence on the Holy Spirit, who is the key to living a victorious Christian life. We will see this in chapter 8.
E. Now having just asked the question, without hesitation, Paul answers it and thanks God for the certainty of his eventual deliverance in v. 25: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Stop there)
1. Already knowing who his Deliverer is, Paul can’t help but burst out in joyful thanks to God for his deliverance “…through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Notice Paul’s use of His full title: Jesus (Savior), Christ (Anointed One), Lord (Sovereign Ruler).
2. Only the Lord Jesus Christ can set us free from sin in our daily Christian lives. There is no other Deliverer!
F. Paul then ends the chapter by summarizing his on-going battle with sin in the last part of v. 25: 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.
1. The words “So then” introduce a summary of all Paul has been saying in vv. 14-24. C.E.B. Cranfield says, “…it sums up with clear-sighted honesty. . . the tension, with all its real anguish and also all its real hopefulness, in which the Christian never ceases to be involved so long as he is living this present life.” (pg. 369)
2. Now this on-going tension is between the two conflicting servitudes: First, Paul says, “…on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God.”
3. By this Paul means that he continually serves the law of God, in so far as, he approves its goodness, delights in it, and strives to wholeheartedly obey it in dependence on the Spirit.
4. Second, he states, “…but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.” But this Paul means that he continually serves the law of sin, in so far as, in his proneness to wander from God in self-reliant independence, he will not live in constant fellowship with God and conformity to His will.
5. Although these are two radically different servitudes, notice that it is Paul himself who is doing both of them. We see this in the emphatic pronoun “I myself,” which shows that it is the same Paul who, as Douglas Moo states, “…is caught in the conflict between mental assent to God’s word and practical failure to do it.” (pg. 467)
6. As we have seen all along, there are not two Paul’s—his true self and his false self, his lower self and his higher self. Paul has only one self that is divided or split.
7. In other words, he is one person who is pulled in two opposing directions—either self-reliant independence or submissive dependence on God. And this same battle is going on within all of us every minute of every day!
8. John Murray said it best, “The most significant aspect of this concluding description is the way in which the apostle emphatically identifies himself as the agent in both cases. He does not say that the mind serves the law of God and the flesh the law of sin but rather ‘I myself’ with the mind and with the flesh. This is conclusive to the effect that the apostle did not disavow his own personal responsibility and agency in the service of the law of sin and corrects the impression that we might have derived from verses 17 and 20.” (pg. 271)
In closing, I have quoted much from C.E.B. Cranfield, he summarizes Paul’s three personal confessions the best when he says, “The farther men advance in the Christian life, and the more mature their discipleship, the clearer becomes their perception of the heights to which God calls them, and the more painfully sharp their consciousness of the distance between what they ought, and want, to be, and what they are.” (pg. 366) That is exactly what we see in Romans 7!
So if the normal Christian life this side of heaven is a life of constant struggle with sin, does this mean that we just throw up our hands and say, “What’s the use of trying, I’m just human.” Absolutely not! We should never just kick back and become complacent about our sin.
Although we cannot live the Christian life in our own resources, we are encouraged to keep on pressing toward the goal of Christlikeness (Phil. 3:14) by the assurance that one day we will experience full and final deliverance from sin. And, as we will see in chapter 8, we are promised that as we live moment by moment in dependence on the Holy Spirit, He will enable us to experience victory over sin and to increasingly become what we already are in Jesus Christ.