Gospel Scope: The Ongoing Battle (Romans 7:7-25)
Not counting little fender benders here and there, I have been in two major car accidents. Every day, I feel fortunate to be alive. In both collisions, however, I saw it coming. In one, I lost control of my car on a wet road, spun out, and crashed into a large tree. In the other, an oncoming truck crossed the center line and plowed into my driver’s side door, knocking me into a small ravine on my side of the road. They were both horrible experiences. I cannot imagine, however, being blindsided. To never see it coming, to never brace yourself, would feel so shocking.
In Romans 7, Paul is protecting us from getting blindsided by a battle within us. You see, if we read of the new way of the Spirit at the beginning of Romans 7, we might begin to think we are already there, or at least that we should be. Spiritual talk can be destructive if it ignores the reality of the battle within. We should not act as if we are wholly sanctified when we are not. We should not talk as if we don’t experience genuine temptation when we know we do. We should not believe we’ll never experience inner struggles when we will.
That’s what Romans 7:7-25 is about. We need to see the reality. We want to live in the Romans 8 newness of the Spirit, but before that, we’d better understand the ongoing battle within. If we don’t, we will mislead our fellow believers, act hypocritically, and fall into despair when we stumble and fall.
In this section, we will focus on three massive truths Paul delivers:
- The written law demonstrates how big this sin problem was previously.
- Sin remains in us currently.
- Only Jesus Christ can deliver me permanently.
We can focus on these three truths because Paul asked three questions. The first is simple: is the law sin? The simple answer is no, the law is good. The second question flows from that answer: Did the law produce death in me? The answer is no, it wasn’t the law’s fault, but another inferior law inside me, my body of death. The third question is only asked after the first two: Who will deliver me from this body of death? The answer is lifegiving; Jesus Christ can deliver us!
In other words, God’s standard is good, but I have bad in me, and Jesus can deliver me from myself. Let us study.
1. The Law is Good — My Sin Problem Previously (7-12)
"What then shall we say? That the law is sin?" (Romans 7:7).
Here is the first question. Shall we say the law is sin? We’ve learned we aren’t under the old way of the law, that we died to it. When we died with Christ, we were released from our relationship to the law. Once set free, we entered into the new way of the Spirit. This is better and glorious.
Does this mean the moral law of God is sinful? Is the written code and requirement bad? Is it old and unhelpful? Is it void of benefit for man? Put another way: is the law of God to blame for producing all this evil?
"By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead." (Romans 7:7-8).
Paul’s answer is vehement and clear: “By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” The written code showed how big the sin problem in me was. Because the law came, I was able to see and know of my sin.
How did this occur? Paul has already told his audience about one way sin does this in Romans 5. There, he points out that the presence of the law shows us when we are behaving as lawbreakers. If I am driving 80 miles per hour, but there is no speed limit, I am not a lawbreaker. However, if I see a sign that says 55 miles per hour, yet persist in driving 80, the presence of the law has helped me realize I am a lawbreaker. The law is good at detecting sin.
But this isn’t Paul’s focus here. He doesn’t want to focus on the detection of sin, but the production of sin. The law produces more sin in us. He announces that the law actually awakens sinful desire within us. It doesn’t just show us when we are out of bounds, but it makes us want to go out of bounds. It awakened my sin within me.
Paul’s example of this is the command not to covet. That command might have been the one that led Paul to Christ. He finally saw the problem of sin within himself through the commandment against covetousness. He heard it, but it created more desire for more covetousness within him.
Jesus used this command this way with the rich, young ruler. The young man thought highly of himself, asking Jesus what he had to do to receive eternal life. He thought he could do something to get it. He was so wrong. Jesus told him to keep various commandments. The man thought he’d done them all from his youth. So Jesus told him to sell everything, give it away, and follow Jesus. The man had many possessions. In reality, they possessed him. He went away sorrowful. He could not follow Jesus.
Was Jesus showing the man that he could earn eternal life through generosity? Not at all. He was teaching the man that eternal life comes by being forgiven of the sin issue within. But if you don’t see your sin issue within, you won’t come to Christ. So Jesus showed the man his sin issue. Some have even wondered if this rich, young ruler was Paul because Paul explains the same type of turmoil here.
The written code helped Paul experientially know he had a sin problem within. When I was seventeen, I began to experience a dull pain below my left knee. Thinking it was a shin splint from excessive basketball, I ignored it for a while. Eventually, however, the pain grew to be so constant and severe I went to the doctor. After taking x-rays, my physician discovered a growing (benign) tumor in the spot of pain. Surgery was scheduled, the tumor was removed, and the pain subsided. Like a pain in your body alerting you to something more serious, Paul’s covetousness revealed a deeper issue within. That hurt was designed to show him his need for Christ.
"I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me." (Romans 7:9-11).
Paul’s concept in all this was that sin was always there. Like the rich young ruler, Paul didn’t know about the presence of indwelling sin. Here, he says, “I was once alive apart from the law.” In other words, he felt alive. He thought he was alive. He had no clue of the presence of sin dwelling within him. But the law helped him see it, because when the “commandment came, sin came alive.”
Picture sin like a slumbering snake lying on a sunny dirt road. It barely looks alive, if at all. Throw some rocks in its direction, however, and the snake arouses itself and begins to move. The law was like that for sin within Paul. Told not to covet, sin became awakened within Paul. It came alive. That guilt killed Paul.
Cancerous tumors operate in this way. Present within us, they are often undetectable. They grow and grow, harming us in the process. Sin is like that cancer. It is there whether we know it or not. The law is like an x-ray that exposes it but also perpetuates it. The presence of the commandment makes sin more alive, more present, known. The commandment is like the child’s stick poked into a beehive. The bees were always present, but the child provokes them to sting. In a similar way, sin is present in us, but the commandment (law) stirs it up in us.
”So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good." (Romans 7:12).
For these reasons, Paul concludes the law is holy. He sees it as a good thing. It was important for Paul to see his sin, just as it has been for millions of believers throughout history. We need to see our sin, our rebellion, our problem. Jesus offers the cure, but we won’t take it unless we know we need his healing touch. The law helped Paul. The commandment helps us.
The more we understand the presence of indwelling sin, this huge problem inside us, the more we will run to Christ. Jesus said, “He who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47). This does not always mean that the person who committed major and outward sins for many years will love God more than the person raised in the church who barely got into trouble at all. Not at all. What this does mean, however, is that the person who realizes how massive the issue of indwelling sin was within them will love the Lord much. The more accurately you see yourself, the more strongly you will love him.
All this helps describe our previous sin problem. But what about our current relationship with sin? Is there hope for deliverance? If it was that strong in us previously, what about our life today?
2. I Am Bad — Sin Rampant Currently (13-23)
"Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means!" (Romans 7:13)
Here is the next question from Paul. Did the law bring death to me? Does the bad in me come from the good law? Is all of this the law’s fault?
What is the origin of my bad? It is present. Paul’s knows this. We know this. Even after coming to Christ Paul battled against sin. Tendencies and desires weren’t vanquished, never to return. The insidiousness of sin was still present in Paul, just as it is still present in us. But where does this come from? If I am now in Christ, and no longer in Adam, why does this battle continue to rage?
"It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. (Romans 7:13-14).
Paul says it plainly: sinful flesh is to blame, not the spiritual law. Sin produced death in him, and still does in us, through the good law. The law is spiritual and good and right, however; it is not to blame. It is sin in us. Paul announces, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin.”
Paul seems to describe a current conflict at this point. He is about to explain a massive struggle within. Some believe Paul will talk here of his past life, but many believe he is speaking of a current battle. I believe this to be the case. The natural flow of Romans suggests it, for Paul is firmly in a portion of the book dealing with sanctification, not justification. The personal pronouns throughout the text suggest a personal fight with sin. The present tense of the battle suggests a current struggle. Other passages in Pauline literature indicates an ongoing fight between flesh and Spirit (Galatians 5:17). The conviction and guilt in the aftermath of giving in to the flesh does not seem to describe our preconverted condition. And the conclusion Paul arrives at seems to indicate a current struggle.
If that is the case, what is Paul describing? What is this current conflict? It is this: indwelling sin makes a continual effort to control my daily life.
Paul calls it “the flesh,” or being “sold under sin.” In his pursuit of sanctification, Paul found a foe. Not just the world and the devil, but his sinful flesh. He saw this conflict between the flesh man and the spiritual man, a struggle between flesh and Spirit. This is a battle between the body of sin and the true, redeemed me. Who will I become? How will I live?
"For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." (Romans 7:15).
Paul understood this as a battle with self-sabotage. He ended up doing the very thing he hated. Paul was not excusing himself. He wasn’t making any allowance whatsoever for sin in his life. He relentlessly pursued sanctification. But he understood the evil self-sabotage within. He could see how he would often make decisions that would destroy himself.
Can you relate? We often do the very thing we hate. To give in to a sinful desire leaves God’s children feeling empty and guilty in the aftermath.
I love dessert. I can’t count the times I have self-sabotaged in this area of my life. I know full well I shouldn’t, that I need to refrain from eating poorly, but I so often give in, eating more junk than I reasonably should. I walk away feeling I have just done the very thing I hate.
This manifests itself in a million ways in our lives. We often self-sabotage. However, Paul understood this was not the real or true Paul. The remade Paul did not want to enter into sin in this way. The remade Paul wanted more. This is true of us as well. As new creatures in Christ Jesus, in our heart of hearts, we long to be conformed into His image. The flesh is real and strong, this body of sin wants to sin, but the new person we are in him desires godliness.
"Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me." (Romans 7:16-20).
Paul’s new nature agreed with the law, that it is good. The new nature desired to do what is right, to do the good, but he couldn’t find the power to do it within his own body.
Paul used shocking phrases here. He says, “It is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” He repeats, “It is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Paul is announcing something spectacular and sobering — sinning is no longer the real us. Since we are new creatures in Christ, the old life of sin is no longer the true us. We aren’t called to that life. We aren’t even made for it.
The pigs enjoyed the pigpen, but the prodigal son realized he was made for more. Any believer feasting their body of sin, indulging their flesh, will eventually have the same realization. We are new in Christ. “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1–4).
It is important to note that Paul is giving a diagnosis, which should not be confused with an excuse. My flesh, my old body that has tasted of sin, cannot carry out a righteous life. This does not make righteous living impossible. Not at all. A righteous life is the believer's destiny. But this truth helps us look to the correct source for strength.
As long as you look inward, to yourself, for strength in this fight against sin, you will lose. There is a war between old sinful desires of the flesh and the new spiritual desires of the newness within you. If you look to the power of the flesh to defeat the flesh you will not find victory. It cannot come from there.
In one of the greatest scandals of baseball history, the 1919 Chicago White Sox intentionally lost the World Series in return for bribes. They entered into the series predisposed to lose. They were set on it. The players could not be trusted to win the victory. So it goes with the flesh. You cannot turn to it for the win. It is predisposed to losing the battle.
"So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members." (Romans 7:21-23).
Paul described this battle eloquently. There are two laws inside me. The first law is the law of God in my inner being, the law of my mind. This law is good and helps me walk with God. This is the law within me that enjoys Bible reading, right living, worship, prayer, generosity, sharing my faith, forgiveness, and love.
The second law is a law of sin that dwells in my members. This is the body of sin, the flesh. It pulls against that first law within me, the law that wants to do what is right. Like a space shuttle trying to break through the atmosphere to get into orbit, my new man battles against the flesh to burst into the life of the Spirit.
But this is where the difficulty lies. We have such a hard time getting into that orbit. Our flesh is strong. So strong, in fact, we often feel helpless in this process.
If we are honest, we will confess that many of Jesus’ people have gotten stuck in this part of Romans 7. The battle between flesh and Spirit is intense, and the flesh often defeats us. Many lose all hope and remain right here. Does this not explain the lack of potency sometimes found in the church? Does not this describe the spiritual apathy lived out by so many? Does this not accurately portray addictions and proclivities that bind us?
Perhaps there is a better way. We know there must be. Paul, the one who so perfectly described the battle, was quite obviously victorious. He was not stuck here. He came through. His life rang out a loud sound of God’s power and might. He preached the gospel and lived up to the newness that was his in Christ. He did not remain here. But if he did not look within for the victory, where did he turn?
3. But Jesus Delivers Permanently (24-25)
"Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:24-25)
This leads us to Paul’s final question. He asks, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Embedded in this question is this quandary — can I be delivered? Is deliverance even possible? Yes, we can! But we must come to the end of attempts to deliver ourselves.
Paul finally asked, “Who?” As long as I turn to a procedure or program or principle for deliverance, I won’t find it. I can’t step my way out of the flesh. It is strong in me. If I turn to those elements, I have only turned to the self. The self is predisposed to lose the battle, so I cannot turn to the flesh. When I ask, “Who?” I am confessing that someone else must save me from my body of death.
The someone else is Jesus Christ! Paul rejoiced that Jesus Christ himself would deliver Paul from the body of sin. Jesus would win the final triumph for Paul. Jesus would do the work in Paul, entirely.
Paul, of course, believed Jesus would deliver him in the future. Here, though, he believes Jesus will empower him right now in the present day. Paul thought Christ could enable and strengthen him to overcome the flesh.
Romans 8 will show us how this happens, but these verses teach us that it happens. Jesus Christ gives us the deliverance we need. For a Christian to expect experiential victory over sin without the aid and supply of Christ is folly. He justified us by grace through faith. He will glorify us by grace through faith. He must now sanctify us by grace through faith. He must do the work. As we avail ourselves to him he works in us “to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
"So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." (Romans 7:25).
Paul sums up the battle. The true me serves the law of God. The body of sin in me serves the law of sin. As I turn to Christ, inviting him into fellowship with me, I win the battle.
In Revelation, Jesus wrote to seven churches. One of those churches was located in a city called Laodicea. The church there had succumbed to complacency that was killing them. Jesus called it lukewarmness. You might say they perpetually gave in to the flesh.
Jesus stood at the door and knocked. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20). He wanted to come in for friendship.
Jesus longs to enter into our lives in daily experience. The flesh is so strong we must invite him in to defeat it. Daily, if we’ll open the door to him, he will come in and strengthen us for the battle ahead. This war cannot be won in our own strength. We must lean into Christ.
Sin is rampant in these bodies of sin. We must look to Christ for permanent deliverance.