Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.
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
A Christian's Own Experience
The last time we were together on June 24 we were focusing our
attention for the third time on Romans 7:14-25. I gave five
arguments that persuade me that the experience of this divided man,
who doesn't do what he wants to do (verse 19), is in fact Paul's
own experience. He is describing himself at times in his Christian
life, and he is describing all of us at times in our Christian
Some of you might not be aware that there is quite a dispute
even among sound Biblical scholars over whether the description of
Paul in this text is Paul before he was a believer, or Paul after
he became a believer. Or is it some other non-Christian or
pre-Christian experience? The view I am arguing for is that this is
Paul's own experience as a believer – and ours.
Just to review, I am not saying that Christians live
only in defeat. But I am saying that no Christian lives only in
perfect victory over sin. And in those times when we fail to
triumph over sin, Romans 7:14-25 shows us the normal way a healthy
Christian should respond. We should say:
- I love the law of God (verse 22).
- I hate what I just did (verse 15).
- Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of
this death (verse 24)?
- Thanks be to God! The victory will come through Jesus Christ my
Lord (verse 25).
In other words, no Christian wants to live this way – in
defeat. No Christian settles to live this way. But if we do live
this way for a time, we shouldn't lie about it. No hypocrisy. No
posing. No boasted perfectionism. No churchy, pasted smiles or
chipper superficiality. God save us from blindness to our own
failures and the consequent quickness to judge others. God help us
to feel worse about our own shortfalls than the failure of others.
God give us the honesty and candor and humility of the apostle Paul
in this text!
On vacation I read a book published in 1797 by William
Wilberforce, the Christian Member of Parliament in England who
spent decades fighting the slave trade. It is called A
Practical View of Christianity (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson
Publishers, Inc., 1996, orig. 1797). It is a penetrating and
insightful book, especially when you realize that the author was a
politician, not a professional theologian.
I mention it because he spoke several times about the experience
of Romans 7 and the remaining corruption and depravity that is in
every one of us.
For example, in one place he is arguing for a deeper sense of
our natural depravity that most of the church in England in the
1790's were insensitive to. He offers as one evidence of it the
testimony of every "watchful, diligent, self-denying
He will tell you, that every day strengthens this conviction;
yea, that hourly he sees fresh reason to deplore his want of
simplicity in intention, his infirmity of purpose, his low views,
his selfish, unworthy desires, his backwardness to set about his
duty, his languor and coldness in performing it: that he finds
himself obliged continually to confess, that he feels within him
two opposite principles, and that 'he cannot do the things that he
would' [see Romans 7:19]. (p. 17)
In another place he argues that the "seminal principle" of new
life in Christ must grow and bear fruit in a spiritual and moral
climate of this world that is highly inhospitable to the fruit of
holiness. It's like trying to grow a peach tree in Minnesota. There
will be fruit in the Christian life. God will see to that. "But
while the servants of Christ continue in this life, glorious as is
the issue of their labors, they receive many humiliating memorials
of their remaining imperfections, and daily find reason to confess
that they cannot do the things that they would [see Romans
7:18-19]" (pp. 81-82).
Balancing Between Pride and Hopelessness
That is the view that most Christians have had of this text for
twenty centuries and that is the view I am arguing for. Romans
7:14-25 is Paul's description of true Christian experience. Last
time I gave five arguments and I have five more – at least. I
don't multiply these arguments mainly to make you good arguers.
Good arguers often get big heads and just try to win debates for
the sake of ego. I multiply these arguments so that you will know
your real condition as a Christian and will walk the precarious
line between cocky presumption that you are above sin, and hopeless
despair because you never live up to the demand for perfection in
this life. My goal is to push you away from pride toward humility,
and away from despair toward hope. The biblical realism of Romans 7
is meant to save you from moral pride on one side and
immoral hopelessness on the other side. Romans 7 is a
great help in balancing on this tightrope.
So let's pick up where we left off on June 24. The fifth
argument that shows Paul is talking about real Christian experience
came from the life of Peter. We all know he failed miserably by
denying Christ three times. He did not do what he wanted to do. And
when he was weeping bitterly we may safely assume he was saying
something like Romans 7:24, "O wretched man that I am!"
But not all of us may realize that he failed again in the same
way years later, as Paul describes it in Galatians 2. This is after
seeing the risen Christ, after Pentecost, after being filled
repeatedly with the Holy Spirit. The failure was so serious that
Paul felt he had to rebuke him in public and then record it in a
letter for all the world to read about.
Peter, as a Jew experiencing his freedom in Christ, was eating
with Gentiles in Antioch. Then some strict Jewish Christians came
from Jerusalem who did not understand Christian liberty. Paul says
in Galatians 2:12, "When they came, [Peter] began to withdraw and
hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the
circumcision." Notice the sin of fear. It was the same old
besetting sin that defeated him at the trial of Jesus. Years later
he was still struggling with the same sin. This is what I think
Romans 7 is referring to. A great saint, an apostle, being defeated
temporarily by sin. So much so, that Paul says the effect was
terrible and the very gospel was compromised. Verse 13: "The rest
of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even
Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy."
So I argued that Paul gives us a good illustration from the life
of Peter of what he means by the experience of Romans 7 – not
a pre-Christian experience, but a Christian experience of failure:
"For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very
evil that I do not want."
That was argument # 5 from last time. Now let's stay here in
Galatians for argument # 6.
6. A Divided You
Argument # 6 is that in Galatians 5:17 Paul uses language very
close to Romans 7, but everyone agrees that in Galatians it is a
description of Christian experience. He is talking to Christians
who have the Holy Spirit and yet who also have another power at
work in them. He calls it the flesh. He says in verse 17, "The
flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against
the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that [now
here comes the language of Romans 7] you may not do the things that
Notice this carefully. Paul does not merely talk about Spirit
opposing flesh and flesh opposing Spirit – as though we
somehow were innocent bystanders watching the battle happen. No, he
does the same thing that he does in Romans 7 and talks about a
divided you. So at the end of Galatians 5:17 he says,
"you do not do the things that you please (i[na
mh. a] eva.n qe,lhte tau/ta poih/te)." You want to do one thing.
You do another thing. There is a divided will. I think this is the
very experience of Romans
7. In Galatians, it is the experience of
the Christian person who has the Holy Spirit. So this is argument #
6 that Romans 7 is Christian experience.
7. Sin as a Slave Master
Argument #7 is an attempt to answer the strongest argument
against the view that I am defending. I think the strongest
argument that Paul is not describing Christian experience here
would be the wording of Romans 7:14b, where Paul says, "I am of
flesh [or, I am carnal, or fleshly], sold into bondage to sin
[literally: sold under sin]." Would Paul really say of a Christian,
"I am sold under sin"? The imagery of being "sold" is the imagery
of slavery. A slave master seems to have bought him and he is sold.
The slave master is sin. Can a Christian ever say, "I am sold under
the slave master of sin"?
I admit this is a very good argument. If it weren't for all the
other counter-arguments I would be persuaded by it. For example, at
least six times in Romans 6 Christians are spoken of as freed from
the slave master of sin (verses 6, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22). Verse 18:
"Having been freed from sin, you became slaves of
It is not impossible that Paul could speak of a Christian as
temporarily "sold under sin." Paul doesn't have to be saying that
the person who sins moves from being a Christian to being a
non-Christian. He may only be saying that in the moment of failure,
sin got the upper hand, like a slave master temporarily getting
control of a person who is not really his.
Isn't this exactly what Paul warns against in Romans 6:12? He
says to Christians, "Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so
that you obey its lusts." In other words, since you are not
really slaves of sin and sin will not have dominion
over you, therefore act like it. Stay free. Don't give sin any
victories as an alien slave master. Don't sell yourself to sin! But
the assumption seems to be: We might for a season "let sin reign,"
that is, give in to the old slave master.
In Galatians 5:1, Paul says something even more striking and
helpful in this regard, suggesting that Christians do need to watch
out for slavery. He says, "It was for freedom that Christ set us
free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a
yoke of slavery." Don't give in to the old ways as Peter did. Why?
That would be like going back to slavery. Paul uses the very
language of slavery to describe what might happen to the Christian,
temporarily, if he is not vigilant. We might for a time "let sin
reign" or "submit to a yoke of slavery."
This is what I think Paul is describing in Romans 7:14b when he
says, "I am carnal, sold under sin." When he gives in to temptation
and does what he does not want to do, he knows that he has
temporarily been mastered by sin and he is like a sold slave. So,
even though the argument is strong, I don't think it is
How Does This Af fect My Life?
Let's save the remaining arguments for next week and close by
asking, "What then should we do? How then should we respond to this
condition in living the Christian life?"
- Remember the promise that we are justified by faith apart from
works of the law (Romans 3:28) and trust in him who justifies the
ungodly (4:5). Christ is our righteousness (Romans 10:4). Receive
him; embrace him as your only hope of life before a holy God.
- Remember the promise that we are also sanctified by faith. A
life of fruitfulness for the glory of God does not come first and
decisively through law-keeping, but through personal union and
satisfying fellowship with Christ by faith. Romans 7:4 is one of
the most important verses in the whole book of Romans on how to
live the Christian life: "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,
[Why? Why dead to the law? Why joined to Christ? Answer:] in order
that we might bear fruit for God." You die to the law and are
joined to the risen Christ so that you might bear fruit for God.
A radically changed life that honors Christ does not come first
or decisively through the law. It comes through being joined by
faith in an all-satisfying fellowship with Jesus Christ. So get to
know him! This is why I wrote Seeing and Savoring Jesus
Christ. Get to know him. See him. Receive him. Trust him.
Enjoy him. Walk with him outside the camp of comfort on the Calvary
road of love and sacrifice.
- Remember that there is a world of difference – a
difference between heaven and hell – between a soldier who
experiences tactical defeats, but keeps fighting on his way to
victory, and a soldier who surrenders to the enemy because war is
just too painful and the enemy territory just too attractive.
There is a difference between the divided man of Romans 7 and a
sellout. Don't sell out. Trust Christ and fight sin.