In verses 7 to 12 of Romans 7, Paul was answering the suggestion that the Mosaic law was somehow sinful. You know, Paul had been saying negative things about the law. He said that the law brings wrath. And it increases the trespass — in order words, it makes our sin seem worse. And he also said that the law arouses our sinful passions. We hear the law and something inside us resists it and wants to rebel against it. And Paul also said that we need to be freed from the law’s bondage. So, given all those negative things which Paul has said about the law, is the law sinful? Is it bad?
And so, Paul set out to defend the law and he made clear that the law is holy and righteous and good. There’s nothing wrong with the law. It’s God’s law after all. However, it’s been taken over by sin. Our sin — the sin living inside us — uses the law against us. So, just as a knife can be used for a good purpose (cutting vegetables) and a bad purpose (attacking someone), so the law which can be used for a good purpose, can also be used for a bad purpose. And what bad purpose does sin have for the law? Well, sin uses the law to provoke us to sin even more. So, Paul referred to the tenth commandment which forbids coveting. But he said, sin — seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment — produced in me every kind of covetous desire. He heard the commandment:
You shall not covet.
But sin inside us says:
God says ‘Don’t covet’. But look at all these nice things you can have. Aren’t they lovely? I’m sure you’d like to own them.
And I referred to the church father, Augustine, who, when he was a teenager, joined a group of friends to raid a neighbour’s orchard. Why did he steal those pears? He wasn’t hungry. And they weren’t particularly good pears. No, the reason he stole them was because it was exciting. He was excited by the idea of doing something he was not meant to do.
So, you see, the problem is not the law. The law is holy and righteous and good. But our sin takes hold of the law and uses it for wicked purposes.
Verse 13 is a kind of summary of what Paul has already been saying. The law is good. It really is. But did this good law produce death in me? That’s the question. And Paul answers:
By no means!
No way. And then he explains what he means. And in this one verse he says three things about the law and sin. First of all, through the law sin is revealed. It’s exposed. In case anyone had any doubts about what sin is, the law makes it clear. Then secondly, through the law, sin produced death in me. I heard the law and it pierced my conscience because I realised like never before what a sinner I am and how I stand condemned before a holy God. And then thirdly, he says that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. We see just how sinful sin really is because it’s able to misuse this good thing. Sin takes this good thing which the Lord has given us — it takes the law — and it perverts it. It spoils it. It ruins it. The law is good, but people are wondering whether the law is sinful. They’re wondering if the law is bad. And the reason they’re asking this about the law is because sin has abused it. And so, we see just how sinful sin really is.
And, of course, sin is not something alien to us. It’s not a stranger to us and none of us can say that sin has nothing to do with me, because this sin which Paul has been referring to, and which perverts God’s law, lives inside us. It’s part of us. And that leads us to the next verses.
Introduction to verses 14 to 25
The next section is an important section, but it’s also a section which has caused a lot of debate. Pages and pages and pages have been written about verses 14 to 25 of Romans 7, because Christians wonder who Paul means when he says ‘I’ in this passage:
We know that the law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.
Who is he talking about? Who is this person who is sold as a slave to sin?
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
Who is this ‘I’? Who is this person who instead of doing what he wants, does what he hates? And so on, down through the passage until we reach verse 25:
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
Who is the ‘I’?
Some take it for granted that Paul is referring to himself. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? He says ‘I’ and therefore he’s referring to himself. And so, he’s describing the inner life of a believer who must struggle and fight against sin throughout his life, because though we’re justified — pardoned and accepted by God — nevertheless we remain sinners throughout our lives. And there’s this ongoing battle in us, because often sin living inside us prevents us from doing the good things we want to do. Paul describes the same inner conflict in Galatians 5 where he talks about the fruit of the Spirit and the acts of the sinful nature. And the Spirit and the sinful nature in a believer are in conflict with one another.
So, some say that Paul is referring to himself and to the inner conflict believers face. Others say: There’s no way a believer could say, as Paul says in verse 14, that I’m sold as a slave to sin. After all, Christ has set me free from the penalty and the power of sin. I’m not a slave to sin, because Christ has set me free. And so, others say that Paul is looking back to his life before he was converted to faith in Christ. Before he was converted to faith in Christ, he was a good Jew who loved God’s law and wanted to keep it. However, because he hadn’t yet trusted in Christ, he was still enslaved under the power of sin. Though he wanted to keep the law, he didn’t have the power to do it. So, Paul is looking back on his life as a Jew under the law of Moses.
So, Paul is describing the life of a believer. Or perhaps he’s describing the life of an unbeliever. And then there are other suggestions in between. So, he’s describing the experience of someone who is under conviction of sin, but who has not yet trusted in Christ. So, this person is a sinner and is sorry for his sins. And he wants to do what’s right. But since he hasn’t trusted in Christ and received the Holy Spirit, he cannot do what he knows is good.
Or perhaps Paul’s describing the experience of a believer who has been awakened as never before to the sin residing in him. Yes, he’s a believer, but suddenly, the Holy Spirit has come upon him, and revealed to him the depths of sin in his heart. And he yearns for deliverance.
Or John Stott has suggested that Paul is describing the life of an Old Testament believer. He notes that Paul doesn’t refer to the Holy Spirit in these verses. And so, we’re to think about believers in the Old Testament: men and women and children who believed God’s promises and who were looking forward to the coming into the world of the Saviour. However, the Holy Spirit did not dwell in them the way he dwells in every believer today. The Holy Spirit enabled them to believe God’s promises so that they were born again. But they didn’t have the Holy Spirit living inside them to sanctify them. And so, Paul is describing an Old Testament believer who needs the Holy Spirit to help him fight against sin. And in chapter 8, he goes on to talk about the work of the Holy Spirt in our lives.
Those are some of the suggestions. There are probably others. The questions is: Which one is the correct interpretation? Well, it seems to be that the simplest solution is the best solution. And the simplest solution is that when Paul says ‘I’ he’s referring to himself. Plain and simple. He’s describing his own experience. And he’s also describing my experience. Or certainly, when I read these verses, it resonates with me. And I’m sure it resonates with you as well, because every believer is caught up in this conflict with sin, because we’ll remain saints and sinners throughout our lives, until we’re glorified in the presence of God in eternity and are freed from this body of death for ever.
Verses 14 to 20
Having said that, let’s take a book at the verses briefly. Verse 14:
We know the law is spiritual.
That is, we know it’s from God.
But I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.
More literally, he says:
But I am fleshly.
Paul uses the word ‘flesh’ in different ways. Sometimes he uses the word to refer to our bodies. Sometimes he uses it to refer to the whole person. And sometimes it refers to our fallen, sinful condition and to the old age, the old sinful age, to which we once belonged before we were united with Christ through faith. However, on other occasions, and we have it here, he’s referring to the fact that we’re sinners who do wrong. So, he’s confessing — and it’s with sorrow (isn’t it?) and with sadness — that he’s a sinner who is sold as a slave to sin. Again and again and again, he finds himself doing what sin wants as if sin really was his master.
And then he describes his experience in the following verses. And he’s puzzled by this experience, isn’t he? He says in verse 15:
I don’t understand it. I don’t do what I want to do. Instead I do those things which I hate.
He wants to do good, but he doesn’t do it. He hates to sin, but he keeps doing it. It’s so frustrating. Then he says in verse 16:
The fact that I hate to sin means that I’m saying the law is good. I agree with the law that sinning is wrong. I hate doing it.
And in verse 17, he refers to this division which he finds in himself: There’s me and the good things I want to do. But then there’s something else. There’s sin inside of me. And so he goes on in verse 18 to refer to his sinful nature, or to his flesh.
And you see, although he’s describing this division which he finds in himself between the ‘I’ who wants to do good and the sin living inside of me, although he describes this division, he’s not excusing himself. He’s not saying that the sin living inside of him has nothing to do with him. No, it’s his sin; and it’s living inside of him. It’s his sinful nature, his flesh. He’s the guilty one. He’s responsible for doing these sinful things. He wants to do good. But he still sins. And he hates it. He says in verse 18:
I have the desire to do what is good. But I cannot carry it out.
I cannot carry it out. I’m to blame for my sin and for my shortcomings. And look at verse 19:
what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do, this I keep on doing.
You can almost hear the frustration and the sorrow in his voice. He’s a believer who loves the law of the Lord and he wants so much to obey his Heavenly Father. But again and again and again, his desire is frustrated by the sin in his life which prevents him from obeying the Lord. And so, in verse 20, he complains about the sin living in him which prevents him from doing what is good.
This indwelling sin, this sinful flesh, is like an unwelcome house guest. It’s always with us and it won’t go away and it won’t leave us alone. When we wake up, it’s there. When we go to bed, it’s there. All through the day, it’s with us and it won’t give us any rest.
Paul is describing his experience. And he’s describing the experience of every believer, because we love the Lord and we want to please him and to obey him. And though his Spirit is at work in our lives to sanctify us more and more, and to enable us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness, nevertheless, this indwelling sin is still with us, still bothering us, still making us do the things we hate to do.
Verses 21 to 25
I must be really brief now. Verse 21: He finds this law, this principle, at work: When he wants to do good, evil is close at hand. He delights in God’s law, but there’s also this other law, this law of sin, which bullies him and pushes him and orders him about. And so, he feels wretched. Wretched. And we all do, because we hate being like this.
So who will rescue us from this body of death? And Paul mentions our bodies because it’s with our bodies that we sin: what we say with our mouths; what we look at with our eyes; what we do with our hands; what we think about with our brains. With our bodies we sin. So, who will rescue us? God will, because the time is coming when Christ will return, and our bodies will be glorified and our bodies will become like his glorious body.
And so, Christians should be the most humble of people, because like Paul, we know that though we want to do what is good, we continually do what’s wrong. We desire to do good, but we don’t carry it out. We fall short. We fail. We therefore have no reason to boast about ourselves, because we’ll remain sinners throughout our lives.
So, we should be humble. But we can also be joyful, because we know that Christ is coming, and when he comes, what a change will take place in us!