(from a transcript of a sermon preached on 9/22/02 at Sovereign Redeemer Assembly)
Please turn in your Bibles to Romans chapter 7. I'll be reading verses 14 through 25:
Romans 7: (14) For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, having been sold under sin. (15) For what I work out, I do not know. For what I do not will, this I do. But what I hate, this I do. (16) But if I do what I do not will, I agree with the Law, that [it is] good. (17) But now I no longer work it out, but the sin dwelling in me. (18) For I know that in me, that is in my flesh, dwells no good. For to will is present to me, but to work out the good I do not find. (19) For what good I desire, I do not do. But the evil I do not desire, this I do. (20) But if I do what I do not desire, [it is] no longer I working it out, but the sin dwelling in me. (21) I find then the law, [when] I desire to do the right, that evil is present with me. (22) For I delight in the Law of God according to the inward man; (23) but I see another law in my members having warred against the law of my mind, and taking me captive by the law of sin being in my members. (24) O wretched man [that] I [am]! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? (25) I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then I myself with the mind truly serve [the] Law of God, and [with] the flesh [the] law of sin.
We now come to a portion of Romans that has been interpreted in very different ways by different commentators and preachers down through the years. There are two main schools of thought on this passage, but there are several other minor schools as well. And they all revolve around this question: who is the "I" in this passage? There are 27 "I's" in this 17-sentence paragraph. These "I's" are part of the Greek first person present tense verbs. So there are verbs translated"I am", "I work out," "I know," "I will," "I do," "I hate," "I agree," "I find," "I desire," "I delight," "I see," "I am," "I thank," and "I serve," along with the negations of some of these verbs.
So who is this "I" that is thinking and doing these things? Some of you might be thinking, "Well, it's obvious, isn't it? It's Paul!" And I would agree with you. Obviously, it's Paul. Everywhere else in the book of Romans when there's an "I" where Paul is not quoting someone else, it's Paul talking about himself, so why would it be any different here? It's a basic rule of grammar that when an author is writing something and refers to "I," he's referring to himself, unless he's quoting someone else. But most people on both sides of the issue would agree with this so far. The issue is this: WHICH Paul is it? Is it the Paul BEFORE he was saved, or is it the Paul AFTER he was saved? Is it the PAST Paul, who used to be called Saul, or is it the PRESENT Paul?
Let's briefly go into the argument for interpreting this as the PAST Paul. It mainly has to do with verses 14 and 24. In Verse 14, Paul says that he is fleshly and has been sold under sin. In verse 24, Paul says that he is a wretched man. Those who argue that this must be the PAST Paul say that regenerate people cannot be characterized as fleshly, sold under sin, and wretched. Thus, they say, it must be Paul talking about when he was unregenerate, and, by extension, talking about the state and character of all unregenerate people. But this won't hold up. First of all, Paul uses the PRESENT TENSE here, whereas just a little while before, in the previous paragraph, he used the PAST TENSE to describe his former self. Paul said in verse 8 that sin WORKED every lust in him, not WORKS every lust in him. In verse 9, Paul said that he WAS alive apart from Law, not IS alive apart from Law. In verse 10, Paul said that sin DECEIVED him, not DECEIVES him. So why would he then, in the next paragraph, switch to the present tense to talk about something in the past? Secondly, Paul never uses this kind of grammatical style - speaking in the present tense about his past self - anywhere else. Thirdly, we have the passage right in front of us that contains too many descriptors of a true believer to conclude that this is talking about an unbeliever. For example, Paul says that he does not WILL to do sin, that he HATES sin, that he AGREES that the Law is good, that it is not HE that works out the sin, that he DESIRES good, that he does NOT desire evil, that he DELIGHTS in God's Law, and that he SERVES the Law of God. This must be talking about a regenerate man. Now before I go into exegeting this passage, I want to go into one other interpretation that would disagree with both of the interpretations I've mentioned. This is the interpretation of the heretic Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He says that this cannot be describing a regenerate man, for some of the reasons I described above in the school of those who think this is talking about an unregenerate man. But he ALSO says that this cannot be describing an UNREGENERATE man, for some of the reasons I just described. Yet he ALSO says that this is definitely describing a kind of person that really does exist. But wait a minute. Isn't everybody either REGENERATE or UNREGENERATE? Not according to Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones believes that there is a THIRD kind of person who is NEITHER unregenerate NOR regenerate! Here's what Lloyd-Jones says in his commentary on this passage:
"What sort of man is Paul describing therefore? He is describing a man who is experiencing an intense conviction of sin, a man who has been given to see, by the Spirit, the holiness of the Law; and he feels utterly condemned. He is aware of his weakness for the first time, and his complete failure. But he does not know any more. He is trying to keep the Law in his own strength, and he finds that he cannot. He therefore feels condemned; he is under conviction. He does not know, he does not understand the truth about the Gospel, about salvation in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. At the same time I have given abundant proof of the fact that the man is not unregenerate. 'But you seem to be saying', says someone, 'that he is not regenerate either.' How do we resolve the difficulty? This is the experience of large numbers of people, sometimes of people who have been reading a book on Revival, or the biography of some great saint. Suddenly they are brought under conviction of sin by the Holy Spirit. They see that the whole of their past is wrong, that it is loss. They see the meaning of the Law for the first time. They have lost their self-righteousness, they are 'dead', they are 'killed' by the Law; and they then try to put themselves right, but they cannot do so. They may remain like that for days and for weeks, even for years. Then the truth about Christ and His full salvation is revealed to them, and they find peace and joy and happiness and power. They glory in Christ and His Cross and offer up their praise. But for a time they are in this position, as it were, of being neither the one nor the other, neither unregenerate nor regenerate. All we can say for certain is that they are under deep conviction of sin. But they have not seen the truth clearly even about justification, leave alone about sanctification. This man is under the condemnation of the Law, and feeling his utter hopelessness, and helplessness, and spiritual death. He is 'under' what the Apostle calls 'the law of sin and death'."
Do you see the utter repulsiveness of this heresy? Lloyd-Jones is saying that there are people who do not know or understand the truth about the gospel, do not know or understand the truth about salvation in and through Jesus Christ, and do not know the truth about justification, who are NOT UNREGENERATE! He even admits that the person is trying to keep the Law in his own strength, that he is trying to put himself right, that he is under the condemnation of the Law, yet he says that this person is NOT UNREGENERATE! This is Lloyd-Jones's version of the "Holy Spirit Conviction" heresy. He believes that the Holy Spirit is the one doing a work in this person who does not believe the gospel and is trying to keep the Law in his own strength. What does this say about Lloyd-Jones's view of the Holy Spirit? What does this say about ANYBODY's view of the Holy Spirit who holds to the view that the Holy Spirit is the one working in the person who remains ignorant of the gospel and going about to establish a righteousness of his own for a time? This is not the Holy Spirit of the Bible; this is a FALSE spirit who works in people to bring forth fruit unto death.
Okay, now on to the passage at hand. Let's go through this sentence-by sentence. The first sentence is verse 14:
Romans 7: (14) For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, having been sold under sin.
The thing that stands out the most is that Paul is describing himself, and all true Christians, as "fleshly, having been sold under sin." Before I get into what this means, let's see something very important to put this into perspective. I'm going to read some verses BEFORE this passage and then some verses AFER this passage. I'll first read some verses from Romans 6. Let's first look at verses 1 and 2:
Romans 6: (1) What then shall we say? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? (2) Let it not be! We who died to sin, how shall we still live in it?
Now verse 6:
Romans 6: (6) knowing this, that our old man was crucified with [Him,] that the body of sin might be nullified, so that we no longer serve sin.
Romans 6: (14) For your sin shall not lord it over you, for you are not under Law, but under grace.
Now verses 17 and 18:
Romans 6: (17) But thanks [be] to God that you were slaves of sin, but you obeyed from [the] heart the form of doctrine to which you were delivered. (18) And having been set free from sin, you were enslaved to righteousness.
Now verse 22:
Romans 6:(22) But now having been set free from sin, and having been enslaved to God, you have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end everlasting life.
Okay, now let's read Romans 8:1 through 9:
Romans 8: (1) [There is] therefore now no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to flesh, but according to Spirit. (2) For the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus set me free from the law of sin and of death. (3) For the Law [being] powerless, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in [the] likeness of sinful flesh, and concerning sin, condemned sin in the flesh, (4) so that the righteous demand of the Law might be fulfilled in us, those not walking according to flesh, but according to Spirit. (5) For the ones that are according to flesh mind the things of the flesh. And the ones according to Spirit [mind] the things of the Spirit. (6) For the mind of the flesh [is] death, but the mind of the Spirit [is] life and peace; (7) because the mind of the flesh [is] enmity towards God; for it is not being subjected to the Law of God, for neither can it [be]. (8) And those being in the flesh are not able to please God. (9) But you are not in flesh, but in Spirit, since [the] Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone has not [the] Spirit of Christ, this one is not His.
Do you see what our current passage in Romans 7 is sandwiched in between? Both BEFORE and AFTER Paul says that he, and thus all believers, are fleshly, having been sold under sin, he says that believers have died to sin, do not live in sin, no longer serve sin, are no longer under the dominion of sin, have been set free from sin, do not walk according to the flesh, are free from the law of sin, and are not in the flesh. Quite significant, don't you think? Isn't it significant that Paul surrounds this passage with such language? It sure is. It shows us very clearly what this passage does NOT mean. When Paul says that he is "fleshly," he does NOT mean that he is walking after the flesh. And when Paul says that he is "sold under sin," he does NOT mean that he serves sin or is a slave to sin or walks in sin. We'd better keep this in mind as we read this passage. People have used this passage to put forth all kinds of wacky ideas, as we've found out. But if we keep in mind the surrounding passages, we will have a Biblical perspective.
So now let's get into what verse 14 DOES mean. The first thing that Paul says is that we, that is, we Christians, know that the Law is spiritual. Remember two weeks ago when we saw that before Paul was saved, he was knowledgeable about and kept the LETTER of the Law, but he was ignorant of the Law's SPIRITUALITY. The Law, in its SPIRITUALITY, showed him that he did not have a righteousness that answered its demands, and it showed his sin to be exceedingly sinful. He concludes that the Law is holy and just and good. So he continues on that theme to say that we know that the Law is spiritual. The Law comes from God, and it requires obedience not just in letter but in spirit. It reveals God's righteous character and thus His perfect standard of righteousness. It is completely holy and good and demands only what is completely holy and good. It is in this context, in the context of the Law's holiness and standard of perfect righteousness, that we must see the second part of this verse. In light of the holiness of God's Law, how do we see ourselves? We see ourselves as fleshly, having been sold under sin. Our remaining sin is so great and so repugnant to us as we hold our character and conduct up to the light of God's Law that we can only conclude that, in light of this perfect standard, we are fleshly, meaning that the sin in our flesh is ever before us. And we have been sold under sin, meaning that no matter how much we may try to get away from it, the sinfulness that we inherited in Adam clings to us and harasses us.
Verse 15 gives the outworkings of that sinfulness in our lives.
Romans 7: (15) For what I work out, I do not know. For what I do not will, this I do. But what I hate, this I do:
Whatever we work out, we do not know, meaning that the sin that we commit we do not love; it is not something with which we are in intimate fellowship. So we don't WANT to sin, since we do not LOVE sin. We HATE sin. Our desire is to be perfectly conformed to God's law in our character and conduct. Yet what we do not want to do, what we HATE to do, this we do. This is the experience of every believer while he is still living in this body. We HATE sin, we LOATHE sin, we are DISGUSTED by sin, and yet, even though sin is repugnant to us, we COMMIT sin. And we groan over our sin and are ashamed of our sin and repent of our sin. And right after we repent of our sin, we sin some more. Our sin even overwhelms us at times and depresses us. Sometimes it takes away our joy. We think of the harm that we've done to others through some of our sins. We think of how evil our sins are in light of God's perfect Law. ALL of us who are Christians do the things we hate. And we need to recognize these for what they are and repent of them. And it's not just the outward sins that we struggle with. In fact, the struggle is mostly inward. We're not an outwardly immoral people. But sinful thoughts are constantly battering us, aren't they? One goes away, and another comes in. We desire to perfectly obey the command in Philippians 4:8, "Whatever is true, whatever honorable, whatever is right, whatever pure, whatever lovely, whatever of good report, if of any virtue, and if of any praise, think on these things." Is that all we think about? Whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and praiseworthy? We fall way short of that, don't we? It is to our shame that we do. And we need to strive to do better and to only think on these things. Our thoughts should be pure and undefiled. Yet what we don't want to think, what we even hate to think, that we think. It's a constant struggle. But, thank God, He says in 1 John 1:9 that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from our sins. We need to recognize and repent of our sins. We need to be a repentant people. And we WILL be a repentant people, because we understand the holiness of God's Law and our own wretchedness in light of it.
We might wonder why God doesn't just take away all our sin at regeneration. Why does God make it so we continue to have indwelling sin all the days of our lives? It is to continually drive us to Him as our only hope, our only righteousness. As we struggle through our lives with our sins, we constantly rest on the merit of Jesus Christ's righteousness alone as the ground of our salvation. And as we see the utter sinfulness of our sin, we know that we can come before the Holy God to confess our sins, because He will forgive our sins because of Christ. Our indwelling sin is a way that God keeps us humble and keeps His righteousness constantly before our eyes.
On to verse 16:
Romans 7: (16) But if I do what I do not will, I agree with the Law, that [it is] good.
Now how is it that if we do what we don't want to do, we are agreeing with the Law that it is good? Well, by saying that we don't want to do what is sinful, we are admitting that when the Law says something is sinful, it is sinful. By admitting that we do not meet up to the Law's standard, we are admitting that the Law is the perfect standard of righteousness. This is another answer to the question in verse 7, "Is the Law sin?" The Law is NOT sin; it is holy and righteous and pure. But the Law EXPOSES sin, which is any lack of conformity to it. And we affirm this when we say that we are sinning in not meeting up to that standard.
Romans 7: (17) But now I no longer work it out, but the sin dwelling in me.
Here's what Paul is saying. Since I do not WANT to sin, and I HATE sin, then my sin is really against my will. Now people can argue that we can't do anything against our will, because our will is what causes us to do things, so when we sin, we sin willingly. But when I say that our sin is against our will, I am talking about a GREATER will than just the will of the moment, if you know what I'm saying. Our lives are characterized by a hatred for sin and a striving to obey. And when we sin, it is against this overarching character. Thus, it is no longer I, a regenerate man who has been given a new heart and a new spirit, who is characterized by a hatred for sin and a striving to obey, that work out the sin; instead, it is the indwelling SIN that is working itself out IN me. Now some would say that this is the "old nature" that is working out the sin in contrast with the "new nature" that works out righteousness. But the Bible does not speak in such terms. Christians do NOT have two natures. Only Christ had two natures: divine and human. Christians have one REGENERATE human nature and its principle of holiness that is inclined toward righteousness, and they have a remaining SIN PRINCIPLE that wars against the principle of holiness. The sin principle is called the "flesh."
That brings us right into verse 18:
Romans 7: (18) For I know that in me, that is in my flesh, dwells no good. For to will is present to me, but to work out the good I do not find.
Notice that Paul qualifies "in me" with "in my flesh." He did not want to give the readers the impression that nothing good at all dwelled in any of him. Certainly the Holy Spirit and His work in Paul, and in all of His people, is good. But here he's talking only about the sin principle. There is no good in him, that is, in his flesh. His flesh is what works out the sin that he hates. Now if this is what his flesh does, then it must be concluded that his flesh contains absolutely no good. That principle of sin is only bad, and it only influences to the bad, never to the good. Paul goes on to say that the will to do good is present with him, but he cannot find the working out of this will. Paul, and every true believer, desires to perfectly obey the Law of God, but he, and every true believer, do not have the ability to carry this out.
Romans 7: (19) For what good I desire, I do not do. But the evil I do not desire, this I do.
This is similar to verse 15. What good we want to do, which is to always be obedient to God, to always bring our mind, thoughts, words, and actions into conformity with God's revealed will, we do not do, because of the remaining sin that is in us. And the evil we do not want to do, we do.
Romans 7: (20) But if I do what I do not desire, [it is] no longer I working it out, but the sin dwelling in me. (21) I find then the law, [when] I desire to do the right, that evil is present with me.
This is similar to verse 17. If I, as a regenerate person, do what I don't want to do, then it is not I who is working out what I don't want to do; it is indwelling sin that is working out what I don't want to do.
Romans 7: (21) I find then the law, [when] I desire to do the right, that evil is present with me.
When Paul here speaks of the law, he's not talking about the Law of God that he later mentions in verse 22. He's talking about a powerful principle that has the force of law. He, and all we believers, find a powerful principle, that when we want to do what is right, there evil is, right there with me. It's like what Paul said in verse 14, "having been sold under sin." Sin can never be totally rooted out of our lives. Right when we desire to do good, there it is. It's always hanging around, ready to corrupt whatever we do. It is such a powerful law that it infects our every motive. Here we are, in a house of worship, praising God in song, praying, and hearing the preached Word, and our desire is to fully focus on worship and to be attentive only to the things of God. But even right here, we find the powerful principle, that when we desire to worship God in purity, giving full attention to Him and Him alone, evil is right here with us, and our thoughts wander, and we don't give undivided attention to the worship. It's always there, bothering us, harassing us, making us think and say and do what we don't want to think and say and do. You can't shake it. It's there, and it will always be there for as long as we're in this mortal body.
Romans 7: (22) For I delight in the Law of God according to the inward man;
Paul, and all Christians, delight in God's Law according to the inward man, which is the regenerate, new creature. No unregenerate man can honestly say that. We who are Christians delight in God's Law. Read Psalm 119 regarding the Christian's delight in God's Law. We love God's Law. We want to keep God's Law perfectly. But ...
Romans 7: (23) but I see another law in my members having warred against the law of my mind, and taking me captive by the law of sin being in my members.
The law in our members is that law that Paul mentioned in verse 21, that when we desire to do the right, evil is present with us. It is that powerful principle of sin that keeps us from doing what we want to do and makes us do what we do not want to do. It is at WAR with the law of our minds. This law, the law of the mind, is the powerful principle of holiness that has been imparted to the believer's mind upon regeneration. Whereas before, his mind was only full of evil continually, now he has a NEW mind that is directed by the principle of holiness. Yet this law of sin wars against the law of our minds and takes us captive. Wait a minute! Didn't Paul say in Romans 6:18 and 22 that we were set free from sin? How can it be, then, that Paul says that he, and thus we, are taken captive by the law of sin in our members? It's because Paul here is talking about our inability to carry out or work out the Law of God the way we would desire, which is perfect conformity to the Law, because of that law of sin that is in our members that is present with us at all times. Our hands are tied, if you will. In Romans 6:18 and 22, Paul was talking about being free from the reign of sin, from walking in sin, from being under the guilt and defilement of sin. Here, this "being taken captive" means that we are not freed from the INFLUENCE of sin. And that influence is so powerful that it keeps us from doing what we want to do, which is obey God perfectly.
Romans 7: (24) O wretched man [that] I [am]! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
In light of all that Paul has just said in this paragraph, he concludes what we as believers all conclude about ourselves - "O wretched man that I am!" We are sinners. The Greek word for "wretched" means "miserable" or "afflicted." We are afflicted by our sins. We are constantly being harassed and plagued by our sins and are thus distressed and grieved and vexed by our sins. Right when we want to do good, evil is right there, to make us do what we don't want to do. It's like a constant evil companion. And as long as we're in this mortal body, we will be afflicted by the sin that is in us, and we will fall, and our thoughts won't be pure, and we'll do evil things we'll regret, and we will never be free from this slavery to the influence of sin. We yearn to be set free from this principle so we can love and serve God without sin. Who will set us free from the body of this death?
Romans 7: (25) I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then I myself with the mind truly serve [the] Law of God, and [with] the flesh [the] law of sin.
God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, will set us free from the body of this death. We have a sure and certain hope that when God brings us to heaven, we will be set free from the body of this death, and we will be free to worship and praise Him unencumbered by any sinful thought or action. 1 John 3:2 says that when we get to heaven, we shall be like Jesus Christ. Revelation 21:4 says that when we get to heaven, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will not be death or mourning or outcry or pain. We will not be sorrowing over our indwelling sin, because our sin will be completely gone. What a wonderful day that will be!
Paul ends the paragraph reiterating that his mind, infused with the powerful principle of holiness, serves God's Law, delighting in it, as verse 22 says, desiring to do good and do right, as verses 19 and 21 say, and agreeing with God's Law that it is good, as verse 16 says. And he reiterates that his flesh, that powerful principle of indwelling sin, serves the law of sin, making him do what he does not want to do, as verses 15 and 19 say, making him not do the good he wants to do, as verse 19 says, and warring against the law of his mind, as verse 23 says. This war between the mind and the flesh, the spirit and the flesh, the principle of holiness and the principle of sin, is a constant, ongoing, never-ending battle for believers while they live here on earth. It is the cause of much sorrow and much pain and anguish. But God has a purpose in all this. It is to keep us humbly looking to Him, hoping in Him, and trusting in the finished work of Christ for our salvation and assurance. It makes us realize that this is not our home and makes us long to be with Him in heaven. It makes us say with the Psalmist in Psalm 130, "If You will keep iniquities, O Jehovah, O Lord, who shall stand? But forgiveness is with You that You may be feared."
My brothers and sisters in Christ, fight the good fight, finish the course, and keep the faith. Keep fighting against indwelling sin with all your might. Be diligent to obey God's Law. Repent of your sin and keep pressing on. And one day we will be like Christ, for we will see Him as He is. Amen.