Theologians, expositors, and preachers have puzzled over and debated exactly who or what sort of person is depicted in Romans 7:14-25? Some contend that it must be an unsaved person since a saved person is no longer a slave to sin. Others say it is a regenerated man who has not yet discovered the power or filling of the Holy Spirit, often seen as a “second blessing” after salvation. Still others see this struggle with sin as the normal lot of the Christian, the battle we all must fight on a daily basis.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones saw the passage differently from all those other positions, and I am greatly indebted to him for pointing out Paul’s purpose for this illustration. Pastor Charles Leiter takes this same position in his book Justification and Regeneration. Lloyd-Jones’s exposition is very extensive in his series of published sermons on Romans. While I agree with Lloyd-Jones’s central point, I can’t agree with his conclusion that the “man” being described is someone under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and enlightened concerning the Law but not yet set free by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. I think he made his point earlier when he affirmed that Paul is constructing a closely-reasoned logical argument as to the purpose and limits of the Mosaic Law.
So who is the man in Paul’s drama, the man Paul refers to as “I” and “me”? He is both every believer and no one in particular. He represents, in the person of the apostle himself, a progressive illustration of the pervasive power of indwelling sin and the inability of the Law to overcome it. The struggle itself is one that every believer can identify with at various points in his or her Christian walk. Yet it is not the “normal” Christian life. It cannot be! The man in verses 14-25 is not only struggling against sin, he is ALWAYS losing! “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.” (Romans 7:19) He wants to do what’s good, but he doesn’t. He wants to shun evil, but he does it. This is not the picture of the normal Christian life!
If we look at this passage as the logical object lesson Paul intends, it will make sense and the dilemma will be resolved.
Answering Paul’s Critics
Paul had been accused of preaching against the Law of Moses (Acts 18:13; 21:28). This was a charge Paul had to answer wherever he went, including Rome where he was a prisoner (Acts 28:23). So in this epistle to the church at Rome (written earlier), Paul carefully expounds the purpose and limits of the Old Covenant Law of Moses.
To assure his critics that he is not disparaging the Law, Paul states clearly at the beginning of this section: “So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good . . . For we know that the Law is spiritual . . .” (Romans 7:12, 14) He acknowledges the goodness and spiritual nature of the Law from the outset. Our problem is not caused by the Law; it is caused by sin and by our own inability to keep it! In Chapter 8 Paul will say,
“For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:3-4)
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Paul steps into the picture and uses himself as an illustration of what the Christian life feels like when lived under the law and by our own fleshly efforts.
After acknowledging that the law is good and holy and spiritual, Paul states, “but I am fleshly, sold under sin” (v. 14). The King James Version translates the word “fleshly” as “carnal,” the same basic concept but with a more negative connotation. Paul establishes the fact that as children of Adam we have innate sinful tendencies that corrupt everything we do and think. When Adam declared his independence from God by disobeying God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, his nature was corrupted, and everyone born after that inherited Adam’s nature. “When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image . . .” (Genesis 5:3) Paul explained in Romans 5:19 that “through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners ...” Even though Paul is speaking as a saved man, a born-again man, he recognizes that sin is still a powerful resident in his life. The effects of innate sin have not been eradicated.
So with this as a starting point, let’s look at the passage.
For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 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. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 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. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 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. I find then the principle (lit. “law”) that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 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 and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (Romans 7:14-24)
This can only be a saved man, a regenerated man, who is saying these things. No unsaved person would or could say, “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.” But I don’t think is it Paul’s point to describe the struggles of a saved person. His point is to illustrate what happens when we try to live under the law rather than in relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Limits of Law and Good Will
Observe what we have in this passage. Paul takes the role of the saved man who (1) recognizes the good, holy, and spiritual nature of the law, (2) who recognizes his own fleshly weakness and sinful propensities, (3) who has the will to do good and avoid evil, and (4) who fails in his holy efforts. Why does he fail? What is missing? He has the law and delights in it, he has the will to obey God’s law, but he lacks the power to do what is good. This brings him to his exclamation in verse 24: “Wretched man that I am! Who shall set me free from the body of this death?” The Law demands obedience, yet our fleshly efforts – in spite of the holiest of intentions – fail us! Why do they fail us? Because of indwelling, overpowering sin that remains in our members. Sin is like a law that springs into motion at the very mention of God’s Law!
Who will set me free from the body of this death? The Law? Not a chance! Sinful passions, Paul says, are “aroused by the Law” (v. 5), and sin takes “opportunity by the commandment” and deceives us (vss. 8, 11). The purpose of the Law in God’s redemptive plan was to awaken us to the gravity and power of sin, “for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
Freedom from the Law of Sin and Death
So, again, who will set me free from the body of this death? Paul answers triumphantly:
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25)
It is Paul’s relationship with Jesus Christ that sets him free from the domination of sin. He has already said in Chapter Six: “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:14 NKJV) Please note: It is because we are not under law but under grace that sin’s domination is broken. Under grace our focus is on Christ and our relationship to Him, rather than on the Law which actually arouses our indwelling sin. (Want to test this? Tell a two-year-old not to open something and then leave the room!)
But Paul doesn’t end verse 25 with the words above (as I’m sure you noticed). He concludes his logical argument about the purpose and limit of the Law with these words:
“So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin”
What does Paul mean here? Is he schizophrenic? No, he is simply concluding his argument that the flesh has no capacity in and of itself to fulfill God’s law, even though his mind fully concurs with God’s law and is a bond-servant to it. There is only one thing the believer can do with the fleshly nature: “. . . but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:13)
But what about the righteousness required by the Law? Surely God wants to see that in His redeemed children. Indeed, and Paul now tells us how that happens under the New Covenant: The Law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus.
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4 NASB)
So who is the man struggling with sin and losing? He’s Paul’s object lesson to show the inadequacy of the law and our good intentions to produce a righteous life without the power of the Holy Spirit through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He is Paul’s way of showing the futility and frustration of trying to live “under the Law”. The struggling man is any believer in Christ who – even for a moment, a day, a week, or longer – focuses on the Law rather than on Christ. He is any believer who begins to take pride in his works rather than humbly walking with Jesus.