ROMANS 5 - 8

Romans 7:7-25:
The law is unable to sanctify believers

by Thomas W. Finley

The whole section in vs. 7-25 concerns the struggle to be free from the power of indwelling sin, especially taking into account the "law factor". Again, it expands and continues the great statement of 6:14. An issue with this section is whether the personal experiences which Paul records belong to his former life while he was unconverted following Judaism, or belong to his experience as a believer in earlier days. There are interpreters on both sides of this issue. I believe that the struggle recorded here pictures Paul’s life as a believer who had not yet had the revelation that he had died with Christ to indwelling sin and to the Law, which gave power to sin. However, in either case of interpretation, the principle being taught is this: the law cannot deliver man from the power of indwelling sin. Thus, just as Paul had earlier written that the law could not justify man (Rom. 3:20), so now he writes to teach us that the law cannot sanctify man.

● 7:7-8. Here the question arises: Since the law was a problem in our former union, helping produce sins, is the law itself sinful? NO. But, the law reveals what is sin (Rom. 3:20). And, this revelation is not only intellectual, but personal, by experience, according to the context. The demand of the law stirred up the sinful nature still within Paul to do what was forbidden. This shows the fallen nature of man, which resists God. It is not that man does not commit evil acts without the law, but the law brings in the knowledge of indwelling sin to the offender's awareness.

● 7:8-13. "I was once alive apart from the Law." This statement refers to Paul's early days following his conversion. He was made alive by God and to God through being “born again,” and he was living in liberty and with God (Jn. 3:6-7; Eph. 2:5; Rom. 6:11). He was Jesus conscious, in a blessed free fellowship with God, not law conscious. “But when the commandment came” speaks of Paul’s attention to the Law. His awareness of the law became a focus on keeping the Law. He tried to respond to the commandment, especially one that touched an inward attitude (covetousness), not an outward act. This self-effort in turn awakened the power of sin within. Paul was trying to fight the battle against indwelling sin by his effort - by his willpower and strength. The battle here is between Paul and indwelling sin. Paul discovered that he would lose this battle time and again. The sin nature still within him was stronger than his will, even as a Christian with a new disposition. (In Romans 8 we see that the victorious battle is waged by the Spirit against the flesh, not the believer’s self-effort against the flesh.) A battle is always brought into play whenever the believer focuses on keeping the law (v. 21). Because Paul failed to keep the commandment, he sinned, and a death experience resulted (v. 10). The death experience produced by disobedience is a sense of separation from God – broken fellowship in the spirit (Jas. 1:14-15; 1 Jn. 1:6). Verse 11 shows that sin works through the law. "The strength of sin is the law." (1 Cor. 15:56) Verses 12 and 13 sum up the relationship of Law and sin. The Law is holy and good. The real problem is indwelling sin, which takes advantage through the Law (via one’s effort to obey it), producing death in the person. Therefore, Paul learned through this experience the exceeding sinfulness of his sin nature within.

● 7:14. “For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” This verse is taken by some Bible teachers to prove that Paul’s experience in Romans 7 was prior to his conversion. After all, how could it be said of a believer that he is “of flesh and sold into bondage to sin.” It is true that as far as our position “in Christ” goes, we are no longer “in the flesh” (7:5), and we are no longer slaves of sin (Rom. 6:6, 11). But. Paul is not speaking here of his new position in Christ. Here he is speaking of his experience of failure, where his old flesh nature was so evident to him, and where indwelling sin seemed to hold him in bondage to its power. Christians can still live according to their old flesh nature and be fleshly in their experience (1 Cor. 3:1-3). This was indeed Paul’s experience as he tried to keep the commandments of the law by his will power. Although the Law was spiritual, Paul was living in a fleshly way. At this stage of his experience, he had not yet learned how to be spiritual. Both types of living are possible for believers: “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ.” (1 Cor. 3:1).

● 7:15–17. Here we see Paul detail the conflict of his experience. We see these verses use the pronoun “I” in two aspects. Paul was not two persons, but he desired to live in one way, yet he ended up acting in an opposite way. We can view this experience by writing verse 15 in this way: “For what I [Paul acting according to his flesh with the sin nature] am doing, I [Paul according to his new nature] do not understand; for I [acting according to the flesh] am not practicing what I [according to the new nature] would like to do, but I [acting according to the flesh] am doing the very thing I [according to the new nature] hate.” Paul agrees with the moral standard of the Law, but finds himself unable to carry it out! So, in verse 17 he identifies the problem: the problem is not the Law, but “sin which dwells in me.” “So now, no longer am I [according to the new nature] doing it, but sin [acting as a compelling master over me] which dwells in me.” The problem is the sin nature embedded in “the flesh,” which still remains in Paul.

● 7:18-20. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” (v. 18a) The evil is found in Paul’s being, but its source is identified as “in my flesh.” Here the flesh does not refer specifically to the body, but to the fallen nature from Adam which remains in Paul’s being. “for the willing is present in me but the doing of the good is not.” (v. 18b) Paul had the desire to do what was good from his new nature, but the power to do good was absent. Paul was relying on the strength of his renewed will to carry out God’s standards, but he was defeated every time. He ended up not carrying out the good he intended, and thus learned that his intentions and his strength of self-will were overpowered by the might of indwelling sin. We must be clear that the way to follow Christ is not through a simple dedication of our will to do “the good that I want” (v. 19). Our will is needed to follow Christ, but it is not the engine of power to be relied upon to do good.

● 7:21-23. Paul discovered a principle through his experience of failure as a believer. Whenever he set out to do good by the use of his will power, he found that the evil within him would rise up and defeat him. Even though his new inner man with his enlightened mind agreed with God’s law, he found there was a principle operating within him, warring against his decision to do good, and forcing him to go along with indwelling sin within him.

● 7:24-25. This recurring cycle of failure caused Paul to cry out for deliverance from “the body of this death.” Here he means the experience of the law of sin manifesting itself through the members of his body, resulting in a kind of spiritual death – broken fellowship with God (Jas. 1:14-15). In verse 25 Paul bursts out in thanksgiving for God’s solution to the whole problem of defeat spelled out in 7:7-25. The solution is found in Jesus Christ our Lord, as elaborated upon in chapter 8. In the final sentence of chapter 7 Paul summarized the experience of conflict and failure outlined in the preceding verses (7-24). “So then, on the one hand I myself [acting solely in my own strength and will power] with my mind am serving [attempting to serve] the law of God, but on the other, [I find myself actually serving] with my flesh [the fallen Adamic nature within] the law of sin.”

● Romans 7 is in this great epistle’s section on sanctification, not justification. The lessons from chapter 7 of Romans are critical to the believer if he is to have victory. Firstly, he must know and stand upon the truth that he has no relationship with law, either the OT Law or law as a principle (a code of conduct for man to obey). The believer’s relationship with the law ended when he died with Christ (Rom. 7:1-6). Now the Christian is to live to God, seeking fellowship directly with Him, apart from a focus upon law. “For through the Law I died to Law, so that I might live to God.” (Gal. 2:19). A focus upon law sets in motion the human will to obey those rules. This action actually stirs up and brings in the power of indwelling sin. The only path of victory is one of spiritual participation in a living Christ, with Christ’s death (a death to sin) and resurrection, wherein “He lives to God” (Rom. 6:10-11). Thus, only “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2). This walk in victory is described in Romans 8.

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And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)