Epistles: A Struggle: Law, Sin, and Me (Romans 7)
In his letter to the Romans, Paul has explained that we are saved by grace, not by observing the law, because Christ died for us. This does not give us permission to sin — rather, we should serve God by being slaves of righteousness. Paul clarifies the relationship between law and sin in chapter 7. He begins by giving us an analogy from marriage, and he speaks to the Jewish believers, because they are the ones who are most concerned about the law.
An illustration from marriage
“Do you not know, brothers and sisters — for I am speaking to those who know the law — that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives?” (7:1). Paul has already explained in chapter 6 that believers died with Christ, and we have therefore died to sin. In chapter 7, he explains that, in our union with Jesus Christ, we also died to the law. When we die to sin, we also die to the law. The law can no longer prosecute us, because in the eyes of the law, we are dead.
However, Christians have been given new life with Christ, so where does that put us? Paul’s second point is that we are under a new authority. In verse 2, Paul uses the analogy of marriage, in which death affects the legal status of the living: “For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him.” The law of marriage has force only as long as both partners are alive. As soon as one dies, the marriage restrictions are gone.
By analogy, Jews were once bound to the law. But since they died with Christ, they are released from the law, and as a result, a new union can be formed. That’s what Paul is interested in — the new union: “So then, if [a woman] has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man” (verse 3). Because a death has occurred, a new relationship can be formed.
A new authority in our lives
Paul applies his analogy to the law in verse 4: “So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” Paul’s point is that Jesus’ death breaks a person’s bond with the law, and a new bond is permitted. The Jewish believers died to the law through the death of Christ, and their allegiance is now to Christ rather than the law. We are released from the law and united to Christ.
Jesus was born under the law, but in his death and resurrection, he escaped its obligations, and he did so on behalf of all humanity. The risen Christ does not have to keep the Sabbath or the other laws of Moses, and since we are in Christ, we don’t have to keep them, either.
We are supposed to avoid sin, but sin is no longer defined by the laws of Moses. Rather, it is defined by the character of Christ. We are to conform to him, and since he is not bound by the law of Moses, neither are we. We belong to the one “who was raised from the dead.” Why? To “bear fruit for God.” We are to serve him.
Paul contrasts the before and after again in verse 5: “When we were in the realm of the flesh [the Greek word is sarx], the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death.” Before Christ, everyone was dominated by the weakness of the flesh, and our sinful desires brought us death instead of bearing fruit for God. But with Christ, our life is no longer controlled by the flesh.
Paul says that our sinful passions were “aroused by the law.” As he said in Romans 5:20, the law had the ironic result of increasing our desire to sin. Before Paul develops that thought more, he makes this conclusion in verse 6: “But now, by dying to what once bound us [the law], we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
The law was once binding, but we have been released from it. Instead of serving God according to the law, we serve in a new way, defined by the Holy Spirit. Paul explains that in chapter 8; the rest of chapter 7 is a discussion of law and sin.
The law and sin
“What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful?” (verse 7). If the law causes our desire for sin to increase, is the law bad? “Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law.” The law reveals what sin is (Romans 3:20) — and that is a dangerous bit of knowledge.
Paul illustrates the problem with the tenth commandment: “For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting” (verses 7-8). Paul, like everyone else, had covetous desires, and the law told him that his desires, although normal, were sinful. Paul could keep the external rules of Judaism, but he couldn’t prevent himself from coveting, and he learned from the law that this was sin.
But the relationship between law and sin is worse than simply giving information. Paul is saying that the law, by defining sin, told his sinful nature how to sin more. Our sinful nature wants to violate laws. If you give it a rule, it wants to break it, to assert its independence. So the law, by prohibiting certain things, made people do those things even more, because of our perverse nature.
Is Paul talking about himself, or is he giving a general principle, writing in the first person as a literary method? Some people are troubled by the idea that Paul struggled with sin, either as a Jew or as a Christian. Paul does not describe his past as troubled (Philippians 3:6).
In chapter 6 Paul says that we died to sin, but we still have to fight it. In chapter 7 he says that we died to the law, but we are to serve Christ in the way of the Spirit. He does not want to make it sound effortless or automatic. The struggle that began before we came to faith1 continues even after we come to faith — at least that’s the experience of most Christians.
“Apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died” (verses 8-9). When was Paul alive “apart from the law”? When he was a baby, too young to understand. But when he learned the law, the sinful nature inside of him found a way to express itself — by rebelling. Sin sprang to life, and Paul sinned, and he was condemned. Some commentators say that Paul is speaking here of Adam, who was alive before the law, but failed after a commandment was given. Or he may be speaking of Israel, who sinned after the commandments came. No matter who Paul is speaking of, the point is the same: since the law pronounces a penalty on our sin, it is not a means of salvation — it is an agent of death that we need to be rescued from.
Paul said, “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death” (verse 10; see also Romans 4:15). Paul is apparently speaking from a human perspective here, for in Galatians 3:21 he says that the law could not bring life, so presumably God did not intend for it to bring life. Instead, it brought death. The law showed people what would happen if they went this way, or if they went that way. It gave guidance, but did not force people go either one way or the other.
Many Jews assumed that the law would give people life, but it actually brought death. Why? Because sin took over. That’s what Paul says in verse 11: “For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.” Since sin breaks rules, and the law offered rules, it allowed sin to exercise itself. The law allowed sin to trick us, and we got death when we were trying to get life. When people try to be righteous by keeping the law, they are relying on themselves instead of relying on God, and that is a sin.
The law is not the problem — but it is easily hijacked by our sinful desires. The law didn’t cause us to take a wrong turn — it just told us which direction was wrong — and the perversity inside us made us take the wrong turn. Sin deceived us and put us on the pathway to death. The law isn’t the culprit — it was an unwitting accomplice. So Paul concludes in verse 12 that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.” The law is holy, but it can’t make us holy.
Were the laws of animal sacrifices good? Yes, because God gave them — but that doesn’t mean they are required today. We can’t use this verse to support any specific laws, because Paul isn’t being specific here. He is just saying that God’s law, no matter how you define it, is not the cause of the problem.
So Paul asks, “Did that which is good, then, become death to me?” (verse 13). Did the law cause my death? Certainly not, he says. Criminals can’t blame the law for their crimes. Rather, the law just tells us whether we have done wrong, and the consequences of doing wrong.
“Nevertheless,” Paul says, “in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good [the law] to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.” The law is good, but sin hijacks it and uses the law to bring us death. God allowed this so we could see how terrible sin is.
The struggle inside us
Paul describes a conflict: “The law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (verse 14). Could this be the Christian Paul, who said he died to sin and is no longer its slave? Could Paul describe himself as unspiritual, a slave of sin?2 Who is this “I”? Let us keep reading to see.
In verse 15 he describes the struggle: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do.” He wants to do good, but he ends up doing bad. He has a mind that wants to do good, but a body that does bad. Why? Because, as we will soon see, there is another power at work within him.
“And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good” (verse 16). “If I sin even though I don’t want to sin, I am implying that the law is good” (my paraphrase). The fact that he doesn’t like his own behavior is evidence that he likes the law.
“As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me” (verse 17). Paul explains the problem by metaphorically splitting the person in two! There is “the real me,” and there is “sin living in me.” All the blame goes to sin; the “real me” is not guilty.
Paul is not trying to get pagans off the hook; he is not saying that people “in Adam” love God’s law and they are not sinning. No. By distinguishing the “real me” from the “sin living in me,” he seems to be saying that the “real me” is the person in Christ. That is who we really are. This is why he can say that there is no condemnation for people in Christ (8:1). Whatever bad they do is blamed on the sin within them, not on the new person they are in Christ.
Being freed from sin and obeying righteousness is not automatic — it involves a struggle. Galatians 5:17 describes it: “The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.” There is the old person, in the sphere of sin, and there is the new person in Christ. The new person is enslaved to Christ, but the old person is still enslaved to sin, and they are both competing for our attention.
But didn’t Paul say that the old person is dead? Yes, he did. He is using metaphors to try to explain things, and we cannot expect the comparisons to extend further than what Paul intends. For legal authority, the old person is dead. The law, sin and death no longer have authority over us. But in terms of Christian life, the sinful nature still has its desires, and we should resist it. The struggle is real.
“Good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Romans 7:18). Paul clarifies his statement by saying that he’s talking about the flesh, the sinful nature, not his new nature in Christ. All the good in Paul’s life comes from Christ living in him, rather than originating in Paul. The good comes from the new nature, the bad comes from the old, and the Christian life involves fighting against the old.
“I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing” (verses 18-19). Paul is a saint, but he’s not sinless. He wants to do good, but he sometimes sins. The sin within him is hijacking him, making him do things he wouldn’t otherwise do.
“Now if I do what I do not want to do [that is, when I sin], it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (verse 20). Paul blames sin, not himself. What he said in verse 14, that he was a slave to sin, is only the way it appeared to be. The reality, he says, is that all my sins are blamed on this hostile power within me. It is not me, but my old sinful nature that is still enslaved to sin.
Paul summarizes it in verses 21-23: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law [or principle] at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” As a Christian, he wants to do right, but it’s sometimes a struggle.
His mind wars against his body, which has been hijacked by sin. Although he wants to do good, the evil within him sometimes causes him to do things that he hates. So he groans, as he says in Romans 8:23, waiting for the redemption of his body, the resurrection and the ultimate victory over his sinful nature.
“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (verse 24). How will I escape the sinful nature that fights within me? Paul knows where his deliverance will come from: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me [present tense] through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verse 25a). Paul is in the process of being delivered. It’s a lifelong struggle, but the victory is sure, thanks to God! How does it happen? That’s what Paul covers in chapter 8 — life in the Spirit, extending into eternity. That’s where the battle is won.
Paul concludes this chapter with a summary: “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (verse 25b). Even after he talks about the deliverance being given to him by Christ, Paul uses the metaphor of a split person: there is the real me, and there is sin living in me. There is a struggle between mind and body. He is enslaved to the law of Christ, but he sometimes falls short. He’s got a new mind, but an old body, and he looks forward to all things being made new!
Things to think about
- In Paul’s analogy, is it possible to be obligated to the law and united to Christ at the same time? (verse 3)
- The commandment against coveting helped Paul see that he was sinful (verses 7-8). Have I had a similar experience to help me realize that I am sinful?
- If the commandment brings me death instead of life, how can it be good? (verses 10, 12)
- Have I struggled with sin in the way that Paul describes in verses 15-20?
- If I blame my sins on a hostile power within me (verse 20), do I reduce the importance of fighting against it?
- Is God delivering me from the slavery of sin and death? (verse 24).
1 Some people do not experience much of an internal struggle before they come to faith. Perhaps like Paul, they felt that they were successfully doing all that they ought to do. Others served sin and did not struggle against it. The struggle can become more intense after we come to faith and perceive how far short we are of the life we want with Christ.
2 There are several explanations of this passage: that Paul is describing his own life before Christ, or his life after Christ, or he is using “I” as a literary technique to describe people in general. In some ways, these views amount to the same thing. If Paul is describing himself, he shares his own experience because he thinks it is representative of others. If it describes people in general, then it applies to Paul as well. We have chosen to retain Paul’s use of “I” to help give a personal feel to the struggle.
As a Pharisee, Paul would not have described himself as a slave of sin, but his encounter with Jesus showed him that he was indeed a slave of sin. Through his zeal for the law, he was driven to persecute Jesus and the church; he was the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Once he realized that God’s righteousness was much deeper than the law, he would have also realized how much sin had infected him.
Author: Michael Morrison, 2003, 2014