When push comes to shove, there are but three basic interpretations of Romans 7:14-25:
(1) Paul was writing about his pre-Christian experience under the law of Moses,
(2) he was writing of man’s experience in general apart from Christ, or
(3) he was writing about his experience as a Christian.
I hold the third view with the following qualification. I believe the whole of Romans 7:7-25 has to do with Paul’s experience with (1) the Mosaic law-code and (2) the law he was under to Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 9:21). By extension, I believe his particular experience with these law-codes extends to any man under any law-code he finds himself obligated to under God. For a Gentile, this would have been the law-of-the-heart code (cf. Rom. 2:11-15). In other words, even though I view Paul’s experience with law as limited to the Mosaic law and the law-code he was under to Christ, I see both of these as typifying man’s collective experience with law—an experience that always comes up short of what law requires.
As a Jew, Paul had never been under the law-code the Gentiles were under. Before becoming amenable to the law he was under to Christ, his obligation had been to the law of Moses. Therefore, when I read Romans 7:7-13, I understand the particular law-code to which Paul refers is the Mosaic one. Even so, we must not allow what Paul says in these verses to keep us from seeing the bigger picture, which is that (1) not only have all of us sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23) but (2) all of us who have experienced the “newness of life” that comes from a right relationship with the blood of Christ will, regrettably, continue to sin (cf. Rom. 6:4; 1 Jn 1:8) and this because of (3) our present “half-done” condition. By “half done,” I mean that we, in our born-again state, remain in “lowly” bodies that are awaiting the final redemption that will be theirs in the coming resurrection (cf. Php. 3:21).
Therefore, when attempting to understand Romans 7:7-25, it is important to appreciate its position in the letter, especially as it appears in chapters 1-8, a section that sets forth the doctrine upon which everything else rests. When viewed this way, which is far from the parenthetical, out-of-place pronouncement some have thought it to be, we come to understand that salvation “by grace through faith” is far from the perfect doing some have imagined it to be. On the contrary, and as Paul so candidly demonstrates, his personal experience with law occupies an important position in the overall teaching of chapters 1-8, which is a section that contains the most sublime explanation that emerges in all of Scripture of the glorious, fleshed-out, up-close-and-personal gospel of Jesus Christ.
Of particular note in Romans 7:7-25 is Paul’s use of the personal pronoun (e.g., “I” and “me”) as well as the past and present tenses (i.e., all those “have known,” “had said,” “produced in me,” “was dead,” etc. kind of expressions.). It seems clear that Paul is speaking of a time in the past when, as a child, he had not yet reached the age of accountability and, thus, stood completely sinless before God. This is evidenced by his use of “apart from the law sin was dead” (v. 8b) and “I was alive once without the law” (v. 9a).
Now, if I am right and Paul was speaking of himself (and the most straightforward reading of the text indicates he was), then he was referring to his experience as a circumcised Jew before he reached the “age of accountability.” “But when the commandment came” (v. 9b), which was a reference to his “adult” accountability to the Mosaic law, he said that “sin revived and [he] died” (v. 9c). In my opinion, “revived” is a poor translation of anezēsen that gives a false impression. When Paul, as an amenable adult, was confronted with the Mosaic law-code, sin “came alive” (ESV) or “sprang to life” (LEB), both of which more accurately convey the meaning of the Greek. In other words, Paul was not saying sin revived when the law came, only that it was “made alive” (NASB), resulting in his spiritual death. If this was not Paul’s experience before and after his confrontation with the law of Moses, then I am at a loss to know when this could have been.
So, although I believe the overall context of chapter 7 deals with Paul’s experience with law in general, I’m convinced verses 7-13 have to do specifically with the law of Moses. However, when it comes to verses 14-25, I’m just as convinced Paul is speaking of his experience with the law he was under to Christ. This is evidenced by Paul’s continued use of personal pronouns (viz., “I,” “me,” “my”). But more particularly, it is demonstrated by his switch from past to present tense (viz., “I am…,” “I do,” “I delight,” “I see,” etc.). This is evidenced most notably in his gut-wrenching cry and follow-up question in verse 24:
O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Even more convincing, I think, is his hopeful declaration of faith in verse 25a:
I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
It is this interpretation of Romans 7:7-25 that I believe best defines its meaning and most helpful to those who made up the church in Rome. After all, if Paul was simply contrasting the primary difference between the law of Moses and the grace we have access to in Christ, of what value would that have been to Gentile Christians who had never been under the law of Moses? With this said, what follows is my defense of what I’ve outlined above.
The Apostle Paul And The Law
In verses 14-25, I believe Paul is relating his experience with the law he found himself under to Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2). Therefore, and as offensive as it may be to some, I believe the “wretched man” of verse 24 is none other than the “faithful unto death” apostle Paul who believed there was a “crown of righteousness” laid up for him that would be his at the Lord’s appearing (cf. Rev. 2:10; 2 Tim. 4:8). Of course, that the wretched man of verse 24 is Paul himself is the very thing I am under obligation to prove, for how was it possible that the apostle could describe himself this way without opening himself up to the charge of duplicity as he sets forth his arguments in chapters 6-8? And if he were not thought to be disingenuous, then he would certainly be vulnerable to the charge of double-mindedness and its accompanying instability (cf. Jas. 1:8). Again, how could the wretched man of verse 24 be a description of the apostle Paul without his readers viewing him as some sort of reprobate? These are some of the questions I must try to answer in this article. But to do this, I must turn to the text itself.
The Nature Of The Struggle (7:14-20)
7:14 For we know that the law is spiritual,… This is a transitional statement, summing up the basic point of verses 7-13 and reaffirming the goodness of the law in light of the questions posed in verses 7 and 13. It also opens the way for Paul’s honest examination of his own spiritual “walk of faith”—an examination that serves as a mirror for every Christian. But I am carnal, sold under sin. Although the translation of sarkinos as “carnal” (as in the KJV, ASV, and NJKV) is literally correct, it does not, in my opinion, provide a clear understanding of how it is being used here. Even worse are the NIV’s “unspiritual” and the ISV’s “merely human.” In believe the NASB’s “of flesh” and the NRSV’s and ESV’s “of the flesh” do a much better job of conveying what Paul has in mind. The word is from sarx, which means “flesh.” So although sarkinos can mean under the control of our flesh, as the NASB’s “in the flesh” of 7:5 and “according to the flesh” in 8:5, it is not used this way here. Here, it basically means “composed of flesh” (C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, vol. I, p. 375). Thus, it does not refer to man in toto as the materialists erroneously think, but simply the physical part of man—namely, “our lowly body” (Php 3:21, ESV).
Nevertheless, what Paul says here is more than just some metaphysical assertion that man is composed of a physical body. In fact, it’s a statement with moral implications. The first of these is the idea that although we have already been justified and regenerated, we still come under the influence of our sin-sick bodies—bodies that have yet to be set free from the “bondage of corruption” to which they are enslaved (cf. Rom. 8:18-25). Moses Lard said it well when he wrote,
I Paul am fleshly; though redeemed, and pardoned, and accepted, I am still fleshly; not wholly so, but fleshly, fleshly because still in a body of flesh, from the influence of which, so long as I am in it, I cannot become entirely freed (Moses E. Lard, Commentary on Paul’s Letter to Romans, p. 236).
The moral implications of sarkinos are further amplified by the modifier “sold under sin” (pepramenos hupo tēn hamartian), which carries with it the idea of being sold to sin as a slaveholder and, thus, under sin’s power or control. But if this is truly a description of the Christian’s walk of faith, how can it be reconciled with Romans 6:6 and 15-23, which say that although we “used to be slaves of sin” (v. 17, NIV), we have been “set free from sin and have become slaves of righteousness” (v. 18, NIV)? Although this may at first seem to be a formidable obstacle, is is not quite the problem many think it to be. This is because chapter 6 refers to the liberation of our spirit or inner man, not our body. Chapter 7, to the contrary, is designed to make it clear our bodies have not yet been so redeemed (v. 25; cf. 8:23). Therefore, and under the direction of the Holy Spirit, Paul, using himself as an example, teaches us that even though we are already spiritually redeemed, our bodies (viz., the “fleshly” aspect of man) are still, in their unregenerate state, “sold under sin” (i.e., very much accustomed to and habituated by sin). However, what Paul says here cannot be taken as an excuse for the sin we continue to commit. Having been set free from sin and born again spiritually, we can exercise (and I’m speaking of ability here) effective operational control over our bodies even as they remain inclined or predisposed to sin. Furthermore, empowered as we are in all this by the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:13), we can use sin-sick bodies to serve the living God (cf. Rom. 6:6, 12-13). Thus, Paul’s “I am of flesh, sold under sin” statement neither excuses sin nor consigns us to hopelessness. Instead, “it does explain why and how we, even as Christians, continue to be plagued by sin and are subject to an on-going struggle and occasional defeat” (Jack Cottrell, Romans, vol. I, p. 446).
7:15 For what I am doing, I do not understand. Although Paul clearly does not want to sin, he does. Thus, he is not saying he doesn’t “understand” as the NKJV translates ginōskō. In fact, he makes it clear he does know or understand what is happening (cf. 7:14). What he’s saying instead is that he does not “allow” what is happening as ginōskō is rendered in the KJV. Put another way, he does not approve, condone, nor acknowledge the legitimacy of the sinful things he sometimes finds himself doing (i.e., he is not denying he sometimes sins, for he does, only that he does not accept such behavior as being right or legitimate). In this sense, what he’s saying is, “I do not acknowledge sin as my true master; I do not accept the legitimacy of its rule over my life” (Cottrell, p. 447). For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. Key words here are “want” and “hate.” “Want” (thelō) represents the born-again disposition of the regenerate spirit or inner man. It represents the inherent desire of the new creature in Christ to obey the “good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (12:2), which, sadly, he sometimes finds himself not doing. On the other hand, “hate” (miseō) represents the dislike, loathing, and abhorrence the regenerate spirit has for the sinful things he sometimes finds himself doing. Such hatred is the natural outgrowth of repentance and the supernatural consequence of the new birth. So even though that which is occasionally being done is a sin, the disposition of the one doing it—in this case, Paul—is that of a regenerate heart and not that of an unregenerate sinner as some contend. Of course, the heartbreaking irony is that the very things we sometimes find ourselves doing are the very opposite of what we want to do.
It is this struggle we see played out in verses 16-20: 16 If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17 But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. 19 For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. 20 Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
The Source Of The Struggle (7:21-25)
In this section, Paul identifies the origin of the willingness to do one thing and the doing of something else as outlined in 7:14-20 as the conflict that is taking place between our redeemed spirits and our as-yet-unregenerate bodies. He has already intimated this in 7:14 (“I am of flesh,” ESV) and 7:18 (“in my flesh”) but now he embarks upon specific detail.
7:21 I find then a law,… Here Paul is saying that when he analyzes what is going on within himself, this is what he discovered. And what is this? He says there is a “law” (nomos) working within him. As used here, there can be little doubt this word means “governing principle,” “the rule of life,” “the regulating pattern,” etc. This is also the way he uses it in 3:27 and 8:2. What, then, is this “law”? that evil is present with me, the one who wants to do good. In the NIV, this reads, “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me,” which, as interpretations go, strikes a pose between normative and dynamic equivalency. In other words, as a Christian who is determined to speak kind and compassionate words of comfort and encouragement, it is sometimes not very long before I find myself speaking severe words of discouragement. And even though I am determined never again to commit a particular sin, as soon as certain circumstances rear their ugly heads, I find myself doing once again the very thing I hate. Why does this happen? The answer is found in what follows.
7:22-23 22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. Here Paul cuts to the chase. In explicit terms, he contrasts the two parts of man’s dual nature. One of these is the “inward man,” the spirit or soul (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16 as well). Paul also refers to it as “my mind” (v. 23). In the regenerated sinner, this “inner man” (Eph. 3:16) has been so radically transformed that he is referred to as a “new man” and, thus, contrasted with the “old man” who had been in bondage to sin (Rom. 6:6; Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:9-10). The other part of man’s dual nature is his fleshly body (see previous comments on “of flesh” in 7:14), which Paul calls “my members” in Romans 6:13b.
Another contrast being made here has to do with two kinds of “law.” One of these laws or governing principles is God’s law, which Paul describes as “the law of my mind” (v. 23b). This is yet another piece of evidence that the words being spoken here are not those of an unregenerate sinner, for so important to him is God’s law that he describes it as being the all-encompassing code that governs his renewed, regenerated or born-again mind. In contrast, he speaks of “another law,” which he further describes as “the law of sin” (23b). I believe Paul calls it “law” for the sake of symmetry as it is contrasted with the “law” of his mind. In this sense, it means a power that exerts control. What all this says is that a very real dichotomy is present in our “walk of faith.” This is because one part of who we are in our spirit-body duality is intent on following the law of God while the other is “predisposed” (as a result of its fallen, habituated, and unregenerate nature) to follow the law of sin.
Miss this, and one fails to fully appreciate the nature of the on-going battle for the mind that takes place within every Christian. Even for those very much aware of this battle, there is the tendency to see it as primarily an “out there” battle. This, too, is the result of not fully understanding what Paul is saying here. The battle is, first and foremost, an internal conflict. Yes, Satan and his minions are still at work. As such, they are desperately at work trying to lure us, via his wiles, into sinning. But even this is focused on the internal struggle between our redeemed spirits and our corrupted-by-sin bodies. Although Satan is a defeated enemy, he still has a toehold or beachhead at the very center or essence of our being. It is just here (viz., the spirit-body struggle at the very core of our being) that some fall victim to the wiles (tricks, and devices) of the Devil. Thinking themselves to be habitual sinners who can never be what God created them in His Son to be, they throw up their hands in frustration, surrendering saving faith to the Devil’s lie. Some of us have either been there ourselves or come awfully close to being there, and It is just here that Satan is at his strongest. However, what Paul wrote here is the remedy to all such wrong-headedness. At the same time, there are those on the other side of this pathetic equation who have evidently convinced themselves they have gotten so good at this thing called Christianity that they seldom, if ever, sin. Not only are these eaten up with hubris, but they are also bald-faced liars (cf. 1 Jn. 1:10). And don’t try to convince me these folks don’t exist except in the stilted caricature of someone’s fertile imagination. The truth is, I’ve spoken with such people over the years, one as recently as several months ago. Those in this group are just as deceived by and in the clutches of Satan as are those in the first group mentioned above. I find it ironic, then, that a section of Paul’s letter to the Romans designed to be an immediate and effective remedy for all such thinking is so widely disputed among Christians.
The military metaphors Paul uses to describe the inner struggle of Christians are instructive. With a beachhead in our as yet unregenerate bodies, the law of sin wages war against the law of our minds, a law which is none other than the law of Christ. Consequently, Satan’s assault on our desire to do what is right comes not just from the outside (like those to be found in our ungodly, secularized culture), but from within our own selves. Plagued with sin-sick bodies, we sometimes—and once would be too much—find ourselves defeated by such things. This is what Paul is talking about when he says, “bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (v. 23b). In the NIV, it reads, “making me a prisoner,” which is but another military metaphor for the taking of prisoners in war. Even so, it is important to understand that Paul is not talking about a constant state of captivity or imprisonment but, instead, an occasional defeat. Although our “fleshly,” sin-habituated bodies remain an ever-present vulnerability (and will remain so until they are resurrected and glorified), our justified and regenerated spirits make it possible to effectively control our sin-sick bodies at least most of the time. But until the final victory is achieved in the resurrection, we face the danger of our souls or spirits being momentarily recaptured by sin.
7:24 It is this exact predicament that caused Paul to cry out: O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? This is not, as some suppose, the cry of an unregenerate sinner constantly caught up (captured) in sin. It is, instead, the cry of a Christian who continues to be plagued by a “body of death” that makes him susceptible to sin. Thus, this is to be seen as a reference to Paul’s yet unregenerated fleshly body. To refer to his body as a “body of death” is first a reference to the fact that it continues to be under the curse of physical death. But it is also a reference to the body’s spiritual corruption as well. For what does it mean to be a slave to sin (7:14), or to be indwelt by sin (7:17-18), or to be used as an instrument of warfare against the soul, which puts the whole person in jeopardy of eternal death (6:13), if it’s not a state of spiritual death? So, even though the Christian’s spirit has already been made alive in Christ, his body is still so much under the sway of sin’s power that it is called a “body of death.”
Is it any wonder, then, that Paul cries out, “O wretched man that I am!” Is it a cry of despair? Many think so. Consequently, they cannot bring themselves to believe this is the cry of a Christian, especially the great “I have fought the good fight” apostle Paul. I respectfully agree to differ. Yes, it is certainly a cry of frustration, anguish, and heartache, and who among us has not felt exactly like this when we’ve sinned, especially when we know we’ve continued to do so over and over again? Again, the point here is not so much how often we sin but the disturbing fact that we continue to sin, even after being spiritually born again. Therefore, Paul’s cry is not the despairing cry of one who has no hope. Instead, it is the enthusiastic cry of one who knows his hope—not just now in the present world but in the world to come as well—is rooted, as he says in the very next verse, in “Jesus Christ our Lord!”
7:25 I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! Paul does not mean Jesus as the Mediator of his prayer. Rather, he’s referring to Jesus as the source or basis of the rescue he mentions in verse 24b. Both the current indwelling Spirit and the future resurrected body are gifts deriving from the resurrected, glorified, and exalted Christ. Thus, immediately following his previous outburst of anguish over continuing to sin and his subsequent outpouring of praise for the Messiah, Paul proceeds to summarize the struggle he has so candidly laid out in verses 14-23. So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. The “I myself” here is the emphatic autos egō, and does not mean “I by myself” (i.e., apart from Christ) as some think, especially those who see this whole section as referring to the unregenerate. Instead, Paul is talking about the body-soul duality that is who he is as a person or self, for although there are two parts to his nature, he is still but one person, one ego, one self, the man, Paul. That is, the conflict taking place between his inner and outer man is a very real part of who he is. “With the mind,” which represents his spiritual nature, he serves the law of God; “with the flesh,” which represents his corrupted, sin-sick body, he far too often finds himself serving the law of sin. To translate sarx (i.e., “flesh”) in this context as “sinful nature” as does the NIV misses the point and undoubtedly reflects a decidedly Reformed inclination. Even so, it is clear from what Paul says here and what we know from experience that our as-yet-unregenerate bodies remain under sin’s evil influence and, as such, continue to be at cross-purposes with our redeemed and God-centered minds—minds that want to do God’s will in all things.
In other words, the truth of the matter is that we had, before conversion, become enslaved to sin with our whole selves—i.e., with the totality (body and soul/spirit) of who we are (6:17). In the process, we willingly offered up our bodies as slaves to sin (6:19-20). This was not God’s fault, for man was neither created nor born this way, as Calvinists and others think, nor was it the fault of God’s most excellent law. On the contrary, we became this way by choice when confronted with God’s law and the demands it placed upon us. Instead of obeying His law, we rebelled against it and His legitimate right to rule over us. But, that was then. This is now. In our inward man (i.e., our spirits), we have now willingly switched our allegiance to the law of sin to serve the law of God (or Christ). As a result, we are fully committed to serving the law of Christ not just with our spirits but with our bodies as well (6:19). But it is just here that the battle continues to rage, for although the inner man has the responsibility to bring the outer man in check, the body continues to resist, clinging, instead, to “the law of sin and death” (8:2). In the meantime, and with the assurance of God’s continuing (maybe “continuous” is a better word) grace, we, knowing we have not yet attained perfection, press on so we may lay hold on that for which Jesus Christ has laid hold on us (cf. Php. 3:12).
There’s A Great Day Coming
Indeed, there’s a great day coming. It’s a day in which our corrupted bodies of death will be regenerated and fully redeemed, being raised incorruptible and, thus, changed or transformed from the lowly humiliated bodies they have become (cf. Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:52; Php. 3:21, KJV). So, once again, we see that Paul’s “who will save me from the body of this death?” outcry was not a question to which he did not know the answer. Instead, it was his affirmation that his hope of God’s grace was not just in this world but in the world to come—a world where he believed his fully sanctified and redeemed resurrected body would be fully suited to reside in “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (1 Pet 3:13).
I believe I have presented sufficient evidence that chapter 7 is, in point of fact, Paul’s vocalization of his continuing struggle with sin—a struggle common to every Christian. As such, it was strategically placed exactly where he and the Holy Spirit wanted it to qualify what he wrote in chapter 6 as well as amplify what he taught in chapter 8. Indeed, the symmetry of chapters 6, 7, and 8 is no less than perfect and precisely what we’ve come to expect from God’s word.