“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 that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.”
There it is, clear as day, right? The “Two Natures” battle in the Christian. If we isolate the Apostle’s statement it would be obvious that he means that as a Christian (because he is a Christian at the time of writing this) Paul struggles with doing what God desires him to do as a Born Again believer, and instead does Evil.
I’d like to take a closer look at this statement, since almost every commentator takes these words to mean just that, the “Two Natures of the Christian” claim. 1
These verses are embedded in a chapter that gives us very good clues to Paul’s meaning. And in turn chapter 7 is embedded in a letter that is different from all Paul’s other letters. And this information helps us to understand what he means in these verses. Is he talking from a pre-Christian perspective or a post-conversion perspective, i.e., as a Believer?
First, chapter 7 starts out with Paul discussing the purpose and effectiveness of the Law on Mankind’s behavior, and that Mankind remains under the Law until Christ’s coming, and that through Him we have been released from the Law and its power (7:5,6). But he asks the question — since the Law produced sin in him, is the Law sin? Of course not, he answers, we wouldn’t have known sin without it! But the Law was powerless to help us resist sin. So he states in verse 14 that for this reason he is in bondage to sin (v. 14), and he can’t help but sin even though he does not want to (v. 15). We have all been there; there is still in the unsaved man a spark of conscience to want to do good. This conscience is a gift from God. But being in slavery to sin he is unable to always do good. This is “Total Depravity,” being a slave to sin, not that one can’t do a good deed on occasion, only that mankind is a slave to sin and can’t save himself from his fallen, sinful nature. Now this bondage to sin is so strong Paul says that it is the sin in him that is the cause, not him (v. 17). “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”, verse 20. An interesting way of putting it! But he is frustrated and adds that sin is “waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” v.23. He finally ends, in v .24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”.
So if we pause here before looking at the last verse of chapter 7, let’s ask the question: Can a Christian make the following statements:
- “For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.”
- “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.” v. 18
- “I practice the very evil that I do not want.”
- “Who will set me free from the body of this death?”
Actually Paul hints, actually, more than hints, at the answers in chapter 6. Consider these 7 verses:
“our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin” 6:6
“for he who has died is freed from sin.” 6:7
“consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” 6:11
“For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”
“But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient” to Christ (6:17)
“and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” (6:18)
“But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.” (6:22)
So how does Paul at the end of chapter 7 get to the point of utter despair? “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (7:24)
Well, he gets there by using a literary device 2 using the personal pronoun “I” Present Tense, and by detailing the key limitation of the Law; the Jews thought the Mosaic Law would be their salvation, as if it had to power to give them the righteousness they mistakenly believed that it would. Chapter 7 is Paul’s explanation that we are slaves of sin and even the Law that God gave Israel could not give them righteousness, but could only show them their utter sinfulness. This is why all the Old Testament sacrifices could only “cover” their sin, not forgive them. Leviticus 4:20–35 and Hebrews 10:4–11. And more to his point in 7:19 “For the good that I want”, he speaks as a Jew who loves the Law. Probably most Jews loved the Law as it was God’s main communication to them. They just couldn’t KEEP the Law and thus the conflict.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is his Systematic Theology of Righteousness, that Righteousness comes by Faith, not by Law. He even says so in the very first chapter of this letter by actually quoting the Prophets: “as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.”Romans 1:17 quoting Habakkuk 2:4)>
The first half of the book of Romans is a treatise on the wretchedness of man because of his open rebellion against God and culminates in the last verse of chapter 7, “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (7:24) This is why the very first verse of chapter 8 is “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Followed by verse 2: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” Paul starts verse 21 with the word “So.” This is a way of saying, “the results of what I just said is . . . .” It is a continuation of the preceding three paragraphs, which detail the power of sin in the unregenerate. The New American Standard translates the beginning of v. 21 as “I find then.” the “then” does the same thing as “So.” It could say “Therefore” which does the same thing: summarize what came before.
Paul now continues with chapter 8 the glorious part of the treatise and explains how God’s plan of salvation is implemented in the life of a Believer, once he becomes a Believer. Romans is an awesome systematic dissertation on the fall and restoration of mankind, describing in minute detail the plan of salvation that was hidden in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament.
So now we see that what Paul did in his writing Rom 7:18 – 24 is a literary device, using the first person to bring force to the plight of mankind that there is no way out of sinfulness but through the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross and His Resurrection.
But just to be clear, this exegesis does not in any way mean that the Believer has no struggle with sin, we all indeed fall into sin at times. But these verses in Romans 7 are not about the Christian’s sanctification. If that was what Paul meant then he would be suddenly interrupting a carefully thought out presentation of his thesis: how mankind sins, and can’t break free of his slavery to it, why the Law was given–to point out that he is acting in sin, and that God is offering a way out. The after-effects of living a life saved by Faith in Jesus Christ are detailed by Paul in many other places, most notably in Romans 12:2 “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” in Philippians 1:27 “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” and Colossians 2:6, and Ephesians 4:22-24 “lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” However, in Romans 7 he writes that “he” can do none of these things. And that is because he’s speaking as a pre-saved person.
Perhaps the most powerful proof of the pre-regenerated Paul in 7:14-23 is what Paul says in chapter 6:9-14:
Rom 6:9 ‘knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him.
Rom 6:10 ‘For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.
Rom 6:11 ‘Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Rom 6:12 ‘Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts,
Rom 6:13 ‘and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.
Rom 6:14 ‘For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.’
In other words, before Christ: slaves to sin, sin is master over you. But born again: “dead to sin,” “do not let sin reign,” “sin shall not be master over you.” Compare that with Paul’s description of himself in 7:14-23 and decide which Paul he’s describing.
One final note in closing. This explanation is my own opinion and I claim no infallibility nor inerrancy. So I could be wrong. It is, after all, just my opinion. But if we are to understand what is written in the Scriptures we must be able to properly interpret what is written, and consider the context. This is why “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) is so must fun and worthwhile.
1 At least all the commentaries I’ve read hold this view, that Paul is speaking of his battle with sin after becoming a Christian. An example is the commentary by F.F. Bruce, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (1976, 7th printing), Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids Michigan. This book is an excellent exegetical study of Romans. However, after rightly discussing the first part of chapter 7, that the Law was the great revealer of Sin, leaving Paul and all mankind powerless to resist, Bruce abruptly leaves this train of thought and shifts Paul into the Saved state. This is a shift that is incongruous with the thought stream that the power of the Law is specifically to point out sin, not give power to resist, which is the point of all of chapter 7. That power to resist sin only comes as the Apostle moves to chapter 8 as he details the conquering Christian in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is my take on the process anyway.
Of interest though is that in the Logos Bible Software, free version, the Lexham Bible Dictionary article about Paul, which is included, lists three schools of thought on verses 7:14-23:
• Packer argues that Paul was referring to his own experience as a Christian who continued to struggle with sin (see Packer, “Wretched Man Revisited,” 70–81).
• Moo asserts that Paul refers to his previous life in Judaism without Christ (see Moo, Epistle to the Romans, 441–67).
• Dunn argues that Paul is referring to the common human experience under the sin of Adam (Dunn, Romans 1–8, 374–412). He speaks for all Jews and Gentiles, and then moves toward saying something about his own struggles.
2 Paul uses the same style of device in chapter 2:1 ff. Note that at the end of chapter 1 while decrying the perversity of man he refers to the reprobate as “them” and “they.” But starting chapter 2 he suddenly switches to “you” as if he is describing the Romans to whom he writes. And this clearly is not the case but is a device to continue the previous chapter but now with a heightened sense of declaration.
One of Paul’s notable uses of style of heightened sense is 2 Corinthians 12:2-9, discussing his visit to Heaven. Note his use of “I know a man in Christ” where he seems not to refer to himself but someone else except that he is truly talking about his own experience, only he doesn’t want to be seen as bragging about the experience.
[Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible © 1995]