Dr. Richard L. Strauss
February 17, 1991
Purpose: To help us understand the weakness of our flesh and the ongoing nature of our struggle with it, so that we will rely on the power of the indwelling Spirit of God.
We are at war! Even as we sit quietly and peacefully in this lovely sanctuary this morning, a war is raging in the Middle East. And there is another war raging as well: one inside us as believers in Jesus Christ. If you truly know Christ as your Savior and desire to do His will, you sense it. You know it's true. On one hand, you have a strong desire to please God and obey His Word. On the other hand, you realize you struggle with a powerful enemy inside you, urging you to do the very opposite of what God has wanted you to do. It's like there are two people inside your skin fighting with each other, like you are a walking civil war (Barclay, 101).
Paul has identified the enemy for us in the first half of Romans 7. It's not God's law, as some might have supposed from what he has said about it. God's law is holy, just and good. Its our own sinful human nature that uses God's law as a base of operations to lure us into sin. It has no chance of ultimate victory. It's power has been broken. It's a defeated foe. But it struggles on, winning battles here and there, giving us no end of grief.
We might liken the struggle to two competing factions fighting for control of a country. Eventually, with the help of an outside army, one faction wins the war and assumes control of the nation's government. But the losing side doesn't give up and stop fighting. It simply changes its tactics, goes underground and continues to carry on guerrilla warfare. That's what has happened to us. Our sin nature has been stripped of its power, but it continues to harass us. And it's that continuing conflict that Paul wants to explain in the second half of the chapter (14-25).
Some have suggested that Paul is talking about his pre-conversion days here. But all through the passage he uses present tenses. He is describing what was going on in his life right then, even as he was writing the book of Romans. And besides that, what he says would only be stated by a Christian. For example, he admits that nothing good dwells in him (Romans 7:18). That wasn't the way he felt before he met Christ. He thought he was hot stuff then--"blameless" (Philippians 3:6). What we are about to observe is the struggle that goes on in the life of a mature believer in Jesus Christ.
A Picture of the Struggle
There are actually two snapshots of the struggle here, the first in verses 14-17, and the second in verses 18-20. And the two are almost identical. They each include a statement about our condition, a description of the conflict, and an explanation of the cause. Paul evidently repeats himself for emphasis. He wants to be sure we have a handle on this ongoing struggle.
The First Snapshot (Romans 7:14-17)
1. Our Condition (Romans 7:14)
Romans 7:14. "For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin." That's my condition. I am carnal, made of flesh--weak, feeble, faltering, sinful, human flesh. I don't like it. I wish it were different. But it's true. And I'm "sold under sin." There is in me, even as a believer, something that resists the will of God, that urges me to live independently of God, to go my own way and do my own thing.
That often comes as a shock to new believers. They find forgiveness and acceptance in Christ, and sometimes think that as a result they will automatically do what pleases God. But instead, they feel this powerful pull in the other direction, and it throws them. The more mature we grow in our relationship with Christ, the more convinced we become of this truth--that we are weak, and vulnerable, and impetuously inclined to sin. Like it or not, that's our condition. And that leads to the conflict.
2. The Conflict (Romans 7:15-16)
Romans 7:15. "For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do."
Paul is like a little boy who is asked why he disobeyed, and he just stands there with his head hanging down says, "I don't know." He just can't understand how as a believer in Jesus Christ he can do some of the things he does. He knows what is right and he wants to do it, but he doesn't. He knows what is wrong and he hates it, but he goes right ahead and does it anyway. Does that describe your life? It sure describes mine. Doesn't it make you feel a little better to know that the great and godly Apostle Paul had the same problem?
You can probably think of a number of illustrations of it. Maybe it's a problem with temper. You know it's sin to lose it. You know it's destroying your relationships with those you love and marring your Christian testimony. You don't want to do it, and yet there are times when you fly off the handle at the slightest provocation.
Maybe it's a problem with food. You get to feeling down and you turn to food for comfort and consolation. You know your lack of self-control is sin. You hate what you see in the mirror. You realize that you're ruining your health. But you just keep gorging yourself with fats and sweets.
Maybe it's a problem with honesty. You know it's wrong to cheat, but you just can't seem to help yourself. The drive to get grades is overpowering. You want to avoid your parents criticism. And you want your GPA to be high enough to get you into the right school. You don't want to settle for second-best. You hate yourself for cheating, but you keep right on doing it.
Maybe it's a problem with lust. You know what Jesus said: that it's no different than adultery. And you know that goes for lusting over lewd pictures on videos, movie screens, or the pages of girlie magazines. You feel dirty every time you do it, and yet you're drawn to it like a magnet. You keep going back.
Maybe its nothing more than an insidious form of pride. Sometimes when I do something nice for someone that takes a little extra sacrifice on my part, I think "Boy, I'm a nice guy. There aren't many people as nice as I. I hope they appreciate my sacrificial spirit." Or if I make a particularly insightful observation, I may think, "That was pretty clever of me. I hope these people realize what a valuable contribution I'm making." I don't want to think that. I hate it. And yet I do it.
I've had believers admit to me the hateful thoughts they have toward other Christians. "I just don't like that person. I don't want to be around him, and I don't even want to be nice to him. I'd just as soon he drop dead." They know those thoughts displease the Lord. But they have them nevertheless. I don't know what you struggle with. It may be lying, stealing, coveting, cursing, gossiping, drinking, taking drugs, or something else. But you're right there with Paul, and me, and every other Christian--failing to do the good things you want to do, doing the wrong things you hate.
The problem isn't God's law. Romans 7:16. "If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good."
The very fact that I as a new person in Christ want to measure up to God's high and holy standard testifies to the fact that the standard is good. But I have a problem, and that problem is summed up in the next verse.
3. The Cause (Romans 7:17)
Romans 7:17. "But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me."
There's Paul again, and you, and me as believers in Jesus Christ. The "I" in the verse refers to who we are as new creatures in Christ. I don't want to sin. I loathe my sin. Yet I still do it. And the cause of it is my sinful human nature--the sin that dwells in me.
Paul is not trying to excuse his sin and relieve himself of the responsibility, blaming it on some nebulous intruder called sin. That old sinful human nature was part of who he was, and he was responsible for his choices. We'd all like to blame our sin on somebody else--our genes, our parents, our environment, our circumstances. We'd even blame it on God if we thought we could get away with it. Like the overweight fellow on a diet who prayed, "Lord, if it's your will for me to stop at the donut shop downtown, you provide a parking place in front." And sure enough, on the 12th time around the block, there it was!
But the fact remains, the enemy with whom we struggle, the one who causes our downfall, is the sinful nature that dwells in us. And we all have one. It's part of being human.
The Second Snapshot (Romans 7:18-20)
And this one follows the same pattern as the first one. First, there is a statement about our condition.
1. Our Condition (Romans 7:18)
Romans 7:18. "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."
Remember, Paul is writing that as a Christian. He still has his "flesh," that is, his weak human nature with its inclination to sin. And there isn't anything whatsoever in his flesh to commend him to God. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! Most of us don't like to admit that.
A number of years ago (1964), Alan Redpath, former pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, suffered a near-fatal stroke. In the months that followed, he sank into deep despair. At one point he prayed, "O Lord, deliver me from this attack of the devil. Take me home right now!" And it was as though the Lord said to him, "You have this all wrong. The devil has nothing to do with it. It is I, your Savior, who has brought this experience into your life to show you two things: First, this is the kind of person--with all your sinful thoughts and temptations, which you thought were things of the past--that you always will be, but for My grace.... In the second place, I want to replace you with Myself, if you will... admit that you are a complete failure, and that the only good thing about Alan Redpath is Jesus" (Our Daily Bread, September 8, 1984).
That's Romans 7:18 in action. We resist it. We don't want to come to the place where we are willing to admit that there is in our human nature no good thing. Our pride keeps us from it. But only when we acknowledge that in our fleshly human nature there is nothing good will we begin to taste victory over sin. Most of us think we're pretty good folks. Paul didn't. He understood his true condition--the utter depravity of his human nature. And that led to the conflict.
2. The Conflict (Romans 7:19)
He describes it almost exactly as he did before (Romans 7:15). But read it again in Romans 7:19. "For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice."
Paul must have been a golfer. I don't know a better way to illustrate this truth than playing golf. I know what to do. I've been shown a hundred times, by people who really know how to play the game--some of them pros. But I just don't do it. And I don't have any more control over some other areas of my life than I do over a golf ball. I want to. But my will power alone is not enough, because my will is tainted with sin. And that again is the cause.
3. The Cause (Romans 7:20)
Romans 7:20. "Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me."
As in Romans 7:17, he likens himself to a house in which sin dwells. And it occupies every room of the house from the basement to the attic, affecting everything he tries to do. Is it any wonder that we are involved in a massive struggle that goes on and on?
The Principle Behind the Struggle
Paul has painted a graphic picture of that struggle to help us grasp it. But after the picture, he explains the principle behind the struggle.
The Statement of the Principle (Romans 7:21)
Romans 7:21. "I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good."
The "law" here is not the Old Testament Mosaic law. It's a principle that Paul has discovered operating in his life. He's come to this conclusion after years of careful observation, and now he records it for us by inspiration of God's Spirit. It's a true principle that no honest Christian can deny. Simply stated it is this: While we want to do what is right, evil is present with us. Paul describes evil almost as though it were a person, watching to see when we we're about to do some good thing, then springing into action to divert our attention and lead us into sin instead. After stating the principle, he gives the explanation.
The Explanation of the Principle (Romans 7:22-25)
As we have already seen, there are actually two forces at work in our lives. The first is in Romans 7:22. "For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man."
Paul's inner man is the new person he is in Christ, the person transformed by the work of God's Spirit who dwells in him. That person delights in God's law. That's one of the evidences that he truly knows the Lord. He has a deep and genuine desire to do what God desires.
Do you delight in God's Word? Do you long to measure up to His standard? Then find encouragement and assurance in that longing, even though you continue to struggle with temptation. And struggle you will, because there is a second force at work in our lives.
Romans 7:23. "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."
"The law of my mind" is the same as the delight that I have in God's standards in my inner person (Romans 7:22). I think about my desire to do the will of God and grow in my walk with Him. Don't you? But I detect another law (or principle) waging war against the law of my mind. It operates in my members, that is, the various parts of my body--my eyes and ears, my lips and tongue, my hands and feet, my sexual organs--trying to bring me back into slavery to sin. I've been emancipated from my slavery to sin. It's power over me has been broken. I don't need to yield to it any more. But it won't give up. It keeps carrying on this guerrilla warfare, trying to bring me back under its control. And sometimes I give in. I walk right back into that slave market of sin.
It's a stupid thing to do. But we all do it. The Apostle Paul did it. That's why the cry of despair in Romans 7:24. "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"
Notice, he didn't say, "How shall I deliver myself?" After repeatedly falling into sin, he knows better than to think that he in his own strength he has any power to deliver himself from sin. Neither did he say, "What will deliver me?" It wasn't going to be any magic formula or patented process.
He said, "Who will deliver me?" He knows that it is going to require the powerful work of the supernatural Spirit of Jesus Christ in his life, a work which he will describe for us in detail in chapter 8. But he gives us a quick preview in the next verse as he answers his own question. Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Romans 7:25a. "I thank God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
Deliverance will come through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our complete deliverance awaits the moment we exit these present bodies through which our sin natures operate so effectively. The struggle will go on until then. And Paul summarizes it for us in Romans 7:25b. "So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin." He wants to remind us that the struggle is there.
But praise God, He has made a provision by which our fleshly natures may be progressively subdued, right here and now, in this life, and by which we may continue to grow in holiness. No, we're not going to be totally rid of it in this life. But we can grow. We can make progress. Stay tuned for chapter 8.
But what I want you to see here is that Paul has come to the end of himself and that's what we need to do. O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death? This body through which my sin nature operates, leading to death. He realizes that in his own strength he is helpless and hopeless. And that is absolutely essential. We are not going to begin to please God until we come to the place where we are willing to say, "Yes, Lord, I agree with you. There isn't anything in me to commend myself to You. I have no strength to please You in and of myself. I need Your power and Your strength operating through me." That's where it has to begin.
John Stott writes, "To speak plainly, some of us are not leading holy lives for the simple reason that we have too high an opinion of ourselves....In other words, the only way to arrive at faith in the power of the Holy Spirit is along the road of self-despair" (Men Made New, p. 74). Have you come to that place of self-despair yet? Too many of us think we can do it. We've got what it takes. We've got this sin thing whipped. And invariably that's when we fall.
Ray Stedman says much the same thing: "...if we think that our wills are strong enough, our desires motivated enough, that we can control evil in our lives by simply determining to do so, then we have not yet come to the end of ourselves. And the Spirit of God simply folds his arms and lets us go ahead and try it on that basis. And we fail, and fail miserably--until at last, out of our failures, we cry, 'O wretched man that I am!'" (From Guilt to Glory Volume I, 193).
Are you there yet? Have you come to the end of yourself? Are you ready to admit that you cannot do it yourself, that you must allow the Spirit of God to fill your life and take control of you, and do His work in you and through you? If the great apostle Paul could admit it, surely we can too. And that's where victory begins.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
Are you willing to bow before God right now and acknowledge the truth of Romans 7:18? "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." That is, not in myself.
Let's bow together in His presence.
Father, we are here to tell You that we do agree with Your word, and if we had any doubts about it, we're ready to acknowledge the truth of it: There is in us--that is, in our human natures apart from divine enablement--a disposition toward sin that will always be there, and nothing that will ever commend us to You, no good thing. We acknowledge it, right here and now. And Father, I pray that we will begin to walk according to the Spirit. Fill our minds with the things of the Spirit of God. Let our lives be dominated with Him, so that we will not fulfill the desires of the flesh but will live triumphantly in Christ Jesus. God, help us to do that, I pray.
And while our heads are bowed quietly before God, let me point out to you that while it stands to reason in God's word, that there isn't anything any of us can possibly do to earn the salvation that God has for us--eternal salvation; life in heaven's glory. We aren't worthy of that. And that's where salvation begins: by acknowledging our unworthiness, believing that Jesus died in our place, paid the penalty that we deserved, the debt that we owed, so that God in His justice, could freely give us and accept us. That's the gospel. Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day. Good news, indeed!
Have you received the gospel? Have you trusted Christ as your Savior from sin? There's not any good thing you could possibly do. Oh, there are going to be lots of good things. If you put your faith in Christ, He's going to do good things. Old things will pass away and all things will become new. But it begins when you acknowledge your utter helplessness and hopelessness, sinfulness and unworthiness. That's where God in His love and His grace reaches out and saves you. Let Him do it right now, will you?
Oh, Father, thank You for Your truth, that while we were yet sinners, You died for us in the Person of Your Son. What love! What matchless, amazing love! And Lord, I pray, that any who have not put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior from sin will respond to that love today and accept Your gift of eternal life. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Continue to ROM 12: Real Living