“For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.” (Romans 7:18)
No section of the book of Romans is perhaps more mysterious, more enigmatic than the Seventh Chapter. Continuing in the same manner begun in Chapter 6, the Apostle Paul continues to interweave the theological with the practical, moving skillfully between timeless truths and temporal considerations.
As we looked at before, the initial 5 chapters of Romans concerned themselves nearly exclusively with the believer’s Justification in Christ, his Salvation provided solely and freely by the grace of God and acquired by faith alone. We find not instructions to do and act, but to believe and trust. Chapters 6 through 8, however, move from the regeneration of the lost sinner to the sanctification of the saved child of God. In addition to trusting and believing, we found calls to action, words like reckon, yield, and obey in Chapter 6 – words that compel the Christian to a newness of attitude and behavior.
But if Chapter 6 was all about what we can do in the process of Sanctification (that process whereby the believer moves from simply being declared righteous by the blood of Jesus Christ to actually living a holy life, pleasing to God), then Chapter 7 is all about what we cannot. In Chapter 6, we were counseled concerning our new relationship to sin and how it is, in reality, without the power and authority over those in Jesus Christ that it once held before we knew Him. Sin is no longer the master by default of the born-again soul; our bondage to sin has been broken.
Even so, the testimony which we encounter in Romans 7 chimes with a resounding resonance that pierces the conscience of all who are trusting in Christ. The analogies comparing man’s subjection to the Law of Moses with the marriage contract and the relationship of Sin itself (at times personified and endowed with a will and power all its own) to that Law seen in the first 14 verses give way to a moving and all too universal “autobiography” of the Apostle Paul concerning his own struggle with sin since coming to Christ. What sincere believer fails to relate the dilemmas described herein to their own experiences with God?
As much as we are ashamed to admit it, we have all failed and fallen into certain temptations, no matter how strongly we desired not to. Every Christian has endured the agony, the sting of guilt that tortures our inner man as we have looked back with regret and disgust, ripped apart by sorrow at the realization that we, too, have done that which we “would not” and failed to do that which we “would.” The desire to do good is ever with the child of God, yet oftentimes how to perform that good evades us.
When comparing Romans 7:7-7:25 with most of Paul’s writings, one thing stands out very clearly. The characteristically humble Apostle writes more in the first person here than usual. The pronouns “I” and “me” occur more in this passage than we find elsewhere as the tone becomes personal and reflective. This is at once touching and moving as we are given a rare insight into the Apostle Paul’s own evaluation of his personal walk with the Lord, yet the presence of so many self-references also clues us in to the reason for this struggle as well as the remedy for it.
“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.” (Romans 7:24-25)
Conspicuously absent from the testimony given in Romans 7:7-7:23 is any mention of God Himself in the equation. We see merely a portrait of the redeemed and regenerated Apostle Paul, alone, struggling against the power of sin that still claims a foothold in his flesh. The Holy Spirit, Who will take center stage in the Eighth Chapter, is not mentioned at all.
Many commentaries on the Book of Romans identify Paul’s “autobiography” here in Chapter 7 with a certain period of his life, usually shortly after he encountered the Lord Jesus on the Road to Damascus. Having received the new nature which desires to please God, it is suggested that Paul set out to serve and obey God in his own strength, only to fall flat on his face. His heartfelt cry, “O wretched man that I am!” and his subsequent realization that the Christian life can only be lived out by the Spirit of Jesus Christ living His life through the believer is seen as a turning point in his life and ministry. While this is very likely accurate, I believe that the Apostle recognized that, far from being merely a bygone episode in his life, any occasion where any Christian fails to rely on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit to overcome the power of sin in his life will inevitably result in this very same condition.
I think that, more than just sharing the experiences of his own early Christian walk, Paul is teaching us all that, apart from the Spirit of God, we cannot overcome sin’s power in our life. Yes, the admonitions of Romans 6 to reckon ourselves dead to sin, to yield ourselves for God’s use, and to obey that form of doctrine that was delivered to us need to be heeded; but, in the end, it is God indwelling the believer Who will provide the power necessary to overcome the struggle with sin.
God did not save us only to leave us to attempt to overcome the temptations of sin in our own power. It cannot be done. God alone can deliver us from this body of death and sin, not us. We previously saw that Salvation is the work of God alone and now we see that Sanctification really is, too. We can desire, resolve, commit, and dedicate ourselves to holy living all we want, but until we recognize that only the Spirit of God can empower us to overcome sin in our lives, we will never make it past the dilemma of Romans 7:15-23.
To God goes all glory. In service to Him,