Lesson 7: Freedom from the Law (7:1-25)


Misunderstandings of the meaning and role of the law resulted (2 Peter 3:15-16) because of Paul’s emphasis on grace (5:20-21).  In chapter 6, Paul addressed two such misunderstandings by some who thought Paul was teaching God’s grace was so great there was no need to live a life that honoured and glorified God.  It did not matter what one did; God’s grace would increase to cover any sin (6:1-14), or God’s grace replaced faithful obedience (6:15-23).  Such views are still present in today’s church.  But there is also an opposite view which we might call legalism.  And this view may even be more prevalent, particularly in the evangelical church.  The legalist position is the Law[1] is so important that breaking it means a Christian can lose their salvation.  Paul now refutes this position, and he does so with essentially the same argument.  We have in union with Christ not only “died to sin” (6:2), but we have also “died to the law” (7:4). 

Although Paul rejects any connection between the law and justification, he also denies any idea the law is evil. Instead, he makes several positive statements about the law, calling it “holy, righteous and good” (7:12). The problem is not the law itself but sin resulting from our sinful human nature.  However, although believers may sin and thereby break the law, believers are no longer under the power of sin nor the condemnation of the law.

In the first section, 7:1-6, Paul explains what he meant when he said, in 6:14, “you are not under the law but under grace.” Paul continues in the next section, 7:7-25, to describe the implications of not being under the condemnation of the law yet continuing to live with a sinful condition.  He first describes the relationship between sin and the law in 7:7-14 and then gives a personalized account of the great struggle to do what is right when sin encourages evil.  This culminates in an agonizing cry of near despair (v. 24) but finds its answer in the saving righteousness of Jesus Christ (v. 25).

Our union in Christ’s death frees us from the Law (7:1-6)

In this section, Paul describes how Christians are free from the condemnation of the law despite, on occasion, breaking the law.  All world religions say, ‘do this (i.e., do our law) and God will accept you,’ but only the gospel says ‘you are already accepted, so do good.’  By being in union with Christ, a believer has died in Christ’s death (v. 4).  Therefore, the requirements of the law to make us holy before God no longer apply since we have “died to the law” because Christ died to the law and sin, and so to be joined with Christ means a new life. 

But, that is only half the story; a believer is also made alive in Christ (6:8) in order to “serve in the new way of the Spirit.”   Paul has already taught it is impossible to be justified before God through obedience to the law (specifically 3:22-23, but also all of chapters 1 through 6).  Now, he shows us it is also impossible to be sanctified (made holy) by obedience to the law. In fact, attempting to achieve holiness through the law impedes sanctification.  So, dying to the law means we are free from the condemnation of the law and the law’s inability to produce obedience.

However, dying to the law does not mean we are free from moral commands.  Because of our union with Christ, our heart desires to honour, love and glorify his name.  We are, therefore, horrified by anything which would undermine this desire and to see Christ’s name tarnished.  We are obedient to God’s moral commands because of our love for Christ, not our duty to the law.

v. 1 Principle: Death severs all ties and obligations

Once again, Paul asks his readers, “do you not know.”  This is the third time he has asked this question (6:3, 16), and in each instance, he assumes the answer from his readers to be: ‘Yes, we think we do but remind us again about the implications.’  And this is precisely what he does.  The first time he asked this question, he wanted them to know the meaning of their baptism. And in the second question, he wanted them to think through the implications of slavery to sin and God.  Now in the third question, he wants them to understand the application of the law. Specifically, he wants them to know the implications of his statement in 6:14, “You are not under law but under grace.” The significance of this statement is Paul’s main point in this chapter.

He begins by addressing them affectionately as “brothers.”  In this context, “brothers” means both men and women.  This is only the second time in the letter he has used that term (1:13).  But from now on, he will use it at least fifteen more times.  After teaching the doctrine of justification through grace alone by faith alone, he is now speaking more personally about applying his doctrinal instruction.

After asking, “do you not know,” he adds they must know, in a kind of parenthesis, because he is addressing those “who know the law.”  But who exactly are these people, and to which law is he referring?  Most interpreters believe the “law” is the Mosaic law.  In this case, he is referring to the Jews in the church.  However, the Gentile Christians would also have known much of the Mosaic law since, at least in the early church, many of the Gentile “God-fearers” were the first to become Christians.  These Gentiles would have been taught the law in the Jewish synagogues.  However, it is more likely Paul refers to the general principle, “the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives.”  Those who knew the Mosaic law would undoubtedly have agreed with this.  But this is, of course, true generally.  The law is for those alive, not those who have died.  Paul will make this the basis for his argument that the Mosaic law is no longer “binding” over Christians.

vv. 2-3 Illusion: Death opens the door to our new relationship with Christ

Paul now explains the legal requirements of the law by using marriage as an example.  Death ends the contract or covenant of marriage not only for the one who died but also for the spouse who lives.  In Paul’s context, the “law of marriage” (or literally ‘the law of the man’) applies to the wife.  As long as her husband is alive, she is bound by law to him, but when her husband dies, she is freed from this law.  The word “released” from her husband means she is no longer obligated to him.  To state it even more strongly, she is no longer a wife to him legally.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is, if she violates her marriage vows “while her husband is alive, " she commits adultery.  However, when her husband dies, she is “free from that law”–obligations to the first marriage–and is permitted to marry another man.  The difference between these two states is death; that is, the death of her first husband.  Of course, all this was clear to Paul’s readers, but he uses this illustration to emphasize that death is the only way the legal requirements of marriage are terminated.

Interestingly, when Paul uses the word “lives with” or “marries,” he uses a different word normally used for marriage.  The word he uses is literally “joined to.”  Continuing this illustration, we are joined to (united with) Christ in his death and life.

vv. 4-6 Application: Because we are now joined to Christ, we bear fruit

v. 4

Paul immediately points out, a Christian’s relationship to the law is the same (“likewise”) as his illustration of the wife’s relationship with her husband.  Before Christ came, Jews were ‘married’ to the law because they were obligated to it.  But as in the marriage law, death terminated their relationship to the law, so they were set free to ‘marry’ another.  But who “died,” and how did this death occur?  Surprisingly, Paul changes the illustration from the husband dying to the wife dying.  Still, the principle is the same.  It is not the law that died; it continues; instead, Christians have “died to the law.”  But how did we fail?

Paul used the same argument in chapter 6 when he said we “died to sin” (6:2).  In that case, Paul says, in our union with Christ, “we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death” (6:4).  Now, in chapter 7, he says, we “died to the law through the body of Christ.”  The “body of Christ” refers to Jesus’ physical body that died on the cross.  And so, in our union with Christ, we also share in his death.  Christ’s death is ours vicariously.  As Paul stated much earlier in his ministry to the churches in Galatia:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)

So “died to the law” and “died to sin” (6:2) are the same, in the sense that in both cases, it is our union with Christ and his death that has freed us from the authority and condemnation of the law, as well as the power of sin.  And as in the marriage illustration, we can now “belong to another”; that is, we are now joined (i.e., the same word Paul uses for joined in verse 3) to Jesus Christ in whom we died but now also “who has been raised from the dead.”  We are united with a living and life-giving Saviour.

The result (“in order that”) – not the purpose – of our union with Christ in his death and resurrection is to “bear fruit to God.”  But what does Paul mean by “fruit”?  Some commentators continue Paul’s marriage metaphor and conclude that this fruit is children, resulting in the church's growth.  However, this seems highly unlikely.  It is best to think of “fruit” as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), which is “the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11; see also Titus 3:8, 14).  This is Paul's emphasis in verse 6 when he says, "we serve in the new way of the Spirit.”  Jesus also taught this in his illustration of the vine and branches.  Unless we abide in Christ and he in us–another way of saying union in Christ–we can produce no godly fruit.

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” (John 15:4; see also John 15: 8 and 16).

vv. 5-6

Paul now contrasts our old life in the flesh with our new life in the Spirit (This contrast continues until 8:14).  When we were “living in the flesh,” we produced “fruit for death,but now we “bear fruit for God” (v. 4).  When Paul uses the term “flesh” in this verse, he means our moral corruption and our desire for legalism, contributing to our own righteousness in some way.  This radical transformation results from being transferred from the dominion of sin and death into the dominion of life.  This transfer is made possible through our union with Christ.  Through this union, we died with Christ using the symbolism of baptism.  Paul wrote to the Galatians, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).  But we have died with Christ and have also been resurrected with him (v. 4b) to live for his glory and honour.  Paul also mentions, "while we were living in the flesh our sinful passions [are] aroused by the law.” By the phrase, “living in the flesh” Paul means under the law. 

That the law actually aroused our sinful passions must have been a shocking statement for the Jews.  But this is exactly what it does.  When a law restricts us, we do not desire to keep it, so, we either deny that the law exists or reinterpret the law to permit our passions full expression.  This is what Adam and Eve did when God restricted their access to the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16). 

The “old way” is the “written code” resulting in death.  This “old way” attempts to obtain righteousness through obedience to the Law.  But, the “new way” is the way of “the Spirit.” Believers are no longer under the old covenant, which says “do this and live,” but under the new covenant in which they receive righteousness, not because of what they have done, but because of what was done for them. 

Paul uses a unique word for “new,” which he again uses in 7:6. It is only used in these two places in the New Testament.  Its fuller meaning is, not just new in the sense of time but, new in the sense of a different extraordinary nature and implying something superior.  It refers to something wonderful and surprising.  For Christians, our life in union with Christ is extraordinarily superior and wonderfully unexpected to our old way in Adam.

Similarities between Chapters 6 and 7

It is worth noting the parallels between Paul’s teaching in chapter 6 and his teaching in chapter 7. This is not surprising since Paul addresses two parallel errors resulting from his teaching.  John Stott points out the following similarities:[2]

            6:2       Died to sin                                           7:4       Died to the law

            6:3       Died by union with Christ                   7:4       Died through the body of Christ

            6:7,18  Freed from sin                                    7:6       Released from the law

            6:4-5    Shared in Christ’s resurrection           7:4       Belong to the resurrected Christ

            6:4-5    Live in newness of life                        7:6       Service in the newness of the Spirit

            6:22     Bear fruit leading to holiness             7:4       Bear fruit for God

So, only through our union with Christ are we freed from the power of sin and the condemnation of the law.  Moreover, through Christ’s resurrection, we can live a “new way of the Spirit” and not in the “old way of the written code” (v. 6).

Summary of 7:1-6

Paul has made an enormous shift in understanding godliness (sanctification).  It is only in our union with Christ, we are able to obtain holiness.  There are at least three things we learn from this passage:

1.      Our union with Christ has freed us from the imprisonment of the law. We are no longer under the condemnation, authority or demands of the law.

2.      Our union with Christ results in a relationship of mutual love. We are no longer ‘married’ to the law but ‘married’ to Christ who loves us and has given his body on the cross for us in order to release us from the law.

3.      Our union with Christ produces holy fruit that honours and pleases God.  We no longer produce fruit for death which resulted from the law, but we now produce fruit for God as we serve Christ in a new way of the Spirit.

The purpose of the Law and its inability to accomplish its purpose (7:7-25)

So, if a Christian has died to the law (7:4, 6), can the law be ignored or abandoned?  And if not, what is the purpose and value of the law?  Paul will first demonstrate the law instructs us in what is right and good.  But, shockingly, despite our new nature, sin uses the law to increase sin.  So again, the law, together with our fallen nature, undermines any hope of salvation.  Only Jesus Christ can set us free from the power of sin and the condemnation of the law. 

We should never forget that the Mosaic law was given as a gift of grace for those who put their hope and trust in God.  It was a gift of God to enable the Israelites to live in a way acceptable to God.  However, rather than accepting it as a gift, they turned it into a work by which they thought they could become righteous (See discussion on 9:30-32).

Purpose and value of God’s good Law (7:7-13)

In his letter, Paul has been quite negative about the law up to this point.  This is because people, particularly Jewish Christians, still viewed the law as a means for justification (“do this and live” cf. Leviticus 18:5; Galatians 3:12).  Paul is as clear as he is can be.  There are no grounds for obedience to the law to warrant justification.  We are “not under law but under grace” (6:14).  He clarifies that believers do not keep their salvation by obedience to the law.  Instead, it is because of our union with Christ that “we are 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” (7:6). However, with all these negative statements, one might easily conclude, the law is itself sin.  Paul has repeatedly heard this accusation against his preaching and now addresses it directly.

At first, it does not seem Paul gives a direct answer for why the law is “holy, righteous and good” (v. 12).  But when we look back at what he already said about the law and what he now says in these verses, we see the law is holy and good because it reveals God’s holiness and righteousness.  The purpose of the law is to reveal our fallen condition and our need for God’s righteousness.  Paul concludes that the problem is not the law but sin’s relationship to the law.

Beginning again with the question, “What then shall we say?”, he responds by using the question-answer (diatribe) method of instruction by asking: Is the law sin? (“that the law is sin?”) (v. 7).  And as in his previous questions, he gives an unequivocal response, “by no means!” He then follows it with several reasons why the law can't be sin. He does so by using his personal life which corresponds to Adam and Israel's history. Using a specific example of the law, he shows that the law against coveting increases the desire to covet rather than reduce it.  In a strange twist, sin can manipulate a good law for evil purposes.  As given to fallen humans, the law had no power of its own to accomplish its requirements.

It is essential to recognize in what sense Paul uses the pronoun “I” in this passage (vv. 7-12). Although there are several alternatives, it seems best to understand the “I” to refer to a Christian who is under conviction of breaking the law. Every believer growing in holiness experiences a profound conviction of sin. Paul provides three reasons why the law itself is not sin.

1.      (v. 7) The Law is not sin but reveals our sin of rebellion: Paul stated earlier, “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (3:20).  And so, we can recognize and understand what sin is because of the law.  In verse 7, Paul gives a specific example of coveting, which confirms this point. He writes, “I would not have known what it [sin] is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covert’. “ So, the law is no more sin, than saying, ‘do not murder’ is ‘murder.’  However, it is interesting that Paul chooses “covet” as his example.  Covetousness is an internal heart desire and includes all desires resulting in actions dishonouring God.  In a real sense, then, covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3:5).  Adam and Eve desired (coveted) the forbidden fruit to be like God (Genesis 3:4-6). By eating the fruit, they placed their desire above obedience to God.  One might readily obey the prohibition of murder, but coveting is part of our sinful state (Matthew 6:19-24; Mark 7:21).  The word “sin,” therefore, refers to our corrupt nature.  So the law is good because it reveals our sinful state and our need for righteousness.

2.       (v. 8) The Law exposes sin by revealing its power: But now Paul states, the sin through the law (commandment) “produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”  He had already said, “our sinful passions [were] aroused by the law” (v. 5).  Of course, it is not the law itself but our sinful condition within us.  Our human nature is so perverse, we naturally rebel against authority that prohibits what we desire most.  It is easy to keep rules and regulations telling us not to do something we have little interest in doing.  Not surprisingly, these are often the rules we highlight most.  However, we often resist any suggestion restricting what we love to do.  The simple act of restricting produces in us a desire to do it.  Augustine gave an example in his Confessions when he described stealing fruit from an orchard.  He was not hungry or needed the fruit.  So, he asked himself, “Was it possible to take pleasure in what was illicit for no reason other than that it was not allowed?”  Paul adds, “without the law, sin was dead” (kjv). This means that without law, there is nothing to rebel against.  Paul is describing the psychological effect of the law on his sinful condition.

3.      (vv. 9-11) The Law, because of our sin, condemns us:  In these three verses, Paul describes the power of sin to use the law, resulting in our condemnation.  Sin is able to take what Paul will describe as “holy and righteous and good” and use it as an instrument of evil. The commandment “that promised life[3] was manipulated through the power of sin to produce “death.”  The law is not at fault, but it is also powerless against sin.  This “death” is the condemnation of the law.  Although sin is described as an external power, what Paul has in mind is the self-destructive power of our own sinful passions (“flesh” v. 5).  But what did Paul mean by the phrase “sin … deceived me”?  Paul, as an orthodox Pharisee, expected to receive life through obedience to the law, but instead, he found only misery and death.  He wanted to be holy by keeping the law but saw only corruption. So, sin used the law to deceive Paul.  Hodge points out, “this is the experience of every believer in the ordinary progress of his inner life. He first turns to the law, to his own righteousness and strength, but he soon finds that all the law can do is aggravate his guilt and misery.”[4]

vv. 12-13

So, Paul has made it clear the law is not sin, rather, sin manipulates the law for its own evil end.  This, then, is the relationship between sin and the law.  Sin weakens the promise of the law to give life, changing it from promise to condemnation. The law itself reflects the holiness, righteousness and goodness of God.

Paul describes this condition in verse 13 but then adds that the law reveals and exposes the sinfulness of sin “beyond measure.” What he means by this is that sin is so exceedingly wicked; it can use God’s holy, righteous and good law to accomplish its evil, producing evil out of good.[5]  In this sense, sin produces the opposite of what God produces.  Only God is able to produce good from evil; Christ’s crucifixion is the greatest of these.

Special Topic: Do Christians have two natures?

Modern commentators and preachers often refer to the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit in us as two natures in the believer.  The problem is not that there is conflict within the believer; everyday experiences prove this.  The problem is, when referring to it this way, we assume we have two different human natures.  It is as if we are schizophrenics with a sinful and spiritual nature, each fighting for dominance.  For many Christians, this ends up being a pessimistic struggle.  Certainly, in chapters 7 and 8, Paul describes two competing struggles in dire terms.  Still, this view is entirely at odds when we study all Paul’s teachings on the Christian life.  The overall theme of chapters 7 and 8 describes this inner conflict: it is a conflict from which Christ delivers Christians, not what he leads Christians into. This is highlighted by how Paul concludes chapter 7, “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:24b-25). And this is how he describes Christians in chapter 8, “You, however, are not in the flesh but the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you” (8:9).  Paul understands the life of a Christian to be transformed by the power and presence of the Spirit. He is confident that when the “Spirit of God dwells in you,” then “the Spirit is life” (8:9-10).

Humans, both believers and non-believers, have only one human nature. Our nature is who we are as humans; that which makes us human.  This is true of all living things; each is created with its unique nature, which it receives at birth.  We see this in Genesis 1, where God created all creatures “according to their kind.” After the Fall, we did not become less human because something of our human nature was removed.  Additionally, when we become believers, we do not become more human because something was added to our human nature.  To avoid confusion, it may be better to refer to sinful and spiritual nature as our condition or state.  How then does this relate to our sinful state and our born again (regenerated) state?  As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).

Our “natural” State

Often when Paul or Jesus uses the word “flesh” or “sinful flesh” (the latter only occurring in Romans 8:3), it refers to the sinful state of humans.  This means all humans are born with the guilt of sin “in Adam.”  When he was first created, Adam was not in this sinful state.  As such, he was able not to sin.  After Adam’s sin, all humanity inherits the guilt of Adam’s sin, so our ‘natural condition’ is that we are born with a desire to sin.  The result is that we are now not able not to sin; as Jesus and Paul say, we are born “slaves to sin” (John 8:34; Romans 6:20).  And this is what is often called our sinful human nature.  However, it is not our nature that is sinful; we–as individuals–are sinful and need redemp­tion. Paul calls this the “natural person” (1 Corinthians 2:14), and Jesus calls this “born of the flesh” (John 3:6).  Twice in Romans 8:7-8, Paul says we are born “not able” as well as 1 Corinthians 2:14. This is the natural state of human beings when born.  We are not able not to sin because our natural state is now in rebellion and insubordinate to God’s will.  This is our natural inclination and preferred choice.  We choose according to our nature, which is sinful.

Our “regenerated” State

When we become believers in Christ, our natural sinful state is transformed by God into a regenerated state where we are able not to sin  (Romans 6:14).  Our natural state has been changed from rebellion to worship.  As a result, rebellion is no longer our preferred choice; worship is.  And so, we now are able (free) to choose to please God–indeed, this is now the believer’s deepest desire. Scripture describes this transformation in various terms:

1.     God’s creation of light in our hearts: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

2.      God’s causing us to be born again: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Peter 1:3)

3.      God’s raising us from the dead: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Ephesians 2:4–5)

4.      God’s gift of repentance: “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:25–26)

5.      God’s gift of faith: “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” (Philippians 1:29)

From these verses, we see God’s work in the life of a believer transforms our nature from its physically-born state to our born-again spiritual state.  Only our loving, caring, and faithful Lord can do this in us.  So, we can continue to use the term “sinful nature” or possibly better, “corrupt nature,” but not in the sense of two natures.

Life under the Law and Sin (7:14-25)

Once again, Paul deals with the Mosaic law and its relationship to the power of sin.  To understand what Paul is saying, we must keep in mind that his purpose in writing this passage is to show the inability of the law to transform anyone because of the power of sin existing in our sinful condition.  This is certainly true for anyone who is not a believer, but it is also true for a believer.  As such, the passage presents a pessimistic view of our sinful state.  Our inability to keep the law perfectly continues whether one is a Christian or not.  This is why the following passages (chapter 8) are so important.  They describe the hope we have as believers in our life in the Spirit despite our continuing sinful state.

Paul’s first lament: God’s law is spiritual and good, but I am sinful (vv. 14-17)


Paul has made it very clear it is not the law that causes death but sin using the law for its evil end.  The law condemns sin to death, but sin encourages us to break the law so death results.  So, sin resulting from our sinful passions is the ultimate cause of death.  The “for” at the beginning of verse 15 implies that Paul is still dealing with the question raised in verse 7. Because Paul is preaching justification by faith apart from works of the law, some people understood he was saying the law is evil.  The law, in fact, is “spiritual.”  This means the law comes from God and reveals God’s holiness.

We break the law not because the law is unspiritual but because we are under the influence of sin.  Paul uses the phrase “I am of the flesh” to describe human beings “sold under sin.”  The word “flesh” does not mean our body but our whole fallen and corrupt nature (1 Corinthians 3:3).  So what Paul is saying in verse 14 is, he is unspiritual because of his continued tendency to sin, while the law, given by God, is “spiritual.”  The phrase, “sold under sin” means he is under the power of sin.  This seems to imply Paul is still a slave to sin.  But we know from 6:22, Paul – and all believers – are redeemed and set free from the slavery of sin.  What could Paul mean, then?  Hodges gives a clear understanding of these two kinds of slavery.  He writes[6]:

But there is another kind of slavery. A man may be subject to a power which, of himself, he cannot effectually resist, against which he may and does struggle, and from which he earnestly desires to be free, but which, not s withstanding all his efforts, still asserts its authority.  This is precisely the bondage of sin of which every believer is conscious.  […] This is the kind of slavery the apostle is speaking about here, as is clear from the following verses as well as from the whole context and from Scripture.

The only deliverance from this slavery is through Jesus Christ our Lord (vv. 24-25).  Although we sin, sin must not reign in our mortal bodies (6:12) since it does not have dominion over us (6:14).  Instead, we can now reign through Jesus Christ (5:21).

v. 15

Verse 15 provides the basis for this assessment.  One is not unaware or ignorant of one’s actions. Instead, we cannot “understand” why we behave the way we do.  We want to do what is right but often do the opposite.  We do the things we do not want to do.  This simply means “one cannot fully comprehend the depth of sin in oneself.[7]  Verse 15 describes what it means to be “sold under sin.” 

v. 16

However, it is equally important to recognize the struggle within the person's heart—referred to by “I.”  This person knows what is right and “agrees with the law that it is good” (v. 16).  The struggle comes from an inability to keep the law.  This is not a person who embraces sin but one who, to some degree, knows what sin is and does not want to do it.

v. 17

Paul then makes a startling conclusion in verse 17. He states, "it [sinning] is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”  It seems Paul is now not taking responsibility for his sin and is blaming sin itself.  However, from verse 14, we know that Paul does accept responsibility.  The solution to this difficulty is understanding, when Paul uses “I” in this verse, he refers to the crucified old self (6:6; see Galatians 2:20 again).  Yet, Paul knows he still sins. However, there is a significant difference between reigning sin and surviving sin in the life of a Christian. So, because of our corrupt and sinful condition, even as Christians, we cannot keep the law perfectly.  Therefore, Paul is saying we are impotent against our corrupt nature and must look for a solution outside o ourselves. There is a genuine feeling of helplessness because of our hearts. No matter how hard we try, we continue to sin.

Paul’s second lament: Indwelling sin makes it impossible to keep God’s good law perfectly (vv. 18-20)

These verses continue the assessment Paul gave in verses 14 to 17. The “for” at the beginning of verse 18 provides the basis for the conclusion of verse 17.  So, the basis for being impotent against sin is, “nothing good dwells in me.”  The “nothing good,” therefore, refers (“that is”) to indwelling sin “in my flesh.”  In no uncertain terms (vv. 18b-19), Paul highlights one’s inability to keep God’s law perfectly.

Paul's conclusion from this inability is similar to the one he drew in verse 17.  Indwelling sin, in our sinful and corrupt nature, is responsible for the evil I do.  And again, it would be wrong to conclude Paul is stating that we are not responsible for the consequences of breaking the law because of our inability to keep the law.[8]  As a reminder, keep in mind, Paul's purpose in writing this passage is to show the inability of the law to transform anyone because of our corrupt nature.

This teaching on indwelling sin does not mean sin only refers to our actions; the things we do violate the law. Instead, sin is a state of mind revealing itself through sinful actions. This is often how Scripture describes sin.  It is fundamentally a matter of the heart.  We have some degree of control over our will and actions but not our hearts.  We always do what our heart desires most.  This, then, is the bondage of sin.  Paul is pointing out this battle between our sinful state and our new spiritual (born again) state is real, and Christians must fight this fight throughout their lives.  Still, although Christians sin (1 John 1:8), sin must not “reign,” making us “obey its passions” (6:12).

Paul’s third lament: Although I delight in God’s law, I am unable to keep it (vv. 21-25)

In these verses, Paul uses the term “law” many times and in different ways.  So, it is essential to recognize what he means in each case.  Although there are other valid options, “law” refers to the Mosaic law in all these verses.

v. 21

Paul concludes his argument; although Paul (“I”) desires to keep the law of God, he is unable to do so.  He begins with the phrase, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right.”  Paul’s reference to the Mosaic law when he speaks about wanting “to do right” is clear enough, but what about “I find it to be a law”?  At first glance, this does not seem to be the Mosaic law.  However, if we understand the phrase to mean what was found, then the “law” is the Mosaic law.  To paraphrase: “I find I am not able to obey the good law, namely the Mosaic law, because of evil.” The second half of verse 21 again reveals he is not able to obey the law because “evil lies close at hand.”  Verse 21 is, therefore, a summary of verses 14 to 20.

vv. 22-23

These two verses restate the summary in verse 21. Verse 22 explains more about what Paul meant by the first half of verse 21.  Here he refers to the “law of God” as a law he delights in.  The phrase “inner being” refers to the spiritual nature of a Christian (2 Corinthians 4:16; Ephesians 3:16). 

And verse 23 explains Paul’s meaning in the second half of verse 21 (“evil lies close at hand”).  He mentions “law” three times in verse 23, each time referring (in my view) to the Mosaic law. Again, at first, the phrase “another law” or “law of sin” would not suggest this. However, Paul has closely associated sin and the Mosaic law.  The power of sin uses the Mosaic law to produce sin. The two phrases, then, (“another law” and “law of sin”) refer to sin’s power to use the Mosaic law as its own instrument of death. 

The phrase “in my members” refers to the physical body in which sin has power.  So, the “other law” therefore “wages war against the law of my mind.”  The “law of my mind” refers to the Mosaic law which he delights in (v. 22) and which he agrees is “good” (v. 16); that is, it is the “law of God” which he serves “with my mind” (v. 25). And “mind” refers to spiritual nature (Philippians 2:5).

vv. 24-25a

Paul concludes this despairing condition with an agonizing cry: “Wretched man that I am!”  This wretched condition is because the law is unable to transform anyone because of indwelling sin within our corrupted nature.  In fact, things are even worse. Indwelling sin uses the law as its instrument of death. Given this hopeless condition, Paul asks, “who will deliver me from this body of death?”  His answer is immediate and delivered with an equally emotional outburst of thanksgiving: “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” 

v. 25b

We might expect Paul to continue his doxology of praise and gratitude to God for his deliverance.  Instead, we are confronted with more tension.  Paul’s conclusion of the entire passage (vv. 14-25) is, “I myself serve the law of God with my mind,” but then “with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” So, Paul’s “mind” loves and delights in God’s law, and he longs to obey it. However, Paul’s “flesh” resists God’s law and is held captive by the “law of sin.”  Again, this last phrase means sin has manipulated God’s good law so that “through the commandment,” sin is exposed “beyond measure” (v. 13).  Once again, we see the good law of God when it comes against our corrupt nature, is weakened and unable to transform us into the persons we long to be.  Our sinful self overwhelms God’s commandment and uses it for its own evil end.

Special Topic: The identity of the “I” in 7:14-25

The question remaining, which we have avoided, is the spiritual condition of the “I” in this passage (vv. 14-25).  Certainly, it refers in some manner to Paul, but is it before or after his conversion?  These two main options have been the source of discussion throughout the church's history.  It is one of the most difficult interpretive issues in the letter.  If Paul is describing his life under the law, then the “I” is before his conversion on the road to Damascus.  However, if it is after his conversion, then he is describing the ongoing struggle with sin as a Christian.  Either of these positions has been held by prominent evangelical leaders of the church throughout its history.  We, therefore, do not view it as a matter of absolute doctrinal significance in which position is taken. However, after examining both arguments, we understand Paul speaking of himself after his conversion. 

Before we look at the arguments for each of these positions, we must remember that the passage is not about what happens before or after conversion.  Instead, it is about the good and holy law’s inability to transform anyone because of the indwelling sin existing before and after our conversion. 

The arguments for support of the view that Paul is speaking of his experience after conversion are:

1.      The verbs referring to “I” (Paul) in 7:14-15 are twenty-six in the present tense. In passage 7:7-13, the nine verbs are in the past tense. This is intentional.

2.      Verse 25 gives thanks for God’s salvation but follows the doxology with the continuing struggle of the Christian life. When Paul says in verse 25, “I myself serve the law of God,” he is speaking of his life as a believer. And when he adds, “I serve the law of sin“ he continues to struggle with sin as a believer.

3.      There are dual aspects present in these verses. The “I” agrees that the law is good; it desires to do what is right and delights in God’s law. On the other hand, the “I” is of the flesh, so sin dwells within. The flesh does not have the ability to do the law. These conflicting aspects is the experience of the Christian.

4.      The regenerated nature that desires to do good and “delight” in God’s law does not characterize a non-believer.

5.      It would seem, the nature that is “sold under sin,” is an insurmountable objection to the Christian view. But in 6:12-23, Paul warns against sin becoming our master.  Paul’s teaching always has an ‘already but not-yet’ reality. Believers have already been freed from the dominion of sin, but there still exists a bondage to sin.

6.      The present (“I am”) and future (“who will”) tense highlights this ‘already but not-yet’ aspect of salvation in verse 24.

7.      Although Paul is speaking about himself, it is easy for Christians to identify with his description of the Christian life.  We are all too aware of our failures and sins and our inability to live without sin.  We can agree without reservation with the apostle John’s depiction: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful, forgiving us and cleansing us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10).

From these points, the overwhelming consensus is that this passage depicts Paul after conversion.  However, there are also arguments for a pre-conversion view. One is reminded of the Proverb, “The one who states his case first seems right until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17). Here are the arguments that Paul is speaking about his life before conversion.

1.      In 7:6, Paul states we have been released from the law holding us captive so we can now live in the “new way of the Spirit.” But what Paul describes in 7:14-25 is still very much a person that is “sold under law.” However, see the discussion on “sold under the law.

2.      Although 7:14-25 use present tense verbs, these can be used to describe the reality of life under the law.  As such, they describe the state of the person enslaved to sin.

3.      The argument that there are conflicting aspects in a Christian creates too great a division.  The “I” is always a whole and is entirely in bondage to sin.

4.      The work of the Holy Spirit is never mentioned in 7:14-25, while the Holy Spirit is mentioned no less than nineteen times in 8:1-17.

5.      The argument that it is impossible to delight in God's law without being a believer does not seem consistent with many orthodox Jews who have a great zeal for God (cf. Psalm 19 and 119). Such Jews delight in God’s law even though they are unable to keep it perfectly.

6.      To say that a believer is “sold to sin” clearly refers to a non-believer (3:9, 19-20).  And this is also highlighted by the wretchedness and despair that Paul expresses.

Although the arguments in favour of before his conversion are significant, they are not sufficiently pervasive to overturn the more natural conclusion; Paul is speaking about the common condition of a believer.  Believers are not free from their sinful passions, so they cannot obey the law on their own. However, when we understand 7:14-25 to depict the life of a Christian, then it is paramount we continue with 8:1-17 in order not to end in despair.  Once again, we should remember Paul's prime purpose and concern in the passage is to prove that the law cannot transform human beings because of indwelling sin.


Application of 7:14-25

We have stated Paul’s reference to “law” in these verses refers to the Mosaic law.  He clearly indicates the Jews were not able to keep it.  And, when we assume "I" refers to Paul's experience after his conversion, it becomes clear that he was unable to keep the law even then. How, then, do we, as Gentiles, apply this passage to ourselves?

When we recognize that we share the same sinful condition as Israel before and after they received the law, we can recognize that what happened to them also happens to us. When sinful humans try to keep the spiritual holy law of God, the only outcome is failure. Israel had been rescued from bondage in Egypt through ten mighty demonstrations of power over the reigning pharaoh. They had seen and experienced the Red sea part and the destruction of the Egyptian army. They had felt his hand of comfort and punishment as he brought them into the Promised Land. All God required of them was to obey the law he gave to them through Moses. Yet, from Israel's history, there was an abject failure to keep the law. And so, judgment came via their exile from the land of promise. All this repeated failure reveals that human nature is sinful.  Or, as Scripture describes it, we have a sinful heart that is desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). So, God promised Israel a new covenant and a new heart (Jeremiah 31:31-34). 

The history of Israel is everyone's history.  We all are born with a corrupt, sinful nature, unable to keep God's good laws no matter their form.  Because of our sinful condition, we cannot keep God's holy, righteous, and perfect will. Even though we know what is right, we cannot do it perfectly. The law, in any form, cannot make us righteous because we still have a sinful human nature. And so, like the Old Testament Israelites, we also need a new heart.  It is often the case, though, that Christian churches create a whole set of laws and rules they believe produce holiness. We do need rules.  And chapter six is proofs this.  But, attempting to keep these rules can never justify us before God. We may keep some but then break others. And some of these ‘others,’ such as coveting (v. 7), are more difficult to recognize in ourselves.  Our holiness, righteousness, and sanctification are all a gift of grace from God. This is now the topic Paul turns to in chapter 8.

Questions for Reflection

Study it

1.      [v. 1] Why do you think Paul begins to use more affection when referring to the brothers and sisters from this point in the letter?

2.      [vv. 2-4] How does Paul’s illustration relate to 6:1-11?

3.      [v. 4] What are the two purposes for dying to the law?

4.      [v. 4] What does “the body of Christ” mean in this verse?

5.      [vv. 4-6] What are the two kinds of fruit, and how are they produced?

6.      [v. 6] What does the phrase “new way of the Spirit” and “the old way of the written code” mean?

7.      [v. 7] What purpose does Paul give for the law? Why does he use “covet” as his example?

8.      [vv. 8-11] What is the relationship between sin and the law? In what sense did the law promise life? Why can’t the law do what it promised?

9.      [v. 12] Given all Paul said, state why the law is holy, righteous and good.

10.   [v. 13] How does sin show it is “sinful beyond measure”?

11.   [v. 14] When Paul said, he is “of the flesh, sold under sin,” what does he mean?

12.    [v. 15] Why can’t Paul understand his own actions?

13.    [vv. 17, 20] In what sense does Paul mean, it is “no longer I who do it”? How can he still be held accountable if it was not “I” who did it?

14.    [vv. 21-25] List all the different uses of “law” in these verses.  How do you interpret each one?  What are the assumptions and implications of your interpretation?

15.   [14-20] List all the desires identified in these verses. Explain how these desires are possible.

16.    [v. 25] Explain the tension Paul describes in this verse.  How do you understand it?

Live it

1.     Read 6:1-11 and 7:4-6. On what basis are we able to say we are dead to the law? Do you view yourself dead to the law but alive in Christ? What does this mean for you in your Christian life? What does “bear fruit for God” mean to you?

2.     Do you think it is possible to be in union with Christ (i.e., a Christian) and not bear fruit for God (cf. John 15:1-8)?

3.     How do you understand the relationship between obedience to the law and godliness? What is your motivation for obeying God’s moral commands?

4.     Are Christians required to keep all of The Ten Commandments? 

5.     Do you relate to Paul’s statement, “Wretched man that I am!”?  What is stronger in your life, law or sin?

6.     How do you apply 7:14-25 to yourself?  Is it encouraging or concerning?

[1] Today, within our churches, the “law” is not so much the Mosaic law but a set of cultural obligations that have risen to the status of law.  These obligations vary from culture to culture.  For some, it may be drinking wine, for others it may be how one votes politically.  There are, of course, moral standards which all Christians must live by.  However, often cultural obligations are outside Biblical ethical commands but often take on an importance and status even greater than Biblical instruction.

[2] Stott, 194.

[3] This does not mean the law (“commandment”) promised salvation.  But it did promise life for those who were obedient to it (Leviticus 18:5; Ezekiel 20:11).  So, life would have been given to anyone who could perfectly obey it.  

[4] Hodge, 206.

[5] Schreiner, Romans, 371.

[6] Hodge, 208-209.

[7] Schreiner, Romans, 373.

[8] To claim one is not responsible is similar to the claim of a thief before a judge whose defence is simply that he cannot help himself from stealing; that the urge to steal is too great in him.  No judge would dismiss the charges against the thief based on such a defense.