Explaining Romans 7:14-25

Question
Can you please explain Romans 7:14-25?
Answer
Romans 7:14-25: For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

Romans 7:14-25 forms a chiasm, which is a writing style that uses a unique repetition pattern for clarification and emphasis. This text reveals man's inner struggle in sanctification after salvation:

  • A. law (Rom. 7:14)
    • B. I want (Rom. 7:15)
      • C. it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me (Rom. 7:16-17)
        • D. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh (Rom. 7:18)
          • E. For I have the desire to do what is right (Rom. 7:18)
        • D’. but not the ability to carry it out (Rom. 7:18)
      • C’. it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me (Rom. 7:19-20)
    • B’. I want (Rom. 7:21)
  • A’. law (Rom. 7:22-25)
As a Christian the apostle Paul desired to do right (E. above). But is Paul speaking of himself before or after he was justified by faith and saved? With the prominent use of the first person in Romans 7:14-25, Paul addresses the ongoing inner conflict in his own soul. The primary emphasis previously in Romans 6 involved a discussion on holiness, or sanctification (Rom. 6:19, 22), not salvation. The apostle had already said this to the saints at Rome: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body … Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Rom. 6:12-13). A non-Christian can’t do this, nor has he the desire to do so (Rom. 8:7-8). Only a new creation in Christ Jesus lives in such tension.

Here are four other ways we see this in Paul after his conversion:

(1) He calls the law holy, righteous, good, and spiritual (Rom. 7:12, 14) and within the context of Romans 7:14-25, he says ...

  • it is, “the good I want” (Rom. 7:19, 21)
  • that he delights “in the law of God, in [his] inner being” (Rom. 7:22)
  • that he “serves the law of God with [his] mind” (Rom. 7:25)

(2) He refers to total depravity, calling himself unspiritual (cf. Rom. 7:14) and declares that “nothing good dwells in [him]” (Rom. 7:18).

(3) He states that the ultimate victory over sin is through Christ alone (Rom. 7:24-25)

(4) He writes in a specific way to ensure the above truths are undergirded with the change of tenses between Romans 7:5, 9 and Romans 7:14-25. The “I” of Romans 7:14-15 is no longer the unregenerate “I” of Romans 7:5, 9.

Hendricksen describes this succinctly:

The person described in Rom. 7:14-25 hates sin (Rom. 7:15), wishes to do what is good (Rom. 7:19, 21), in his inner being delights in God’s law (Rom. 7:22), deeply regrets his sins (Rom. 7:15, 18-24), and thanks God for his deliverance (Rom. 7:25).
Certainly these are not the thoughts or inner conflict of an unregenerate man described in Romans 8 who ...
  • is hostile to God (Rom. 8:7)
  • does not submit to God's law (Rom. 8:7)
  • cannot [submit to God's law] (Rom. 8:7)
  • and cannot please God (Rom. 8:8)

This is really a self-portrait of Paul’s life as a Christian (as is the view of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin), and so most likely any mature Christian. There is a struggle between flesh and spirit after one is justified by faith (1 Cor. 9:27; Gal. 5:17; Phil. 3:12-14). This is normal. However, this genuine struggle is evidence of salvation, not the lack thereof (Rom. 8:35-39; 1 John 1:8-10; 5:13).

In Romans 7:14 Paul once again emphasizes that he finds nothing wrong with God’s law. He fully realizes that the law is holy, just, and righteous (Rom. 7:12; cf. Mark 12:36; Acts 1:16; 4:24-25; 1 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21).

Paul says, “I am of the flesh” (Rom. 7:15, Greek, sarkinos, an adjective) not “in the flesh” (Rom. 7:5, Greek, sarki, a noun). Believers are not in the flesh (Rom. 7:5; 8:5, 8) because being in the flesh refers to being mastered by the sinful human nature (an unbeliever), while on the other hand, being of the flesh refers to someone acting contrary to the law (a believer, cf. “infants,” 1 Cor. 3:1, 3 [1]). Notice how Paul doesn’t say he is sinless (cf. 1 John 1:8-10). He uses the present tense in writing, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18). However, he does say he is different from being merely in the flesh when he writes, “For I have the desire to do what is right” (Rom. 7:18). So, Paul is saying that there is a remnant of sin still in him, but that it doesn’t have full mastery any longer in his life.

In Correction and Grace XXXIII Augustine described four states of man: (1) able to sin, able not to sin (posse peccare, posse non peccare); (2) not able not to sin (non posse non peccare); (3) able not to sin (posse non peccare); and (4) unable to sin (non posse peccare). The first state corresponds to the state of man in innocence, before the Fall; the second the state of the natural man after the Fall; the third the state of the regenerate man; and the fourth the glorified man. The following table may be helpful in clarifying differences for someone was once in the flesh and who is now in Christ (Rom. 7:14-25).

Pre-Fall Man
Post-Fall Man
Reborn Man
Glorified Man
able to sin able to sin able to sin able to not sin
able to not sin unable to not sin able to not sin unable to sin

Paul says there is evidence that there was still a remnant of sin in him: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). Here Paul is speaking of his inner turmoil of on the one hand, desiring to obey the Spirit and, on the other, obeying the flesh. However, Paul’s conscience was not cauterized (1 Tim. 4:2; cf. Eph. 4:19), but rather very much alive unto the will of God (1 Tim. 1:5, 18-19). And though he always desired to obey God, there were some instances where he didn’t.

This inner conflict is evidence of salvation, not the lack thereof!

In Romans 7:16-17 the apostle deals with the source of his sinfulness. Paul was regenerate — “born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23). God’s Spirit lived in him and Paul had a new master enthroned his life. He loved God, and his word. However, he also had some remnants of sin left in him: “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” In saying this Paul is not attempting to get out of personal responsibility for his sin. After all, it was he who wrote: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). What Paul is communicating is that his new “I” — the new creation, redeemed, incorruptible, Christ-like nature — doesn’t approve of the sin that still remains in him, whereas before he was saved, it did. (cf. Gal. 2:20; 5:17).

In Romans 7:18-20, Paul says his old in-the-flesh “I” was not good (Rom. 7:18). And since he was not yet in glory, there was still a war within himself. He also writes in Galatians 5:17:

The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.
Paul’s new “I” desired to do good, to obey the law (Rom. 7:18-19), so what he is saying is that he was incapable of completely fulfilling all of requirements of the law. Again he expresses this elsewhere:

Philippians 3:12-14: Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

At the same time there were times Paul still practiced the evil he did not want (Rom. 7:19) and in this, “it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:20; see Rom 7:16-17, above).

In Romans 7:21-23 Paul argues that the continuing presence of evil is still in the genuine Christian. This lingering evil continually does battle with the Spirit and, like a lion (1 Pet. 5:8), sin still crouches at the door of the Christian’s life. But Paul goes on to prove the new “I” is the dominant “I” in his life and he writes, “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being” (Rom. 7:22). This, then, is the testimony of a true Christian (Psa. 119:14, 47, 77, 105, 140). Paul was renewed in his inner man every day (2 Cor. 4:16) and he depended upon the Holy Spirit to strengthen him (Eph. 3:16). This is part and parcel of what it means to seek God’s kingdom first (Matt. 6:33) and to hunger and thirst after righteousness (Matt. 5:6).

Then Paul adds this: “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom. 7:23). But if he were not redeemed, there would be no waging war. So here the apostle sets up a contrast between the new “I” and the old “I” — that is, the new man and the remnant of the old man. As a helpful example, think of how after physical death the human body slowly decomposes. Similarly, the spiritual old man is decomposing, but its residue lingers.

Paul is not saying that the mind is constantly spiritual and his body is continually sinful. In fact, when he says “against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom. 7:23), he means that he (and all Christians) unfortunately become temporary prisoners of the law of sin. However, there is a great deal of difference between being in temporary flex cuffs and being a prisoner in the federal supermax prison.

In Romans 7:24-25 Paul initially comments on the sinfulness of his old “I.” He calls it wretched (Greek, talaiporos, meaning wretched, afflicted, or miserable). Already having beheld the holiness of God, Paul in comparison can’t stand his old “I” just like the prophet Isaiah when seeing the Lord high and lifted up responded saying, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:5). He is also like Peter who, on seeing his personal sinfulness and God’s glory said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).

Finally, the Apostle asks, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). In thinking about the strong desire to be unchained from a body of death, consider this portion of a translation of Virgil’s The Aeneid, where it describes a terrible horrific type of torture:

He even tied corpses to living bodies, as a means of torture, placing hand on hand and face against face, so killing by a lingering death, in that wretched embrace, that ooze of disease and decomposition. [2]

This describes a hideous death. One body lashed to another; one living and the other dead. The wretched body of death slowly decomposing and moving its way into the body of the living. In time, the living body died a hideous death. This is what Paul wanted to be released from; he knew it was deadlier than death itself.

But immediately Paul’s question is given an answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25; cf. Phil. 1:21, 23). This is a message of absolute assurance. Christ is the only means of salvation from such a sinful body (Acts 4:12; 10:43; 1 Tim. 2:5; cf. Matt. 1:21). Because of God’s most gracious gift (Rom. 8:32; 2 Cor. 9:15), Paul knew that one day that as Christ was given a new body, so would he (1 Cor. 15:42-49; cf. John 5:28-29; Rom. 8:23). Paul looked forward to that day (1 Cor. 15:56-57; 2 Tim. 4:8).

Paul's last phrase of Romans 7 sets up another compare and contrast:

New “I”
Old “I”
with my mind with my flesh
I myself serve the law of God I serve the law of sin

Paul saw the flesh as an enemy. In his new, regenerated “I” heart, Paul wants to do the will of God (Rom. 7:15-16, 18, 20-22) and he soon writes in Romans 8:10: “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”

Notes

[1] Note that it is possible to be a mature believer in respect to some things, and a baby believer in respect to other things. This is one reason why Christians need one another, the Word, and Spirit, so they may continue to grow in Christ.

[2] Virgil, The Aeneid, VIII 483-88. (http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/VirgilAeneidVIII.php#anchor_Toc3637706). Erinensis, wrote, “The punishment imposed by Mezentius on the soldiers of Aneas should be inflicted, by coupling him to one of his own corpses and parading him through the streets until his carcass and its companion were amalgamated by putrefaction” (Erinensis, On the Exploitation of Dead Bodies, The Lancet, 1828-9: 7770).

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).