How should we think about indwelling sin? Romans 7:13-25
What is the apostle doing in these verses, and how do they fit in the big picture the apostle is trying to create in this epistle? Unfortunately, there is a lot of debate surrounding these verses, and it tends to detract from the larger point the apostle is trying to make. Among evangelicals, even Reformed evangelicals, there is a sharp disagreement over whether the apostle is speaking of himself as a regenerate man or as an unregenerate man. However you come down on this issue, though, it doesn’t materially affect the main idea the apostle trying to make, and so we need to make sure we see this big picture and don’t get side-tracked too much by the debates which swirl around some of these other relatively minor points.
The big picture concerns how we are changed and sanctified. In Romans 6, the apostle Paul tells us that we are delivered from the power of sin solely through our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Now in 6:14, Paul had made this important statement: “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” In other words, it is not law that delivers us from the power of sin, but the grace of God, grace that comes to us through Jesus Christ. He essentially says this again in 7:6, “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”
In other words, there are two things we have to keep in mind. First, we are not delivered from sin’s power through the law of God. That is, we don’t lose sin’s grip over us by trying to be good on our own. That is essentially what Paul is getting at when he talks about being under law and serving in the old way of the written code. Law is something external to us, something that talks to us. It is not something in us. To be under the law, then, means that we are trying, in our own strength, to measure up to God’s will for us. We are not doing it by grace, through faith, in dependence upon God, but in the resources of our own heart and will.
The second thing is that in Christ we have all the resources to fight sin that we lack in ourselves. In Christ we have grace and power and life. In him we are delivered from sin’s bondage and enslavement. That doesn’t mean, of course, that law has no place in our life, it just means that we don’t rely on our own resources to obey God’s commandments. We live out a life of obedience by the life of faith, through reliance upon the redemptive work of Christ for us and his consequent work in us through the Spirit. We work out own our salvation, knowing that it is God who is at work in us both to will and to do of his own good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).
At this point, the apostle knew that some of his Jewish interlocutors would think that Paul was saying that the law was sinful, and use this as an excuse to ignore and reject the claims of Christ upon them. And so what he is doing now in chapter 7 is to show how that, despite the fact of the law’s impotence in delivering us from sin’s power and penalty, this does not mean that the law is bad or sinful. On the contrary, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, and righteous, and good” (7:12). And his main argument is that it is not the law that causes us to sin; it is the sin within us that causes us to sin. In other words, it’s not enough to say that we are sinners because we sin; more fundamentally we sin because we are sinners. Sin may lie dormant and latent within us, but when confronted with God’s law, our penchant for self-sovereignty rises up in bitter hostility and opposes it. This is what Paul is talking about when he writes, apparently autobiographically, “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead” (7:8). The law said, “Thou shalt not covet,” and then the sin within said, “But I will,” and did it.
That is the basic argument up to verse 13 in chapter 7. The law is not sinful, we are. But that means that we can’t be saved by the law, because the law, being external to us, can do nothing about the rottenness that lies hidden at the core of our being. We can only be saved by Christ and what he has done for us and in us; in other words, through union with him.
The apostle himself summarizes argument up to this point in verse 13-14, as well as transitions to the next stage of his argument in verses 15-25: “Did that which is good, then bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.” I take verse 13 as a summary of verses 7-12, whereas the phrase, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin” is descriptive of our entire experience this side of heaven and sets up the description of Paul’s experience in verse 15-25.
And this is where opinions diverge concerning the interpretation of this chapter. They diverge over the issue of whether or not the apostle is speaking of himself in these verses as a saved man or whether he is describing himself as he was before he was born again. Some have a big problem reading the phrase “sold under sin” as descriptive of the believer in any sense. Now, I want to come back to this issue next time, and defend the view that the apostle is speaking of himself as a believer. Right now, however, I am just going to basically assume this view, because what I want to do is to get us to see the main point. The main point here is not whether or not this is descriptive of a believer or non-believer (though I don’t think this is an unimportant issue). The main point still is that though the law is not sinful, it is yet impotent to change us. And this is true whether we are born again or not. The law cannot change your heart when it is dead and hard. Neither can it sanctify your heart even after you have been born again. That, I think, is the point of these verses.
I do want to mention what is to me one of the strongest arguments for the view that Paul is speaking of himself as a redeemed person. You will notice that throughout these verses, the apostle has been speaking autobiographically. However, there is a difference. In verses 7-13, he has been speaking primarily in the past tense. It is pretty clear that he is describing himself in the past. And there is not a lot of dispute over this, as far as I can tell. Paul is writing of himself as he was just prior to his conversion to Christ. However, in verses 14-25 he switches, uniformly and consistently, to the present tense. Some people say that he does this for dramatic purposes. But why didn’t he do this in the previous verses? There is no satisfactory answer to that, in my opinion. Another thing to consider is this: where in the history of literature, ancient or modern, do we have an autobiographical account that switches from consistently using the past tense to consistently using the present tense, but which continues to speak of the past and not of the present? Maybe something like that exists somewhere, but I’m not aware of it. In light of these considerations, I have always taken this passage to be Paul speaking of himself in the present, as a believer.
It has been pointed out that the apostle basically repeats the same basic argument in three difference cycles. The structure basically goes like this: (1) there is nothing good in me (14, 18, 21); (2) the evidence for this is that I do the very thing I hate (15, 19, 22-23); (3) conclusion: I agree that the law is good because I have to acknowledge that the problem is the sin within, not the law of God (16-17, 20, 24-25). Another way to put it is: the reality of indwelling sin, the evidence of indwelling sin, and the lesson of indwelling sin.
The reality of indwelling sin
The apostle says this in three different ways. First, in verse 14, Paul writes, “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh sold under sin.” This is indeed a strong expression, especially in light of the fact that in Romans 6 the apostle has argued that we are freed from the dominion of sin, and that in Romans 8 he will argue that to be in the flesh is to be without the Spirit. However, it does not follow that Paul is referring to himself as an unregenerate man, for two reasons. First, because he does not say he is “in the flesh” but “of the flesh,” or “fleshly.” That is, like the Corinthians (1 Cor. 3), the godly can sometimes act according to the flesh but that does not mean they are necessarily unregenerate. Second, this language is completely consistent with the reality that, this side of heaven, we cannot completely free ourselves from the vestiges of sin within us. In that sense, we are “sold under sin” for as much as we would like, we cannot completely free ourselves of it. John Murray explains in his commentary on this passage, “And since the flesh and sin still inhered in the apostle and exercised as power over him, it is the necessary reaction of his sanctified sensibility to deplore the captivity to which, in the nature of the case, he was subjected by reason of his indwelling sin.”
He says the same thing in verse 18: “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.” Paul is not saying that the saved person cannot resist sin. He is not saying that we are absolutely helpless in the face of sin’s temptations and allurements. What he is saying is that, apart from the grace of God, even the saved are helpless. My friends, the new birth does not give us the ability to walk in holiness independently of the grace of God. And the reason why we daily, hourly, moment-by-moment, need God’s grace is because of what Paul describes here. In us there is no good thing. Sin still lies there waiting to leap into action. What good is in us, does not come from us, but from God. As Paul would put it in another place: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).
And then he says it again in verse 21: “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” How many of us can say that that is not exactly our experience? Is it not true that every purpose to do what is right is met by a challenge within to waver from God’s will for us? We are reminded again and again that there is nothing good in us. Sin is always close at hand, even when we are setting our hearts upon the kingdom of God.
The evidence of indwelling sin
Paul has says that there is nothing good in us, that we are sold under sin, that sin lies close at hand. But where is the proof for this? Paul relates the proof in terms of his own experience: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (15). “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (19). “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” (22-23).
What we see in each of these passages is the struggle against the indwelling sin that remains within us. It is all the evidence that is needed to convince Paul that there is still nothing good in him. And that means that the law remains impotent on its own. It means that we are in constant need of God’s upholding hand of grace and mercy through Christ. If you want to be holy, you are not going to do it on your own.
The lesson of indwelling sin
The lesson from this reality is two-fold. First, the law is not sinful, we are. It’s a lesson the apostle has already been teaching, but now he applies it to the believer. “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” (16-17). In other words, this very turmoil in Paul’s soul, doing what he hated and so on, could not exist apart from the implicit acknowledgement that the law was good. When we hate the things which the law forbids, we are giving evidence for the goodness of God’s law, even when we end up doing what we hate.
The second lesson is that the law is powerless, even for believers, to enable their obedience. “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (20). Note that the apostle is differentiating between himself and the sin dwelling in him. What he is saying is that as a saved person he wants to obey God’s law (cf. ver. 22). For those who are born again, the true self is the self which wants to love God and keep his word. The sin which dwells within is an aberration. But it is there, and as a result we need more than the law to produce in us the fruits of holiness. And I think that is the point: he is saying that even as those who are born again and united to Christ, we are never completely rid of sin in the present age, and that means that need more than commandments telling us what to do; we need gospel intervention. Sin may no longer truly define us (“it is no longer I”), Christ does, but it stills indwells us, and so we need God’s grace.
Thus, Paul expostulates: “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” (24-25). The law will not deliver us. It is only Christ Jesus our Lord who will ultimately save us. Remember: to say that the law cannot save us is just to say that we cannot save and sanctify ourselves. It was true before we were born again and it is true afterward. For even though, with Paul, we may “serve the law of God with my mind,” yet “with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”
In this last phrase, Paul is using the law in two different senses (see also verse 23). The first refers to the law of God in the sense of commandments; the second refers to the principle or power of sin that is within. With the renewed mind, we serve the law of God. But that is not the only reality at work within us: there is also this remaining sin, which the apostle refers to as “the law of sin.” It continually reminds us of our wretchedness and the real need and dependence we have for Jesus our Savior.
How should we think of indwelling sin?
There are two mistakes that people make with respect to this reality of indwelling sin the apostle is describing here. One is to take Romans 7 and use it as a way to define what normal Christian experience is supposed to be like. Some take this as I take it, referring to Paul as a Christian, and through him to us, but do so in a way to cast the Christian walk in terms of continual defeat. In other words, some people use the description Paul gives us himself as an excuse for being constantly defeated with respect to the sin in their lives. That is not what the apostle intended.
This is where it is important to remember the main thing the apostle is getting at here. The point being made here is not what normal Christian experience is like. The point is that the law, though good, is impotent and powerless to save and sanctify us, either before we are saved (7:7-13), or after (7:14-25). Paul is saying that if we rely on the power of our own flesh, we are not going to find victory but only defeat. Our struggle with indwelling sin is a constant reminder of our wretchedness and our dependence upon Christ. He is saying that when we rely upon our own flesh, we are not going to find anything good there. He reminds us, from his own experience, of the struggle with the sin within, and this should warn us against any presumption that we are capable in and of ourselves to defeat sin. Our only resource against the temptations of the flesh is also our greatest: union with Christ.
We also need to remember that Romans 7 does not stand alone. It is preceded by Romans 6 and followed by Romans 8. Romans 6 tells us that we are dead to sin and that sin’s power over us has been broken. Romans 8 tells us that the Spirit of Christ indwells us so that we are no longer defined by the flesh. The flesh may still be present, but it is no longer the dominant presence in the heart of the one who belongs to Christ. And that means that we need never feel defeated. It also means that we have no excuse for remaining in sin. “Shall we continue in sin that grace might abound? God forbid! How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (6:1).
Another mistake people make with reference to Romans 7 is to make it all refer to the unregenerate, and to deny that struggling with sin is a part of the Christian walk. There is this idea out there that if you are walking in holiness and faith, you will not be struggling with sin.
It grieves me to hear people talk like that. One reason for this is that I’ve known believers who tend to be perhaps a bit too introspective and are constantly doubting themselves. They live in perpetual fear and worry. They bear upon their shoulders guilt that they cannot seem to rid themselves of. When you question them about the gospel, they seem to have a pretty good grasp of who Jesus is and what he has done, but the problem is that they are looking inward more than they are looking outward to Christ.
That's their main problem. But another problem is that they have an unhealthy view of what the Christian walk is like. They seem to think that if you are walking by faith you will never have to struggle with sin. This is not healthy because it is not Biblical. And Romans 7, rightly interpreted, cautions us against this unbalanced view. It reminds us that, no matter how far you are advanced in the Christian life, you are going to be fighting the sin which dwells within.
My friends, faith and repentance is not just something we do at the beginning of the Christian life. As I think I pointed out last Sunday, faith and repentance is something that we do on a daily basis. Why is it, do you think, that our Lord told us to pray daily, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”? Why is it, do you think, that the apostle John makes confession of sin part of walking in the light (1 Jn. 1:7-9)? And why is it that reminds us, not once but twice, that it is a lie to say that we are without sin? (1 Jn. 1:8, 10). It is because sin is a daily reality even for the most sanctified of believers.
The sign of life is not that you are not struggling with sin. The sign of life is that you are struggling with sin, even as you hold onto Christ by faith.
How do we take Romans 7? Take it as a warning and an encouragement. A warning not to trust in your own resources to fight the sin in your life. You will only find that in Christ! And as an encouragement, knowing that if you are struggling with the sin in your life, it is not necessarily a sign of spiritual immaturity. It is something that believers have always struggled with this side of heaven.
This side of heaven. There is coming a day when, if we belong to Jesus Christ, we will be among “the just made perfect.” I long and look forward to that day. Do you?