What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not!…For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good….
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:7, 11-12, 13-16, 21-25)
There are a number of issues with Romans 7, including a debate as to whether Paul is describing his own struggles as a Christian or whether he refers to his previous experiences as a non-Christian. For this reason, any message on the text requires some effort to prevent it from becoming an exegetical commentary. We will, nevertheless, briefly consider this one question so that it does not become an obstacle.
If we skim the text with our usual Christian terms and categories in mind, it would appear that Paul must be talking about a regenerate person. He writes, “I desire to do good” and “I delight in God’s law,” but the unregenerate does not desire to do good and does not delight in God’s law. The previous chapters of this same letter have destroyed the possibility that a non-Christian could sincerely desire to do good or to delight in the law. This truth is so decisive and inflexible that it could compel all other considerations to accommodate it.
However, when we examine the text in its context and on its own terms, this conclusion is not as easily reached. Verse 14 says, “I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.” The thought is taken from the previous chapter, not too many verses before this, and describes a person in an unregenerate state. There Paul declares that the Christian is no longer a slave to sin, but a slave to righteousness. In addition, there is no mention of Christ in the description, as if he is absent from the man’s life as he struggles; rather, Christ is presented in 7:25 as a solution to the struggle. Then, 8:1 seems to be a transition into the Christian life.
If we take the “I” in verses 14 to 25 not as a literal self-designation but as an editorial “I” representing the typical Jew, a number of issues appear to be resolved all at once. It explains the change from the past tense to the present tense in verse 14. It dissolves any conflict with Paul’s claim that he was “blameless” under the law (Philippians 3:6). There is no conflict in the first place, since in Philippians he is most likely referring to the legalistic righteousness of the Pharisees, and not to actual perfect obedience to the law of Moses. This is evident since in the same statement where he claims to be blameless he also refers to his persecution of the church, and that as a badge of his zeal. As Jesus argued, the same law that pointed to Christ would not have condoned his murder, and by extension, it would not have endorsed the persecution of the church as something righteous (John 7:19, 8:40; Acts 9:4). Thus it appears that the man’s desire to do good and his delight in the law refer not to the sincere faith of the Christian but to the ignorant zeal of the Jew (10:2).
Even if a definitive interpretation cannot be derived in a few paragraphs, the main purpose is clear. The section in fact continues to answer some of the false inferences from Paul’s teaching on the law. In 6:1-2, he writes, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” Then in 6:15, he writes, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” Now in 7:7, he continues, “What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not!” And in 7:13, he writes, “Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means!”
The false inferences are very silly. They reflect the assumptions that guide the thinking of unbelievers and unfaithful theologians. Paul’s doctrine is that God has placed all men under sin so that he may show mercy to those whom he has created for salvation and so that he may display his wrath against those whom he has created for damnation. The law was given not so that men could earn their way to heaven, but more commandments were revealed so that more violations of the commandments may occur – “so that the trespass might increase.”
Unable to make simple and obvious distinctions, Paul’s opponent asks, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” and “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” We find a similar intellectual handicap in those who ask, “If God is sovereign over all things, including human thoughts and decisions, then why should we preach the gospel?” Because he commanded you to do it, you defiant wretch! God’s decree and his command are two different things. One refers to causation, and the other to definition. And again, “If God is the author of sin, does that not make him unrighteous?” Only if he defines his own sovereignty as unrighteous, you arrogant brat! Would you confine God or else condemn him by your own standard, as if you rule over the Almighty, and as if the universe revolves around you? Yet this is the sad history of Christian theology, so that scholars consider it necessary to preserve some sense of human freedom and argue for its compatibility with divine sovereignty, and to appeal to antinomies and paradoxes in order to excuse God from the tribunal of man. But the metaphysical causation of an action or event and the ethical judgment of an action or event belong to two entirely different categories. Failing to grasp this, unbelievers and believers alike continue to oppose the apostle’s doctrine.
Paul has addressed the two false inferences in Romans 6. Now two other arise: “What shall we say, then? Is the law sin?” and “Did that which is good, then, become death to me?” To paraphrase his answer, it is not that the law is bad, but that the man is bad, and it is not that the law in itself causes death, but that sin leads to death as it drives the man to transgress the law. It is good that the law condemns adultery, but the pervert does it anyway. A brick wall in itself does not kill, but the lunatic rams his head into it and leaves others to clean up the mess.
If we take the latter section as a description of an unregenerate man who is zealous for the law, it can also become an analogy for all those who are without the written law, but who are zealous to win peace of conscience or to follow their adopted view of life. The situation then becomes like the one in Romans 1 and 2. There Paul shows that the Jews have the law, but they never obey it. And although the Gentiles do not have the written code, they betray an instinctive awareness of “the requirements of the law,” and they also fail to obey it. Therefore, all Jews and Gentiles are condemned.
Here the man is zealous for the law, but he finds that he cannot obey it. There is an evil power within him that will not let him do it. The more righteousness is defined and declared to him, the more this power is stimulated to rebel and to perform evil. Although Paul’s focus is a man’s relation to sin and the law, a similar struggle is perceived in those without the law. A man is tormented by the losing battle to live up to the standard that he strives under. He is a transgressor. He will die a sinner, an utter failure.
What is the solution? Who will rescue him? “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Although the law was good, it was powerless to produce good “in that it was weakened by the sinful nature” – in that men were evil. God accomplished what the law could not do “by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering” (8:3). In other words, what commandments failed to do, and what legalistic tradition and existential struggle failed to do, God did by providing an atonement, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us” (8:2). Those who are not united to him remain under despair and wrath, but “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). He liberates us from the hopeless struggle and ushers us into a new life in which we no longer live according to that evil power of the flesh but according to the Spirit of the Lord (8:4).