The Problem is not the Law but Sin
As he did in Romans 6:1, 15: Romans 7:7, Paul moves his presentation forward by anticipating an argument from his detractors. This time we could phrase the question as follows: Did that good law become a cause of death? (Romans &13). As with the other three questions, he rigorously rejects the idea with an aggressive “By no means! Or Never!”
It was not the law that caused death, but sin. And how did sin accomplish that task? Paul’s answer is that it used the good commandments to bring about condemnation. And how did the law perform that function? It identified sin for what it was (cf. Romans 3:20; Romans 4:15; Romans 5:20: Romans 7:7). Thus, the law has the good and healthy function of pointing out the wrong and should not be blamed for the crime itself. All blame belongs to sin, which motivated the wrong actions.
Paul’s conclusion is as clear as can be in verse 13. The good law did not bring death. Rather it was sin that used the law for evil purposes.
But how could the law do such a thing? Answering that question begins in verse 14. Paul’s first point is a highlighting of the tension between the law, which is spiritual, and human beings, who are sinful (verse 14). He uses human experience as an illustration of that struggle.
And with that we arrive at one of the most controversial parts of the book of Romans. Most of the debate concerning Romans 7:14-25 centers on who the “I” is – whether it is Paul and/or whether it is referring to people before they become Christians or after they have done so. Unfortunately for that ongoing debate, that is not Paul’s concern. His interest focuses on the good law and how sin uses it to cause death.
The one fact that we can be certain of is that whoever the “I” is, it represents a person caught between good and evil. Here in chapter 7 we find individuals who know the good but cry out in anguish about their wretchedness when they don’t do what they should.
We need to remember that Paul is not describing the entirety of a Christian’s life. But even if that life is generally victorious and Christians have that peace and joy in their faith, yet at other times they still identify with Isaiah, who declared “Woe is me! . . . For I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5), and with Peter who in the midst of a crisis fell at Jesus’s feet exclaiming “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord (Luke 5:8).
Paul advances his argument related to how the good law is not responsible for death (Romans 7:13) in two stages in Verses 14-25. After introducing the tension in verse 13, the argument moves from the fact that (1) he does that which is evil, in spite of his good intentions (verses 15-17), to the further fact that (2) he cannot do that which is good, in spite of his desire to do so (verses 18-20).
For each of those two steps he arrives at the same conclusion; that the entity causing the problem is not the law but “sin which dwells within me” (verse 17). He repeats the same idea in verse 20 with the exact Greek words. Meanwhile, he reiterates that the law is good in verse 16.
His conclusion is certain. Paul has nailed it down from both directions. He does evil and fails to do good for the same reason – the sin that dwells within him. Thus he has exonerated the law from all guilt and successfully defended the proposition set forth in verse 12 that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” And he has answered the question of verse 13: “Did that which is good, then bring death to me?” He has moved beyond the mere denial of that fact (“By no means!”) to a demonstration of his claim that it was sin working through the law that was the culprit (verse 13).
Romans 7:21-25 puts forth five important ideas or principles. The first is that evil is always close at hand. Beginning in verse 21 Paul is cautioning believers to realize that being baptized and absorbing new loves and desires does not imply a miraculous physical brain transplant. No, we started our Christian life with a full computer bank of alluring images stored in our memories. As Paul puts it, “evil is present” in us (NASB).
The message of verse 21 is that because of their conversion Christians desire to do right; but that because evil is so close at hand (even being “present in” us), it can make the “flesh twitch without a person even having to think about it.
Principle number two in verses 21-25 has to do with the mark of the converted person. “I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self,” the apostle declares (verse 22). The truly converted person delights in God’s law.
Principle number three is the Christian’s profound sense of spiritual realism. Paul signals that realism with the word “but” in verse 23. He may have loved God’s law, but he found another law warring against his good desires.
Paul, in short, is not a naïve believer who sees the victory won once and for all. To the contrary, using military imagery he views the Christian life as being locked in deadly combat with the forces of evil. Yet even though he is facing serious challenges, it is significant that Paul hasn’t surrender to evil. The lesson is clear: the devil never gives up, and neither should Christians.
Principle number four is the mark of the repentant sinner, “Wretched man that I am? (verse 24). Many students of Romans 7 claim that Christians should never say such a thing about themselves. After all, they point out, the Christian life is one of joy, peace, and victory. Really? Have you never fallen? Have you never disappointed yourself, God, and others by an unloving action or a hasty word?
Principle number five in verses 21-25 is the joyful shout of those rescued from their terrible state by God through Jesus (verse 25). “Thanks be to God” is the exuberant cry of believers delivered by Christ from their wretchedness and the ongoing tension created by sin. The ecstatic shout provides the subject matter for chapter 8.
Next post will be Lesson 9, and be at 6:00 AM on Saturday December 2nd.