From The Grace New Testament Commentary (Revised Edition)
By Zane Hodges
Our relationship to the law has ended (7:1-6)
7:1. Paul is now addressing those who know the law, in particular, Jewish believers and Gentiles who may have been connected with the synagogues before coming to faith in Christ.
The law only has authority over a person for as long as that person lives. This does not mean that it does not express any timeless principles of righteousness. But as a body of legislation, it was intended to regulate life on earth (e.g., Deut 25:4, quoted in 1 Cor 9:9). One of these, which Paul will now use as an example, is the law’s regulation of marriage.
7:2-3. The example chosen by Paul is one intended to teach by analogy the freedom the Christian has from the Mosaic law. Under the Mosaic legislation (leaving the issue of divorce aside), a married woman was not allowed to contract a new marriage while her husband was alive. Only upon his death was another marriage permissible, since otherwise such a second marriage would have been an act of adultery.
7:4. The fundamental consideration here is that through the body of Christ believers have been put to death to the law (see 6:3-4 and the discussion there). In Him we have died and are free from the law. We can therefore be properly married to Another Husband, namely to the One who was raised from the dead.
The aim of the new marriage is that we might bear fruit for God. Paul is thinking of the “fruit producing holiness” to which he has just referred (see 6:22).
Our new marriage to our Risen Lord—that is, our spiritual union with Him—is the true source of holiness. When we “walk in newness of life” (6:4) we are realizing our union with Him and “giving birth” to deeds of holiness.
7:5. In describing this pre-conversion experience, Paul switches from the plural “you” (v 4) to the plural “we” (vv 5-6). What he will now set forth had been his experience as well as theirs.
The law played a role in their experience in their unregenerate days. This role was manifested in the yearnings for sin that the law produced.
In the light of Paul’s subsequent statement about the law arousing lust (v 7), it is likely that he has in mind the way negative commands so easily awaken yearnings for forbidden sin.
In the unregenerate experience, Paul states, these yearnings were at work in our body’s members. Paul is thus suggesting that the yearnings to which the law gave rise operated with effect in the physical members of their bodies so that the result was fruit consummated by death (to bear fruit for death).
Such, then, was their law-based experience while they were in the flesh. But this need not be their experience any longer.
7:6. Paul has already stated this death to the law (v 4) and he now refers to it again (by dying to that by which we were held back).
Thus, believers are now free to serve in the newness of the Spirit, and not in the oldness of a written code.
Paul uses the word newness only here and in 6:4 in Romans. (These are its only two NT occurrences.) The “newness of life” in which it is now possible to walk by virtue of our union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (6:4) is nothing less than a service rendered to God in the newness of the Spirit.
This new life lived by means of the Spirit is contrasted with the oldness of a written code.
Paul’s word for serve here is the word for slave service and picks up from 6:22 his concept of being “enslaved to God.” The service we render to God in the newness of the Spirit is an expression of our inner man’s complete adherence to God’s will. This truth will shortly play a major role in Paul’s teaching in this chapter (see especially 7:22-24).
Our efforts to live under the law fail (7:7-25)
7:7. Paul now asks, Is the law itself sin?—that is, Is the law an instrument of sin and therefore fundamentally sinful? Far from it!
In fact, the law actually exposes sin so that it can be properly recognized as sin. There could be no better example of this function of the law than the case of lust. How could a person have perceived certain desires as sin if God had not pronounced them sin with the command, “You shall not lust”? But once the law had pointed out lust, human beings could recognize it for what it was—the expression of an evil urge.
7:8. This role of the law in exposing sin does not make the law sinful. On the contrary, sin takes advantage of the sinner through the commandment to produce what the law actually forbids. In the specific case of lust, sin took advantage of him to create in him every kind of lust.
The law made Paul aware of the evil dispositions his own heart was capable of harboring. In this way, sin took advantage of him by stimulating and drawing forth from him the sinful desires inherent in his sinful nature.
Therefore, insofar as sin lies unrecognized apart from the prohibition that the law announces, sin can be said to be dead. In other words, sin as such is not an issue until it takes on the character of sin. It is dead because no moral question is at stake in the human heart or mind. But the law raises a moral issue so that sin comes to life in an otherwise common, ordinary human attitude.
7:9. This verse marks an important turn in Paul’s discussion of the law, signaled by the emphatic I (Egō). Surprisingly, this is the first time in Romans that this personal pronoun appears, and this fact helps it to stand out. Furthermore, it occurs eight times from 7:9 through 7:25. Egō is the pivotal word of this section.
Paul continues to trade on the death/life analogy here. He himself was once alive without the law, but that condition ended when the law aroused sin, and at that point he died.
There is no coherent way that an experience like this can be sensibly assigned to the days when Paul was a self-righteous Pharisee. It is one thing to say that the law makes men conscious of sin, but quite another to describe them as alive without the law. “Life,” for Paul, when spiritually considered, is sourced in Christ.
Paul is referring to a time in his Christian experience when he was living in harmony with God, that is, he was walking by the Spirit (cf. 8:13). But then the law confronted him with one of its commands (when the commandment came) and aroused sin in him, resulting in the end of his harmonious experience of life (I died).
Paul’s experience here has been replicated countless times in the experience of Christians, particularly those young in the faith. After their conversion they were living joyously. But suddenly they were confronted with a command that they either did not know or had forgotten. Their joy was suddenly replaced by a struggle with temptation, their struggle ended in defeat and sin, and their experience of walking with God was terminated. From being alive, they had passed over into an experience of death. They had died exactly as Paul later warns (8:13).
7:10-11. Of course, God intended that the commands of the law should have a positive, not a negative, effect. The words translated the very commandment intended to produce life show that the law’s actual purpose was to keep man from the deeds that lead to death. But through sin’s allurement, the commandment instead produced for Paul an experience of death. It did this by taking advantage of his sinful proclivities, deceived him about the value of the sinful act and, once he had committed it, sin had killed him. A vibrant experience with God (fellowship with Him) was terminated.
7:12-13. The experience of “dying” that Paul has just described in no way diminishes the sanctity of the law. It remains holy and righteous and good. These adjectives are probably not intended by Paul to represent distinct characteristics of the law, but rather are a rhetorical instrument for underlining the law’s complete moral perfection.
But was the law a deadly instrument for Paul?
Far from it! The law served its basic purpose of making sin known (Rom 3:20). Even in the spiritual “fall” Paul has described (vv 9-11), the law still exposed the character of sin as being just that—sin.
Indeed, sin’s successful utilization of the law enhanced the condemnation under which the law had placed it. This happened because sin—to the end that it might appear as sin—produced death for Paul through what was good. In other words, a desire is proved to be sinful whenever it is confronted by God’s commandment and refuses to die. The fact that this impulse had led to sin and death in the very face of the commandment forbidding it was further evidence that it was truly sin. In other words, sin used a good thing (the law) to produce death, and it was allowed to do this in order that more than ever it might appear as the sinful thing it was.
In this way, the sinfulness of sin was enhanced. Obviously it was sin if the law said so, but the fact that sin acted in defiance of the divine command, producing death, made it supremely sinful. Sin becomes sinful “in the extreme” when it does its work in direct contravention of God’s known will.
7:14. Furthermore, the law is not only good, it is spiritual. It is not mundane or fleshly but partakes of the spiritual nature of the God who gave it.
The problem is that I myself am fleshly. Paul found himself under the dominion of sin. Sin ruled him precisely because of his basic human nature.
As a fleshly person by nature, Paul describes himself as sold under…sin. Here Paul uses again the concept of man’s enslavement to sin (6:16-21) and he uses the terminology of the slave market (sold) to make his point. It is doubtful that Paul has in mind any specific occasion on which this selling occurred. The word sold seems obviously rhetorical and portrays the complete helplessness (apart from God’s deliverance, Romans 8) of his servitude to sin.
7:15. The statement, I don’t know what I am accomplishing, describes an ineffectual struggle that is consistent with his recognition of his bondage.
Specifically, what I wish is not what I do, but what I hate is what I do. Thus, from the very start of this memorable discussion (which goes down to v 25), the problem is focused on the issue of Paul’s will. What he wills cannot be carried out.
The key word in Paul’s statement is the Greek verb thelō, translated here by the word wish. In the present section (7:15-25), it occurs seven times. Paul is beginning to show here how Christian living is far more than a determined exercise of the will. Indeed, for true Christian living, the Christian’s own personal wishes can never accomplish his goals. This is a truth that will emerge clearly by the end of chap. 7.
7:16-17. The futility of Paul’s struggle with sin leads to a discerning self-analysis. If he is in fact doing what he does not wish to do, it follows from this that at the level of his innermost desires he is agreeing with the law that it is good. He means that when he violates the law in some particular way, his inward desire to do otherwise shows that he fully agrees that what the law commands on this point is good. He is thus aware that what he does is evil.
Given what Paul has just said about his inward—but ineffectual—desire to do what the law prescribes, his disobedience to the law must be ultimately assigned to the sin that dwells in him. It is not to be assigned to his inner self (I myself).
In making the statement that it is no longer I myself who accomplishes it, Paul picks up the same word (katergazomai) that he had used in v 15. His frustration that he cannot accomplish what he truly desires (i.e., obedience to God) is now resolved into the realization that his disobedience is in fact the accomplishment of sin. Thus, at the level of his “inward man” (see v 22), he remains “enslaved” to God’s law (v 25). In the words we are looking at, Paul gives expression to the truth that the Christian’s inner self remains sinless (see the discussion under v 25).
7:18-19. The sharp differentiation between sin and himself that Paul has just made (v 17) facilitates the recognition that he fundamentally lacks the ability to do any good thing. There is no good thing that dwells in him, that is, in the flesh. To be sure, his inward man has the capacity to wish to do that which is good. The capacity to desire this lies ready at hand for him. That is not the problem. But the ability to accomplish what is good is absent because of his flesh.
With the statements of these verses, Paul is beginning to show that “the body [his flesh] is dead because of sin” (8:10). His complete inability to accomplish what is good is because he dwells in a spiritually dead body. Try as he may, he is unable to discover how to surmount the impediment of his body in order to obey God’s law.
The expression I do not discover is of interest. The experience Paul is describing is more than one in which he futilely tries and fails. It is also an experience of seeking to find out (discover) how to do what God desires him to do (cf. v 24).
Paul’s words therefore hint that the believer often does not find the secret of victorious Christian living until he is urgently seeking to discover it.
7:20. Paul repeats the conclusion already expressed in v 17, emphasizing this point. In his innermost self, he is in harmony with God’s will (see v 22). Thus, Paul affirms that when I myself act contrary to my deepest desire, I myself do not in fact really do the evil thing. Instead the sin that dwells in me does it.
Both in v 17 and here, the English phrase I myself is emphatic. The Greek pronoun in this passage is used consistently as a reference to Paul’s deepest, truest self that wants to do good.
7:21. Paul’s experience has allowed him to discover the fact that when he wishes to do what is good, evil lies ready at hand for him.
This discovery takes the form of a law (this law). It is an unbreakable principle that is invariably operative in his human experience. That is, this law pertains to him and impacts his personal experience as he struggles against sin.
Paul does not share the illusion that some modern Christians have that if we have been regenerated, then obedience to God’s law is both simple and natural. They are forgetting a fact of which Paul was painfully conscious—that although the Spirit within us is life, the physical body remains dead to God’s will (see 8:10). They are forgetting the law Paul is referring to here.
7:22-23. Paul elaborates the concept of law. We note four “laws” here: (1) the law of God; (2) another law in my body’s members; (3) the law of my understanding; and (4) the law of sin which is in my body’s members.
Of course, by the term law of God Paul has in mind chiefly the Mosaic moral code. In that law his inward man can and does delight.
But another law in his body’s members opposes the willingness of his inward man to conform to God’s law. That law is actually waging war with the desire of his inward man. In the light of v 25 (see discussion there), Paul most likely means by this particular law the inclination of his sinful flesh which always desires the opposite of what the Spirit desires (see also Gal 5:16-17).
The desire of his inward man to obey God’s law is expressed by the term the law of my understanding. Paul means by this that his inward man understands that the law is “holy” and “spiritual” (vv 12 and 14) and that its command is “holy and righteous and good” (v 12). Therefore, it is highly desirable.
But the law in his body’s members (law #2) overcomes the desire of the law of his understanding (law #3). It does so by utilizing the law of sin which is in his body’s members (law #4) so that by means of this law (#4), he is taken captive.
This final law (the law of sin) can be understood as the “reign” of sin in his physical flesh (see 6:12) resulting in the subservience of his physical body to its dictates. Thus the impulses of his body, by means of its enslavement to the law of sin, are invariably aligned against his desire for obedience to God. These impulses thus become a law in his body’s members (#3) that is driven by the law of sin (#4). The result is Paul’s captivity to “the evil thing” that he does “not wish to do” (v 19).
7:24-25. Paul found the situation he described intolerable. The disconnect between his inward, holy desires and the impulses/actions of his physical body left him wretched. He cried out wondering who might be able to deliver him from the body of this kind of death. The solution became plain to him (v 25).
Paul means exactly what his words suggest here. The Christian person—who has Christ in Him—lives in a spiritually dead body, as is plainly stated in 8:10. The body is therefore like a dead albatross hanging around the spiritual “neck” of the regenerate inward man. It continually drags him down to defeat.
He states the answer at once. He is thankful that God can deliver through Jesus Christ our Lord. This triumphant assertion prepares the way for Paul’s exposition of victorious Christian living that follows in the next chapter.
But before launching that discussion, he pauses to summarize the conclusions to be drawn from the experience described in 7:7-24.
Out of his frustrating experience of spiritual defeat, two truths emerge clearly. First, I myself serve the law of God with my understanding (inward man, see v 22). Second, with the flesh I serve the law of sin.
His inner servitude to God’s law is counterbalanced by his servitude to the law of sin. The former servitude cannot find expression because of the latter servitude. The fruitless struggle described in the preceding verses (vv 15-23) has made this fact plain.
Paul’s understanding is the sphere in which the law is served, while the flesh is the instrument with which he carries out sin’s desires.
Finally, we must notice that in the first clause of this last statement, Paul says that the “real I” does not sin.
In this kind of treatment of the problem of sin, we meet a concept not unlike that found in 1 John 3:9 and 5:18. There the regenerate person is said not to sin nor to be able to sin. Due to the fact that God’s “seed remains in” the regenerate person, “he cannot sin because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9). It is easy to see that this “impossibility” that John describes can be conveyed by Paul’s metaphor about being “enslaved” to the law of God. Paul’s “inward man” does not, and cannot, “do” the sin he hates (Rom 7:20-23).
Zane Hodges was a pastor, author, and professor of Greek at Dallas Theological Seminary. He was promoted to glory in 2008.