Struggling With Sin

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Now I’m encouraged, as I hope you are too, as we come to Romans 7, to discover that the Apostle Paul was himself struggling – struggling or wrestling with the place of God’s law in Christian discipleship and struggling with sin. We’re not always very open with each other about our own struggle with sin are we? Perhaps that’s out of fear or because of pride. But Paul is open here. He’s struggled with covetousness (v8) and more generally with keeping on doing the evil he doesn’t want to do (v19). And he sees this ongoing battle with sin as the normal experience of a Christian believer this side of heaven. Indeed Paul sees this ongoing battle with sin and against sin as proof that someone is a genuine Christian.

Now we’ll come back to the Christian believer’s struggle with sin a little later but first we must look at the first 13 verses of this chapter as Paul continues his argument that as justified believers we are not under law but under grace, a truth he repeats twice in verses 14 and 15 of chapter 6.

And he does so by showing in verses 1 to 6 of chapter 7 that Christians have been released from the law of God. Now some of you are thinking - released from the law of God? Surely Christians still have a responsibility to obey God's law – don’t they? Jesus himself said in Matthew 5 that he hadn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfil the law. So what does Paul mean that we are "not under law but under grace"? And that "we have died to the law" and so have been released from the law (Romans 7:4)? Certainly the meaning is not that Christians have been freed from all moral authority. However Christians have been freed from the law in the manner in which God's people were under law in the Old Testament era. You see although the law itself is good, it does not provide any help in resisting the power of sin, it only condemns the sinner. The law reveals sin, not salvation. It brings wrath, not grace. Nobody has ever succeeded in obeying the law of God and therefore it can never be the way of salvation. Romans 3:27:

“Sinners are justified by God, not through obeying the law but through faith in Christ. [And Romans 3:31:] …such faith upholds the law.”

For example, Abraham: the way he received God's promise was not through

“law but through the righteousness that comes by faith”
(Romans 4:13).

So in saying that we are not under law but under grace Paul is referring to the way of being put right with God - which is not by our obedience to the law, but by God's grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone. Also Galatians 5:18 says that "if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law". There Paul is referring to the way of sanctification or becoming more like Christ, which is not by struggling to keep the law on our own, but by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. It is in these two ways that we have been released or freed from the law. But does this mean that we ignore the law of God? No. As chapters 8&13 of Romans point out, the moral law remains a revelation of God's will, which he still expects his people to fulfil by living lives of righteousness and love.

These truths are important for us to grasp today. Because we can get the balance wrong and end up at one of two different extremes. One extreme is 'yes we are saved by grace and therefore we are free to live as we please'. We can ignore God’s law - it no longer has any authority over us. Therefore we can sin more freely. Perhaps we find ourselves saying, 'I can do this, God will forgive me anyway, so what's the big deal?’ Sadly some leaders in the wider church set themselves against God’s law. They declare that the law is altogether abolished in the Christian life, that the Christian has nothing to do with the law and vice versa. The other extreme says we’re saved by grace to be sure but we must live under the law if we’re to continue to be accepted by God. Do you recognize that? But that’s legalism. Legalism which says we’re under the law still because our relationship with God depends on our obedience to the law. But no. In Christ we’re not under
law, but under grace.

So what’s the correct balance? The proper biblical balance is this – in Christ we are free to serve and obey God in the power of the Spirit to fulfil the law. So let's now look more closely at what Paul says to the legalists and to those at the other extreme in the first 13 verses of Romans 7. To the legalists Paul stresses in verses 1 to 6, that Christians have been released from the law. To those at the other extreme Paul gives, in verses 7 to 13, a defence of the law.


Here Paul argues that Christians are not under law because by dying to the law with Christ we’ve been released from it and we now belong to Christ instead. Look at the principle in verse 1:

“Do you not know… that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives?”

The one and only thing which releases us from the law is death. And in verses 2 and 3 we have an illustration of this principle from marriage.

“For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man.”

So the law binds but death frees. If a married woman's husband dies while she’s alive, she’s no longer a wife – she’s released from the marriage law and is free to remarry. Why does one remarriage make her an adulteress and the other not? Well the clear answer is that the second marriage is legitimate only if death has ended the first. Death has set her free to marry again. So death decisively changes a person's relationship to the law. And just as death terminates a marriage, so death ends our bondage to the law. Verse 4:

“So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.”

So we’re not under law if we’re in Christ because "we also died to the law through the body of Christ". And since we’ve died to the law, death has removed us altogether out of that sphere in which the law exercises lordship. The awful penalty for sin demanded by the law has been borne - by Christ in our place. Therefore because the demands of the law have been met in the death of Christ, we’re no longer under the law, but under grace. If we’ve died with Christ then we’ve died to the law, the law has no more hold on us - the law's curse or condemnation on our sin has been taken away. In the earlier illustration from marriage it is the death of one which renders the other free to marry again. In the Christian life it is our own death (in Christ) that sets us free to marry again, so to speak. We used to be married to the law of God and under its authority. But as death ends a marriage and permits remarriage, so we also died to the law through the body of Christ, so that we might remarry and belong to another - to the risen Christ. And we are free, free to be joined to Christ in order that what? That we may do as we please? No - in order that we might be fruitful for God. Look at verses 5 and 6.

“For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”

Our natural tendency is to desire the forbidden thing isn't it - if the law or rule says no - it becomes more attractive. And that leads to death and final separation from God - that was the fruit of our union or marriage to the law. But now, verse 6, we have been released from the law to become slaves of God in the power of the Spirit.

So is the law still binding on Christians and are we still expected to obey it now that we've been released from it? Well the answer is No and Yes! No the law isn’t binding on Christians, in the sense that our acceptance before God doesn’t depend on it. Christ in his death fully met the demands of the law, so it no longer has any claims on us. But Yes we are still to obey God's law - Christian freedom is freedom to serve, not freedom to sin. Why do we as Christians serve God and obey his law? Not because the law is our master and we have to but because we are now united with Christ, our new Master, and we want to. Not because obedience leads to salvation but because salvation leads to obedience. The law says, 'Do this and you will live'. The gospel says, 'You live, so do this'. And how do we serve? Not in the old way of the written code but in the new way of the Spirit. So secondly Paul gives

Secondly A DEFENCE OF THE LAW v7-13

His words here are largely a check on those at the other extreme to legalism. The technical word for such people is antinomian, which literally means ‘against law’. Now some at Rome may have been thinking that Paul was against law as he seemed to be saying that the law was responsible for sin and death; and that until we’re released from the law we cannot be committed to Christ or live a Spirit controlled life. So they could’ve been thinking, ‘Is the law sin?’ ‘Does it lead to death?’ ‘Should it be done away with?’ But Paul is very clear in his response to this. Look at verse 7.

“What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! [On the contrary v12] the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.”

The law in itself does not encourage people to sin and the law is not the origin of sin and death. No Paul says it is our fallen human nature which is to blame for them. The law of God in itself is holy, righteous, good and spiritual (v14) even though it is unable to save us. Yes the law may arouse or provoke sin (v8, 9 and 11). Yes the law is unable give life, verse 10:

“I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.”

Yes instead of producing holiness it stimulated sin. BUT NO the law is not sin. In fact it reveals sin and makes us more aware of sin verse 7:

Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet”.

For Paul it especially revealed an internal sin as it no doubt does in us. The law of itself condemns sin (v9-11) and shows the sinner that they’re guilty. Indeed the law shows the sinfulness of sin (v13) because it shows how sin has used or misused something good like the law to produce tragic results.

So the real culprit in all this is sin which is hostile to God’s law. Sin twists the function of the law from revealing, exposing and condemning sin into encouraging and even provoking it. The law is not in itself sinful, nor is it responsible for sin. No, it is sin itself, our sinful nature, which uses the law to cause us to sin and so to die. So (v13) the law does not cause death but rather sin causes death by exploiting the law. You see take a criminal today. A man is caught red handed breaking the law. He’s arrested, brought to trial, found guilty and sentenced to prison. He cannot blame the law for his imprisonment. True, it’s the law which convicted and sentenced him. But he has no-one to blame but himself and his own criminal behaviour. In a similar way Paul exonerates the law. The villain of the piece is sin. Antinomians who argue that the whole problem is the law are wrong. Our problem is not the law but sin. The law can’t save us because we can’t keep it and we can’t keep it because of indwelling sin. All of which brings to my final point. So


Now in the original verse 14 is connected to verse 13 by the word ‘for’ so Paul is clearly continuing to explain his relationship with God’s law. But now he switches to the present tense and speaks specifically of his ongoing battle, as a believer, with sin this side of heaven. It’s a passage which should encourage many of us as we experience the same. But it’s also a passage which should challenge those who don’t experience this battle. For Paul sees this ongoing battle with sin as proof that someone is a genuine Christian.

In verse 14 Paul identifies a problem. Although the law is spiritual, he himself is “unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin”. Now we might be thinking how is it possible for him to say this in the light of what he’s already said in chapter 6, where we were assured that Christians have been set free from sin? Well he goes on to explain. Have a look at v14-20 where Paul outlines his experience. He finds that there’s a tension between his intentions and his actions. He has the desire to do what is good, but finds he cannot carry it out (v18). Despite good desires and intentions, he does evil instead (v19). Certainly that is my experience – and I’m sure it’s the experience of many of us. And in verses 16 to 20 Paul draws an implication from his contradictory experience. And it’s this. His good intention demonstrates that, despite his inability to obey consistently, he does agree with God’s good law. And he concludes that ultimately, as a believer, it is not he who is responsible for doing wrong, but sin inside him (v17) which, again is shown to be utterly rebellious. In verses 18 to 20 he goes over this again, this time identifying his sinful nature as the culprit.

So how does Paul explain this? Well have a look at verse 21 to 23. He says there’s a conflict between his inner being, regenerated by the Spirit, and his flesh or sinful nature. As a justified believer, he knows that his inner being has been captured by God, and that at his very heart he’s been set free from sin. Now he’s a slave to God and to his law (v25), meaning that his will agrees with, and delights in, God’s law, wanting to obey it and therefore hating his constant rebellion. Waging war against the Christian’s inner being is his flesh, which he refers to as his ‘members’ (v23) and his ‘body of death’ (v24). This aspect of a believer remains a slave to sin, belonging still to the realm of sin and death (v14&25). So despite the protestations of the inner being, the flesh continues to do what is wrong and rebels against God’s law. This phenomenon is different from the rebellion that was being described earlier in Romans 1. There, there was no battle, because our inner being was set, fundamentally, against God’s rule. So only the genuine Christian will experience this battle. Although many unbelievers want to live better lives than they do, fundamentally they do not want to glorify God. The struggle that Paul writes about here is the consequence of living in the overlap of two realms. The Christian’s inner being is under the influence of the realm of grace and life (5:21) but, while living in this world, his or her sinful nature remains in the realm, and under the mastery, of sin and death (5:14). So in the Christian life there is a struggle between what we want to do and what, in fact, we do, while sin continues to assault our mortal, unresurrected bodies. This you might say is the normal Christian experience of struggling against sin. But there is hope. Paul’s cry for relief in v24, though desperate, is not hopeless. The answer to his question he provides himself in verse 25:

“Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The rescue that is accomplished through Christ will bring relief from our struggle with the flesh. And as we’ll see in chapter 8 Paul tells us that the fulfillment of this rescue will happen when our bodies are resurrected. Who needs to hear this reassuring message? You’re struggling with sin. You’re weary from the ongoing temptations to sin and from your constant failure to obey. Well Paul’s affirmation that we needn’t pretend we’re unscathed by such battles will come as a great relief. Paul describes this conflict as normal for Christians this side of heaven and encourages us to join with him in the desperate cry of verse 24 and to hold on to the certain answer of verse 25. But Paul doesn’t say we won’t resist sin – no we must resist sin as he taught back in Romans 6. God’s law is good, it is sin that is evil. This struggle must never be an excuse for living our lives our way. You can’t genuinely be following Christ whilst at the same time be living in sin, pretending that it doesn’t matter. However there is forgiveness for those who genuinely repent, trusting in Jesus Christ.

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