In Romans chapter 7 we come to one of the most remarkable passages in all of Paul’s writings. For here the apostle of Christ bares his very soul, and exposes his most intimate spiritual experience of the law of God and of sin in his human nature. The main discourse we have is in answer to the question of verse 7, Is the law sin? Paul is resolute in his determination to answer every possible allegation of the educated Jew whom he sees pitted against his defence of God’s law and its ultimate purpose of life and well-being. He is still in the debating hall, and ready to plead from his personal experience of life.
But first he buttresses his past and future argument with an analogy from everyday life, marriage and its sanctity and permanence in God’s sight. ‘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 … she is released from that law, and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man. 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’ (vv. 2-4). It is a neat and telling figure with which to reinforce the point made in chapter 6 about dying with Christ and dying to sin, so freeing the believer for a new and fruitful union.
‘So, what shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law … For apart from law sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.’ Paul is now speaking of the interaction between the law, itself holy, righteous and good, and inherent sin in himself. This interaction between the perceived law of God, and inherent sin, which sprang to life in the youthful Saul’s experience as he grew into years of understanding and responsibility, leads him to say, starkly, I died. His conscience was awakened, and he became responsible as a sinner by practice as well as by nature. He now knew he was under God’s condemnation as a sinner. No, the law itself is not sin; by no means. But sin in Paul’s fallen human nature, responding to the law, brought conviction and guilt.
In fact, says the apostle, ‘We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual (or carnal, fleshly in some translations), sold as a slave to sin.’ Then comes the candid confession of Paul’s sense of internal conflict, one which every honest Christian readily recognizes in himself. It contrasts what he or she longs to do consistently in obedience to the Lord, with repeated failure due to the old sinful nature, ‘the flesh’, remaining. It is a failure which casts us down with a sense of despair, ‘When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.’ Clear distinction is drawn between what Paul variously calls, ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my mind’, or ‘my inner being’ on the one hand; and ‘sin at work in my members’, on the other. ‘It is no longer I,’ He says, ‘who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.’ But Paul is not excusing or justifying sin. Hence, verse 24, ‘What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’
The Holy Spirit, Himself guiding the writer’s train of thought, does not keep Paul waiting for an answer. ‘Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ We need to look elsewhere in the New Testament writings to fill out this expression of relief and assurance. The same servant of God was to write to the Philippian Church that, ‘the Lord Jesus Christ … will transform our lowly bodies (in some translations graphically and grimly described as our vile bodies) so that they will be like his glorious body’ (3:21). Only when our bodies, which are the instruments of our sinful nature, are changed and glorified at the Lord’s coming, will this constant conflict be at an end for ever. Till then, as the final verse of Romans chapter 7 says, in summing up, ‘I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.’
But that is not the whole story! It does not mean that the Christian can only look forward to an unrelieved struggle in which the conflict described so vividly in chapter 7, casts a seemingly perpetual dark shadow over his life. No, Paul has more to say. Another chapter of this story awaits us in Romans 8. It is the triumphant story of the Holy Spirit at work in the believer.