I don’t know about you, but when I’m reading the Bible, many sections cause me to pause, smile, and then review. Romans 7:14-20 is one such example.
In these verses, Paul is explaining to the believers in Rome the struggle he continually faced when it came to abiding by the law of God. Even when he wanted to be obedient, he found himself lamenting about things Paul had participated in that he knew were wrong. Although he was now a follower of Christ, he struggled to forget or blot out his past lures and transgressions.
When we read through these verses, it is clear that Paul utilised the writing technique of anaphora (a deliberate repetition of words and phrases). So, was the apostle Paul just having fun as a wordsmith, or was there a more holistic purpose at hand?
First, let’s have a quick look at the principal subjects of these verses: the conflict that is forever present between our two spiritual natures – good and sinful:
14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature [or flesh]. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now, if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.Romans 7:14-20
What is “good“, and what is “sin“. God’s Word gives us some clear definitions:
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” .
5For the Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever, and His faithfulness to all generations.
19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”Matthew 19:17; Psalm 100:5; Luke 18:19.
Okay, God is good…we are not.
20 He [Jesus] went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.Mark 7:20-23; 1 John 5:17; James 4:17
A few points of clarification:
In 1 John 5:17, the “death” referred to is not physical. John is referring to eternal death or damnation (getting sent to hell upon one’s death). He’s referring to the sins that we commit, of which we’re able to genuinely acknowledge (confess) and be forgiven by the grace of God.
6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”Revelation 21:6-7
Anything that transgresses the moral laws of God is a sin. See 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.
Notice the 26 pronouns Paul has selected to use (~16 per cent of the words):
- I: a Subject Pronoun that is used before the verb; it performs the action.
- Me: an Object Pronoun that is used after the verb; it receives the action.
- My: a Possessive Pronoun that shows who or what owns the noun.
- Myself: a Reflexive Pronoun that refers us back to the subject of the sentence.
For John, the subjects presented here are not merely subjective; it’s a very personal confession, which is particularly evident in verses 15 to 17.
The Bible clearly has a thing for repetition, so I’m sure you’ll appreciate that out of the 164 words used in these 6 verses, the auxiliary verb of “do” appears on 20 occasions ( ~12% of the words, or 23 times (~14%), when you count the present participle of “doing” in verse 19 and the auxiliary verb “does” in verses 18 and 20).
- 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature [or flesh]. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now, if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
- Do: a transitive verb – to perform, take part in, carry out or achieve something.
- Does: the main verb that can be used to talk about habits or behaviours. “Does” is the present tense third-person singular of “do”.
- Doing: a noun – a deed, action or performance that you are responsible for.
- 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do.
I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s very reassuring that the apostle Paul battled through the same evils as I have, or we, do. There are times in my life when I’ve asked, “Why did I do that? What’s wrong with me?”. The truth is, we’re at war, and although God’s already won, the Spirit of God (Ruakh) and His adversary, śāṭān, are in a perpetual battle for our souls.
- 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.
Was Paul (previously called Saul) exceedingly sinful? Well, we see in Acts 7:58 and 9 that he did nothing to prevent the stoning of Stephen. If anything, he’d agreed and was overseeing it and that of many other believers.
Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.
9 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
After Saul had been confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was then commissioned to support the embattled followers of Christ all over the Roman world. Saul was chosen because of his sinfulness. Once we know the truth and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the more aware we become of our own moral incompetence and failures.
17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.Romans 7:17
Now, although Paul knew that he was saved by grace through faith, and his “old self” was crucified with Christ (6:6), he was grieved by the memories and nature of the earthly life that he continued to occupy. He’s obviously frustrated that his fleshly body is still vulnerable to the lures of sin. Once again, this is a trial faced by all Christians until our spirits return to heaven.
18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.Romans 7:18
We see in 1 Corinthians 2-3 that there are 3 kinds of persons:
- The Natural man – Who we were before we were saved. “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”
- The Spiritual man – Who we are after we’re saved: born again, walking in the Spirit, “taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.”
- The Carnal man – Born again and converted, but still living in the energies of the fallen flesh. This is what Paul is struggling with. “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?”
19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now, if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.Romans 7:19-20
Paul was now a Christian. His problem is no different from that of the millions of Christian men and women today. Our souls are saved by the grace of God, and we know that come death, we’ll ascend into the community of heaven.
However, until that time comes, we’re trapped in our dying, sin ravaged and fleshy bodies. Paul understood this reality. He acknowledged that although he was saved, corruption continued to live within him. Take note, Paul isn’t excusing Christians of sin. Instead, he’s reminding us that even though we will continue to sin, our true identity isn’t determined or found in our actions.