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Updated 1/2/08

Commonly Distorted Verses

(Romans 7)

Many people believe that Romans 7:14-25 shows that even Paul had a sin problem as a Christian.  The primary justification for this belief is that Paul is speaking in the present tense in this passage, so he must be referring to the present time when it was written.  If you read Rom. Ch. 7 along with Ch. 6 & 8 and are familiar with what the book of Romans and the rest of the Bible say, it is absolutely clear that he is talking about his past self under the law and not as a Christian.

            In order to correctly interpret this passage from Romans chapter 7, we must first put ourselves in the proper context (it would be very helpful to have a Bible open to Romans in front of you).  It will be important to know what is meant by "the law," as it is used throughout the entire book of Romans.  "The law" is simply the Old Testament commands and rituals (contained in the first five books of the Bible) that God gave the Israelites to follow, more formally known as "The Law of Moses."  Throughout the book of Romans, one key issue that the apostle Paul discusses is the difference between being under the Law of Moses and having faith in Jesus Christ.  Paul argues extensively that living by faith in Christ under the power of the Holy Spirit is the true way to serve God, as opposed to living according to the law.  Two of his main points are, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law" (Rom. 3:28) and "It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith" (Rom. 4:13).  Understanding this context of life under the law versus faith in Christ will help us to properly understand Romans chapters 6, 7, and 8.

            Before we approach the passage from Romans 7, we will begin our discussion in chapter 6.  In this chapter, Paul thoroughly addresses the issue of sinfulness and life as a Christian.  Throughout the chapter, he describes how Christians have overcome the sinful nature with statements like:

  • "For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin." (Rom. 6:6-7)

  • "For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace." (Rom. 6:14)

  • "But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness." (Rom. 6:17-18)

  • "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life." (Rom. 6:22)

            At the beginning of chapter 7, Paul turns his discussion to "the law."  In verses 1-6, he argues that believers have died to the law through Christ and so are released from the law to serve Christ in "...the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code" (Rom. 7:6).  In verse 7, Paul says, "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 I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet.""  Paul then proceeds in verses 8-13 by saying, "...sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire..." (v. 8), "Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died" (v. 9), "...the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good" (v. 12), and "...in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful" (v. 13).

            So with this context in mind of Christian freedom from sin (Ch. 6) and life under the Law of Moses (Ch. 7), along with the overall contrast of law vs. faith, we can now properly begin to interpret the commonly distorted passage, Rom. 7:14-25.  To consider that Paul is describing his life as a Christian in the coming verses, we would have to believe that Paul drops his entire train of thought, disregards all the points he has been building, and randomly begins talking about his struggles with sin as a Christian.  On the contrary, Paul's thought process continues smoothly, with the chapter 7 context about life under the law persisting from verse 13 to verse 14, as he begins to further describe his life under the Jewish law that "produced in [him] every kind of covetous desire," (Rom. 7:8) and that aroused sinful passions "...so that [he] bore fruit for death" (Rom. 7:5).  This logical transition is also seen clearly by looking at verse 14 itself.  Paul says, "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin." (Rom. 7:14).  He is still talking about "the law" and the struggles living under that covenant, not under the new covenant of the Spirit as a follower of Christ.  The phrase "sold as a slave to sin" should catch one’s attention as Paul just finished describing in the previous chapter how Christians "...died to sin; how can [they] live in it any longer?" (Rom. 6:2), "...should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin" (Rom. 6:6-7), "...used to be slaves to sin..." (Rom. 6:17), and again, "...have been set free from sin..." (Rom. 6:18, 22).  So, does Paul glorify God immensely for His deliverance from sin in chapter 6, and then say that in all actuality, he himself is still a slave to sin in chapter 7?

            In the next verse in Romans chapter 7, Paul says, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do" (Rom. 7:15).  So, Paul is saying that he wants to do good, but only finds himself doing what he hates.  This chapter probably gets interpreted incorrectly a lot of the time because so many professing Christians can, unfortunately, relate very well to this contradictory lifestyle.  In verse 16, Paul says, "And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.Again, we see that he is still talking about "the law," not faith.  Looking at verse 17, Paul says, "it is sin living in me" that is the cause of his disobedience.  If Paul is describing himself as a Christian, it would clearly contradict what 1 John 2:10 says about the man who loves his brother (which is something that must be true of all Christians according to 1 John 3:14-15 and 4:19-21).  1 John 2:10 says, "Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble."  So, in Romans chapter 7, there is sin living in Paul, however we know from the book of 1 John that Christians have "nothing in [them] to make [them] stumble."  Moving on to verse 18 in Romans 7, Paul says, "I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out."  Clearly, at this time in his life, Paul still has the sinful nature controlling him.  This leads to another great method for how to interpret this passage, as Gal. 5:24 says, "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires."  Comparing these two verses, we see that Paul is controlled by the sinful nature in Romans 7, however we know from Galatians 5 that all Christians have "crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires."  Also, just 13 verses earlier, Paul describes life before being saved as "when we were in the flesh" (Rom. 7:5, KJV), meaning that Christians are no longer in the flesh (their sinful nature is dead).  The second part of Rom. 7:18 ("For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out") is another clear indicator that Paul is describing his past self under the law.  This is because previously in Rom. 2:7, he says, "To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.It would obviously be impossible to have "persistence in doing good" if you are unable to do what is good.  Furthermore, being unable to do what is good also contradicts verses that encourage us to do what is good, such as, "For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them" (Eph. 5:8-11), and "...as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right" (2 Thess. 3:13).  Going on to verse 19 in Romans, Paul says, "For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing."  So, Paul says here that he is continuing to do evil.  This is the complete opposite of the Christian lifestyle that is described throughout the New Testament:

  • "No one who lives in [Jesus] keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him." (1 John 3:6)

  • "No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God." (1 John 3:9)

  • "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God." (Heb. 10:26-27)

  • "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" (Rom. 6:1-2)

            Verses 20 and 21 in Romans 7 say, "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. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me."  Then, in verse 22, Paul says, "For in my inner being I delight in God's law."  Once more, we see that he is talking about "the law" and even that he "delights" in it.  The New Testament, however, does not teach Christians to delight in the Law of Moses.  For example, Gal. 3:25 says, "Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law."  Moving on to verses 23 and 24, Paul says, "but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?"  Here, Paul describes himself as a "wretched man," which, again, is clearly not how Christians are described in the New Testament.  At the end of verse 24, Paul says, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (the phrase "body of death" is referring to what Paul has been describing for the past 11 verses—the sinful nature) (Note).  Paul's response to this is, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom. 7:25).  So, Jesus rescues people from the "body of death!"  And, this rescue includes freedom from the sinful deeds of that nature, as seen in Romans chapters 6 and 8, as well as forgiveness for those sinful deeds.  Christ's deliverance does not simply mean he will take us to heaven but let us keep on sinning as prisoners of the evil nature—it means that Jesus will give us salvation (John 3:16, 1 Thess. 5:9-10) and that he will liberate us from our sins (1 Pet. 2:21-25, John 8:31-36, 1 John 3:4-6, 1 John 3:8-9, 1 John 5:18).  This truth was thoroughly displayed in Paul’s previous statements from chapter 6: "We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" (v. 2), "For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace" (v. 14), and "You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness" (v. 18).  Finally, in the last sentence of chapter 7, Paul says, "So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin" (Rom. 7:25).  Here, he appears to summarize this previous life under the law that he has been describing, where "in [his] mind" he is a slave to God’s law (he thinks he is serving God), but "in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin" (he is actually living sinfully).  With Paul being a devout Pharisee in his pre-Christian life (Philip. 3:4-6), this final sentence makes complete sense, because that is how the Pharisees lived.  They were hypocrites who thought they were serving God, but were actually servants of sin (see Mat. 23 verses 1-3, 15, 25, and 28).

            As we enter chapter 8, Paul's perspective changes to the Christian life.  In verses 1-2, he says, "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.Here, Paul makes it even more clear that through Christ, he was set free from "the law of sin and death."  Looking back to chapter 7 verses 23 and 25, Paul said that there is something waging war against him, making him a "prisoner to the law of sin," and that in the sinful nature he is a "slave to the law of sin."  Now, in these first two verses of chapter 8, he says that the law of the Spirit of life "set [him] free from the law of sin and death."  This demonstrates a clear distinction between two times in Paul’s life.  The latter time (chapter 8) is his life as a Christian, so the earlier time (chapter 7) must be his former life under the law, before Christ was revealed to him.  The New International Version also left out even more of the distinction Paul describes in verses 1-2.  In the King James Version, Paul says, "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:1-2, KJV).  So, Paul says that those who are in Christ walk "not after the flesh" (referring to the life he describes in Rom. 7:14-25), but "after the Spirit" (referring to the life described in chapters 6 and 8).  In verses 3 and 4 of chapter 8, we find out why Paul was unable to carry out the good he wanted to do (Rom. 7:18).  He says, "For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8:3-4).  So, Paul could not do what is good because life under the law provides no deliverance from the sinful nature.  However, God accomplished this deliverance "by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering," and now, through Christ, we can be free from the captivity of the sinful nature, as we see that "the righteous requirements of the law" can be fully met in Christians, "...who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit."  This undoubtedly shows that Christ’s deliverance is from the sinful nature as well as from eternal punishment.  Continuing in verses 5-8, Paul describes some differences between life under the law and faith in Christ.  He says, "Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires" (v. 5), "The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace;" (v. 6), "the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so" (v. 7), and "Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God" (v. 8).  These last two verses about the sinful nature (not being able to submit to God's law and not being able to please God) further explain Paul’s unsuccessful struggles in chapter 7, especially in 7:18 where Paul says, "…I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out."  Paul then tells his readers in chapter 8, verse 9, "You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ."  This verse shows that all Christians are not controlled by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, which allows us to conclude that people who live how Paul describes in Rom. 7:14-25 (those controlled by the sinful nature) are not really Christians.  Finally, in verses 13 and 14, Paul says, "For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God."  Here, Paul concludes his discussion of law vs. faith in chapter 8 by saying that those who live according to the sinful nature will die (will not inherit eternal life), but those who, by the Spirit, "put to death the misdeeds of the body," will live (inherit eternal life).  Clearly, he is saying that people who continue to live sinfully (as described in Rom. 7:14-25) are not true Christians, and those who truly have faith in Christ have "put to death the misdeeds of the body."  Otherwise, they would still be controlled by the sinful nature, if they are still bearing "fruit for death" (Rom. 7:5).  (The rest of Romans chapter 8 goes on to describe some different aspects of the Christian life)

            As we ventured through these three chapters of the book of Romans, we saw a detailed contrast of two lives.  In chapter 6, Paul describes life as a Christian having freedom from sin.  In Chapter 7 (specifically verses 7-25), he describes his past life under the Law of Moses, and how he wanted to obey God but could not because he did not have the deliverance from sin that can only be obtained through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Finally, in chapter 8, he further contrasts these two lives, reinforcing his argument that Christ sets us free from the power of sin and enables us to walk in obedience to God's commands.

Looking to other parts of the New Testament can also help us understand Romans chapter 7.  The following verses describe how Paul and other Christians lived (by the power of the Holy Spirit):

2 Cor. 1:12 - Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God. We have done so not according to worldly wisdom but according to God's grace.

1 Thess. 2:10 - You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.

The life that Paul describes in Romans 7:14-25 is the polar opposite of the life that he describes throughout the rest of his New Testament letters.  In one life he is "sold as a slave to sin," "a wretched man," and he "desires to do what is good but cannot carry it out."  In the other life, Paul is "holy, righteous and blameless" and, by "God's grace" has conducted himself "in the holiness and sincerity that are from God."  Romans 7:14-25 is without a doubt describing Paul's past life under the Law of Moses.

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|  Our Righteous Acts Are Like Filthy Rags?  |  Galatians  |  Backsliding  |
|  Were The Corinthians Sinful?  |

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