Romans 7:18-25 – Split Into Two

Review:

We have seen Paul describe 3 FHCs – features of the human condition.

  • The Sin – the power and dominion of sin.
  • The Law – given in context of “the sin”.
  • The I – the “fleshy I” who received the law in context of “the sin”.

 

We have seen Paul describe his experience of these three FHCs.

  • He fails to do what he wants to – the law – but accomplishes what he doesn’t want.

 

We have seen Paul vindicate the law and the “fleshy I” for this experience.

  • And find fault with the “the sin”.

 

Now, as we finish out Romans 7:

  • We will see that Paul rehashes these truths…
  • And adds a new twist.

 

 

Verse 18-21:

18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.

 

He begins by saying, “nothing good dwells in me…

  • This is another acknowledgement that “the sin” is what dwells in him.
  • A repeat of verse 17 – “[the] sin that dwells within me” (vs. 17).
  • As we have seen previously, “the sin” is the power and dominion of sin.

 

Yet, he elaborates a bit with a peculiar sounding phrase.

  • that is, in my flesh

 

Paul here is simply – in step with the rest of our verses – summing up what he has already said.

  • So he is alluding back to verse 14 – “I am of the flesh” – or literally, the “fleshy I”.

 

So “in my flesh” is an elaboration of who the “me” is.

  • Paul is saying, “Nothing good dwells in ‘me’, and who is the “me”, the ‘fleshy I’”.

 

He then reiterates the disconnect between the “I” and the law in verses 18-19.

  • have the desire to do what is right” vs. “not the ability to carry it out” (vs. 18).
  • do not do the good I want” vs. “evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (vs. 19).

 

Then in verse 20 he, once again, vindicates the “I”.

  • If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it” (vs. 20).
  • This is an exact repeat of verse 17.

 

And, like he also did in verse 17, he proceeds to indict “the sin”.

  • but [the] sin that dwells within me” is who does it (vs. 20).
  • This is also an exact repeat of verse 17.
  • And it serves as a nice bookend with the “nothing good dwells in me” from verse 18.

 

Finally, in verse 21, he restates the contradiction between what he wants and what he achieves.

  • I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.

 

In other words, Paul found the law of God to be a law that proved to be elusive.

  • As he sought to “do right” through the law…
  • Evil (opposition to the good things of the law) was always “close at hand” (vs. 21).

 

Why was evil always “close at hand”?

  • As we have seen, the law was given to the “fleshy I” in context of “the sin”.
  • In this place, that the pursuit of the law would lead to evil is the whole point for Paul.
  • It is part of the logic Paul has been employing since verse 14.
  • Good intentions can’t remedy this predicament.

 

 

Ability:

Question…when Paul says he does not have “the ability to carry it out” (vs. 18), what kind of ability is he talking about?

  • Let’s make this question easier.
  • If we distinguish two kinds of abilities – moral and natural – to which is Paul referring?

 

Paul certainly has the natural or physical capacity to do what is right.

  • His problem is that his moral ability has been compromised by the power of sin in him.
  • Unwittingly, in his zealous pursuit of the law, he acted in service of the power of sin – like his persecution of Jesus.
  • Thus he, as he said in Romans 6, was a slave to sin.

 

Which “ability” leads unbelievers to reject Christ?

 

 

Verses 22-23 and 25b:

Romans 7:22–23 (ESV) — 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 25b So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

 

In verses 22-23 and 25b, Paul reflects further on why:

  • Evil is always “close at hand” for…
  • The person (Paul/Jew) living under the power of “the sin” and pursuing the good things of the law.

 

He does this with warfare imagery.

  • But, before we can go through the warfare Paul is describing…
  • We need to grasp the contrast Paul uses to setup the war.

 

 

Paul’s Contrast:

The contrast is the way, as N.T. Wright says, Paul portrays the law as being “split into two” between:

  • (1) Paul’s Good Intentions with the law.
  • (2) Evil’s Grasp of the law.

 

(1) Paul’s Good Intentions with the law.

“Imagine Paul as a young man praying Psalm 19 or Psalm 119, studying Torah prayerfully day and night, longing to wrap it around him like a cloak, to make it his way of life, his every breath. Not only is there nothing wrong with that; it is exactly what Israel was meant to do” – N.T. Wright.

  • This reflects the zeal Paul had for the law as a good Jew.

(2) Evil’s Grasp of the law.

“But the closer you hug the law to yourself, if you are still ‘in Adam’, the more the law is bound to say ‘But you’re a sinner!’ Worse: it will not only accuse, it will tempt…[and bring death]. It looks as though the law has developed a shadowy copy of itself, a negative identity which seems to be fighting on the side of sin against what the ‘I’ longs to do” – N.T. Wright.

 

So these are the two forces at war with each other – Paul’s good intentions and evil’s grasp.

  • And any good war needs soldiers.

 

The Soldiers:

Interestingly the soldiers Paul introduces to us are all part of his person:

  • Paul pits his “inner being” and “mind”…
  • Against his “flesh” and “members”.

 

Paul introduced us to the “flesh” and “members” earlier:

  • Romans 7:5 (ESV) — 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.

 

Essentially the “flesh” and “members” in our text represent:

  • “The physical body in which the power of sin exerts its power” – Schreiner.
  • Or more crudely, the “human limbs required for action” – Robert Jewett.

 

Think of it this way:

  • The “flesh” and “members” are the conduits through which Paul’s “do what I do not want” takes place.

 

The “inner being” and “mind” represent:

  • Something like, “the inner moral monitor that responds to, and appropriates, God’s law” – Douglas Moo.
  • And “the reasoning side of a person” – Douglas Moo.

 

Think of it this way:

  • The “inner being” and “mind” are where Paul’s “desire to do what is right” (vs. 18) takes place.

 

This is the capacity Paul speaks of in Romans 2 – all unbelievers have it.

  • Romans 2:14 (ESV) — 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.
  • This is why no one is without excuse.

 

 

Caution:

We need to be careful in over estimating Paul’s estimation of the mind.

“All that Paul is saying is that the [mind or inner being] of the non-Christian is capable of approving the demands of God in his law” – Douglas Moo.

 

He is not suggesting that a person’s reasoning skills are somehow unaffected by the power of sin.

  • Paul clearly teaches that the unbeliever’s mind is “is perverted and darkened [Eph. 4:18], preventing them from thinking correctly about God and the world” – Douglas Moo.
  • After all, in Romans 1:28 he calls the mind “debased”.

 

We also need to be careful not to under estimate Paul’s view of the flesh in a general sense.

  • Paul obviously saw the flesh as “part of the person which is particularly susceptible to sin” – Moo.
  • But, he was a Jew – not a Platonist.
  • This means he did not view creation/material stuff as inherently opposed to, or inferior to, spiritual reality.

 

This is important to get right because of one word:

  • Resurrection!
  • Unlike all of Paul’s Hellenistic neighbors, he looked forward to eternal life as bodily resurrection.

 

So to review:

  • We have Paul’s “inner being” and “mind” (reason or conscience) – fighting on the side of his good intentions with the law.
  • Versus…
  • Paul’s “flesh” and “members” (physical body) – fighting on the side of evil’s grasp of the law.

 

 

Text Redux:

Now we can go back to the text:

  • Romans 7:22–23 (ESV) — 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 25b So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

 

Given what we have just learned we can easily figure out what Paul is telling us.

  • His “inner being” and “mind” delight in God’s law (again, think Psalm 19).
  • Psalm 19:7 (ESV) — 7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;

 

Back to the text.

 

And his “flesh” and “members” are “waging war” against Paul’s good intentions with the law.

  • If fact, they are part of the reason evil has the law in its grasp.

 

And the outcome of the war is that the “inner being” and “mind” lose the fight.

  • This loss speaks both to the power of “the sin” and the fact that, as we saw in our caution, the mind is impaired by sin.

 

The result of the loss is devastating!

  • Paul’s mind and reason – his good intentions – are taken “captive to the law of [the] sin”.
  • More on this captivity in a second.

 

He ends in verse 25b with what sounds like a hopeful note.

  • He serves the “law of God with my mind”.

 

But, we have just seen that this comes to nothing.

  • This service ends in captivity.
  • It ends with slavery to sin.

 

So this is not a statement of triumph, but despair.

  • For he quickly reminds us of the very bad news…
  • but with my flesh I serve the law of sin”.

 

 

Captivity:

So Paul says he was a “captive to the law of [the] sin”.

  • We need to unpack this a bit more.

 

The idea with Paul’s captivity language is brutal.

  • Paul is telling us that all his good intentions with God’s law were futile.
  • His mind and its intentions were captive “to the tyranny” of sin’s power – Tom Schreiner.

 

Robert Jewett has a really good insight into the significance of Paul’s captivity language.

  • He says that this language would have had a “profound meaning for its hearers”.

 

I will quote him at length.

“In the Roman Empire, defeat [in a war] implied subsequent slavery, death in an imperial theater, or if a prisoner was particularly important or attractive, he would be executed in honor of Jupiter at the end of a victory parade. For example, at the end of the Jewish-Roman war, Josephus reports that, of the ninety-seven thousand [prisoners], those who had borne arms should be executed immediately after their capture, that the ‘tallest and most handsome of the youth’ were reserved for the triumphal parade in Rome [after which they would be executed], while the rest were either enslaved or ‘presented by Titus to the provinces, to be destroyed in the theaters by the sword or by wild beasts’…since the majority of the members of the early house and tenement churches in Rome were either slaves or former slaves…this formulation would have a particularly powerful resonance” – Robert Jewett.

 

What this means is that the captivity Paul speaks of is not a Geneva Convention captivity.

  • One in which the war will end and the captive will be set free.
  • It is, rather, a brutal and fruitless struggle against certain death.

 

And this leads us to our final bit of text from Romans 7.

 

 

Verses 24-25a:

24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

 

Here Paul expresses the hopeless state of his pre-Christ condition as a captive – wretched – and…

  • Of his incredible gratitude for the person and work of Jesus Christ.

 

It is only because of Christ that Paul can look back on his hopeless and fruitful struggle…

  • And give such huge thanks that he has been delivered from its certain death.
  • Something Paul uses Romans 8 to fully express!

 

We can now fully appreciate Paul’s words in Romans 7:4.

  • Romans 7:4 (ESV) — 4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.

 

 

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