Will we always wrestle with sin? This question has perplexed Christians for centuries. It comes into focus most emphatically in Romans chapter 7, where the Apostle Paul provides an intimate portrait of his struggle in verses 7 to 24.
Many have taken comfort that even Paul experienced this conflict. However, others believe the apostle’s account refers to his pre-Christian condition. For many years I could not decide between these viewpoints. I experienced struggles of my own, but somehow felt this was not God’s best for me.
Recently, while reading Romans chapter 7 alongside Matthew chapter 5, I had an insight which I believe sheds light on this question. I will begin by explaining my train of thought.
The Law addresses attitudes of the heart
As I read Matthew 5:17-20, it was evident to me that Jesus did not come to lower the standard, but to raise the bar:
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)
The next few verses reveal that He is shifting the focus away from externals to the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. That is the real battleground:
“You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
The rich young ruler found the same thing in a different way. He had kept all the commandments regarding externals, and yet something was missing. He did not have the assurance of eternal life. Jesus pinpointed the heart issue where the young man was a captive (‘the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth’ – Matthew 13:22):
Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property. (Mark 10:21-22)
In Romans 7:7-24 Paul describes a similar discovery. He learned that the Law addressed his thoughts, as well as his actions. As a result he recognised he could not meet its requirements:
I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, "YOU SHALL NOT COVET." But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. (Romans 7:7-11)
This led Paul to an awareness of a battle raging within him:
For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate ... So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. (Romans 7:15-20)
He finishes with a desperate cry for help:
Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (Romans 7:24)
Romans 7:7-24 has to be read in context
To make sense of this passage, I realised that Romans 7:7-24 has to be read in context. In verses 1 to 6, Paul clearly states that we have died to the Law:
you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. (Romans 7:4)
But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound (Romans 7:6)
The Amplified Bible expresses verse 6 this way:
But now we are discharged from the Law and have terminated all intercourse with it, having died to what once restrained us and held us captive
As I pondered these verses, it became clear to me that Romans 7:7-25 is parenthetical, sandwiched between verses 1 to 6 and chapter 8. The key message of the surrounding passages is that we have now died to the Law and that ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.’ (Romans 8:2)
By contrast, the in-between verses (7 to 25) are a graphic illustration of life under the Law. Paul is explaining how his experience under the Law made him aware of his need for a Saviour.
The contrast is perhaps most evident if we compare verse 23 with verse 6. In verse 23, Paul describes himself as ‘a prisoner to the law of sin’ (Amp.). However, in verse 6, he says that we have now ‘died to what once … held us captive’ (Amp.). These two statements cannot both be true!
As Christians, we now have a choice. We can live under grace, submit to the promptings of the Spirit, and walk in freedom. Or we can submit to the Law and to ‘decrees such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!”’ (Colossians 2:20-21). If we believe we are subject to the Law, failing to recognise we are now under grace, we will experience the same struggle that Paul describes.
So if I find myself wrestling, in the manner of Romans 7:19-23, I need to stop wrestling, and remind myself that I am no longer subject to the law of sin and death. I may need to repent of believing a lie, and tell the lying spirits to go! At such times, it is also vital to remember our true identity: we are in Christ Jesus, sons of God, being led by His Spirit.
In this way we will fulfil Galatians 5:1 –
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.
Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from the Bible are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.