Pastor David B. Curtis


Did the Law Kill Me?

Romans 7:13-20

Delivered 08/28/2011

I want to do something a little different this morning, I would like us to read this section first so we get the flavor, and then we will break it down. In a Jewish context, when the Word of God is read they stand in respect for God. So let's all stand as we read this passage:

Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 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. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 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 7:13-20 NASB

Does this sound like your experience? We come to church, we hear the Word of God, we worship God, we go home, we read our Bibles, we do ministry, and we feel like we're on top, and then we find ourselves saying things or doing things or thinking things that plunge us into despair.

We say "I will," and then we don't. We say "I won't," and then we do. We make a promise, and then we break it. We set a goal, and we don't go after it. We say "I'll never do that again," and we do it. We get on our knees and say, "Oh, God, I'll never do that again." And then the next day, we do it ,or we say it again. That is the truly human experience for all of us.

Ray Prichard writes: "Romans 7 is a passage that grips us because we understand exactly what it is saying. We see ourselves in it. When Romans 7 is read everyone understands and says, 'Amen, yes, that's right, that's true, that's me.'"

Do Christians have this type of struggle? Sure they do. Does this mean that this passage is talking about the Christian experience? No, it does not!

This text has been a battleground for interpreters and theologians and expositors of Scripture. One of the biggest disagreements over this text is who this man is. Whose experience is Paul describing? Is this the experience of Paul, the believer? Or is this the experience of Paul, the unbeliever? Is this a Christian or non-Christian?

Who is Paul talking about in Romans 7? Christian scholars remain divided in answer to this question. Some of the main views are:

This is pre-Christian Paul: Some say Paul is reflecting on his life before Christ when he had some regard for the Law of God, but couldn't fulfill it, not on his life after Christ. They say there's too much bondage to sin here for this to be the testimony of a Christian.

Is this pre-Christian Paul? Does what we see in Romans 7:13-25 fit with what we know about Paul before his conversion? No, it doesn't:

although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. Philippians 3:4-6 NASB

The "flesh" here is the Old Covenant. Paul viewed his life under the Law as blameless. So what we see in our text can't be Paul before his conversion.

This is Paul as a Christian: This is by far the majority view. Those who hold this view say there's too much desire for obedience here for this to be the testimony of a non-Christian. This view is divided between those who say this is Paul as a mature Christian, and those who say this is Paul as a carnal Christian.

This is Paul as a Mature Christian: Phil Newton writes: "Nineteen times in vv. 14-20, Paul uses 'I' to identify himself and to illustrate the struggle with sin. He adds 'me' and 'my' five more times. Can it get anymore personal than that? In order to help us see his view of the Law, he writes from the perspective of a mature Christian." Paul uses "I," but who does the "I" represent? Just like in the last section the "I" is rhetorical, Paul is speaking as Israel under Torah.

Ray Prichard writes: "Romans 7 is describing the mature Christian life as it is actually experienced much of the time by the people of God. I think that what you have in Romans 7 is Paul's spiritual autobiography of his experience as a follower of Jesus Christ."

MacArthur writes: "No, the only way to understand this is that this is a believer, this is every believer, this is every believer who is truly regenerated, who feels the agony of the struggle. And, in fact, this is Paul, who when he wrote this was mature. He is in Christ, strong in the faith and never got over his sinfulness. This is a very mature Christian."

S.L. Johnson writes: "Paul gives us here, perhaps, one of the most incisive, perceptive pictures of what transpires in the heart of a Christian man found in all literature."

I think you get the picture. These men all see Paul as writing from the perspective of a mature Christian. But there are others who say that:

This is Paul as a Carnal Christian: Some have tried another explanation to avoid admitting that Paul as a mature Christian could have such spiritual struggles with sin. They acknowledge that Paul is a believer here, but a carnal one. This was Paul in his early days as a Christian. They would say that every Christian must pass through Romans 7 in order to reach the victory of chapter 8. One writer says: "It describes the abject misery and failure of a Christian who is attempting to please God under the Mosaic system." Others say that Paul has no allusions that he has arrived at some state of perfection in which he no longer struggles with these patterns of sin.

Ray Steadman writes: "'I am carnal,' it says. In other words, this battle is a description of a carnal Christian."

Those who hold that this is a carnal man argue that the next chapter is about the victory of the Christian over sin and death. Amongst its advocates are those who teach some form of "higher spiritual life," which emphasizes a post-conversion experience of the Holy Spirit bringing the believer from defeat into victorious Christian living. Those who have supported this understanding include Wesley; the holiness movements of the past two hundred years; and, especially, the original Keswick movement, which popularized this view to thousands of believers.

John Piper, who holds a somewhat different view writes: "Paul is speaking about himself here as a Christian. So that is the view I want to defend. Romans 7:14-25 is part of Christian experience--not ideal, but real. That is the view that most Christians have had of this text for twenty centuries, and that is the view I am arguing for. Romans 7:14-25 is Paul's description of true Christian experience."

So he sees Romans 7 not as an ideal experience, but as a real experience for most Christians.

Bob Deffinbaugh writes: "Many have sought to avoid the obvious by insisting that these verses which describe this great conflict within the apostle depict a struggle in the apostle before his conversion. Let me mention several facts which leave no room for this explanation: The context is one of sanctification. The context demands that Paul's struggle be the struggle of the saint, trying to live a godly life."

He sees the context here as sanctification and works from that end. Another writer says: "Chapters 6-8 deal forcefully with the Christian's sanctification so it would be normal to address honestly the struggles with the remaining vestiges of sin."

MacArthur writes: "But it didn't end there because the Law still has the same kind of work in your sanctification that it had in your salvation. As a believer, the Law continues to do its work."

If you remember our study of Chapter 6, Paul is not talking about living a moral life, he is not talking about sanctification. That is not what the context is about. Paul's objector is asking, "Shall we stay under the Law so that sin will increase and grace will increase?" So if you get the context wrong, you get the subject wrong. Context is king! Part of context is who the author is writing to.

Phil Newton writes: "Keep in mind that Paul has both a Jewish and a Gentile audience in the church at Rome. If it were only Jewish then we might come up with a different interpretation of this section." As I have said, Paul is speaking in this section, 5:20-8:11, specifically to Jews, those under the Mosaic Law. Notice the context:

The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, Romans 5:20 NASB

God gave the Law, the Mosaic Law, so that the sin of Adam would increase. Just like Adam was given law and broke it, so also Israel was given Law and broke it. So Adam's sin was duplicated by Israel and thus increased.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? Romans 6:1 NASB

"The sin" is the sin of Adam. If sin increases the grace of God, shouldn't we continue to live in the sin? To put it another way, shouldn't we continue to live under the Law? It increases sin, which increases grace. So the question being asked here is, "Shall we continue to live under the Mosaic Law, so that sin will increase and therefore grace will increase?" Paul's answer is, "NO! You are no longer under the Law." Which brings up their next question:

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Romans 6:15 NASB

I see the question being asked as: Doesn't that make us sinners? Isn't it a sin for us to not keep the commandments of the Law? Isn't it a sin not to keep the Sabbath? Aren't I going to be a sinner just like the Gentiles if I stop obeying the written code? Paul again says, "No!" The next question is:

What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know the sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, "YOU SHALL NOT COVET." Romans 7:7 NASB

Paul's answer to the question is found in verse 12:

So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Romans 7:12 NASB

The Law is an expression of the character of God, it is not sin. The Law is not sin, but the Law reveals sin. Paul's argument is that the Law has made Adam/Israel know what sin is. In 7:7-12, Paul is describing the arrival of Torah in Israel and saying when Torah came Israel recapitulated the sin of Adam.

One might ask Paul then: If the Law is not sin, if it's holy, just, and good, why this death then of which you have been speaking? And so the apostle will answer the question now. Was that which is good made death unto me? Was the Law responsible for my death?

Piper writes: "It will take a very compelling argument to overthrow the simple, straightforward impression you get that Paul is talking about himself and a part of his present Christian experience. I don't think there is such an argument. At least I've never heard it."

S.L. Johnson writes: "I'd like to remind objectors to this view that the burden of proof rests upon them to prove their point rather than upon me to prove mine, because the apostle is using the first person. He says, I, I, I. And when a man uses the first person and when he uses the present tense, you will notice that he uses the present tense throughout this section, then we are to assume that he is speaking of his own feelings at the time of his writing unless one can demonstrate plainly and clearly otherwise."

As I said in our last study, Paul uses "I," not to speak of himself, but as a rhetorical device, personifying both Adam and Israel.

Both of these positions, Paul pre-conversion or Paul the believer, have been challenged in recent years. Many scholars have not seen this passage to be specifically about Paul's own experience, but about the history of Adam/Israel. The reason for this conclusion is that the passage is at odds with other statements Paul has made about his attitude to the Law before he became a follower of Christ. In Philippians 3:6, as we have already seen, he describes his pre-Christian legal status as faultless, and in Galations 1:14, he writes that he advanced in Judaism beyond many contemporaries, being zealous for the traditions of his fathers. Both statements suggest Paul was a man who had a very positive attitude towards the Law and what it demanded.

Something that is very important to our understanding of this text is that Paul's argument is typically Semitic. Conceptually, he thinks in corporate terms. Understanding this we should call into question individualistic interpretations about Paul battling with his own sins. This passage is introduced using a corporate illustration (Rom 7:1-6). Paul uses the example of marriage and remarriage to show how a new relationship can come into existence. The analogy of marriage is regularly used throughout the whole of Scripture to depict the relationship of God with His people. This analogy is never used for the relationship of an individual with God. It is always corporate, describing the experience of the covenant community.

The traditional Reformed understanding of this text, like most others, begins from an individualistic interpretation of the passage. The evidence is not compatible with this. Rather, it points to the passage being corporate. Scholars from a wide range of theological traditions are sharing this conclusion.

Tom Holland writes: "He expects believers to meet for this purpose and composed his letters with congregations in mind. In other words, the practice of interpreting the letters as though they were to individuals is misguided. The letters are not about what God has done or is doing for a Christian, they are what God has done or is doing for his covenant people, the church. It is not permissible--despite widespread practice--to read the details as though they describe the experience of the individual believer. Such practice not only makes much of the individual, it makes little of the covenant community."

Do Christians have the type of struggle that we see in our text? Sure they do. Do Christians struggle to live for God and yet often fail? Yes, we see this in the Scripture. In Galatians 2 :11ff Paul describes a failure of Peter that was so serious Paul had to rebuke him.

Peter had been enjoying his freedom in Christ, eating as a Jew with Gentiles, which many would have considered ceremonially unclean. But he was not "under the Law," as Paul would have said. But when influential people from Jerusalem came, Peter feared their censure and became a coward. He pretended in front of these people that he did not do what in fact he did do--namely, eat with Gentiles. He was coveting the approval of men. He was fearing whom he should not fear. And he was lying and deceiving with his behavior, which even affected Barnabas. And it was so serious that Paul thought the very Gospel was at stake, because he said:

But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, "If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? Galatians 2:14 NASB

So yes, Christians struggle to live as God would have us to. Does this mean that this passage is talking about the Christian experience? No! As we look at this text, hopefully, you will see that this is not about the Christian experience.

Paul uses "I" as a rhetorical device, personifying both Adam and Israel. In Romans 7 Paul is talking about Israel under Torah. In 7:7-12 we see the arrival of Torah in Israel, and in 7:13-25 he speaks of Israel's life under Torah. N.T. Wright says this: "The present passage seems, then, to be a Christian theological analysis of what was in fact the case, and indeed what is still the case for those who live 'under the Law.'"

The change of tense from 7:7-12 to 7:13-25 has to do with the change from the description of what happened when Torah first arrived in Israel to the description of the ongoing state of those who live under the Law.

Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. Romans 7:13 NASB

Here the question is asked, "Was this good Law the cause of my death?" Again Paul says, Not at all, no way. The "good" to which he refers is the Law, identified in verse 12. It was sin, not the Law that brought death. Paul has already defended the Law against the charge that the Law was the direct cause of death. Sin is the culprit, and we must never forget that. "Rather, it was sin," he answers his own question. Sin killed us, not the Law. Paul's summary answer is that sin's use of that which is really and truly good to bring about death is more proof of the exceeding wickedness of sin.

Believer, please understand this sin is a destructive force even for a believer. It will damage the life of a believer if the believer continues in it. Obeying God brings peace and joy, sinning brings misery.

For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. Romans 7:14 NASB

"The Law is spiritual"--in Rabbinic literature it was often said that the Law was spiritual, and the meaning of the contexts usually is that the Law is something given by God on Mount Sinai. Paul has already said this in verse 12, the Law is holy, the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

MacArthur writes: "You have a new nature that loves the Law, longs to keep the Law." What Law? Does the believer long to keep the Mosaic Law? We must keep the context in mind. This passage is all about the Mosaic Law. We, Gentile believers, have nothing to do with Mosaic Law.

"I am of flesh"--we must have a correct understanding of what Paul means by "flesh" here. Remember, Paul followed the Hebrew understanding when using the term "flesh." He made use of its wide variety of meanings and applied the term in differing contexts to support what he was teaching. He made particular use of the term when writing of the frailty of man as well as of his solidarity to his representative head, Adam. We must recognize that the Hellenistic meaning of "flesh" has dominated Christian thinking.

By "flesh" here Paul is talking about the Old Covenant mode of existence. Here again we see the spirit/flesh contrast that runs all through this section. Just like the Adam/Christ contrast ran through chapter 5, and the slave/free contrast ran through chapter 6.

"I" here is Adam/Israel, which belongs to the Adam solidarity and is under the sin and the death. The problem is not Torah, it is sin. the point of the argument in chapter 6 was that the Christian is not in Adam--not in the flesh. Paul tells Christians in chapter 8:

However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. Romans 8:9 NASB

Believers are not in the flesh, we are in the Spirit. If you are not in the Spirit, you do not belong to Christ.

"Sold in bondage to 'the' sin"--does this sound like something Paul could say about himself as a mature Christian? Paul had just said at least six times in Romans 6 that Christians are freed from the slave master of the sin (verses 6, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22).

But now having been freed from the sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. Romans 6:22 NASB

Paul says here that Christians have been freed from "the sin" because of their union with Christ. How could he then say that he was in bondage to the sin? He couldn't, and he wouldn't. This was the position of Israel under Torah.

Notice how the commentators deal with this phrase. S.L. Johnson writes: "Now it is, I think, important to note that he is talking about the partial bondage of an imperfectly sanctified man, not the total bondage of an unsaved man." That, believers, is what we call eisegesis--reading into the text things that aren't there. There is absolutely no linguistic reason in the text for calling this "partial" bondage.

MacArthur writes of Paul: "In his maturity at the end of his life, at the end of all of his years of walking with Christ, nothing had changed about how he had viewed himself. He was a massive disappointment to himself." Really! Look at what Paul says about himself:

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. 2 Timothy 4:6-8 NASB

This doesn't sound like a man that was disappointed with the life he lived for Christ:

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. Romans 7:15 NASB

This is the paradox of Israel under Torah; seeing what is the right thing to do, delighting in it and wanting to perform it, and yet constantly falling short.

One writer says, What Paul despises as a Christian, he does anyway. Really! Is this the same Paul that we saw in the book of Acts? The man who was hunted, beaten, stoned and kept right on going? What Paul says here is the same thing he says in:

For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Galatians 5:17-18 NASB

The flesh and Spirit are contrary to one another. This is New Covenant/Old Covenant. If you walk in the New Covenant/Spirit you are not under the Law. It is under the Law that the conflict is seen.

MacArthur writes: "Only a Christian can really understand this battle. Only a Christian can understand this struggle. It's not something that a non-Christian can identify with at all." Is that true? Do unbelievers have conflicts with their desires and practice? Sure they do. Don't unbelievers do things that they hate and wish they wouldn't do? Sure they do.

I think that it is the conscience that causes the conflict in unbelievers and believers. If your conscience has been programed to do what is good and right, then when you don't, it's going to bother you. Many believers are conflicted over things that they do that are not sin, but that they have been taught are sin.

Please understand that we can say, "This text is not about Christian experience," and still believe that Christians have experiences like this--sometimes doing what we don't want to do.

But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. Romans 7:16 NASB

Here he agrees with the Law's assessment of his practice--that it is sinful. In other words, the Law is right in calling my sin, sin. The Law is good, I'm the problem. Some say that only the believer can agree that the Law is good. That's not true, the Old Covenant Jew loved the Law and certainly thought it was good.

Piper writes: "So Paul's answer is that the Christian loves the Law of God, esteems the Law of God, delights in the Law of God."

MacArthur writes: "The Christian then stays in a place of brokenness over his sin. The Christian stays in a place of submission to the Law."

What is wrong with those statements? Paul has just taught that the believer is not under the Law. Gentile Christians were never under the Mosaic Law:

So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but the sin which dwells in me. Romans 7:17 NASB

We have already seen that Paul's understanding of "the body of sin" is mainly corporate. As a part of the body of sin, every person in Adam is under sin's control. Sin dwells in the body of Adam and Moses.

This text is the basis for the doctrine of sin, which holds that it is "biologically inherited." This is a Hellenistic intrusion into Paul's Hebraic mindset and ought to be rejected. This view is essentially dualistic and, therefore, pagan. The expression: "sin which dwells in me," does not have the Hellenistic, dualistic connotations once the argument is read at the corporate level. Paul is saying that sin is dwelling in the body of Moses, the Old Covenant.

Some Christians have misused these verses to excuse sin and deny responsibility for sin: "It's not me, it's sin in me, so I'm not at fault!"

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. Romans 7:18 NASB

Notice how the NIV translates this verse:

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. Romans 7:18 NIV

The NIV translates sarx as: "sinful nature," this is a bad translation. The Greek word "sarx," directly translated means: "flesh." This idea of a sin nature reflects more of a Greek dualism than a Hebraic understanding of Scripture. To translate sarx as "sinful nature" assumes that the argument is about individual human experience and leads the reader in the direction of an inherited human nature rather than to a federal understanding. Because of this unfortunate misinterpretation of sarx, the doctrine of the sinful nature or indwelling sin has been propagated.

Bob Deffinbaugh writes: "The problem of the Christian is that he has within him two natures, each drawing him in a different direction. The sin nature Paul calls the 'old man' (Romans 6:6) or the 'flesh' (Romans 7:14,18). This nature is diametrically opposed to the new man, the new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), and the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:17)." The "old man" and "flesh" are not referring to a sin nature; these are historical redemptive terms that refer to man in Adam.

MacArthur writes: "The problem now is not that there's something wrong with the new nature, with the inner man, with the new heart, the new spirit with that eternal life, but rather that this new person is still incarcerated in this fallen body...We are like a holy seed in an unholy shell. We are incarcerated, we are imprisoned, we are locked in, bound and subject to all the weakness and all the wickedness of our humanity." This is Gnostic dualism, treating the physical life, the body as inherently evil. You will not find this idea anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.

For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. Romans 7:19 NASB

This is Israel under Torah. MacArthur writes: "So this is Paul's testimony as a Christian. And it's very, very important for us to understand that because what's here is what we live with every day." Not me, I never struggle with life under Torah. I live in the Spirit.

But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but the sin which dwells in me. Romans 7:20 NASB

This verse basically repeats word for word what was said in verse 17. "I" refers to Israel according to the flesh, Israel in Adam.

Piper writes: "One of the reasons this matters is the immense practical importance it has for rescuing people from the devastating hopelessness of perfectionism...And there is a hopelessness that comes from having perfectionistic standards that give no place in real life for the sins of true saints." That may be true, but it has nothing to do with this text, this is about Israel under Torah.

Let me close this morning with one more MacArthur quote. MacArthur writes: "I can't wait, as I read earlier from the same chapter, until this body which is inhibiting me is transformed. For the present, those of us who are Christians live in a...I guess we live in an era between two ages, the old and the new."

Believers, we do not live in the transition period; we live in the New Covenant age. We are saints. We dwell in the presence of God and live in fellowship with Him.

Bob Deffinbaugh writes: "My friend, you and I will never get out of Romans 7 in this life." How sad is that? He's wrong! We never were in Romans 7, we were never under Torah. We live in Romans 8, we live in the Spirit.

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