Originally published as a single article in DBSJ 2 (Fall 1997): 81–103. Used by permission.
This installment continues our study of the believer’s struggle with sin, focusing on Romans 7.
Paul’s description of the struggle between the old and new natures is not confined to the flesh/Spirit contrast of Galatians 5:16–17. Paul can, as Romans 7:14–25 illustrates, use somewhat different terminology to describe the same conflict. Though there is considerable debate about this section of Romans, there would appear to be more than sufficient reasons for understanding this passage as describing Paul as a regenerate person. Some of the more important ones would include: (1) The shift from the past tenses of verses 7–13 to the present tenses beginning in verse 14 is inexplicable unless Paul has now shifted to his present regenerate status. (2) In verse 22 Paul says: “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man,” and in verse 25b: “I myself with my mind am serving the law of God.” Murray argues that “this is service which means subjection of heart and will, something impossible for the unregenerate man.”1 (3) In answer to the longing of verse 24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” Paul gives a triumphant answer in the first part of verse 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” This is the confession of Paul, the regenerate man, which is immediately followed by a concluding summary concerning his continuing struggle with sin as a believer: “So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.” This is the same struggle which has been recounted beginning in verse 14.
Numerous verses in 7:14–25 describe Paul’s struggle with sin. There is, in general, a conflict between “willing” (θέλω, used 7 times) and “doing” (various words used 11 times). Paul says: “I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (v. 15). “For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish” (v. 19). Sometimes Paul’s description sounds like he is split into two persons: “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me” (v. 17). “But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (v. 20). The key here is to understand that Paul uses “I” in a more comprehensive sense in verses 15 and 19 than in verses 17 and 20.2 The “I” in the former verses is the comprehensive Paul, the “I” who wishes to do good but finds himself doing evil. The “I” in the latter verses is viewed more narrowly. Thus, when Paul says, “if I [#1] am doing the very thing I do not wish, I [#2] am no longer the one doing it,” it may sound like there are two different personalities inside him. But, in fact, Paul is attempting to describe, within the limits of language, the experience of every Christian. He is viewing himself from the conflicting dispositions (natures) resident within himself. “I” (#1) is Paul viewed from the aspect of his old nature; “I” (#2) is Paul viewed from the aspect of the new nature: “If I [viewed from the perspective of my old nature] am doing the very thing I do not wish, I [viewed from the perspective of my new nature] am no longer the one doing it” (v. 20). We should not necessarily be surprised at Paul’s language since he makes similar, seemingly contradictory statements in other places. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). “I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me” (1 Cor 15:10). As Hodge notes: “No one supposes that the labours and life here spoken of were not the labours and life of the apostle.”3
Obviously, Paul is not trying to evade responsibility for his sin when he says “I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (v. 20). Moo explains:
His point is that his failure to put into action what he wills to do shows that there is something besides himself involved in the situation. If we had only to do with him, in the sense of that part of him which agrees with God’s law and wills to do it, we would not be able to explain why he consistently does what he does not want to do. No, Paul reasons, there must be another “actor” in the drama, another factor that interferes with his performance of what he wants to do. This other factor is indwelling sin.4
When Paul says “I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me,” the conflict is specifically between the “I” of the new nature and sin. But “sin,” as Moo continues, “is not a power that operates ‘outside’ the person.”5 Neither is it some abstract concept or some alien force in the believer, but the corruption of the old nature itself. Just as the conflict between the old and new natures can be described in Galatians 5:16–17 as a conflict between flesh (old nature) and Spirit, so here in Romans it can be described as a conflict between sin and the new nature. But it is still the same struggle. “Sin” is not an alien force distinct from the believer, but the corruption of the old nature itself. Hodge observes: “Sin, in this, as in so many other places in Scripture, is presented as an abiding state of the mind, a disposition or principle, manifesting itself in acts.”6
As was noted previously, Paul describes this same struggle in verse 25: “So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.” Here the struggle is described as between the “mind” and the “flesh.” “Mind” is used here, as Hodge reminds us, to refer not to “the reason, nor the affections, but the higher or renewed nature.”7 So we conclude that although Paul expresses his struggle with sin in Romans 7:14–25 using a variety of terminology, in reality he is describing one and the same conflict, the same conflict found in Galatians 5:16–17. While it is true that Paul never mentions the Spirit in Roman 7:14–25, this is only a factor of Paul’s emphasis at this point in Romans. As Calvin notes, commenting on 7:15: “This conflict, of which the Apostle speaks, does not exist in man before he is renewed by the Spirit of God.”8 It is only, as Ferguson observes, “the presence of the Spirit that produces these conflicts.”9
1 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament, 2 vols. in one (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959, 1965), 1:258.
2 Anthony A. Hoekema, “The Struggle Between Old and New Natures in the Converted Man,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 5 (May 1962): 47.
3 Charles Hodge, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (reprint of 1886 ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), p. 232.
4 Romans, pp. 457–58.
5 Ibid. p. 458.
6 Romans, p. 232.
7 Ibid., p. 237.
8 Romans, p. 1419.
9 Sinclair B. Ferguson, “The Reformed View,” in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, ed. Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), p. 63.
Bill Combs serves as Academic Dean as well as Professor of New Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has been teaching since 1983. He earned his BA at Tennessee Temple University, and his MDiv and ThM degrees at Temple Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds a ThD from Grace Theological Seminary. Dr. Combs has also served in pastoral ministry. He and his wife Pansy are members of Inter-City Baptist Church in Allen Park, MI.