With the help of Augustine, we undergo exegeting perhaps the most confusing chapter of the Bible. Does a Christian, who is dead to sin, still sin? Can he lose his salvation? Is he even the one sinning? What is the Flesh?
Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.
7 Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? 2 For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. 3 So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man.
If one is not dead to the Law or law of nature (which is only possible by faith in Christ), then he is under its jurisdiction. But, this jurisdiction is void when one realizes that the Law is fulfilled in Christ, and so one lives by faith and not by commandments. “For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God” (Gal 2:19). If it is true of Paul, it is true of us, God shows no partiality. One is bounded to the Law until he is dead to it in the same way one is bound to a spouse until he/she passes.
Paul speaks to all of these who “know the law.” This may imply an age of accountability for punishment for sin. However, this inference is unlikely. It is more likely that what he addresses is applicable to specifically Jews, and also gentiles, who have come to understand the requirements of the Law.
4 Therefore, my brethren, 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.
We are dead to the Law so that we may experience a literal union with Christ. In the vein of Rom 6, the knowledge of this literal reality should produce in us good works as the fruits of such knowledge.
Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory (Col 3:1-4).
Isn’t it clear that those in Christ are not judged by their own deeds, which are wicked, but by Christ’s act of obedience because they have been literally raised up with Christ and will be revealed with Him upon judgement?
Indeed, we ought to set our minds on the things above, because bearing fruit for God is His purpose for us: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10). Paul is very careful to extol us to do good works while at the same time never saying our justification relies upon them.
5 For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.
In our sinfulness, we often times feel the need to step on the grass when a sign says, “Keep off the grass.” In effect, knowledge of the Law invokes in us a desire to deliberately break it, which of course exponentially increases our guilt. This is the rule for all of those without the Holy Spirit living apart from faith in Christ.
6 But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.
As Paul says in Gal 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”
Living by faith in Christ is serving in the newness of the Spirit. Serving in the newness is the Spirit is the reality of Christ living in us. Because this is a reality, it radically changes the life of a believer where they will hate sin and relish doing God’s will.
7 What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, 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.”
The Law gives us awareness of our sinfulness, which in itself is good. Apart from this awareness, we do not know we need a Savior.
8 But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.
Knowledge of the Law or law of nature makes our sins more grievous and our conviction of guilt more sure. If we were under no law, then the power of sin to imperil us is lessened. Where there is no deliberate sinfulness, there is less guilt. We should note, however, that does not mean there is no guilt whatsoever. Paul already discussed how gentiles, without the Law, are without excuse. Here, he is addressing the conundrum for Jews (and now Christians) who know God’s standards in the Law but cannot help but violate them deliberately.
On another note, who is the “me” and the “I” in this discussion? It is obviously Paul himself, even though most of the early church has ignored this conclusion.
For our purposes here, we will presume Paul is speaking of himself. However, there is still the question of whether this is a struggle happening to him before he knew Christ or afterwards.
Augustine’s view is that this speaks of a man (though not specifically Paul) who struggles with sin after knowing Christ. In his view, only a Christian who has experienced grace can actually “delight in the Law of God in the inward man:”
And it had once appeared to me also that the apostle was in this argument of his describing a man under the law. But afterwards I was constrained to give up the idea by those words where he says, ‘Now, then, it is no more I that do it.’ For to this belongs what he says subsequently also: ‘There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.’ And because I do not see how a man under the law should say, ‘I delight in the law of God after the inward man;’ since this very delight in good, by which, moreover, he does not consent to evil, not from fear of penalty, but from love of righteousness (for this is meant by delighting), can only be attributed to grace (Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, Book I, Chapter 10).
However, we have some reason to believe that this pertains to a Jew who is still unsaved. If we have followed Paul thus far in chapter 7, it specifically says that he is speaking to those under the Law. Though in verse 6 he moves past this state (“…now we have been released from the Law”), he contrasts this with his personal experience when under the Law (“I was once alive apart from the Law…sin became alive and I died,” Rom 7:9.) We will try to consider both views and the ramifications of each, though ultimately we will concur with Augustine.
9 I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died…
Paul was never really not dead to sin, because of original sin. Interpreters are unanimous in affirming that Paul is using a euphemism. What he was trying to say was that he was living care free (“alive”) apart from the Law while dead in his trespasses against the law of nature. Yet, when the commandment came, his sin became utterly sinful.
Why? Before he was sinning subconsciously, because his heart was darkened and he was suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. Now, he was sinning consciously and knowingly breaking God’s commands so that his rebellion was overt and purposeful.
Chrysostom writes, “For when I was alive without the Law, he means, I was not so much condemned.”
Aquinas concurs: “I died, i.e., I was more bound to death than before.”
10 and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me;
Not that he wasn’t already dead, but now he knew for a fact that this was the case. Unlike before, now Paul was forced to confront that he was dead in sin.
11 for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
Paul was deceived by his own sin, because he was aware that righteousness demanded that he follow every parameter of the Law. However, instead of taking this knowledge and looking for a savior, he looked towards continual striving with the Law. So, through the Law he was killed because his sin led him to use it unlawfully. The lawful use of the Law is to look for a Savior and that alone.
12 So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. 13 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.
The Law is good because it shows God’s righteous standards. It worked as intended, because Paul was aware that he fell short. Paul then makes clear that the Law did not cause death, so that antinomians would not be given ammunition to argue that righteous living causes death. Rather, the Law magnified his sin, which was the root cause of his death.
When it says that sin became “utterly sinful,” this means that it merely means that it is more apparent. To the sinner, then, it is even more obvious that he is purposely breaking God’s commandments.
14 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.
Paul and his audience know that the Law is spiritual and good, and so they affirm verse 13. However, Paul then throws us in a loop: “but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.” Is this Paul recounting his past under the Law? It would seem not, because “I am” speaks of the present.
If the past, then Paul is speaking of how those under the Law find themselves conflicted in their conscience, unable to be righteous. Christ would be the only possible way to salvation when one sees the curse of the Law.
If the present, then Paul speaks to those dead to the Law but who are aware how they still don’t live righteously as God rightly demands. Christ would still be the only possible way to salvation and this is made increasingly obvious during bouts against sin that endure even after one has committed himself to Christ, living in faith.
The difficulty with the latter interpretation is that Paul says, “I am of flesh, sold into bondage of sin.” In the preceding chapter, Paul said that Christians are “freed from sin and enslaved to God” (Rom 6:22). This would exclude an interpretation that he, as a Christian, can be sold into bodage to sin. He has already been freed from that.
Further, according to Paul in the next chapter, “[I]f you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13). So, this would mean Paul believes the Christian constantly vacillates between spiritual death and spiritual life, bondage to sin and slavery to righteousness.
Paul’s words, taken literally, lead us to this conclusion. Perhaps, however, we are overstating this. Paul may be simply saying that though we have been in reality freed from bondage, we still sometimes fall back on our slavish habits, in effect virtually selling on into bondage of sin. However, the virtual is not the actual, as Christians are “seated…with Him in the heavenly places” (Eph 2:6) though for a time it seems as if they are not due to a struggle with sin for a season.
15 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. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good.
Paul here continues in the present tense. Augustine believes that Paul is speaking of the man under grace, for a man left to himself would not “hate” breaking God’s Law.
Others may view this as far too simplistic a view. A man, dead in sin, with every inclination of his heart continually towards evil, ultimately does not really hate sin enough to stop doing it. However, on a surface level, he may dislike it. Sinful, fallen people do struggle with guilt. Someone living in sexual sin often feels defiled, but then continues doing the very thing she hates though it defiles her more.
So, imagining Paul as a Pharisee struggling with obedience to the Law, it is easy to see him sold in bondage to sin: continuing to do what he hates and yet knowing the Law is correct, confessing its goodness to the world.
17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
How does the sin, and not the person himself, commit a sin? Augustine asks a similar question: “For if he lusts and consents and acts, how can he be said not to do the thing himself, even although he may grieve that he does it, and deeply groan at being overcome” (Against the Letters of the Pelagians, Book I, Chapter 18)?
Augustine answers his own question: “[T]his…may be understood as if he had said, bringing me into captivity, in the flesh, not in the mind; in emotion, not in consent; and therefore bringing me into captivity, because even in the flesh there is not an alien nature, but our own” (Against the Letters of the Pelagians, Book I, Chapter 19). Hence, there is essentially a dual nature within man: one of the Spirit and that of the Old Man, the flesh.
Apparently, the Spirit can withdraw His grace and the result is that a saved man lives according to the flesh, enslaving his will to the old nature. We can see this in Hezekiah when he in his pride shown the Babylonians the wealth of Israel, implicitly whetting their appetite and leading to their future sacking of the city. “Even in the matter of the envoys of the rulers of Babylon, who sent to him to inquire of the wonder that had happened in the land, God left him alone only to test him, that He might know all that was in his heart” (2 Chron 32:31).
This makes Paul’s admonition in Col 3:5 make sense: “Put to death, then, your members that are upon the earth — whoredom, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and the covetousness, which is idolatry” (YLT). How can a saved person, living according to the Spirit put to death something that is earthly (the flesh) if it was not latent within the man? Therefore, in Christ one has victory over sin; but he still wars against it as an internal enemy that resides within.
If we are to take the interpretation that this is Paul the Pharisee, the verse may not contain the rhetorical thrust the former interpretation has, but it simply is saying that Paul’s good intentions have gone to naught. His sinful nature, the default nature he has inherited from Adam, rule his members as the Spirit in this state cannot avail him. He has not yet placed his faith in Christ.
18 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. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 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.
Nothing good dwells in the flesh, which apparently still resides in the Christian (Col 3:5). It is as if the spiritually dead are zombies, walking the earth but really dead at their core, while the spiritually resurrected are truly living with beating hearts, but still have not shed their zombie bodies. They will have to wait for the resurrection of the quick and the dead to receive their perfected, spiritual bodies with no trace of zombieness.
This may sound crass, but it does make sense of how Paul may be speaking as a saved man and creating a dichotomy between his spirit and his flesh. However, even as an unsaved Pharisee, the analogy makes sense. The unsaved man, without the Holy Spirit, literally has nothing good dwelling within him. Even his supposed good intentions are tainted by sin, and not good at all. This interpretation runs into problems when we read that Paul says that he was not the one doing it. A man, fallen in sin, lives according to the flesh so it would be him doing it. The dualistic view of human nature, which we may sum up as Christians containing both a spiritual nature that strives against the remnants of the old man (the other nature) personified by the flesh, appears to make more sense.
21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.
Find or found? Paul here is offering a conclusion based upon what he just laid out: the one who struggles to fulfill the Law, but finds that he does not do it, has evil within him even though he wants what is good. We may infer that because the word found was not used, Paul is speaking about a present condition, and not a past one.
22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.
Paul concludes that there are essentially two “laws,” or rules in effect if we are speaking of the regenerate believer. One rule is that we cannot help but desire obedience. The other rule is that our flesh involuntarily actualizes disobedience.
If we are speaking of someone under the Law, this can be more accurately described as a nagging desire for obedience, but an even greater desire to sin. However, if Paul is speaking of someone under grace, he is speaking of how “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). Even when he wills one thing, he reflexively does something wrong.
Christian men may identify with this struggle when it pertains to lust. They joyfully concur with Law against adultery, and yet they catch themselves wanting to look at other women. So, even if they do not succumb to any greater sin than the passing glance, the passing glance is a reflexive sin that works against their will, almost as if the law of sin has physical power over his members so that he would be forced to turn against his own will, which desires not to look at all!
Paul in the next chapter writes that “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.” Does the man in Rom 7:22, 23 really subject himself to the law of God? Some supporting the interpretation that the man in Rom 7 is a Christian say yes, for he desires to do so. However, some who say the man is Paul the Pharisee say no, because Paul speaks of wanting to honor the Law, but finding that he commits sin instead. This would be evidence of not being able to subject himself to the Law.
24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?
Paul is indeed a wretch, as he cannot help but violate the Law. This certainly does not sound like someone who is under grace. There appears to be a a couple of proofs for this in the subsequent chapter:
[S]ending His own Son…He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us (Rom 8:3-4).
Hasn’t the man in Christ had the requirement of the Law fulfilled in him, so that he has been set free from the body of this death? If the man in Rom 7 has a body of death that he needs to be set free from, how can he be a Christian?
He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you (Rom 8:11).
The one under grace has the Spirit dwelling within him, can his body be accurately called “the body of this death?”
Perhaps yes. To the contrary, the previous verse states:
If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness (Rom 8:10).
This appears to definitively endorse the dualism we were speaking of earlier. Paul states specifically that a person in Christ has a dead body because of his own sin, yet he has the Holy Spirit and can at the same time be alive. So, a Christian can look at his own flesh, see that the wages of his sin are death, and ask himself who can save him from the body of this death. The Christian knows the answer:
25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! 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.
The Law has done it’s work! It has made sin utterly sinful. It makes us look at our own works and persons. We see that the wages of our sins are death. We take no confidence in the flesh, but we seeing the work of the Spirit take our confidence in what Jesus Christ has done for us. Those who live by the “Spirit…are putting to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13). These works are not the basis in which we are saved, but they are the evidence that we live by faith and that the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Hence, they are confirmation, and not the cause of, our salvation.
This verse appears to make clear that Paul is speaking of someone under grace all along. The man who gives thanks to God that Jesus has saved him from the body of this death makes clear that he is the same man that serves both the law of God and the law of sin. In the next chapter, we consider how a Christian ought to live now that we have concluded that those in Christ are dead to the Law (Rom 6:1-11), we show that we belong to God by our obedience (Rom 6:12-23), and the Law and our flesh’s weakness in subjecting itself to it makes us aware that we indeed need a savior (Rom 7). In many ways, it is a recapitulation and continued explanation of Rom 6:12-23.