Sermon preached on Romans 7:7-25 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/30/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Who Will Deliver Me From This Body of Death?”
Last week we looked at this same passage, but we focused on the first part. We dealt with the question that asked if the law was sin. We saw how Paul concluded that the law was not sin. The law was and is holy, just and good. Christians are not under the law in the sense of having to obey it to earn a right standing before God. But Christians still are to affirm the law’s goodness and make use of it in our growth in holy living.
In light of that truth, we now look to the rest of this passage. And we find teaching to which we can all very much relate. Man’s struggle with sin. Paul continues to talk about this in connection with the law. Having affirmed that the law is inherently good, he then goes on to show how we know that to be true. But we nonetheless struggle in this life to keep the law. I know this is a struggle to which we can all relate. Christians struggle with sin in this life. We struggle with breaking the law. We know we shouldn’t break the law. We know we’ve been called to godliness. But we still encounter a struggle.
And yet as soon as I mention that this is a struggle for Christians, that means I have to address a common question when it comes to this passage. People down through the ages have asked this question about this passage. The question is this: Does the struggle expressed here between sinning versus godliness, good versus evil – does that struggle describe someone who is a born-again Christian, or does it describe someone who has not yet become a Christian? This is especially referring to verses 13-25. Do verses 13-25 express the struggle of a born again Christian, or that of an unbeliever, maybe even just prior to his conversion?
Well, I can appreciate this question. It’s one I’ve asked when I read this before. It’s one I had to wrestle with when I started hearing the arguments from both sides. My conviction is that this passage describes the life of the believer. That it describes the difficult struggles with sin a regenerated believer will have before he goes to be with the Lord. Of course, I’m in good company. The vast majority of people who agree that this is describing the struggles of believer are some of the most preeminent orthodox scholars of the Bible. This is among both Reformed theologians and theologians more broadly in general: Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Knox, Charles Hodge, Herman Bavinck, and many, many, more. On the other hand, the people who think this refers to an unbeliever tend to be all the people on the wrong side of the theological aisle. The heretical Pelagians, for example, who deny original sin, and make salvation a work of man, have thought this refers to unbelievers. Many liberal modernist theologians have thought this as well. Now certainly there are plenty of exceptions. But it seems to me that the best of our theologians in the church down through the ages have generally agreed that this refers to the life of a believer.
And yet of course, we don’t do biblical exegesis by a vote. Instead we have to look at the text and what it says. The difficulty with this is that some parts sound like they are talking about a believer, other parts might at first glance seem only appropriate of an unbeliever. For example, look at verse 14. Paul compares himself with the law; the law being spiritual and him being carnal. Those who think this refers to an unbeliever, think that a regenerated Christian could not be described as carnal. However, such an argument is not that strong. It’s true that Paul wouldn’t call the Christian as someone “in the flesh.” That’s not our state anymore. And yet, 1 Corinthians 3:1 does use this same language and contrast of spiritual versus carnal to describe Christians, albeit there immature Christians. 1 Corinthians 3:1 “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ.” But a babe in Christ, is still a born again Christian. Obviously, then, the language of us being carnal in contrast to the law’s spirituality is appropriate language to use of the believer. And so verse 14 isn’t an example of language that couldn’t be applied to the believer. The same is true for other questionable verses throughout this passage. They all could be understood as something that would appropriately describe a believer.
On the other hand, there are certainly things Paul says here that seem impossible to be used to describe someone who hasn’t been born again. Verse 22, for example. There Paul says that he delights in the law of God according to his inner man. In light of the rest of Scripture, that doesn’t seem like something that could be said of the person who has not been born again. Even if a non believer outwardly rejoices in some command of Scripture, the Bible paints a picture that man’s inner self stands opposed to God’s law. That the heart of man is totally depraved, in the sense that it’s all tainted by sin. Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it? This seems to have been Paul’s point especially in the first three chapters of Romans. That apart from salvation, we have hard hearts and darkened understanding. The problem for the unregenerated person is that they don’t delight in God’s law. But on the other hand, that’s exactly how the man of God is described. Psalm 1:2, the blessed man is the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law he meditates day and night! Verse 22 is but one example of several in this passage that uses language that you would only expect to be used of a born again Christian.
We’ve just barely begun to make this case that this passage describes the struggle of a believer. I will continue to make the case now by way of expounding on this passage from the assumption that it is about a believer. But let’s make sure we understand what’s going on here. The reason for the question on this passage is because this passage helps us to see something very important. It’s a truth found elsewhere too, but it’s so clearly stated here. That truth is this: born again Christians, though justified before God, still have remaining corruption in them. Their sanctification is not perfected yet. In other words, when we were born, we were born with a sinful nature. Before being born again, that sinful nature completely dominated everything we did. However, this passage shows that we are born again and saved, that doesn’t mean that we lose that sinful nature entirely. There is still some remaining corruption in us. However, there still has been a change, nonetheless. Our regeneration does make a difference. For the unregenerate person, their sinful nature means they can’t do anything truly good, in the sense of what makes something truly good. However, the regenerate person can do things that are truly good. But we can also still do things that are truly bad too. When we get to heaven, God will finish this work in our lives. He’ll remove that remaining corruption from our lives. But until then, there is a battle. A battle in our lives between that part of our sinful nature that remains, and the fact that our being born again does make a difference. We can make progress in godliness, even though it’s a struggle and fight along the way. That’s what this passage gets at.
And so then, let’s look now at how this passage shows this remaining corruption in our lives. Then we’ll look at how our regeneration does make a difference. We’ll tie it all together then and see how it expresses that battle that is going on inside all of us, including Paul. Look first then again at verse 14. There we learn that this remaining corruption is such that we can still be said to be sold under sin. This is some of that strong language, but it seems to be getting at the fact that we still have been allowed to sin. Yes, God has redeemed us. But God has not yet so removed us from the grips of sin so that we stop sinning. Verse 17 says this point in other way. It says that there is sin that dwells in us still.
In the same way, you have verse 15 that talks about sin that we do that which we do not understand. In other words, even for the Christian who has had his eyes enlightened by the Holy Spirit, there are still things that we struggle to understand with regard to God, righteousness, and biblical truth. Our minds have been opened, but some of that remaining corruption still clouds our understanding. If this wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t ever need to receive biblical counsel. Nor you wouldn’t have Christians that fight over things like questions of morality, or questions of biblical interpretation.
Verse 18 puts all this another way. It says that there is nothing good in us, that is in our flesh. By the way, Paul uses that word flesh in different ways at different points in his writing. When he uses it here, it doesn’t seem fitting to think of himself making a statement just on our physical parts. As if the body is all bad and the spirit or inner self is all good. That would be a little too simplistic to say that in light of other passages. Jesus, for example, says that sin comes from the heart. And so the NIV translates flesh here in verse 18 as “sinful nature.” As a translation that seems to overstep its boundaries. But as an interpretation, I think it is helpful. This concept of the flesh in verse 18 seems to be describing that remaining corruption and sinful nature that still is in us. It is something earthly and of this age, and Paul points to that as the problem in us. There is nothing good in this remaining corruption of us. Before we were totally depraved. Yet, some depravity still remains for the Christian. And in such depravity, there is nothing good.
This remaining corruption is further driven home in verses 21-24. It says evil is present with us, verse 21. We find ourselves still in some kind of captivity to the law of sin. Paul shows that this is the regular principle for the Christian in this life. The result is that it gets Paul to cry out over his wretchedness. O wretched man that I am!
And so it’s clear in this passage that Christians have remaining corruption in them. They will still have real struggles to sin because of it. This is what other passages would affirm as well. Colossians 3 and Ephesians 4, for example, both talk about how the Christian has to live his life as one who is putting off the old sinful things, and putting on the new righteous things. Ephesians 6 talks about that spiritual battle we’ll go through in this life. James 4:1 talks about the passions that are at war within us. I could quote many others. But you don’t need to go anywhere else to affirm that what Paul says here is true for the born again Christian. I am sure that each of us can look at our own life and find this to be true. This is true to our experience. We still find remaining depravity and corruption in our life. We don’t see as clearly as we want to in terms of godliness. Our words, thoughts, and actions, show this to be true.
And yet our regeneration does make a difference, as we’ve said. Let’s turn to look at how we see that in this passage. We’ve already pointed out verse 22. We now delight in God’s law. That’s a fundamental change that’s taken place. Before in Romans 3:11, it says that no one seeks God. Now that we are born again, we truly do have a desire for God and for righteousness. We can truly seek first the kingdom of God and righteousness with a real heartfelt desire. This is the idea of finding joy in God and in godliness.
But it’s not just our desires that have changed. We also see a big part of our regeneration in this passage as it describes our wills. This word for “will” occurs seven times in this passage. It talks about how Paul wills to do good, not evil. Over and over this point is made. Verses 15, 16, 18, 19, 20, and 21 all make this point. The reason Paul and any Christian wills for victory over sin and wills for righteousness is because God has renewed our wills. Before our new birth, our wills were under bondage. They were free to choose sinful things, but not free to choose righteous things. An unregenerate person couldn’t use the language of Paul here in terms of his will. Not with the meaning that’s present here. The born again Christian can will to do that which is truly good.
Paul says that this means that our regenerated state knows that the law is good. Verse 16 says this is seen when we do the things that we don’t will to do. The fact that we didn’t will them, shows that in our mind we knew they were against the law. This is why in the last few verses he references his mind as what’s looking to serve God. In other words, we see that our regeneration affects our minds too. Though we still have knowledge issues, we do have a renewed capacity for our minds to think properly. We now can serve God in our minds, by acknowledging the rightness of the law.
And so this passage shows us very clearly that our regeneration does make a difference. Our desires have been changed. Our minds have been enlightened, convincing us of our sin and misery. Our wills have been renewed. This will make a difference in our sanctification. Without this new birth, we would have no hope of progress in our sanctification. But since we’ve been born again, our regeneration says there will be a difference now in how we think and live.
And so these two things are in tension. We have remaining corruption from our sinful nature. We have also been regenerated, and that makes a difference. The result is a war. These two truths account for the daily battle we face as Christians. Every day we experience what Paul says he experiences. So many contrasts given here that reflect this war. It’s the contrast of the law being spiritual, and us being carnal. Thus there’s a battle. There’s the contrast between the mind and the flesh. That’s verses 23 and 25. The word for warring is literally used there in verse 23. There’s the contrast of serving the law of sin versus serving the law of God, verses 23-24. There’s the contrast in verse 17 that distinguishes between us and the sin that lives in us; the idea being that the sin is pitted against us.
And of course the clearest way this war is brought out is the tension between doing what we don’t want to do, and not doing what we want to do. Verses 15, “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.” And Verse 17:
But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
Isn’t this frustrating? Haven’t you experienced this? You don’t want to sin but you do it anyways. Afterwards you feel so upset with yourself. It could be a thought. Some evil thought just jumps into your mind and you find yourself entertaining it. All of a sudden you realize what you are doing and stop. Or it could be a word. You are in a conversation with someone and before you know it you say something hurtful. Or it could be an action. You sin that sin you know you shouldn’t be doing, but there’s a part of you that gives in to the temptation. As soon as you do it, you immediately know you should not have done it. Sometimes we put up more of a fight than at other times. All of this can be so frustrating. So much like a war zone. What a fitting analogy.
All of this tension makes you want to cry out. You want to cry out and say, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” We see the answer in verse 25. God will deliver us; through Jesus Christ! And yet as soon as he says that in verse 25, Paul immediately resummarizes the battle we are going through! But that’s the point. Right now, the battle inside us rages on. Right now, we are not delivered from this battle. Yes, God is aiding us through this battle. He’s still our mighty fortress. He’s still our rock and our help and our strength. He still provides the strength of his armor to wage this war. Ultimately, the battle belongs to the Lord. And yet the battle still wages on for now. Final deliverance is yet in the future. Final deliverance will come at the resurrection. Then we will be delivered from this body of death. Then we’ll be made anew with Jesus’ power of resurrection life. That’s the final deliverance. But it’s not yet here for us. It’s at hand. But not yet here.
And so for now, saints of God, we continue on. We fight the good fight. But I hope you see the beauty of this passage. When you find your “wretchedness” in this life seems like such a hypocrisy to your faith, you are right. But you are not alone. This is the Christian experience this side of heaven. This was Paul’s experience. However, if you are truly a born again believer, you won’t let that be an excuse for your sin. You won’t be content with the sin, and so you will fight on. You see, if we are in this war, then let us war! Let us fight on!
And that means we make use of the resources God gives us for this battle. That includes the law. We know the law is good. We know it is spiritual. We agree that is the case. So then, make use of it. Make use of it to feed your minds with truth. Truth about righteousness. If we delight in God and his laws, let us then meditate in them day and night. Make use of this resource we’ve been given. Fighting in this war is a struggle, so then really struggle. Let us not just say it’s a struggle and sit back and let sin have the advantage. No, then let’s really struggle. Let’s really fight. Let’s work through this tension because we know that’s what being a Christian is supposed to be like.
And in it all, we can thank God. In it all, do thank God! That’s what Paul did in verse 25. In light of the certain deliverance from this internal war, we thank God. The tense is clear here in the Greek. The deliverance is in the future. But our thanksgiving is in the present. Right now, in the battle, in the war, we thank God for the deliverance that we will have in the future. If we have known the difficulty of this battle, then we can understand why we are already thanking God in advance for this deliverance. Praise be to God! Amen.
Copyright © 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.