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Summary: In this text we notice that even Christians still struggle with sin.

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Billy Sunday was a well-known evangelist at the start of the 20th century. In preparation for a series of evangelistic services in a large city, Sunday wrote a letter to the Mayor of that city in which he asked for the names of individuals whom the Mayor knew had spiritual problems and needed help and prayer. Imagine Billy Sunday’s surprise when the Mayor sent him a city directory!

The Mayor understood what we intuitively know and the Bible explicitly affirms (in Romans 3:23): all of us struggle with sin. The apostle Paul describes this struggle with sin in Romans 7:14-20 in the context of God’s law. Let us read Romans 7:14-20:

"14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me." (Romans 7:14-20)

Introduction

The last half of Romans 7 is one of the most debated sections of the entire Bible. Godly people throughout the ages have disagreed over how to interpret this passage.

This is a section of the letter in which the apostle Paul is speaking of himself, describing a fierce internal struggle with sin.

The fundamental question in this section over which there is so much debate is this: Of what stage in his life is Paul speaking? Is he speaking of the present, that is, of the time of his writing the letter—when he was a mature Christian? Or is he speaking of himself as he was in the past, before his conversion to Christ?

This is an important question. Before we look at the text in detail, it is vital that we understand whether or not Paul is talking about himself as a Christian or as a non-Christian in this section. To that end I want you to notice two changes in Romans 7:14-20.

First, notice the change of tense in the verbs. In the previous section, verses 7-13, the verbs are predominantly in the past tense. Therefore, they appear to refer to Paul’s past experience—before he was a Christian. So, in verse 9b Paul says, “sin came alive and I died.” In verse 11 he says, “sin . . . deceived me.” And in verse 13 he says, “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means!” These are all verbs in the past tense, and they refer to his life before his conversion to Christ.

But now, from verse 14 onwards, the verbs are in the present tense, and refer to Paul’s present experience as a Christian. So, in verse 14 Paul says, “I am of the flesh.” And in verse 15 he says, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate”—all present tense verbs.

And second, notice the change of situation. In verses 7-13 Paul describes how sin sprang to life through the law and killed him; it finished him off, spiritually speaking. But in verses 14-20 he describes his fierce continuing conflict with sin, in which he refuses to admit defeat, but is an active combatant against sin.

Now these two changes seem to suggest that what Paul is portraying in verses 7-13 is his life as a non-Christian, and in verses 14-20 is his life as a Christian.

However, some commentators (from the Greek Fathers onwards) have rejected this view. They cannot conceive how a Christian, let alone a mature Christian like the apostle Paul, could describe his Christian experience in terms of such a fierce conflict—and indeed a conflict that he seems not to be winning. They argue that Romans 7:14-20 must describe Paul’s non-Christian struggle with sin.

Yet there are two traits in the apostle Paul’s self-portrait in verses 14-20 that led the Reformers, and have led most (but admittedly not all) commentators since, to believe that these verses are actually the self-portrait of Paul the Christian. The first is Paul’s opinion of himself, and the second is his opinion of the law. Let’s look briefly at each in turn.

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