Summary: Paul describes the effect of living under the rule of the Mosaic law.
Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe (Galatians 3.21-22).
In this section (7.13-25) Paul continues to describe the effect of living under the rule of the Mosaic law. His emphatic use of the first person (ego) dramatizes the inability of the law to effect salvation, even for the most devout and earnest of seekers. The mind may understand and even appreciate the good demands of the law, but resident sin is at war with the mind and holds the individual’s will captive to its rebellious action. The Mosaic law informs one of God’s moral purpose, but it provides no means of escape from the entangling tentacles of sin. The law, which is good, does not bring death to its recipient; the recipient, with his heart of flesh (7.14), is already dead by means of his bondage to sin. This is Paul’s meaning when he says, It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin. This is in keeping with the Ephesian letter: And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2.1-3). Far from rescuing one from sin, the Mosaic law exacerbates the conflict between the heart and the mind by accentuating the impossibility of doing what one wants to do: For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me (7.19-20). The inner being that delights in the law of God is frustrated by another law that holds one captive to the law of sin: For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. The Mosaic law, for all its holiness, is powerless to transform a life and sin reigns supreme.
THE LAW SHOWS SIN TO BE SINFUL BEYOND MEASURE (7.13)
So then, even though indwelling sin causes death, the law itself is good. Now Paul asks the question: “Can that which is good be the cause of his death?” The answer, of course, is, “Absolutely not!” It is sin, not the law, that is the cause of his death. The law merely demonstrates the magnitude of sin’s sinfulness. Paul is most emphatic in his insistence that the law is good. Sin is the great enemy of life. It is sin that uses the innocence of the law as its tool to expose the full magnitude of sin. The law was given so that sin may be seen all the more clearly for what it truly is, namely, sinful beyond measure (7.13). Paul stresses the inability of the law to serve as a means of salvation. With Paul’s use of the first person (ἐγὼ, ego) it is easy to lose sight of what he is talking about, that is, the Mosaic law. The reader should notice that he makes 9 references to the law or the commandment (specifically, You shall not covet; 7.7) in verses 9-14. The Mosaic law is his primary concern in this part of his letter. The Christian reader may be dealing with his own sin and finds Paul’s emphatic use of the ego with respect to the power of indwelling sin to be a point of identity with this great apostle but this is not the question Paul is answering.
Many argue that this section of Paul’s letter is autobiographical and that he is confessing his own struggle with sin. But it is more consistent with the context of his argument to assume that he is using the dramatic first person narrative to portray a picture of the unregenerate Jew living under the influence of the Mosaic law. Such an understanding of this pericope (7.14-25) explains Paul’s shift from the use of the past tense verbs to the present tense.
In describing this continuing state of affairs, this paragraph also fills in a crucial gap that Paul has left in his argument in vv. 7-12. How was it possible for sin to use the law to bring death to “me”? Is “sin” a power, outside a person, that can arbitrarily bring to pass so disastrous a state of affairs? Not al all, Paul affirms in vv. 14-20, for sin dwells “in me.” “I” am ultimately at fault; certainly not the law, not even sin. It is “me” and my “carnality,” my helplessness under sin, that enables sin to do what it does. “Sin” has invaded my existence and made me a divided person, willing to do what God wants but failing to do it.