What the Law Could Not Do Back to all sermons

Date: January 20, 2012

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: Romans

Category: Romans

Scripture: Romans 7:14–7:25

Tags: Paul, law

Who is Paul describing in Romans 7:14-25? This is the urgent question which presses in on the interpreter as we read these verses. The obvious answer is that Paul is describing himself. The entire section is written in the first person, with first person pronouns and verb forms. Paul is writing about his own personal experience. The section is autobiographical. That much is clear. But what part of his life is he describing? Is he describing his pre-conversion life as a Pharisee and student of the Law? Or is he describing his on-going experience as a follower of Christ, even at the time of his writing?

We might make first appeal to the tense of the verbs which Paul uses. They are primarily present tense verbs throughout the section, which would lead us toward the conclusion that he is writing about his experience at the time of his writing. However this is not fully determinative, as the Greek language and grammar does allow, as does English, for something called the dramatic present, in which a story or experience in the past is told in the present tense for dramatic effect.

It is interesting to note that church history is divided on the answer to this question. In the first three centuries of the church, the writers and church fathers almost universally took this section as a description of Paul’s pre-conversion experience. However, since the Reformation, the Reformers and the Puritan writers have mostly interpreted it as a description of Paul at the time of his writing, describing the on-going struggle of the Christian against sin in his life.

We need to acknowledge the difficulty in answering the question. Either way we answer it leaves us with some rather serious interpretive challenges. Let us first consider the position that this is Paul as a Christian. Look at some of the statements he makes about himself:

I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. (v. 14)
To do good is not present in me. (v.18b)
I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. (v.23)
What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (v.24)
In the sinful nature (I am) a slave to the law of sin. (v. 25)

I would point out that this last statement is his conclusion to the section.

Why do these statements cause such problems? Well, if they indeed are meant to describe Paul’s experience as a follower of Christ, they must be reconciled with some other statements Paul has made.

In Romans 6:6 we read: That the body of sin might be rendered ineffective (powerless) that we should no longer be slaves to sin.

Or consider this command in Romans 6:12: Let not sin reign in your mortal body.

Or this statement in Romans 6:14: For sin shall not be your master. And, You have been set free from sin, in Romans 6:18 and 22.

We can even look ahead a few verses in Romans 8:2: The law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.

How can we reconcile such contradictory statements? Those who hold this position (and they are in the clear majority) recognize the difficulty of the task. However, they still maintain that the passage is describing Paul’s ongoing struggle against his own sin nature, even as a Christian. They see it as a parallel passage to Paul’s statement in Galatians 5:17, where Paul says, For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.

At first glance, this seems to fit. But I would add to the difficulties by also pointing to Galatians 5:16: So I say, live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. And Galatians 5:18: But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. And also Galatians 5:24: Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.

Galatians certainly describes an ongoing struggle, but it is a struggle in which the Spirit leads us to victory, while Romans 7:23 describes a life of defeat in which Paul concludes in 7:23 that he is a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.

I would also bring in a passage from the Apostle John in 1 John 3:9, in which he states, No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning because he has been born of God.

So, we have a bit of a problem, do we not? What about the alternative interpretation: that Paul is describing his pre-conversion experience? Once again, we encounter some difficulties. Listen to some of these statements which Paul makes about himself.

I agree that the law is good. (7:16)
For I have the desire to do what is good. (7:18)
When I want to do good… (7:21)
For in my inner being, I delight in God’s law; (7:22)
I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law. (7:25)

Here is the difficulty. Do these statements describe an unbeliever; a person who does not know Christ? Can we reconcile these statements with others Paul has made about the man apart from Christ?

For example,

There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Romans 3:10-12)

Or what about Paul’s description, looking ahead to Romans 8:5-7?

5 Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; 7 the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.

If this passage in Romans 7 is describing Paul in his unconverted state, how do we reconcile his statement that his mind and inner being delight in God’s law with the statements that describe the sinful mind as being inherently hostile to God and his law?

So, this is our dilemma. There seem to be contradictions here either way we turn. Let me first tell you how I resolved the dilemma and interpreted this passage during the first half of my ministry, the first 4 or 5 times I taught or preached my way through this book. I concluded that Paul was here describing his experience as a believer who attempted to keep the law. Do you remember last week’s message and the question, “Is the law the solution?” We might phrase the question more specifically, “Is the law the solution to overcoming sin in my life?” In that context, this passage describes what happens when a believer attempts to deal with sin by relying on the law, on a list of do’s and don’ts, on legalism. It is a believer who has been justified by grace, but now attempts to be sanctified by keeping the law. Such a person, (as Paul apparently was at one time) soon discovers that he cannot keep the law by his own efforts, and therefore remains a slave to sin and the sin nature. What he needs to do is stop relying on the law and begin relying on the Holy Spirit as the agent who is able to produce holiness in his life.

Well, I still think that is a pretty good interpretation. I preached some pretty good messages on that theme from these verses. They were not only good messages, but I believe they were doctrinally sound messages. But I have since come to believe that they were doctrinally sound messages preached from the wrong text. They were messages I should have preached from Galatians 5 instead of Romans 7.

What caused me to change my mind and cast my lot as an interpreter with the early church fathers rather than the Reformers? Let’s go back to the idea that Paul is describing his pre-conversion experience. Let’s look at some of those statements again; the ones that gave us trouble before. I agree the law is good. The will to do good is present in me. The one who wants to do good. I delight in the law of God according to the inner man. With my mind I serve the law of God.

Do these statements accurately describe the typical unbeliever? Clearly not. They certainly do not describe the blatant rebels described in Romans 1. But then I asked another question. Are there any unbelievers and non-Christians whom this does describe? And then I asked another question: Who exactly was Paul targeting when he wrote this chapter?

Suddenly it clicked. Look back at Romans 7:1: Do you not know, brothers – for I am writing to men who know the law -…What is Paul’s topic? The law. Who in his audience would have been particularly interested in this question? The Jews. And how did a typical, devout but unconverted Jew regard the law?

To answer that question, let’s look at Paul’s own descriptions from earlier chapters. In Romans 2:17-20 Paul wrote:

Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth.

Look also at Romans 2:23: You who brag about the law… Or consider Romans 3:1-2:

What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? 2 Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.

What words do you think the Jews had in mind as being “the very words of God”? The law of course! The Jews had a very high view of the Old Testament Scriptures and of the Law of God. They memorized it. They wrote it on phylacteries to wear on their wrists and foreheads. They wrote it on their walls. Even today, one of the high points in the life of a boy growing up in the Jewish faith is his “Bar Mitzvah”, when he is declared a “Son of the Law”.

I have mentioned before that one of my favorite novelists is Chaim Potok. Mr. Potok has set most of his novels in the context of the life of orthodox, “Hasidic” Jews in America in the 1900’s. I enjoy his books because they are a window into a world and culture and community that I know very little about. What impresses me about the stories is the descriptions he gives of their great respect for the Torah, and how carefully they handle the sacred scrolls as they take them out to read them as part of the Sabbath day worship. Truly it can be described as taking delight in the law of God. While the passages we considered do not describe all unbelievers, they do describe some; specifically, they describe those he was addressing in this chapter; the Jews; those who know the law.

I believe Paul is here describing a man who is relying on the law for his right standing with God. He is describing his own experience as one who grew up with the highest regard for the law, who believed that the law was the solution to his own sin problem. He tried to please God by keeping the law, but it didn’t work and it can never work. Why not? Because, in Paul’s words in verse 14: The law is spiritual but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. Harking back to last week’s message, “The law is not the problem.” After all, the law is spiritual. The problem is in me. I am unspiritual. I am a slave to sin. But while the law is not the problem, nor is the law the solution, because the law cannot get to the root of the problem which is the sin which dwells in me. And the harder I try to comply with the law, the more I am aware of my own sin. It was C.S. Lewis who wrote: “No man knows how bad he is until he has tried to be good.” These verses in Romans are a description of Paul, the Pharisee, trying to be good. And failing utterly.

What about the references to the unconverted mind in chapter 8 which is in rebellion against God, and the references to the mind and the inner man in chapter 7 which wants to do good? Isn’t this a contradiction? It certainly seemed so to me, until I realized that Paul is, in fact, using two different Greek words for mind. In the verses in chapter 8, he consistently uses a word which carries the idea of a way of thinking, a mind-set, a philosophy. In the chapter 7, the word he uses for “mind” refers to the mind as the organ of thought, the intellect, the capacity to think. In chapter 7 we might paraphrase his words this way: “Intellectually, on an abstract thought level, I admire the Law and I want to keep it. But on a practical level, the sin in me is too strong and holds me captive. As he says in Romans 7:18b, “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.”

So what is the conclusion of the matter? Well, you may or may not agree with my interpretation of this passage. If you choose to agree with Martin Luther and John Calvin and Matthew Henry and Martyn Lloyd Jones instead of me, that’s OK! I can live with that.

But if you do agree with my interpretation, then we find that this final section of Romans 7 fits seamlessly with what Paul has been saying earlier in the chapter. The Jews in Paul’s audience are disturbed by his declaration in Romans 1-5 concerning justification by faith; that it is possible to be declared righteous before God apart from observing the law. In fact that is the only way to be declared righteous in God’s sight.

“If that is true, Paul, then what about the law?” In the first 6 verses, Paul uses legal reasoning to declare that by the death of Christ and our death with Christ, we have been set free from the law.

“So, Paul, are you saying that the law was the problem?” In verses 7 to 13, Paul answers clearly. No, the law is not the problem. The law is holy and righteous and good. There is nothing wrong with the law. The problem is sin; specifically, the sin that dwells in me. The law is not the problem, but neither is the law the solution, because I lack the ability to keep the law. This section of Romans 7 is a very effective, dramatized description of the inner struggle of a religious Jew who tries as hard as he can to earn his right standing with God by keeping the law and ends up in despair, crying out: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” It is a cry that echoes the tax collector in Jesus’ parable: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The law is not the problem. Sin is the problem. But neither is the law the solution.

What, then, is the solution? Listen as I jump ahead into Romans 8:3 for the answer: For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.

This is why Paul, in answer to his own question: Who will rescue me from this body of death? can cry out in Romans 7:24 the triumphant answer: “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

What about you? Have you been trying to please God with your own righteousness, by trying to keep the law, or live up to some stringent inner code? Are you weary of the struggle to satisfy God’s requirements by your own efforts? Are you tired of failing, again and again and again, no matter how hard you try? There is another way. What the law could not do, God has done. He has provided a way to be right with him. It is the way of the cross. It is the way of justification by faith in Jesus Christ and his sufficient sacrifice.

Before I close, I want to suggest another use for this passage. The Jews are not the only ones who have a high respect for law and for law keeping. We live among a people who have a very high regard for a law which they believe came from God. And they believe that their only hope for entering Paradise is by keeping that law. If you are in a close friendship with such a person and have the freedom to discuss spiritual things with him or her, let me suggest something. Type out this section of Romans 7:14-24 without the verse references and without anything to identify it as coming from the Bible; just a piece of prose describing someone’s personal experience. Read it to your friend or give it to him to read, and ask him if it is an accurate description of his/her own inner struggle. See where the discussion goes from there. You might even get the chance to share what Paul says in Romans 8:3: “For what the law was powerless to do…God did by sending his Son…”


  1. What part of his life experience (pre-conversion or present reality) do you think Paul is describing in Romans 7:14-25? What are the pros and cons of your answer? (Compare the descriptive statements in this passage with some of the things that Paul said in Romans 6.)
  2. What are the pros and cons of the alternative position?
  3. Compare and contrast Paul’s words in Galatians 5 with Romans 7. How are they the same? How are they different?
  4. What are the implications and applications of the two different interpretations?