In Romans chapter 7 verses 9-25, the apostle Paul speaks of his own experience as a Christian.
This passage begins with Paul describing his pre-converted state (when he was known as Saul, the Pharisee): “I was alive without the law once” (v.9a). Saul, a student and teacher of the law of Moses, had been “alive without the law”—even while he studied it! In those days he was not so thoroughly convicted concerning his sinfulness of his own heart.
True self-knowledge corresponds with the word of God as properly interpreted.
And before he had become a Christian, Paul would not have admitted the fact of his own utter wickedness—his total depravity. No, for the Pharisees thought that they could justify themselves in the sight of God by doing good works.
Paul then says that a time came when the law spoke with great force into his awakened conscience—and it stirred up the sins in his heart. “Sin revived, and I died” (v.9b). Now he understood from bitter experience that he had no ability whatsoever to do anything good in God’s eyes.
This true self-knowledge only comes with regeneration.
Only the Christian knows the total depravity of his or her flesh. That is why Paul was not any more the self-confident Pharisee. Now he owned that this totally-humbling fact was true of himself: “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing” (v.18a).
Only the true Christian can say that.
Paul’s regenerated soul knew that all the law could do for him was to convict him of sin, and to find him guilty as a Hell-deserving sinner. He now knew very well, that the more he sought to be good by obeying the law, the more his sinfulness was inflamed within him. “But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful” (v.13).
With the self-knowledge that comes with regeneration, the Christian accepts the total blame for his or her own sins.
Thus did Paul. He now understood that it was not the law that caused him to sin in this way, but his own depraved nature. The law is “that which is good,” “holy, just and good” and is “spiritual” (verses 12, 14). This holy law, he now affirmed, was in stark contrast to his fallen nature: “…but I am carnal, sold under sin” (v.14b).
When fallen human nature gets exposed to the law of God in this self-knowledge, its own rebellious wickedness is stirred up to greater sin.
But to unreservedly fall upon one’s knees (whether literally or figuratively) before God and to seek salvation through the only provided Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ—this requires a gracious work of God the Holy Spirit in the soul. And neither Paul nor any of us have this work of grace without regeneration.
In Paul’s phrase, “but I am carnal”, he is nonetheless now referring to himself in his converted state—he now speaks as a Christian. Here at this point in his personal story, he admitted that all he could see was his own inner sinfulness and that he had not yet begun to progress in the holy, Christian life. In full honesty, he explains his (then) present state to his readers.
But as he examines himself deeply, Paul begins to notice that he now has a spiritual hunger for holiness and salvation—for deliverance from his old depraved self! For the converted soul has two factions dwelling within, and they are not at peace but at war!
Observe Paul’s own war within his Christian soul: “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law1, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:19-24).
All who possess a regenerated soul find within themselves an unwillingness to remain under the fallen, utterly sinful state; and they have an irrepressible yearning for total salvation.
We are not told exactly when Paul discovered these new desires within his heart—whether on the road to Damascus where the Lord Jesus Christ confronted him or soon thereafter while he thought upon these things (Acts 9:1-8; Galatians 1:15-19). But in this passage we are considering in Romans 7, he testifies that there arose in his mind a previously unknown grief and hatred for his old slave-master—for his own fallen nature, and what it forced him to do: “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I” (v.15). And so now he cried out for salvation, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (v.24).
This is the beginning of true repentance.
Instead of actually (howbeit secretly) hating God’s moral law, Paul came to admit that that it was thoroughly good (v.16)—even though it condemned him to Hell. And now he abhorred his own fallen nature and his sins.
Such genuine repentance is the gift of God, wrought in the soul by the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:31; 11:18). And by the same working of the Holy Spirit, Paul had come to understand himself to be what he now was—a new, born-again Christian: “Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” (Romans 7:17).
So, Paul had come to acknowledge that, even though his old nature still remained within him, his spirit had indeed been regenerated. He had become a “new creature” (see 2 Corinthians 5:17)—he is no longer carnal, sold under sin, but he has been awakened to his awful predicament and, seeking to be set free, he seeks God for deliverance. In other words, for salvation.
We need power from God to put off our old life and put on a new life.
Paul needed more than repentance—and so do we. He recognised that God had given him the will to obey God from the heart—his regenerated heart. But now he found that he also needed the enabling of the Holy Spirit to do good. “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not” (v.18).
Or, to explain this state in a way that ties in with what he had taught earlier in his epistle: Paul’s “old man” had been crucified but, at this point in his personal testimony (i.e. in his newly converted state), he himself hadn’t yet understood it to be so, or reckoned it to be so—and he hadn’t yet made progress in walking in newness of life (Romans 6:4).
Paul’s experience of his own heart, and his in-depth examination of the two-sided struggle that was going on within him, had shown him that he was utterly dependent upon God’s ongoing, continued work in his soul—or he would not be able to persevere in his new Christian life. And so, he continued looking toward his Saviour. “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:29-30a).
The apostle was “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2a).
- The Greek word translated law, νόμος (nomos) is derived from a word that meant to parcel out or establish areas of land for grazing stock animals (Strong’s Concordance). Here, Paul is saying that by his analysis of the motivating principles, within him, he can identify that he now has two opposing parts (or, natures), as a regenerate man. He still has the “law of sin” (or sinful nature, or old man) that compels to sin, but now he has something else that delights in the moral law of God and “would do good”. Knowing that “no good thing” dwells in his flesh (Romans 7:18), Paul understands that this desire to do good is a work of God in his soul—for which he thanks God through Jesus Christ, Paul’s Lord. And, in his warring state of spiritual warfare between his old man and his new man, he longs for that culmination of his salvation where his old, sinful “body of this death” is done away with. ↩