While the apostle Paul talked us through his own personal experience of conversion as an example of the saving work of God in a human soul, there came a point in time where he was able to say of himself, “to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not” (Romans 7.18).
At this point Paul was not referring to a time before the Holy Spirit had begun to work in him. Fallen sinners do not possess a will to seek God: “there is none that seeketh after God” (Romans 3.11). For no-one can come to Christ except the Father draws them, because their carnal minds are set in a state of enmity against God (John 6.44; Romans 8.7).
What Jesus said to some people is true of all fallen human beings: “Ye will not come to me that he might have life” (John 5.40).
Being born is not something that babies can will or do for themselves. And neither is being born again something that unregenerate people can will or do for themselves.
There are many religious practices that claim to cause spiritual rebirth but the only true regeneration is that which Jesus himself explained to Nicodemus: “that which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the [Holy] Spirit is spirit” (John 3.6; see also Colossians 6.11-13; Titus 3.4-6; 1 Peter 1.23).
As a new convert, Paul had found that God did not leave him in a state of being merely willing to do God’s will in his life but failing to do it. No, but Paul found that God had truly saved him! “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7.25a). That is why the apostle continued: “So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7.25b). His mind had been transformed, so that he now made it his purpose to serve God and do his will. But his old nature (his flesh) was still with him, with its pull toward sin. However, Paul had been born again—and this regeneration included real deliverance from being under the dominion of his depraved “flesh” (i.e. spiritually dead sinfulness). Therefore, it was now possible for him not to sin: he had been enabled by the Holy Spirit to resist sin and to walk in newness of life.
This is how it is with all true, born-again Christians.
This enabling has been promised to us even in the very name of our Saviour, Jesus, which means Jehovah is Salvation: “And she [Mary] shall bring forth a son, and thou [Joseph] shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins…and he called his name JESUS” (Matthew 1.21,25).
Though Paul was once indeed a “wretched man”—and in anguish about his indwelling sin he still called himself a wretched man sometimes1—he now gave thanks to God through Christ for his deliverance (Romans 7.24-25). And he grew and became a devoted servant of Jesus Christ for the remainder of his life. And he grew and became a devoted servant of Jesus Christ for the remainder of his life. He was not the wretched man that he once was, but he was more-than a conqueror who fought the good fight, kept the faith and who was evangelistically pure from the blood of all men. And we who are beneficiaries of the Scriptures which, during his apostolic ministry, God breathed2 through Paul—we will rejoice when we see our Lord crown Paul with that crown of righteousness which he has laid up for him (Acts 20.26; Romans 1.1; 8.37; 2 Timothy 4.7-8). And he will likewise rejoice to see us there.
Knowing that his own story is but one example of Christian experience, the apostle concludes that what is true of one (himself) is true of all: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit…God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For…they that are after the Spirit [do mind] the things of the Spirit…Ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you” (Romans 8.1-9).
Really—can born-again Christians both will and walk in the righteous ways of God? Can they be doers of God’s revealed will? Yes, affirms the apostle. The Christian life inevitably follows Christian conversion—therefore we should expect it, and examine ourselves for evidence of it, and get on with living it!
The apostolic doctrine is this: the “righteousness of the law” shall be fulfilled in us (v.4). For Jesus does not only save us from the deserved punishment for our sins—he truly saves us from our sins.
“God…worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Philippians 2.13). Both the will to live as a Christian and the enabling to live as a Christian must come from God. And they do come from God.
God does not convert a soul and then leave him or her to grow, or bear fruit, or obey him, in their own strength. No, for sanctification is “of the Spirit” (2 Thessalonians 2.13). Christians do “bring forth fruit unto God” (Romans 7.4). When we do the good pleasure of God, we do it by God working within us. The Christian walk is walked “in the Spirit” (Galatians 5.16,25).
“I am the good shepherd,” says our Lord Jesus (John 10.11). And he surely is: he calls his sheep by name; they know his voice and they follow him—they walk after him, in the remainder of their life on earth. They will not follow the voice of strangers but they will flee from them, fleeing to their Good Shepherd. Their Good Shepherd saves them, even by giving his life for his sheep. He has come into this world for them, that they might have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10.11-15). And so, this is what Christians have.
If the Lord Jesus Christ is your Good Shepherd, you will know that it is good to be such a sheep!
If you are a Christian, God is at work in you, giving you the ability to will and to do his good pleasure.
That is why you are still persevering as a Christian—as a saint.
When Paul said, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7.24), he was reliving in the present tense what had happened years earlier at the cusp of his conversion. But we cannot conclude from this that Paul never spoke of himself in his way since his conversion. We Christians all know our grief and hatred for our own relapses into sin, in our own repeated repentance. ↩︎
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3.16). That Greek word translated “inspiration of God” is θεόπνευστος (theopneustos), which means God-breathed (Strong’s Concordance, Greek Dictionary, number 2315). ↩︎