Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.
It may be, dear Christian, that you have not yet found it within youself to believe that your old nature is dead—and so you dare not reckon it to be dead (see Romans 6:11).
So, you continue to live under the delusion that your old fallen, corrupt nature is you—and is still a controlling tyrant over you. And you think that you will never make any progress in bearing spiritual fruit.
But this does not change the fact: if you really are a Christian, then your “old man” was crucified with Christ. When the Lord Jesus Christ sent the Holy Spirit to regenerate you, the domination of your old man was broken—crucified.
The apostle Paul is not overstating this truth when he expresses it as follows: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
You are “freed from sin” now, says the apostle (Romans 6:7). So, it is now possible for you to choose not to sin, and to successfully resist temptations to sin, and to break your sinful habits.
This is a true freedom of the will, that has been given to you at your conversion. And this ability to succeed in resisting sin, to succeed in walking in newness of life and to succeed in bearing spiritual fruit1 is all being continually enabled within you by the Holy Spirit who indwells you (Romans 7:4; see also Galatians 5:22: Ephesians 5:9).
But it is your responsibility to use this God-given ability.
That is why the apostle Paul commands all Christians down the centuries, being moved to command you by the Holy Spirit: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).2
Work out your own salvation, Christian! Discover and prove that God really is at work in you, and that he has given you the power and the responsibility to live a new life in which you both will and do what is good and pleasing to him.
As you take steps in your new life in Christ, you are increasingly putting away your old life.
Although you will not reach a state of perfect sinlessness during the remainder of your life on earth—a state in which it is impossible to sin—yet you will indeed grow and mature in the Christian life, and you will increasingly “put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts” (Ephesians 4:22).
This is what we call mortification: reckoning yourself dead to your old way of life and putting your old ways out of your new life.
God is working in you! This is why true Christians persevere in the faith, living an increasingly sanctified life. They strive to live as Paul lived: “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection” (1 Corinthians 9:27).3
3 By “my body,” Paul is speaking metaphorically—he means his old fallen nature. This will be explained in the following section.
The ancient Greek ascetics and the Gnostics (who sought to make a hybrid of Christianity and Greek asceticism)4 believed that the material world, including human bodies, is inherently evil. And therefore much of their religion consisted in abstaining from the ‘physical realm’.
The truth is, however, that nowhere does the Bible teach that physical things—including human bodies, natural sexual desires or normal appetites for food and drink—are in themselves evil.
Ascetic practice “as an aid to the religious life” has continued to this day. But the truth is, in Paul’s teaching on the remaining indwelling sin in the Christian soul, when he spoke about the flesh, the body of death and the old man he did not mean our muscles, nerves, hormones, organs and bones.
The apostle was using an analogy to explain this sinful nature, where it remains in Christians but no longer dominates them. He described this sinfulness in a metaphor. In the same way as I should think of my body as not being “me” (for the actual conscious me is my spirit within my body), so true Christians come to understand that at their regeneration, the Holy Spirit set them free from being under the control of their fallen sinfulness (see John 8:36; Romans 8:2,10), so that their remaining sinfulness is not “me” any more (Romans 7:17).
Of course the primary meaning of the word “flesh” does refer to physical bodies (the Bible often uses the word in that way too—e.g. Genesis 1:21,23; Exodus 12:8; 1 Corinthians 15:39; 2 Corinthians 7:5). The original cause of death in this world is, according to the Bible, human sin. Death has come upon mankind, and upon all the earth, in consequence of the sin of our first father Adam (Genesis 2,3; Romans 5:12). This is why we have mortal flesh—this is why flesh dies.5
The false doctrine that matter and flesh are evil is clearly incompatible with Christianity. For if flesh is evil, then there could have been no incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ (see John 1:1-3,14; Acts 20:28; Hebrews 1:1-3,8; 1 Timothy 3:16).
Christ died to redeem his people, body and soul. And at the Resurrection at the end of the world he will raise us up with new glorified bodies (see 1 Corinthians 15:50-56; Romans 8:30; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Our Lord has promised this resurrection to his people since time immemorial, and so we can affirm with Job: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25,26).
This material universe too will be dissolved, and Christ will make all things new again—with no more curse and no more bondage of corruption. And in this new creation his people will dwell with him forever (Romans 8:19-22; 2 Peter 3:10-13; Revelation 21:1-5; 22:3).
Cutting out Our Sins
Now consider this metaphor that the Lord Jesus Christ taught:
“And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (Matthew 5:29,30; see also Matthew 18:8,9; Mark 9:43-48).
Our Lord’s doctrine here is simply this: we must repent of our sins, and in this repentance we must totally cease and desist6 from looking at anything and doing anything that would condemn our souls to hell.
In Christ’s “if” argument above, he did not imply that he thought our eyes or hands actually entice us to sin! You will not find that doctrine taught anywhere in the Bible. Obviously he was not speaking literally but metaphorically. No, of course Jesus was not teaching us to gouge out our eyes and dismember ourselves!
Paul understood his Lord correctly. The apostle says, “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Romans 8:13). Notice that he explains mortification as putting off sinful deeds—sinful actions. Not amputating or mutilating.
Again, he teaches, “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
Understand that these “members” are explained to be not physical body-parts but evil activities such as those he mentions in his list. And again, it is our “former conversation”, our old sinful lifestyle, which we are to “put off” (see Ephesians 4:22).
It Is No Longer I That Do It
Now we must consider carefully Romans chapter 7 verses 9-25. Here Paul speaks of his own experience as a Christian.
This passage begins with Paul describing his pre-converted state: “I was alive without the law once” (v.9a). Paul the Pharisee, student 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 enflamed 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 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 law,7 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 in 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 “I”—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 from 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: Paul’s “old man” had been crucified but he himself hadn’t yet (at this point in his personal testimony, in his newly converted state) 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 did not want to be left in this state of internal war without power to win against his old nature (not that God would have left him there). He craved assurance that what God had begun in him would be completed.
He understood, from the experience of his own heart and his in-depth examination of what was going on in there, that he was utterly dependant upon God’s ongoing, continued work in his soul—or he would not be able to persevere in his new Christian life.
He came to understand that there was more to the Christian life—more to salvation—than regeneration. 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).
Where are you looking?
To be continued.
- See Chapter 20, Bring Forth Fruit unto God.↩
- Clearly, this is not referring to “salvation by works”—since Paul writes to the already-saved Christian. This work which we must do is our own real efforts to co-operate in the work of sanctification, having a holy fear lest we should fall back (see Hebrews 6:4-12).↩
- Ascetic practice was brought into the Church in the early centuries A.D. after the apostles. The Gnostics, and those who inherited their errors, wrongly interpreted some things taught in the Bible in support of their false religion.↩
- See Chapter 2, How Death Came into the World.↩
- I.e. stop, and never start again.↩
- 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. Thus here Paul is saying that by his analysis of the drives within him, he can identify that he has two opposing natures, as a regenerate man.↩