Romans 7:14-25


Romans chapters 6, 7, and 8, speak about the Christian, the converted person. That needs to be said because there have been many in the history of the New Testament who maintained that Romans 7:14-25 refers to the unconverted person, not the converted person. Lutheran commentators warn us concerning the false views of this text.

Franzmann: If we refer 7:14-25 to person outside Christ, we find Paul here attributing to the natural human 'mind' and assent to, and harmony with, the law of God which he expressly denies elsewhere.
Arndt: If a person thinks that this refers to Paul before his conversion Pelagianism results. The language is against such a view.

Natural man, outside of Christ, cannot make the observations which Paul makes in this text. Furthermore, note that all the verbs in this section are present tense. It denotes and describes Paul (and therefore all Christians) at the time of writing when he already was a Christian.

Romans 7:14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin.

This verse explains verse 13. Paul is saying that the fault lies not with the law (the moral law) but with us, sinners. The law is "spiritual." 

Stoeckhardt: The law is spiritual for it comes from God, who is spirit. It shows its spiritual, divine origin by demanding of person a spiritual, divine disposition.
Arndt: The law agrees with what the Spirit of God desires.
Franzmann: It has on it the mark of its divine origin, and it makes a claim as sweeping and as profound as only God Himself, the Creator, can make.

Paul goes on to say: "But I am fleshly, carnal, sold under sin."  Paul is not saying that he is under condemnation. He is not saying that he is a slave to sin. Nonetheless to say that he is "sold under sin" is a sobering statement.

Stoeckhardt: We must distinguish here a double will: the will bound to sin and the will that opposes sin. . . . While he is in the flesh, he cannot avoid consenting to and doing evil contrary to his own better knowledge and will.
Lenski: The emancipation still left flesh in Paul, and the flesh that was still left was no better flesh than it had been before.

The flesh in us is incorrigible and will remain so until death.

Romans 7:15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

Verses 15-23 explain what Paul meant when he said: "I am sold under sin."  The translations struggle to get the meaning. "For what I am doing, I do not understand."  RSV has:  "I do not understand what I do." AAT:  "I am doing something strange."  Arndt, Franzmann and Lenski agree that  "know" or "understand"  here means the same as in Matthew 7:23; John 10:14-15; 1 Corinthians 8:3; Galatians 4:9; Philippians 3:10. Here it means  "to acknowledge as one's own." 

Franzmann: What Paul is saying of his sinful actions is then: 'These deeds are not properly mine.'
Arndt: Paul does the bidding of sin although he does not wish to do it. What he states is the experience of every Christian. Every Christian sins, but it is against his deepest desire.

He does not do what he wishes. He hates what he does. This is a repentant person talking. It becomes clear immediately that the fight with sin and flesh will continue until death.

Stoeckhardt: We must distinguish a two-fold will in this case: the will bound to sin and the will that opposes sin. . . . While he is in the flesh, he cannot avoid consenting to and doing evil contrary to his own better knowledge and will.

Note that Paul is speaking about involuntary, not voluntary, sin.

Romans 7:16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.

Note that this is the opposite of what was stated in verse 15. According to the NIV we read in verse 15:  "For what I want to do I do not do."  But in verse 16:  "And if I do what I do not want to do."  In verse 15 he is speaking about sinning involuntarily. In verse 16 he is speaking about what his flesh does not want to do. In so doing he agrees with the law that it (the law) is good.

Arndt: I myself condemn the evil which I do; I do not wish it. That means that I agree with the law; because the law condemns that which is evil.
Franzmann: There is an inner dissonance in Paul's life, a disharmony between his essential will, which assents to the Law, and his actions, which contradict that will.
Lenski: It is plain that Paul seconds the righteousness which the law requires, and abominates the sin which it forbids.

The true Christian does not blame God or His Word for the flesh and its sins which dwell in him.

Romans 7:17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.

Note the emphatic "I myself" which denotes the new person in Paul, the regenerated self. "But quite to the contrary."  "The in-me-dwelling sin"  is the cause. Sin uses the Christian's body as a home, even after conversion but it not longer has control over him.

Franzmann: Paul's expression for this inner dissonance is even stronger here; he describes it as a clash between his 'I', his very self, and 'sin which dwells within' him. This clash is elaborated in the following verses, 17-20.
Lenski: This dwells in Paul, it does not possess and control him entirely, it is only lodged in him. It still maintains itself in him, but is not really apart of him.

At this point Stoeckhardt explains very carefully lest the reader gets wrong ideas from the text. We quote snatches from him:

Stoeckhardt: It is not my real ego that sins. My real self stands in opposition to sin. . . . . This dissension between desire and deed is found only in a Christian who still has sin and the old human nature. . . . All saints confess what a disagreeable and abominable thing sin is, that lives in them, and lament over the fact that are yet so carnal. What is meant by this that a Christian is sold under sin? It is not the bondage of sin, to which natural man is subject. . . . The captivity consists in this that the renewed ego, the renewed will cannot thrive as it would, that the converted, since he is still carnal, must bow to a foreign will, the will of sin that lives in him. . . . A believing Christian does not let sin rule in his mortal body; he shuns shame and vice. At the same time, he confesses and sighs over the fact that he does what he would not, what he hates and abhors. He daily sins much. . . . His doing always falls short of his intentions. He can never be quite satisfied with his deeds.

Romans 7:18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.

Verses 7-25 of this chapter deal with what we call original sin. The first article of the  Formula of Concord is devoted to the question:  "Are original sin and human nature one and the same thing?"  They are not but since the fall the two have been so mingled that it is difficult for us to separate them.

In verse 18 TEV translates the word "flesh" with "human nature", identifying the two. That is a dangerous translation. If they are identical Christ was born a sinner. NIV translates "sinful nature", JB has  "unspiritual self", NEB reads  "unspiritual nature", and all the others (5) have "flesh.". Perhaps it is best to leave it as "flesh" and then explain what it is.

In verse 17 Paul had just made a distinction between "I" and "sin that dwells in me."  In verse 18 he distinguishes between "in me" and "in my flesh."  Paul knows from experience as does every Christian.

"Beneficial."  (Look at verses 12-13). The unbeliever has nothing "beneficial" in him. The flesh of the believer is no better than that. Verse 18b  explains 18a.

Paul is speaking of himself as a Christian because only a Christian has a renewed will. The flesh hampers the good action which proceeds from the renewed will.

Stoeckhardt: Even the nobler powers and abilities of a person, understanding and will, are corrupt. . . . Even in his best deeds, since it is contaminated with sin, he does not perform the deed which corresponds to the will sanctified by the Spirit.
Arndt: Paul points to the period after his conversion. Look at Philippians 2:13. . . . He does not deny that he does any good works at all.
Franzmann: The willed good that remains undone is no good at all.

Even the Christian cannot claim that he has ever done, said, or thought anything which is totally sinless.

Romans 7:19 For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.

This verse is a simpler restatement of verse 15 but there is a difference.

Franzmann: Verse 19 goes beyond verse 15 in that it expressly calls the will good and the deed bad.

Romans 7:20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

The "if" clause in this verse is a restatement of the last clause in verse 19 and the remainder of the sentence recalls the statement made in verse 17.

Arndt: In reality it is not he who is doing the evil, but the sin that dwells in him. He himself is free from sin, from its dominion.
Stoeckhardt: In the conflict between the spiritual ego and the carnal ego the first prevails and dominates.

Paul is speaking only about the struggle which constantly goes on in himself. He is not excusing himself. Nor is he saying that he does nothing good. But he does account for the sinful words, thoughts and deeds which are done against his own will. They are caused by the sin which dwells in him.

Romans 7:21 So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.

Lenski: Paul recapitulates and sums up the entire wretched condition he has been sketching.

The first clause in this verse is not easy. NKJV translates  "I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good."  RSV reads:  "So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand." 

Arndt: I find the rule, the firmly fixed condition, which I cannot alter.

But Franzmann rejects this translation.

It seems best to take 'the Law' in the usual sense. One can then reproduce the apostle's meaning thus: 'This is what my experience with the Law comes to: When I desire to do the good which it enjoins, the evil which the Law forbids lies always ready to hand.'

It would seem that TEV, NIV, JB, NEB, AAT, and NASB favor Arndt's understanding, and also that of the RSV. It is difficult to make a decision between these two. In either case the meaning is ultimately the same.

Stoeckhardt: The evil is so close to me and contaminates all my deeds. . . . His experience is no exception but the rule. It is his daily experience.

Romans 7:22 For in my inner being I delight in God's law;

Verses 22-23 are closely related.

Franzmann: In these verses the description of the dissonance between the ready will of a person as confronted by the Law, on the one hand, and the importance of a person to achieve righteousness by way of the Law, on the other hand, reaches its climax. . . . This 'inner man' would correspond to the essential 'I' of verses 17 and 20, the 'I' opposed to 'indwelling sin'. In the two other passages where Paul uses 'inner man' (2 Corinthians 4:16; Ephesians 3:16), 'inner man' signifies the man in Christ, the new creature, the person who is already tasting the powers of the world to come.
Stoeckhardt: It appears that the inner man is identical with the new man. In conversion man's heart, understanding and will, above all, are renewed. Ephesians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 4:16.
Arndt: The inner man here signifies the real ego, the new man.

This new man delights in the Law of God, the will of God. Every Christian has experienced that.

Romans 7:23 but 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.

He perceives. Here "another law" is the Old Adam, the flesh.  "At work"  means "to make a military expedition or take the field against anyone."  It is a military metaphor.

Evidently the phrase denotes means. Note the repetition of "in my members" in this verse. Evidently "another law" and "the law of sin" are the same thing. They are constantly at work "in my members."  Members are simply the members of the body.

Stoeckhardt: The law of sin is sin itself. . . . Sin does not have its seat and root in the body and its members but in man's heart, reason and will. . . . As he is just about to fulfill God's law, the Christian sees that other law going out to battle against him, obstructing the way. Sin is the ungodly inclination of the will. . . . The law of sin takes us captive into its service. This is the same as being sold under sin. The impossibility of ever furrowing off sin and attaining perfect sanctification Paul and every converted person consider to be bondage.
Franzmann: There are four forces: The law of God, the other law, the law of the mind, the law of sin in the members. Two of them are major forces: The Law of God, in which Paul delights, and the other law, which wages war of conquest in Paul' Paul' members. . . . Each of the major forces has its own ally within Paul. . . . The law of the mind is the ally of the law of God. . . . The law of sin in the members is the ally of the other law.
Lenski: Some here find three different laws, which together with God's law make four! . . . But we here have just two laws, 1) God's law, and this is the same as the law of the mind, my inner man having adopted that law; 2) 'another law', said to be 'in my members', and this equals the law of the sin (power), the one (law) that is in my members.

The difference is not very great and perhaps it is not worth arguing.

Romans 7:24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

"Man" covers all ages and both sexes. The question is read differently: The KJV and NASB read:  "the body of this death,"  whereas the RSV and NKJV read:  "from this body of death."  TEV reads:  "this body that is taking me to death."  NEB has  "from this body doomed to death."  AAT reads:  "from the body that brings me to this death."  The first sentence is an exclamation.

Stoeckhardt: The converted man considers the bondage of sin to be the greatest misery, the greatest distress on earth.
Arndt: Paul has a body of death. This is why he is miserable. . . . The pronoun 'this' refers to the death which Paul has described. He harks back to the condition of slavery, being subject to sin, which slavery is as bad as death itself.
Franzmann: He longs for the redeemed body, the body which shall be the perfectly expressive instrument of his will to love and serve his Lord.
Lenski: Paul's regenerated 'will' speaks from start to finish. Now comes the climax. . . . Paul admits that he himself is not able to win the battle. . . . The deliverance for which Paul longs is not riddance of his body as such, but riddance of what makes his body with its members subject to death through the sin-power still working in his bodily members.

Romans 7:25 Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

Here we have two sentences, one of thanksgiving and the other picturing Paul's resignation to the duality in his service. Paul's question in verse 24 did not mean that he did not know who would deliver him. It was an expression of grief. Now he answers his own question which causes him to thank God.

"Through" denotes the mediation of Christ. The victory comes through Christ our Lord and He stands between God and us as we converse with God. Paul is not asking for death. He thanks God for the victory through Christ. But the last sentence gives us a brief recapitulation of the entire discussion.

Note the emphatic "I myself."  This involves his whole self. "I am a slave to." That means that he has no will of his own. There are two objects distinguishing the two laws. Paul admits two slaveries: one to his mind, one to his flesh. It must be emphasized that Paul does  not mean that his flesh has the mastery. It must be emphasized that Paul is not condemned. It must be emphasized that Paul is not despairing. But it must be understood that he realizes that he is always  "simul iustus et peccator"  and that he needs to pray daily:  "Forgive our trespasses."  The will is the same as the inner man or the new man. The flesh is the same as the old Adam.

Arndt: The Christian consists of two parts . . . the new man, the spiritual man, and the old, the natural man. . . . We have the explanation of the whole passage here. On the one hand we are servants of sin and in a condition of slavery. The will to do good is there, but we don't accomplish what we desire.
Lenski: Our 'will' freely wills God's law, does not will the evil of the sin-power, its enemy. On the contrary , we deplore the fact that we still have the flesh, that the sin still dwells and works in the flesh, that it still tries to enslave us by means of the body and our members.
Franzmann: The essential I, dominated by the law of the mind, is a devoted slave to the law of God; but the devotion is real and becomes a living reality only in a constant struggle against the law of sin, to which the flesh is loyal.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A Epistle Texts, Sundays After Pentecost, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1984, pp. 27-31. Used with permission.

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