The "I" Problem - Romans 7:14

For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin (Romans 7:14).

 

Every once in a while, you come to a verse that grabs you by the lapels and will not let you go. Romans 7:14 has been that for me. Virtually every commentary and study tool I have used as a reference for this verse has stated that this is the most difficult and controversial passage in Romans to interpret. For this reason, we will devote this entire study exclusively on verse 14. Hopefully, we can bring clarity to this text that has challenged students of Scripture down through the centuries.

 

I have titled this lesson “The ‘I’ Problem,” because as we read this passage, you will note how many times Paul uses the word “I.” I do not think there is another passage in the entire Bible with the word “I” used so many times. In verses 14-25, “I” is used twenty-four times, and when you add the times Paul uses “me,” “my,” or “myself,” it is another thirteen times. That comes to a total of thirty-seven times in these twelve verses that the apostle refers to himself in this one passage.

 

We need to begin by determining exactly to whom Paul is referring when he uses the first person term “I.” Is Paul speaking of himself as a believer? Or is he referring to his past when he was an unbeliever? In Romans 7:1-13, Paul was describing his life as an unbeliever. Is he still speaking in this manner? Or is he now speaking of his current state as a believer? And if he is speaking of himself as a believer, is this referring to himself as a mature believer? Or to an immature believer? We need to begin by identifying who Paul is referring to when he says “I” in Romans 7:14. The answer to this question carries great implications for our own Christian lives.

 

I. The Person Identified (7:14)

 

Paul begins, “For we know that the Law is spiritual” (verse 14). Paul states that this principle is common knowledge. It is a truth that is well understood by the believers in Rome. This is not a new teaching or something they do not yet know. When Paul refers to the “Law,” he is referring to the moral law of God. The ceremonial law was fulfilled in the death of Christ. The civil law was used by the Jews to govern their society in the Promised Land. The book of Romans was written to the believers in Rome, where Caesar and the Roman Senate were governing the Roman Empire. Therefore, the civil law was not applicable to the Jews in Rome in Paul’s day. He is referring to the moral law, and he says they already know that it is “spiritual.” This is to say, the moral law remains useful today for spiritual purposes.

 

Paul continues, “But I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin” (verse 14). I believe this is Paul referring to himself as a mature believer. This is the majority Reformed position, not an obscure minority position. This designation is important, because you and I as believers should be able to identify with Paul in this statement. We will examine six reasons why we come to the conclusion that Paul is referring to himself as he currently writes this as a mature believer in Jesus Christ. These reasons are as follows:

 

1. Change in Verb Tenses

First, we must note the change in verb tenses from the first half of the chapter to the second half. In verses 1-13, Paul was discussing his pre-conversion state. All the verbs that Paul used were in the aorist past tense. This represented his past life before Christ. In verse 14, there is a noticeable change in verb tense as Paul begins using the present tense “I am.” In verses 14-25, there are thirty-six verbs that are translated as being Paul’s current experience. The first of these is in verse 14 in which Paul states, “I am” in the present tense. In verse 15, he writes in the present tense, “For what I am doing.” He continues to write in the present tense through the end of chapter seven. Paul is describing the reality of his current experience as he is writing the book of Romans.

 

What Paul tells us about his present struggle with sin is the very same struggle that you and I face as believers on a daily basis. This struggle with sin does not mean that we are lost. Rather, it indicates that the struggle is a confirmation that we are saved. Before we were converted to Christ, we were not struggling with the sin in our lives, certainly not like we do now. Prior to knowing Christ, there was only our sin nature taking us down the broad path of a lifestyle of sin. But now that we have a new heart and a new nature, we experience this internal conflict. So, the first reason that I believe Paul is writing this as a believer is his use of present tense verbs.

 

2. Love for Scripture and Hatred of Personal Sin

Second, only a believer has a deep love for Scripture and a deep hatred of personal sin. Paul writes, “I am doing the very thing I hate” (verse 15). That is not the way that an unbeliever talks, but how a believer does. Paul affirms that “the Law is good” (verse 16), and he writes, “I practice the very thing I do not want” (verse 19). Paul has had a change of heart desires. This change of affections is the result of the new birth. He now finds himself doing the very things that he does not want to do. This is the result of being a new man in Christ. You and I can relate to that.

 

Then Paul goes on to state, “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man” (verse 22). That is the way a genuine believer speaks. Only a believer has a deep love for Scripture along with a deep hatred for personal sin. This will be true in the heart of every believer. Deep down inside his regenerated soul, the believer is a new person in Christ. They love the Law and hate the sin that violates the Law. For the one born of God, His commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3).

 

3. Giving Thanks to God for Deliverance

Third, Paul gives thanks to God for deliverance from his body of death. After lamenting over his struggle with sin and crying out, “who will set me free from the body of this death” (verse 24), Paul declares, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (verse 25). Paul thanks God for providing deliverance through Jesus Christ. That is clearly the talk of a believer, not the exuberant confession of an unbeliever.

 

4. An Increasing Awareness of Personal Sin

Fourth, Paul as a mature believer was growing in an increasing awareness of his sin. As he grew closer to the Lord, he was drawing closer to the sin-exposing light of God’s holiness. “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). As he drew closer to the Light, the Light revealed more imperfections in him. As he matured as a Christian, he became increasingly sensitive to sin in his own life. There was an increasing awareness of sin issues in his life of which he was not previously aware. The searchlight of the Law reveals his sin and impurities.

 

We see this truth in the life of Paul as we trace his spiritual growth through Scripture. In 55 A.D., Paul wrote the book of 1 Corinthians and confided, “I am the least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:9). As time moved on, Paul continued to grow and mature in the Lord, as he moved further down the path of sanctification. Five years later, in 61 A.D., while in his first Roman imprisonment, Paul wrote the book of Ephesians. At this time, he stated, “I am the least of all saints” (Ephesians 3:8). This reflects a heightened awareness of sin. First, he was the least of all the apostles. But then, as he grows and matures in the Lord, he declares that he is the least of all the saints. Sometime between the years 63-66 A.D., Paul writes 1 Timothy. He says, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (1 Timothy 1:15). He now says that he is the greatest among all the sinners.

 

From this declension, we might think that Paul is going backwards in his Christian life, going from bad to worse. But in reality, Paul is actually progressing in the right direction. He is becoming more and more humble. He is increasingly more aware of the sin in his life and his need to be a continual repenter. He does not become sinless, but he does grow to sin less. There is a heightened sense of an awareness to his own sin as he is growing in his Christian life. It does not take him as long to be convicted of his sin as he once did. He is more ready to confess and repent of it, because he is growing closer to the Lord. What we find in Paul is a mature believer who has a heightened awareness of his sin.

 

5. An Inner War Between His Flesh and The Spirit

Fifth, there is a fierce war that rages within believers between his flesh and the Spirit. When we were converted, our war with sin had only just begun. In Galatians, Paul gave the command for believers, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). “Walk” is a metaphor for our daily conduct as we live our lives. As we walk through this world, which are landmines of temptations and lures. This is why Paul instructs believers to “walk by the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit gives the believer spiritual direction and power in pursuing holiness. The Spirit enables believers to resist temptation and to keep their eyes on the Lord. The Spirit gives believers the power needed to buffet and discipline their body in order to make it their slave. It is the ministry of the Spirit to bring to the believer’s mind the right Scripture needed in order to walk in holiness before the Lord.

 

It is clear in Galatians 5:16 that believers still have “the desire of the flesh” within them. The “flesh” refers to our fallen nature, which we inherited from Adam. This is the sinful desires within us. The word “desire” (epithymia) is a strong Greek word that means ‘to long for’ something. It can be used in a positive way, as in 1 Timothy 3:1 when Paul writes that it is a good thing for an overseer or elder to “desire” the ministry. Or this word can be used in a negative way, such as a forbidden longing after sinful things. When used in this manner, it means to lust after that which is forbidden by God. The flesh within believers still sets its cravings on things that are enticing and alluring.

 

This results in a war between the flesh and the Spirit within each believer. The new heart that God has put within the believer in regeneration loves the Lord and His word. He wants his life to count for Christ and to be used to expand His kingdom. But as he lives his life, his flesh still holds him back at times. This is true in each one of us as believers. Consequently, we must be aware that our major problem is not outside of us, but inside of us. There are the outside forces of the evil world system and the evil one, Satan. But even without them, there is still an inward conflict taking place between our flesh and the Spirit, who indwells us. If we do not walk by the Spirit, we will carry out the sinful desires of our fallen flesh.

 

“In Opposition to One Another”

Further, we read, “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another” (Galatians 5:17). The “flesh” is that part within us that is still part of our fallen nature. It is no longer the dominant power it once was within us, but it is still present and has influence in our lives. Or flesh remains self-centered, self-focused, self-preoccupied, self-flattering, and self-absorbed. It sets its desire against what the Holy Spirit desires to do in our lives in His work of progressive sanctification. The good news is that the Spirit is far more powerful than the flesh. This internal, civil war will be fought throughout the duration of our Christian lives, it will not be without much internal opposition. There exists an ongoing collision within us between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit. No Christian is exempt from this battle.

 

Paul says, the flesh and the Spirit are “in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please” (verse 17).  “Opposition” (antikeimai) means ‘to oppose, to be adverse to, to withstand.’ In this verse, “you” refers to believers, and “things” refers to the desires of the flesh. There is within our flesh the desire to be pleased by sin. As a result, no believer is simply coasting into glory without any internal conflict with sin. There is an ongoing fight for holiness, purity, and godliness that we must undertake every day of our life. The lusts of the flesh never takes a day off. It never goes on vacation. It is always with us as long as we live on this earth. Although we have been delivered from the dominating power of sin, that does not mean we have been delivered from the indwelling presence of sin in our lives.

 

“Lay Aside the Old Self”

Paul writes in Ephesians, “You lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit” (Ephesians 4:22). To “lay aside” is the idea of taking off dirty clothes. Just as every day we take off the dirty clothes we slept in and put on clean clothes, the believer must do the same in his spiritual life. The “old self” is your fallen nature, your sinful flesh. Paul uses a present tense verb when he says your old self “is being corrupted.” “Corrupted” (phtheiro) means ‘to become defiled.’ There is still a defiling effect that is taking place inside the believer. We have to take off the old self and disrobe the sin by confessing it, repenting of it, and resisting its temptation.

 

The pithy saying, “Let go and let God” is a lie that is not taught in the Bible. It is a passivist’s approach to the internal warfare that we experience. “Lusts of deceit” means that your flesh is lying to you. It says you can sin without any consequences or ramifications. That is a contradiction of reality. The desires of the flesh will cause you to choose sin rather than pursuing holiness. We should never choose sin, because it is harmful for our spiritual life. Yet we are continually being enticed by our flesh and its lustful deceit. Tragically, there are times that we cave in to such temptations.

 

Monsters Still Within

Elsewhere, Paul writes, “But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you” (Ephesians 5:3). The fact Paul makes this statement to the church in Ephesus acknowledges that these sins can be found among believers. “Immorality” (porneia) is the Greek word from which we derive the words pornographic and pornography. It refers to every kind of illicit sexual sin. “Impurity” (akatharsia) means ‘moral uncleanness,’ and “greed” (pleonexia) means ‘covetousness, uncontrolled desires for more.’ Paul says these things must not be named among true believers. The clear implication is that all believers must fight against these sins. It always begins in the heart. We could easily say that we have not broken our marriage vows, but Jesus said that if you even look at a woman with lust in your heart, you have already committed adultery with her (Matthew 5:28). We are still in a battle with the sin within us.

 

Paul similarly addresses the believer’s war with sin when he writes, “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed” Colossians 3:5. “Consider” (nekroo) is literally translated as “ to put to death” the deeds of the flesh. Some older translations render this as “mortify” the deeds of the flesh. We must crucify the desires of the flesh. Then Paul gives a list of sinful deeds: “immorality impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed.” This is addressed to believers, who must war against these internal lusts. Paul wants to make sure that believers are aware that these monsters are still lurking within us.

 

When Paul writes, “evil desire,” “evil” (kakos) conveys the idea of ‘bad, wicked’ and “desire” (epithymia) means ‘lusting, craving.’ It is the evil desire for what is forbidden by God. “Greed” (pleonexia) is wanting more and more of what you do not have. The Bible teaches that we are to be content with what God has provided (Philippians 4:11-12). Paul tells us that “greed” amounts to idolatry, because these things have become more important than God. Whenever we desire these things more than God, it amounts to idolatry.

 

All of this is to say, there is a fierce war going on inside every Christian. If there is not a war going on within you between your flesh and the Spirit, you are not a Christian. Inside the one born of God, the flesh is lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit is setting its desires against the flesh. They are in fierce opposition to one another. When we see Paul refer to the war between the flesh and the Spirit in Romans 7, we can understand that in the broader scope of Scripture, this war does take place within the Christian.         

 

6. True Believers Still Sin and Can Commit Gross Sins

The final reason why I believe this refers to Paul as a believer is that it must be recognized that true believers still sin. In fact, they can even commit gross sins. There is no lack of examples in the Scripture of this truth. Abraham lied about his own wife, saying she was his sister, so that he could protect himself. Moses killed someone. Samson was an adulterer. David was an adulterer and actually conspired murder to hide his sin. Solomon was a polygamist and serial adulterer. Jonah was filled with racial prejudice. He pouted when Ninevah repented because he did not want them in the kingdom of God. Peter denied the Lord three times. Ananias and Sapphira lied in church. The Corinthians pushed the limits of how carnal a believer could possibly be and still be a Christian. What Paul struggled with as a believer in Romans 7 matches up with these examples in Scripture.

 

In Psalms 32 and 51, David confessed his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of her husband that he arranged. In that sin, David gazed down on Bathsheba from his palace roof as she was bathing. He then had her brought to him in his palace and committed adultery with her. Once it was discovered that she was pregnant, David had her husband moved to the front lines of the war to be killed, so that he could then bring her into his palace without any questions about the baby. This is as disturbing as sin can be.

 

With all this considered, I believe that Paul is describing himself as a mature believer, who is wrestling with sin and fighting for purity. Paul is not casually giving in to sin in his life. Rather, he is resisting temptation as he finds himself doing the things he does not want to do. All of the reasons previously mentioned point to the fact that when Paul writes Romans 7:14, he is describing his current state as a mature believer in Christ. The struggles that Paul had with sin as a believer are the very same struggles that you and I face as we seek to walk in the Spirit.

 

II. The Problem Stated (7:14)

 

As Paul shifts from his pre-conversion days (verses 1-13) to his Christian days (verse 14), he states, “For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh.”  He wants us to know that the problem is not the Law. The problem is within him, with the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I. The problem is Paul, not the Law. The problem is that he possesses a sin nature that once dominated and reigned over his life. It still remains in him, though it is no longer in the place of predominance that it once held over him.

 

When Paul writes, “we know that the Law is spiritual” (verse 14), we already know this because he said in verse 12, “the Law is holy and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” The Law reveals the character of God to us. It reveals sin to us. It gives us the right diagnosis of our sin problem. It takes us by the hand and leads us to Christ. Moreover, it reveals the perfect will of God for our lives. This is to say, the Law is good, holy, and spiritual.

 

In the middle of verse 14, Paul writes, “but I am of flesh.” I want to draw to your attention again to the fact that “I am” is in the present tense. This is a present reality in Paul’s life as he writes the book of Romans. He says, “I am of flesh.” We will be careful to distinguish between what this says and what it does not say. Paul does not say, “I am in the flesh.” Rather, he says that he is “of the flesh.” There is a difference between these two statements. If you are in the flesh, that means you are constantly living in the flesh. You are immersed in the flesh. That is the world in which an unbeliever lives exclusively.

 

Under the Influence of the Flesh

In Romans 7:5, Paul stated his pre-conversion life as,, “for while we were in the flesh.” That is where he once lived, “in the flesh.” Then in Romans 8:5, Paul identifies all unbelievers as, “those who are according to the flesh.” In Romans 8:8, he writes, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” To be in the flesh is to be in an unredeemed, unregenerate state that is offensive to God. There is only one force in their life, and that is the sinful flesh. But Paul does not say that in Romans 7:14. He says, “But I am of flesh,” which means he is still under the influence of the flesh. That is, he can still be subject to the flesh. But he is no longer under the dictatorial tyranny of sin. Sin has been demoted, though it is still in the basement.

 

Paul finishes verse 14 by adding that he is “sold into bondage to sin.” This is the part where many interpreters say that Paul must be speaking about himself as an unsaved man. It is possible that they may be right, but I do not think that is the case. When you break down “sold into bondage to sin,” that little word “into” is better translated as “under.” In the ESV translation, it is perhaps rightly translated as “under.” The Greek word is hupo, which primarily means ‘under.’ It gives the idea of a hypodermic needle going under the skin. Paul is saying, metaphorically, that he has been sold under the influence of sin. He is still subjected to the power of sin in his spiritual life.

 

Paul is careful to make a distinction from his sinful flesh and the new man that he is in Christ. In verse 18, he writes, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.” Paul understands this stark contrast inside of him. Though he is a new man in Christ, the flesh remains in him, yet he is not in the flesh. Thus, the flesh and the Spirit are constantly in opposition to one another.

 

Paul acknowledges that he is still under the flesh, meaning he is under the influence of sin. He is not living in sin, as though it is the only reality in his life. Rather, he is living under sin. That is the careful distinction that must be made. He is being brutally honest with us that the problem lies inside of him.

 

As believers, you and I still suffer from this same “I” problem. The main problem in our lives is not around us or beside us. Instead, the truth is within us. The first man, Adam, lived in a perfect world, and he still sinned. Changing our environment is not going to get rid of the sin. The source of our problems lies inside of us, and we carry it around with us. It is our sin nature, the body of sin in which we live. It is our ego, to which we have to die daily. We still suffer from self, whether it be being self-centered, self-focused, self-sufficient, self-absorbed, self-flattering, self-indulgent, and self-promoting.

 

Three Ways to Combat Your Flesh

How can we combat the sin within us as a believer? I want to give you three action steps.

 

First, you must hate your sin. You must not coddle sin in your life. Neither must you excuse it. It is deadlier than a rattlesnake being let loose inside of your house. It must be put to death daily. Jesus said, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” This is to say, I must die to self daily. I must put to death the deeds of the flesh every day.

 

There still is inside of me a sinful desire to push myself to the forefront of my life. Our sinful flesh rears its ugly head in relationships, work, ministry, everywhere. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate…his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26). There is a daily hating of our old self that must take place inside of us.

 

Second, you must confess your sin. You cannot just state that you hate it. You must acknowledge it to God as an evil committed against Him. By confessing our sin, we are taking responsibility for our own sins against God. All sin is ultimately against God. We must name our sin to God and nail it to the cross on an ongoing basis. We must take the initiative to agree with God about the sinfulness of our deeds of the flesh.

 

Third, you must repent of your sin. We must turn away from the sin that we confess. True confession of sin includes repentance. If we truly confess our sins to God, we will repent of them. Deep sorrow will fill our hearts regarding them. And we will choose to go in the path of obedience.

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.