The Battle Within - Romans 7:15-20

For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 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. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me (Romans 7:15-20).

 

 

Every Christian is fighting a great battle being waged within them. They face outside enemies in the world and the devil that war against them. But there is an even more constant opponent that has established a foothold inside of every believer. I refer to our sin nature. It involves us in a relentless battle between our new man in Christ and our old sinful flesh. These two rivals are diametrically opposed to each other. They are hostile against one another. They produce an internal strife on the battlefield within the soul of every believer. There is never an agreed truce between these two forces. There is never a white flag waved in this skirmish. There is never a ceasefire. The battle is ever ongoing.

 

If you do feel the intensity of this internal strife, it is because you are converted to Christ. Once you have been justified by faith, an internal battle ensues within you. There is a new desire within every believer that desires to do right. We now love God, the church, the truth, and the will of God. But there are other desires in us that love our self and the world. The result is is an internal tug-of-war.

 

This passage in Romans 7:15-20 gives us the first-hand account of the battle between the new nature and the sinful flesh within the apostle Paul. He writes these verses as a mature believer in Christ. Paul’s own life demonstrates that this struggle with our sinful flesh never goes away while we are on the earth. Paul is in a fight for holiness, just as you and I are. We must take action to buffet our body and make it our slave. We must resist temptation and fight the good fight. We must resist temptation and flee immorality. The Christian life is a fight for holiness. This battle within us is real, intense, ongoing, internal, spiritual, and found within all true believers. These verses are like looking into a mirror and seeing the struggle with sin that resides within each one of us.

 

The Bible speaks with perfect accuracy regarding our human condition. It reveals the very worst about man. This is yet another evidence that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant word of God. If this were merely a human book, it would present man in the very best light, always putting his best foot forward. But that is not what we read in the Scripture. Instead, we discover in its pages the real struggle with sin that a believer faces. The Bible contains God’s diagnosis of the human dilemma.

 

In Romans 7:15-20, we see Paul’s ongoing struggle with sin. This was his experience even as a mature believer in Jesus Christ. We will discover seven realities of sin found within Paul, as well as within every believer.

 

I. Sin is a Perplexing Mystery (7:15a)

In the first half of verse 15, we see that sin is a perplexing mystery. Paul writes, “For what I am doing, I do not understand” (verse 15). When Paul writes “what I am doing,” he is referencing his participation in sin. Notice that this is written in the present tense. Paul is not looking to his past before his conversion to Christ. He is not referencing his life when he was still a Pharisee, a Hebrew of Hebrews, looking for righteousness by his own merit. He is writing this in the present tense, addressing his present condition as he lives his Christian life.

 

This struggle with sin is what is so baffling to Paul. As a mature believer, he does not understand why he is still sinning, when he has a new heart that loves God. Why does he still sin when he has a new nature with new affections, and the Holy Spirit now lives inside of him? He cannot understand why he still sins. It is bewildering to Paul. This is a point of major frustration, because he desires godliness and holiness. But he keeps falling into sin. Paul is confused and baffled by this inexplicable mystery about himself.

 

For those of us who are believers, this should be an echo of the perplexity we should feel within our own hearts. When we end the day in prayer, there are sins we must confess that make no sense why we would commit them. Egotism, greed, lust, worldliness, covetousness, and many other sins still rear their ugly heads in our lives. We wonder why they continue to plague us. Sin is a perplexing mystery. Why do we still practice sin if we have been born again?

 

II. Sin is a Total Contradiction (7:15b)

Paul then describes his struggle with sin as a total contradiction with his new nature that is created in holiness. He writes, “For I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (verse 15). Paul says that what he wants to do, he knows that he is not practicing. And what he is doing is the very thing that he hates. Everything in his life is inverted. What he does not want to do, he does. What he does want to do, he does not do. There is both a negative and a positive aspect to this inverted dilemma. He commits both sins of omission and commission. Sins of omission are what he does not do, but should have done. Sins of commission are what he does, but should not have done.

 

When Paul says, “For I am not practicing what I would like to do,” he is speaking of practicing those things that pertain to personal holiness. This is another reason why Paul is referring to himself as a believer. Unbelievers do not want to pursue holiness. Unbelievers do not want to deny themselves and take up their cross to follow Christ. Unbelievers usually prefer to be antinomian and live without a concern for obedience to God’s word. By contrast, believers do not want to be antinomian, because God has given them a new hunger and thirst to keep His word. As a result of the new birth, they have been given a new desire to walk worthy of their calling. They have a new heart with new affections. They want to do the things that honor the Lord.

 

But the contradiction within Paul is that he is not always practicing these things. His desires are for godliness, but his practice does not always line up with that. Paul is being brutally honest. He does not try to present himself in a hyper-spiritual way. He is pulling back the veil of his inner life and being gut-level honest. The word “like” (thelo) means ‘to delight in.’ We delight in pleasing God. We love what He loves, and we hate what He hates. “But,” Paul says, “I am doing the very thing I hate.” Paul, as a believer, is doing things that he hates. He hates the sin that displeases and dishonors God. He hates caving in to temptation. He hates compromising his witness. Yet he does. When we are on our knees in prayer before God, we need to be honest with Him that we are not practicing what we would like.

 

Know Yourself

From this, we see that sin is a total contradiction to who we truly are in Christ. It makes the believer an oxymoron, a living paradox, a contradiction in terms. At times, we do what we hate. Likewise, we do not always do what we love. The sinful flesh within us can cause us to be a walking contradiction. This is certainly true about me, as I can preach a far better message than I can live. The same is true for you. You can learn far more truth than what you can live. It is true of each one of us. If you do not see this, then you do not know yourself.

 

John Calvin wrote in chapter one, section one of his Institutes of the Christian Religion that with the knowledge of God comes the knowledge of self. Everything in your Christian life begins with knowing who God is and, in turn, knowing who you are. Until you know who God is, you will never know who you are. And until you know who you are, you will never advance in spirituality. Paul is being completely honest with us. This is a private thought that is now made known publically in order to help us learn about ourselves. If when you sin, you are thinking, “What is wrong with me?,” the reality is that this is what is wrong with all of us. The reality is that even as a believer, we still struggle with sin.

 

III. Sin is a Legal Offense (7:16)

Third, sin is a legal offense against God and His word. Paul writes, “But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good” (verse 16). Paul is obviously talking about the sin that he does not want to do. We know he is a true believer because no believer wants to sin. But Paul confesses that he does the very thing that he does not wish to do. If anyone could have reached sinless perfection in this world, it would have been the apostle Paul. If anyone could have reached the place in their Christian life where they no longer struggle with sin, it would have been this remarkable man. If anyone could have coasted into glory without having to fight against sin, it would have been this man, who authored thirteen books in the New Testament. Yet even as a mature believer in Christ, Paul is still entrenched in this war against the sinful flesh within him. It is no different for you or me who are believers, even mature believers.

 

As believers, we will always be fighting sin. The battlefield is within us, and the spiritual conflict is not going away. Sin no longer reigns over us, though it is still resident within us. Sin once reigned over our lives, but Christ has removed sin from the throne of our life. Jesus is now enthroned as Lord over our lives. But sin is not vanquished. Sin still lives in the palace of our heart and still has direct access to us.

 

The Law Reveals Our Sin

How does a believer know that there is still sin within him? The answer, according to verse 16, is that the Law reveals it to us. One of the necessary ministries of the Law of God is to expose sin in our lives, even as a believer. Paul writes, “But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good” (verse 16). What is it that the Law testifies to Paul, to which he is in agreement? It is that the Law reveals to us our sin.

 

The Law is not restricted to the Old Testament. It has a continuing, primary ministry in the life of a Christian. To say otherwise is to contradict Scripture. Here is Paul, as a believer in New Testament times, writing the book of Romans, and he is appealing to the Law as still being in effect and performing a needed ministry in his life.

 

For New Testament believers, one of the purposes of the moral law is to reveal our sin to our own heart. This is actually a good thing, because when you are sick, you go to the doctor so that he will tell you what is wrong with you. This is a good thing, so that you can know how to become well. The Law is like a loving doctor who is diagnosing your problem. The purpose is so that you can repent, confess your sin, and have your spiritual health restored. This is why Paul says that he agrees with what the Law is saying about his own heart and motives. Paul knows that he is in a continual fight with the sin that remains in him.

 

By stating, “the Law is good,” Paul continues to affirm the positive ministry of God’s Law, even under the New Covenant. The Law was not only good for David and Solomon, but also for his life. Paul says in the present tense, “the Law is good.” At that very time, the Law remained a friend and helper in Christian living. In like manner, it performs a good ministry in your spiritual life. Ironically, the Law is good because it tells you when you are bad. Paul wants to clarify that his problem with sin is not the Law. The problem is Paul, whose sin is a flagrant breaking of the divine law.

 

All sin is a violation of the Law. We are measured by the unchanging standard of the divine, moral law. It is like a yardstick that we lay down next to, only to see that we regularly fall short. The Law is like an X-Ray that the doctor takes of our internal organs. The doctor looks at the X-Ray and discovers the problem inside of us. The Law makes this sin clear to our own spiritual eyes.

 

The New Testament affirms this when it states, “All sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). All sin is a departure from the standard of the Law. It is a violation against the governing statutes of the King of heaven. All sin is a defiant rebellion against the Sovereign of heaven and earth. As you think about your own life, do not think of your sin as a small problem that you can excuse. It is rank rebellion against God. It is a serious violation of the rule of law in heaven. It is an egregious offense against the good Law of God.

 

IV. Sin is an Indwelling Force (7:17)

Fourth, sin is an indwelling presence that remains in a believer’s life. Paul writes, “So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (verse 17). Paul’s use of “so now” further reinforces that he is speaking in the present tense. An initial reading of this verse can be potentially confusing as Paul says he is not the one doing the sin. Is Paul passing off his personal responsibility to obey God? In no way is he doing so. He has not fallen into a Hellenistic worldview of a dualistic separation of body and soul. Under such a false scheme, it does not matter what a person does in their body because any sin does not affect their soul. Paul has not strayed into Gnosticism. He simply recognizes that he has become a new man in Christ, and there is a new nature within him. This new man is Paul’s true identity now.

 

Paul’s new nature is incapable of sinning. When he goes to heaven one day, his new nature will be that which endures forever. But the problem is that he lives in an unredeemed body of sinful flesh. Sin continues to reside within Paul. The source of his sin is not the new man that he has become. His problem is his old fallenness that remains in him. His sinful flesh no longer reigns in him, but it still “dwells in me.” It has not moved out of him. His sinful flesh still goes to bed with him. It still dreams with him. It still wakes up with him. It still goes to work with him. It still travels with him. Every moment of every day, his sin nature indwells him. It is the same with us as believers. It is not outside of us or laying on the surface of our lives in a superficial way. It dwells deep within us. Sin is an indwelling force.

 

V. Sin is a Contrary Power (7:18)

Fifth, sin is a contrary power to the believer’s new nature. Our new man in Christ and our old sinful flesh are unequally yoked. They cannot agree on anything. They are always going in totally opposite directions. There is no middle ground that they share in common. They are antithetical to each other. Sin in a believer is a contrary power. Paul writes, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” Paul speaks with absolute certainty. There is no equivocation. He is emphatic that he knows nothing good dwells in his flesh.

 

The “flesh” is Paul’s old sinful nature, his old disposition and inclinations, his fallen humanity, his old man. Paul uses a possessive pronoun “my” in connection with his “flesh.” This is very personal for him. Paul says that nothing good dwells in his sinful flesh. It is completely antithetical to everything that is holy, righteous, and good. Our old flesh is the very opposite, namely, that which is wicked, vile, evil, and carnal. It is still in us, even as believers. This is how David was still able to commit adultery. This is how Abraham could lie. This is how Moses could commit murder. That is how Peter could deny the Lord. This is how Ananias and Sapphira could lie to the Holy Spirit in the middle of the church service. Every one of us is one step away from committing similar sins. Even as believers, our sinful flesh remains still within us.

 

We still have the capacity to do that which the new man we have become does not want to do. As soon as we wake up, the battle continues. There is no time-out from this internal conflict. There is no half-time break from the struggle. Sometimes even, the higher we are spiritually, the more vulnerable we are to sin. We tend to let our guard down and become more naïve after times of spiritual victory. Some of our greatest defeats come right after our greatest spiritual victories. This is because we are most vulnerable then.

 

Paul continues, “for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not” (verse 18). The new man that Paul has become certainly desires to do good. He desires to study to the Bible. He desires to go to church on the Lord’s day. He desires to obey the word of God. But it is one thing to want it, and another thing to do it. Even your new man is incapable of doing good without the empowering of the Holy Spirit, and Him enabling helping you. It is not enough that you have a new nature and a new heart, because you still have an old nature. We must have the power of God to be at work within us to will and to work for His good pleasure. We cannot live the Christian life in our own self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Every moment of every day, we still need the grace of God to be dynamically operative in our lives. We need to abide in the Lord Jesus Christ. Only the power of God can help us to overcome this contrary power of sin that is pushing us away from obedience to the word of God.

 

VI. Sin is a Competing Evil (7:19)

Sixth, sin is a competing evil. Paul writes, “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (verse 19). As a believer, Paul has new wants, new affections, and new desires from his former manner of life that are holy and godly. Yet he does not always do what he wants to do in his heart. There is still evil lurking within him. There is still a capacity within him to do evil. The word “evil” (kakos) is a strong word that means ‘wrong, wicked, destructive.’ Evil is that which is contrary to holiness. It is a powerful force that is the total opposite of what conforms to God’s won character.

 

Again, this evil that continues to plague Paul is not the dominant, reigning force within him. Nevertheless, it is still a powerful force within him. It is no longer in the driver’s seat, but it is still in the car. We cannot be so naïve as to think that sin is not in the back seat riding with us. It still has an influence in our life that leads us in a different direction away from God’s prescribed path.

 

VII. Sin is a Remaining Reality (7:20)

Seventh, we see that sin is a remaining reality in the life of every believer. Paul writes, “But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me” (verse 20). This repeats what Paul said earlier in verse 17, making the clarification that though he is doing the sin, it is not the real Paul. It is not the true Paul now that he is converted. The real Paul is the new man that he is in Christ. That sin “dwells” in him, “dwells” (oikeo) means ‘to live with,’ as though to co-habitate and to occupy a house with another person. Paul reaffirms that sin set up house in him and is living within him. It has made itself at home with Paul. It never leaves and never goes away from him. His sinful flesh is a permanent houseguest that is always looking over his shoulder and whispering in his ear. Simply put, sin is a monster living inside of him.

 

For every believer, sin is a reality that continues in our lives even after we are saved. After reading Romans 6, we could have gotten the idea that we are coasting into glory without any speed bumps or hindrances. But Paul includes Romans 7 to teach us that sin is still in our lives with us. We will fight it all the way to glory. You and I will never get out of Romans 7 until we arrive in heaven. Sometimes I hear teaching that states we need to get out of Romans 7 and permanently leave it behind by moving into Romans 8. This is not the reality of the Christian life. If Paul could not get past the battle with his sinful flesh found in Romans 7, neither will we. For the rest of our Christian life, we will be in the second half of Romans 7, as well as in Romans 6 and 8. This is an ongoing reality in the life of the Christian.

 

Romans 8 will emphasize our great hope regarding victory and triumph over sin in our Christian life. The trip to the doctor in Romans 7 reveals our troubling diagnosis. Romans 8 will give us the prescription for how to get well. It has been well said that a right diagnosis is half the cure. We must have a right diagnosis about what is wrong with us.

 

Some people are converted to Christ, join a Bible study, and begin attending a church. They assume that everything in their new Christian life will be an easy walk from there on out. Paul reminds us of the reality in Romans 7, that is an accurate diagnosis. We need these verses to help us see what remains that is wrong with us. The prescription for our ailment is found at the end of Romans 7 when Paul says, “thanks be to God [who gives us the victory] through the Lord Jesus Christ.” There is victory in the Christian life.

 

We cannot adopt a defeatist attitude, because greater is He who is in me than he who is in the world. Because of the all-sufficient grace of God, we will grow in personal holiness. We will experience ever-increasing victories over sin in our lives. There is still sin within us as believers, but we are, nevertheless, making progress and moving forward into greater conformity to the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29). In Romans 7, we see our problem with sin, which continues for even the mature believer. But there is great hope in the verses that lie ahead.

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.