The Ongoing Struggle - Romans 7:21-25

I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin (Romans 7:21-25).

 

 

Romans 7:21-25 brings to conclusion the seventh chapter of Romans. These verses describe Paul’s struggle with indwelling sin. He is writing as a mature believer who still struggles with sin. Paul is honest and transparent for the benefit of other believers who will read his words. This is written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to encourage us in our Christian life.

 

As believers in Christ, you and I can identify with Paul’s struggle with sin. Sin does not go away when we become a believer. There is an ongoing struggle that each one of us has with sin. This struggle does not mean that we are unconverted or lost. Granted, there are some who think they are saved, but are actually lost. Not everyone who claims Christ is a true believer. However, those who are genuinely born again will continue to battle with sin. Their life will be a battlefield between that which is good and that which is evil until the day they enter into glory.

 

I. The Conflict (7:21)

 

In verse 21, Paul restates the conflict that he has been describing in verses 14-20. The conflict is that there are two powers pulling Paul in polar opposite directions. He will start verse 21 with one power, and then conclude with the second power. Paul writes, “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good” (verse 21). When Paul writes, “is present in me,” he is writing in the present tense. This is the reality of Paul’s Christian life, not in the past, but currently as he writes.

 

“Principle” (nomos) is the same Greek word that is translated throughout this chapter as “law.” Some translations use “law” rather than “principle” in verse 21. Nomos means ‘a governing principle, an operating rule.’ Paul says the principle is that “evil is present in me” (verse 21). “Evil” (kakos) is a strong word for that which is wicked, bad, and destructive. In some ways, the word “evil” carries a shock value that is much larger than saying there is sin present within us. Paul does not treat this as a small, insignificant sin, but rather an evil that is within him. The evil is this principle, or law, of sin.

 

The verb “is present” (parakeimai) means ‘to lie beside.’ The idea is that sin is crouching, lying in wait, ready to spring at any moment. It is like a lion lying in the tall weeds ready to devour you as you walk by. God said to Cain, “Sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7). The sin that was crouching at the door for Cain is still crouching at the door for you and me, ready to spring forth and devour us when we least expect it. This is the first operative power that is present within the believer that Paul describes.

 

The other power is at the end of verse 21, “the one who wants to do good.” There is also a part of Paul that wants to do good. “Wants” (thelo) is a strong word that means ‘to be resolved,’ ‘to be determined.’ It is not an apathetic word. There is a part of Paul that has a tenacity to pursue holiness, deny self, take up a cross, and follow after Christ. Paul has a strong inward resolution to please God.

 

The evil principle and the good desire are both inside of Paul. This is the conflict that is raging like a civil war within him. He never outgrows this conflict by being a Christian for a longer period of time. When Paul wrote the book of Romans, it would have been at one of the strongest points in his Christian life. He is on his third missionary journey. Yet Paul still feels this tug-o-war on the inside. This same conflict between evil and good is still being played out in every Christian today.

 

II. The Clarification (7:22-23)

 

Paul now gives a clarification of these two opposite laws at work within him. He writes, “For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man” (verse 22). Paul is happy to agree about the law of God within him. “The law of God” refers to the Mosaic Law and the moral principles that are laid out in the Ten Commandments. These are still operative in Paul’s life as a believer. The Ten Commandments are not relegated to the Old Testament. We do not have liberty in Christ to do whatever we want to do. The Ten Commandments still regulate our Christian life.

 

Paul is not upset about this law within him, but joyfully concurs with it. He writes, “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man.” The law of God is in his “inner man,” because when Paul was regenerated, God took out his heart of stone, put in a heart of flesh, and wrote the Law upon the tablet of his heart. If you are a believer, God has written His Law upon your heart. It was already in your conscience, but now, in a much sharper way, God has written it upon your heart with indelible ink. He set it down deep within you in your inner man.

 

The Psalmist’s Delight

The psalmist joyfully delights in the Law of God. “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers” (Psalm 1:1). There is a three-fold separation in the blessed man’s life. He does not “walk in the counsel of the wicked,” “stand in the path of sinners,” or “sit in the seat of scoffers.” If you want to experience the fullness of God’s blessing, there needs to be this firewall around your Christian life. You cannot get close to the fiery sin of this world without being singed. If you are so naïve as to think you can walk in the counsel of the wicked, stand in the path of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers and be unaffected, you are dead wrong. You think far too highly of yourself. You are not as good as you think. “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Either they will be your mission field, or you will be their mission field. We need to be in the world, but we are not to be of the world. Even as we are in the world, we must use careful discernment not to fall into sin.

 

The psalmist then shifts to the positive in a total contrast. He writes, “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). The delight of the righteous man is not found in the world, but in the Law of God. As he delights and meditates on it, “he will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3). These streams of water come gushing out of the Law of God. They refresh, revive, and reinvigorate. The Law of God is a means of grace that flows into our lives.

 

What does the Law of God do for you? First, it reveals the holiness of God, which we need to have ever before us. The God who authored the law also reveals Himself through the Law. God makes a distinction between what is evil and what is good, between what is right and wrong. That is an expression of the holiness of God. The Law also reveals the will of God for our lives. Every time God says, “You shall,” He is pointing you into His will. Every time God says, “You shall not,” He is pointing you to the epicenter of His plan for your life. It is a blessed defense against the encroachment of sin into your life.

 

The psalmist clearly loved God’s word, and was to his great benefit to do so. “I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies, as much as in all riches” (Psalm 119:14). “Your testimonies” is a synonym for the written word of God. God speaks through His written word. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). The Law of God has proceeded from His mouth and comes in the form of His testimonies. “I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget your word” (Psalm 119:16). Here, the synonym is “Your statutes.” The believer loves and delights in God’s word. “Your testimonies also are my delight; they are my counselors” (Psalm 119:24). We all need counsel regarding the will of God for our life. These testimonies, which counsel the psalmist in how he is to live, are his “delight.” Again, he writes, “I shall delight in Your commandments, which I love” (Psalm 119:47). “May Your compassion come to me that I may live, for Your law is my delight” (Psalm 119:77). “Your word is very pure, therefore Your servant loves it” (Psalm 119:140). This love for God’s word is the mark of a spiritually healthy believer. He is not lukewarm, apathetic, or cool toward the word of God. He is fervent, passionate, delighting in and joyfully concurring with it. He desires God’s word. Paul joyfully concurs with the law of God within him.

 

The Different Law

Paul then gives the other law at work within him, and herein is the conflict: “But I see a different law in the members of my body” (verse 23). This law is in stark contrast to the first law. It is completely antithetical to God’s moral law. This different law sends one in a total opposite direction, never in agreement with the law of God. This “law” is a governing principle, just like the first “law” in verse 22.

 

There is an unwritten law inside of us, which is our sin nature. Paul says it is “in the members of my body.” It is not on the external façade of his life, but down deep in his bones, in his innermost being. From the top of his head to the bottom of his feet, sin has made its way into every little crevice of Paul’s life. Likewise, sin is in every member of your body. It is in our mind as we have selfish thoughts. It is in our eyes as we look with lust, greed, and envy. It is in our ears as we want more of the titillating gossip we hear. It is on our tongue and in our mouth as we speak half-truths and put others down. It is in our hands as we lay hold of things we should not. It is in our feet as we travel to places we have no business going. All the members of our body are tainted with sin in one way or another.

 

An Ongoing War

Paul says this different law is “waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members” (verse 23). “Waging war” means something is attacking and assaulting as on a battlefield. There is a war being waged inside each believer. This is a present tense, ongoing struggle that we face. “The law of my mind” refers to the new mind that we have in Christ. The believer has a new eternal perspective, a new worldview, a new way that they see God and the path their life should take. As they travel this path with the law of the new mind, sin wages war virtually every step of the way. There is a strong resistance.

 

The battle for your Christian life is the battle for your mind. Paul will later say, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1). Paul always emphasizes the mind, because as your mind goes, so goes your heart, and as your heart goes, so goes your will. “Making me a prisoner” means to lead away captive. Sin still has power in our life. It is no longer the dominant tyrant as before our conversion, but nevertheless, it is a force that must be dealt with in our Christian lives. The struggle is real, and it is internal.

 

The “law of sin” is the “different law” that Paul spoke of at the beginning of verse 23. “In my members” is a repetition of “the members of my body” found earlier in this sentence. This different law is operative in our lives. It has not gone away and is not asleep. It never backs off, never sounds retreat, and never waves the white flag. It is an ongoing battle within us until the day we step out of this world and into the very presence of Jesus Christ. Paul clearly explains the depth and dynamic of our sin problem.

 

III. The Crisis (7:24)

 

We next see Paul’s crisis as he figuratively throws up his hands and says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). Paul describes himself as a “wretched man.” “Wretched” (talaiporos) refers to one who endures toils and troubles, one who is painfully afflicted and miserable. Today, we would tell Paul that he is being too hard on himself and needs to go to Christian counseling. We would think that he needs to have a better self-worth. But Paul knows himself. He knows the truth. Notice that Paul speaks in the present tense when he says, “wretched man that I am.” He does not say, “wretched man that I once was.” Again, Paul reinforces that this struggle is present in his life as a Christian.

 

Then Paul reasons about how he will get out of this state. He asks, “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” Paul acknowledges that he cannot set himself free. He needs someone else who is stronger and does not have this same conflict within them. Someone who does not have this different law within their being. This person is the only one who can set Paul free.

 

“Who will set me free” is the same as saying, ‘Who will deliver me from this conflict? Who will rescue me from these powers that are clashing within me?’ Paul writes that he must be freed from the “body of this death,” which refers to his physical body that is dying. The reason why Christians still die, even after being converted, is because we still live in a body tainted by sin. There is not one of us who has the internal power to pull ourselves out of this conflict. Someone else must deliver us. Someone who is not struggling with this sin issue. Paul tells us who this Someone is in verse 25.

 

IV. The Celebration (7:25)

 

In the midst of this conflict and crisis, Paul raises a note of celebration. He declares, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verse 25). There is victory and deliverance from this law of sin that is within us. It comes “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” who is the only Man without sin. He is the only One who does not have this different law within Him. Paul is so emphatic in pointing us to Jesus Christ that he uses all three names for Him. Jesus is His saving name. Christ is His strong name. Lord is His sovereign name. He is the only One who can deliver us from this intense warfare with sin.

 

We need to understand that complete deliverance from sin will not come during this lifetime. We are in the battle to the very end. This ultimate deliverance from sin will come at our final glorification. We cannot have a naïve, misguided view of the Christian life that believes the battle will be over once we reach some certain level of holiness. As long as you are in this present body of death, the struggle will go on. That is why, in our final glorification, we will receive a new, glorified body, as well as a glorified soul and spirit. You will be renovated from top to bottom, both physically and spiritually. In justification, God dealt with the penalty of sin. In sanctification, He is dealing with the power of sin. But in glorification, He will deal with the presence of sin. In that final day, there will no longer be a struggle with sin.

 

Paul talks about our final glorification in the next chapter. He writes, “Not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23). That groaning within us is the struggle against sin. Our spirit and soul have already been redeemed. One day our body will also be redeemed and we will have a new glorified body in heaven. Our sin nature will be eradicated from all the members of our body. At the end of the golden chain of salvation found in Romans 8:29-30, we read, “and these whom He justified, He also glorified” (Romans 8:30). It will be at that final stage of glorification that we will have the experience of the full victory over and from sin. But until then, we continue to wage war in our battle against sin.

 

V. The Conclusion (7:25b)

 

We might think that Paul should have ended the chapter there, at the mountain peak of deliverance through Jesus Christ. But he brings us back down into the valley of reality to remind us that we are still in the battle. He concludes this section by writing, “So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (verse 25). Paul ends with the stark reality of his ongoing struggle with sin. As he concludes this chapter, he reminds us of the struggle in which we, too, are living in our Christian lives.

 

Paul has certainly told us about the victory that lies ahead. But we are still in the campaign to war against sin. “Serving” (douleuo) means ‘to be a slave to,’ ‘to obey.’ There is this strong aspect of Paul’s life, which is the reality of who he really is, where he is serving the law of God. Yet the word “but” brings a dose of reality. Paul is also serving the sin that remains in him. As Paul ends this chapter, he ends not with future glory, but with the present battle that is going on in his Christian life.

 

So What?

First, remain alert. We must be in constant vigil, examining ourselves, confessing our sin, and repenting of our sin. We must be on constant alert, knowing that sin is crouching at the door ready to spring on us at any moment. We are all one step away from the greatest sin of our life. We must remain alert. Our spiritual eyes must be open to the indwelling sin within us.

 

Second, remain armed. You must put on the word of God. Our strength is in the Lord, and we must have the word of God in us to fortify our faith and to purge and purify us. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17). We are made holy as the word of God richly dwells within us (Colossians 3:16). We must be filled with the Holy Spirit, empowered by the omnipotent Spirit of God. “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). Whatever little strength we have is weak. We must have the power of the Holy Spirit operative in our lives. We need to pray the words of Paul, “God, make me strong in Your grace” (2 Timothy 2:1).

 

Third, be aggressive. We cannot be passive in our fight against sin. We must be aggressive. We must take action. We must fight the good fight. We cannot only be on the defense, we must be on the offense. We must raise up a resistance. We must discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness. We must resist temptation. We must flee immorality. We must be of sober spirit. We must be aggressive. The moment we are passive, we will start to lose. It is like the lion tamer in the cage with the lion. As long as he has the chair and the whip in his hand, the lion lays dormant. But the moment he turns his back or puts down the chair or the whip, the lion is on his back to devour him. “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

 

You and I have three great enemies: the world, the devil, and the flesh. There is an evil world system of entertainment, politics, business, greed, immorality, anti-God agendas, and more. Then there is the devil and his demons. But there is also an enemy inside of us. This is our biggest enemy. Even if we did not have the world around us and the force of the devil against us, we would still be in over our heads fighting against our own flesh, our own sinful desires, and this law of sin within us.

 

As Paul brings Romans 7 to conclusion, he leaves us with a sober reminder of our ongoing struggle with sin. We need to be aware and to wage war against it in order to maintain our purity. If we do not fight against sin, the Lord will help us through His discipline. “He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). May we fight well and “pursue…the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

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.