Romans (Part 24) – The Mind Agrees with the Law (7:7–25)
We can understand God’s interaction with Israel mirroring his interaction with the human race better as we understand what Paul already spoke of in chapter 5 verses 13 and 14. There Paul argued that even though the Law had not yet been given, people from Adam to Moses all still died because of sin. Since no one can be guilty of sin unless they have a law letting them know it is wrong, we understood from chapter 5 that God had revealed his law to people prior to the giving of the Law on Sinai. How had he done that? In the precise way he explained back in Romans 1: “For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse.” (1:18–20)
To understand Romans 7, then, we do not have to engage in debate about whether Paul is talking about himself before he was saved or after he got saved. It has nothing to do with Paul as an individual and everything to do with the human race as pictured by Israel.
So then, what does Paul mean, in verse 9 and 10a, that once he “was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.” If we understand the statement, not of Paul personally, but rather of Israel in its role representing the human race, we see first that Israel, at Mt. Sinai, is told to consecrate itself and to wait for the word of the Lord. Moses goes to get the Law to bring it back to the people. The people eventually, tired of waiting, leave off their consecrated state and their intention to wait for the Lord’s command, and create their own golden calf to worship. And the result was death in the camp. Those are the circumstances presented in the Bible surrounding Israel receiving the Law of God.
And those circumstances, on the deeper level, mirror exactly what occurred with Adam and Eve in the Garden. Adam was created for relationship with God and in that he was (as Paul says in 7:9) indeed alive although yet without full knowledge of good and evil (the whole point for having that tree in the Garden). In this state yet of ignorance as to the full character or basis for relationship (i.e., the truth, goodness, and beauty of God which would have to be learned), Adam and Eve were “alive” as Paul says. Remember that life means relationship with God. So all Paul is saying in verse 9 is that even though humanity was yet not fully mature, they did enjoy fellowship with God (life) in a beginning-to-grow, developmental relationship. But when the command came not to eat of the tree (of knowledge of good and evil) but to wait for God’s instruction (just as Israel was to consecrate itself and wait for God’s Law to be delivered) the choice was made by Adam and Eve for sin (just as the Israelites could not wait). And sin exploded in their minds and hearts against every now realized revelation of God’s divine nature (TGB) and eternal power (loving care), causing (when we get to Genesis 3) death, just as in Israel’s case, which is all then related to Paul’s statement at the beginning of Romans 7:10, “and I [humankind] died.”
Paul’s conclusion: “the commandment that was meant for life resulted in death for me,” is the conclusion for the human race. The commandment by God to Adam and Eve to wait for his teaching of his TGB through his loving care was meant for their good—was meant for life (relationship). But sin, arising in contrast to that command, brought death (separation). So, Paul points out in the next verse, these events of both Israel and the human race as a whole in Adam and Eve show that the Law (and God’s commands and revelations) are holy, just, and good.
Paul comes up with another question in verse 13: “Therefore, did what is good cause my death?” And again he answers no. Paul’s question here concerns a possible argument to throw against God for even revealing his Law and his commandment. If sin comes about because God reveals commands against it, shouldn’t God have simply not revealed—not commanded. Then no sin would have occurred. But that is not a satisfactory condition. The commands of God—the revelation of his divine nature and eternal power in conjunction with his wrath (determined separation) against the absence of his TGB and loving care—were absolutely necessary for relationship to work. Remember, God created for everlasting love relationship. Everlasting love relationship with God must—of necessity—be built on a foundation of his truth, goodness, and beauty. We were made to be image bearers so we could perceive and have faith and hope in his TGB so that we could have everlasting love relationship with him. By suggesting that God should not have revealed his law means that God should have abandoned his plan for everlasting love relationship. Without his law, we would have no knowledge of good and evil. Without knowledge of good and evil, we could not find the common basis with God in TGB to support our love relationship.
So Paul says in verse 13 that sin needed to be recognized as sin. And the more knowledge of God and his TGB, the more would be our knowledge of what sin was. And yet, since humanity had chosen sin—had embraced sin or sold itself, in its essence (physical, fleshly being), to sin—the death (separation) within us (the “I” of 7:13) grew and grew as sin grew and grew to become “sinful beyond measure” (7:13b).
From verse 14 on through the end of the chapter we see a struggle going on. But remember, Paul is not merely presenting the struggles of his own personal experience with sin before or after he is saved. Paul is presenting the human condition as an image bearer of God. Here’s what I mean: we bear God’s image in that he has both given us the apprehending abilities for truth, goodness, and beauty (through a conceptual intelligence, conscious morality, and critical aesthetic) along with approbative abilities of faith and hope, but also then revealed through those abilities created in us, his own truth, goodness, and beauty. Therefore, every human being that exists or ever did exist knows what is true, good, and beautiful based on the revelation by God. In other words, we do not need to differentiate between the unsaved and saved on this point. Every human being who ever lived has had an understanding of morality. No one understands performing murder as an ultimately good ideal. No one is confused about that. Our shared moral normativity exists; it is one of the arguments for the existence of God.
So then, as Paul talks about not practicing what he wants to do (7:15), agreeing with the law (7:16), and even desiring to do what is good (7:18), he is not talking out of a converted-to-Christianity knowledge basis; he is talking about the innate, inborn understanding of morality that every human has been given through the Romans chapter 1 revelation of God. That understanding of TGB, however, fights within our corrupted essence that chooses to act in exactly the opposite manner. And that’s the same struggle for the saved as it is for the unsaved—a knowledge of God (and his TGB) versus the sinful, corrupt desires of our essence (our flesh).
It is the pain and frustration and despair of this battle that defines the overriding pain of hell and the absence of God. But it is a pain that makes us who know God cry out for relief to be separated from this corruption, and also rejoice in our assurance that God through Jesus Christ our Lord will rescue us from these dying bodies (7:24–25).
We need to go back for a moment to look again at verse 20. We may still have some confusion about what Paul is saying by declaring that when he does what he does not want to do, he is no longer the one doing it, but sin in him. Is this a statement saying that people should not be guilty for their own sin even when they understand the wrong they do is wrong? No. That is not what Paul is saying. We cannot so quickly forget the imagery here. Paul is not talking about an individual committing some individual sin and therefore should not be found guilty for it. Paul is presenting himself as the human condition—a human condition of spirit and flesh. His flesh is corrupt. It is (in the kinsman redeemer scenario) the land that must be redeemed. It is the redemption that will occur when our Kinsman Redeemer returns (his second coming) to renew the earth—to refine, as it were, through fire (2 Peter 3:10)—to redeem our essence, our physical existence. (We will develop that idea more when we get to Romans 8.) What Paul is here saying, then, is that the spirit does not become corrupt as the flesh is. The spirit still has that TGB understanding, knowing right from wrong. The flesh has no ability for that choice. And that is precisely the reason that the saved may still sin without contradiction to the NT language that we have become new creatures. Our newness is in the faith and hope settled on God, motivating us to love. Even though we may still, in weakness, be influenced by our corrupt essence to sin, it does not corrupt our spirits. And when we stand before the final judgment and the books (hearts) are opened and the book of life (the Redeemer’s heart) is opened, we can rejoice that those sins we have committed in the flesh will not be charged to our spirits (Psalm 32:2) because we have already died to them through the death of Jesus.
The ungodly will not find the same relief. As Romans 2 tells us, wrath, indignation, affliction and distress will come to everyone who does evil (2:9) and will not give up self (2:8).