For the past month we have been learning about the experience of sanctification. It is the second phase in the salvation process following justification. A justified person is forgiven of their sin, pardoned of its penalty, and declared righteous through the work of Jesus Christ. They are legally acquitted in the eyes of God. A sanctified person is set apart for the purposes of God and enabled to grow and mature in Christ throughout the entirety of their lives. Sanctification allows me to become what justification has already declared me to be!
We have discovered that sanctification begins with regeneration, which is a supernatural occurrence in which a person spiritually dies to sin, is freed from it, and is reborn alive to God. The regenerate person embarks on a journey in which his spiritual nature battles his flesh for dominion over his life. Paul first described this experience in terms of a slave complying with either one master or the other, then as a marriage relationship in which the bride submits to either her former husband or her current one.
In the text we will study today, Paul briefly turns his attention away from theology and instead reflects upon his own life. In other words, he takes that which he has been teaching and describing about sanctification and applies it to his own personal experience. Paul openly and honestly describes the struggle that rages within himself.
Paul candidly describes the conflict between his two natures, and in so doing presents himself as a model to help us better understand the conflict within ourselves. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to divulge uncomfortable and ugly truths about oneself like Paul does in this passage. Perhaps this is why I appreciate his testimony in these verses so much…
I. DOING WHAT I DON’T WANT TO DO (Romans 7:14-20)
The Law is spiritual in nature. It appeals to our spirits through which it seeks to guide us in obedience to the LORD. However, as human beings we also have a fleshly nature which is enslaved to sin. As such, a conflict exists within all born-again Christians that pits our spiritual nature against our flesh (carnal nature).
Paul states that he doesn’t understand why he continues to do the things he doesn’t want to do. He doesn’t want to act in sinful disobedience to God, yet it just keeps happening. Paul is not questioning the theological reasons why he continues to sin. Rather he is questioning his own personal choices that continually lead him to sin.
Earlier in this chapter Paul explained that the Law was good, and here he affirms it again. The fact that we do not want to sin reveals that we are in agreement with the Law and that our intent is to abide by it. Our desire to live in obedience to God’s commands reflects the condition of our hearts, even though our actions may not always meet the LORD’s standard.
It is not the spiritual nature of the redeemed man that leads a person to sin. Rather it is the fleshly nature. As “new creations” in Christ we have died to sin and been freed from it. In this sense, as spiritual beings we no longer sin. Yet the old body of flesh remains with it’s lustful, carnal nature. Therefore, as earthly physical beings we continue to sin.
Those who have received salvation through Jesus Christ are indwelt by the Spirit of God. Even still, Paul declares that nothing good dwells within his flesh. While the Holy Spirit may wield some godly influence over the flesh, still the flesh remains basically wicked and corrupt by nature. Though the spirit may will obedience, the flesh continues to act in disobedience. Harnessing our fleshly desires and bringing them under the control of the spirit is an arduous task.
Again Paul repeats this sentiment. If it is our will to live in obedience to God, when we sin we are actually acting in defiance to our own desires. We, like Paul, are doing the very things we don’t want to do. If we see ourselves as God sees us - from a spiritual perspective - then it is not us that are sinning. But if we look at our lives from the viewpoint of the flesh, then it is us who are sinning.
We have all heard the excuse that, “The Devil made me do it.” Perhaps some of us have even said it ourselves. It is an attempt to shift the blame for our sin off of ourselves and onto someone else. Yet the Bible is clear that we are responsible for our own behaviors. In light of this truth, we must understand that Paul is not trying to shift the blame for his sinful actions. He is simply saying that his spiritual nature is not the one acting sinfully; rather it is his old, carnal flesh.
II. THE PRINCIPLE OF EVIL (Romans 7:21-23)
All of us have principles that we live by. They are guidelines that help us to live moral and ethical lives. We want to be known as men and women of principle. In verse 21 Paul concedes that there is a principle of evil present in his life. Though he wants to do good, this evil principle seeks override his godly spirit and direct his flesh to sin.
Paul identifies his spiritual nature as “the law of God in the inner man” and his carnal nature as “the law of sin in the members of my body”. These two are waging war against one another both seeking to exercise control over the “law of my mind”. Thus we see three distinct “laws” or aspects of redeemed person - the spirit (which is of God), the flesh (which is sinful), and the mind or soul (which is neutral and influenced by both the spirit and flesh).
Paul admits that in his life, far too often, the lusts of the flesh prevail over the desires of the spirit. He expresses that at times he feels like a prisoner to sin, bound in its horrifying chains. This sentiment is not exclusive to Paul alone. I’m sure we have all felt this way at times - I know that I have.
III. OUR WRETCHED CONDITION (Romans 7:24-25)
Paul concludes that he is a wretched man. The word wretched means, “In a deplorable state of distress or misfortune; miserable”. Paul is not discounting his salvation or the many blessings of God in his life. He is not claiming that he has no value and that life is not worth living. Rather, he is commenting specifically on the misery that is caused him due to the sinful condition of his flesh.
Paul then asks and answers and important question. He states that God, working through Jesus Christ, will one day set him free from his “body of death”. In that day, the fleshly nature will be changed into one characterized by righteousness. The old, corrupted body will be done away with once and for all. We will address this in more detail in a few weeks when we discuss glorification.
On the one hand our minds lead us to serve God, but on the other hand they succumb to the alluring of sin. But there is coming a day when our flesh will be permanently defeated, and we will be free to serve God unencumbered by its nagging presence in our lives. When this happens, the wretched condition that Paul describes in this passage will be vanquished forever!
I’d be willing to guess that we can all relate to Paul’s personal struggle between the flesh and the spirit. Everyone of us face this same conflict on a daily basis. And if we are honest, like Paul was in this passage, I think we would all admit that the sinful desires of our flesh often win out over the godly desires of our spirit. This is why praying for forgiveness and renewed fellowship with God continues to be important even after a person is saved.
The process of sanctification boils down the battle between our dual natures. If we are to truly grow and mature in Christ, we must learn to submit our minds and bodies to the will of the spirit and not to the lusts of the flesh. As we discipline our flesh to live under the guidance our spirit, we become increasingly like Jesus.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our spirit had an ally in its contest against the flesh? Wouldn’t it be great if there was someone to come alongside our spirit and strengthen it to be victorious over our own carnal nature? Next Sunday we will discover that there is someone living within us who can help us overcome the flesh - the Holy Spirit.