A Bible Study Led by Dr. Larry Reynolds
April 21, 2010

Romans 7:1-25


We began looking in our last session at the section of Romans that deals in depth with some of the positive results of being justified (made right with God) by faith. In chapters 6, 7, & 8 Paul explores three things we have because we have been made right with God. We have:

  • Victory over sin (Chapter 6)
  • Freedom from the Law (Chapter 7)
  • Life in the Spirit (Chapter 8)

In our previous session we explored Romans 6. In that chapter Paul explained that because of our union with Christ we have died to an old way of life—a way characterized by disobedience and self-centeredness—and have been made alive to a new way of life—a way characterized by obedience and God-centeredness. As a result of our union with Christ, we are no longer slaves to sin but slaves of God. That is the essence of Romans 6.


Now we come to Romans 7 where Paul explains in more depth the relationship between those who have been justified by faith and the law.


Verse 1 states the principle that the law exercises control over a person only as long as that person is alive. The law has no concern about those who have died. Death wipes out the law’s jurisdiction.


Verses 2-3 illustrate this principle using the analogy of marriage. The law binds a married woman to her husband as long as he is living. If she chooses to live with a man instead of her husband the law brands her as an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from the law and free to marry another.


Verses 4-6 apply the illustration to believers. The application is a little awkward because in the illustration it was the husband who died, freeing the wife to remarry. But in the application, believers are represented by the wife, and it is the wife (believer) who dies (to the law) and is free to be joined to another meaning Christ. These verses tell us some very important things about the Christian life. For example, they tell us:

·        The Christian life is not a life of legalistic bondage to laws, rules, and regulations – The phrase “…you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ…” does not mean that there are no moral standards for Christians or that God is disinterested in what we do or do not do. It means our acceptance by God is not dependent on our doing or not doing certain things. That is religious legalism—thinking we can win God’s approval by obeying laws and doing certain works. There are two obvious problems with religious legalism:

o       It does not work – As hard as we may try, we always fall short. Not one of us can be good enough to earn God’s approval. And to believe we can causes great spiritual and emotional pain. Legalists end up either being blind to their own sins or pretending to be something they are not.

o       It makes us judgmental – Those with a legalistic mindset tend to be critical, unloving, and unforgiving toward others.

Christians have been freed from trying to win God’s favor by keeping the law.

·        The Christian life is a life of relationship with Jesus Christ – The middle part of verse 4 reminds us that we have died to the law “…that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead…” The verb “be joined to” brings to mind the marriage relationship that was the basis of the illustration earlier in this paragraph. The Christian life is essentially an intimate relationship between the believer and Jesus, just as marriage is an intimate relationship between the husband and wife. The essence of being a Christian is knowing Jesus and being known by Him.

·        The Christian life is a life of service to others – Many people’s understanding of the Christian life stops in the middle of verse 4. We must not overlook the phrase at the end of the verse. We have been freed from a life of legalism and called to a life of relationship “…that we might bear fruit for God.” That fruit can take many different forms, but essentially it is a life of service and ministry to others. Verses 5-6 point out that our focus in serving should not be on the law that leads to bondage but on the Spirit who leads us into life.


Verses 7­-13 anticipate and answer an objection to Paul’s teachings about the believer’s freedom from the law. Someone might ask, “If Christians have died to the law, what good is the law? If one has to die to it, would that not make the law something sinful?” Warren Wiersbe points out that in this paragraph Paul tells us four functions of the law:

1.      The law reveals sin (v.7) – While God has placed in us an innate sense of right and wrong (see notes on Romans 1:19), the specifics of sin are revealed in the law. It is interesting that Paul chose to use coveting as an example of the law revealing sin. It is a reference to the 10th commandment and is the only commandment that deals with inward attitude rather than outward action. While it is self-evident that things like murder, stealing, and adultery are sins, a covetous spirit (which leads to all sorts of sins) is a sin that most people do not recognize in their lives.

2.      The law arouses or encourages sin (v.8) – There is something in us that causes us to move toward the forbidden. It began with Adam and Eve eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and continues to this very day. This is because we have in us a rebellious, self-centered spirit, which is the very essence of sin. The surest way to get someone to do something is to tell them not to do it!

3.      The law reveals our spiritual death (vv.9-11) – The law cannot give us spiritual life. It only shows our guilt and condemnation before God. I believe the phrase “…I was once alive apart from the Law…” speaks of that time before Paul was able to comprehend the law and his own personal sin. He had not reached what some refer to as “the age of accountability.” But once he was aware of the law, that awareness caused him to break the law, and he fell into spiritual death. What was true for Paul is true for every person who has ever lived.

4.      The law reveals the seriousness or destructive nature of sin (vv. 12-13) –Paul makes it clear in these verses that the law is not inherently evil. On the contrary, he describes the law as “…that which is good…” It is sin that is evil and the law reveals the true nature of sin.

Verses 14-25 – This is one of the most difficult and controversial paragraphs in Romans.  Some things about it are very clear.  For example, it is obviously an autobiographical statement by Paul.  More than 20 times in these verses Paul uses the personal pronoun “I.”  However, other things about this paragraph are very unclear.  For example, there is much debate concerning whether Paul is speaking of his experience before becoming a Christian or experience after becoming a Christian. 

·        The early church fathers tended to interpret this paragraph as referring Paul's pre-Christian life.  They could not bring themselves to believe that a Christian (especially a mature Christian such as Paul) would experience kind of inner   conflict described in this passage. 

·        On other hand, biblical interpreters from time of Protestant Reformation to our day have tended to view this passage as reflecting Paul's struggle as a Christian. They point to the use of the present tense verbs throughout this paragraph as evidence that Paul, who was obviously a Christian when he wrote these words, was speaking of his current experience and not some past experience.

Regardless of whether you view this paragraph as referring to Paul’s pre or post conversion life, there are two truths interwoven throughout these verses that are vitally important for us to grasp.


No matter how hard we try, we are all going to fall short of God’s ideal.

This is a theme that we have come across several times in our study of Romans.  For example:

·        Romans 3:10 - "There is none righteous, not even one."

·        Romans 3:23 - "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

·        Romans 5:12 - "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned."

One of the primary themes of Romans is that we are not perfect.  No matter how hard we try, as long as we live in this fallen world we will fall short God's ideal.


I remember reading about a man went into a large department store to buy a pair pajamas.  On label he saw the phrase "shrink resistant."   Not knowing what that phrase meant, he asked the sales clerk, “Does this they will shrink or will not shrink?”  After thinking for a moment the clerk said, "I think it means they will shrink, but they really don't want to!"


That is sort of what this paragraph says about us in relation to sin.  Deep down inside we do not want to sin.  We do not want to disobey God, but we end up disobeying anyway.

·        verse 15 - "For that which I am doing, I do no understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate."

·        verse 19 - "For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish."

Why is that?  Why do we choose to sin when we really do not want to sin?  There is a word that Paul uses three times in these verses that explains why we do that.  It is the word “flesh” that occurs in verses 14, 18, and 25.  The Greek word is sarx and it is used two ways in Scripture.

·        Literal sense – In this sense the word refers to the human flesh or skin or to being a physical descendant of another human.  This is not the most common biblical use of the word and that is not how the word is used in this passage.

·        Figurative sense – This is the most common biblical  use of sarx, especially in Paul's writings.  And this  is how the word is used in this passage.  In this sense, the word refers not to literal flesh but to human nature in all of its weakness, impotence, and helplessness.   To live according to the flesh means to be dominated, controlled by our sinful nature.  The flesh, in this sense, expresses the lower side of humanity.

 And because we all have this side to our nature and because we never completely get away from it, no matter how hard we try we fall short of God’s ideal.  As Paul put it in v.18 - "..for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not."


The key to overcoming the flesh is not self-control but God-control.

Many people throughout history have praised the virtue of self-control.  For example--

·        Plato - "For a man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all virtues."

·        John Milton - "He who reigns within himself and rules his passions, desires, and fears is more than a king."

Those are nice statements.  They make us want to run out and get control of ourselves.  But the problem is that our best attempts at self-control come up short.  And if we live by the creed that the way to overcoming the flesh is self-control, we will end up   experiencing self-despair and self-disgust because of our inadequacy to achieve our creed.


What is the solution to this dilemma of desiring to do what is right but being powerless to do it?  Is there a way out?  That is basically the question Paul asks in v.24 - "Wretched man that I am!  Who will set me free from the body of this death?"  And the answer to that question is in the form of an exclamatory statement in first part v.25 - "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"  What Paul is saying is the answer is God.  Stop trying to control yourself and submit your self to the control of God.


And then in the next chapter, Romans 8, Paul launches into a beautiful description of life in the Spirit or life controlled by God.