Skip to main content

Winning the War Within: Romans 7

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.


Introduction: The Struggle with Sin

In 1886 Robert Louis Stephenson wrote one of his best-known novellas entitled: "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." The story is told from the perspective of a London lawyer named Gabrielle Utterson who investigates strange occurrences between an old friend Dr. Henry Jekyll and the evil Edward Hyde.

As the novel progresses, we learn that Dr. Jekyll, a well-respected and kind gentleman, has spent a great deal of his life trying to suppress the evil urges that were not befitting to a man of his stature. He had occasionally felt the battle between the good and evil within himself and thinks that if he represses the evil, he can make himself and humanity better.

Dr. Jekyll develops a serum or potion in an attempt to mask this hidden evil within his personality. However, in doing this, what really happens is that this inner evil is released, and mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll is transformed into the murderous and cruel Mr. Hyde. As time goes by, Mr. Hyde becomes ever more powerful and grows so strong that Jekyll becomes reliant on the potion to remain conscious. He gets to the point when he can no longer control when Mr. Hyde appears.

In the end, Jekyll's butler, Mr. Poole, visits Utterson and says that Jekyll has secluded himself in his laboratory for weeks. Utterson and Poole break into the lab where they find, what they believe to be Hyde wearing Jekyll's clothes and he is apparently dead from suicide.

In a letter that Jekyll had written after realizing that he could no longer transform back, he tells what had happened to him. He confesses his evils committed while he was Mr. Hyde and ends the letter and the novella by writing: "I bring the life of that unhappy Henri Jekyll to an end."

In Romans 7 the Apostle Paul is experiencing a struggle of his own between the good that he wants to do as opposed to the evil that he sometimes actually does. It is a struggle between the old nature of sin that is still present in his fleshly body and the new nature of righteousness given to him by faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But unlike Jekyll, his old nature as a believer has been crucified with Christ. No Christian any longer has to be a slave to sin. And it does not have to overpower us.

Summary of Romans

As we learned earlier in our previous studies of Romans, this book was written by the Apostle Paul to expound to us the Gospel, which is the good news that man is saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. Man cannot save himself, for "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

The wrath of God is coming on all mankind, for the entire world is condemned as sinful. The Law, though good, cannot help us, for its purpose for existence was to show how really sinful we all are. Further, good works cannot save us from God's wrath and judgment, for His holy standard is perfection.

But thanks be to God, He has provided a righteousness which is by faith from first to last (Romans 1:17). It is a righteousness given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe (3:22). Jesus took upon Himself God's wrath, gave to us His righteousness and now we who trust in Christ have peace with God (Romans 5:1).

Another reason we cannot save ourselves by works, according to Paul, is that all of us received from the first man, Adam, an old nature of sin. We were sinners at birth and because of that, we choose to sin in our lives. But the new second Adam, Jesus Christ, overcame sin and death and gives us the ability to do so as well. He offers His victory as a free gift to all who accept it (Romans 5:12-21).

At the end of chapter 5, Paul continues his discussion of the Law, reiterating to us its purpose, by saying:

"The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (5:20-21).

In chapter 6, Paul answers the critics of justification by grace alone through faith alone. These people ask the question: "If sin causes grace to increase and make God look good, why don't we just go on sinning then!" Paul's answer is: "May it never be!" By accepting Christ's death, we have died to sin with Him. Why should we continue to live for what Christ died to save us from? (6:1-14).

Later Paul expounds upon the common illustration of his day, slavery, to prove that sin no longer has to have mastery over us because we are no longer under the Law but under grace. Christians are now freed from the bondage of sin in order to be slaves to righteousness. (6:15-23).

With chapter 6, Paul has left the area of justification, or the way God declares us righteous like a judge in a court of law, and He is entering the area of sanctification. That is the area where we are progressively being made holy as Christ is holy. The ultimate goal is to make us like our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We become, in practice, what the Lord has declared us to be in our standing before God the Father.

Unfortunately, we still sin as long as we are in this sin-cursed body. For the body has not yet been redeemed. That redemption won't happen until the Rapture, or the catching up of the Church to be with the Lord when Jesus returns. The Apostle John even said of those who claimed that they had no sin that they were deceived, and the truth is not in them (I John 1:8).

This struggle we have between the flesh and the Spirit is what Paul addresses in Romans 7. In order to do this, he uses a discussion of the Law and how it arouses sin when you live under it as opposed to living by the Spirit of Christ. It is with this discussion that this whole chapter is concerned.

Scroll to Continue

I. Release from Law Brings Freedom from Sin's Control (7:1-6)

At the beginning of chapter 7, Paul goes back to speaking primarily to Jewish believers in Christ in talking about the Law (7:1). This is a subject that they know quite well, and it is a problem that keeps them from fully accepting salvation by grace alone, through faith alone. Paul obviously sees a link between being released from the Law and the freedom from sin here. He uses an illustration again in this section. This time from marriage. I like how Lawrence Richards, in his Bible Handbook, summarizes these verses. He states:

"Under the Law a married couple become one, bound together until one of them dies. But the death of one partner frees both from the Law of marriage- and the survivor can remarry. We who are in union with Christ died with Him and the Law has no authority over a dead man (Romans 6:1-4). Thus, Christ's death legally releases us from the authority of God's Law."

Christ took the ultimate curse and penalty for breaking God's law upon Himself though He Himself was sinless. We no longer have to worry about it for it has no more power to condemn us, which is all it could ever do in the first place. It had no way of giving us the power to obey it.

Paul's argument is that we were made to die to the Law through Christ's body so that we could be joined to God. The construction of the Greek word translated in the New American Standard Bible as "made to die" emphasizes two important points. Pastor John MacArthur tells us in his Study Bible that:

  1. This death happened at a point in time, with the results that are complete and final.
  2. Someone else, in this case, God Himself, initiated this death. In response to faith in His Son, God makes the believing sinner forever dead to the condemnation and the penalty of the Law.

Paul goes on to tell us that Christ freed us in order for us to be united to Him who raised Jesus from the dead, (God the Father), for the purpose that we might bear fruit for God (4).

He says that we have been released from the Law. We died to it and it's binding of us in order that we can now serve in the "newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter." (6). In other words, the written Law was good but couldn't give us the power to obey God and live a righteous life. Only the Spirit living in us can do that.

This reminds me of a poem attributed to John Bunyan. He wrote:

"Run, John, and work, the law commands,
yet gives me neither feet nor hands,
But sweeter news the gospel brings,
it bids me fly and gives me wings!"

II. The Law Points Out and Arouses Sin in Me (7:7-13)

Paul, once again, goes back to the reason that the Law was given in the first place. The Law is actually not bad, but good. As a matter of fact, how should I know what sin is if the Law hadn't told me? An example of this is coveting. I wouldn't know it was wrong to want what belonged to someone else if the Law hadn't told me that this was against the will of God.

The Law's job is to reveal sin. The Apostle goes a step further by saying that it also arouses sinful passions in me. I gave an illustration in a previous message on Romans about the speed limit signs and how people always want to go above the posted speed no matter how fast it is. It's the same with children who are told not to eat a plate of cookies or when we are told not to touch wet paint. In all of these illustrations, we are tempted to do what we aren't supposed to do. H. A. Ironside gave another illustration that is quite interesting. And it compares the Law with grace. He tells us:

Some years ago, I had a little school for young Indian men and women, who came to my home in Oakland, California, from the various tribes in northern Arizona. One of these was a Navajo young man of unusually keen intelligence. One Sunday evening, he went with me to our young people's meeting. They were talking about the epistle to the Galatians, and the special subject was law and grace. They were not very clear about it, and finally, one turned to the Indian and said, "I wonder whether our Indian friend has anything to say about this."

He rose to his feet and said, "Well, my friends, I have been listening very carefully, because I am here to learn all I can in order to take it back to my people. I do not understand all that you are talking about, and I do not think you do yourselves. But concerning this law and grace business, let me see if I can make it clear. I think it is like this. When Mr. Ironside brought me from my home, we took the longest railroad journey I ever took. We got out at Barstow, and there I saw the most beautiful railroad station and hotel I have ever seen. I walked all around and saw at one end a sign, 'Do not spit here.' I looked at that sign and then looked down at the ground and saw many had spat there, and before I think what I am doing I have spat myself. Isn't that strange when the sign says, 'Do not spit here'?

"I came to Oakland and go to the home of the lady who invited me to dinner today and I am in the nicest home I have been in. Such beautiful furniture and carpets, I hate to step on them. I sank into a comfortable chair, and the lady said, 'Now, John, you sit there while I go out and see whether the maid has dinner ready.' I look around at the beautiful pictures, at the grand piano, and I walk all around those rooms. I am looking for a sign; and the sign I am looking for is, 'Do not spit here,' but I look around those two beautiful drawing rooms and cannot find a sign like this. I think 'What a pity when this is such a beautiful home to have people spitting all over it -- too bad they don't put up a sign!' So, I look all over that carpet, but cannot find that anybody has spat there. What a queer thing! Where the sign says, 'Do not spit,' a lot of people spat. Where there was no sign at all, in that beautiful home, nobody spat. Now I understand! That sign is law, but inside the home it is grace. They love their beautiful home, and they want to keep it clean. They do not need a sign to tell them so. I think that explains the law and grace business."

As he sat down, a murmur of approval went around the room and the leader exclaimed, "I think that is the best illustration of law and grace I have ever heard."

Paul continues and says in verses 8-13 that sin took occasion by the commandment to lead him to death. Before the Law was introduced, sin was dead. It was not dead in the sense of being lifeless but rather it was dormant. The Law caused sin to become fully active and overwhelmed the sinner. The Apostle, through the Law, realized his true spiritual deadness and that all of his spiritual credentials were worthless. And his sin was proven to be utterly sinful. He realized the hopeless situation that he was in apart from his faith in God's grace.

III. The Law Arouses the Christian's Old Nature (7:14-24)

It is here that Paul uses himself as a personal illustration of how the Law still arouses in him his old fleshly nature and causes a conflict between that and the new nature given to him by Jesus Christ. Although most theologians would agree that Paul is saved here, some try to argue that the Apostle is talking about himself before salvation. But that interpretation goes against the experience of most believers. Most of us know the conflict that Paul is talking about here in wanting to do what is right but still doing what is wrong.

And the conflict that Paul is having here is not had by the unbeliever who doesn't normally wrestle with doing the will of God.

Also, this interpretation of Romans 7 as being a conflict between the Old and the New nature of the believer goes along with other writings of the Apostle such as Galatians 5:16,17 which tells us:

This I say then, walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that you cannot do the things that you would.”

The famous verses in this chapter are the ones that get us a bit tongue-tied. Paul tells us:

"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 doing it, but sin which dwells in me." (19-20).

By saying that it is no longer he that is doing it but sin that dwells in him, Paul is telling us that it is not his new redeemed nature given by Christ, but the old, unredeemed flesh that is leading him to do wrong (Galatians 5:17).

The great Apostle actually calls this battle a war in verse 23: He tells his readers:

"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."

This makes him cry out:

"Oh, wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?" (24). A believer will always perceive his own sinfulness in direct proportion that he sees the holiness of God. Paul compares himself with a holy God and calls himself a wretch.

Tradition tells us that there was a tribe in Tarsus that tied the corpse of a murder victim to their murderer. And the decomposing corpse would eventually kill the murderer. This is a vivid picture of how Paul sees himself in his struggle with the Law and its arousal of sin. However, thankfully, Paul begins at the end of chapter 7 to answer his own question of deliverance which he continues in chapter 8.

IV. Paul's New Life in Christ is His Deliverance (25)

The Apostle Paul is certain and thankful that Christ is the answer to the horrible dilemma that he's in. He knows that Christ will eventually rescue him when He returns. The one who has declared him righteous, the one who is sanctifying him, will bring all of this to completion and deliver him from the struggle that he is going through. His struggle may continue. He may have this war where he is tempted to serve the Law of sin rather than God, but Jesus has given him the means for the victory and for that he can praise the Lord.

We have seen in Galatians, written by Paul, that if we walk in the Spirit, we will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. The Spiritual life is a continual growth closer toward maturity. So, this struggle is won a battle at a time. However, thanks to Christ who gives us the victory, the war is already over, and He has won. We just need to learn to follow in the footsteps of our Commander-in-Chief.


In his book, "The Adversary", Mark Bubeck said this:

"The flesh is a built-in law of failure, making it impossible for the natural man to please or serve God. It is a compulsive inner force inherited from man's fall, which expresses itself in general and specific rebellion against God and His righteousness. The flesh can never be reformed or improved. The only hope for escape from the law of the flesh is its total execution and replacement by a new life in the Lord Jesus Christ."

The only possible solution to the great struggle talked about in Romans 7 is a life lived in total dependence upon the Lord Jesus Christ. Without expressing our reliance upon the Holy Spirit, without knowing His Word and spending time in prayer with God, without time with His people, our life will continually be one of failure to overcome the sin in our lives.

But thankfully, God has promised that "He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion." (Philippians 1:6). Christ has indeed won the war. And with His help, we can win the battles as well! We don't have to be fighting and losing at the same sins over and over again. It can be an upward spiral to a life closer and closer to the image of Jesus Christ.

Let us praise God for the victory that He gives us through the death, burial and the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! Because of Him, there is real hope to win in all of our struggles with sin! And, to that I say: Thank you, Jesus! To Him be the glory! Amen!

© 2019 Jeff Shirley

Related Articles