The Letter to the Romans



24. War Between the Laws


Romans 7:14-25

Chapter 7 has been discussing the role of the law in a person's life. Paul has first established that law is binding on people only as long as they are alive. Because we as Christ-followers have accepted Christ's death as ours, we have died to sin and also to the law. We have been reborn into a new state: we belong to Jesus. In addition, Paul has shown that the whole function of the law was to reveal sin in our lives and to increase our helplessness in the face of that sin by keeping our failures always before us. Now Paul describes the struggle Christians have with persistent sin.

Theologians have debated for centuries about whether or not this passage refers to an unconverted or a converted person. The struggle Paul describes is familiar to everyone who tries to please God: "What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." The question arises: if a person has been born again and has died to sin and the law, why does he still do what he hates? Why is sin still an issue?

The placement of this passage clarifies, however, that Paul is describing the struggle of a person who has already been awakened by the Holy Spirit. If a person is awakened by the Spirit, however, how can he then be "unspiritual" and "sold to sin" since, as Paul has already stated, he has died to sin and to the law?

Other passages in the New Testament give insight into this conundrum. When he wrote to the Corinthians, Paul addressed them as "brothers", yet he said he could not call them "spiritual" because they were "worldly". He called them "infants in Christ" because they had jealousy and quarreling among them. (1 Corinthians 3:1-3) They were born-again, truly converted Christians, yet they were not living by the Spirit. They were giving their natural desires instead of Jesus top billing in their hearts, and Paul called them to obedience to Christ. Later in the same letter Paul admonished them to "stop thinking like children" regarding evil; instead, they were to be adults in their thinking. (1 Corinthians 14:20) The Corinthians were an example of the Romans 7 phenomenon: born-again Christ-followers were succumbing to their natural temptations instead of surrendering to the Spirit.

In Galatians 5:16-17 Paul addresses this issue again. "Live by the Spirit," he declares, and you won't gratify your sinful natures. People's sinful natures desire what is contrary to the Spirit, and they conflict with each other in a Christian's heart. The author of Hebrews also addresses the recipients of the letter in 5:12-14 by saying they should be teachers by now, but they need to be taught the "elementary truths" all over again. If they live on milk, the writer says, they will be infants, unacquainted with teachings about righteousness. The mature have learned by constant use to distinguish between good and evil.

These passages demonstrate that Christ-followers can become spiritually lazy and can fall back into living by the natural desires and reactions of the flesh instead of by surrendering to the Spirit. The familiarity of one's old reactions is habitual and even comfortable; one needs discipline to choose to surrender each moment of temptation and to allow the Spirit to take control instead of defaulting to one's own natural tendencies. The habit of looking to the law and of scrutinizing one's behavior sets the stage for a newly born Christian to live by rationalizing his reactions and justifying his self-centeredness. At the same time, the Christian rationalizing sin knows that he is wrong. The Holy Spirit who has brought him to life internally convicts him of his transgression, yet the power of the flesh and its desires and habits are so strong they often win the contest for the believer's loyalty.

Another way the natural sin in a believer's flesh overwhelms him is by deception. Unless a person is constantly in God's word, subtle heresies can skew one's beliefs and practices, and a person can be seduced away from following Christ and instead follow a false teacher and "doctrines of demons". Peter warned in his second letter that false teachers would come among the believers, and they would introduce heresies that many would follow and thus bring the truth into disrepute. (2 Peter 2:1-3) The protection against such deception is found in learning to submit to the Holy Spirit and being continually in God's word. Jesus told his disciples that the Spirit would come and guide them into all truth. (John 16:12-13) Humanity's natural flesh is prone to deception and self-indulgence. Without an awakening by the Holy Spirit and without a decision to surrender to the Spirit of God, people are helpless to live in truth and reality. Only in Christ is truth possible, and only in living in truth is it possible to begin to know what is real as opposed to one's subjective impression. Natural humanity is sold to sin; only the Holy Spirit can bring life to this mortal flesh.

Our natural flesh is unredeemed. We live with newly born spirits in a mortal body still prone to sin. Only at the resurrection will our bodies be redeemed as our spirits already are. In the meantime, our spirits, quickened by the Holy Spirit, struggle with the sin to which our mortality is enslaved. This war calls us to increasing levels of surrender to Jesus. Only in surrendering our habits and wounds and shame and control to One greater than ourselves can we experience victory over our natural flesh.


Holy Law and Sin In Us

A Christ-follower's struggle with sin confirms Paul's words that the law is holy, righteous, and good. If, however, the law's intent was to draw us to Christ, not to make us good, and if we have died to the law in Christ, we must understand why Paul calls "holy" this document we no longer observe. Verse 12 of Romans 7 says the law is holy, and the commandment is "holy, righteous and good." Romans 8:4 says God condemned sin so the righteous requirements of the law might be met in mankind, and God causes the law's requirements to blossom in us because we are his sons (Romans 8:14-15). God accomplishes this transformation by sharing his character with us when he puts his Spirit in us. The law alone, however, has no impact on people. God gave the law along with a revelation of himself; before the advent of Jesus, God put his presence among his people and provided the law so they would understand His expectations for His people. While the law was powerless to change lives, it did reveal the perfection God's holiness both demanded and yielded.

The law provided standards of behavior that kept the Jews separate from the surrounding pagan nations, and it also provided behavioral guidelines for a holy life. In Romans 14:15 Paul clarifies that not everyone will feel the same attachment to the behavioral requirements of the ceremonial laws. In Christ some will consider themselves free from ceremonial washings and the clean/unclean rituals, while others still observe them. Paul states that one may not indulge his freedom if doing so means destroying the faith of a weaker brother. In other words, the law's strictures, while no longer a Christ-follower's standard, are not evil, and immature Christians may see the legal requirements of Torah as part of their personal worship experience. The law is not bad; as Paul said in Galatians 3:21, it is not opposed to God's promises. Its limitation is that it can't impart life. To Timothy Paul wrote that the law is good if used properly. It is for sinners; it is for everything that is opposed to the gospel. It brings people face-to-face with themselves and their hopeless shortcomings.

We die to the law because in Christ we have a better revelation of God's will for us, and this better revelation comes with unique power-the Holy Spirit-to change us, not merely to convict us. The law is a good thing-but it is powerless. Our struggle with sin as Christ-followers confirms the righteous requirements of the law; the Holy Spirit convicts us that our lives must reflect God's goodness. The law, however, is lifeless, and we must die to it and embrace instead the Living Law-the indwelling Holy Spirit who gives us life and transforms us.

Paul continues in his discourse about the war inside by saying in verse 17, "As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it [what I do not want to do], but it is sin living in me." If we have died to sin, however, how can sin still be living in me?

In chapter 8:10 Paul explains this paradox more clearly. If Christ is in you, he says, your "body is dead because of sin, but your spirit is alive because of righteousness." In verses 23-25 of the same chapter Paul continues his explanation by stating that we who have the "firstfruits of the Spirit" groan while we wait for our "adoption as sons"-the "redemption of our bodies." In 1 Corinthians 15:42-43, in the context of discussing the resurrection, Paul says that our mortal bodies are perishable, dishonorable, weak, natural, and not spiritual. The bodies we are in, in other words, are not redeemed yet. Our spirits are redeemed and enter eternity with God through the indwelling Holy Spirit the moment we accept Jesus as our Savior and surrender ourselves to Him. Our bodies-which include our minds-are tainted still with sin. We are born with inherited tendencies toward all kinds of evil: alcoholism, rage, passivity, homosexuality-the list is nearly endless. Further, we are damaged by witting or unwitting abuse, neglect, poor parenting, environmental stimuli, or cruel playmates-and we bear emotional scars that affect our behavior and choices.

The sin that lives in our synapses and DNA is our heritage as children of a sinful world. None of us escapes being thus marked. This is the "sin living in me" to which Paul refers. This natural part of ourselves does not disappear when we accept Jesus. Rather, our new living spirits brought to life by the Holy Spirit give us new identities. In Him we have new power to resist the natural impulses of our sin. In Romans 13:14, Paul admonishes believers to clothe themselves with Christ and not to think about how to gratify the desires of the natural flesh. Again in Galatians 5:16-18 Paul instructs Christ-followers to "live by the Spirit." The Spirit and the flesh are in conflict with each other, but if a person chooses to live by the Spirit at each moment of temptation, he will not give in to the temptation of the flesh. Peter also admonished that we abstain from pagan desires. (1 Peter 2:11)

Sin still lives in us because we are still in unredeemed, sinful flesh. The difference between us as natural humans and as born-again humans, however, is that now we have new power to resist that intrinsic temptation to sin. Only at the resurrection will our bodies be changed into immortal ones, and only then will our natural desires for self-indulgence and destruction be removed. Until then, we can choose to live by the Holy Spirit. We can, through the power of God in us, begin to live victoriously, no longer ruled by our passions and weaknesses.

In verse 14 Paul contrasts himself with the law, saying that the law is spiritual, but he is unspiritual. This statement refers to the contrast between his inherent sinful flesh, which continually pulls him away from the victory to which the indwelling Holy Spirit draws him, and from the law which upholds God's expectations and promises. The law represents the truth about God's requirements for humanity: be perfect or die. In the sense that the law, inanimate though it is, tells the truth, it is spiritual. In the sense that we are not yet physically glorified, we are unspiritual. The tension between these two realities is that our becoming aware of the truth in the law does not liberate us; it makes our hopelessness more deep. The paradox between our being born again and simultaneously becoming more aware of our slavery to sin is what unlocks the door to our understanding of the new covenant.

James wrote to the first converted Jewish believers that the quarrels and fights among them came from "the desires that battle within [them]". (James 4:1) Paul wrote to the Galatians that the desires of the flesh are contrary to the Spirit, and vice versa. This conflict causes them to do what they don't want to do. (Galatians 5:17)

When we realize how imperfect we are and how impossible it is for us to live by God's standards, we become ready to surrender ourselves to the control of the Holy Spirit. Romans 7 is the passage in the Bible that meticulously details the awakening process that we experience as we respond to Jesus, the discovery of the law's curse, and the humility of embracing Jesus' death for our sin. This is the passage that describes the journey of a person traveling from do-it-yourself religion to living by the Holy Spirit. It is when we die to the law that we can awaken to the Holy Spirit and to the new life that He promises us as we learn to live in surrender.


Living Spirit, Body of Death

The "body of death" to which Paul refers in Romans 7:24 is the mortal flesh of natural humanity. Romans 8:10 helps clarify this dichotomy; if Christ is in us, our bodies are dead because of sin, but our spirits are alive because of righteousness. This text illuminates Paul's many references to the struggles between the spirit and the flesh. We literally have two parts comprising our personhood. One part is the physical body which includes our brains, and the other part is the spirit-the part of us that is connected to eternity and can either know and belong to God or can know and belong to evil. Both our bodies and our spirits are broken from birth; we inherit tendencies to physical and character weaknesses, and our spirits are born dead: disconnected from God. When we are saved by Christ, our spirits become connected to god by the Holy Spirit indwelling us, but our bodies are still flawed with the effects of sin. This predicament is what causes Paul to write in 2 Corinthians 5:4 that while we're in "this tent"(the mortal body), we groan and are burdened because we do not wish to be unclothed. We wish, rather, to be clothed in our heavenly dwellings that "what is mortal may be swallowed up by life." Paul refers to the essence of us, "we", wishing to be free from these bodies. The real us-the part of us that belongs to eternity and can know God-is shackled by the mortal tent of flesh that has not yet been redeemed.

This two-part composition of humanity explains how Paul can say his mind is a slave to God's law, but his flesh is a slave to sin. Our bodies are not redeemed until the return of Jesus when he resurrects the righteous dead and changes those of us remaining alive. Our spirits are alive and our redemption certain from the moment we accept Christ, but our bodies remain slaves to death. Our redemption occurs in two phases-the reverse of Adam and Eve's initial fall. They died spiritually when they ate the forbidden fruit; their bodies did not die until hundreds of years later. When we accept Jesus, our spirits come alive first; our bodies become eternal when Jesus comes.



Jesus is calling you to surrender. If you have not surrendered your heart to him as you Lord and Savior, that is his call to you now. If you have surrendered your heart to him, he is calling you to surrender the habits and temptations with which you continue to struggle. You may even be aware of things in your life that never seemed "wrong" to you before, but the Holy Spirit is convicting you that they distract you from a growing relationship with Jesus.

God wants you to surrender to Him your tendency to rationalize the ways you indulge yourself. He is calling you to trust Him, the One who sacrificed completely for your eternal security, and to allow His love to replace the fear and to fill the empty places in your heart. The battle you fight between your desire to serve Jesus and your habits of avoiding pain and surrender will sap your energy and drain you of your joy in Jesus as long as you avoid facing the truth that Jesus brings to your attention through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The confusion you feel about knowing God's will for you will dissolve as you surrender your "rights" and bow your heart before the Savior who waits for you to humble yourself before Him.

In the act of surrender lies freedom from guilt and compulsion. The Holy Spirit can fill your emptiness and heal the wounds that have lain hidden in your heart and have driven your unmanageable habits.

God's desire is to bring wholeness and peace to your heart. He wants you to go to him in submission when you face anxiety or pain or danger. He wants you to give to him your desires and your habits that have helped you cope with the trauma of your life. He desires to heal and free you at a deeper level than merely "curing" you of your bad habits. He wants to heal your heart and to set you free to live in His strength and power instead of by your own desperate efforts to manage your life.

Ask God to make you willing to know his will for you. Ask him to show you the areas in your life where he wants to replace your struggle with the healing of His Spirit. Praise God for what He has already done for you and also for what he still doing in you. Praise Jesus for his death which makes your healing and restoration possible. Praise the Holy Spirit for mediating the grace and power of God in your life. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for knowing you, choosing you, and transforming you for eternity.

Copyright (c) 2004 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted September 18, 2004.
Send comments and questions to