Studies in the Epistles of Paul
The struggle inside us
Paul describes a conflict: “The law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (verse 14). Could this be the Christian Paul, who said he died to sin and is no longer its slave? Could Paul describe himself as unspiritual, a slave of sin?2 Who is this “I”? Let us keep reading to see.
In verse 15 he describes the struggle: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do.” He wants to do good, but he ends up doing bad. He has a mind that wants to do good, but a body that does bad. Why? Because, as we will soon see, there is another power at work within him.
“And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good” (verse 16). “If I sin even though I don’t want to sin, I am implying that the law is good” (my paraphrase). The fact that he doesn’t like his own behavior is evidence that he likes the law.
“As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me” (verse 17). Paul explains the problem by metaphorically splitting the person in two! There is “the real me,” and there is “sin living in me.” All the blame goes to sin; the “real me” is not guilty.
Paul is not trying to get pagans off the hook; he is not saying that people “in Adam” love God’s law and they are not sinning. No. By distinguishing the “real me” from the “sin living in me,” he seems to be saying that the “real me” is the person in Christ. That is who we really are. This is why he can say that there is no condemnation for people in Christ (8:1). Whatever bad they do is blamed on the sin within them, not on the new person they are in Christ.
Being freed from sin and obeying righteousness is not automatic — it involves a struggle. Galatians 5:17 describes it: “The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.” There is the old person, in the sphere of sin, and there is the new person in Christ. The new person is enslaved to Christ, but the old person is still enslaved to sin, and they are both competing for our attention.
But didn’t Paul say that the old person is dead? Yes, he did. He is using metaphors to try to explain things, and we cannot expect the comparisons to extend further than what Paul intends. For legal authority, the old person is dead. The law, sin and death no longer have authority over us. But in terms of Christian life, the sinful nature still has its desires, and we should resist it. The struggle is real.
“Good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Romans 7:18). Paul clarifies his statement by saying that he’s talking about the flesh, the sinful nature, not his new nature in Christ. All the good in Paul’s life comes from Christ living in him, rather than originating in Paul. The good comes from the new nature, the bad comes from the old, and the Christian life involves fighting against the old.
“I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing” (verses 18-19). Paul is a saint, but he’s not sinless. He wants to do good, but he sometimes sins. The sin within him is hijacking him, making him do things he wouldn’t otherwise do.
“Now if I do what I do not want to do [that is, when I sin], it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (verse 20). Paul blames sin, not himself. What he said in verse 14, that he was a slave to sin, is only the way it appeared to be. The reality, he says, is that all my sins are blamed on this hostile power within me. It is not me, but my old sinful nature that is still enslaved to sin.
Paul summarizes it in verses 21-23: “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law [or principle] at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” As a Christian, he wants to do right, but it’s sometimes a struggle.
His mind wars against his body, which has been hijacked by sin. Although he wants to do good, the evil within him sometimes causes him to do things that he hates. So he groans, as he says in Romans 8:23, waiting for the redemption of his body, the resurrection and the ultimate victory over his sinful nature.
“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (verse 24). How will I escape the sinful nature that fights within me? Paul knows where his deliverance will come from: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me [present tense] through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verse 25a). Paul is in the process of being delivered. It’s a lifelong struggle, but the victory is sure, thanks to God! How does it happen? That’s what Paul covers in chapter 8 — life in the Spirit, extending into eternity. That’s where the battle is won.
Paul concludes this chapter with a summary: “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (verse 25b). Even after he talks about the deliverance being given to him by Christ, Paul uses the metaphor of a split person: there is the real me, and there is sin living in me. There is a struggle between mind and body. He is enslaved to the law of Christ, but he sometimes falls short. He’s got a new mind, but an old body, and he looks forward to all things being made new!
Things to think about
- In Paul’s analogy, is it possible to be obligated to the law and united to Christ at the same time? (verse 3)
- The commandment against coveting helped Paul see that he was sinful (verses 7-8). Have I had a similar experience to help me realize that I am sinful?
- If the commandment brings me death instead of life, how can it be good? (verses 10, 12)
- Have I struggled with sin in the way that Paul describes in verses 15-20?
- If I blame my sins on a hostile power within me (verse 20), do I reduce the importance of fighting against it?
- Is God delivering me from the slavery of sin and death? (verse 24).
1 Some people do not experience much of an internal struggle before they come to faith. Perhaps like Paul, they felt that they were successfully doing all that they ought to do. Others served sin and did not struggle against it. The struggle can become more intense after we come to faith and perceive how far short we are of the life we want with Christ.
2 There are several explanations of this passage: that Paul is describing his own life before Christ, or his life after Christ, or he is using “I” as a literary technique to describe people in general. In some ways, these views amount to the same thing. If Paul is describing himself, he shares his own experience because he thinks it is representative of others. If it describes people in general, then it applies to Paul as well. We have chosen to retain Paul’s use of “I” to help give a personal feel to the struggle.
As a Pharisee, Paul would not have described himself as a slave of sin, but his encounter with Jesus showed him that he was indeed a slave of sin. Through his zeal for the law, he was driven to persecute Jesus and the church; he was the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Once he realized that God’s righteousness was much deeper than the law, he would have also realized how much sin had infected him.
Author: Michael Morrison, 2003, 2014