Who Struggles with Sin?
Romans 7:14-25 Overview
By understanding the sinfulness of sin as put forth in 7:13, we have set the table for the fourth question raised in these of two chapters. What then, should we give up the pursuit of spiritual maturity in light of our constant struggle with sin? 7:13-25. He answers “no; absolutely not.
No matter how dominant sin is; no matter how deadly it’s effects; no matter how bleak and discouraging; we must never give up. And this is the case because of ultimate victory in Christ.
Let’s remember that the larger subject still is sanctification or living a godly life. We have chosen to state it like this: How we can live our lives here on earth in a manner that approximates our righteous standing before God in heaven? So the real issue we are dealing with in these chapters is change – how to move from where we are to where we ought to be. How can a genuine believer make lasting change - change that sticks?
Read 7:14-25. Notice how often the personal pronoun “I” is used. It is almost exhausting to read!
After reading this I now understand what the poet, Carl Sandberg, meant when he said, “There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud.” Richard Hansen, "A Good Mystery," Preaching Today Audio issue 253
I. Getting the Big Picture
A. Paul’s personal life? Is Paul referring to his own life or speaking only generally? As suggested in the last few lessons, I believe Paul is giving us a glimpse into his own life. Consider that…
- The first person singular used more than 40 times in chapter 7.
- The language is intense and real.
- The language moves from the past in chapter 6 to the present in chapter 7. Frequently he makes statements like, “I do not understand what I do” (NIV). He could have written, “I did not understand what I was doing.” This also may help answer the next question.
B. Christian or non-Christian? If the reference is to Paul personally, to what phase in his life is Paul alluding? And, assuming it is correct to make a broad application to the readers, is Paul talking about a regenerate person (Christian) or unregenerate person (non-Christian)? In other words is this a pre or post conversion experience? Bible scholars are deeply divided on this question; always have been and always will be! The text is fairly straight-forward. However deciding who is being described is a challenge. On the one hand, some think the person described is too enslaved to sin to be a believer. On the other hand, others think the person described loves godly things and hates sin too much to be an unbeliever!
And this is not a trivial matter. The applications and lessons will be driven by the identity of the person(s) described. Obviously, if the reference is to believers the implications are much different than if unbelievers are being described. So, without killing you with all the detailed arguments, let me take a shot at this question.
The view that non-Christians are in mind is bolstered by the slavery to sin language (v 14,18, 24) that seems impossible to apply to a Christian who has been set free from sin (6:2,6, 7, 18, 22).
On the other hand, the view that Christians are in mind gains support from statements in the section that are incompatible with a non-Christian. Here are some simple thoughts that lead me to think that Christians are in view.
- Non-Christians do not fit the description of the person who wants to please God and at the same time hates doing evil (7:15,19, 21); rather the non-Christian persists in and enjoys sin (1:32).
- In chapter 6, even though believers are “dead to sin” and united with Christ (v11) they are still admonished to fight sin (v12-13). This same theme naturally flows into chapter 7.
- The great climax of praise to God (7:22, 25) is a strong argument in favor of this being Paul as a Christian with application to other Christians. Non-believers do not do this.
- The basic tension between doing good and doing bad that runs throughout the section is not a normal way to describe the non-Christian’s basic bent. It does describe someone who is genuinely regenerated.
Robert Mounce summarizes well, “I believe that in this section Paul was revealing with considerable candor his difficulty in meeting the radical demands of the Christian faith. At the same time, he was using his own experience to describe the inevitability of spiritual defeat whenever a believer fails to appropriate the Spirit of God for victory.” (Mounce in NAC p167).
II. So What
And what difference does it make? How does knowing that this refers to believers shape my life today? Here are some observations we can make even before looking at the text in detail.
- As a Christian, I am confronted with the fact that Christianity carries high expectations. I need to know that the demands of the lordship of Christ are far-reaching. Assumption: lordship salvation rather than decisional regeneration. Illust: At the conclusion of a message that made no mention of the gospel of Christ and only token use of the Bible, Joel Osteen looked into the camera and said something like….we never like to close our broadcast without inviting you to pray a simple prayer…Jesus I invite you into my life… if you prayed that prayer I believe you just became a Christian… (viewed Oct 9, 2007)
- As a Christian, I should expect to struggle with sin. Real Christians really do battle sin. This concept is underscored here but it is an obvious teaching of Scripture elsewhere (for instance see Eph 6:10-17). So, the abundant life promised by Jesus (John 10:10) does not eliminate spiritual quagmires!
- As a Christian, I should expect the struggle with sin to intensify as I mature in Christ. Even the most spiritually mature Christian will struggle with sin. This chapter is not dealing with spiritual dwarfs as some suggest (for example: regenerate but prior to the second blessing; or extremely carnal Christians; or legalists) I believe Paul has mature Christians in mind. They, not immature Christians, realize how far they are from God’s standards. They are grieved over their sin. They refuse to trust themselves. They are marked by genuine humility.
In fact, Paul is probably referring to his life as it matures. The more he moved toward Christ, the more he realized his own sinfulness. As his ministry progressed, he thought himself “not fit to be called an apostle” (1 Cor 15:9). He told the believers in Ephesus that he was “the very least of all saints” (Eph 3:8). By the end of his ministry, he even viewed himself as the “foremost of all sinners (1 Tim 1:15).
It is somewhat shocking to realize the extent of our corruption. Sin has pervasive influence over the best of men, under all circumstances of life, until the end of life! Obviously then…
- As a Christian, I must adopt a realistic plan for dealing with the stuff of daily life. I must plan on how I will deal with the struggle with sin. It will happen. Problems don’t disappear simply because I became a believer. Unfortunately, I’ve heard evangelistic pitches to the contrary – if you just believe your life (or fill in the blank) will get easier. As a matter of fact, the NT indicates it might get more difficult.
Now, I did not say we should dismiss the struggle with sin as no big deal. Doug Moo (Application Commentary 246) nails it. “(We must avoid using this text) … to justify sin or stagnation in the Christian life.”… “(Believers must not have the attitude that), I am really struggling with a sin, and it keeps getting the best of me. But that’s alright – Paul had the same problem…We should never regard the sins we commit with complacency. They are not supposed to be there. God hates them, and he has given us the power to get rid of them.”
But I am saying we can’t afford to stick our head in the sand by planning not to struggle. Illust: Radical Pentecostalist, Rev Jessie Duplantis, – “I go long periods of time without sinning…” He views this as normal. (TV viewed 10/8/07).
- As a Christian, I can come to understand that the struggle with sin may be a vehicle used to bring about spiritual growth. This doesn’t make sin good! This doesn’t make the struggle enjoyable. It is somewhat like the viewpoint of trials in life outlined in James 1:2-4. However, sin is clearly not in view in James.
- As a Christian, it is okay to become frustrated with my struggle with sin. And it is okay to express frustration. In fact, vs 14-25 may be nothing more than a crescendo of verbal despair. There is pain, exasperation, and maybe even disgust in Paul’s words! Can you hear it in v 24, “O wretched man that I am.” This is strong language of “self-condemnation and self abhorrence” (Hodge 247). In fact, this exasperation may be itself a mark of genuine salvation.
- As a Christian, coming to grips with my inability to overcome sin should cause me to cast myself upon the indwelling Holy Spirit for enabling power. Perhaps the most fundamental truth in this section is that the Mosaic Law can never give us victory over daily sin. All should be able to agree on this.
Some suggest there is a cycle involved in spiritual growth. We realize our failures; then we fall on God for strength; then we try to do it on our own or by following some formula (like Law keeping); then we realize our failures. And the cycle starts again. This may be true.
- As a Christian, I can encourage others by speaking of my struggle with sin. I don’t mean I should share the graphic details. However, people need to know that they are not alone in their daily struggle. Paul is very candid.
- As a Christian, I can take heart over the assurance that, at the end of the day, sin is no longer my master. Sin is a powerful enemy but I have a new relationship with both sin and Christ! But we must re-emphasize that “the Christian’s victory over sin cannot be achieved by the strength of resolutions, nor by the plainness and force of moral motives, nor by any resources within himself. He looks to Jesus Christ, and conquers in his strength.” (Hodge 246).
So now, we have set the table for an examination of the text itself. With this perspective in mind, I think the text will take on a certain vivid and personal significance.
Illust: Tommy Lasorda the former Los Angeles Dodgers manager describes his battle with bad habits: “I took a pack of cigarettes from my pocket, stared at it and said, “Who’s stronger, you or me?” The answer was I am. I stopped smoking. Then I took a vodka martini and said to it, “Who’s stronger, you or me?” Again the answer was I am. I quit drinking. Then I went on a diet. I looked at a big plate of linguine with clam sauce and said, “Who’s stronger, you or me?” And a little clam looked up at me and answered, “I am.” I can’t beat linguine. Ted Sutherland, Sermon Central
Here’s the deal. You can beat linguine – but it might be a long drawn out struggle.
And our ongoing assignment: Chose one personal specific issue/area that you want to change. Then work out how to use this week’s tool to help bring about change with the chosen issue. (This will be the issue/area that you will focus on for the duration of the class unless you arrive at the point of making satisfactory progress on the issue. If so, then tackle another issue.
© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2017. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.
Posted on Sat, October 10, 2015
by Joe Flatt filed under