We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (verses 14-20)
What a brilliant description of the human condition. How transparent and insightful, especially for Paul, the former Pharisee, who would have spent all his energies keeping the letter of the law, desperately seeking to portray to the world a righteousness of his own making.
Now Paul peels back the veil, allowing a graphic view of the painful reality experienced by us all. He’s talking about life apart from Christ (more on that in a moment), but what he describes is unfortunately painfully familiar, even once we’ve trusted in Christ. I confess - all too often this has been my experience: "what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing” (verse 19). We are confronted with our own failure and the absolute insidiousness of sin.
But Paul’s point is that we are no longer helplessly locked in this quagmire. Praise God!
We’ve been following Paul’s argument through Romans thus far, so we know he is talking here about life apart from Christ. It’s clear since he prefaces the whole by describing himself as “unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin,” as distinct from the new life he’s already described in Christ, in which “our old self was crucified with him … that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6). The slavery has ended! That’s the glorious reality of life in Christ.
But our experience is not yet fully in line with that reality. “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6) - but that day is not yet here. So, we falter still. We allow ourselves to come under sin’s oppressive dominion, even though we have been set free. “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (Romans 6:12), Paul said, knowing we will struggle with this yet.
In those moments of failing struggle, Romans 7 will graphically describe our experience. But we don’t need to stay there. Who will save us? “Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verse 25). The rescue has been accomplished. The slavery is broken.
So, “count yourselves dead to sin” (Romans 6:11), as Paul has already urged us. Press on, understanding “we have been justified through faith” (Romans 5:1). And live in the new way of the Spirit (more on that in Chapter 8 - stay tuned!).
Lord Jesus, I confess that apart from you I am helplessly overcome by sin’s tyranny. Even with your rescue, I find myself succumbing. But, praise you for forgiveness. Praise you for justification. Praise you for release! Praise you for the work you are already doing in me - it’s not of myself, it’s all of you. Continue that work. Strengthen me in the battle. Thank you that slavery to sin is ended. Transform my perspective to live in that reality.
Reflect: When have you recently felt the helplessness of sin’s oppression? If you’ve not yet confessed it to the Lord, do so (claiming 1 John 1:9). In that light, pray for the Spirit’s transforming work, renewing your mind, that (beyond your own ability) you count yourself dead to sin. This is his desire.