The Reality and Constant Presence of Sin

Dr. Brian Allison

The month of January seems to be a stressful month for many individuals. Maybe it is seasonal—the blahs of winter. I had a number of people get in touch with me this past week, either by phone or email, asking for advice or seeking support. One call was from a woman who lives north of here. I had not seen her for awhile. The last time I saw her and her husband, it was for marital counseling. One of the issues with which this couple was dealing was the husband's anger—he would get violently upset, and would make the household miserable. Eventually, the wife averred, "I cannot take it any more. I have to get out; I cannot handle the anger any longer." The husband, after having one of his episodes of ranting and raving, would be very apologetic. He would sheepishly go to his wife and promise that he would not do it again. He bemoaned the fact that he had such a problem with anger, and would say, for instance, "I wish I were different. I wish I wasn't like that."

Have you said something similar? Do you say, or have you said, "I wish I were different, I wish I wasn't like that"? Have you said, for instance, "I have a problem with impatience; I wish I were different;" or "I have a problem with moodiness; I wish I were different;" or "I have a lack of zeal to live for the Lord; I wish I were different;" or "I want to love people, I want to reach out to people, I want to care for people, but I have difficulty doing that; and I wish I were different, I wish I wasn't like that;" or "I would love to trust in God with my whole heart, I would love to have a strong faith that moves mountains, but I don't; I wish I were different, I wish I wasn't like this"? Have you ever talked like that? Have you ever asked yourself the question: Why is there this problem anyway? Have you said, "God knows my heart, He knows the intention of my heart, He knows the depth of my desire. He knows that I want to be all that He wants me to be. He has seen the agony of my soul, He has heard all my prayers, He knows how sincere I am when I say, 'Lord, I want to serve You, I want to seek You; but what is the problem? Why am I like this? Why is it so difficult to change?'"

We can have the best intentions and yet have unsuccessful results. What is the problem? We experience a conflict within, a conflict between what we would like to do—our desire—and what we actually do—our behaviour; and often there is a huge gap between our desire and our behaviour. Why is there such a gap? What is the problem? One primary answer is: the reality and the outworking of sin. Perhaps there is no other passage in the whole of the New Testament that helps us to better understand the dynamics of the internal conflict in our Christian experience because of sin than Romans 7:14-25. Further, perhaps there is no other chapter in the whole of the New Testament that can provide more comfort and consolation to the child of God, by providing insight into the fact and nature of this internal conflict, than Romans 7.

A stark contrast

There are three main divisions to Paul's argument in Romans 7:14-25. In each of these divisions, he traverses over the same ground, taking his argument a little further with each division. The first division extends from verses 14 to 17; the second division extends from verses 18 to 21; and the third division extends from verses 22 to 25. Each of the three divisions ends with a concluding statement. In verse 17, he says, "So now;" in verse 21, "I find then;" and verse 25, "So then." The first division deals with the reality and the reason for the inner conflict that we experience as Christians. The second division deals with a clarification and explanation of this inner conflict. The third division deals with the nature and the root of this inner conflict.

Thus, we begin with verse 14, "For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin." The Law (of God) is the standard of righteousness, that which determines what is right and what is wrong. The concern for Paul here is achieving the right conduct, accomplishing that which is pleasing to God. Paul has made constant reference to the Law previously in this epistle; it is one of his main themes. So, Paul makes this evaluation, "For we know that the Law is spiritual" (v. 14a). The Law is spiritual in that it sets forth the moral demands of God Himself—His ethical design for His creatures. The intent of the Law is spiritual, its nature is spiritual—it has come from God.

Paul draws a contrast between the nature of the Law and the fallen nature of humans. Having stated the fact that the Law is spiritual, he says, "But I am of flesh [carnal], sold into bondage to sin" (v. 14b). Sin is contrasted with the Law, being the antithesis of righteousness which the Law demands. Flesh is contrasted with spiritual. As Paul considers the Law of God, as a Christian, he recognizes that there is a great gulf fixed between what the Law is, on the one hand, and what he is in his natural condition or state, on the other. He says, "For...[I am carnal], sold into bondage to sin." This is a reference to the fact that he has a fallen nature, and will ever have it while he is in this world. Remember that Paul is speaking in the present tense; He is speaking as a Christian. Paul views himself as being sold into bondage to sin in so far as his natural roots are in Adam who sinned and fell away from God. Romans 5:12 reads, "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned." Everyone, by nature, possesses the principle of sin. Everyone, by nature, experiences the power and effect of sin. Everyone, by nature, knows the dominion of sin, to a greater or lesser degree. In our natural state, sin is our master. And even Christians, at times, may feel that sin is mastering them.

The Christian, though he has received a new spiritual nature, continues to experience the effects of sin for he still has a fleshly nature because he remains a part of this fallen world after his conversion. We must acknowledge, as Christians, that the principle [not necessarily the power] of sin remains evident in our nature, after being born again by the Holy Spirit. Hence, because we have been "sold into bondage to sin," because sin still exerts its presence and its power in our lives while we remain in our fallenness, the result is that we may act fleshly or worldly. We may oppose God and rebel against Him, even as Christians.

A severe conflict

Contrast occasions conflict—conflict between the Law of God and the fleshly human nature. Paul writes, "For that which I am doing, I do not understand" (v. 15a). Paul, in effect, says, "There is something going on with me that at times seems to be beyond my comprehension and my control." No doubt, all of us have said something like this, "Why did I say that? I didn't mean to;" or "Why did I do that? I didn't mean to." Many times our behaviour and conduct do not originate from a self-conscious, deliberate posture. As with Paul, something is at work in us which is beyond our self-conscious control and without our willing consent. Paul did not understand what was at work in him. Now, we should understand that Paul is not excusing his behaviour. He is not relinquishing personal responsibility for his actions and behaviour; but he is considering the root cause of his persistent bad behaviour, having become a Christian. He will proceed to explain his continual struggle as a Christian who is living, as it were, in two worlds; who, on one hand, is seated in heavenly places in Christ, and, on the other hand, continues to live in this fallen world; who, on the one hand, has been renewed in the spirit of his mind and has received the gift of the Holy Spirit, but, on the other hand, remains in the body which is still dominated and effected by sin and corruption.

He states in verse 15b, "For I am not practicing what I would like [approve of, desire] to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate." Not only does he point to the fact that he is ignorant of all that is going on inside him—that which drives and moves him to do that which is despicable—he also affirms his natural powerlessness to do otherwise. Similarly, we may say, "I hate having outbursts of anger, I hate having these thoughts, I hate having these sensual desires, I hate criticizing, I hate feeling animosity, I hate being lazy, and yet these are the things that I do. What in the world is going on?" Verse 16 reads, "But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good." The very fact that Paul desires to do good, and cannot achieve it, or that he desires not to do bad, and actually does it, is proof that he believes the Law of God is good, that is, spiritual. Similarly, the very fact that we experience conflict or struggle—that we desire to do good, and cannot always achieve it—indicates that there is spiritual life in us, that we are of God, that we acknowledge righteousness as good and a worthy pursuit. If you do not experience this kind of conflict, you are not a Christian. If you experience no discrepancy between your desire and your behaviour, you should earnestly determine whether you have been born again or not.

Further, in having the desire to do good, and not being able to achieve it consistently, but rather do bad, an onlooker may draw the conclusion that the professing believer cannot be a true Christian. Detractors may revile, "Look at how you are acting; you cannot be Christian, for Christians are not to act that way." What these critics are really saying is that we are supposed to be perfect, but that is not what the Word of God says. I am not justifying or excusing sinful actions, nor am I suggesting that we now have a license to sin, but there will be that discrepancy often between our desire and our behaviour in our natural condition (but this fact should not discourage the Christian, for Romans 8 presents the spiritual provision for overcoming sin). Internal conflict, however, is the experience of the Christian. Having been born again by the Holy Spirit, but not having entered into the fulness of salvation, the result is a conflictual situation.

In verse 17, Paul concludes, "So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me." Sin is the culprit of the internal conflict and the 'uncontrollable' behaviour. Paul disowns such behaviour; he denies that he himself is the root cause of his bad, inappropriate behaviour, though he would admit responsibility for his actions. Inability and responsibility are not incompatible realities in human experience. For example, we are responsible to love the Lord our God with all our heart, but we will never fully achieve that. Again, we are responsible to pray without ceasing. That is a command in the Word of God, but we will never do that perfectly. We always have the responsibility of obeying God, which, if we do, reduces sin's power and effect.

A sinister cause

In verse 18, Paul proceeds to explain and clarify the truth of sin's culpability, "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh [this fallen nature, over and against the new spiritual nature]; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not." Verse 19 reads, "For the good [of course, this good refers to doing the Law; remember he said that the Law is good] that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish;" and so verse 20 reads, "But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me." Again, Paul would claim personal responsibility for his actions, but he would also admit that he is not engaging in these God-rebelling actions in a deliberate, self-conscious, even defiant way. Sin is the root cause, which controls his fleshly nature. Accordingly, in verse 21a, he draws his second conclusion to the argument, "I find then the principle [that term comes from a Greek word from which we also get the term 'law' in this passage. So, we could translate verse 21a as, "For I find then the law, the inflexible principle."]." So what is this law that governs Paul's nature, and, for that matter, all human nature? What is this law that determines, in measure, how we behave and act? What is this controlling principle that we cannot change?—"that evil is present in me" (v. 21b). Paul does not say that he does evil (though he would admit that he does), but he says that evil resides in him (i.e., his fleshly nature); and it will always reside in him because it is a fixed principle of human nature, it is a law.

Every human being, even Christians, has this law operating in him or her. It does not matter how much we seek the Lord, how much we pray, how much we read the Bible, how much we meditate, how much we serve Christ, evil is present in us. It is a principle of human nature, whether regenerate or unregenerate, regardless of our best intentions, our resolve, our strength of commitment. There will always be, at some point, a gap between our desire and how we live.

In the third division of the argument, Paul further deals with the root and the nature of this internal conflict. Verse 22 reads, "For I joyfully concur with the law of God [here he actually identifies the Law as the Law of God simply because he here makes a contrast between the Law of God and this law of sin (and evil)] in [or according to] the inner man." In repetitive fashion, Paul states, "I love God's Law, I love righteousness." Similarly, every true Christian will love the Law of God, every true Christian will love righteousness. If you do not love righteousness, you are not a Christian. Paul affirms that his attitude of heart is that he joyfully accepts the law of God according to the inner man. That is, being born again, the Law of God—His commandments, His instructions, His directives—has a place in his heart, and he desires to be obedient because he desires to please God.

The Law of God relates to the inner man. The 'inner man' refers to the renewed man, the regenerated mind. The law of sin stands in opposition to the Law of God, and thus to the regenerated mind. Both laws simultaneously exert pressure on the Christian. So, verse 23a reads, "But I see a different law in the members of my body [Paul seems to draw a rigid separation between the physical body and the mind/spirit; but he is speaking in black and white categories here, for the sake of understanding. We should not push the language too far. In reality, Paul would not make a sharp dichotomy between the exterior life and the interior life, as if the body is the seat and source of sin, and the mind is free from sin. It is the whole man that sins; but for the sake of understanding and communicating these deep spiritual truths, Paul speaks in simple categories. We must guard against espousing Gnosticism—the body is intrinsically evil and the spirit is intrinsically good]." He continues, "[This different law is] waging war against the law of my mind [that is God's law which exerts its pressure and power in my mind], and making me a prisoner of the law of sin [which harks back to verse 14, "But I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin,"] which is in my members" (v. 23b). This is the experience of every true child of God. This inner conflict results in frustration, heartache, and misery. In our experience, it often may be likened to being a prisoner to the power of sin. We feel trapped; we feel like things will never change, that we cannot get out. We say, for instance, "How long will I struggle with doubt? How long will I struggle with mistrust? I read God's Word and I know what is right, I know what I am to do. I know I am to pray, I know I am to be kind. But I feel like I am in a prison house."

Accordingly, the apostle exclaims, "Wretched [miserable] man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?" (v. 24). This is the heart cry of every true child of God. This will be our experience, to a greater or lesser degree, for the whole of our physical lifetime. Until our departure from this world, we will be living in this body of death—this body which is associated with death, this body which is mortal and is perishing daily.

But Paul ends his argument on a positive note. He speaks a word of hope in verse 25a, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Christ is our hope. He will eventually redeem the body, at which time we will enter into the fulness of the adoption of the sons of God. But what is the conclusion concerning our experience in the body in this life? Where are we left concerning our natural state and position—having professed Christianity—which is characterized by the reality and law of sin and evil? We read, "So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God [loving and wanting to do God's law], but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin [not that I am always giving in to sin, but the principle of sin characterizes my flesh, the 'outer man']" (v. 25b). Though this is the Christian's natural condition, Paul proceeds, in Romans 8, to address the matter of the Christian's spiritual provision.

Again, these two laws will ever be in conflict, and that is the root of our problems. We are free from the dominion of sin, not from the presence of it; we are free from the enslavement of sin, not from the plague of it. We are free from the condemnation of sin, not from the principle of it. And yet, we may still talk about having victory in Christ (which Romans 8 deals with). We are free from the tyranny of sin, but not from the struggle with sin. We are free from self-effort, but not from striving. We are to mortify the deeds of the flesh. But we struggle and strive in Christ's power through His Spirit. Progress in the faith is only by what Christ does in us and through us, and not what we do for ourselves. He is our only hope.