Romans 7:18-20, “18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
Sin’s tyrannical power over us is broken in our regeneration and conversion to Christ, and because we have received the Holy Spirit, wickedness can never again rule our deeds and affections as it does in those who do not know the Savior (Rom. 6:1–14; 8:9–11; 2 Peter 1:3–4). However, the New Testament does not teach perfectionism. God frees us from the reign of sin when we are united to Christ by faith, but He does not remove sin’s presence from us entirely. His Spirit comes to dwell in us, to empower us to put our remaining sin to death, but until we are glorified, sin will be a part of our experience (1 John 1:8–9).
This struggle between who we are in Christ and the remnants of who we were in sin is ongoing, intense, and marked by victories and defeats. Paul’s depiction of this war in Romans 7:14–25 tells us as much. The Apostle speaks of a conflict between his desires and what he actually accomplishes, which can seem a little confusing at first. After all, do we not have a desire for sin when we sin? If there were no desire, why would we sin at all? The answer to this conundrum lies in understanding biblical anthropology (the doctrine of humanity). Scripture teaches that although the presence of sin remains in the converted, we are new creations in Christ: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Sin is not who we really are, even though at times it seems like it is. By no means are we minimizing the reality that Christians can and do sin, and neither are we denying that believers are in some sense still sinners. As Martin Luther said, we are at the same time righteous (in Christ) and sinners (in practice). Still, sin does not define believers as it does non-Christians. When Paul speaks of desiring the good in Romans 7, he is referring to who we really are now that we are in Christ. The fundamental inclination of our hearts, now that we are Christians, is to please God. When we sin, we are acting like who we were in Adam and not who we truly are in Christ.
We conclude today with Dr. R.C. Sproul’s words on this matter from his commentary Romans: “Even though [Paul] is involved in this conflict, the new man is still what defines his personality. Despite the ongoing struggle and the failures into sin that mark his Christian life, Paul knows that he is a new creature. What God has done with him can be seen not in the remnants of his old man [remaining sin] but in the triumph that God gives him through his Holy Spirit in the new man [who we are in Christ].”
John Calvin comments, “The Holy Spirit so prepares the godly that they are ready and strive to render obedience to God; but as their ability is not equal to what they wish, Paul says, that he found not what he desired, even the accomplishment of the good he aimed at.” Christians are to be realists, not defeatists. We are not to expect perfection in this life, but neither are we on the losing side of the battle with sin. By the Spirit, we do progress in holiness as we aim for conformity to Christ.